IF he were not already recognizable for his gaunt frame or the distinctive W logo on his baseball cap, it would have been easy to spot Robert Diggs — better known as the RZA, the actor, rapper and mastermind of hip-hop’sWu-Tang Clan — by the haul of vintage records and DVDs he was toting here at Amoeba Music.
Wandering between the black cinema and martial-arts video aisles, RZA thumbed through titles he already owned (“Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold”) while picking up some new additions for his collection (a boxed set of action movies produced by the Shaw Brothers of Hong Kong).
Before he exited with $402.94 in purchases, heavily tilted toward Asian action films, a smiling RZA said in his quiet voice, “You can’t say I’m not supporting the cause.”
Based solely on his Wu-Tang years, when he channeled his youthful obsessions with movies like “Five Deadly Venoms”into potent rap albums like “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers),” RZA, who is 43, would seem to possess unquestionable kung fu credentials.
Since then, his movie roles (as in “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai”), soundtrack contributions (“Kill Bill”) and books (“The Wu-Tang Manual”) have given him broader canvasses on which to blend his hip-hop sensibilities with Eastern culture, combat and spirituality.
Now his artistic wanderings have led to a $20 million movie, “The Man With the Iron Fists,” which RZA directed and stars in, and which Universal will release on Nov. 2. As befits its creator’s eclectic style, the film is a martial-arts mini-epic set in a mythical Chinese feudal state, where a dispute between a monarch and a nefarious gang draws in a rogue British soldier (played by Russell Crowe), a madam (Lucy Liu) and a humble blacksmith (RZA).
For RZA, “The Man With the Iron Fists” is a substantial and risky step into the feature-filmmaking world, where he wants to stake out a new career. It has also been a lesson, years in the making, about which of his talents would take him furthest in Hollywood, and which parts of his gruff, street-smart persona he needed to shed.
As a chauffeured town car drove him to a favorite waffle restaurant on Sunset Boulevard, RZA said he was no longer the grandstanding show-off he presented in his musical heyday. Had this conversation occurred a few years ago, he said, “you would have met an arrogant, tough neighborhood guy — which I’ve overcome.”
Not that he makes any apologies for the 1990s peak of the Wu-Tang Clan, when albums by that New York hip-hop collective and solo offerings from band members like GZA, Raekwon and Ol’ Dirty Bastard — largely produced by RZA — were selling by the hundreds of thousands.
“I thought I was the greatest thing on earth,” RZA said. “And you couldn’t say that I wasn’t. I wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
Among the projects from that period that he says he couldn’t resist was a film that he directed, starred in and paid for ($400,000) based on his superhero alter ego, Bobby Digital.
RZA said that one studio offered him about $250,000 to distribute the movie, and another $500,000, but he had his heart set on $1 million.
“At this time, I think I was more conceited,” he said as he sampled from plates of red velvet waffles, onion rings and a vegetarian Reuben sandwich. “I’m not going to take no 250, 500 grand from nobody, during this bloom of my life. I played hardball and the deal walked away.”
A second feature he directed and financed, a martial-arts movie called “Wu-Tang vs. the Golden Phoenix,” similarly languished, and both films remain unreleased.
As the Wu-Tang members went their separate ways, RZA moved his career to Los Angeles, where he focused on film scores and small acting roles. But a part of him continued to dream up kung fu characters and stories — “I got a bad habit of creating,” he said — as he did growing up in Brooklyn’s impoverished Brownsville neighborhood. (Citing one of his unused inventions, RZA described an expert fighter called the Seven-Blow Assassin: anyone who faces him, he explained, “will die by seven blows.”)
In 2006, RZA found an ally in the horror filmmaker Eli Roth (“Hostel,” “Cabin Fever”) when the two men were briefly stranded in snowy Boston after returning from an Icelandic film festival hosted by Quentin Tarantino.
Mr. Roth’s parents, who lived in the Boston area, took RZA in for the night. From that point on, RZA said he and Mr. Roth were “hangout buddies.”
More crucially, Mr. Roth offered to help RZA with the script he was writing, which eventually became “The Man With the Iron Fists.” But that collaboration was delayed for nearly three years, while Mr. Roth worked on other projects. When they finally put their heads together in 2009, Mr. Roth said he advised RZA to think through his imaginary world as carefully as George Lucas knows “Star Wars” or Peter Jackson has rendered the “Lord of the Rings” films.
Using the Wu-Tang Clan as an example, Mr. Roth said he told RZA: “You write different lyrics for all these guys. Yet if a girl walked by, the way GZA would react is very different from how Ol’ Dirty Bastard would react. What Raekwon would say is different from Method Man.”
After helping RZA expand his script from 90 pages to 130, Mr. Roth (who shares screenplay credit) said he did not need to see RZA’s previous films to know he could direct this one. “I trust my gut,” he said. “I know who’s got it and who hasn’t.”
With the producers Marc Abraham and Eric Newman (“Children of Men”), and the blessing of Mr. Tarantino, who is listed as the presenter in the movie’s credits, RZA and Mr. Roth pitched the film to Universal early last year and got their green light.
But where he was accustomed to near-dictatorial control over the early Wu-Tang albums, RZA had to learn to compromise with co-stars like Mr. Crowe, who wanted to see his Jack Knife character develop a fuller on-screen friendship with RZA’s blacksmith.
“As friends, we talk,” Mr. Crowe (who appeared with RZA in “American Gangster” and“The Next Three Days”) wrote in an e-mail. “It is no effort for me to give a friend advice. Film has many gods and you have to understand, as a director, you will be required to please and appease them all.”
That said, Mr. Crowe wrote that he wanted to make the film “because I believe in Bobby Diggs,” and because he had given him his word that “as a brother that I would turn up when he needed me to.”
Ms. Liu, a star of “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” and the CBS series “Elementary,” said she also wanted a more substantial arc for her character, a brothel mistress named Madam Blossom.
“I think the original script had more masculine energy,” she said, “and giving Madam Blossom more of a presence made it a little bit more balanced.” She said RZA was open to her suggestions: “He didn’t say no to any of it.”
More concessions followed during the film’s 10-week shoot in China. After a word from his Chinese producers, who felt their government would not appreciate a scene in which a camera pans across a line of brothel workers framed at a certain angle, RZA cut the sequence from the script. (“It’s not a porno,” he said.)
When the film was edited in the United States, RZA labored to reduce it from three hours to about 96 minutes. Seeking a creative hiatus during this period, he took a supporting role on the Showtime comedy “Californication,” playing an overconfident rapper named Samurai Apocalypse.
Tom Kapinos, the creator and writer of “Californication,” said he was not initially sure what to expect of RZA. “I’ve met a ton of people from the music world, and there’s a lot of insane people out there,” he said.
But when RZA arrived for his first table read “he just wanted people to call him Bobby,” Mr. Kapinos said. “I got the sense that he was there to learn and soak up as much of the process as possible. He was more prepared than some of our core actors.”
Now that he has a properly produced studio movie under his belt, RZA called filmmaking “the perfect medium for a man of my creativity.”
“I’d love to make 10 to 12 films in my life,” he said. “That’s a lot of films, but it’s doable. I’ve still got time.”
Already, he is cultivating ideas for a follow-up, including a potential film version of the Grant Morrison comic book “Happy!” and a still-gestating period piece that would span the 1960s and ’70s, “One Spoon of Chocolate.”
Like many fans of his band, RZA is also contemplating a possible Wu-Tang Clan reunion, one that might coincide with the 20th anniversary of “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).” But the only configuration he said he would accept is one where he has the same degree of control as during the making of that album — which is to say, total.
“I’ve been talking to some of the guys, like, ‘Yo, look, I would suggest that you put down everything you know, and trust me one more time,’ ” RZA said.
If his filmmaking adventures have taught him anything, he said, it was that even in collaboration, artistry ultimately rises or falls on one person’s vision.
Or, as he put it: “I’m Captain Kirk and I’m flying this starship Enterprise. If I’m lucky to have a Mr. Spock on my side, we’re going to go somewhere that nobody’s gone before.”
Via The New York Times