The television spots for The Man With the Iron Fists proudly declare, "Quentin Tarantino Presents," and though he's not a producer on the film, his influence is evident. RZA first conceived of the movie roughly a decade ago, while composing and producing songs for the Kill Bill: Volumes 1 and 2 soundtracks. Having seen Tarantino direct on the China set of Kill Bill, RZA eventually began collaborating with Roth, the Cabin Fever director and Tarantino protege who played Donny Donowitz in Inglourious Basterds.
Since the film marks RZA's first movie as director, he relied upon Roth for guidance and practical advice. "To have Quentin and Eli on my side throughout this, they let me do my own thing," RZA said. "Having a companion tell me, 'There’s going to be a landmine ten feet ahead, go through it or jump over it or go around it.' Eli was that person. Sometimes I looked at him and still went through the landmine. Sometimes, I think I’m going to go around that one."
First-time directors often generate a lot of nervousness, but for Roth, it was obvious that RZA possessed the qualities that make a director, as he explained, "I didn’t need to watch anything else he’s shot to know he could direct a movie. You have to have that vision and belief. He was so humble and willing to learn. That was in the year of writing the script. I hit him up with the questions that every costume designer was going to ask, every production designer, the stunt coordinator. When he sat down with them, he knew it all. It all moved so fast, because he took the time to think everything through. He has vision and it’s different. We had a great experience – a very hard shoot for a first movie."
"He was amazing," Roth continued. "His ability, his focus, that’s the hard part. Dealing with 700 crew members in three different languages. He kept his cool. Shit gets built wrong. I knew that from shooting in Prague [on Hostel and Hostel: Part II]. You have to look at every set, every time you gotta check it. You have to be meticulous, it never ends. He’s had that, like the students in martial arts movie, they learn.
"I can do this because I took the time to study," RZA related. "A boxer can’t just jump in a ring. You have to practice and practice. I got the Canon cameras and tried them all out. I studied ISO so I could talk to my DP about how much light I want. In the making of this movie, you’ll see me… after 12 hours, of work and still worked and trained with a kung-fu instructor. I still got up early the next day and practice on my camera, taking my shots. Through good input, you get great output. This is the first of me bringing great movies to the silver screen."
His presence in one of the most renowned rap groups in the history of the genre helped prepare RZA for the job, as he said, "I do think being a part of the Wu-Tang Clan and the [tendency] of Wu-Tang Clan to having such strong personalities in my life unknowingly prepared me for the job of directing. When things got in or felt like it was going to be crazy I don't think I ever lost my cool. Maybe one time we have a little ping pong match, but I kept focused."
While The Man With the Iron Fists is certainly an ensemble, much attention has been paid to the presence of Oscar winner Russell Crowe, playing against type as an opium addict and soldier with an affinity for cutlery. An inspiration for character was actually RZA's former Wu-Tang cohort, the late Ol' Dirty Bastard aka ODB aka Russell Jones.
"As far as Russell Crowe joining us for the cast," RZA explained, "I talked to him about it for a long time and I was never sure if he was going to do it, but he says that he trusts me as a artist. And I think that's the most driving force that could convince him to come on board is that he's seen a young man that has a lot of artistic vision and he appreciates it and he would like the world to appreciate it as well. He comes with a validation of what I can do. I'm grateful that he came on board and we found some energy for him to relate to O.D.B. energy. Russell Crowe, Russell Jones."
"Crowe.D.B. as we call it," Roth chimed in. "And when we were writing the script we thought because we talked about Russell's Jack Knife, we thought we really got to give him a reason to go to China. Like we can't just go, 'Okay you're friends with him, he said he'd do it.' But we want to give something great. I remember when I first got to China I sat with Russell for twenty-four hours in a hotel room. We talked about the character which is all stuff that RZA and I had talked and then I realized how willing Russell Crowe was to go crazy. And we're like, 'Alright let's do Marlon Brando and the Missouri Breaks, Ben Kingsley and Sexy Beast, let's do something that's so completely fucking nuts that no one else could've done and it's something completely out of character for him to which you're used to seeing.' I remember the first day of shooting. He was like it was weird when you're throwing a table at him, he's got a knife that shoots an imaginary blade and splits it and he's like, 'This is not normally what I do.' He's like, 'I do A Beautiful Mind. And he watched the playback and he's going, 'Do it again! Throw the table again!' And he just went for it. It was great that RZA created an environment where Russell wasn't carrying a whole movie, he was part of an ensemble, but the way we thought of it was like a super group."
The movie's tagline cleverly proclaims, "They put the F.U. in Kung-Fu," and though The Man With the Iron Fists is an unapologetic celebration of cinematic fisticuffs, the director and co-writer explained that no amount of cool action can sustain a movie, saying, "I think you gotta have a story though, it has to be a story that if the kung-fu wasn't in the movie, you still enjoy the story."
Creating the story meant balancing the action and the plot so that one complimented the other and both propelled the audience forward. "One thing we talked about was fight fatigue," Roth explained. "How we didn't want people at the end of the movie like, 'Oh, we have to sit through another fight?' So we really tried to change the style in every fight and introduce a new weapon, a new villain, like 'Oh now here's the one with the blades, okay that's the brass body fight.' So by the time you get the end, you wanna see the blacksmith and brass body go at it as opposed to just sitting there thinking, 'Okay, wrap this up.'"
The film tells a self-contained story, but has a detailed setting and mythology that could be explored in sequels, Roth said. "We also talked about continuing the story. While we were shooting it we wanted to write the roots, we really wanted to write the foundation for something that could continue if we decided it to. I mean obviously our focus wasn't second to third we thought, 'Oh we can meet the person with the iron feet' and we were all talking about some that kind of stuff. It was such a great, fun creative collaboration you know obviously it depends how the public likes it, but it's something we'd love to continue," the producer said. "We spent a year working on the script and the mythology of it, every weapon, every character, every clan, the whole world, what's outside jungle village, what else is in this world, so if people really responded to it we could continue it."
"If things go properly it'll be the beginning," RZA agreed. "It's a big relief to
have it out you know what I mean? It's like giving birth to a child. I
hate to compare art to life like that, but I think a movie is an entity
of its own and when it's done you want everybody to like it like you
want everybody to like the children. I'm still nervous because I gotta
wait for the public to see it and absorb it and commercially have
success if life goes proper. But I'm really personally fulfilled. It's
not every day that you get to have a thought in your mind come to
fruition. It's not every day you get to you know a lot of good people
support an idea that's totally artistic. Most movies may have some kind
of base in reality or this is not an American genre so to be able to
bring this to the American screen for me is a great thing."
The Man With the Iron Fists unleashes kung-fu at a theater near you starting Friday, November 2nd.
Check out IAR's exclusive video interview with star Byron Mann by clicking right here.