SXSW Keynote: RZA discusses making his albums ‘audio films’

Monday morning at the Vimeo theater, Wu-tang producer, movie director and all-around cultural force the RZA told the assembled that his first film experience was “Star Wars,” his second was “The Swarm” and the third was a grindhouse double-feature of “Fury of the Dragon” and “Black Samurai.”

The RZA at his SXSW keynote speech

The RZA at his SXSW keynote speech

No wonder that first volley of Wu-Tang and member solo albums sound the way they do: the wobbly murk of off-speed soundtracks, film samples, grimy drums.

In 45 minute speech, the 45-year old RZA, born Robert Fitzgerald Diggs, traced his career from young film fan to game-changing hip-hop producer to director  to guy who has been studying Woody Allen scripts since the man has won three Oscars  (RZA: “I try not to look at his personal life”).

“Film can allow you to escape your reality,” he said. All of the experiences that could be found at  42nd St. theaters (“one guy would be sniffin’ glue, one would be smokin’ weed”) fed into his love of movies.  “Movies helped me as an individual and still serve as therapy for a lot of us.”

With the early Wu-Tang albums, RZA said he strove to make albums that reflected his idea of what a film would be. “’36 Chambers’ was an “audio film,” as were albums such as Method Man’s “Tical,” GZA’s “Liquid Swords” and Raekwon’s “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.”

A reference to John Woo’s “The Killer” on one album prompted a record executive to encourage RZA to contact the Hong Kong action master.

When the two ate,  RZA expressed a desire to remake “Bullet in the Head.” Woo told him to watch “Mean Streats” instead and be inspired the same was Woo was. (“The Killer” owes a ton to “Mean Streets.”)
“John was the first person from the film world who took the time to share his art,” RZA said.

A few more highlights

* RZA said that he and Jim Jarmusch got in contact as they shared a — how to put this — retailer of certain substances. “We met, smoked one and he told me he wanted me to be the composer for ‘Ghost Dog.” (Also, his favorite Jarmusch film is “Dead Man!”)

* RZA is a huge Bill Conti fan and “Rocky” was his seventh film.

* He met Harvey Weinstein when the latter brought “Iron Monkey” to the States. This led RZA to a relationship with Tarantino, under whose wing RZA went around the time of “Kill Bill.” “I humbled myself (to Tarantino) and said I would be your student, your apprentice,” RZA said. “I want to learn the process of making film.

* RZA said he spent six years hanging around Tarantino shoots, including here in Austin for “Death Proof.” (RZA: “People would say, ‘What’s RZA doing here?’ ‘Oh, he’s just learning.'”)

* When RZA directed “The Man With the Iron Fists,” Tarantino visited the set and told him that he had graduated.

* Then again, when he turned in a three-hour cut, producer Eli Roth hacked it down to 75 minutes. When RZA protested, Roth said, “Now you have a streamlined (version), now you fill it in.” (It ended up at 95 minutes; I remain curious about the three-hour version.)

* RZA’s three P’s of film-making: Persistence, persuasion, preparedness. “Our pre-production process (for ‘Iron Fists’) was 14 weeks,” RZA said. “We shot it in nine weeks and didn’t miss a day.”

*His biggest point? “Art is a wavelength” from comic books to music to movies. “Creativity is just a wavelength; you take that same music and put it through any instrument.”


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