RZA is an artist’s artist. Like many of them, the Wu-Tang Clan leader expresses himself in a variety of forms. Starting in 2012, RZA added filmmaking to his repertoire with his kung-fu picture, The Man with the Iron Fists. Eight years later, Robert Fitzgerald Diggs—aka The Avid, Bobby Steels, and Prince Delight—is releasing his third film, Cut Throat City, a post-Katrina crime epic. It’s a celebration of the city and an empathetic look at those affected by the disaster. With the film now opening in select theaters, the artist talked to us at length about his filmmaking experiences, such as why he doesn’t smoke when he’s directing, and explained why Wu-Tang Clan is for the children.
You like talking about your work, right?
I love talking about my work, bro, I got to be honest. When I’m doing it, you notice I don’t preempt my work. You won’t find another interview with me saying, “I’m about to do this, I’m about to do that.” But when it’s done, I love talking about it, because I put so much of myself and my time and dedication to the work that I love if somebody else appreciates it.
How does directing a movie and leading a crew compare to leading a group like Wu-Tang Clan?
Training with the Wu-Tang is the best education I could have gotten in the sense of dealing with the different personalities, the different alpha energy, and the different passive energy of people. I’m from a family of 11 brothers and sisters. I realized that that was the first level of personality understanding that I was given in my life. So by the time I got to form Wu-Tang Clan, I already had a collaborative relationship, understanding of different personalities because I lived it.
That creative energy and understanding and patience led to me being able to be in a director position. So six weeks after that moment of realization, we started filming The Man with the Iron Fists. We were about to do a nine to ten week shoot. I got A-list Hollywood people that I have to protect, guide, understand, communicate with. The cast in this film, once again, is an extension of relationships and understanding how to deal with all these relationships and community. I think if you talked to any of the cast members, they all will say it was a very pleasant work experience, because as an artist, I understand what I don’t like, so I’m not going to do that to nobody else.
What is it you don’t like?
Well, no artist likes to be ignored. No artist likes to be the one that’s on the backburner, because at the end of the day, you’re always thinking of your art. So I’ll give you an example of it, mentally. If I’m in the trailer as an actor, you know what I’m in the trailer doing? Thinking of my lines, thinking of my shirt, thinking of my head, thinking of everything that I have to do as a talent and go and deliver this character I’ve been thinking weeks about.
I’m hoping that the whole team and the director is on the same page and all these things. Meanwhile, I’m thinking about that and I’m thinking about the director, but what if the director is not thinking about me? The director may not be thinking about you, because it’s impossible for him to think about you at that moment when the camera just froze [Laughs]. But if he understands that consideration of the artists’ minds and poise, he’s able to do something to reassure. I think that as an artist that’s in the director’s seat, I think I do provide that reassurance.
How crucial for you is meditating on set when you’re making a movie like Cut Throat City?
Well, Ridley Scott gave me the best advice. I will just say that I did have the privilege of being an actor. I look at the directors that I worked with—Judd Apatow, Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino—and have been blessed. Ridley gave me the most important information on multiple levels. No matter what, every day he simply takes 20 minutes, normally during lunch, and he shuts everything off. He says sometimes he falls asleep, sometimes he don’t, but no matter what, he closes his eyes and shuts everything off and he sits still for 20 minutes. We were on American Gangster when he told me this. That’s been some years ago, but still, he was still probably in his late 60s at that time. Ridley’s energy was as vibrant as a 25, 30 year old. How is that?
And he’s still that fast.
Exactly. I’m one of those guys that will ask questions. I want to know, I want to learn. I asked him about it, and he said, “Do it every day. Even as an actor, I advise you to do that.”
As someone who likes to ask questions, what have you been asking questions about lately?
I’ve got a microscope. I’m trying to understand what the hell is going on, bro. I think the only thing that’s been more fascinating to me now more than ever, it’s just science itself. I’m so grateful that I’m an artist, I’m so blessed and I love that I could feed my family this way, but the only other thing that since Junior High School, they said that I am superb in science. My Junior High School teacher gave me a gift of a book of microbiology, and he wanted me to study pathogens and all this. I took the book and I read it, but I never gave that type of dedication to it. During this process, my heart was looking back towards science.
When I do a movie, I actually take on some other thing. So Man with the Iron Fists, I took a whole genetic course while I was doing that. My downtime was genetic. For this film, actually, and it was a weird choice for me, my downtime was actually economics. I just decided to understand economics in a way that an economist would. I basically got Harvard books on it and just started reading. Right now, it’s science for me.
How do you maintain a positive mind during times like these?
Well, negative weight is in comparison to positive weight, know what I mean? I like to use the biblical term. It says for every negative action, I’ll give you one negative in return, but for every positive, I multiply you by ten. To me, I’ll take the bitter medicine, so that I know where the sweetness is following.
Somebody was laughing at me because I don’t like olives, right? Yet I eat one. They go, “Why are you eating that?” I said, “Because I don’t like it.” “Why the fuck you eating it?” I said, “Because I don’t like it. For me, it’s like letting my throat do something I don’t like for a minute, because the rest of the food you got here, I love.” It’s just taken one more negative thing because of all the positive that’s there.
I think in our times there are a lot of negatives in the world, but there’s really more positive in the world in all reality. It just appears the negative on the atomic level, the electron is just busier. It just scares me. But the proton, it controls it and the neutron. If the proton and the neutron make the decision, what happens? That’s called physics. That’s mad shit, what a bomb [Laughs].
[Laughs] That’s a great way of looking at everything. When it comes to making an album and a movie, any similarities for you in terms of achieving those visions?
Making an album takes ten people and making a movie takes 400 people, but it’s the same difficulty. I could probably do an album in 30 days, but movies take years. When you finish filming, you have to get an assembly of the film itself, and that’s a ten week process. Even if you only did a nine week shoot, the assembly is a ten week process. Then after that, there’s another ten weeks for the director to go in and shape it. So, that’s 20 weeks. Then the producers and the studio get to come look at it, and then it’s another then weeks of fixing that, that’s 30 weeks, bro.
When you’re working on an album, you’ll smoke in the studio. When you’re working on a movie, do you smoke much?
Not to ruin it for all the High Times readers, but when I’m in the process of making the movie, I remain sober, in the creative process of coming up with the ideas. Whatever drug the person takes, it’s up to that individual, but it may cause stimulation and cause creativity, they’ll cause whatever they cause in a person. They may smoke a blunt, next thing you know they go write the craziest shit because their brain is popping all over with different ideas.
In filmmaking, the execution of precision, it’s almost medical in a way. For me, being sober during the execution process is more beneficial because I don’t allow space for doubt. Like in the lyric, I could go from, [rapping] “Yo, there’s no place to hide once I step inside the room. Dr. Doom, prepare for the boom. Bam! Aw, Man! I slam, jam, now scream like Tarzan. I be tossin’, enforcin’, my style is awesome. I’m cousin’ more family feud than Richard Dawson, and the survey said you’re dead.” So, I can do that. But for the movie, this guy has to walk, you know? [Laughs] It’s linear. They don’t have to be linear, but you know what I mean. You have to be a part of the movie. Godzilla is not going to show up in the middle of Cut Throat City, know what I mean?
[Laughs] I do. Do you think you’re going to write another book in the future?
Yeah, I think if I’m blessed to sit down. Even though we’re all sitting down now, I’m sitting down and I’m still in the middle of promoting a movie and still writing the TV show, but I do have another book in me, in my spirit that I would love to share with the world. There’s a lot of notes I’ve collected on it and it’s all about me getting the blessing of downtime to sit down and say, “Okay, do your duty and write this book.”
When I wrote “The Tao of Wu,” I actually took the time off. The funniest thing about it for me, it was around the time of Inglourious Basterds. You’ll notice that, from Kill Bill to Death Proof to Kill Bill 2, to even Django, you notice I got a song. You noticed that I have no participation whatsoever in the Inglourious Basterds, right? Even on The Hateful Eight, I visited the set and I was there while they did it. But Inglourious Basterds, I didn’t visit the set or do nothing. I was writing my book then.
When I decided to finish the book, I decided to finish it in the south of France at Cannes. I got there before the film festival, of course, but the way I felt there when I went there for the first time in my life, I just felt a certain energy there. I said, “I’m going to finish my book there. I’m going to take the manuscript and go there and finish it.” That’s what I did.
I stayed there long enough that the Cannes Film Festival started and all my buddies came to town and everybody was there working. I mean, partying but working. They had something to sell. I had nothing to sell, nothing to do. I was totally free from any obligation. It really led to that book to find its own pace, its own reality, because it wasn’t a pressure. It wasn’t an economic decision, it was a decision to freely express myself. It is hard, it’s hard.
It’s just like you’ve only got four toes and nobody knew, and now today, I’m going to say, “Yo, I only got four toes.” “Damn, RZA, I ain’t know.” “Well, I figured I’ll let y’all know that so you could realize that even with four toes, I still could walk straight.” That’s what the book was to me. It was revealing myself, and the best way to do that is when there’s no other forces making me be other than yourself. So when you got jobs and things like that, even though we ourselves, you still got responsibility. I got a responsibility to take a shower. I got to go to work.
So much has been said and written about Wu-Tang Clan’s story, which is still ongoing. Do you think anything has been left unsaid about the group? Is there anything that’s maybe harder to put in words or to convey?
That’s a really great question, and there’s actually layers of answers to that question because it’s like, what do Dirty mean when he says Wu-Tang is for the children? Yo, the purity of our expression, it says something pure and real about it, and that’s always going to be good for children because it’s real.There are so many things that are not real. So many things that are exploited to misguide children or misguide the world and they put up with it, and there’s a reason for it, right? And what he’s saying, if a kid was to listen to this music, and even with the harshness and all that, the information that he’s going to get from this music, it’s going to find itself to be healthy. It’s going to be more like the vegetables on the plate versus the red meat. It’d even taste better than the meat.
I don’t know if people get that total thing from it sometimes. I think I said in one of my lyrics that, it’s not a popular lyric, but I said something like, “Some came for the hooks, some came for the book, some came for the pussy.” [Laughs] I forget what the song was I said it on, but I said it. I would hope that at the end of the day, when it comes to Wu-Tang, people come for the book, which is the wisdom.