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.
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?
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!”
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!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.