Sitting outside on the patio of the House of Blues in West Hollywood, Robert "Bobby" Diggs - better known as RZA of the hip-hop supergroup Wu-Tang Clan and now a filmmaker - and actor-director-producer Eli Roth appear to be in fighting shape.
When this is pointed out, they just laugh: "Look who we're next to, man. Cung Le, David Bautista, Rick Yune," Roth says.
"Ripped Yune," injects RZA, who directs and stars in "The Man With the Iron Fists," the kung fu yarn being released today. The script was written by Roth, who is behind the successful horror franchises "Cabin Fever" and "Hostel" and starred in Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds," and RZA (pronounced RIZ-a).
If you're not familiar with the names, Roth rattled off, it's probably because you're not into martial arts.
Le is a South Vietnamese-born American middleweight Ultimate Fighting Championship star who will headline the first UFC fight in Macao, China, Nov. 10. Bautista is a former World Wrestling Entertainment heavyweight champion who competed under the ring name Batista. Yune is a Korean-American actor trained in martial arts and known for films such as "Ninja Assassin."
"The Man With the Iron Fists" is set in a mythical Chinese feudal state during the 19th century, where a war between clans and a shipment of gold draw a rogue British soldier known as Jack Knife (Russell Crowe) to Jungle City. Much of the action centers around a brothel run by Madam Blossom.
(Lucy Liu). RZA plays a blacksmith, an escaped slave who has been shipwrecked off the coast of China.
Learning the country's customs as well as martial arts, the blacksmith has fallen in love with one of the women at Madam Blossom's, Lady Silk (Jamie Chung), and he works to buy her freedom.
A longtime martial-arts fan - the Wu-Tang Clan was named after the film "Shaolin and Wu Tang" - RZA has spent a number of years preparing for his move into the director's chair.
"I stayed there for close to a month and I would go on the set to watch Quentin and Bob Richardson ("Kill Bill's" cinematographer) and write notes," he remembers.
The 43-year-old also spent time learning from writer-director Jim Jarmusch - he had a role in Jarmusch's "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai" - and director John Woo. "I was just absorbing things so when it came time for me to do it myself I was mentally prepared," he says.
The idea for "The Man With the Iron Fists" had been percolating for a while when RZA met Roth in 2006, as they were both returning from an Icelandic film festival hosted by Tarantino and told him the story. Roth offered to help with the screenplay when he had a chance, but it took three years for the pair to get their schedules worked out.
Brooklyn native RZA gives a lot of credit to his co-writer for helping him think things through.
"Eli sat with me for a year and a half writing the screenplay, so every little detail was there and that I would have a map and a book of ingredients to bring the vision to life," RZA says.
Roth says once they felt the script was airtight they took it to Universal where it was "green-lit right away."
"Then it was a process of what the hell do we now, which is trickier," he says.
But after years of groundwork, RZA was ready. Making it a bit easier was that most of the cast was already well-versed in martial arts, including Liu, who had done extensive training for "Kill Bill."
"Everybody tried to outdo each other," says the director.
Crowe was the exception, but he was playing an Englishman with his own weapons.
Liu didn't have that many fight scenes in the original script but wanted more. So the filmmakers reasoned that since they would have to kill off some people anyway, "We'd let her do it," RZA says.
The director spent about 14 weeks preparing for the shoot in China.
"We did tests with fabrics and silk to see what popped best.
Roth came over when the 10 weeks of shooting began.
"I couldn't have a better Mr. Spock by my side," says RZA, making a "Star Trek" reference.
In China, though, there are some restrictions about what you can shoot. So while the film is rated R for bloody violence, strong sexuality and language, there are "no nipples, no nudity, no Peking duck. That's what the government said, literally," Roth says.
"You have to respect their culture," RZA says. "We wrote a world where we felt that if we took the kung fu out, we'd still have a good story and film; if we took the blood and gore out, we'd still have a good story and film. We want a universal sort of `Star Wars' influence."
Both filmmakers were impressed by the work ethic of the crew.
"They were happy that we were only shooting six-day weeks. They are used to seven," says Roth, adding that sometimes a crew member would split pay with "five other guys and suddenly we'd have 700 people working on set. It was crazy."
RZA describes how one day they needed to move a giant urn and that he was told they would have to wait a day. But his assistant director thought it was crazy and had "20 or 30 guys move it.
"And he told me, `That's one thing that we have - the manpower,"' RZA says.
"I respect that and I think that the world should respect that," he says, stressing that he's not trying to get political. "We have to learn to respect the power of work. ... I saw it with my own eyes - people working for a fraction of what we get here and taking pride in it."
Up until recently, RZA had been telling people that the film cost $20 million, but now the figures have come in and it was "a little over $15 million. Can you beat that?" he asks.
One of the highlights of the shoot, the filmmakers say, was when Tarantino - who is listed as the presenter in the movie's opening credits - showed up about eight weeks into filming, during the homestretch.
"When Quentin came to visit me in China, I was sitting there with him and Eli and Russell Crowe and he leaned over to me and he said, `Bobby, you remember when you were sitting in the corner taking notes? Now the student has become a master,"' RZA recalls.
"It was an amazing moment," Roth adds. "Quentin was so proud."
Rob Lowman 818-713-3687 firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Rob Lowman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/RobLowman1