'Bodied' Director Joseph Kahn on Bringing Battle Rap to the Big Screen
Chances are you know filmmaker Joseph Kahn even if you don’t know who he is.
He’s directed countless commercials and music videos (most recently for Taylor Swift, with whom he enjoys a fruitful creative partnership). Also, he occasionally directs really amazing feature films. His first film was 2004’s “Torque,” a movie that should have been a cheap, “Fast & the Furious” knockoff but, thanks to Kahn’s sense of humor and heightened visual sense, was turned into something much weirder and more lovable. His second feature was 2011’s “Detention,” a little-seen but truly incredible horror comedy. And now, finally, he’s back with his third film, “Bodied,” in theaters now.
“Bodied” is a raucous comedy that is also super insightful and perfect for today’s political climate. It follows a nerdy graduate student (Calum Worthy), who is writing his thesis on battle rap and soon gets sucked into that world. Sure, it’s offensive and occasionally callous, but it’s also beautifully directed and smartly written, the kind of thing that would be more shocking if it weren’t so authentically true. It’s one of this fall’s must-see movies and, really, you should see it.
We got to chat with Kahn about why he chose “Bodied” as his third feature, what he learned from his experience trying to get people to see “Detention,” and whether or not he’s interested in taking on another big budget studio movie.
Moviefone: You have a lot of other commitments, whether it’s commercials or music videos. What about “Bodied” made you stop and take the time to invest in a feature?
Kahn: I love making feature films, even though I only make one once a decade or something. And I only like making them when I think I have something to say. And the entire offense culture of being hyper-woke and politically correct versus, on the flipside, people being incredibly incorrect in battle rap, seemed like a good prism to discuss the world as it is today.
The film is based, in part, on a true story. Did you know the story beforehand?
Oh, yeah. I’ve been a big battle rap fan since the early ‘90s. It had a very different incarnation back then. It wasn’t spoken word or acapella per se, and I’ve been working with Eminem for many, many years. But it wasn’t until the last couple of years, when the culture had gotten to a crisis point of people failing to communicate with one another, that a venue where people stand in front of each other and say the meanest things possible, would be an interesting thing to put out in the political climate of today.
What was it like working with Eminem as a producer and someone who helped shepherd the project along?
Are you kidding me? The king of battle rap blessing us with his presence? I soaked up everything he said like a sponge. He had opinions on a lot of things. I think authenticity was a big thing for him and making sure there were no false beats. And the process of how people think of raps in the midst of battle was an interesting perspective. By the time we were done with it, I think Eminem actually thought that Calum could actually wrap, which I think is a huge compliment to us. The funny thing is that everything we did was pre-written, but by the time Eminem saw the finished film he asked, “Did Calum come up with a lot of that on the spot?” Because to Eminem, that’s what he would do. He would just come up with that on the spot. But no, they’re all pre-written.
The movie premiered in 2017 at Toronto but is just now coming out, through an interesting partnership between YouTube Premium and Neon. Can you talk about how you made that decision when it came to distribution?
For me, the agenda was to make sure I went with a distributor that would release it untouched, unedited. That’s the reason I made it independently, off the grid, with my own cash in the first place. I think going through the studio system, there’s just no way any corporate entity would let anyone watch two hours of racist, sexist jokes. No matter what the context is. So, it was difficult to even protect the movie itself, to make sure what came out was raw and unedited. And since it is an independent project, none of the mechanisms that you normally have with studio support were there, for instance the soundtrack. I had to go and get the rights to a lot of these songs and there are some big bangers in there. And finally, working out this unique situation. It’s YouTube’s first movie that’s theatrical, and signing up that distribution deal with Neon took a long time, just legally what the partnership would look like, how the responsibilities were set up, and we finally got it out there. And here we are!
Is there any part of you that wants to go back to making a big studio movie? Or are you still smarting from your experience on “Torque?”
No, I’ve learned a lot since “Torque.” “Torque” I shot 16 years ago. So that’s 16 years of experience. And I shoot mostly commercials now and that’s a whole different world than when I was doing “Torque,” when I was just a music video director. Now, I’m primarily a commercial director and I feel, quite frankly, that I’m weaponized for one of these studios if anybody would have me and it’s the right property. You know, obviously I know my style and I know my filmmaking and if anybody would unleash me on something … but it’d have to be the right project.
I wanted to talk about your last movie, “Detention,” because I love it.
Oh, that must mean you’re a genius. Because all geniuses love “Detention.”
That movie kind of got lost. How did that experience help you in terms of figuring out how to handle “Bodied?”
I didn’t really learn anything when it came to the distribution factor because, look … The lessons I learned from "Detention" were how to get distributed -- get big stars in your movie, pick your genre, figure out the expectations, and just meet them. And what did I do with “Bodied?” I did none of those things. I didn’t learn a single thing. I didn’t use big stars. I picked a cross-genre movie that made it hard to figure out your expectations. And I flooded it with racist, sexist jokes that horrify people in a normal, polite society. How do you market this thing? Who is the audience? And why would they ever go into the theater to watch this? Those are all things that I did not answer when I made this movie. I just wanted to make a good movie. I am the world’s biggest filmmaking idiot.
"Bodied” is in select theaters now and will be on YouTube Premium on November 28.