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CS Interview: Joseph Kahn, Calum Worthy, and Jackie Long on Bodied!

Ahead of the theatrical release of NEON’s Bodied this Friday, ComingSoon.net sat down with director Joseph Kahn and stars Calum Worthy (American Vandal, Austin & Ally, and The Thinning), and Jackie Long (Idlewild, ATL) to talk all things about the rap-battle fueled satire.

ComingSoon.net: It was a spectacular screening last night. It went really well. I kind of want to break this interview into two parts. I want to talk about the origins of the film, and then I want to go into the themes of it. And so, I want to talk to everybody about how the film kind of started, and Joseph, this is a story that you’ve obviously wanted to tell for a long time. And you kind of have the luxury, with all the work that you do, it’s like, well, if I’m going to make a movie, I’m get to make a movie about what I want to make it about. So talk about that a little bit.

Joseph Kahn: Well, that’s the fun of how I setup my career. And it was actually by design from the very beginning. I knew that I was going to go into music videos. I knew I was going to go into commercials and I knew I was going to sort of keep doing that until I could pick the project that I wanted to for filmmaking. I didn’t know that Torque was going to bomb. And I didn’t know how big of a setback that would be for my career. So the entire process of funding my own movies became a necessity as opposed to, I thought, a luxury. And that’s how it started. So that’s why I now make these movies like Detention or Power Rangers, which was a short film, or this, where it’s completely self-funded. On the negative side, I spend a lot of cash and it’s very risky. On a positive side, I feel like I’m doing something that very few people get to do, which is make films exactly the way I want to, like to the dot.

CS: Right. And so, what came first, your reaching out to Alex or the script, how did that work?

Kahn: I reached out to Alex first. I just loved his writing as a battle rapper. I was following battle rap for a long time. I thought he was just such a good writer, that we should write a horror movie together. And I’d done that before. I reached out to a Canadian film critic I like named Mark Palermo and we wrote Detention together. And I thought that I could do something similar with Alex. But at a certain point, we just decided to make a battle rap movie. And I went in with the same intent. We actually spent many months beating out the story. Every scene you had there was in essentially the beat outline, and we figured out what every scene meant, what was the objective, what were the character arcs. You work all that architecture out in the beginning. And then, I went off to go do a lot of music videos and commercials. And of course, that ends up becoming so busy that I’ve just put the film on the shelf for a while. But Alex didn’t want to wait around, so one day, he just sent me the first act, and I read it and I laughed my ass off. And I also realized not only is this a great movie, he’s a better writer than me. And I said, “Alex, finish it.” And he wrote the whole thing himself.

Jackie Long: That part you laughed at, is that still in the movie?

Kahn: Yeah, that’s basically the first act, as you read it.

CS: Jackie, how did it come to you? How did you find this material come to you?

Long: My agent. They said, “You have an audition today and you have it at such and such a time. Be there.” Now basically I auditioned and that’s how it came to me. And then, once we got involved, of course, Joseph just broke it all down, too, as we went to work. But the audition, that’s how I heard about it.

CS: And Calum, when you got the material, how did you respond to it for the first time?

Calum Worthy: Oh when I first saw the material, I fell in love with the script. It was one of the smartest scripts I had ever read. I loved that it was on the surface, there is that idea that being like the white guy learning how to rap. But that’s not what this movie’s about. It’s about so much more. And that’s what really made me so excited about this project and really want to sink my teeth into it.

 

CS: So it was a 22-day shoot. Any really crazy, wild stories that you want to talk about during the shoot?

Long: Somebody got fired the first day. That’s an interesting story right there.

CS: If you all can’t talk about it that’s cool.

Long: No, I’ll tell you. I don’t care. Somebody lost something that Joseph needed, very important, and you got to go, because we had to reshoot that scene again and that’s a lot of time and a lot of work. And Joseph is like, “Look, this is my own money. I put my own money—I can’t waste no time and wasting money by you doing that.” That little memory card had something special on it, so you gotta go.

Kahn: I’ll tell you what also happened is that when you do projects like this and you’re shooting at essentially for very little money, it’s a sacrifice on many different parts. You’re either going to have crew members that do your music videos and commercials bring down their rate by literally to a fifth of what they normally make during the day, and it’s a big sacrifice. They have families. They have bills. But they’re donating their time, essentially, for a very little piece of cash. Or you’re getting newcomers that are new to the business, and you don’t know what these people are going to be like in five years. They could be complete f*ck-ups. So it was clear that this particular person was a f*ck-up, and I just literally, it was too critical of a job. It was basically the second assistant camera assistant who loads the film, and erased a scene. And that’s just not acceptable. They have one job.

And so, when I decided to fire her, the gaffer, the guy who takes care of all the lighting underneath the director of photography and all equipment, threatened to walk off the job. And so, on the very first day, I was threatened by the crew that if I fired any of them, they would, in solidarity, walk off the job, putting me in a bad spot, where I would either have no crew or I would have like, this thing where I’d shoot the film and pieces of the movie would be missing. And my producer was scared. And I just went up to her and said, “Look, f*ck it. Let them walk. I will pick up the camera and shoot this whole thing handheld myself.” So I called the bluff. So he got fired, too.

Long: I didn’t know that part.

Kahn: So by the next morning, I had two people gone, and the crew stuck around.

CS: So when was it filmed, 2016, 2017? Because it was a 22-day shoot, obviously the politics of the country had to have been going on at the time you all were shooting, and definitely was informing the film. How did that feel as that was happening, as like, did you feel like you were on the pulse of something?

Kahn: Yeah, I mean, it’s predictive. One of the things I really loved doing with my own money on these movies is trying to make movies that feel super relevant at the time and place. And one thing I learned of Detention, actually, two things, one is that Detention was set in 2011, and by the time the movie got out, it was released in 2012. So I knew to fudge the date by a couple of years to be safe for the release. So you’ll actually see Anthony Michael Hall say, “2018,” but we actually shot it in 2015.

The second part is when you watch most movies, for me, they seem so displaced from real life because they are time travel things. By the time you see a movie, they shot that two years ago. The actors are two years older. So every piece of music and clothing and hairstyle is two years old. And one thing I try to do with these things is make it seem like they’re happening at the time that you release it. So we tried to predict what the world would look like three years from then. It was literally like forecasting.

CS: Yeah, because when you watch it now, it feels like I just brought it in off the street. It’s literally right here at the moment. It’s very much a film of the moment.

Long: I’d say the only thing the movie is missing that’s relevant and big is Colin Kaepernick.

Kahn: No, Colin Kaepernick was happening at the time we were shooting the movie. And actually, the movie was, in a certain way, a response to Colin Kaepernick, because I could see the snowball effect that that was going to happen. Now ultimately what we’re talking about is racial divisions within the movie. And at that time, in 2015, it was right before Trump, I could see that there are two things going on.

There are definitely valid social issues that everybody has. Whenever you have like, LGBT culture complaining that they’re getting dismissed or you have black culture and Black Lives Matter feeling that you know, they’re getting killed or in fact, you have, say white culture feeling that their issues are being dismissed. The thing about when we made this film in 2015, we did not know that the white culture of everyone feeling dismissed in that particular segment would be the ones that would actually decide the election, you know? And that’s what ended up happening. When we made the film, the one thing I could not predict was that Trump would win. He seemed like such a long shot. It was impossible to win. And that just shows you that the theme of listening to people is a critical thing that the film kind of hits upon, and hopefully, it was kind of like a siren call that actually came true by the time the movie came out.

CS: Yeah, because even though the movie had come out now, you hit a moment in time, where a lot of people were dismissed as outliers saying, “Oh, Trump’s not going to win. We’re going to continue on this path we’re going.” And but things happened with Ferguson and all those shootings that have been going on, where there’s this under swell of kind of really bile in the country. And it’s hard to be able to put your finger on that, but I think your film does that. It’s really remarkable that you all keyed in on that moment in time, and so that now, three years later, when it’s out, it’s like, it feels very fresh.

Kahn: It was very clear that the lack of communication and the bullying culture of people trying to talk over each other were going to have some interesting ramifications the next couple of years. It was not easy to sort of figure out like, some of the specific details, but the idea that college campuses would constantly protest, you know, the idea that friendships would fray over just mere politics, it’s a very different time than three years ago. Even three years ago, the entire idea that entire friendships would just break apart because of politics, now, it seems very normal.

CS: It happens. I think it happened to everybody in this room, probably.

Kahn: But it happened overnight.

 

CS: I want to talk about Calum and Jackie, your relationship in the film. I don’t want to go into spoilers because people who read this won’t know all the stuff that happens, but first off, you all have to do an action movie together because you all have a popping chemistry, and I’m missing buddy action movies. And I think you all two can do a great job.

Worthy: I think so, too.

Long: Thank you, thank you.

CS: So second, but again, without spoiling the nature of you all’s friendship and the nature of you all’s relationship during the film obviously transforms as the film goes on. And I want to talk about that as a process as an actor. Was this film chronologically or was it out of shots?

Kahn: Well, we shot totally out of sequence. In fact, I think one of the very first scenes every shot was the very ending of the movie with Calum on the bench.

Worthy: Yeah, that was one of the first scenes.

CS: So how did that go as a process for you all as actors?

Worthy: You can’t fake chemistry, and I think that you can fake not knowing someone, but you can’t fake the chemistry once you do have a relationship with someone. So the key for us was to become as close as we possibly can as quickly as we can. And that’s what we did. And luckily, we really like each other. We are really good friends in real life. And that’s just a blessing, because sometimes, you do projects and it doesn’t happen. You just don’t click. We did. So by going to that place, we can rewind and put ourselves in the place of just meeting each other. And that’s a lot easier. But it’s so hard to make that friendship happen on screen.

CS: Right.

Long: I think with any movie that you’re doing, TV show, commercial, whoever, I always try my hardest to become great friends with whoever I’m working with, even if it’s the extras, because they’re a part of what you’re doing. You want everybody to feel comfortable. And when I work, I want everybody to feel comfortable—the director, or whoever. Like, if I’m so nice or so humble on the set, if we don’t have time to get that shot, somebody that’s lazy, now we’ve got to move on. But if you’re so nice and sweet and humble, everybody’s nice to you, they do that extra touch, “No, we got it, Joseph. Let’s go shoot that scene for him and do that light.” But with me and Calum, this movie from reading the script, we had to really be cool and like, know each other to make it believable on camera. So since the audition, when we had the chemistry read, I knew then when I told Joseph, he asked me, he said, “Who do you think should get this role?” I said, “Calum.”

In every scene, me and Calum was the coolest white dude I ever met. He was so into this role. He was just so nice, and it was like everything I asked him to do, like, “Let’s go study,” it wasn’t, “No, I have to go do this. I have to go do that.” He was like, “No, let’s do it. Let’s go. I’ll go with you after the thing, any time on set.” I said, “Let’s go study right now during lunch. Let’s go. Let’s go do this.” It was always something that we both knew that we had to make this movie believable. You know, you had to see our friendship, so at the end of the movie, when you see my eyes going through all this stuff, it’s more believable because you’re like, “Damn, weren’t they just tight? Weren’t they just cool homies?” You know, so the bond that we had in the movie is real because every day, literally since the first day we met, we was into this script deep. Like, he came over to my house all the time and we studied, studied, studied, studied. And that’s why our relationship is the way it is now.

Kahn: Can I tell you something really fascinating that I’ve noticed being on this tour with these guys and getting to know them really well about their particular relationship? Obviously, Calum is very white and Jackie’s very black, you know? And the funny thing is that they are truly friends. They really do genuinely get along, but neither of them are coat switching. Like Calum’s not trying to become more black and Jackie’s not trying to become more white. They’re literally who they are, and yet, they completely get along, you know? And they share humor, but Calum does it as literally as his white self and Jackie stays his black self. And yet, they literally get along.

And that’s very unusual in Hollywood because usually what I see is when you see a black/white friendship and they come from two very different cultures, usually what ends up happening is the white guy starts trying to act more black. And that’s not happening with Calum because that’s impossible for this dude.

Worthy: Yeah, I’m the whitest guy in the world.

Kahn: And Jackie is naturally friendly and positive. He doesn’t have to coat switch to become more white. He just stays himself. So there’s an honesty and a truthfulness about their relationship that’s really fascinating and actually very rare because neither one of them are changing themselves to be friends. I think that’s actually a wonderful thing to say.

Long: Thank you, Joseph. Appreciate that.

CS: My final question. I want to talk a little bit about, you discussed this at kind of the Q&A last night, talking a little bit about outrage culture. And I think we all subscribe to that in a sense of when we see something that makes us angry, we immediately run to our social media and we just blast it, blast it. And something feels like it’s getting lost in that. Like, it feels to me like we’re not posting because we’re angry. We’re posting how we want to appear in the world as how we feel about things. And I think this movie really touches on that. And I just wanted you all to talk about that a little bit, if you all wanted to.

Kahn: Well, I think there’s two ways to view any sort of argument and the world is in an argument right now. There is an intellectual perspective and then there’s an experiential perspective. But the thing is that on one hand, on the intellectual perspective, without the experiential side of it, you can get wrapped up in your own head and you make intellectual arguments without the perspective from humanity. And there’s a lacking feel of emotion that you can’t get a good analysis off of that. On the flip side, the experiential part of it, where you’re actually in the moment, without a good dose of intellectualism and analysis can lead you astray because now you’re just going off of the emotion.

And what you end up finding sometimes is like, battle rappers have different styles. People on social media have different styles. One person might be arguing from a completely cool-headed, analytical point of view that has no empathy whatsoever, and the other person is all empathy with no intellectual analysis. And that’s a bad combo. And you see essentially battle raps are made out of good matches. What are good styles to put against each other? Two intellectuals going against each other are going to be amazing. But you see all these wires getting crossed in real life, and literally, it is a lack of good communication. And we’re simply like, flattening out any context whatsoever and you just see random words on screen and people are just coming at it, like the entire human experience is getting filtered through in 280 characters, and people are literally getting trapped up into a bad form of battle rap.

CS: That’s very true. It’s literally about debate.

Long: He answered everything right there. Look, that was a lot.

Produced by music icon artist Eminem, his manager and Def Jam Records CEO Paul Rosenberg, and producers Adi Shankar and Jil Hardin. Bodied opens in theaters on November 2.

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