Even though The Man With the Iron Fists is billed as a “Quentin Tarantino Presents” project, Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel, Hostel 2) and RZA are the clear creative forces behind the film. They wrote the project together (based on an original story by RZA), working for years to create the world and mythology of the film. As a producer, Roth was on the film’s set in China every day helping RZA through his directorial debut.
In the film, “Since his arrival in China’s Jungle Village, the town’s blacksmith (RZA) has been forced by radical tribal factions to create elaborate tools of destruction. When the clans’ brewing war boils over, the stranger channels an ancient energy to transform himself into a human weapon. As he fights alongside iconic heroes and against soulless villains, one man must harness this power to become savior of his adopted people.”
I recently hopped on the phone with Roth and we discussed his partnership with RZA, building the world of Iron Fists, working with Russell Crowe and avoiding fight fatigue. In regard to his own work as a director, we talked about his evolution and what we can expect from The Green Inferno.
You developed the screenplay with RZA, how did you start working together on this?
RZA and I first met on New Year’s Eve in Iceland with Tarantino in 2005/2006 about a week before the first Hostel came out. And RZA and I actually got booked on the flight home to LA together. And on the way back, we got snowed in in Boston. So we went to my parents’ house and my Mom actually cooked us dinner. I called and was like, “Mom, I’m bringing the RZA.”
And after that, we just kind of had this bond between us. So when we flew from Boston to LA he told me the entire story for The Man With The Iron Fists. And I was like, “man, if I’m ever in a position of power I’d like to help him make that movie.” And at the time there were other people attached and we didn’t do anything.
And I guess it was after Hostel 2 in 2007 I told him, “we should really get serious about making this movie. I really want to do it. But we have to really work out the story and the script.” And we just started talking about it over a period of about a year and a half and really worked on it.
Other things came up obviously. Inglourious Basterds for me and he had to tour, but we always took the time to work on the movie. And finally after Basterds we really sat down to finish it. And we just talked through every character, every weapon and every detail. Both of us love Star Wars and what we love about it is the specificity of the world and universe. So we knew if we were really going to create Jungle Village and make a really fantasy movie we had to do what George Lucas, Peter Jackson and James Cameron do – which is think through everything. The Blacksmith’s shop, weapons, costumes, where the tribes lived. And that was part of the fun, not just thinking about the scares and the kill scenes but constructing this world so that, even if you took the fights out, you’d still have a fun movie.
That’s one of the things I really enjoyed. I’m not a huge Kung-Fu fan but I was pretty easily swept up in this. The worlds and clans were completely defined.
Thank you. That was the big thing for me. I’m a horror fanatic but I’m a Kung-Fu fan. RZA’s the Kung-Fu fanatic. He could sit through fights in Kung-Fu movies unlike anyone I’ve ever seen. He could watch it for 8 hours a day. If a fight went on for 8 hours he would watch it and remember every move. I’m the opposite, I get bored. If a fight doesn’t have a purpose or becomes repetitive I don’t get excited, I just want it to be over with so I can see what happens next.
So I thought that would work to the film’s advantage. We wanted a movie that the geeks would love but most people have never seen a Kung-Fu movie, so we wrote it with that audience in mind. A big thing for me is fight fatigue. I get exhausted watching too many fights in these movies, I just want it to end. And I think that’s a problem in a lot of action movies actually. You get to another fight sequence and you’re like, “oh God, again?!”
So we structured it like a Broadway musical or film musical, where the song has to advance the story. If you haven’t learned something from the song or it hasn’t changed the characters or advanced the story it’s cut from the show. And we looked at the fights the same way. We wanted every fight to be different. We wanted a new weapon, a new character, a new style of fighting. And at the end of the fight, something had to have changed in the story. We were very conscious of that in the writing and in the editing as well. Because when you’re shooting something you keep adding stuff and then you put it together and it’s 4 hours even though you know it’s only going to end up being 90 minutes. That was hard for RZA, letting go of some of those fights. But if we felt like it was a repeated beat, we let it go. There’s always the DVD and we can have all the fights we want on that.
We really wanted to make a movie that would appeal to non Kung-Fu fans that they would walk out of having had a fun time.
And you’ve got Russell Crowe giving this larger-than-life performance. I think I read that you spent 24 hours with him in a hotel room working on his character once he got to set, was that an intimidating task for you at all?
No, no, no! I’d heard great things about Russell and we knew that if he was coming all the way to China he’s not going to be difficult. I generally don’t get intimidated by other people’s reputations because I’ve seen my own reputation and the things people say about me and I know that’s not me. I knew Russell was going to be a great guy based on what RZA had told me. So when he showed up, we had written Jack Knife [his character], but we worked on a very specific backstory. Who is this guy? What did he see as a child? How did he get to this point that he’s in Jungle Village?
And we also talked about those great performances in movies by a star where you can’t believe they did it. Whether it’s Jack Nicholson in Batman, Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast or Marlon Brando in The Missouri Breaks. He was like, “if I’m coming all the way to China, I want to try something new.” And, in a strange way, he knew that if he did something really out there that I’d probably get the blame for it. So he could really cut loose.
He wasn’t doing it for an Oscar, he was doing it for fun. It was the greatest gift he could give to RZA to do this real wild performance. So we went through all of it and I was texting my production designer from the hotel room going, “alright make anal beads for Russell Crowe that he can have in his mouth.” And when I showed everything we were working on to RZA he went, “oh my God. That’s perfect!”
Russell did it on trust, and I’m forever grateful to him.
As an observer, how is it watching RZA step into the process of directing himself as an actor?
I knew he could do it and he knew he could do it, but it was a very hard job. Directing alone is a very hard job, acting alone is a very hard job and doing both at the same time is extraordinarily difficult. He’s a very generous director and he made sure everyone else got their fights done before he did his. And he’s very smart. I was there every day of the shoot and sometimes he’d have me watch his performance in the monitor, he’d say “I can’t think about my acting.”
So I’d give him some technical stuff, “try this – I think you’ll want it for the editing room.” “Try one at this energy.” Just to be there to help protect him later. As he said, he’s Captain Kirk and he needed his Mr. Spock. So I got to be his Mr. Spock for him.
As a fan of your directorial features, it’s been fun watching you develop your chops and grow from film to film. From Cabin Fever through Hostel 2 you’ve kept stepping it up. What are your plans for The Green Inferno? Any new tricks up your sleeve for that?
As far as my directing style goes I feel like I learn more and more with each project. When I shot Nation’s Pride [the faux Nazi propaganda film within Inglourious Basterds] that was a different style of directing. And even on Iron Fists there was so much to shoot sometimes I’d be like, “oh just let me grab that shot.” I knew the way RZA wanted it.
So I feel like I’ve been on sets nonstop since Hostel 2. And directing “Hemlock Grove”, prepping that shot list for my first time – it felt great! And I’m looking forward to getting back and getting on the ground with Green Inferno.
I’m getting on a plane on Thursday night and I’m going up into the Amazon. I’ll be completely out of contact. There’s no cell phone, there’s no email, there’s no nothing. So I’m enjoying this sort of last bastion of civilization right now before I go off into the wild. One of the reasons I picked this remote area in the Amazon is that there’s no way I can do anything other than focus on the movie. I’m totally and purely immersing myself in this creative project. I can’t wait to do it actually.
In terms of subject manner we’ve been hearing about the influence of Cannibal Holocaust but, visually speaking, how do you intend to approach it?
There’s a lot of stuff I want to bring into it. I never want to repeat myself. I always want to go to the next level in my evolution as a director. There are certainly things that are just my taste that are going to be done a certain way, just because I like to see stuff that way.
The title reference to Cannibal Holocaust is just that, a reference. This is a completely original story. It’s really based on modern activism and what I’ve seen happen with it. The film is going to be terrifying, people have no idea what they’re in for. Whatever they’ve read, they have no idea what we’re going to shoot. It’s going to be really strong [laughs].
But we’re also shooting in a very dangerous, remote area. As you know, things don’t always go as planned. But that’s part of the fun of it, just going into this wild area where no one has ever filmed before and coming out with a movie.
Circling back to The Man With The Iron Fists, one of the things I love most about the movie is Byron Mann as the villain, Silver Lion.
God is he good!
It’s a really charismatic performance. Was he the first guy that popped into everyone’s head for it or…?
We found him through casting and he’s amazing. You can’t imagine the movie without him, he’s sort of the discovery of the film. The first discovery is that RZA made a real movie. People think it’s going to be a grindhouse movie or a rap video, but it’s actually a real film. And then the other thing is people going, “who the hell is Byron Mann?!” I mean, he’s been acting in so many movies in Hong Kong and in China but he lives here in Los Angeles.
It was so much fun to watch him take that character in a direction I wasn’t expecting. He had these strange effeminate touches that he added that were so funny and so weird that they gave him this whole other level of creepiness. And that’s all Byron bringing that. So he’s on that Russell Crowe level where he’s thinking through the character and thinking about how to make every single part of his performance special. Tarantino lost his mind for Byron Mann when he saw it. He’s so much fun, he’s such a delicious bad guy you can tell he’s having so much fun playing this monster.
And he wouldn’t be out of place on the Sunset Strip in the 80’s either.
Exactly! By the way, that was a big thing. RZA wanted his Tina Turner!
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