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My Interview With RZA - How To Be A Film Director In Five Easy Steps

Interviews
by Sergio
October 21, 2012 11:07 PM
23 Comments
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O.K. so I admit that title is maybe just a tad misleading. It takes a lot more than five and it sure isn’t easy to say the least.

But is there anyone by who doesn’t know RZA (nee: Robert Fitzgerald Diggs) has written (with Eli Roth) and directed his first feature film, the martial arts film extravaganza The Man with the Iron Fists which was produced by Quentin Tarantino opening on November 2. Lord knows we've written at least 1000 posts about it on S & A already.

But If the trailer is true to its promise, Fist could be a hard core action movie lover’s delight.

But the question remains: how did RZA become a director in the first place? What was the process? No doubt It takes tons of hard work, discipline, studying your craft, creating your own vision and, of course, confidence.

So last week I met RZA at a local club, just a few hours before where he was performing that night, and we talked about his journey to movie director.

(Word of warning: Some of the language might be offensive to some, but I wanted to keep true to RZA’s words)

SERGIO: First of all let me thank you. We need more brothers making hard R rated, bloody, violent action films. Enough with these romantic comedies with Paula Patton. Brothers want to see movies too you know.

RZA: All right, all right!(laughs) Well I’m married so they gotta make those for my Wednesday night movies. But for my Friday night movies and my Saturday night movies…(laughs) Yeah, we gotta make more of these. Yeah, brothers want to see movies too.

But seriously, when you made the decision to start directing I’m sure you had naysayers throwing negativity in your face who told you to forget it. What are you thinking about? Just stay in your lane.

Well I got negativity for Hollywood in particular, for me, because I was very successful in music. I was really doing well. But I walked away from it, for creative reasons, emotional reasons. I just lost the taste. You know what I mean? And now I have a taste for film. But for me being a director, I kept it under locks besides my circle. What I mean by that is that I had a couple of agents who knew what I wanted to do, but they never put me in situation to do it. My lawyer as well, but no one put me in situation to do this. I had to put myself into a situation to do this. So what I did for myself I realized that I had a five year plan for Wu-Tang Clan. I stuck to my plan and made it my goal.

So you had a five plan for directing?

Yeah, but the difference though was for the Wu-Tan Clan I knew the final results. For directing, I just believed in myself.

Which leads me to the obvious question, when did you know that you could do this? Direct a film?

It was after becoming a student of Quentin Tarantino actually. After spending time with him on Kill Bill and everything, just being a buddy at first, then reading his scripts and watching his movies. I asked him during the shooting of Kill Bill: “Can I become your student? I want to learn how to direct. No Hollywood system. I’m you’re student” and he said “O.K.” So I went China when the film was shooting there. Took $50,000 out of my company and I said “I’m out of here! I’ll be back in a couple of weeks”. Just packed up and went. I spent a month out there. So I went to the set every day with a composition notebook and took notes. I would talk to the steadicam operator Larry McConkey. He was the same steadicam operator for that shot in Goodfellas...

Oh that shot through the mob club…

Yeah right! Exactly! I spent hours talking to Larry. I spent hours watching the director of photography on the movie, Robert Richardson.  I just studied the craft. Then later they went to Mexico and that’s where I went. (laughs) But there I started learning even more, talking to the gaffers, the grips, etc. I’m leaning more and more.

So finally one day during lunch time I’m sitting at table and all the executives and producers were in town and Quentin says: “Hey Bobby come over to my table”. Now of course me and him are buddies, but he’s working. When you’re working you don’t have to worry about me being your friend. I see you when you’re finished working. So I go over to his table and people are like: “What is this guy doing here on the movie?” (laughs) And Quentin told them: “Well I haven’t decided yet what Bobby is going to do on the  movie”. So a week later the same kind of situation, the same table and Quentin tells them: “I decided what I’m going to do with Bobby. He’s going to be my composer” and I became his composer.

And as the composer that got me into the editing room and I’m watching dailies and I’m leaning another craft and I’m studying, studying. And then Robert Rodriquez becomes part of the circle and I’m having conversations with him and I’m learning, learning. Then Eli Roth comes in during Tarantino’s Death Proof film and I’m on the set on that and I keep learning.

I’m glad you’re bringing this all up because aspiring filmmakers need to know that it takes; the discipline and knowledge of the craft to become a filmmaker. And to study films constantly. To really know movies. Too many think it’s easy.

Exactly! And that’s what Quentin made me do. Also I love kung-fu movies and you know that I know them like the back of my hand. But he started showing me other movies. Movies that I normally wouldn’t watch. Italian World War II movies, car chase movies, etc. Then Eli comes in with all the horror movies. And I love horror movies.

But I’ll bet Roth brought you some out of the world, crazy stuff you’ve had never heard of.

Oh yeah really weird, crazy, psycho shit that I’ve never heard or seen before. (laughs) But I’m absorbing all this information and I’m pulling something out from everything as far as knowledge. So when I felt I had learned what I needed to learn I went to Quentin and asked if he thought I was ready and he said: “Yeah you’re getting close”. So in 2009  he started shooting Inglorious Basterds. Quentin was disappointed that Death Proof didn’t hit hard as it should have. So Quentin during the shooting of Bastards said: “Fuck the world. It’s about my movie.” which is the way you gotta be. My communication with him at that time was very minimal. It was like my teacher left me without me finishing my book.

But when he was finally finished with the film he called me and “Sorry, but I had to exile the world except for the people who were involved with Basterds”. I understood, of course, but from that point we were watching more movies together and during this time Eli and I are already writing the scripts and bonding. And it was in 2010 we were all back to Mexico and me and Eli told Quentin that we had written this script for Iron Fist and to help us godfather it along. And he did.

Easy as pie… well not really.

Not hardly, but what I did in 2005  after Kill Bill and being around them I realized, that I could do it. And I told my wife in five years I want to be a movie director. I believed in myself. With Wu-Tang I saw it. I could see ahead.  I could see the future. But for this I couldn’t see the future, but I believed in myself. I believed back then with pure focus, I could do it again now with pure focus. From reading books on films and filmmaking  to studying to being on the set on films as an actor I’m gaining knowledge and absorbing everything,  even make-up. Would be believe that on Iron Fist I actually would have scissors in my hands cutting fabric for the clothes for actors to wear?

Which leads me to ask, on the first day of shooting Iron Fist, everyone is looking at you; the cast, the crew, Russell Crowe; Everyone is checking you out to see if you know what you’re doing. Were you nervous?

That’s the tale of the tape. (laughs) But I was so prepared that I knew what I was doing. Remember that last Star Trek movie when that young Captain Kirk has to get in the captain’s seat and he had to be that captain? He was ready! I was ready. And was not the least bit scared or nervous because I was prepared. We spent close to 20 weeks just preparing for the film for 10 weeks of shooting. And that’s on top years of knowing this thing in my head.

Also what I did too is that I had a Canon 5D and a 7D cameras and before I even got the green light to make the film I was playing with different types of lenses and figuring stuff out. And then when I got the green light, which was in January, that camera never left my neck. When I first got to China to shoot the film during pre-preproduction I went to locations and start setting shots up using the camera. I knew the lenses by then. “We going to shoot that shot with a 50MM” “No I’m going to use a 100MM over there” “I want you to set a 300MM way down there”  You’ll see in the movie in this shot where I have my character and a bird flies over my head. That shot was already set in in my mind and the storyboarded long before we ever actually filmed that shot. I went through my shots before we even shot them. I always had all these different scenes that I love that we are going to retranslate in terms of fighting. This fight scene isn’t going to happen like that. It’s going to happen like this. Or like the characters the Gemini Killers in Iron Fist. They were inspired by these two characters in an older film, but they are not these people. They can’t do what those older characters do. It was the spark of imagination.

Well I can see that you certainly have the passion for filmmaking. So that’s your life now. Music is finished?

This is the new life. I don’t know if there a force out there to stop me. And it can’t stop me. I ready for it.  But let me share you with this, Sergio.  I did not plan at first to score this film. The studio said “Of course you’re going to compose it”.  I tried to get around it, but they told me your fans expect it. And they were right about that. I spent 8 months composing the music for the film, but what it did for me was that I realized: “Oh I’m the new package!”

Look I’m a very humble dude. I grew up a very conceited dude and my pendulum swung back to be humble. So I was afraid that people see on the credits: Starring RZA, directed by RZA, written by RZA, music by RZA, people that people would say: “Oh fuck this nigga!” (laughs) It was like how can this one man have all these abilities? You know what I mean?

But I know that I’ve got all these abilities. I do have them. So this type of energy sometime I worry about. But since they made more score the film they released some of the worry from me. Now I realize if I can cook the whole meal, cut the tomatoes and fry it up and add the seasoning and give it to the people and it’s a good meal, might as well go ahead and cook it.  So I have been released from the pressure or fear of being too dominant. And I feel comfortable being a guy who can mix films and music together.

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23 Comments

  • ChgoSista | October 23, 2012 1:59 PMReply

    What a cool interview--good stuff, indeed.

  • Donella | October 22, 2012 2:49 PMReply

    Saw RZA in Derailed. I'm sure he's gone far beyond the possibilities of what he contributed to Ghost Dog. I wanted to like that movie. RZA did the soundtrack, which was fine. But it was not well-written, directed, or produced (soundtrack interfered with the action/drama). So now he's in the driver's seat and we'll hope for the best.

  • Sandra | October 22, 2012 11:51 AMReply

    I can't tell you how much I appreciate this interview Sergio, thanks. As an aspiring film producer and filmmaker, these are the kind of interviews we need. I'm happy that I went for a Cinema Studies degree after all, it will become quite handy.

  • sergio | October 22, 2012 1:47 PM

    Glad to be of service

  • Hoji Fortuna | October 22, 2012 9:15 AMReply

    Ah, forgot to mention, I'm looking forward to seeing RZA film. And congratulations on the brother's achievement!

  • Hoji Fortuna | October 22, 2012 9:12 AMReply

    The kind of piece that ensures me I'm on the right path. As actors we are exposed to so much knowledge of the craft of Filmmaking! I have read many scripts from projects I worked in, from projects I ended up not working in and from projects that friends were developing and needed feedback. That sort of exposure, together with inquiries to filmmaker friends, allowed me to understand the dynamics of a script and to be able to write one. I have my first feature film scrip done. Considering producing and directing it as well, but having the same issues RZA must have had: How's the industry and potential partners going to react to that? After all, I'm a guy with no experience in directing and producing and totally unknown player in the industry. Well, I guess we'll have to see about that, keeping the "believe in yourself" motto, but having an open mind about having to delegate those tasks. Meanwhile, I'm on a learning spree of the process of producing, directing and distributing and finding it highly enriching so far.

  • CareyCarey | October 22, 2012 6:00 AMReply

    Okay, I must be the only guy on earth who has never heard of this dude. I am serious. I've been seeing the Iron Fist posts, but they had no interest to me, so I never read them. But check this out. Tonight I'm watching (for the first time) The Night Catches Us and Gospel Hill. Well, as the credits rolled for Gospel Hill, I noticed it was produced and directed by Giancarlo Esposito. But hold it, I recognized most of the actors like Samuel Jackson, Danny Glover, Angela Bassett, Adam Baldwin and Nia Long, but I was not familiar with "The RZA". I kid you not, immediately after watching those flicks, 4 am in the morning, I read this post. Wow, that's some wild shit. But damn, his journey is certainly an interesting story. In 2008 he has a little part in a "message flick", then he reaches under his mattress and pulls out $50,000. Flies to China and hangs out with none other than Quentin Tarantino. They kick it, watch movies and shoot the sh*t. Bingo, he's the writer, the director, the star, AND he scored the music of a major motion picture! Damn, I'm gonna hang out with this Mfer, if he'll let me. But I'd better check my bank first.

  • c | October 23, 2012 9:03 AM

    Unfortunately there is no appeal process. The triburnal has come to a swift decision. We will trade Carey Carey and Mozart loving Sergio for Bill Clinton and Robert Dinero. As a result of this trade you are no longer held in contempt in the eyes of black folk thus you are free to live your lives as you choose. The only thing I have left to say as you depart from the brothers and sisters is "let the funk be your guiding light"..

  • CareyCarey | October 23, 2012 12:22 AM

    Woe is we Sergio, what we gonna do? First they were calling for your journalist card, and now our black cards are in question. I feel like we're back in front of the House Un-Black American Activities Committee. Is there some kind of appeal process? I don't know either but lock your doors. I know you ain't giving up your Monteverdi and Mozart, and I sure ain't giving up my James Brown collection.

  • sergio | October 22, 2012 5:54 PM

    I'll turn in mine too. All I listen to is Beethoven, Monteverdi, Mozart and Shostakovich.

  • CareyCarey | October 22, 2012 5:26 PM

    Well Mr C, I surrender my black card with shame on my face. And while we're at it, to whom it may concern, please pull my application to appear on Hip-Hop Squares, I am not worthy. **Carey leaves the stage, broken and dejected. Will he ever be able to show his face again?**

  • c | October 22, 2012 4:42 PM

    @ Carey you never heard of the WU-tang clan and Boddy Digital aka The RZA and you call yourself black...lol I kid I kid. Seriously WU-Tang clan is the most influential and popular rap group of all time. They introduced the concept of each group member having a distinct flow and style which worked well to market each member respectively. They are internationally known to rock the microphone(lol) and have a huge following in Asia and other abroad. They don't have to put out another album and they will still be relevant. Each member went multi platinum on their solo debuts with the exception of GZA i believe(could be wrong). Two members(Ghostface and Rae) put out classic albums Iron Man, Only Built for Cuban Links...we are talking top 10 rap albums of all time. I am not using this as an opportunity to go in however if faced with this question again it would be my hope that you will be well equipped to represent the race when its expected of us to know such facts. lol I kid I kid

  • willie dynamite | October 22, 2012 12:18 PM

    Rza created the hip hop group the Wu Tang Clan. One of the most dominant groups in hip hop history. He set it up so that the group had a record deal and each member had their own solo deal. The man is definitely a visionary. The WU became a global movement, with music, merchandising, clothing line etc. He was also in American gangster as a cop, and just did an arc on last seasons Californication.

  • CareyCarey | October 22, 2012 9:33 AM

    Thanks YEP, that answered a few questions that were on my mind. But now the begging question is: Can he act? Well, he actually held his own in Gospel Hill. As I said, it was full of top notch black stars, so I was wondering who he was and how he managed to get a part in the film? He seemed so natural in the role, I thought - like Dwight Henry in "Beasts of the Southern Wild" - that he too was a home grown product; someone who was actually unemployed and raised in a similar small town southern environment, not a "real" actor. So it's nice to hear that he has bank (not unemployed *lol*) and is a rapper who can act.

  • Yep | October 22, 2012 6:42 AM

    RZA was one of the most innovative producers in hip-hop and Tarantino was a fan of his music before they met...that explains his bank and his connections in entertainment to get started in film

  • Neziah | October 22, 2012 3:44 AMReply

    One of the most entertaining interviews I've read to date. Great job.

  • jean vigo | October 22, 2012 1:47 AMReply

    If it works out, Tarantino needs to take music lessons from RZA to reciprocate the favor.

    I just find it odd that Tarantino had no "teachers" and needed no "permissions" from some "mentor" when he went out and did "Reservoir Dogs." Keitel just took a chance on an unproven talent; that's the kind of cojones the industry needs to keep from going stale.

    That said, I hope RZA will find his own voice as a filmmaker and continue to make films on his terms.

  • c | October 22, 2012 4:30 PM

    @ Jean "I just find it odd that Tarantino had no "teachers" and needed no "permissions" from some "mentor" when he went out and did "Reservoir Dogs." Keitel just took a chance on an unproven talent; that's the kind of cojones the industry needs to keep from going stale"...
    What folks don't know is that Tarantino is a first class film nerd who spent most of his time watching films when he worked for Blockbuster along with Roger Avery(former writing partner) when they wrote Pulp fiction together. So it was never a game for him from the jump to his credit. I believe in effort for us minorities to take our film skills to the next level we need to apply the same discipline instead of running out there with a camera and trying to figure s#$t out. We apply the same discipline in music...just ask any good music producers and they will tell you about sounds from various genres and time periods that they have studied..most of which we never heard of. We need to do the same with film and RZA was put through that test with Tarantino Rodriguez and Roth. I commend RZA for putting that level of focus into becoming a director granted he did not go to film school however he treated it as a craft and not a hobby. Hopefully it will show in the finish product and from the sounds of it will.

  • sergio | October 22, 2012 8:23 AM

    Maybe you'll let RZA can hang out on the set when you finally make your followup to "Zero de Conduite"

  • other song | October 22, 2012 1:45 AMReply

    lmao at "oh f*ck this nigga!". That's how I feel when I see Tyler Perry's credits on every aspect of the film: producer, music, writing, craft services, etc. Either way, I'm excited for Mr Digital and this is one movie I'm happy to support. suuuuu!

  • that dude | October 22, 2012 12:34 AMReply

    This is why I dig Shadow and Act. Where else are we going to hear a real black man's perspective in the course of an interview with the RZA?

  • sergio | October 22, 2012 8:24 AM

    THANK YOU SIR!

  • Solaam | October 22, 2012 12:08 AMReply

    Good interview. RZA really prepared for this and seems to greatly respect the craft.

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