Robert Fitzgerald “RZA” Diggs does whatever it takes to finish an artistic endeavor. To that end, the 46-year-old producer, rapper, author, actor, screenwriter and director from Staten Island has at times been a dictator. He masterminded the Wu-Tang Clan, one of the most successful—and with nine members, one of the largest—rap groups in history, by convincing other alpha males to suppress their egos, trust his vision and fall in line behind him. The result was the group’s classic 1993 debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). He helped launch the solo careers of members GZA, Method Man, Raekwon and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and when their individual success demanded a democratization of the group, and a tiered economic system based on popularity, RZA ceded some control to keep the peace and assure productivity.
From 2007 to 2014, he kept the production of the group’s one-of-a-kind album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, under wraps by not telling the members what they were recording. (Last year Martin Shkreli, the infamous pharmaceutical CEO accused of federal securities fraud, bought the only copy at auction for a reported $2 million.)
In the late 1990s, RZA’s foray into film forced him to become a student of the craft. For his first role as a composer and actor, in Jim Jarmusch’s 1999 cult-classic crime drama Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, RZA had to learn to collaborate and submit to authority as he never had before. After spending a decade taking roles on other people’s projects, RZA took the lead as the writer, director and star of the 2012 martial arts film The Man with the Iron Fists, alongside Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu.
While putting the final touches on his second directorial effort, Coco, starring rapper-singer Azealia Banks in her feature-film debut, RZA sat down to explain his creative process and why adaptation is necessary for artistic survival—and prosperity.
THE RED BULLETIN: You’ve got a beautiful home just outside L.A. in a peaceful gated community. Do you need that kind of environment to be creative?
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, whatever it is—the Wu-Tang tours, working hard on my latest movie. As long as I 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 could do on a macro level you could do on a micro level. I came to a realization, 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 away from myself. 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 out to the rest of the family you have, and then that could go to your home, to your community, to your county, to your country.
The strive is to make this whole world a Heaven. That’s the aim, but it starts first with yourself. Here’s an example for you: First-class flight to Hong Kong, I got to the airport late 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 my mind.”
How have you brought that approach to the 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 that 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 on them 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 just 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, organizing 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 leader. In film, you’ve had to be a student and defer to others. How do you balance those two roles?
Popa Wu used to always say that a good listener is a good learner. Popa Wu was one of the older brothers. There was a text they gave us when we were young called “The Art of Listening.” It had seven precepts and concepts that you should practice 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 that 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. I watched how Quentin Tarantino works, I watched how the set works. When I did American Gangster, Ridley Scott displayed to me what I coined “multi- vision.” Multiple cameras running at the same time, but yet he’s conscious of what each camera’s doing—even more so than the people who were watching the monitors.
How difficult was it to accept someone having 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.” I tried it again. Twice. “Nah, that’s not it.” I was discouraged. I didn’t know what the f*ck he wanted. But I came in the next day and I had a little foundation that I started at home and I was building on it. Quentin’s editing room was maybe two doors down, but you could still hear the music. He busted in: “That’s it! Keep going that direction!” That’s when I realized he’s the director and he knows what he wants, and 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. At the end of the day, it’s going to say “Directed by Quentin Tarantino” on 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 that film.
How did your experiences with the Wu prepare you to direct?
I’ve been blessed with working with Wu-Tang for so many years, with all the different personalities and in 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. That preparation of the crew has been beneficial for me in knowing how to talk about and translate different ideas to people at a high level.
How did that come into play while directing Azealia Banks in Coco?
She’s 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. 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’s no bigger medium of appreciation than the movie. When I was working with Azealia, I said, “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 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, on the secret album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, other members and affiliated artists didn’t know 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, so when you hear it, you’re already biased. So why would I take a risk like that? I’m not taking a risk like that.
You’re a talented chess player and have a Zen approach to winning and losing games. Are you equally Zen about 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 your neck— it doesn’t get any clearer than that. But a point came when I realized 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 that you may never watch—Attack of the Killer Tomatoes— has something in it for that viewer. Tarantino helped me discover that. Because of that I say just create and don’t be attached to it.
So, what is creative success for you then?
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 that your peers actually respected all that work that you put into that shit. 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.