A Conversation With the Abbot: RZA on Kung-Fu, Directing and Music

This image released by Universal Pictures shows actor-director RZA in a scene from "The Man With the Iron Fists." (AP Photo/U
This image released by Universal Pictures shows actor-director RZA in a scene from "The Man With the Iron Fists." (AP Photo/Universal Pictures)

Robert Diggs sat at a small wooden table inside the vacant Double Door bar in Chicago on a Saturday in October.

The place had been cleared out for him, serving as a stop on the tour promoting his directorial debut The Man with the Iron Fists. There was a definite stillness in the air as media awaited a moment with the man they call RZA, who was perched at a table on the second floor of the building.

He wore a black leather jacket, resembling a track suit with a candy cane stripe running the length of its sleeves, a black baseball cap pushed down low over his brow and his characteristic thick-rimmed scholarly glasses.

RZA's first words were muffled, spoken through bites of a grilled chicken sandwich, which he seemed to be enjoying based on his nods of affirmation. Calm and almost professorial he waited for the opportune moment to start what would be a very interesting dialogue.

Breaking the silence between sandwich bites and my awkward sweaty palms, RZA gave an early disclaimer that he was working on his comedy:

That moment encapsulated his laid back charm. RZA is an artist who seems to work with ferocious tenacity, whether it be on masterpieces like Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) or pieces like the film we were about to discuss.

Yet in that focus, he finds a grounded peace that comes across in his conversation. He delivers proverbial knowledge with the assuredness of a sage of yesteryear, funneled through a speech impediment and an accent bred by Staten Island.

It's this inherent confidence that guides RZA from one artistic endeavor to the next, despite the level of success he may have with each. He is by no means new to acting -- see his scene-stealing moment in Coffee and Cigarettes -- but directing was a completely different, unfamiliar beast to tackle.

RZA had been tossing around the idea for The Man with the Iron Fists since at least 2003, when he followed Quentin Tarantino to Beijing to observe him directing Kill Bill. Since then, his alliance with Tarantino and Eli Roth helped foster the development of the movie. But juggling acting, writing and directing roles wasn't easy:

The result is a heavy-handed homage to Kung fu, a hybridization of Mortal Kombat and hip-hop. Take that as you will.

The Man with the Iron Fists is, if nothing else, exactly what one would expect to come from the mind of RZA. Gore cascades like a Heinz ketchup faucet, Kung fu lessons are taught and learned and evil is defeated in the place they call Jungle Village.

Russell Crowe, who shows up about 10 minutes into the movie, is a shining diamond in this indiscernible rough. It was wonderful to see him relish an initially morally ambiguous part and most importantly to see him shank people instead of singing "Stars." Mr. Jack Knife -- Crowe -- eventually partners up with Blacksmith (played by RZA) to defeat Silver Lion, a guy who has usurped power from Gold Lion in order to steal gold or something. Never mind the plot; fight sequences are key.

And they're executed pretty well, with a great deal of the actors (including Dave Batista, Rick Yune and Cung Le) all being actual trained fighters. Lucy Liu has killed plenty of people in movies as well, but she yearned for more opportunities to do so in this one:

If RZA learned anything from his Tarantino case study, it is the relationship between music and film. The music in The Man with the Iron Fists doesn't always complement its respective scenes the same way music does in Django Unchained for instance. But the soundtrack, complete with two particularly great songs -- one by RZA and The Black Keys, the other by new father-to-be Kanye West -- is tonally in sync with the sex and violence of the film.

RZA listened to music as he wrote the screenplay for The Man with the Iron Fists and allowed his soundtrack to become a part of the film's editing process:

The soundtrack sold 12,000 copies in its first week and the film made $7.9 million during its opening weekend.

It's hard to say whether those numbers mean anything to RZA though. At 43, he has crafted a unique spot in the world of hip-hop, a prolific producer with an idiosyncratic worldview influenced by the disparate cultures of rap and Kung fu.

I read The Tao of Wu , RZA's second book, three years before I had the opportunity to meet its author. In it, he lists seven "Pillars of Wisdom," important moments in his life, which he hopes to use as advice for the reader.

Remembering one of them is difficult enough, let alone seven. And at the time when I was reading it, I was far less interested in what RZA was actually saying than where the thoughts were coming from.

In our brief conversation, I realized that he is a man that practices what he preaches.

The Man with the Iron Fists is just another extension of this philosophy, a CliffsNotes version of a textbook covering martial arts, rap music, ancient Chinese medicine, enlightenment and everything in between.

It's a textbook written by a man who calls himself an artist:

Long live Tiger Style.