Film

Interview: Veteran Music Video Director Joseph Khan Talks Weaponizing Words and Creating a World in Bodied

As someone who grew up always trying to note the names of directors of my favorite music videos, the name Joseph Kahn has been a big part of my history for more than 20 years. The list of artists he’s worked with in that time is long and varied, including such luminaries as Taylor Swift, Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey, Lady Gaga, Shakira, Justin Timberlake, 50 Cent, Kelly Clarkson, Janet Jackson, Gwen Stefani, Maroon 5, U2, Backstreet Boys, Imagine Dragons, Rob Zombie, Destiny’s Child, Britney Spears, DMX, Aerosmith, Joss Stone, George Michael, and perhaps most importantly to the discussion of Kahn’s latest film, Eminem, who is a credited producer on Bodied.

Bodied

Image courtesy of Variety

Kahn has dabbled in filmmaking, directing the 2004 actioner Torque and the 2011 comedy-horror indie Detention. But his desire to make a film about the world of hip-hop had always been in the back of his mind. The idea of making a movie about rap battles came and went after Eminem made 8 Mile. When he and screenwriter Alex Larsen came up with the idea of introducing a white college student into Oakland’s scene, things got interesting. On top of that, we find out that the character of Adam (Calum Worthy, probably best known for the Disney series “Austin & Ally”) comes from literary roots—his father is a noted literature and poetry guru, so Adam’s words are actually “weaponized,” to use Kahn’s words, through his knowledge of poetry structure.

To do research for a thesis paper, Adam befriends one of his favorite battle rappers, Behn Grymm (Jackie Long). Adam stumbles into the lifestyle, and eventually the two must go up against each other in an epic, jaw-dropping war of words and a deep knowledge of each other’s private lives, all of which is fair game in this world. I sat down with Kahn, Worthy and Long recently when they were in Chicago to promote the film, which has been making the festival rounds for more than a year (including its Windy City debut at the Chicago Critics Film Festival in May). The film is now in theaters for a brief run before debuting on YouTube Premium on November 28.

One thing I forgot about this movie is that it was one of the many films I saw at Sundance this year that was set in Oakland. Tell me about that city and why you set Bodied there. What is it about hip-hop and Oakland that have made it such a hot city this year?

Joseph Kahn: I don’t do the sociological implications of why hip-hop sprung forth in Oakland, but it was one of the hubs of battle rap, and for the thesis of the movie we were making in terms of culture, it serendipitously is next to Berkley. So neither Alex [Larsen, co-writer] or I are from Oakland, but from a pure mathematical, architectural formula of screenwriting, if you put Berkley right next to Oakland, it seemed like the only place you could do this movie. And it’s not just any college but the ultimate woke college. How perfect is that? We didn’t even shoot it there; we shot it in Los Angeles. We’re not Oakland filmmakers and we don’t claim to be; it was purely thematic that it’s set there.

I love this idea that Adam is weaponized because of his background. Explain that a little bit, and why does that make him one of the most dangerous battle rappers?

JK: For the same reason that Alex Larson was weaponized when he did his battles. It’s as if battle rap is in a primal form right now. If you had to describe it, it’s like street basketball versus the NBA. There are a lot of great kids on the street playing basketball, but once you get into the academic system where you formalize these concepts of coaching and team playing, you’re weaponized. You’re not just a basketball player; you’re a professional basketball player. Essentially, no matter how a battle rapper is, by poetry standards, they’re still amateurs. They may be amazing street battle rappers, but they don’t know all the ins and outs of language. There are actual academic departments that do nothing but understand how rhymes work, what vocabulary is, how things do work together, and what metaphors are. They’re coming from complete instinct; Adam is trained. Anybody who gets a literature degree has a leg up.

What does it feel like to be a weapon?

Calum Worthy: This is a very complex character. What drew me to him was the Shakespearean aspects of this story. He’s a true antihero; he spends most of his time defending his friends in the rap world but he stabs his best friend in the back to get what he wants.

Even the girlfriend character fits into that Shakespearean mold, because she is the villain of the story for much of it. Although, she turns out to be right in the end about Adam.

JK: She’s right in as much as anybody is right in this movie. People don’t necessarily have moral righteousness here; they have perspectives, and sometimes those perspectives work and sometimes the don’t. It’s literally dependent on timing and context, which is one of the fun things about the movie. It may be why the movie is rewarding on some level and very unrewarding in others. The morality isn’t spoon-fed to you and made concrete; it’s all contextual. For the most part, Maya is the villain because she’s the antagonist to Adam, but at some point, like all villains—and it’s the most horrible things to say, but I’ll stand by it—all villains sometimes have a point. No matter how horrible it is, if it’s about a particular issue, they’re kind of right about it. They may not be 100 percent right—they may only be five percent right—but there’s a point in the movie where that five percent right is 100 percent right for Maya.

Those X-Men movie, for instance, the X-Men are always defending themselves as “We mutants have a right to have a place in the world.” “But motherfucker, you’re the same people trying to destroy the world too. Magneto wants to take metal and wrap it around everyone and kill every non-mutant. So what’s your point?” Part of it is correct and part of it isn’t. The world is complicated, and if there’s anything that Bodied says, it’s that we live in a complicated world.

Those are the two big messages of the film: words mean something and context is everything.

JK: That is the most amazing thing about Twitter, because it is literally the anti-context. You have 280 characters to say something, and no matter how your thread it, those 280 characters are all you get. There’s no way to put context to those 280 characters. You have to make black-and-white statements. If there’s any nuance, that is not the format for it.

Calum, you said last night that you were not a strong rapper at the beginning of the process of turning you into Adam. Jackie, you said you were. Had you done it before professionally, or were you just good at it?

JL: I’ve been the studio before. I’ve definitely been in the booth and rapped; I know how to rap. I’m black. There’s a difference between listening to a lot of hip-hop and being from the ’hood. I’m from the ’hood. Where I grew up is Pasadena, California, and there is nothing but ’hood music all day. So if you didn’t know how to rap, you’d be considered a punk. So taking a role like this, rapping wasn’t something I was thinking of that was hard for me. For me, it was the idea that this was poetry. You have to deliver this like poetry. It’s actually not rapping. It’s way different. In the studio, you can fuck up and do something again. This is like a play, and you have one shot, and you can’t mess up. They don’t know what you’re going to say, but you know, so you have to be able to do your rebuttals and everything you’ve got to be able to do everything to tell a story about some dude that nobody knows about. In music, you can say what you’ve got to say, record it, and it’s done. With this, you have to interact with the crowd because the crowd has to feel you.

But for you, there was a steep learning curve. When you said yes to the role, did you then say “Oh no, now I have to learn this”?

CW: No, I was like “Hell, yeah.” It was a fun challenge. It was intimidating, for sure, and the most intimidating part was that I had to be battling with actual battle rappers, so I had to at least pretend while I was on screen with them to be at their level. Luckily, I had them on my side through the whole process, and I was able to work and rehearse with them for two months leading up to this. I was trained by some of the greatest battle rappers in the world; I had that on my side.

In addition to just coming up with the words, there’s a body language aspect to this as well. Sometime you get right in someone’s face; other times you’re flailing. How do you know which is the best approach from scene to scene?

JL: That was the result of a lot of YouTube searches. Plus, we got to see the real battle rappers do scenes right in front of us. I didn’t see one of them just stay still; they were all moving, talking to the crowd, bringing them in. As an actor, I loved that. You want to have movement to make a scene better and give the director the opportunity to get a shot that he didn’t even expect. Joseph was so grateful and let us do what we wanted to do to become that character.

CW: Back to Shakespeare, there are rules to the art form, so the way you say a certain phrase impacts the way the audience will react to it, and the same goes with the movement. Moving closer to someone, bringing the levels down or up, it’s the same as in Shakespeare, talking to the audience or talking to a character affects what people think of the character.

I love that you not only took on this role and say some really unforgivable things, but you don’t care if Adam ends up being a character that everybody hates. Were you attempting to counter what your career had been up to this point, on a Disney show?

CW: I just wanted to tell a good story. And at the end of the day, I don’t see myself as being the characters. If people think that the character is a bad guy, that’s great because that means I did my job. I see my personal life and acting life as two separate things, especially when it comes to bringing up really important themes like we do in this movie—cultural appropriation, freedom of speech. If it serves that story, I will absolutely be the villain of the story and say things that are unforgivable to serve that purpose.

Joseph, I know you come out of music videos, so I want to talk about the visual language of the film. Bodied is not directed like a long-form music video. It feels like there are specific beats you build in to give the audience time to react. They all seem like very deliberate choices.

JK: I deliberately created a new style for this movie. After we had written it, I sat down and designed the rules of the visuals and the overall style from the ground up. It incorporates a lot of the stuff I’d already been doing, but I really wanted to give it a live-action feel, so it felt participatory for the audience, so that it felt like these events are happening in front of your eyes. And the cheat code in most movies is that you do with vérité camera work with a handheld, but I feel like when you do that too much, the audience gets used to it, just like when an audience is watching a 3-D movie and the 3-D is very impressive in the beginning, but after a while, your eyes and brain accumulates it and stabilizes it, and eventually you don’t even see the 3-D. So the challenge for me was to find a style that kept shifting so that it always felt live and spontaneous, even though it’s hyper-designed.

On a cinematic level, the greatest challenge for me is that this is a talking-head movie. There are no people jumping off buildings or gunfights or car chases or killings. It’s just a bunch of people talking at each other. How do you turn that visual? The most action we get are two scenes where someone gets punched in the face—that’s maybe 20 seconds of the movie. The other two hours is talking heads, so getting in there and adding my visual style on top of it was a big challenge. What you were saying before about the way people move and gesticulate, that meant that I had to create a visual style where every single movement was hyper-realized. It’s the subtleties of what they did that I had to express in cinematic terms. Any time they did any sort of movement, I’d have to jump all over it and figure out the subjectivity of it. Those would be my only moments to be cinematic.

How did you decide when to include animation?

JK: I only tried to focus it on times that felt super-subjective, especially moments when Adam had to make decisions or other heightened moments. It served different purposes, but there always had to be a need for it. I never wanted it to feel superfluous. It would accent something or give information or express a conflict. A lot of times when I added a title card, people would laugh, which to me means it’s not extraneous; it’s serving the story. It’s actually adding a layer of comedy to everything. The first one we use for Adam is a straight-up punchline.

Gentlemen, thank you so much. Best of luck with this.

CW: Thank you so much, really. It’s been fun talking to you.

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