Robert Fitzgerald ‘RZA’ Diggs does whatever it takes to complete an artistic endeavour. To this end, the 46-year-old producer, rapper, author, actor, director and screenwriter from Staten Island, New York, has at times had to play the role of dictator. As the mastermind behind the Wu-Tang Clan – one of the most successful and, with nine members, one of the largest groups in the history of hip-hop – he convinced other alpha males to suppress their egos, trust in his vision and fall in line behind him.
The result was their classic 1993 debut, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). RZA also helped launch the solo careers of members GZA, Method Man, Raekwon and Ol’ Dirty Bastard. And when individuals’ success demanded a democratisation of the group and later a tiered economic system based on popularity, he ceded a degree of control to keep the peace and assure productivity.
During the recording of the Wu-Tang’s much-publicised 2015 album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin – of which only one copy was made, bought by pharmaceutical hedge-fund bad boy Martin Shkreli last year for a reported US$2 million – he didn’t tell the other members what they were working on.
Having been a leader and teacher in hip-hop for many years, RZA’s transition to film – he acted in and composed the soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s 1999 cult crime drama Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai, and was the writer-director of 2012 martial-arts flick The Man With The Iron Fists and its 2015 sequel – forced him to become a student, adapt to the collaborative process, and submit to authority as he never had before.
While editing his second directorial effort, musical drama Coco, which stars rapper/singer Azealia Banks in her feature film debut, RZA sat down to explain his creative process and why evolution is necessary for greater success.
THE RED BULLETIN: You have a beautiful home in a quiet, gated community just outside LA. Do you need that kind of environment for creativity’s sake?
RZA: For me, it’s healthy. It’s like going in the water. You could get in the water, you could swim, but you’ve got to get out and dry off. You’ve got to relax those muscles. All my homes are like that. If you go back east, I live in the woods, five acres, off the road. On Halloween, kids don’t come down the road, because it’s kind of scary. You’ve got to detach yourself in order to reattach. I don’t mind going out, getting wild, crazy, zoning in, doing the Wu-Tang tours, working hard on my latest movie… As long as I can come home, detach, turn a little fire on, sit down, I’m ready for the next day. Time is consumed by your job. But, to me, even if a man can give himself an hour a day, he’s benefiting.
If you’re unable to physically isolate yourself from the chaos of a movie set or tour, how do you escape mentally?
Anything you can do on a macro level, you can do on a micro level. I came to a realisation, probably in the midst of being trapped in a jail cell. Even within that cell, that world, my island had to become myself. It had to become a micro island. I had to enjoy my personal self and leave everything else. I would advocate this: your first heaven is your body; your second heaven would maybe be your family, your wife and your children; and then that would extend to the rest of the family you have, then to your home, to your community, to your county, to your country.
The aim is to make this whole world a heaven, but it starts with yourself. Here’s an example for you: I got to the airport late for a first-class flight to Hong Kong and they’d given up my seat. The only seat remaining was a middle seat in between two people, and one person had a little weight on them. If I wanted to get there on time for this gig, I had to take this seat. I had to sit there and just leave [my body] because, for the first 20 minutes, there was no way I could get comfortable. I couldn’t go to sleep; I was already tired. I was like, “Man, I’ve just got to zone in, go into my mind, make a movie in there.”
How have you brought that approach to the film set?
When I did Iron Fists, there was a lot of confusion going on. Eighty percent of my crew didn’t speak English, and I was bringing in some of the biggest players from Hollywood: Quentin Tarantino, Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, Daniel Wu, Eli Roth. You’ve got all these people on set and I’m the man who has to guide it. Some of the talent weren’t used to how they work [in China]. When I yelled “Cut”, 10 [crew members] would come up and start doing all kinds of things. I recall Russell saying, “Get away from me!” I had to tell him, “No, bro. You’ve got to just close your eyes and relax. This is what they do. This is part of the process. Like a massage, almost. You’ve got to just let them lead it.” So that’s the sense of finding the creativity in chaos, organising chaos. I like to say that Wu-Tang seemed chaotic, but there was a common thread to it. I can apply that to film. Of course, it’s not as easy… it’s collaborative.
In the Wu, you’re known as the abbot, the teacher and the leader. In film, you had to be a student and defer to others. How do you balance those two roles?
Popa Wu [an affiliate and mentor of the group] used to always say that a good listener is a good learner. Popa Wu was one of the older brothers. There was something they gave us when we were young, called ‘The Art of Listening’. It had seven precepts and concepts that you should practise and learn. One of them was to let another man’s wisdom prevail if your wisdom is not strong in that field.
I read that when I was probably 16 years old, and I took it as fact. I still tell my son the same thing: there’s always someone among you who’s the best. At any given moment, you could be the student, and at any given moment, you could be the teacher… The wise man, if he’s wise, is going to detect the wisdom. You’ve got to take heed. I’ve been fortunate to have great people give me wisdom in the film world. In music, I had to almost make up the path, but in film it’s been paved by a lot of great minds.
I was fortunate to be on the set of Kill Bill [Vol 1] and watch how Quentin Tarantino works, how the set works. When I did American Gangster [he played the part of New York detective Moses Jones], Ridley Scott displayed to me what I coined “multi-vision”: multiple cameras running at the same time, yet he’s conscious of what each camera is doing – even more so than the people who were watching the monitors.
How difficult was it to accept someone’s artistic authority over you?
Some lessons are hard lessons. When I was the composer on Kill Bill, that was the first time in music that somebody told me what I [produced] wasn’t [good enough]. Quentin was like, “Nah, Bobby. I don’t think so.” So I tried it again. Twice. “Nah, that’s not it.” I was discouraged. I didn’t know what the f–k he wanted. But I came in the next day with a little foundation that I’d started at home, and I continued building on it. Quentin’s editing room was maybe two doors down [the corridor], but he could still hear the music, and he busted in. “That’s it! Keep going in that direction!” That’s when I realised – he’s the director and he knows what he wants; I’m here to facilitate his vision. Hopefully our vision as artists is the same, but if not, I have to be willing to sacrifice my vision, because at the end of the day, it’s going to say “Directed by Quentin Tarantino” in the credits. That was one of my first lessons in submitting to authority. You have to accept the fact that it’s all about what’s best for the film, and you have to give your all to improving it.
How did your experiences as a member of the Wu-Tang Clan prepare you for your role as film director?
I’ve been blessed working with Wu-Tang for so many years, with all the different personalities and all the different ways I had to find solutions to get what we needed. So many big egos, not a bunch of followers. So, no matter what situation I get in, I’m able to find my zone. And what that means is, I’m not the star on the field every time. That’s something I’m able to accept in the film world and the music world. My experience with Wu-Tang has been beneficial to learning how to talk about and translate different ideas to people at a high level.
How did that come into play on the set while directing Azealia Banks in your new film, Coco?
Azealia is looked at as a badass right now, but she really submitted herself to this role. She has a vulnerability that she hides, and I thought that I could get it out in the film. I think I did that. Being an artist, I know the things that make us excited. I used that philosophy – I’m not going to say it was trick knowledge, but that kind of psychology. I know that we do what we do because we appreciate the attention we get for doing it. You could make all the records you want, but there is no bigger medium of appreciation than the movie. When I was working with Azealia on Coco, I said to her, “Everything you give me is money in the bank.” That’s my slang to her. “Everything you give to me, it’s just putting more money in this bank, and I’m going to make it worth something for you.” She trusted me. The talent has got to trust you.
Speaking of trust, when you were recording the secret Wu-Tang album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, neither the other members nor affiliated artists were told what they were working on. Why?
A few people have voiced opinions as if they were deceived, and I could understand that. But, on the business side, you were compensated for your time and for your work. Whatever we were going to do with it really was not your concern. I wish I didn’t have to do it that way, but I had to because, especially in the last 10 years, look how much information comes out [prematurely]. They destroyed 8 Diagrams before the fans even had a chance to hear it [Raekwon and Ghostface Killah were publicly critical of the Wu-Tang Clan’s 2007 album prior to its release], so when you hear it, you’re already biased. Why would I take a risk like that [again]? I’m not taking a risk like that.
You’re an accomplished chess player and have a Zen approach to winning and losing chess games. Are you equally Zen when it comes to your creative work?
Creativity and art is actually not a game that’s played to win. In the beginning, I was playing to win. Protect Ya Neck – it doesn’t get any clearer than that. But a point came when I realised I didn’t have to win when creating art. I had to create. And I had that revelation before I got to Hollywood. In creativity, I don’t think there are any bad decisions. You never know who the creation will inspire, or where it’s going to end up. Even a stupid movie you may never watch, like Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes or whatever, has something in it for that viewer. Tarantino helped me discover that. I say: just create and don’t be attached to it.
So, what would be your definition of creative success?
To me, creative success is completion. You’ve got to complete the task. Of course, if we have lucrative success, that means you could always do it again. Critical success means your peers actually respected all the work you put into that sh-t. When your critics say, “That was a great piece of art and it moved the community,” that’s big. I would choose something lucrative over praise, because it’s a business. But I’d choose completion over money.