One of the most influential hip-hop producers of all time, Robert Diggs — better known as RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan — has always had one foot firmly planted in the world of cinema. Since rising to prominence with the rap supergroup he founded with his cousins GZA and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, he’s continued on to score films for the likes of Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino, and just last year he made his feature directorial debut with The Man with the Iron Fists.
This week, RZA stars opposite David Belle and Paul Walker in Brick Mansions, a remake of the parkour-flavored 2004 French action film District 13, which was written and produced by Luc Besson. Speaking to RT about his Five Favorite Films, RZA admitted, “it’s very hard for me to say five favorite films, as a man who watched thousands and thousands of movies. But I want to just give you five highly recommended films from me, and the reasons why I recommend them.” Here, then, are RZA’s Five Favorite Films:
The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972; 100% Tomatometer)
Number one is The Godfather. The Godfather, for me, is because it represented family. Even though this family was on the opposite side of the law, and they were criminals at the end of the day, they were family, struggling, an immigrant family in America trying to find their ground. One of the most compelling scenes to me in The Godfather — it happens in Godfather II, actually — is when Vito Corleone is young, and he comes home to his wife, and all he has is an apple. He rubs it, polishes it, and puts it on the table, and they appreciated it. You know, that is very powerful to me. Those films resonated with me throughout the rest of my life because of the family values they instilled.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (The Master Killer) (Liu Chia-liang, 1978; N/A Tomatometer)
The second film that I suggest is called The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, also called The Master Killer. This film moved me so much not only from the martial arts action and the philosophy of Buddhism that was instilled in the movie, but also the overcoming of oppression. Growing up, I knew that I was being oppressed; I knew the black man’s struggle was oppressive in America, you know, reading Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. I knew of our struggle. But I didn’t know that that struggle was all around the world. I didn’t know that struggle was in all time periods. And when I saw this movie, it resonated with me in a way that I was like, “Wow, the government is just oppressing them, coming in and taking their homes, destroying their property. How they gonna win?” And from a single word, which was “Shaolin,” our hero was able to go find himself and find the way to help bring the end to that oppression.
My third film I want to say is highly recommended — and I’m sure many people have seen all these films, but I’m gonna tell you why — is Pulp Fiction. Pulp Fiction was the first film to me that had a descrambling formula of storytelling, accompanied with the power of perfect dialogue. This moved me artistically. I remember watching this film for the first time in the movie theater, and seeing the character get killed, and then seeing the character come back… He was my favorite character, right? It was John Travolta; at the time, I’m a big John Travolta fan, and Sam Jackson was just breaking out on the scene, but I loved him in the movie as well. But to see the story go into its own twists and turns really resonated with me as an artist and kind of related to the way that hip hop tells our hip hop stories. That’s why I suggest that movie. It descrambled the formula of Hollywood storytelling.
A fourth movie I want to recommend is Carmen Jones, with Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte. First of all, the musicality of it, the acting, the dance numbers, you know. Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote a remarkable play [ed. note: only Oscar Hammerstein worked on Carmen Jones], but these people brought it to life in a magical way. And for me, the slang that was used by the females, and the power of a woman in that movie, when she drove a man to madness. [laughs] It was very magical to me. This movie I watched dozens of times; it’s a very long movie, so to watch it dozens of times shows you that I’ve committed some of my life to this film.
And the last movie I want to recommend is a movie that I’m a part of and it’s called American Gangster. I started to say Man with the Iron Fists. [laughs] Man with the Iron Fists because of the power of dreams, to show that a kid who watched movies and loved movies could one day grow and work with his favorite actors, and bring a movie to life. But that’d be number six, alright? Number five would be American Gangster, because not only is it a film that I’m a part of, but the reason I’m so invested into this movie is because Hollywood invested over $100 million into a black man’s story. This doesn’t happen a lot. It’s a story that captured a time in Harlem when drugs were rampant, music was growing, this whole culture was building up. And even though it shows a negative black man, it still showed the same thing The Godfather showed: the power of family. He did it for family. And it also showed the genius of the black criminal mind when it comes to being an entrepreneur and branding. He had a brand. And being a guy that started a brand like Wu-Tang Clan, when I heard how he made his brand Blue Magic and how he tried to protect his brand, and how he had to fight against others who were infringing upon his brand, it really resonated with me. Denzel Washington gave a great performance, Russell Crowe did as well, and that was a big breakout role for me as well, that movie.
Next, RZA talks about Brick Mansions, parkour, and a killer fish recipe.
RT: So let’s talk a little bit about Brick Mansions. I want to go back to something you said about 36th Chamber, which is that you found it interesting because it was a story of oppression. Now, although that theme isn’t as much a focal point of Brick Mansions, it is there, and I’m wondering if that partially drew you to the film.
RZA: Well for me, really, the main draw for this project was I saw the original. Being a Luc Besson fan and watching Taken and all his movies, I wanted to get a chance to work in his world. But parkour is a unique art form that started in the streets of France and has grown to be a worldwide sensation, like hip hop started in the streets of New York with breakdancing. So I was happy to know that parkour was going to be brought to America, and to be a part of it, for me, was something that was like, “Oh, that’s cool.” I read the role for Tremaine Alexander maybe a year and a half before we started filming. And it came on and went off, came on and went off, and when they finally got the green light to do it, finally got the crew together to do it, and they reached out to me to be a part of it, I was very easily convinced to join. It wasn’t a hard sell for me.
First of all, the character… Some of my friends who know about the character said that it’s a great character for us as well. You know, it’s a weird thing in Hollywood that I don’t know yet, because I’m naïve — I’m naïve because of my music thing and me being me, like a self-made person — but it’s a weird thing they say, like, complain about some of the stereotypical things that happen with different actors and different races of actors. Usually, you know, the black guy, he has to be the pimp, or this or this or this. But to me, a character is a character if you accept the character; once you accept the part of being somebody, you have to find that specialty of him in you, or in him. I didn’t find Tremaine, I didn’t understand Tremaine until halfway into filming. I remember the scene. It’s the scene when he walks in with the suit on and the silk scarf, and the girl’s held hostage. That’s when I found him; that exact scene is when I realized who this guy was, and that’s when I embodied him. And you’ll notice, that’s the first time he speaks a little bit more intelligently.
RT: And that scene is the first time you get the sense that he’s not just your everyday thug or crime lord. That’s when his personality comes out. I’ve seen the original, District 13, as well, and what’s interesting is that — not to spoil anything for anyone — your character, Tremaine, meets with a very different fate than the boss in the original. I’m wondering if your interpretation of the character had anything to do with that plot change.
RZA: I wondered why Luc did that, actually. I wondered this myself. When I was reading it, I wondered who was this guy in Luc’s life? Like, who did he meet that made him feel this way? Because when somebody writes, they’re usually writing from experience or something. I didn’t get a chance to ask him why he wrote the character this way. But, that moment is when I realized that I better make sure to deliver him a certain way, so I made the decision that he was this kind of guy. Because I realized his fate, and thought, “How is anybody gonna give a care that that’s his fate? Who will care? Who is he?”
RT: You have to make him somewhat sympathetic.
RZA: Yeah. “Who is this guy that his fate is this?” And I thought okay, he has to be different, and I said to myself, “He’s not the toughest guy here.” Even though he’s tough, he’s not the meanest and ugliest guy. Even though somebody would say he’s ugly; he’s kind of handsome, probably, to some people too. But he’s not the dirtiest; he’s not the biggest. What is it about him? And I tried to find that, and I found it in the middle of filming.
RT: How much input did you have in interpreting your character in specific ways, like your dialogue or Tremaine’s love of cooking, which you also happen to enjoy?
RZA: I’ll say, as an actor, you get to bring some of your elements to the table. But at the same time, some of the elements, you have to take the material and make it into your own. So no, a lot of the material was the material. I got a few lines in there, especially the “Cash rules everything around me,” which I was surprised the director kept. I wasn’t sure if he was going to keep it. The cool thing is that the director, Camille [Delamarre], is a fan of Wu-Tang, and he put certain things in there on his own love. But for me, there was times when I tried to go against the dialogue because of my cadence, and no, he came and corrected me. He’d say, “Luc wants us to say it like this.” And we would say it the proper way, so I had to rehearse it and rehearse it so I could make it feel natural. Some of it wasn’t natural, but I mean, 85-90 percent of it was what was written. Ten percent of me slipped in, and I guess the director liked it because he didn’t edit it out.
RT: I mentioned your love of cooking; what’s your favorite recipe?
RZA: I don’t eat meat any more, but I could hook up a great steak for you. I make the best fish. I make fish, whether you want it steamed or fried. Actually, my favorite thing to do with fish is to wrap it up in foil — first cut up all your seasonings, whatever you want to season with — wrap it up with foil, a little vinegar, butter, and olive oil; close it, then you start the grill. You take it and you sit the fish on the grill for 30 minutes, and you cut holes in the foil so the smoke can seep in. Listen, it’s so good that — I don’t eat fish — my family wakes me up every few weeks and be like, “Can you go make the fish?” [laughs] Like, man, I don’t even know how it tastes any more.
RT: You’re releasing a new Wu-Tang album this year, but only making one physical copy. What, for you, is the ideal scenario you foresee coming out of this unique idea?
RZA: For the Once Upon a Time in Shaolin album, I see us recognizing and accepting the artistic value of our music once again. To return us back to understanding the value of our music. That’s more important.
RT: Can I get an advance copy of that?
RZA: [laughs] Uh, wow…
[Ed. note: I took that as a “no.”]
Brick Mansions opens this weekend in theaters.