Eli Roth: ‘The Man With the Iron Fists’ Is the ‘Star Wars’ of Kung-Fu Movies

By  · Published on November 1st, 2012

The Man With the Iron Fists is an ambitious first feature film. Not only because it cost more than the average directorial debut, but it’s from a nearly nonexistent genre with an unproven director at the helm in the form of rapper-turned-actor-turned-director RZA. Many would scoff at this project, but one man who didn’t is Eli Roth. It became a labor of love for both RZA and Roth, who came on as both a producer and co-writer of the film.

From the sounds of it, RZA and Roth wanted to make the Star Wars of Kung-Fu movies. The long haul process of making the movie was about achieving that level of scope and world-building with a small amount of means, which is $15m, to be exact. Still, with that amount of money, The Man With the Iron Fists isn’t as big of a financial risk as it is a creative one. This wasn’t an easy project to get going, but as Roth told us, nothing worthwhile is ever easy.

Here is what The Man with the Iron Fists producer and co-writer Eli Roth had to say about the scope of the film, the importance of filmmaker buddies, and how Five Easy Pieces inspired Cabin Fever:

Since we don’t see many martial arts movies done on this level nowadays, was that what peaked your interest when RZA told you about the film?

First and foremost, it was that I loved the story. When RZA told me the story, I saw the movie completely. As a movie fan, I wanted to see this movie. The hard part [of getting it made] was convincing people to let a rapper direct, and also letting him direct a movie in pretty much a dead genre. We really wanted to make a true Kung-Fu movie, but a new version of it. Like, when we saw The Matrix, that was Kung-Fu in a science-fiction world. We wanted to push the genre forward, in the way Quentin [Tarantino] did with Kill Bill. Obviously this is not as epic as Kill Bill, but something more contained and in its own universe. We love Star Wars, so we loved the idea of creating our own universe and something that was fantasy based. Even if you took out the fight scenes, we’d hope there’d still be a great, fun story.

Also, it appealed to me as doing something outside the horror genre, but would still appeal to those fans. I’m a horror geek, but I’m not a Kung-Fu fanatic. I love those movies, but RZA is the one who can watch them for 10 hours a day. I get bored watching fights over and over. I provided another perspective, which is to make a mainstream movie for an American audience. A lot of these people have never seen a Kung-Fu movie, and we want them to be excited and go back find those old [Kung-Fu] films after they watch it. We said, “Let’s write a movie where each fight is different and moves the story, so it’s never repetitive or boring.” I don’t want people to get to the end of the movie and say, “Oh, God, another fight?” We want people maybe a little hungry for more, though. We want Kung-Fu fans to love it, but also for those people who have never seen a Kung-Fu film to realize how fun they are.

So you saw it as an artistic challenge, taking on a new genre?

Yeah, absolutely. That was the fun of it. I had knowledge of the genre. RZA showed me some of the obscure films, like House of Traps. There was one film where we looked at the brothel, and we realized we wanted each girl in the brothel to have their own thing. We really thought through every character and detail of the world, and that’s what makes these worlds great: thinking through the world. We spent about a year and half writing it and watching all kinds of movies. I even watched Lola Montes with Quentin. I told RZA he had to see this movie, to look at the opulence of the set and the way the camera moves. I told him that’s the way the brothel should feel, that you’re in another universe. We want opulence in this film. Shooting in China, you can really get it there. It’s a lot cheaper to shoot there.

With everything, we made the entire film for 15 million dollars. Even though that’s a lot of money, I said to RZA, “This is more money than my first two movies combined, so enjoy it, dude.” Even in terms of doing big action set pieces and visual effects, we had to be really, really specific with what we wanted, so you can see that money on screen. RZA did an amazing job. It was a lot to handle for a director, let alone a first-time director.

RZA joked about how the film has over 60 characters when we spoke to him. What’s more challenging, writing a self-contained story like Cabin Fever with only a few characters or something as big as The Man with the Iron Fists?

It’s hard writing and narrowing it down to a few [characters]. We don’t start out writing 60 characters, but we’re creating a world. In Cabin Fever and Hostel, the characters are stepping into a world. They’re in the protected world of college, and then they go into a cabin or some unexplored part of Europe. Here, we’re completely creating a world. Unless you’re doing a movie like Cube, which is consciously self-contained, you need a lot of characters. We’re doing a movie about clans, with he Hyena clan and the Wolf clan at war. You need a lot of people for that. When we talked about Star Wars, you see the Hammerhead for a few seconds, but we want to see that Hammerheard for a whole movie.

We became obsessed with the little characters in Star Wars. So, when it came to the Falcon clan, we only see them for one shot. We shot a lot of scenes with all the clans, but a lot of them got cut down to just a moment. You know they and that world exists, though. Just by the nature of the story we were trying to tell, we had to have a lot of characters. That was very challenging, which is what took the time, thinking through the specificity for those characters.

I know RZA has been working on the script for a few years, like you did with Cabin Fever. Does it ever come easy for you, where you can knockout a script in a week or a month?

Nothing worthwhile is ever easy. I mean, it happens. I wrote Hostel in 10 days. Sometimes you can become possessed and see the entire movie clearly, like, a bolt of lightning. Making the movie and getting it to the screen is always a challenge. It’s never easy, but that’s what makes it sweeter when people enjoy it, so the payoff is there. When RZA first told me this story on New Year’s Day, 2006, a week before Hostel opened, we were flying back from Iceland to Los Angeles. We really sat down after Hostel 2, when I came on as a producer. We said we’re going to spend a few years writing it, figuring out the logistics of the production, and going to Universal with it.

It wasn’t until the day after Christmas in 2010 we were shooting. It was a long, long journey. And then the post-production was a year. With the fights, you can only shoot so much there. When you assemble everything you got, you got four hours, even though the movie’s going to be 90 minutes. There’s a process of finding the story, since we had so many storylines and characters, which we shot all of. We said in the editing room, “We just can’t have a 15 minute sequence with the Gold Lion and the Hyena clan.” In actuality, you just have to pare it down to which story you’re telling. In the future, we’d definitely focus it down and do less characters. For the first film, we really have to do that to completely set up the world.

Since you’ve had commercial success, when you came on as a producer, did financing come easier?

It makes it easier in certain zones. I have my pick of where I want to get financing from for my horror movies. That’s easy, because I’ve kept my cost low, have done the publicity, and do them at a price where they’ll turn a profit. We did the same thing here. Using myself, Quentin, RZA and his fanbase, and also Russell Crowe, it was very helpful. Our producers at Strike Entertainment, with Mark Abraham and Eric Newman, who did Children of Men and Dawn of the Dead, had a strong relationship with Universal.

At a certain point, it’s, like, what’s the risk? We’re making a movie for 15 million dollars. If this movie makes 10 million on its opening weekend, then it’s still a win. Russell alone could cost 20 million dollars on a movie, you know? Then you throw in Kanye West, The Black Keys, Wiz Khalifa and My Chemical Romance, all those guys are writing original songs. Everyone pitched in for the love of doing something different, wild, and creative. We’ll see what happens. I’m really proud of the movie RZA made. Also, it’s something different for me. I think my fans who are into my horror movies will love it, since it’s got my spirit, energy, and taste in there, but it’s something different from what they’ve seen from me.

In terms of personal satisfaction, does it matter whether a project does become a hit or not?

It matters in terms of wanting to make the money back people spent. I feel very, very responsible for that. At a certain point, it’s out of your control, because you’re bringing a product to the public. I want to make sure everybody did well, we all did the best we could, and we all made a great film. I think if you made a great movie, everything will fall into place. I think I’m a very good judge of how much money you should spend on a project, based on how widespread the subject matter is. For Hostel, you shouldn’t spend more than 4 million on it, because, at the time, no one was putting that much violence in movies. With a martial arts movie, we didn’t want to spend a lot of money, but we knew we needed a certain amount to make it look great.

The creative bond RZA and you have struck is reminiscent to the ones you’ve formed over the years, with Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and others. How important is it having other directors look out for you and vice-versa?

There’s such a negativity I always heard about with the cutthroat world of Hollywood. As a kid, when I read Fangoria, I found out Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, and all these guys were friends. I thought that was the coolest thing. I loved seeing directors were friends, and that they’d do cameos in each other’s movies. It’s the same thing for when I love seeing David Bowie work with Iggy Pop.

You realize you’re in your own world when you’re making movies. It is a very isolating experience making a film, since it’s just you and your ideas, and you have to continually fight everyday to make sure you get what you want on film, then fight in the editing room, and then fight to get it to the theaters. It is a continual battle, and the only people who can understand that are people who’ve been through it themselves.

Mick Garris hosts these Masters of Horror dinners where directors get together, and I think they’re really important. Everybody gets protective over their ideas and reputation, but when you get in a room with people who have been through what you’ve been through and who you can turn towards for advice, you feel like you’re not crazy and alone. Quentin has been an amazing mentor to me, in many ways, and now I can pass that along to directors like Nicolas Lopez, Daniel Stamm, and RZA.

How much did you discuss with RZA the importance of preparation? He called that the greatest lesson he learned from the film.

Oh, yeah. Prepping the movie was a part of the year and a half of writing. I’d say, “What does the Lion Clan base look like? What kind of chairs do they sit in? What color are they? What if they were in this room?” We’d talk like that. I told RZA to look up scenes from movies, to make a reel of what the Lion Clan base should look like. He’d reference a movie, and I’d tell him to make a note of that scene. When we sit down with the production designer, he is going to ask what the Lion Clan base is going to look like. I told him you’re going to read it, describe it, and show him the shot [from that movie], and then tell him how we’re going to change it. That’s what it’s about, to make sure no one misinterprets it. We all wanted to set RZA up to succeed. It was Mark Abraham who insisted on 20 weeks of prep and a longer editing period, since we know he’d find his feet in the prep and that it’d take a while to find his cut.

Were you and RZA looking at non-Kung-Fu movies? How often do you find inspiration from other genres?

Oh, all the time. I mean, it’s wonderful when you realize Five Easy Pieces has a huge inspiration on the ending shot of Cabin Fever, the tone, the way it’s shot, and the end credits. One of the things we’d do at Quentin’s is, we’d watch everything from Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice to Peter Bogdonavich’s Tom Petty documentary to Lady Snowblood. We’re not just sitting there watching Kung-Fu movies.

There were certain fights he’d want to show me, like from House of Traps. We even talked about Broadway musicals, with how every song has to progress the story. If the song isn’t moving the story forward, it has to be cut. You have to do the same for the fights, and RZA got that. Even for The Green Inferno, I’m watching Days of Heaven. I’m constantly absorbing movies.

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The Man With the Iron Fists opens in theaters on November 2nd.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.