Growing up in New York, Robert Fitzgerald Diggs wasn’t your average sports-enthusiast teen.
He was primarily into chess and — once his older brothers started taking him to a cinema on 42nd Street — nothing but vintage kung fu flicks.
“It all started with a Bruce Lee movie, then a Jim Kelly movie and all of a sudden I was into the kung fu world,” recalls the auteur, who would later rechristen himself RZA to form the legendary hip-hop group the Wu-Tang Clan.
That’s where he got hip to Shaw Brothers productions such as “The Five Deadly Venoms” — pictures that changed his life.
Now, at 43 — with help from mentor Quentin Tarantino and co-screenwriter Eli Roth — RZA has followed his obsession full circle. Opening Friday, “The Man With the Iron Fists” is a “Venoms”-inspired martial arts epic that he wrote, directed, scored and stars in as a mysterious “Yojimbo”-like arms dealer dubbed the Blacksmith.
Filmed in China, the 19th-century-set film co-stars Pam Grier as the Blacksmith’s mother, Lucy Liu as Madame Blossom and Russell Crowe as the blade-wielding Jack Knife, a character inspired by late Wu-Tang member Ol’ Dirty Bastard.
He got so caught up in it, his original cut came in at four hours. Roth helped trim it to 96 minutes.
The key, according to RZA, was preparation. He met Tarantino several years ago at a press junket.
“We immediately hit it off as kung fu buddies, but that led to a friendship, then to me recognizing his mental powers and skill as a director,” he says. “Then I asked to be his student, and he accepted me.”
But the Far East sorely tested his abilities. The country’s officials had to authorize the screenplay in advance. They wouldn’t.
“One of our producers said, ‘Look, this scene where you have all these girls’ booties facing the camera, and they’re getting wet with water — the Chinese government will not allow you to shoot this scene,’” says RZA, who opted to scrap it. “And I couldn’t say ‘Peking duck,’ because Peking duck is real, and my movie is fiction.”
The first day of filming was the worst, he adds: “We shot up in the mountains and had to take cable cars to get there, but only two people could fit in the cable car at a time.” The ensuing 10 weeks were a relative breeze.
For anyone wondering if RZA nailed the genre, the director has some advice. Get a giant tub of popcorn, then pour Goobers into it, he says.
“That makes your sugar level high, so you’ll be hyped up in the theater watching all the kung fu things flying around!” he says.
The Man With the Iron Fists
- Starring RZA, Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, Rick Yune, Jamie Chung, Pam Grier
- Written by RZA, Eli Roth
- Directed by RZA
- Rated R
- Running time 1 hour, 36 minutes