'Bodied' Director Joseph Kahn On Why His Explosive Rap Battle Comedy Was A Tough Sell For Distributors [Interview]

Joseph Kahn is a prolific commercial and music video director, but he has only made three feature films. His first, Torque, was The Fast and the Furious on motorcycles, but he made it a spoof of The Fast and the Furious, and people expecting a straight Fast and the Furious weren't on board. He made Detention independently, but the teen slasher comedy with time travel was a tough sell for distributors, even as a Josh Hutcherson vehicle.

On the surface, Bodied would be Kahn's most commercial film. It's about a college kid, Adam (Callum Worthy), who enters the world of battle rap an underdog, and becomes a champion. But there's more to Bodied than a hero's journey. The film takes Adam to task for being a white kid infiltrating a multi-cultural world. Though fellow rapper Behn Grymm (Jackie Long) tells him anything goes in battle rap, Adam does face consequences for his raps.

Kahn spoke with /Film in Los Angeles this month. He filmed Bodied in 2016 and it played festivals in 2017, so the film is entering an even more volatile powderkeg of a world than he imagined in 2018. Some mild spoilers follow in this thematic discussion, so if you're already sold, read this after you see Bodied in theaters November 2 or on YouTube Premium November 28.

After Detention was so outside the box that most distributors didn't understand it, were you hoping that a rap battle movie would be an easier sell?

That was kind of the hope but at the end of the day, I don't really concern myself with that. If I get too wrapped up into that concept, I can't be true to the actual initial core of the idea because I think more in terms of thematics than salesmanship. I ended up putting myself in a box again because I made an incredibly offensive movie. So on one hand, it sounds super commercial, but when you actually watch the movie it's literally minute after minute of racist, sexist, misogynist jokes that are relentless to the end of the film. Every distributor was like, "We can't do this movie."

So did the content make Bodied just as tough a sell?

Yes, in fact probably more difficult than Detention actually.

Did Eminem producing it make it any easier?

Yeah, if Eminem didn't produce it, we would not have a release at all. By Eminem backing it, that's the reason why it's at YouTube. If Eminem was not behind this movie, I would have a very expensive home movie that I would show to a handful of my friends.

Even YouTube was skeptical until Eminem was attached?

Well, Eminem was already attached by the time it was there. Just by the experience of watching who was making offers and who wasn't, all the major distributors were not making offers because literally they would say, "Oh God, I love but my corporate brand will never allow me to buy this movie. How do we release this? We'd get sued or we'd get picketed." By conjecture, I kind of figured that without Eminem's name we'd be nowhere.

Even though Adam does face consequences for his words, it didn't matter? Just the content leading up to that scared people off?

It's because it's not a heavy handed lesson. It's a tricky movie because from the outset it just looks like 8 Mile Part 2. It just looks like here's another white dude, he's going to win a bunch of battle raps and he'll be better at rapping than black guys. That's what the movie looks like but then when you actually watch the movie, you're like, "Oh sh*t, it's something radically different." But you can't put that in the marketing. There's no way to market that without spoiling the movie. [Screenwriter] Alex [Larsen] and I were very conscious that the particular audience that we are trying to speak to, I want an intelligent audience. I want an audience that doesn't want to be spoonfed all the answers, that you give breathing room for them to discuss it. Ultimately, the movie is not giving you a lesson about anything. The movie is asking a series of question that leaves it open for the audience to debate it and that's a weird concept in today's world where you've got to have a lesson at the end of every movie.

Fans may wonder why you have a white kid entering this multicultural world, but are you commenting on that very trope?

Yeah, not only are we commenting on that trope, we actually comment about 8 Mile in the middle of the movie self-reflexively. The funny thing is, the question of 8 Mile is not valid today. It was valid when it first came out. The question of 8 Mile was: can a white guy rap? Can a white guy rap at all? That was the questions 8 Mile. Flash forward 16 years later, we know white guys can rap. The question is: should they? Is this cultural appropriation? Are they bullying other people by doing this? What is it like to have a world of battle rap where minorities are already making fun of each other, what happens when you put a privileged white guy into that mix now? Who's weaponized, who's been to college, who has a rich dad, who studies iambic pentameter and Russian literature and knows all the poetry and has a huge vocabulary. Does it unbalance that particular world? Again, the movie does not answer this for you. It just throws a question. I'm just being a little naughty quite frankly.

It is about the question of: should one be free to say politically incorrect things? Two years after you made the movie, people are now losing jobs for saying politically incorrect things, either in the present or years ago. Does this relate to Roseanne and James Gunn?

Now remember, the movie was made before all this stuff happened, so the conversation is changing rapidly. It seems to be changing every couple months. I pat myself on the back for asking questions instead of answering them, so the movie is still valid. Imagine if we had taken the form of an absolutist perspective like "no, you should not be able to say this" or "you should be able to say this." I think depending on the season of the year, the movie could be valid or invalid. Luckily it's done as a series of debatable questions, a Socratic method if you will.

What are your thoughts on celebrities losing jobs for the things they said?

If you want to ask my deepest personal perception of the world today, I think it's always dangerous at the end of the day to regulate speech. Theoretically, as an underclass my whole life, I've heard tons of negative things said about me as an Asian person. All it did was make me tougher and actually make me better. I'm kind of happy that people made fun of me for being Asian in my early days because I felt it made me a better artist. Now, would I wish that on my kid or anyone else? No, of course not. But, I do think it becomes a little dangerous if we change the algorithm of life, so that we tweak it so it's being regulated and [people are] fired because at any point the rules may change. One minute you might be Fred Topel, the guy that is a great moral person but you might say one f***ing thing that's a mistake and then you're out. I don't know if I'm comfortable with that concept, quite frankly.

Yeah, I'm conflicted about Roseanne because I do think it's dangerous, the things she was putting out there to the following she had, but she was doing a great show that was good for people that didn't reflect her terrible values.

Look, it's complicated. I don't know if we're going to have the answers anytime soon but at least we're having a discussion about it. What is dangerous is all we do is the action with no discussion. That is the worst case scenario.

Isn't the biggest problem here that Donald Trump has said whatever he wants and faced  no consequences, and has the biggest platform of all?

I'm from Houston, Texas. I'm an Asian kid that grew up in Houston, TX in the '80s. I know everything about conservative hypocrisy. "Do as I say, not as I do" is a mantra down there. That's what's happening with Trump. He can say whatever he wants, but you have to act in a completely different role or you get judged. That's unfortunate and the danger of it too. He has all the power now. What if he flipped it? Right now it's "I can say whatever I want as Trump." What if he added an addendum, "But you can't say what you want to say."

Isn't that what he's trying to do, attacking the press?

He's trying for sure, right? He's trying to go after the press and all that. That's why it is so important to have a free press, free speech. These things that the press do are important. At this point, what people don't realize is free speech and a free press is literally the line in the sand of whether we have a democracy or a dictatorship. Journalists are the last line. If you guys are gone, we've got nothing. America does not exist anymore.

One more tangent, your producer Adi Shankar went after The Simpsons for their portrayal of Apu. Should they be protected to keep doing Apu their way since it's their creative expression?

I have a disagreement with Adi about this. The funny thing is that Adi and I don't see eye to eye on everything. We see eye to eye on a lot of things. I'm personally not offended by Apu. I'm also not Indian, but for instance, racist Asian caricatures, I generally do not have as much of a personal stake in either. Perhaps it's because of the really thick yellow skin that' I've had over the years, and also because I have such dark twisted humor as a human being, I'm simply not as offended by cultural tropes. It's just not in my DNA.

Bodied Trailer

Personally, since The Simpsons is my favorite thing, I'm a little disappointed they just don't want to hear the Indian community on this. I don't think it would hurt the show to, after 30 years, change one character. But I've talked to those show runners about it and they won't go there with me.

At a certain point, where's the line drawn? Everybody could come in and say something. I don't know, I tend to feel, my critics don't intermesh with pop culture. I've always been there at the forefront of it and side by side, just interjecting a crazy music video every once in a while and just being part of the conversation. What I see is something radically different than what most people see. Over the course of my 30 years of being in pop culture, I've seen how it actually has opened up. There is a vast mixing going on, even though it's trying to bifurcate into its own thing. I think in the world of pop culture, if you want to change something, make something better and it will naturally change. Instead of complaining about the specific thing, if you want Apu out of The Simpsons, make a Simpsons that's better than The Simpsons with no Apu in there and all of a sudden The Simpsons creators will go, "Well, f***, this isn't working. They're beating us in ratings. How should we change to compete with them?" Or The Simpsons gets cancelled.

I agree with make something better instead of complaining. So is the name Adam chooses at the end of the movie Bodied, the title of the movie?

No. He keeps talking about his rap name. The reality is, the next line is, "My name is Slim Shady." The joke is that everyone keeps comparing him to Eminem through the whole thing but he's not Eminem. The reason why is because Eminem comes from legitimately low culture, trailer trash, literally hung out with the 8 Mile crowd. Adam comes from high culture, from privilege, had an incredible education. He's Fred Topel going into battle rapping. What ends up happening is through the course of the film, he loses all his friends, loses his cash, he's sleeping on a bench at the end of the movie. At that point he can call himself Slim Shady, just like you're going to do one day, Fred. You will become Slim Shady.

So there is an answer. His name is not the briefcase in Pulp Fiction.

Well, we don't know the name but we know the intent.

How long did it take to script the raps?

It was pretty fast actually because Alex Larsen is a fricking genius. Originally I was going to write this movie with him, but I beated out the story. Once he started writing, I was like I can't write better than this guy. The guy's a better writer than me so I just let him write the whole f***ing movie. He was fast. Now, some of them were written by him. Other parts like Dizaster wrote his own lines. A lot of battle rappers wrote their own stuff but anything with the main characters who don't rap for real, those are Alex's lines.

Since Bodied will be on YouTube, did you have to do a different sound mix so all the rap dialogue will be clear at home, on a computer or a tablet?

Well, we spent a year working on the sound, so whether it's in a theater or whether it's at home, it's been mixed to perfection. It really has. I spent a year on the mix.

You signed with YouTube before Cobra Kai. Did you see that they were going to be legit?

No. It was a gamble.

Now you're in a good position.

Well, now YouTube subscription is turning hot, right? When I did it it was just because they were going to promise me a theatrical release. Not a big one, but not like what happened on Detention where it's a day and date thing. You release the online along with [theatrical] which doesn't work at all because everybody just stays at home. In this particular case, they decided to release it separately and do a legitimate theatrical release with a little bit of marketing budget. It's an offer I couldn't refuse.

Is Happy a fun sandbox to play in?

Happy was hilarious. Happy was really fun. Brian Taylor, you know, director of Crank, reached out to me and said he wanted me to do this television episode. I said, "Well, I'll do it if you make it f***ing nuts." And he did. Spoiler, I get to kill a bunch of f***ing Nazis. I'm telling you, I am so proud of the way I killed Nazis in this thing, it's grotesque. I just did my rough cut of it. I don't know if it's going to get past all the TV censors but it's gross. I've never gotten to play with Nazis before. I see Spielberg do it and he gets to beat them up and shoot them, so I wanted my chance. I got my chance. It was so fun.

Is it the season premiere?

No, it's the fourth episode. I'll tell you, the crew hated me. As much as people say TV shoots really fast, it actually shoots really slow. These guys are running a marathon. I'm used to sprinting. I go in there and I have 60 shots a day. They want to do 20 shots but I'm still going to get my 60 shots. I am the most unpopular guy in TV, I'll tell you that much.

When do you start on another movie?

I'm always thinking about it, but I can't afford it. Once every seven years because that's how long it takes me to pay off the previous one and maybe get another one. I wish there was some amazing studio that would say, "Hey Joseph, we see your vision. It's unsafe but let's give you some cash to do it with." It just doesn't happen.

If Bodied blows up YouTube, is there a certain amount of views that would help? Or how could they determine if it adds more subscriptions to their Premium?

That's the problem. It's really hard to figure out what their metrics are. I don't know what those metrics are. If it does well in the theater, which let's be honest, who knows? It's not getting a super wide release. I don't know what the metrics are on that either. I'll just keep fantasizing and dreaming about my next project, right?