I’m a big believer in sharing stories about overcoming challenges in hopes that someone else out there might be inspired by them. We’ve got a must-read (or must-listen) story in that department from Cut Throat City director The RZA. At this point in his film career, The RZA’s resume is loaded with accomplishments including acting roles, three films serving as director, and a slew of composer credits. But that doesn’t mean it all came easy.
Even with all of his legendary work in the music field, The RZA still had some learning to do when it came to scoring films. Check out what he said about taking on his very first composing gig for Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai on a recent episode of Collider Connected:
“Creatively I felt that I had evolved to that because I was making music with 16 bars and 20-bar loops, and the Wu-Tang Clan wouldn’t rap on it no more. [Laughs] So I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know that because I was learning music theory, circles of fifths and progressions that I was moving myself away from sampling a great beat, putting some sounds on it and busting a rap. I didn’t know that. And when Jim gave me the chance to do Ghost Dog, it clicked and [I was] like, ‘Wait. Maybe that’s what I’m doing. I’m growing to a composer.’ And so what I did do was I looked at Peter and the Wolf by [Sergei Prokofiev] and Swan Lake. And these are operas and these are suites. Nutcracker as well. But it was Peter and the Wolf that gave me the information that music can be characterized. For instance, in that play, all the birds are represented by a flute, the wolf is by a trombone. So if you watch Ghost Dog, you notice it starts with a pigeon flying, and even though there’s a hiphop beat, the instrument playing on top of the beat is a flute. So I got that part down.”
The creativity necessary to compose a film score is one thing. The technical requirements, however, are something else. Here’s how The RZA put it:
“The technical part? I was lost. It’s actually embarrassing how lost I was. I would show up at 9, 10 o’clock at night, if I’m lucky, maybe even midnight, with ODB in the van, with a bunch of music for the movie and I would just hand it to Jim. [Laughs] And he would have to go to the editor and go through the process. He waited for me. He was very patient with me. I would think for the team of people that were making the movie, it was a nightmare. I think with Jim [there’s] something fun about it because that’s my buddy but I think, because I’m a filmmaker now, it is a nightmare to sit there, get to work at 9am and somebody is showing up at 11pm with something you’ve been waiting for.”
While Jarmusch was able to work with The RZA’s unique schedule, the next team of filmmakers he agreed to compose for couldn’t, and he wound up getting fired from his second gig. (Some IMDb cross-checking leads me to believe it’s Big Shot: Confessions of a Campus Bookie.)
“I’ll make a confession to you and to your audience. After Ghost Dog, I got another job. David Krumholtz and [director] Ernest Dickerson who did Juice, they were doing a film together and David pitched me as the composer, and they hired me. And I was like, ‘Wow! This is good. This is my second job. I have my own studio, my own musicians, everything.’ And it was for a network or something and what happened was, they had someone called the music supervisor come to New York and watch me and get the music done. And the music supervisor would come to the studio like I said about 9, 10, maybe even 1 and he would leave by 8. I don’t show up to the studio until midnight. [Laughs] But I’ve got all this music, I’m ready, I wrote all these songs for the movie, I’ve got all these great scenes but I’m nocturnal. I’m a music producer who is nocturnal. And somewhere in the middle of this process I got a call, ‘You don’t have to come in no more. You don’t have to show up anymore. You’ve been fired.’ I was like, ‘I’ve been fired? How is that? I’ve been working for like months.’ I was a millionaire from making music so it wasn’t the money; it was the opportunity to express my art, so I was bummed and I never understood what really happened.”
The RZA got more clarity on the matter while observing Quentin Tarantino make Kill Bill: Volume 1:
“It wasn’t until working on Kill Bill that Quentin advised me, because he’s a very good dude and he had some advice, ‘Come to the editing room every day from this point to this point. That’s the process of how it works.’ And I spent 90 days in the editing room with him, and I realized, ‘Okay, it’s not just what I’m doing. It’s a bunch of people moving as one that’s gonna accommodate what I’m doing.’ And that was my education and then that lead me to understand that, wait, if I understand this, how bringing talent, music, art all together and the collaborative nature of it, which I am anyway as a producer for Wu-Tang Clan, then I could actually tell stories the way Quentin is telling the stories. Because I’ve been trying to tell stories my whole life with music! That’s why when you listen to Cuban Linx or 36 Chambers, you can hear that this producer’s trying to tell us a story. And so it was those experiences that led me to where I’m at.”
If you’d like to hear all about this straight from The RZA yourself, check out the video at the top of this article which is set to begin at this exact part of our lengthy conversation. But do be sure to listen to the full chat to hear about what it was like making Cut Throat City, what his biggest fear overcome is, what actor challenged him the most, and loads more!
Cut Throat City is now in theaters.