If you’ve watched any music videos at some point in, oh, say the last 30 years, then you’ve likely come across the work of Joseph Kahn. The director has helmed some of the best-known clips from Backstreet Boyz, Katy Perry, Wu-Tang Clan, Destiny’s Child, Lady Gaga, U2, Taylor Swift, 50 Cent, Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez, and Eminem. The Texas-bred, award-winning filmmaker has also released short films and features Torque with Ice Cube and horror-comedy Detention.
Since Fall 2017, Kahn has been making the rounds with his newest narrative, Bodied, a fiercely foul-mouthed comedy-satire about free speech and the battle rap world, starring actual battle rappers like Jackie Long and Shoniqua Shandai, plus lead Calum Worthy. Now out in theaters via YouTube, Bodied — notably produced by Eminem — is out to offend. (Kahn is no stranger to controversy, and has recently weighed in on the Kardashians to gender double standards.) Below, EW talks about Taylor Swift’s ironic “Blank Space,” Trump jokes, gatekeeping, and the dominance of Cardi B.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: After you premiered Bodied at the Toronto Film Festival last year, were there any reactions to the film that surprised you?
JOSEPH KAHN: The most surprising thing was how overwhelmingly people loved it. I felt I had made such a controversial movie — and it is controversial, with all the race jokes, and the sexist jokes, and the homophobic jokes, all within the context of what it is. But there seems to be an understanding among human beings of what context is. It’s missing from the national dialogue: that context is everything. I made a movie that is 100 percent offensive jokes. A criticism of it that’s funny to me is, essentially, ‘I thought 90 percent of your jokes were funny, but the 10 percent that was aimed at me was not, therefore I hate the movie.’ If you think about it, you just accepted 90 percent of the jokes that were not about you—that’s just called hypocrisy.
Is there anything in rap that offends you?
I’ll be honest with you: It’s kinda hard to offend me because I’ve spent my entire life building a thick skin. Whenever I hear about Asian issues of today, there’s the back of my mind, I’m like, “I’m an Asian dude who grew up in Texas in the ‘80s. You’ve got it easy compared to what I had to go through.” With a 30-year career in pop culture and being an Asian dude being in the middle of it, you’ve got to have a really thick skin. The hard part is making sure that you’re empathizing with people and their needs and wants and why they’re being offended, but ultimately you also know that there’s a way to view things that are important battles to pick.
What was the road to distribution for this one? Some [studios] would view it as radioactive, and obviously, you found partners who don’t.
I started submitting to festivals with Sundance, starting nine months before [TIFF], and every festival turned us down because it’s radioactive. It does not fall in line with film festival mandate, which is the celebration of humanity and teaching humanity a lesson. The people who program them think of themselves as philosopher kings, and they will enrich people’s perspectives by choosing the right material and change the world through their incredible taste in cinema.
And most cinema is moralistic. If you look at most of the messages, they’re easy messages: Killing is bad. Cheating on your wife is bad. It’s very easy to put a message at the end of a film, putting a period at the end of a message like that. If you have a movie that says something else like, “Maybe not all racist jokes are racist,” that’s a very, very tough concept to wrap your head around. And it can make the philosopher kings feel like they’re gonna get a lot of criticism, so everybody was afraid of it.
It wasn’t until my last major film festival, TIFF, that it got accepted into and it barely got in by the skin of its teeth. There was a debate, I heard, where everybody was conflicted about whether or not they would be called racist for putting this movie in [the program]. We got there, we won the audience award. And we won four times at a bunch of other film festivals. It turns out that the audience doesn’t think this movie is racist. They understand that we find, intrinsically, differences funny and that doesn’t make us racist. If we discuss it within the right context and rules, it’s just the common human interaction that’s been going on since the beginning of time.
Race is the biggest lightning rod in this film. And you cast Calum Worthy as a lens through which we see race in the battle rap community. What made Calum the perfect actor for this particular role?
One of the tropes we play with is the White-Guy Sports Movie, the white guy who goes into the black-dominated sport and triumphs, like Rudy or 8 Mile. So the expectation of creating the superhero from the man who is already destined to be the athletic great didn’t appeal to me. On a certain level, that’s the radioactive idea.
I wanted to critique that idea by having someone who should not fit into that particular role of battle rap, who looks like he shouldn’t understand anything about urban culture from this heightened sphere of academia. Calum acts that part. He looks that part. Calum is a nerd. He’s a Disney dude. He should not be rapping in any sense or the word or any context whatsoever. So, it’s fun to take that journey with somebody who’s that much of an underdog in a situation and let the audience root for him and then have the audience then turn on him. Calum’s sympathetic for the most part, but then one point he becomes unsympathetic. The film doesn’t hand-hold you how to feel about that situation. It’s a provocation.
The reviews of the film a lot of times were positive from a political perspective. They have different views on that Adam character. It comes from their worldviews, but also the point at which they watched the movie with the politics that are [happening at the time]. Watching it from #MeToo perspective, or height of Black Lives Matter, or the mail bomb thing where Trump is going off and saying, “Liberals should watch what they say, otherwise they’re causing it to themselves.” That perspective alters the film. It’s like Shakespeare: For 500 years, we’ve interpreted Hamlet in different ways. He’s Nixonian, Obamaian, he’s Trumpian. What does selfish mean in each particular era?
Would you have made any different film today than you would have two years ago?
No, because when [screenwriter] Alex Larsen [aka Kid Twist] and I plotted out the movie two years ago, we were being predictive. You’re essentially making a time machine. You’re looking at an actor who was 38 instead of 40. Or saying “basic” instead of “this ain’t it.” At one point every kid would be on my Twitter and say “king,” “queen,” but then it was “mom,” “dad”: By the time I released this, even the vernacular of social media world might feel dated. We thought about where the world would be in 2018, what the issues were, how they would manifest. We made this movie before Trump was elected, so our Trump jokes were great!
You’ve said social media is like a battle rap zone. YouTube is a partner on this film. How has YouTube changed the dialogue around popular culture?
It’s serendipitous that we went into YouTube and YouTube decided to make this their first theatrical release with this. That was the carrot that made me sign with them. It makes a lot of sense because, unlike all the other studios in town, YouTube didn’t’ start as a studio. It started as a free media site. It was like public access on the internet. Then it became an actual force for media. It created stars: A 12-year-old in Ohio could literally become a superstar. Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga were launched. It was also uncensored, anything goes on YouTube. Obviously, as it’s become more corporate, they’re putting some parameters, like you can’t show people getting killed, stuff like that. But it was free speech in action as a media outlet.
Bodied itself is such a dangerous movie from the words being said in it. It’s kinda interesting that this is the right place to [distribute] because it’d have to be something you watch on YouTube to hear these words and have the context of these types of jokes. You can’t see this on TV or in a movie theater. And now it’s come full circle where we’ve taken something that would only be on YouTube they’re putting it in a movie theater to be a communal thing. And I think that’s wonderful.
You call this movie a “dangerous thing,” what do you anticipate being the consequences of a “dangerous thing?”
I think it’s dangerous only in the perception that we are saying all these offensive jokes in a heightened world where we are trying to censor each other, literally bully each other into saying the right thing at all times. And people would get fired over one thing said wrong. And Bodied says everything wrong.
You can watch Bodied but you’d never be able to go to work and say any of the lines from it. You can go to work and say whatever Captain America says, but you can’t what Adam Merkin said. It would be very inappropriate to have Iron Man rap racist lyrics. I don’t want anybody under 17 to watch Bodied. Go away. Come back later.
And that’s a big lesson of Bodied: context matters. I’m a filmmaker that has been around for quite a long time, switching between features, shorts, music video, commercials. I make a Lexus commercial, sometimes you just want to make a really fun Lexus commercial. Bodied is self-funded with my own cash: I’ll take the liberty to say what I need to do in this world because it’s my money. If it’s somebody else’s money, they have different agendas, and I’m going to be more of a mainstream filmmaker. I don’t need to necessarily mess with everybody all the time, I actively chose to make a project that messes with people.
Had messing with people or subversion come up in your creative conversations with Taylor Swift?
I feel like if you say “subversive,” then it’s no longer subversive!
Let me put it this way: I love irony. I love the implication of social irony. When I worked on Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space,” instead of making a typical love story, we embrace the perception of her as a rich white girl who’s a spoiled brat and a man-eater. We embraced it completely and it became one of her biggest hits. Instead of doing another bubble gum video, we chose to go really gritty with it for Taylor Swift at the time.
I think the audience truly appreciates that irony and truth. That’s why an offensive joke is funny, because the offense is a thought that you’ve been thinking: It may not true, but the truth is that you’ve been thinking it and we’re calling you out on it.
Is that why Eminem made a good producer and collaborator on this?
He’s a fantastic collaborator because if there’s anything Eminem does, it tells the truth. There are two types of artists I work with: There are marketing geniuses and truth-tellers. He’s a truth-teller.
Who’s another music artist you’re into right now?
Camila Cabello has a fascinating look and a great voice. I’d be interested in working with her.
And you just worked with Cardi B, on Jennifer Lopez’ “Dinero.”
I love Cardi. She’s a force of nature. There’s a sense of humor about her, self-deprecating, and up until this point, a lot of the female rappers have been overly sexualized — not that she’s not, but there’s a winking thing about her, like a black Marilyn Monroe. That’s interesting to me. She’s got a humor to it. She talks about her body functions, the empathetic human side of being a woman with sex, as opposed to being just a sex kitten. She’s unique within that archetype.
Women and sex in music videos have changed a lot in the last 30 years. Working with a lot of female pop stars, how has that dynamic changed in videos, in your opinion?
New but not different. We as adults talk about sexuality from an intellectual world; the academic world does not necessarily apply when you’re a horny 15-year-old teenager. No matter how academic we get, teenagers want to have sex. Teenagers don’t view each other as adults do. They think: “That boy has pretty eyes,” “that girl has big hips,” “that boy dresses in cool sneakers.” As a teenager, you tend to look at the world from a shallow point of view because your hormones are raging. And that’s what drives music.
Music is a very sensual experience. We listen to different types of music as you get older but when you’re young, you’re horny, as much as we as adults try to contextualize this stuff from our point of view, when you’re young, you’re gonna be applying it to the passions of youth and that will never change. You will act a certain way. Every parent knows this. As much as we change the rules of sexuality, behind closed doors, in the back of cars, in-house parties, teenagers are being teenagers and that’s what that music reflects.
As an adult, do you feel a responsibility in what you do or do not include in your music videos? You’re shaping youth and youth culture.
All the time. No question, you make calls all the time, you produce a piece of art, you want the thematic statements that are good or at least don’t do too much harm. Like, I haven’t done that many booty videos — though, I did the “Thong Song,” and I didn’t show any damn thongs! I directed Dr. Dre’s “Kush,” and there’s no smoking in it! Strangely enough, I’m kind of a prude. As dangerous as my work is, it’s being made by a nerd.