Once a street king now an apprentice, RZA still moves boldly like a flare, but these days, he’s striking more targets with a camera lens than a rhyme. In his upcoming feature film, The Man with the Iron Fists, the prolific leader of the Wu-Tang Clan makes his debut as a movie director, also writing and acting in a martial arts story he masterminded with his mentor, Quentin Tarantino.
Discussing his entrée into filmmaking, the rapper-turned-movie star reveals a deep reverence to the man who both exonerated Jackie Brown, and made the royale with cheese palatable. To be great is to venerate the greatest, RZA suggests, and that is essentially how he rolls.
“Some people gotta go to college to study, I was able to study with masters,” the 45-year-old from Brooklyn tells theGrio about his six years of training under the wings of Tarantino. “He got so many books in his library; he got so many films on 35mm print or 16mm print. We went through his collection of VHS tapes, DVDs, and also he’s a walking encyclopedia of film. So, I just basically was allowed to pick his brain.”
RZA met the avant-garde filmmaker while scoring his film, Kill Bill: Vol. 1, and soon after, expressed a desire to learn the ropes under his instruction. Tarantino agreed, and brought the rapper onto the sets of his movies, Kill Bill: Vol. 2 and Death Proof. Through firsthand experience and peripheral discussions, the expert helped the rookie prep for the big leagues, and introduced him to many of his future collaborators, among them, co-screenwriter on The Man with the Iron Fists, Eli Roth.
What particularly impressed RZA about Tarantino was not only his knowledge of the craft, but the arsenal of tools he kept at his disposal, namely thousands of books related to filmmaking. The protégé won’t divulge specifics, however, as that would be giving away his instructor’s “secret weapons.”
RZA explains, “When I was playing chess, I played for years and I never bought a book. And my cousin, he was beating the crap out of me. I couldn’t figure out why he was beating me until his son told me, ‘My dad bought some books.’ So, I went and bought books. And I started studying through the books, and that’s how I became a chess champion, [even] with his dad in the competition.”
“The main thing I point out to you,” he says, “It’s good to have a map.”
And that certainly was the case for his forthcoming kung fu flick, a story he has been plotting out over the course of many years. The movie, in theaters November 2 and presented by Tarantino, tells the tale of a fabled village in China, and the battle amongst warriors – good and evil – over a lucrative stash of gold. He co-wrote the project with Roth based on ideas he’d been formulating since his youth, and cast an all-star lineup, including Oscar-winner Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, and Pam Grier.
Growing up in New York, the hip hop icon says he always felt drawn to the brotherhood, tactical “ass-kicking,” and spirituality of samurai and karate movies, spending countless days at double features and idolizing the skills of actors like Bruce Lee and Jim Kelly. He often used the big screen moves as inspiration for graffiti and breakdancing art he brought out onto the streets. Even his real-life band of brothers was named after one of his favorite films, Shaolin and Wu Tang.
To premiere with flying daggers then was only fitting.