When Wu-Tang Clan co-founder RZA talks about his score for the film "The Man With the Iron Fists" -- which he also co-wrote and directed -- he lights up. The Grammy-winning producer born Robert Fitzgerald Diggs says he hasn't been as energized about any project since his first album with Wu-Tang back in 1993, and apologizes for "geeking out" as he gushes about the multitude of synthesizers he used to meticulously mimic the sounds of an orchestra.
The film, co-written by RZA and Eli Roth and slated for a fall release with Universal, is set in feudal China and stars Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu. As it happens, RZA didn't originally intend to score the film, and had to be convinced by the film's producers and his buddy, director Quentin Tarantino.
"I finally said, 'OK, I guess I'll be scoring it,'" recalls RZA, who promptly called frequent collaborator Howard Drossin to help him out. "We have a great working relationship, and I said, 'Howard, here we go again. Let's do another film together.' … And so I went into musician mode and started writing different cues and different emotions for the film. I think actually it was a wise idea because really, at the end of the day, who would understand these characters more than me?"
RZA, whose scoring credits include Tarantino's two-volume "Kill Bill" and Jim Jarmusch's "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai," took a very different approach to scoring "Fists." Instead of working with an orchestra as he had in the past, he and Drossin used electronics to create most of the orchestral parts.
"We took months and five or six different computers, about seven or eight keyboards, and we emulated an orchestra," RZA explains. "That to me is a special catch to this film: It sounds like we went and hired a big 80-piece orchestra, which we'd done in movies in the past. But we actually did this score electronically. We talked about this with the producers, (and said) 'This may change the game a little bit.' Because without a doubt the electronics reached the level of orchestra."
Listening to score samples, it's difficult to argue. On one cue, which could almost be mistaken for a Howard Shore theme, strings start out softly and swell to a dramatic crescendo, punctuated by horns and Asian instruments. Haunting female vocals and choirs backed by cinematic swells populate much of the rest, as well as complex character themes that Ennio Morricone might have written. ("It's Morricone meets RZA," he chuckles.) Most would never guess it was created by two guys twisting knobs and pushing buttons.
"It takes a lot of know-how," says RZA, who has honed his skills producing successful records for several of his Wu-Tang bandmates, as well as Cypress Hill and Kanye West. "For every one minute of music, it sometimes took two days. So it wasn't easy to do it like that, and there were a lot of crashes on the computers because there are so many different waves and layers on top of things to make it sound real and to give a real string articulation."
Other songs combine classical orchestration with hip-hop and Stax-style soul, as well as mash-ups with RZA's own Wu-Tang. It may seem an odd combo, but RZA pumps up the drums, strings and brass to create an energetic sound ripe for the insertion of raps and heavy beats. Appropriately, RZA says a soundtrack deal is in the works, which will not only include the score but also "some of these score cues revisited with some of today's popular artists."
What's more, RZA employs some clever cinematic tricks he's learned over the years. "If you'll notice, it didn't resolve," he notes after playing back one of the film's main cues. "Even though you have the big brass stabs early in the track, the cue itself doesn't resolve, which is something I learned as a composer after doing a few films. I didn't know that at first because as a musician, you always want to make a resolve -- that's what music does. But in composing, you don't have to have a resolve because the resolve is visual."
Ultimately, RZA hopes the score will add another dimension to the story he's bringing to life on film. He says directing is "the hardest yet most fulfilling" job he's ever done, and he couldn't be more excited for what's to come. "It's Universal's 100th anniversary when this film comes out -- that's gonna be a great reward for me and a great blessing to be a part of it. Also coming up next year in 2013 is the Wu-Tang 20th anniversary. So it feels like the stars lined up for me and I'm just trying my best to stay focused, stay healthy and to make great art for us."