A legendary artist and founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan, The RZA has not only found monumental success as a performer and producer, but as an actor, writer, and film director. Earlier this week, we sat down to chat via Zoom about his latest film, Cut Throat City, and ended up talking a little bit about the significance of its ending, second chances, and the differences between directing and composing film. It was a very insightful interview, and I hope you all enjoy it.
Miles Foster: So, Cut Throat City was released in theaters last year, during the pandemic unfortunately. But, when it premiered on Netflix not too long ago, it just soared. It hit number one in Netflix’s Top 10 and a lot of people have been talking online about the film’s powerful story and style. I was wondering what it was about the story of Cut Throat City that resonated with you, especially as a filmmaker.
RZA: As an artist and as a writer and lyricist, it’s always a part of me and my art. And here’s a story that was written by somebody else and I tried to see if I could find myself in the story and I did. It was really a combination of something I felt personally attached to. Not the experience of Hurricane Katrina, because I never experienced that, but the experience of being in an aspirational part of life and seeing those aspirations turn into desperations. That’s happened in my own life, happened in my crew, it happens in my community every day and I felt that that was the nucleus of the story and Katrina was the backdrop. So it resonated with me and I wanted to help tell this story.
MF: Relating back to that, as this may not have been a film you’ve written, do you change up your approach to directing or is that approach similar to the way you direct films you’ve written, such as The Man with the Iron Fists?
RZA: I approached them both with the same seriousness and the same intensity and the same idea of ‘how do I tell the story and try to entertain the audience’ but also to say what I want to say. There are certain lines in there that capture how I feel about it. And that’s the beautiful thing about being an artist. You could paint a whole landscape, if you want, with buildings and put the sun and the moon both big on your painting if you want, right? So I use that approach as a director. I use this analogy with my crew all the time. I’ll say “Alright guys, I’m Captain Kirk, okay, and we’re about to go on this journey.” And, you know, my Mr. Spock could be my DP, or it could be one of my producers or it could be one of my actors. But I always try to compartmentalize my team into this ‘Enterprise, Captain Kirk’ idea so when I’m in, I’m in.
MF: On the style of Cut Throat City, I’ve noticed a lot of the edits in the more high energy scenes and the animation in the intro reminded me of how music videos can be kind of bright and flashy and cut together in a similar way. Do you feel there is a similarity to making music and making film?
RZA: I think they are very similar in nature. I use the analogy that with making an album you need a band, like a garage band, but with making a movie you need an orchestra. That’s the difference. A band is like maybe four or five people, but an orchestra could be up to 80 people. So when making this particular film we had about 200 people working with us through the course of beginning to end. And you’re still thinking in rhythm and still thinking in rises and falls, circles and progressions. You’re still thinking in that way, but it’s just a different medium. And as a director, I honestly would say that film has the best and highest intensity of my expression because when I make a film, every creative piston is turned on. My music turns on, my visual artistry turns on, my fashion turns on, my ability to produce turns on. We had a great actor named Shameik Moore who really never held a gun and he was never really in the situation where he had to hold a gun and do something like that. But I grew up in a tough situation, and so as a director I was able to show him this is how you rock that. And that’s like how when you’re in the studio with an artist and they don’t know what bar to come in, I’ll be like “I’ll count you in. 1…2…3… spit!” So it’s a similar energy, but with directing it’s like all of that into a ball. It’s the most stimulating for me.
MF: It’s no secret that Wu-Tang was heavily inspired by kung fu movies. Do you think that process comes full circle with your film work being inspired by your musical work?
RZA: Of course. You know, art inspires art. You have people that might read a book and make a screenplay out of that book and then that book becomes an Oscar-winning film. You got some people that could read a poem from Emily Dickinson and pick up a phrase and that poem becomes a Grammy-winning song. Art inspires art. When I was doing The Man with the Iron Fists, I got a lot of inspiration from just looking at the architecture of Pittsburgh. I was walking through the city, I went to old steel mills and was looking at the architecture of their bridges and learned what a bessemer was and all that. When I finished writing the movie, I told my production designer ‘what if we have a bessemer?’ So if you’ve ever watched The Man with the Iron Fists he has a small bessemer in his basement because to me that’s art. Like when an architect designs a building, that’s art. And these buildings can inspire like when you see something like Blade Runner. All of that it’s just–art inspires art. But life itself is art.
MF: I don’t want to get too far into spoiler territory for Cut Throat City but–
RZA: I might have to start spoiling because a lot of people on the internet have been asking me questions. I haven’t answered the questions because I haven’t been Twitter-functioning and I won’t be for about another week. I like to take some time to get into the new year.
MF: Could we talk a little bit about the ending? Lots of people online sort of started to gather to talk about their interpretations of the ending to try to piece together the big picture and it would be thrilling to get your insight.
RZA: I’ll give you a little insight. As a director I get to play with this art. I get to try to start a conversation with my art. And the conversation really stems from the big line to me, which is an important line. You know, the writer wrote an amazing script, but there were certain lines that I felt needed to be said. And one of those lines was “A pencil can take you further than a gun.” And he tells her “No. Not in the Lower Ninth.” And that same idea has plagued my life and plagued my community. Being a nerd was corny. Going to school and being smart was corny, you know what I mean? And being a thug was cool. So, for me, I’m a second chancer. The RZA himself. Method Man. Raekwon. Ghostface. A lot of us are second chancers. We was headed down the wrong path. But our pen or our pencil changed our lives. We no longer have to carry the guns, all we have to do is carry our– we turn our sword into our art. So the idea for me, in the film, was to put that option on the table. Now with that option on the table, you could actually make the decisions that you want to make. You can make the decision of the blue pill, when he went that path and that’s what happened because that’s what happens when you go that route. Or maybe what she said penetrated him. And maybe he heard her and he got that second chance like The RZA got a second chance.
MF: Tying it all back to the big picture of the movie, the song ‘Run’ by Freedom from the movie puts everything into perspective. What was it like incorporating that song into the movie and bringing it full circle?
RZA: Well the coolest thing for me on this project, unlike my last two directoral attempts, I think I was smart enough to step back and give the music control to two different people: one I gave it to Dhani Harrison as my composer, and Dhani of course being the son of George Harrison from The Beatles, and then I gave music supervision to Adrian Miller. So, I Knew Adrian from– we got various friends, and I’ve watched him take Anderson .Paak from an unknown musician to a Grammy-winning great force in music now. And Adrian also surrounds himself with that, so I knew that 2005 New Orleans– I wasn’t the best ear for that sound. I wasn’t the best ear for that period of time of what that part of the world was feeling. So I passed the reins to someone who I thought could help translate that better, and that was Adrian Miller. So as a director of course he brings the songs to me and I’m like “Yeah..No..Yeah..No..Yeah..No..” but ‘Run’ was a “yeah” because at the end of the day, these characters–Blink played by Shameik Moore, Miracle played by Demetrius Shipp, Junior by Keean Johnson, and Denzel Whitaker who did a great job as Dre–these guys were running. And they’re not on the yellow brick road. And they’re not in Oz. But they’re trying to get home.
MF: We’ve been talking a bit how movies and music are so connected and very much the same even though we interact with them in different ways. How different, though, is it directing a movie compared to arranging or composing a movie like you did with Kill Bill, for example?
RZA: Well, like I said, you know, scoring is a tough job as well. I would think– to try to sum it up, Miles, it’s not easy. I can honestly say that. It’s almost like the director is the president of a small country, based on how many decisions he has to make. You might get questions like “You wanted it white right? Eggshell white? Off white? Vanilla white?” That’s just one question somebody said the other day. We hired a director to help on season two of the show, right? And then we have to hire a DP. Now, the DP means Director of Photography. You know that, of course. But listen, I’ll try to paraphrase this, the DP is also a director. And then the question came out like “Do I have to direct any episodes or just be the DP?” And we were like “What would you want? Would you be interested in directing?” And he said “No I’d rather be asked only 100 questions versus 1,000 questions,” because the director gets asked a thousand questions, so that’s the magnitude of it. When you look at a composer, a composer is still there to serve the director’s vision and the film, but a director, man, the magnitude of the work is kinda ridiculous. But I love it, though. If I never had worked with Wu-Tang Clan and had the chance to work with so many personalities in the studio and make these albums– You know when I was making albums, I was trying to make movies when I was making albums. That’s why when you hear Cuban Linx, 36 Chambers and Liquid Swords they have a cinematic feel because I always thought this way, but now I get a chance to physically do it. And I would say that if you put it on a scale of 1-10, making an album would be a ten, making a movie would be a thousand.
MF: Do you have any future projects–be it in film, music, or television–that you’d like to be able to expand on or pursue?
RZA: You know, I’m constantly waiting for the next project to come up. I honestly got the chance–and I know this is apples and oranges but you asked the question so I could answer–so there’s a film coming out at the end of the month called Nobody that I just got a chance to see, and I’m an actor in it. And, man, it was fun. We forget about–’cause Cut Throat City is fun but it’s heavy as well. With Nobody, I just kept eating popcorn, and it was fun.
Cut Throat City is available on Netflix now.