Back in 2012, The Man with the Iron Fists was released in theaters to much acclaim from kung fu action movie fans. Written, directed, and starring RZA, the de facto leader of the best hip hop group in the world, Wu-Tang Clan, it was his love letter to the Shaw Brothers and kung fu action films of old. On April 14th, the sequel is being released on Blu-Ray, DVD, and HD Digital from Universal Studios, with RZA returning as Thaddeus, the legendary blacksmith with fists of iron, and Roel Reiné (Death Race 2) taking over directing duties. Reiné and RZA were gracious enough to take time out of their busy schedules and answer a few of my questions about the sequel via telephone.
Cameron Hatheway: You seem to be the go-to director for action-packed sequels. How do you walk that fine line of keeping the spirit of the previous film true, while bringing your own fresh take on it?
Roel Reiné: I think for every movie it's different. For The Man with the Iron Fists 2 I really wanted to leave the world as it was, and the style of movie making. And we honored what was set down by RZA, but then I wanted to add to that to give it a little bit more story, give different kinds of fighting, I wanted to extend the different style of kung fu that we put in the movie. So it's a balance between keeping what is there, and adding stuff to it with my own stuff. But of course RZA wrote the script, he acts in it, and he did the music, so it's his movie as well, so he was also there to serve his world, his vision, and to put it on film.
CH: What was the collaboration process like with RZA? Were you both happy with the final result?
RR: Yes, we are very happy with the final result, it was a lot of fun. He wrote a script, which was a treatment style script, and then we brought in a writer and worked together, the three of us. And then during the whole preproduction RZA was a very busy guy, so during the preproduction I always sent him photos of wardrobe, and casting, bits of readings that I did with actors in Hong Kong, and I always asked him what he thought. All the directorial decisions, I really used him as a producer, and all the things I decided and what I wanted to do he really agreed on. He was very supportive to me in everything that I wanted to do.
When we shot the movie in Thailand with Seng, the local stunt coordinator and fight choreographer, we designed all the fights and filmed little clips of them, showed them to RZA, and he was very happy. So when he came on the set, I think he was mainly happy that he didn't need to direct, and he could really focus on his acting and all the fighting. It was a lot of fun to work with him because he was very respectful of what I wanted from him. He never stepped in, he never had any directorial remarks—he was really an actor on the set and producer of the set, and he was great to work with. In the end we did the editing together and then he did the music, so absolutely also resourceful.
CH: Speaking of fight scenes, how far in advance were some of the more complex fight scenes choreographed?
RR: A month or two before. The fight sequences are very complicated, there are many of them in the movie. I think we have more fights in this movie than in the first Man with the Iron Fists. And some of them are very complicated because there's just two guys doing like 80 to 100 moves. And I like old classic kung fu style movies, so I do big wide shots so I can see the whole thing, and it was a harder design process.
CH: What was the most challenging part of the production for The Man with the Iron Fists 2?
RR: It's always budget. These movies are made for way less budget than the originals, so it's always a challenge to maximize the money that you have and make it look as good as the original. In my Death Race movies, I have 10% of the original Death Race budget [Note: the original Death Race budget was $45 million]. So it's a massive difference and I want to make the movie as cool and as great looking as the original, so that's the biggest challenge. The same goes with The Man with the Iron Fists 2; spending the money, shooting in Thailand. Shooting in Thailand is easy, it's a really cool place to make movies. I shot many movies there also, I did four movies there, so I have a crew I use on all these movies and they're really good. The Thai crew is wonderful. But it's still a tight schedule, you don't have massive amounts of time, and shooting good fighting [sequences] costs time.
CH: The caves the miners work in look beautiful. Were those scenes filmed on location in Thailand?
RR: Yes, and they are such beautiful caves. We shot everything around Chiang Mai, and in northern Chiang Mai there are these beautiful caves and a river runs through it. I visited as a tourist, and I always was planning to do something in a movie there, but I never had the budget for it. And then when I read the script for the first time, and we were talking about shooting the miners I knew I had to go to these caves, because they were so spectacular. So we went there, and it was a very tough shoot because it was so big and you need to bring everything in by hand; the camera and the equipment, then you had to carry it up the mountain with a staircase. It's a big majestic nightmare, but the results are beautiful.
RR: Yes, especially the end [sequence]. I really wanted to make a big, big battle scene. The first Man with the Iron Fists was very contained, with beautiful fights inside of the brothel, inside the bamboo forest. So it was a contained fight and I wanted to extend it a little bit, so I wanted to end it with a big fight where we see hundreds of people fighting with kung fu with each other, while our main heroes are fighting with the villains. We shot it over a period of three days, with huge explosions and girls with arrows shooting, all this rice paddy in this old village, RZA is fighting on this old rooftop, and this old rooftop collapses, and it's spectacular. And Dustin [Nguyen] is fighting with the main villain at this waterfall that's also at this field, it's a massive climactic battle and I'm really proud of it.
CH: What was it like directing Dustin Nguyen, Carl Ng ("ing"), and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa?
RR: Everybody was so into it, and that's what I really liked. Everybody took it so seriously, and I did as well. Yes you make a genre movie, and you need to have fun because it's a genre movie, but we took the characters very seriously—the drama, the emotion of everybody. Dustin is just a wonderful actor, such a talented guy, and he's a really good fighter as well, and he's also a director! He's directed his own movie, so it was really a blast to work with him, and he had such a dedication and such a concentration. For his character, he's kind of a hidden secret weapon, so he cannot show to the world that he's a really good fighter. In the beginning of the movie he cannot fight, but he fights in a silent way, and later in the movie we see his true talent is fighting. So it was a blast to work with these people, all of them. I've always been a big fan of Tagawa. I always saw him in a lot of movies in the early days, so when I read the script I was like, "Oh he should be the Mayor! Let's ask him." So we asked him, and he was available, so it was lucky.
CH: Your new film Admiral is a hit in the Netherlands, and is currently seeking distribution in the U.S. What was it like going from kung-fu action movie to a period piece?
RR: And also shooting back to back! I shot The Man with the Iron Fists 2 back in February of last year, and then I shot the Admiral movie in June and July, right after it. I love both. To me, the more diversity in the movies that I can make, the more fun it is. And for me when shooting a movie, we are really well prepared, and I was really well prepared for the Admiral movie that was like, 2-3 years of development, casting, and location scouting. So that movie was already ready to go when I shot The Man with the Iron Fists 2. And when I came off The Man with the Iron Fists 2 I was editing it in Amsterdam while I was working on the Admiral movie. So it was very natural, very easy to bring those two projects together.
CH: What's the next project you're currently working on?
RR: That's always the big question, eh? I'll probably go back to Thailand for another movie shooting in September, but I cannot tell you what title it is. It's a little secret, and also for Universal. And then I'm working on a big epic movie in the Netherlands. It's kind of a Braveheart movie that we're going to shoot next year. So yeah, big projects.
RZA: Well we did write a whole story, and a whole lifetime for the characters, so we always thought to continue the stories, but you never know what's going to happen. I wasn't sure, but we definitely wrote a lot of material, and brought to life Thaddeus and all the characters that were in the film. They all have a very unique history.
CH: During the first film you were the writer, director, star, and composer, and for the second film you've allowed Roel Reiné to take over the director's chair. Did you feel like a weight was lifted off your shoulders with that decision?
RZA: Yeah, I could say that in a sense that especially that in my life was pretty hectic at the time anyway. Roel gave another element to the franchise shall we say, and he brought another layer of expression of the character that I think I needed. He allowed the character and me to breathe a little more. The movie takes place five years later from part one, and I think being that I didn't have to worry about some of the elements of the other characters, that my character was able to breathe more, you could see that he's not the same guy you had met. He's a little further down the line than the guy we met in part one.
CH: So what was your training regimen like leading up to the movies, and how much martial arts training did you endure? Do you know Tiger Style?
RZA: Tiger Style is a style that I study, yes sir. No it is! And that's the style I've brought to the character. There's another form that I think the character could use, the Mantis, and in the original screenplay we wrote for this one we thought about incorporating the Mantis style to it. But we decided to let the other characters use it.
RZA: Man, too many nuggets! Tarantino's been a great mentor over the years, I've learned so much from him. The one thing he did tell me about another Iron Fists [movie] we talked about, he did say, "This time, don't make too many characters. Limit the characters, don't tell the story of all the characters," so in this one there's not a lot of characters, so there's not five or six different things to follow. We got it simplified down to the villain, to the hero, we have Thaddeus coming in as the element that changes the dynamic of the whole village. He comes in town more as a new element that changes the dynamic of the whole thing. I think that advice from Tarantino was helpful for me, because I think broad and big. But there's a saying in the House of Hagakure that you don't have to send a thousand ninjas to attack, just send one. Sometimes one is better than a thousand.
CH: With the sequel, there are new villains and challenges for the Blacksmith to face. At the same time, the legends of his deeds in Jungle City have traveled far and wide. Will his notoriety come back and potentially bite him?
RZA: Yeah I think what he learns to be, there was no direct challenge to him in a certain way, but a challenge of itself. You don't have what he has I guess; his experience in life, these weapons, the ability to make other weapons, the ability to help. You can't stop when you have the ability to help. Help if you can help. So the quote at the end of the movie is relevant: "When there's iron, there's rust. But if the iron is being used, it won't rust," so I think now Thaddeus will become more useful. He might be more proactive than reactive. I think if the character lives on, he'll learn to be proactive.
CH: Speaking of not letting any iron rust, can we expect to see a third film in the near future? Will the Blacksmith ever return home to America?
RZA: I don't know, I'm sure that he'd love to. I wonder how he'll get through customs with those iron fists! [Laughter] Universal first of all, I thank them for keeping this story alive and keeping this character alive, it's something that took me a long time to develop, I think seven years of development before we made the first film, and I'm happy to continue to have this character exist. Sometimes your character becomes like a psychological baby of yours, and to see them grow and to see them being nurtured is I think any creator's dream. You look at Stan Lee and Spider-Man, and to see that years later we're still learning lessons from Spider-Man. In the new Spider-Man they have science, and genetics, and we can go watch and learn different things from him. So if Thaddeus continues to live on and has bits of philosophy in his system and bits of courage come through, it'd be a great thing.
CH: Did you have a certain scene or sequence that you really enjoyed filming?
RZA: My favorite sequence—first of all I had a great time working with Cary, I think he adds a lot of energy. I love the scene when Li Kung and the Blacksmith are in the Blacksmith's shop, and Li Kung asks him to make the weapons. Once that scene happened, that was probably the third or fourth day shooting, that's when it became a movie to me. That's when it sunk in that Thaddeus is back, the actors are back, we're making this movie. What Thaddeus thought was beginning to be what I thought. And my last favorite scene on the acting side was when I'm busting through the big wooden pillars that bring the roof down. Originally it was supposed to be one pillar, but I kind of demanded—I guess I sort of used my producer power I guess—that no, he would have knocked down two of them! That was kind of fun for me.
RZA: [Laughter] Here's to the Wu! I'm just The Abbot, you know what I mean? I could get an Oscar, and of course they'd be proud of me, and I'm also proud of them, but still I'm just The Abbot. They'll still come into my house, take a shit, and not even flush the toilet! [Laughter] I see it and say "Who the fuck just did that?!" Anyway, I'm still just their brother.
CH: Do you ever wear the iron gauntlets on stage when you perform? It would definitely beat wearing a chain any day I would think.
RZA: Wow, that's actually a cool idea that I never thought of doing! That's a cool idea. I don't know, that may be a little ego. That might be an ego-driven thing, what I want with ego sometime, right? Sometime.
CH: If I ask you really nicely, could you hook me up with a copy of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin? I won't tell anybody.
RZA: [Laughter] Well, you know, I would hate to say "No," but on that one, I'll have to decline.
While RZA couldn't hook me up with a copy of the album, he did hook me up with an exclusive scoop.
RZA: So I'm going to start my next film as a director. It's going to be with Lionsgate, so look out for another film by me behind the camera.
CH: Can you tell me if it's going to be more kung fu, or is it something completely different for you?
RZA: Let me give you my working title—it's called "Coco." So now I'm going to call my agent Cameron and tell him that I told Cameron, and he can't get mad because I told Cameron! [Laughter]
Special thanks to Roel and RZA for taking time out of their busy schedules to answer my questions, and additional thanks to Darren Olcsvary and Rebecca Wolfson for helping put the interviews together.
The Man with the Iron Fists 2 will be available to purchase on Blu-Ray, DVD, and HD Digital April 14th from Universal Studios. You can follow Roel Reiné on Twitter or find out more about his upcoming projects on his website, and you can do the same for RZA on his Twitter and website as well.