Editor’s note: Every Friday, HLN brings you the "My First Time" series. It explores the first time your favorite celebrities did something significant or memorable (so get your mind out of the gutter!).
In this installment, actor and musician RZA (of the Wu-Tang Clan fame) talks about his directorial debut with “The Man with the Iron Fists"-- a martial arts film starring Lucy Liu, Russell Crowe and RZA himself -- and opens up about why a film he saw as a teenager still inspires him today.
HLN: When did you become interested in kung fu films?
RZA: I remember it clearly: I was 9 years old, and my aunt and my cousins took me to a movie theater on Staten Island. It had a double feature of martial arts films. One was Bruce Lee’s “Fury of the Dragon,” and the other was Jim Kelly’s “Black Samurai.” Back then, it was mostly the violence and the action that attracted me, but the first time that I saw the kung fu movie for its deeper meaning was a movie called “The 36 Chamber,” and I was between 13-14 years old.
HLN: What was the deeper meaning that drew you to the film?
RZA: There was a struggle. The film was based on a character who was a student in college, learning new ideas, yet the government was suppressing those ideas and considered all the students rebels. They burned the school, killed his family, and he had to retreat, so the oppression was there and that resonated with me. He retreated to a place called Shaolin and became a monk. He went to a chamber that was all about just philosophy. He didn’t want to learn philosophy — he wanted to learn how to fight. But I think I caught some of the philosophy. “Without wisdom, there is no game” was one of the lines in the film. This particular character wanted to make a new chamber, and the 36th chamber became the world. And based on the story of that monk, this is how kung fu is still surviving today: Because he took it outside the temple walls to the world. And that resonated with me.
HLN: Do you still take those lessons to heart today?
RZA: Definitely! With the Wu-Tang Clan, we brought our Staten Island style and our personalities to the world. We helped inspire a generation of people and even the craft of hip hop that was starting to dwindle a little bit. We breathed life back into it. And now as a filmmaker, I still have the idea of taking or bringing some of the Asian cultures, the hip hop culture and the American sensibility to Hollywood and to the world.
HLN: So that movie you saw as a teenager, “The 36th Chamber,” still resonates with you — is that what inspired you to make “The Man with the Iron Fists?”
RZA: In my own way, I’m continuing on building the 36th chamber. Actually, that particular actor who played the monk character is in my film. His name is Gordon Liu, and he was in “Kill Bill” as the old man with the white hair, so I met him back then with Quentin Tarantino. I’ve hired him for this film, and he’s playing a character very similar to the one he played in the movie that first inspired me.
HLN: Have you ever traveled to Asia?
RZA: I actually went to Shaolin temple. And I stood in the spot where the monks do the stomps — their stance practice. They’ve been doing it for so long that the ground has dents in it. And I stood there and did the training that they did.
HLN: So you actually went through the training?
RZA: I didn’t go through all the training! That training is rigorous, but I did train in that style. It was pretty cool — pretty enlightening for me, too.
HLN: How much of a role does music play in this film?
RZA: Music played a big role in the film. Originally, I didn’t want to score this film — I had enough hats to wear. I asked the studio who we were going to hire to score the film, and they said, “You, buddy!” And even when I wrote the screenplay, I wrote it with music playing. Music is such a big part of my life. Sometimes, when I’m writing, it’s to the rhythm of music. It just helps me be more fluid and more lyrical with my words and ideas.
HLN: What music was playing when you were writing?
RZA: I played things from Stevie Wonder and Barry White to Elton John and this album called "Litany". I found it when I was in Turkey, where a Greek and a Turkish artist got together with their respective instruments and made this beautiful, classical type of album. I could listen to it for hours! So my “Man with the Iron Fists” playlist was pretty crazy, pretty diverse.
HLN: Where do you go from here? Do you feel like you’ve done it all?
RZA: No, I think this is the beginning of something exciting and new for me. When I first made the album “36 Chambers,” I brought Wu-Tang Clan into the world and I was able to make five back-to-back No. 1 albums. I want to do the same with film. I have the same energy, I feel the same enthusiasm that I had back then, and I feel that my first film is as good as my first album. Now, I know there are a lot of films out there, but I think I’ll at least get the top something with this film, because it’s very unique and I’m very proud of it.