As Wu-Tang Clan founder RZA recalls it, his first 24 hours on set were the absolute worst. It was an opportunity the lifelong kung fu fan had been waiting for: directing his first martial-arts epic, The Man With the Iron Fists, from a script he co-wrote with Eli Roth, on a 10-week shoot in exotic China. And with stars like Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, Pam Grier and himself as vengeance-seeking protagonist The Blacksmith, it had all looked pretty good on paper.
"But it was definitely tough in China," the rapper recalls. "It was cold, there were maybe 17 of us that spoke English out of 400, and we shot up in the mountains, so we had to take cable cars to get there, and only two people could fit in the cable car at a time."
The trams couldn't carry all the cumbersome camera equipment, so mules were brought in to haul it up the incline. "Then, to top it off, there was no dressing room at the top of the mountain, so we had to wait 25 minutes for the talent to come up," adds RZA, who would later score his picture, as well, and assemble stars like Kanye West, the Black Keys and various Wu-Tang members for its soundtrack.
The Grammy winner's path to the Far East started in childhood, when the man born Robert Fitzgerald Diggs saw his first Bruce Lee and Jim Kelly movies in New York. Then he was introduced to the Shaw Brothers classic The Five Deadly Venoms, and his course was set. He incorporated martial-arts mythology into Wu-Tang works, while studying the careers of definitive directors like Tsui Hark.
The next step occurred when RZA bumped into another hero, Quentin Tarantino, at a press junket for the movie Iron Monkey, which Tarantino had brought to America. "We met and we immediately hit it off as buddies — kung fu buddies," RZA says with a chuckle. "But that led to a friendship, then to me recognizing his mental powers and his skill as a director. And then I asked to be his student, and he accepted me." RZA would soon work closely with his chum as he scored his two-part Kill Bill series.
The auteur referenced the conflicted samurai of Yojimbo for his arms-dealing Blacksmith, who has a long, back-storied history with Crowe's knife-wielding Jack Knife and David Bautista's Brass Body. "There are some kung fu films that I watched in the past that had woodcutters, blacksmiths, so the Blacksmith, to me, was an iconic character," he explains. "He's making weapons for both sides, and eventually what happens? You're trapped in the middle and you're the sandwich."
Before filming even began, the Iron Fists screenplay had to be submitted for approval to the Chinese government, which nixed a rather explicit scene. "And I couldn't say 'Peking duck,' you know that? Because Peking duck is real, and my movie is fiction," sighs RZA.
Others lent more welcome oversight: "People ask me how I was able to write, direct, score and act in the same film," he says, laughing. "And I say, 'Listen — I was prepared.' I've got Oscar winners, Golden Globe winners, really good talent, and I was taught by a great director, a master. So it wasn't like this all happened in just one year."