LOS ANGELES — Call the RZA hip-hop’s foremost alchemist. The self-professed former drug dealer-turned-Grammy-winning rapper-producer has defied all odds to spin not lead into gold, but demode pop culture and arcane philosophical beliefs into platinum disc upon platinum disc.
And now, after spending years under the tutelage of several high-profile filmmakers, including Quentin Tarantino, he’s preparing to unleash his unique mash-up sensibility on the big screen, in a project that will be part chop-socky flick, part spaghetti Western and all RZA.
As founding father of the hardcore Staten Island rap collective Wu-Tang Clan, RZA (pronounced “rizza,” given name: Robert Diggs) conflated the spiritual enlightenment found in ‘70s kung fu movies with racially incendiary teachings from the Five-Percent Nation of Islam, adding to the mix references to Taoism and comic books, numerology and snippets of mafia don movie dialogue, articulating a plaintive yet hard-bitten ghetto cri de coeur.
The upshot was an almost unparalleled string of hits that started with the Clan’s epochal 1993 debut LP, “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers),” and encompasses such releases as Method Man’s multiplatinum-selling “Tical,” Raekwon the Chef’s “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx ...” (widely regarded as one of hip-hop’s greatest albums) and Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s gold-selling “Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version,” another ranking rap classic.
But after the Wu’s tightly knit fabric started to unravel around 2004, RZA began to focus more on film. In recent years, he has been scoring such movies as “Blade: Trinity” and making cameo appearances in Jim Jarmusch’s “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” and other films. His encyclopedic knowledge of Hong Kong cinema notwithstanding, the producer didn’t have any particular ambition to set moviedom on fire. Until, that is, he got a fateful phone call from then-Miramax Co-Chairman Harvey Weinstein.
“Hey RZA, it’s Harvey,” the RZA recalled, lapsing into a raspy imitation of Weinstein’s cigarette-seasoned growl. “I want you to be in my movie. You got a new career now.”
Since that appearance with Clive Owen in 2005’s “Derailed,” RZA has built a respectable filmography with small roles in a number of high-profile, big-budget studio movies, among them Judd Apatow’s “Funny People” and Ridley Scott’s “American Gangster,” as well as a turn in “The Hangover” director Todd Phillips’ upcoming comedy, “Due Date,” and Paul Haggis’ “The Next Three Days” — a role that reunited him with “Gangster” co-star Russell Crowe.
“I’m working up in the movie business,” RZA said. “Maybe in the movie business, I’m working down. How long are you going to be a celebrity? I like the art. I like how it feels to act.”
So do such other rappers-turned-actors as LL Cool J, Common, Xzibit, Ludacris, DMX, Ice Cube and even Snoop Dogg. But befitting the producer’s magpie ability to glean and repackage cultural stimuli from across the high-low divide, RZA says his acting efforts are in the service of his next career act: a move behind the camera.
With no small amount of backup from a cadre of top-flight filmmakers — including independent cinema luminary Jarmusch and Hong Kong action movie ace John Woo, but most significantly, Tarantino — the RZA-rector, as he is sometimes known, is now in final preparations for his debut as a writer-director, “The Man With the Iron Fist.” And unlike the fates of some musicians’ directorial efforts (say, Madonna’s “Filth and Wisdom” or Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst’s “The Education of Charlie Banks”), RZA’s movie industry backers swear he has the right combination of creativity, chutzpah and discipline to achieve liftoff at the box office.
Planned as a genre-busting opening salvo to the industry, the movie is being produced by “torture porn” poster boy Eli Roth, the writer-director of such low-cost, high-yield horror films as “Hostel” and “Hostel: Part II.”
(For the time being, though, both filmmakers prefer to remain mum on specific plot points, although Roth allows that “Man With the Iron Fist” should appeal to “an audience that’s hungry for kung fu but not grindhouse. Something that’s modern, like ‘Blade.’”)
“RZA is such a creative fountain. The script is great, he’s got characters, jokes. What he does with lyrics, he does with dialogue,” Roth said. “And he’s done such a great mix: spaghetti western, kung fu, modern fighting infused with hip-hop and multiculture. He has this whole comic book universe figured out. I know he’s going to make a brilliant film.”
Of course, none of it would be possible without Tarantino, who godfathered Roth’s “Hostel” into production as an executive producer and introduced the filmmaker to RZA. A longtime admirer of Wu-Tang Clan’s sonic melange, with his own deeply felt appreciation for the Shaolin monk movie cannon, Tarantino first hired RZA to create the electro-ambient, quasi-hip-hop score for his two-volume kung fu drama “Kill Bill.” But their working relationship didn’t end there. Tarantino has allowed the RZA to soak up production know-how on the set of every movie he’s done since 2003.
Tarantino said he identifies with the hip-hop producer’s skill in macromanaging the nine Clan members’ unwieldy energies into a cohesive form. “You have to understand that even though they’re very different, being a producer on a record is not too different from being a director of film — especially with something like Wu-Tang Clan,” Tarantino said. “All these guys have their different contributions. Everyone has a say. But ultimately, the album is RZA’s decision. That’s very similar to what a director does. It’s a lot like how I was influenced by Phil Spector.”
Still, RZA says he would not make the move into filmmaking without Tarantino’s explicit blessing.
“Tarantino is my teacher,” RZA said solemnly, echoing — whether intentionally or not — the kind of dialogue you’d hear in a martial-arts film. “I’ve watched hundreds of movies with him and spent hundreds of hours learning craft from him. I’m a disciple of Tarantino.”
He continued: “When Eli said, ‘I want to help you make your movie,’ we had to go to Quentin. The teacher. He said, ‘You and Eli are ready. You have my blessing.’”
Spend an afternoon with the RZA and, as any of his moviemaking consigliere will attest, you’ll be hard-pressed not to be bowled over by the breadth of his polymathic learning. Conversation ricochets between electrical innovator Nikola Tesla and an extended recitation of what Five-Percent Nation of Islam followers call “the knowledge,” from the travails of Job to RZA’s sober recollection of fleeing New York’s meanest streets with a stolen gold necklace, a Koran and a gun — a story the producer elaborates on in his recently published memoir-spiritual enlightenment guide, “The Tao of Wu.”
The immediate take-away: Dude is open to new ideas.
“It says in the Koran you find signs every day,” the producer said, seated on the sun-dappled terrace of his San Fernando Valley mini-mansion. “But most people aren’t wise enough to see them.”
So, when the chance presented itself to befriend Woo in 1997 — around the same time Wu-Tang Clan ascended to pop cultural ubiquity with its chart-topping, Grammy-nominated album “Wu-Tang Forever” — RZA jumped at the opportunity. The producer had won points with Woo by sampling dialogue from his operatic shoot’em-up epic “The Killer” on “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx ...” And Woo was a major fan of the Shaolin cinema responsible for RZA’s creative mojo. Moreover, RZA introduced the director to his shifu, or master teacher, Shi Yan Ming, founder of the USA Shaolin Temple in New York. He arranged for the two to receive kung fu tutorials together.
Woo and RZA remained regular dinner companions between 1997 and 2000, precipitating a mutually beneficial business proposition.
“For many years, I was getting my lessons from John,” RZA recalled. “His movie ‘Bullet in the Head,’ he said I can make it over (as a director). He said, ‘You will get no resistance from me.’ “
Meanwhile, Jarmusch (the force behind such indie favorites as “Stranger Than Paradise,” “Mystery Train” and “Dead Man”) enlisted RZA to create the soundtrack for his 1999 samurai crime-drama “Ghost Dog,” only to discover the producer had begun laying the groundwork for a film career.
“He came on the set of ‘Ghost Dog’ for several days, just to absorb moviemaking,” Jarmusch recalled. “He was interested in which lenses did what and how we chose to move the camera. How we were thinking about capturing images. He was definitely clocking stuff. You can almost hear the gears in his brain turning fast.”
Jarmusch continued to keep tabs on the RZA’s filmic efforts over the intervening years, being among the few to screen the producer’s short movie, “Domestic Violence,” as well as two 45-minute segments of a film companion piece to RZA’s solo album (under the nom de rap Bobby Digital) “Digital Bullet” — although none of these films has yet seen the light of release.
After reading several early drafts of “Man With the Iron Fist,” Jarmusch is optimistic about RZA’s filmmaking prospects. “The guy’s talents are so broad. His interest in cinema is linked to everything else he’s passionate about in this beautiful way,” he said.
Likewise, Tarantino brought RZA on to compose original music for “Kill Bill: Vol. 1.” But when he invited the producer to watch him film, it became evident that RZA’s interests superseded the job for which he’d been hired.
“I started noticing he was checking how you do it: Me working with the cinematographer, how you do a fight scene in a practical sense,” said Tarantino. “He’d sit on a box somewhere, writing on a sketch pad and taking it all in. Spending two weeks in China just to soak up the vibe — this isn’t just for a musical contribution.”
Their friendship bloomed, however, with the two “battling” to one-up each other by screening ever more obscure kung fu flicks. Eventually, RZA’s “teacher” imparted him with a more well-rounded knowledge of cinema.
“He’ll pull out a movie I didn’t think of watching at all,” RZA said. “Suppose we watch the movie for action. But he’ll say, ‘Listen for the dialogue in this.’ Watching it with him, it’s different.”
More crucially, Tarantino invited RZA on a New Year’s Eve trip to Iceland with him and Roth, where Tarantino was hosting a triple-bill screening of rare kung fu movies. Roth and RZA’s return trip to Los Angeles was delayed in Roth’s hometown, Boston, however. So the horror-meister did the companionable thing and invited his new hip-hop pal back to his family’s home for dinner. And over the course of their enforced layover, RZA detailed the feature film he was putting together.
“After that, we were like family,” Roth recalled.
When the writer-director launched Arcade, his film production company devoted to genre fare such as horror and sci-fi, in 2007, his first thought was to inquire about RZA’s “Man With the Iron Fist.”
“I called him up, read it,” Roth said. “I said, ‘This is great, but we can make it even stronger. Everything you have — the core idea, the characters — are so good, we can revamp this. I can do for you what Quentin Tarantino did for me on ‘Hostel.’ “
The only thing left for Roth and RZA to do was to get their teacher’s blessing.
“Quentin said, ‘You are ready, just don’t start too much up here,’” RZA said. “That meant, don’t let my budget exceed $10 million. Don’t start like that, yo! You start like that, expectation is going to be so high, you may never come again. That’s great advice.”
Although Roth and RZA say that they have already secured independent financing for “Man With the Iron Fist” and that a shooting draft has been written, the movie’s production schedule has not yet been set.
Drawing intently on a cigarette and taking in the suburban torpor of his current digs, RZA voiced caution for those Wu aficionados expecting the producer to serve as his own leading man. “I don’t know if I’ll be the star,” he said, laughing. “The ladies will be the star. There’s a lot of ladies in this film.”