Back to IndieWire

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

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

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.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Interviews and tagged ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox