Rapper/music producer turned filmmaker RZA ran into a lot of obstacles while shooting his explosion of martial-arts madness, The Man With the Iron Fists -- which opens Nov. 2 -- on location in Shanghai.
But it wasn't the language barrier, the sense of isolation, the pressure to come in under budget on his first film, or working with the notoriously volatile Russell Crowe or kung-fu champ Cung Le that most bedeviled him. It was the food.
"I've had better Chinese food in Brooklyn," says the New York native by phone. "All the things that we eat, they don't exist on their menu. One of my producers said he had better Chinese food in Vegas."
But before Sinophiles start pointing, laughing and talking about clueless Americans, it has to be said that RZA -- born Robert Fitzgerald Diggs-- felt like he was coming to his spiritual home when he finally landed in China.
RZA was one of the founding members of the Asian-influenced hip-hop crew Wu-Tang Clan, a rolling thunder of rhymes and rhythm that also launched the careers of his cousins GZA and the late Ol' Dirty Bastard, and Method Man, Ghostface Killah and Raekwon.
Wu-Tang Clan reveled in the imagery of Chinese pop culture. Its name was lifted from the 1983 Hong Kong film Shaolin and Wu-Tang. One of Wu-Tang's classic albums, Enter the Wu-Tang 36 Chambers, was named in honor of another film, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, from 1978. RZA even named his 2010 memoir The Tao of Wu.
"The Asian culture has given me a lot over the years and for me to go there -- and give some of the old actors I used to watch some jobs -- it was a blessing for me to do that," he says.
The plot ingredients for The Man With the Iron Fists -- an anonymous blacksmith (played by RZA) has to defend his village from being overrun by bandits and barbarians like Crowe's character, Jackknife -- has been simmering in RZA's imagination for a long time.
"The idea came up a few years ago. I was always talking about my stories, so I was advised to write it down," RZA says. "I took it to some producers, and they felt the screenplay wasn't all the way there."
That was when he called on his director/writer/actor friend Eli Roth (Hostel) to help him get the script into shape. Roth is listed as a co-writer and co-producer on the $15 million film. "Once we got it, we took it to Quentin [Tarantino, who also signed on as a producer], and he gave it his blessing," RZA says.
Getting Crowe turned out to be not that big of a deal. "During the writing of it, I'd met him and would see him a few other times after that. We became buddies. ... I pitched the idea to him. He said he was interested but wasn't sure. I was lucky to get a tour in Australia and took some time off to talk with him. He started to believe in what I had. Eight months later, he was in."
Whatever the reaction of Asian action movie fans to The Man With the Iron Fists, it's already a groundbreaker. It's rare that an African-American director -- especially a novice -- gets to helm a major Hollywood film set amid a culture so far from his own.
"My movies are important for hip-hop," he declares. "Hip-hop on film has been represented at this level by DMX, who had a good run. Will Smith and Ice Cube are icons. But for someone that's pure hip-hop like myself, we have to have a hand in the film world and this is a step towards that. Usually, the films we make are about our neighborhoods -- Friday, Barbershop. But to have one like this, set in this imaginary world, it just adds to the Wu-Tang saga."
RZA says the film's backers -- Universal is distributing in the U.S. -- cared less about skin color and more about whether he was going to bring in the film at budget, which he says he did.
"When I brought the film back, they saw the final results and said, 'He gave us what he promised,'" says RZA, who now plans to concentrate on films. "I hear that's rare in Hollywood. I didn't know it but maybe 1 out of 10 do it that way."
Maybe RZA didn't break the budget because he was eager to get home. Though he has nothing but praise for his Chinese crew, he found working in Shanghai frustrating for reasons beyond the cuisine.
"It was a personal challenge, very lonely. There are no black brothers in China and no white brothers, either," he says with a laugh. "I was in the elevator and saw a random white guy, we shook hands and started talking. I couldn't talk to anyone. I didn't know what to say. I couldn't say anything to girls."