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LEVELING UP: Adi Shankar On Redefining His Role In The Hollywood Ecosystem!

LEVELING UP: Adi Shankar On Redefining His Role In The Hollywood Ecosystem!

Adi Shankar reimagined by Boss Logic

When Adi Shankar exploded onto the scene over a decade ago, no one could have anticipated the impact his presence would have on Hollywood. As one of the most dynamic artists working in the entertainment industry, he has remained on the cutting edge every step of the way. Through the years, he’s brought us new additions to his ever-expanding “Bootleg Universe,” successfully reignited the fire inside a long-dead video game franchise with Netflix’s “Castlevania” series (which was just green-lit for a 3rd Season), began laying the groundwork for his highly-anticipated “Gods and Secrets” project, and is fresh off producing Joseph Kahn’s 2018 unflinching rap-battle flick,“Bodied.”

There is no doubt that Shankar is fearless when it comes making his dreams a reality. At the same time, it’s easy to mischaracterize him. He’s young, successful, wildly-talented, wears a sweet Power Glove, and has way more hits than misses. It’s easy to say, “He has it all figured out.” Right? Well, maybe not. Maybe Adi Shankar is a lot more like you and me than you might think. Maybe he is still figuring it all out just like the rest of us, and maybe the best is yet to come! Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Adi to discuss his continuing evolution as an artist and storyteller, the obstacles that put him on his current trajectory, and finding his footing with a little help from his friends. 

It’s exciting to watch everything you did over the past decade as you continue to evolve as an artist. What was it that lit the fuse on you creatively?

I was also moving every two-and-a-half years since I was born. Every two-and-a-half years I would be in a new state, country or ecosystem. When I was 16 years old, I moved to America by myself. What was really tough was moving to America before 9/11 happened. I immediately felt like an outsider or an outcast. Just as I started to get acclimated and feeling normal, I had this existential crisis right after I turned 19. I had this health scare that was incredibly terrifying. The diagnosis ended up being completely false but experiencing that at such a young age unlocked something in me. That is when the voice in my head, that was more of a light buzzing, turned into a full-blown mission.

It’s interesting how often a bad experience can lead you to a great place.

It did, it did! I think that was what really spurred this creative output in me. I think when you are an outsider and new to an ecosystem, you start noticing things that are different about each new place, whether it be that people talk differently, value different things or tell different stories to one another to glorify different aspects of life. You see all of these different value systems play out. By that token, becoming a storyteller and homing the craft of storytelling becomes second nature and almost a survival mechanism in order to assimilate into these new cultures and ecosystems. That is what started me on my creative journey.

Back then, there were very few Indian people in Hollywood, period. It was a very difficult road. It was a road that evolved in more and more difficult ways. By that I mean, when I first moved to Hollywood and tried to break in here, the entire town was run by a small handful of gatekeepers. If you weren’t part of that family or ecosystem, there was no way to break in. Every so often you would hear stories of people who broke in, but they were very few and far between. It was most certainly not the way it is now where the proliferation of technology has allowed anyone with an imagination to be creative and have creative output, regardless of the distribution mechanism that is getting behind a creative outlet. Before you simply couldn’t be creative because the tools that allow one to be creative were heavily guarded, as were the distribution mechanism to allow anyone to see anything that you did that was creative. Once I had that epiphany, I knew I was going to break in and make my mark. It was going to happen no matter if I had to climb over the way, go around it or bash it down, I was getting through!

How has your approach to the projects evolved over the past decade?

In the beginning, like I said, it was definitely just to break in. Anything that helped me break in was something that I pursued. Once I broke in, then it became about making a splash. Again, making a splash meant playing a very specific game amongst a very specific group of players. It was about getting the gatekeepers attention. For a while, anything that did that, I pursued. Then there was this culture shift that happened because of the proliferation of the internet, smartphones, etcetera, etcetera, which made me realize that the gatekeepers who were creating this imaginary glass ceiling and imaginary ladder was exactly that; it was imaginary. This thing now only had power because we believed it had power. I realized that one day people would wake up to the fact that this glass ceiling and ladder were imaginary. That freed me up to this world of possibilities where I could be a content creator without the shackles of needing to cater to the establishment and get their nod of approval. That put me into a whole different trajectory. Boiling it all down, especially over the last year, I started to wonder, “What is the point of all this?” On some level, I was seeking immortality. I think I slowly started to wake up to the idea that this was a fool’s errand. Immortality may come but it will not come by making a project. Even the Beatles will one day be forgotten.

Do you feel more comfortable in your own skin these days?

Comfortable isn’t the right word. It wasn’t that I was ever uncomfortable in my own skin. It’s more like I’m now able to engage with the outside world in multiple contexts, when in the past I may not have yet developed the tools to do so. Being a part of this Hollywood ecosystem makes you mature very quickly. In my early 20s, I was thrust with adult responsibility of someone 10, 20 or 30 years older than me at a very young age. That also stunted other aspects of evolution on these social fronts. I found myself living in the world where all I really knew was Hollywood. Coupled with the fact that I viewed myself as an outsider, it became very weird. One day I realized, “OK, you’re this outsider who is rebelling against the machine but all you know is this machine because you’ve been here doing this for so long.”

Adi Shankar continues to push himself to his creative limits. – Photo by Dexter Brown

How do you see yourself fitting in Hollywood at this point?

I think that’s the beauty of everything that’s happening and why I’ve had these epiphanies. A lot of my friends are in their 50s and 60s. When they were younger, Hollywood would was literally a community. It was a very small, closely knit, guarded community. Now, guys like myself and from my generation might look at that as, “These were the gatekeepers.” Even though that might be the case, it was also a close-knit community where everyone knew everyone and vacation together and stuff. That doesn’t exist anymore. I don’t think Los Angeles is even the epicenter for the entertainment industry or at least it’s not going to be in the next three years. Entertainment has become very global, very fast. Hollywood doesn’t really exist in the way that it used to exist, so even the torchbearers and the people who were revered or had power in the old system are all struggling to see how they will adapt in this new ecosystem. One of the first times you guys interviewed me, I was ranting about what was about to happen. Back then that was a radical idea. It was like, “What is this guy talking about? He’s crazy! What does he mean that movie theaters are going to go away and not be super relevant? What does he mean that the Oscars are going to become less relevant?” Then this all came to fruition. I was fortunate enough to have the gift of foresight on some of this stuff and I acted accordingly. I woke up in a world where I was better suited to the new ecosystem that exists.

You have brought so many unique projects to the table. Do you feel pressure to outdo yourself?

I don’t need the feel to innovate for the sake of innovation. I’m not anti-status quo. I feel some of this early innovation was born because advancements in technology created certain loopholes around the established machine as I saw it. All of a sudden, I felt like I had cheat codes and could navigate around the walls that had been there for 100 years. I do feel a need to innovate but I wouldn’t say it’s a pressure to innovate. This need to innovate is less about me and what I want. A lot of this stuff before was me saying, “Wouldn’t it be cool if this existed? This should exist.” Now, it’s almost a more holistic approach, even though that sounds super corny when I say it out loud. [laughs] True innovation. I’m also realizing that innovation for the sake of innovation isn’t always good.

What goes into capturing your initial ideas and bringing them into a cohesive space?

I was watching this really, really old mainstream interview with Eminem. It was early in his career and he was talking about how he had boxes and boxes of notes lying everywhere. The journalist interviewing Marshall commented that it looked something from the home of a crazy person. When I saw that, I definitely related! [laughs] I thought, “Oh, I do that too!” The moment I heard that it looked like it belonged to a crazy person, I was like, “Oh.” However, I’ve come to realize that a lot of artists do similar things. It’s not limited to artists but inventors as well. A lot of tech people have that same thing.

You and Eminem are both producers on Joseph Kahn’s fantastic film, “Bodied.” What spoke to you about this project?

Joseph Kahn and I started working on “Bodied” right after “Power/Rangers.” He directed the “Power/Rangers” bootleg one-shot, which is probably the most notorious of the fan films I did. “Bodied” was kind of his big follow up. The reality of it was that it was an interesting time in both of our lives. After that short film came out, he was getting offered all kinds of big franchises from the studios. All of a sudden, the combination of that short combined with his rebranding or Taylor Swift instantly made him a mega-hot commodity to the studios. Ultimately, after doing ring-around-the-Rosie for a few months, he just wanted to tell a personal story. This is a very personal story to Joseph. It’s really about political correctness. The movie, as I see it, is a dissection of this culture of political correctness that we currently live in. It’s not making a value judgement on it one way or the other. It’s dissecting the nuances of it. It’s basically having a nuanced conversation about an issue that the world refuses to have a conversation about.

From our early conversations, you said you never really had a mentor as you began your journey. However, through the years, Joseph and you made a connection and formed a bond.

Wow, that’s a great point. You know, Joseph is the closest thing I have had to a mentor. In a lot of ways, he is. On a very spiritual level, we are both outsiders. We were outsiders whose scope was outside the view of the mainstream but as time went on those views became more and more mainstream until it was mainstream! Do you know what I mean? [laughs] What I think is interesting when I look at Joseph is that here is this guy who any teenager or person in there early 20s would like this guy and say, “He is cool.” They want to be him. That is how much the culture shifted. When he was growing up, everyone wanted to be like Biff Tannen from “Back To The Future,” the bully from “Revenge of The Nerds” or the bully from “The Karate Kid.” [laughs] Those archetypes have been deconstructed and all of the people got Me Too’d. The world has shifted, and Joseph was so much ahead of his time.

You have a lot of irons in the fire. “Castlevania” is headed into its second highly anticipated season. What have you learned from the experience of bringing this series to the masses?

When “Castlevania” was first announced and coming out, I tackled it with a lot of bravado. It was another something that just really worked. I wanted it to work, I expected it to work, I felt like it would work, and I believed deeply in my heart that it would work. Again, this was something so outside of any quadrant or pre-established lane. I literally went into Netflix and pitched an animated adaptation of a video game series that was completely dead. From all that preamble, I learned several things. First, I learned to trust my gut in a very big way. More so, I learned how to fine tune it. It is almost like I have this Spidey-sense built into me. I just didn’t have enough life experience or enough raw data to be able to really hone in on the nuance of the Spidey-sense and what it was telling me. So, the overall experience definitely taught me to trust my Spidey-sense because it’s plugged into something. Before this, I viewed my career as two separate trajectories. Which brings me to my second point. I felt I had done these normal movies with the establishment and I did these fans films just to do them because I thought they were cool. I disliked the process of making the normal movies and I loved the process of making the fan films because it felt fun and like you were making an art project. The epiphany I had as a byproduct of “Castlevania” was that my original thought was nonsense. I realized I needed to approach everything in the way I approached the fan films, even if it was not a fan film. I talk about “Castlevania” in the context of it being a project made by fans for fans. That just means that it was approached in a manner similar to bootleg universe projects.

Adi Shankar — His story has only just begun.

What can you tell us about your vision for the future when it comes to the Bootleg Universe?

That’s a great question. I’m in the process of honing my strengths and weaknesses. I think the secret to success in any field is knowing yourself, knowing where you excel and knowing your limitations. If anything, the last few years have given me a strong sense of the areas where I’m in the .00001%. The qualities that I have in this category that have led me to be so fortunate and lucky to have received the opportunities that I have gotten in my career. Now, I have learned what those areas are, and it is time for me to focus on them. As crazy as it sounds, you mentioned Joseph as a mentor and that is absolutely right, and Kanye West is someone who came into my life earlier this year. He has also provided me with some guidance as well. Having an understanding of what these areas are allows you to focus in on them. Otherwise, you end up being an insular person.

In November, I am going to be announcing a new project that I think is going to get people very excited; at least I know my fans are going to be very excited by it. So, be on the look for that in mid-November.

As a fan, I appreciate the time you put in on social media and connecting with the fanbase. I don’t think anyone really does it on the level you do and has as unique a connection.

Thank you! I appreciate you. This is my third interview with you guys and I feel like it’s becoming this little snapshot into my psyche at key moments.

That’s awesome to hear! I thank you for your time today, Adi! We can’t wait to see where the next leg of the journey takes you!

Thanks, Jason. Talk to you soon!

To follow the continuing adventures of Adi Shankar, stay glued to his social media presence via FacebookTwitter and YouTube. Castlevania Season 2 is now available on Netflix. Joseph Kahn’s ‘Bodied’ hits select theaters on November 2nd and arrives on YouTube Premium November 28th.

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Interview: Director Joseph Kahn Gives Us An Inside Look At “Detention”

Interview: Director Joseph Kahn Gives Us An Inside Look At “Detention”

While Joseph Kahn may not yet be a household name, chances are that you have already be exposed to his ever-expanding body of work. As a music video director has directed award winning music videos for artists such as Eminem, Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Beyonce, U2, The Chemical Brothers, Muse, Kylie Minogue, Wu-Tang Clan, Blink- 182, Mariah Carey, Aerosmith, Kelly Clarkson, Moby, Justin Timberlake, George Michael, Busta Rhymes, Janet Jackson, Black Eyed Peas and many more. He even won a Grammy for Eminem’s “Without Me” video and collected the MVPA Best Video of the Year for Katy Perry “Waking up in Vegas”. Kahn is also a respected spot director and shot commercials for some of the biggest advertisers, such as Adidas, Burger King, BMW, Budweiser, Nascar, British Telecom, Fox Sports and Playstation. He most recently helmed campaigns for Old Navy, Coca-Cola, and a bank ad starring Bruce Willis. In 2003, he made his feature film debut the cheeky Warner Brothers motorcycle flick TORQUE. The unapologetically over the top film has subsequently gained a cult following. His latest film, DETENTION, which he co-wrote with Mark Palermo, is ready to be unleashed upon the masses. The film is a teen horror-comedy where the local students of Grizzly Lake must survive their final year of high school. Standing in their way is a slasher movie killer who has seemingly come to life. It becomes a race against time to stop the killer and save the world – if only they can get out of detention. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Joseph Kahn to discuss his new film, the challenges that presented themselves along the way and his take on the current state of the film industry. 

The entertainment industry is not for the faint of heart. When did you decide to pursue a career as a filmmaker/director as opposed to going in a different direction?

If I didn’t get a cool job, being a nerdy little asian kid in the ‘80s, I figured I would never get to reproduce!

Who would you cite as your biggest influences?

It is a long list — Steven Spielberg, David Fincher, David Lynch, The Coen Brothers, Mark Romanek, Spike Jones, Tex Avery! [laughs] There are so many, the list goes on and on.

For those who may not know, how did you break into the entertainment industry early in your career?

I dropped out of NYC film school after a year-and-a-half because I ran out of cash. Then I shuffled popcorn in Houston. I saved up 500 bucks and I started shooting gangster rap videos. In fact, I shot 30 of them in one year in a year and a half. Things took off from there.

'Detention' - In Theaters On April 13th!

Your latest project, “Detention,” is a mash up of a lot of great things. How would you describe this film?

I would describe the film as a horror, science fiction, time-traveling, high school comedy. Basically, it is the most awesome movie ever made! [laughs]

It certainly sounds awesome! What can you tell us about the process of putting together the script?

It took three years to come up with this movie, between me and my writing partner Mark Palermo. There was a full year of coming up with ideas and plotting it. The plot itself was the most complex part to make all of the things fit and interrelate. By the time we wrote our real draft, we hadn’t done a previous draft, that only took about three-and-a-half weeks of hardcore writing but the plot took a year.

How did you and Mark Palermo initially meet? How did that collaboration come about?

He is a film critic from Canada. He wrote me an e-mail one day saying that he liked “Torque.” That was amazing because only five people in the world liked “Torque” at that point! [laughs] I met with him because at that point in time, if anybody liked my movie they were a freak of nature and I had to pick their brain. As I picked his brain, I realized we had so much in common, as far as humor and influences and so on. We were two completely different people but we had enough in common we started thinking, “Well, shoot. We like all of these movies. Why don’t we just write one together?” That is where it all started.

It is a modern teenage film that doesn’t use the rules of the older generation. How difficult was it to balance all of the elements you have going on without overturning the apple cart, so to speak?

It was kinda natural to be honest. I wouldn’t call it difficult but you had to be very, very careful. On a certain level, I had a natural rhythm for it and it was something that came very instinctually. It was almost driving itself at some point. When I started coming up with the visuals, the way it was constructed and stuff like that, it seemed like I was making these easy decisions that were right. That is not always going to happen because sometimes you really, really have to bang your head against the wall to get the ideas out but on this film, it all just seemed to flow out. It was pretty crazy.

How did your work as a director of commercials and music videos lend itself to this film?

I have a heightened awareness of how new music works. In the old days, who would never dream of a being a film critic/filmmaker, except maybe back in the early days of New Wave. For the most part, you kinda try to separate the two. Today, there are tons of filmmakers that blog, Twitter or play music or something like that. Media itself is just much more active and technology is able to be accessed a lot easier. Now, you have people with multiple skills. Doing television commercials keeps me on top of that as far as youth culture. When I finally made this movie, I didn’t use the traditional tools of Hollywood on any level. For example, I didn’t just use a quote, unquote screenwriter. I also didn’t use the tools that you use normally in a film as I decided to import a lot of my music video and commercial techniques into the film. I felt like, if anything, kids today are used to that language, you just haven’t seen it in movies. My theory was that if I did it, it would work.

There is no shortage of talent in this film. What can you tell us about the cast and what they brought to the table to bring the whole thing to life?

I was very careful to try and cast it very naturally. It was very important to get a very naturalistic feeling to the acting to keep it grounded. The difference between “Detention” and something like “Scary Movie” or “Epic Movie” is that we take our characters very seriously. They don’t do things out of their own reality to hit a joke or a gag. I wanted a real, emotional journey for the central character of Riley, so I sought out the best actress I could possibly find. I was very lucky, on a certain level, to find her (Shanley Caswell). Josh Hutcherson, when I pitched it to him, was on board very, very quickly. He just completely understood it, which shows you what a smart guy he is. He is like a 30-year-old man trapped in a 19-year-olds body. [laughs] Then when it came to Dane [Cook], I have known Dane for years and I have been a fan of his standup just as long. He is a complex soul but ultimately, he is a really great guy. I know him personally and I think he is the coolest guy ever. If you look at what he did here, it is so against type, so against his persona because he is playing a nerd. I mean, in high school movies, the principal is the nerdiest character of them all! Nerdier than the nerds! It is such a weird role for him to take and it is so selfless. I told him, “Ultimately, we are writing a love letter to the next generation of kids because I like these kids and they need to have their own high school movies. Will you join me in going against type and invigorating a role like this.” He agreed and he did an absolutely fantastic job.

I think it is pretty cool you are catering to the younger generation. What are your thoughts on the state of the film industry today?

Joseph Kahn

I find it incredibly disrespectful to the new generation of kids. The kids deserve their own films, more than ever because they are so great. They really deserve their own stuff. There is a lot of stuff going against kids. One, we see them only as an opportunity to make money, period. That is how film studios view kids — a source of income filtered through their parents. They want to make safe bets so they do sequels, reboots, remakes and things like that just to get these kids to come in and take their money. That is the only agenda in place. No one cares about the message being thrown, no one cares about anything. In fact, the MPAA supports this process in that it is not even accurate in how kids live today. I mean, do kids really live in a PG-13 world? No. They have the Internet. They see X-rated stuff everyday. It is just inaccurate. Do you think kids walk around never saying the F-word? No. It’s ridiculous. So, I decided to make a movie for teenagers that really is honest. This is an R-rated high school movie. I have no idea how most kids are going to see this in the theater but I do know when it comes out on VOD they will probably find ways to get it. I spent all of my cash on this and I have tried to keep it truthful and the financial implications are all mine. The studios don’t lose anything. The only person who is going to lose anything is me but, hopefully, the kids will get a movie that finally speaks to them on this level. I think they need that.

It seems you had no reservations about taking that risk. Is that correct?

No. This movie needed to exist and I really believe that! If I am the one that has to pay for it, then so be it!

This film is so unique. What do you hope audiences walk away with after seeing it for the first time?

I just hope they are entertained like crazy. Ultimately, if you are older than its main audience, I hope you walk away thinking, “OK, I felt young again for a second! This was fun. I get to go to the coolest high school party and get drunk and dance my ass off! That was really fun!” If you are a younger person, you can finally say that you finally had fun in a way where I didn’t have a studio looking over your shoulder saying, “Don’t say the F-Word, don’t show drinking, keep your genre the exact same way we had it before and look at remakes this way because we know this is what you want. That movie is not what you really want.” I don’t think a lot of kids even know that, that isn’t what they want. Hopefully, this film will open up people’s minds and make them realize there is another way of making movies out there that makes them say, “Wow, that is really fun!”

Joseph Kahn

You tackle so many different elements in your career. What is your favorite part of the filmmaking process?

I love the pure aspect of creating entertainment. I am not in the George Clooney, Brad Pitt world where I feel like I am changing the world, per se by active political involvement. That is all well and good and there is a time and place for people like that. I am not that. I am a jester. I go in front of the court of the world and I wear my funny hat and juggle things. That is fun! And I am happy for people to laugh at me and happy for people to enjoy the work. That is all I care about.

Even a jester evolves through time. How do you feel you evolved as a director?

I feel like I have gotten better, period. I think I am better on so many different levels in terms of understanding people. The older I get, the more I understand people. Ultimately, the understanding of people deepens the work and becomes much more valid. Now, when I want to tell a story, it is not just a matter of, “Can I tell a story well-told?” It is, “How can I tell a story that resonates and that means something to you?” I don’t mean that in a political sense but as a human entity, does it somehow speak to you on a deeper level. I think that even with something that appears frivolous on the surface like “Detention” might on the surface, there are going to be some nice little messages in there.

You tackle a lot of different genres in “Detention.” Is there another type of film or genre you are interested in capturing next on film?

I have a very specific genre that I am working with my co-writer, Mark Palermo, on and it is a genre I have been very interested in. Unfortunately, it is a genre that I can’t talk about because if you talk about it, there is no reason to write it!

Being a seasoned vet of the film industry, what is the best piece of advice you would give to young filmmakers?

Don’t be afraid of failing because you will fail. The only people who don’t fail are the people who don’t try. People can sit there and go, “Ha ha, you failed,” but, ultimately, the journey must have failure because you just haven’t tried enough. I failed on my movie “Torque.” I love “Torque” on an artistic level. It failed at the box office, that is what I am talking about. Learning that you will fall on your face and knowing that someone will have a boot up your ass as you fall is a wonderful experience because it makes you un-afraid of falling. Once you fall, you learn to pick yourself right back up. Once you have lost the fear of failure, then you can never fail. That is the most important thing you can ever learn as an artist.

Thanks for your time today, Joseph! We are looking forward to spreading the word on your film!

Thank you!

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