RZA’s 10-Step Guide to Becoming a Hip-Hop Hollywood Director
RZA never stops training for greatness. Almost 20 years after creating the game-changing, trademark sound on Wu-Tang Clan‘s 1993 debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), the producer-turned-director is on the brink of releasing his first full-length feature film, “The Man With the Iron Fists.”
“If I was to compare this work I would compare this to me making 36 Chambers,” he tells The BoomBox of the Kung Fu-inspired action flick. “That’s how confident and pleased I am with the outcome of this film and I think it’s the start of something beautiful.”
Of course, sitting in the director’s chair didn’t happen overnight. RZA, who also has the leading role in the movie, has been preparing for this moment since he was a young kid, growing up in Staten Island, N.Y. He’d watch Kung Fu movies religiously, which eventually became a lifelong obsession.
The influence from those films first poured out into the fantasized identities of the Wu-Tang Clan, the music they created and eventually turned into a more concrete story idea RZA conceived for a film. He then honed his filmmaking skills under director Quentin Tarantino during the making of “Kill Bill: Vol. 1.” After years of his mentorship, RZA began crafting the screenplay for “The Man With the Iron Fists,” with the assistance of Eli Roth.
Bobby Digital, born Robert Fitzgerald Diggs, worked with an all-star cast that included Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu and Pam Grier. He also directed a crew of 300 to 400 people daily during the production of the film. RZA had his hands full, but he completed the effort with a girth of new knowledge. And he never hesitates to pass it on.
The BoomBox spoke with the 43-year-old director about the ups and downs of the film, due Nov. 2, trusting his actors and even feeling like President Obama at times. Take a look at RZA’s directorial guide where he offers 10 tips on transitioning from hip-hop to Hollywood.
1. Be Prepared
“You must prepare yourself for anything, of course. Many people go along the path but they stumble because they’re not prepared. But for this particular endeavor, preparation is the key element because they call “on the day.” It’s a film term meaning the time to shoot.
“There’s no chance for error because it costs so much money per day to do what you’re doing that if you lose a day, you basically losing twice the amount of money. So preparation is key.”
2. Have a Vision
“The same way a lyricist should have vision in his lyrics to tell a story, you gotta have vision as a director, as well on how you want to tell a story through these characters or through a scene or through a moment.
“Vision is imperative because if you don’t have vision you won’t be able to translate yourself to your crew or your cast. Even if you have a script. It’s useless if you don’t have a vision.”
3. Possess Presidential Qualities
“This is not a job for the weak. I felt like I understood what Obama was going through because you’re controlling so many people, money. On an average we probably had 300 to 400 people a day. Somebody said they counted 700 one day.
“So it’s a lot of people and you gotta feed ‘em. And I remember having cold lunch or making lunch cold because I kept pushing the shot. But perseverance of the director is important. His health, his stamina, is very important.”
4. Love Your Crew
“You must have compassion because you do have all these people working for you and if you’re compassionate about what you’re doing, then that compassion will resonate with them and then it could become synergized teamwork. You hear some stories of directors who yell. They get things done.
“And you know that we yell at somebody and chastise them they’ll go do it. But they’re not going to do it with that same compassion. I said I had took my crew passed lunchtime. Three days in a row they had cold lunch. Nobody didn’t tell me though, because they didn’t want to disturb my groove because the director is the captain.
“But on the fourth day somebody came over and was like, ‘Yo, it’s lunch break.’ I said, ‘We’ll have our lunch break after the shot.’ They were like, ‘We had lunch three days in a row cold.’ I said, ‘Why ain’t nobody tell me?’ Then I said, ‘Lunch break!’ So yeah compassion is important.”
5. Rely on Originality
“You have to bring something original to the table. The old cookie cutter formulas that work sometimes in Hollywood, it works more for established directors. But for somebody who’s new tryna enter the business, you better have something original.”
6. Do Homework
“How are you going to do something unless you know how it’s done? How it continues to be done? There are six basic angles of filmmaking that you should know. If you know at least five of the major lenses they use — meaning from the frame, from 17 up to 100 as they say — at least know the five major lenses. So knowledge is the key to any craft.
7. Understand Time Is Money
“Execution leads to efficiency. And execution is an efficiency. The one thing that the man told me and he challenged me because he knew me from the past and shit and he was like, ‘RZA, do you know how movies are made?’ I said, ‘Yeah, determination, focus, good crew, imagination.’ He said, ‘No, on schedule.’ Basically, time is money, kid.”
8. Gain an Actor’s Trust
“I’ll never forget, Russell did an interview on Charlie Rose where he said out of his mouth, ‘I’m about to do something crazy.’ And Rose said, ‘What?’ [Russell] then said, ‘Well, my buddy has a Kung Fu movie. His name is RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan. He has a Kung Fu movie he wants me to do.
“‘And a lot of my peers say it’s something I shouldn’t do because it doesn’t match to my serious side of acting.’ And Charlie Rose asked him, ‘Well, why do you want to do it?’ And he said, ‘Well, I trust him.’ And when he came there I knew he put his trust in my hand and so I had to deliver on that trust.
“And at the same time, when it got to a problem… I also had to trust him back. There was one scene where I was like, ‘Yo, I want you to put these kids to bed.’ And he’s like, ‘Well, my character wouldn’t put the kids to bed.’
“I said, ‘Wait a minute! Everybody got love for children, even in this movie, even the most evilest man will have love for a child.’ And it was other scenes we did, one of the characters who’s like the most vicious guy, he walks in and plays with the kids. I asked him to do the same thing and he says, ‘Alright, Bobby, if you say so.’ So it’s a big trust that must be shared.”
9. Listen to the Talent’s Opinion
“[Lucy Liu] knows what she wants and she knows the kinds of things she wants to do. But at the same time she trusted me. I’ll tell you a little story about her. When she first arrived in China, she came in when we were already about five weeks in. So everybody was already up to speed and here comes the new talent coming in.
“And she got there and she didn’t want to see the producers or nobody and I told her, ‘You need to have dinner with me.’ And so we had dinner just to reconnect our energy and she was just like, ‘What are we doing here?’
“So we went upstairs to the room that I had five weeks of footage, and we had edited down to about two minutes to show the crew and I hit play on it and when she saw the two minutes she was like, ‘Oh my God, you’re fucking making an epic here,’ and it kind of let loose some of her phobias because she seen what we shot already.
“She was adamant that her character herself represented a woman of strength and she had a few books and she said, ‘You can keep this.’ And I had just got into an argument with my ex woman who said that God was a woman and I said, ‘Whelp maybe it was [laughs].’ But it’s important for yin and yang to be balanced and I think she helped me with that.”
10. Collect Wisdom
“[Pam Grier] was like a jewel for me. Somebody that was experienced in movies for many years. I watched and admired her and she was so nice and so sharing of her wisdom and experience. Actually, for her, I would just sit there and listen. After lunch I’d just sit there and listen to all the stories.
“She told me one funny story though that really made feel really proud. Warrington Hudlin is Reginald Hudlin’s brother. These guys did movies like ‘House Party,’ ‘Boomerang.’ Well, Warrington thrives himself on being a martial artist. Me and Warrington met before and when we met, he said his seafood could beat my seafood.
“After a scene was over, we looked at the monitor and Pam Grier saw it, and she said, ‘RZA, Warrington is going to be so jealous. I’m going to text him right now.’ And that kind of felt cool because we had this little thing and shit, she kind of put me up in that one. I won that battle.”
BONUS: Become a Student & Master
“When I first became [Quentin Tarantino's] student, I went to China to Beijing. And I sat up in the corner for a month, writing, studying. I even took some of the things he said and I wrote it into a lyric so I wouldn’t forget. And now when I’m doing ‘The Man With the Iron Fists,’ he flies himself to China.
“He wouldn’t take money from the budget. He wouldn’t take money from per diems. He just came and he sat there for some days with us. I never forget the day he sat at dinner with me. He said, ‘Bobby, remember this, full circle. I remember you sitting in China… watching me studying, and now the student has become a master.’
“And that actually was one of the moments on the set. A lot of weight fell off me. Like wow, he’s right. I’m actually living out the dream and… he’s right beside me.”
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