The BMD Interview: Joseph Kahn, Calum Worthy & Jackie Long Throw Down On BODIED
Disclosure: Tim League, founder and CEO of Birth.Movies.Death.’s parent company Alamo Drafthouse, is a co-founder of NEON.
Bodied is one of 2018's "Capital G" Great motion pictures, and finds Joseph Kahn (Detention) tackling our current obsession with wokeness, privilege, cultural appropriation, and (most of all) outrage regarding all of the above, packaging his blistering personal views inside an anti-Rocky narrative set in the world of battle rap. For those who may have missed my insanely positive review out of last year's Fantastic Fest, I gushed about Kahn's latest, saying:
"With Bodied, Kahn has created the perfect middle finger companion piece [to Detention] – a blistering critique of our current #StayWoke culture that has the balls to be both a criticism and champion of the heightened way we currently intellectualize cultural divides in pop culture. All the while, he employs legendary masters of the battle rap form to rip each other to pieces, while his camera whips and spins around them, creating this awe-inspiring dance of fluidity, where the performers set the pace completely, and will elevate to 'kill mode' without notice. It’s a goddamn miracle to behold."
Now, after waiting over a year, Bodied is currently in theaters, courtesy of NEON, before headed home on YouTube's Premium streaming service. We were lucky enough to sit down with Joe, as well as lead actors Calum Worthy (our white, academic battle rap "hero") and Jackie Long (his mentor of sorts in this new arena of appropriation). What followed was an incredibly frank discussion about Kahn's new movie, "outrage culture", and why people should take a gamble on seeing Bodied in a packed auditorium...
BMD: So, I've been a huge fan of the movie ever since seeing it last year at Fantastic Fest. But then it sat around and lost some momentum trying to find distribution. What happened?
Joseph Kahn: Contractual shit, man. Honestly stuff way beyond my pay-grade. YouTube is still getting their feet wet [in distribution] and needed to figure out what their strategy is. I mean, when we sold it, it was originally at YouTube Red. Now, [Bodied] is being branded as an "Original" on YouTube Premium. I don't even know what the company is entirely. [clears throat] YouTube is great, by the way.
Then we had to work on all the points with them and figure out theatrical. So, it was just like, a year of contracts. It was the most insane thing. Also, there's music rights that had to be worked out. This is not a normal movie. Remember, unlike most other movies that have some sort of financial backing, this is essentially a home movie. This is all my cash behind it. There's no difference between what I did on this movie and if you picked up an iPhone and started shooting some shit with your friends. There's literally no difference. So, once the movie was made and people liked it, we had to do all the legal stuff and figure it out.
BMD: You did the same type of thing on Detention, too.
JK: That's right. It's 100% independent. That's my money out there, and we've just been trying to figure out how to properly get it into the world.
But the other thing holding it back was the fact that people were horrified by this movie. When it was in script stage, agents were horrified. Then when I made it and started sending it out, everyone passed. I started off at Sundance, and they passed. Then SXSW, and they passed. That one kinda pissed me off, because they premiered Detention. But, one-by-one, they all just passed on the movie. They gave me notes back, and the notes were like, "uh, we don't know where the politics of this movie stand. Uh, it seems muddled. Uh, it's not liberal enough."
It wasn't until Peter Kuplowsky at [TIFF's] Midnight Madness accepted it that I began to believe I wasn't totally fucked. Because everybody was literally afraid that people were going to revolt and think it was the most racist movie ever made. Peter and Midnight Madness proved them all wrong. Then Fantastic Fest proved them all wrong. It was a smash. Then distributors started thinking, "well, maybe something else is going on here." And shit, there's quite a bit going on here.
But it's been a nightmare making this fucking movie. A good nightmare, in the end. But still a nightmare.
BMD: I shit you not, in the many years I've been attending Fantastic Fet, this was the only movie I've ever seen get a standing ovation there.
JK: That's happened at other festivals, too. It's crazy. I've felt like Don Quixote, screaming at windmills for so long. The studios all think I'm a crazy man, but the audiences are reacting and cheering and we're getting all these good reviews. They've told me it wasn't possible for so long, but they were just scared. They're so scared of this culture that's out there and that they continually play defense against in Hollywood. I don't know if you know this, but it's no longer just about coming up with a good, creative idea anymore when trying to make a movie. [Your idea] now gets filtered through this process of "who's going to get offended?", and the studios wonder "how do we defend against this?", and "what outrage is going to be the result of what you're doing?" Literally any piece of work that I do - from a commercial to a TV show to whatever - it goes through this filter of self-censorship. Now, that is not what Bodied is, right?
BMD: Not at all. It actually confronts those ideas head on. Now [to Calum and Jackie], what was it about Joe and [co-writer] Alex [Larsen]'s script that you guys responded to?
Calum Worthy: I read so many scripts that seem like they've been filtered through a bunch of network, executive, or studio notes. This felt very raw and authentic and honest, and that's really what made me want to be a part of this project. It just felt different. I think it's really rare to make a movie where you just let the storyteller tell the story they want to tell without twenty people chiming in about how to make every piece of the movie he wants to make. That's what makes this movie so special. In terms of, uh, some of the stuff that I had to say? I was obviously nervous about it because I'm a Disney Channel guy. That's where a huge part of my fan base comes from, and I knew that I could potentially alienate part of that. But at the same time, I'm an actor and it was a great script and for actors, their job is to do justice to those type of scripts.
Jackie Long: The movie was hood, and the hood is right up in my backyard. The words that they was basically saying is the shit that I say every day, even with my white friends that I hang with. They say the most crazy shit. It's racist sometimes, but I also know they're joking and we're just playing around. So, to read a script and see that it was truthful like that, it meant the world to me. You know, like Calum said, sometimes I'd read the words on the page and be like "damn, I gotta say that? Somebody might hear that." [laughs] But at the end of the day, I'm also an actor. I have to adapt to certain things. And I wasn't afraid, you know, because again, this is my backyard. In the hood, this is everyday shit.
BMD: So, how did you two prep for these roles together? Because you develop the most complex relationship in the whole movie.
CW: It was a lot of rehearsal, which is pretty rare anymore. On most projects, you show up on set the first day and meet the cast. Maybe you do a table read. But you don't usually get a project that is so personal and heavy. So this movie needed all that rehearsal, and we had a leader who wanted us to rehearse and encouraged it and sat with us during rehearsals. Plus, he had the battle rap community take us under their wing, and they were willing to coach us for months leading up to it. I couldn't rap for shit leading up to this. I was the worst. But it's because I was able to work with the best style rappers in the world, and they really coached me through how to say every single line.
JL: [points to Calum] It was just this guy, man. I loved working with this white boy. It was just beautiful every day. Plus, I knew Joseph can't be shocked anymore. So, we would play with each other and really dig into the things we were saying to one another. And we fucked up. We fucked up a lot. But that's just life. And after every day of working, I'd go to Calum and be like "yo, fuck going out man. Let's go rehearse some more and really keep pushing it. Let's keep it going." We were just grinding to really make the whole thing truthful, even when it went so far over the top.
Plus [points to Joe], I just trusted what this guy was doing with the camera, even when I didn't understand it. And I didn't understand a lot of it, you know? He's moving that thing around and harnessing it and placing it so that I wasn't quite sure what he was capturing. But I knew there was a science to it all, and just kept pushing with Calum to get it right, because I knew if our part was done correctly, his was definitely going to come out cool, and the whole thing would be amazing.
JK: The rehearsals were not only so could they could register all the dialogue and all that stuff, but it also allowed them to have a good sense of the narrative flow of the scene. If you watch the way I shot the sampling, with very specific camera angles and set-ups and stuff like that, all actors can't deal with that shit because they just want you to do conventional stuff, and I'm against doing very conventional camera blocking. Sometimes, it'd just be pieces of dialogue - I'd even [start shooting] in the middle of a scene - but because these guys had rehearsed it and they knew the scenes inside and out, I could literally put one camera anywhere, start at any point, and they'd have the rhythm of the scene already worked out. All the emotional cadences were built in. I'm telling you: these guys became weapons for me.
JL: There's this moment when [Calum's character Adam] had his girl break up with him, and I got to take him to [my character's family] house. There's a shot where the camera just ends on me in the rear-view [of a car pulling away]. That was my favorite. It was like the dopest thing, man. The day we were shooting I was like "what is this shit on my shoulder?" I didn't know how [the shot] was going to end up, but when you see the movie, it becomes the most beautiful moment. That was trust, man. I just knew Joseph would get it right, so I concentrated on my part.
BMD: You know, battle rap kind of had its cinematic "moment" with Eminem's 8 Mile over a decade ago. So, why go back to it? To me, it almost seems like you're using a somewhat outdated musical mode to confront a certain subsection of online culture.
JK: I've been wanting to make this movie for about two decades, and now have even gotten to work with Eminem [who is a producer on Bodied], and he made the best battle rap movie still to this day. So, I knew we were never going to be that. But I also knew I could make something completely different from 8 Mile that's doing something on its own.
I am a big, big critic of "outrage culture", and I say whatever I want. Fuck man, I'm an Asian dude that grew up in Texas during the '80s. I've got a thick skin. All the shit that people get mad about today? I'm like "walk two steps in my shoes during the '80s and you would not be worried about any of this stuff." But making a movie about "outrage culture" - which is essentially a bunch of keyboard warriors - would be the most boring thing in the world. Rap becomes a metaphor: this raw, visual, cinematic way of expressing the dynamics of people getting pissed at each other on Twitter, physically manifested though screaming faces for five-minute rounds. To me, that's extremely cinematic.
BMD: But there's also a notion contained in the narrative that you can go too far in your attempts to push back at 'outrage culture'. Like, you can say whatever you want and become the champion, but you're also sort of an asshole depending on your approach. I have this debate with a friend of mine who dislikes the movie because he sees [Calum's character] as a sort of "great white hope", and I don't think it's that movie at all.
CW: Well, obviously the main crux of the film is "white guy learns to rap". That's right there in the trailer. We don't hide it. But saying the movie's just about that is like saying Star Wars is simply about a guy who learns how to be really great with a laser sword. It lacks any sort of context or deeper questions.
JK: I don't wanna give anyone a "cheat code" and totally explain away the movie's point of view, but I think we make one thing pretty clear: this white guy who's learning to rap is not a good person. I think that should be obvious. What he does to his best friend [in the climax] is not a nice thing.
When we watch movies, we want everyone to be a "good guy" or a "bad guy". That is the context of the philosophical point of view of how we normally watch movies. We often want them to be morality tales. There's a good way to act and a bad way to act. But one of the things that I wanted to do with this movie is maybe present audiences with a main character who isn't a good person, but he's still technically the "good guy". This is his story. Morality is something that you have to judge for yourself, because there are also elements to this guy that are positive. He just has his own hills to climb, and how he goes about it is just wrong. By the end, you're either seeing the triumph of a man going against the odds, or you've just seen the birth of a super-villain. That's on purpose. You make the call. I'm not doing that for you.
CW: I wouldn't have taken on just a "rap movie". That's not something that I think would have been good for my career. The reason I took this is because of the many things it explores - topics that most people won't talk about in public. The depth of this project really made me want to be a part of it.
JL: And let's be real: a lot of people are gonna look at [Calum] and wonder where the hell all the anger is coming from in this normal, good looking Canadian dude. It's not normal. He's fucking scary, man.
JK: He's pretty much the White Devil by the end of the movie.
BMD: Now, are you nervous about how many people are going to see this movie for the first time? To me, Bodied is a very much an "audience film". You wanna see and feel your neighbors reacting. But the majority of folks are gonna it see on YouTube Prime...or whatever it's called.
JK: I think the ideal way to watch [Bodied] is with an audience, and see how the other audience members are reacting. It's like a rock concert, you know, and to have a communal experience where everybody is laughing at these jokes, even when they know they're no supposed to - that's an incredible experience. Because what you're doing is you're laughing with truth. You're acknowledging, "I laugh at these jokes. I'm going to fucking admit it now with you." Then you're going to wonder why you the hell you laugh at them. There's still going to be a cathartic release in the privacy of your own home. You can still ask yourself those questions. You just can't question why those around you are also laughing now.
BMD: When I saw it, I was sitting next to one writer from Mumbai who really uses their writing to explore privilege and prejudices, and on the other side of me was the forty-something white Editor of Fangoria, and they were both losing their minds. I remember thinking, "here are two dudes, from two totally different backgrounds, sharing this weird ass movie that kind of dissects privilege as well as those who often question it in a public forum...and they're both losing their fucking minds laughing."
JK: Isn't that the point of cinema, though? Isn't it supposed to be a place where we collectively as human beings discover what actually makes us human? What are you really getting out of simply experiencing your world, or the things that make you feel comfortable, or the type of humor you're already comfortable with? What are you really getting out of those "dashboard" experiences? When you pay to see a movie, you should be in there seeing and empathizing with new things and ideas.
BMD: Not to be a downer, but aren't those cinematic experiences getting more and more rare...at least in multiplexes? This isn't a necessarily criticism of these types of movies - though you could totally take it that way - but there's a theory that the reason superhero films are so popular and dominate the landscape is that they're a very simplistic 'good v. evil' mode of storytelling that people can easily escape with. A snap of Thanos' fingers notwithstanding, our heroes are always going to end up on top, and we're good with that because that's what we want to happen and feel most comfortable with.
JK: People spend money on the spectacle because, if you pay $10 to $20 on a movie ticket - plus the popcorn and all that - it's an expensive experience. So, you don't want to waste your money because there's a lot of other things you could spend that money on that's more meaningful in your life. Right? But I think what's happening is that people want to feel like they're guaranteed to have some sort of base level entertainment, no matter what. They'll at least see some buildings topple, or whatever. You're literally telling Hollywood, "Alright, you're going to take my money. I know I'm a sucker. Fuck you. Knock over a lot more buildings than I've seen before. At least make me feel like you're going to give me what I think I already know...just give me MORE of it."
There's more a question mark hanging around a movie like Bodied. You don't know what you're going to get. It's a risk for you to pay that money to walk into a theater and not know what you're going to get out of it. That's a crapshoot. But if it works for you, you get this great reward, looking into a another person's philosophy. It's just so fucking expensive to do that these days, so it's a risk and I understand the audience is going to be skeptical. But I will just say myself: I think it's worth it. [laughs] I think it's worth seeing it in a theater because you are going to get an experience that has been missing from your life up until that point.
Bodied is in select theaters now.