What kind of movie do you get when RZA, Quentin Tarantino, Eli Roth, Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, and legendary fight choreographer Corey Yuen spend a few months in China? Martial arts film fans will find out November 2, 2012 when The Man with the Iron Fists lands in theaters. Wu-Tang Clan member RZA not only wrote (with Roth) and directed the epic action film, he also stars as a blacksmith who must defeat a traitor who threatens the village he resides in.
The project has been in the works for years, with Tarantino providing assistance along the way. In addition to Crowe and Liu, the film also stars Rick Yune, whose scene-stealing performance as Johnny Tran in The Fast and the Furious put him on the action map in 2001. He followed that breakthrough with another villainous turn as Zao in the James Bond film, Die Another Day (2002). In my recent discussion with Mr. Yune, he called The Man with the Iron Fists the best film he has acted in so far.
My character is called the X-Blade. He’s the son of a warlord who’s given the responsibility of escorting gold through the wildest city in feudal China, sort of like the wildest city in the west. I’m away with my future wife when my father is killed, and I have to come back and avenge his murder. I link up with Russell Crowe’s character and RZA’s character and we have to save the day. Without giving too much away, that’s the gist of it.
What was it like working with first-time director RZA?
I’ve known him for six years before this. I know him as a human being and I always knew that he was extremely talented creatively. But I’ve found that his genius is his ability to bring out the best in people, no matter where they’re from or what their background is.
I did things in this movie both physically and as an actor that I couldn’t have done without him. Essentially all of us came together, including Russell and Lucy, because of him. This was not the type of film that was handheld by the studio. They gave RZA the reins. A lot of people gave him a tremendous amount of trust and it helped out a lot. He gave that same trust to everyone around him and we rose to the occasion.
I’ve been hearing that the first cut of the film ran four hours and there was even the idea to cut it in half and release it in two parts, à la Kill Bill.
We digitally shot [the equivalent of] probably over a million feet of film. When you do that, the first cut is going to be long. Then it had to be chiseled down to the work of art that it is. And when I first saw the four hours, I saw all the amazing things that that we did. But then the final edit, just to put it bluntly, Russell said that he thought it was a couple beats away from perfect. So coming from a guy like him, that’s pretty spectacular.
Did you know Russell Crowe at all before making this?
No, I was a fan since Gladiator. And I was somewhat intimidated by meeting with him and working with him. A lot of what happens [in the film] is him and me fighting side-by-side against the bad guys. I’ve never met a more giving and supporting individual of the people around him. So it was an honor working with him and I learned a tremendous amount.
Since you have a martial arts background, was working with choreographer Corey Yuen a collaborative process?
He had me doing all my own stunts. I was the only actor with that background. There were a couple other guys that had an athletic background. But because I had done other films like Ninja Assassin, they gave me a lot of trust to start off with, which made me kick up my game because there was no rehearsal. But this guy trusted in the fact that I was going to do what was necessary, but I was going to bring my own essence to it. I think that’s a great collaboration when people know you have something different to offer and you can contribute something to what’s already there.
Tell me about your training background and how it affected your experience on this shoot.
I started off in tae kwondo. I boxed in the Golden Gloves in New York as well. I studied kung fu when I was growing up. Ultimately what I train for now is performance related. Seeing how it works with the camera. We’ve all seen UFC—fighting is an ugly thing. It’s not cinematic whatsoever. You have to choreograph it so that it serves the story. I’ve seen plenty of action movies that I’m just not interested in, no matter how good the action is, because it doesn’t contribute to what’s happening with the characters and the plot. So, especially working in China, this took a different type of stamina and endurance because we were going for long, long hours. Sometimes it was 20 hour days.
Where was the movie filmed?
Predominantly we were shooting around Shanghai, in a studio. But then we went into the mountains of Huangshan, about four hours north, to get this beautiful temple scene and that was spectacular. We shot at different locations around there as well. Most of it was in this place called Jungle Village, which was constructed by a fantastic set decorator [Drew Boughton] who worked with the best, including Tony Scott.
The poster and ads prominently feature Quentin Tarantino’s name. How involved with the production was he?
Quentin and RZA have been friends for a long time. RZA was involved in the music of Kill Bill. He also was there on set with Quentin in Beijing when Kill Bill was being made, so he started learning a lot. And Quentin, RZA would tell you, helped build his foundation in filmmaking. So when Quentin saw some of the scenes being put together, he said he was actually intimidated by some of what he saw—by how good it was. So that gives a lot of credibility to what RZA did. RZA was under his [Quentin’s] tutelage throughout the whole time.
You’re currently shooting your next film, Olympus Has Fallen. What can you share about that?
We’re still in production. I’m working with Antoine Fuqua, who directed Training Day. And Gerard Butler is starring. We go head to head. My character is basically [like] Denzel Washington’s character from Training Day, but I take over the White House. Think about that style of character taking over the White House, with that type of I don’t want to say anti-hero, but that sort of storyline. We’ve got a great cast—Aaron Eckhart, Oscar-winner Melissa Leo, and Ashley Judd.
Good luck with everything, Rick. The Man with the Iron Fists looks incredible and I know a lot of people are looking forward to it.
Thanks, man. It looks like a $100 million movie. I never want to sell somebody or set expectations too high, but I think it’s the best thing I ever did.
The Man with the Iron Fists arrives in theaters November 2, 2012. For more information about the movie, visit the official website.