When it comes to the role of Hollywood producer, Adi Shankar is not simply shattering the mode but reinventing the game. At just the age of 28, Shankar made a brand for himself by producing a string of critically acclaimed, R-rated, violent action and crime feature films through his production company, 1984 Private Defense Contractors. His dedication to his creative vision and innovative choices in film production not only paired him with some of Hollywood’s biggest box office stars but garnered him a devoted fan following across multiple genres.
His impressive filmography as an executive producer includes ‘Machine Gun Preacher,’ starring Gerard Butler and Michael Shannon; the critically-acclaimed commercial hit ‘The Grey’ starring Liam Neeson, which opened #1 at the US box office, was featured on the New York Times “Top Ten Movies of 2012” list, which made Shankar the youngest producer ever to have a number one independent film at the box office; the critically-acclaimed cult phenomenon ‘Judge Dredd’ reboot, ‘Dredd’; the lauded gangster drama ‘Killing Them Softly’ starring Brad Pitt which was in competition at the 2012 Cannes film festival; then came 2013’s crime thriller ‘Broken City’ starring Mark Wahlberg and Russell Crowe and the action-drama ‘Lone Survivor’ starring Mark Wahlberg based on the 2007 New York Times bestseller by the same name. Most recently he produced the fantastical crime thriller ‘The Voices’ starring Ryan Reynolds, directed by Academy Award Nominee Marjane Satrapi which premiered at Sundance this year to great reviews. Shankar’s upcoming releases include both the crime drama ‘A Walk Among Tombstones’ starring Liam Neeson and written and directed by Academy Award Nominee Scott Frank.
Never afraid to challenge to the status quo, Adi Shankar will most certainly continue to shake things up in the entertainment industry for years to come. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently had the opportunity to speak with producer Adi Shankar to discuss his early influences and their effect on his unique vision, his thoughts on the future of the film industry, his advice to aspiring creatives and much more!
First off, we can’t thank you enough for taking time out to talk with us today, Adi. We are huge fans of what you have been doing! We are super excited to help spread the word on you and everything you have going on!
Of course! Thanks for talking to me. I really love when people have seen my stuff before they talk to me. It is always a cool feeling!
Obviously, your life revolves around the film world and you are big fan. I wanted to start at the beginning of your story. Can you tell us a little about your early years and what films you remember having a big impact on you early on?
There were so many. I was actually born in India and I didn’t move to the United States full-time until my Junior year of high school, so I was influenced by a real hodgepodge of all these different cultures I have lived in. The first movies I really saw were Indian movies. I remember and action movie I saw called “Shehanshah.” I actually watched “Army of Darkness” when I was a kid and I didn’t know what the hell I was watching. I started crying! I remember that! [laughs] I remember full-on crying! If you remember the cover, it is Ash with a chainsaw, right? Even looking at that image would make me cry as a child! That is one of my earliest memories actually! If my family members wanted to mess with me they would say “If you don’t behave yourself, we are going to make you watch that movie!” [laughs] It is weird what you remember what you remember and what you don’t as a child.
You mentioned moving her in your teens. Do you feel making that transition impacted you and what you do today?
Here’s the whole thing. I grew up all over the world. By the time I was eighteen, I had lived in Calcutta, Bombay, Midros, Hong Kong, Singapore, London, Chicago and Rhode Island. I was constantly traveling. If you rarely stay in one city for more than a few years, the only constant thread in your life becomes storytelling through whatever means is available to you. No matter where I was in the world, I could always it down and experience a universal human story. That is something that has always stayed with me. It was this idea that by telling stories, we can bring people together. It makes the vast experiences in your life make sense and lets you make sense of it all. That is why we tell stories and hand them down from one generation to another. We are using the mediums that exist in that time period to preserve those stories.
We love the movies that you have been making. We also love that your bio reads that you make strictly R-rated movies. What makes you gravitate toward those films?
I don’t like playing it safe. I don’t like things that are homogenous. I am kind of against this whole idea that we all have to be a cardboard, cookie cutter, Happy Meal type of person. That be extension applies to everything I do and the lens through which I view life. Bottom line, when it is a PG-13 movie you know it is not going to go to a certain place. There is something about a movie when it is R-rated because you just don’t know where it is going to go. It adds an extra element to what you can do.
The truth is, and this kind of taps into the core of who I am as a person, I have spent my entire life from my earliest memories up until a few years after graduating college being terrified that I would be forced to live a conventional life. I feared being beaten down into submission and become sort of fuckin’ corporate drone. When I was young, I had this vibrant energy and enthusiasm and it ended up getting me in a lot of trouble in school. It was to the point where they thought I might be on drugs. On top of that, most adults I saw seemed really lame to me. It was almost like their personalities had been bleached away. I knew I never wanted to be like that and I was terrified that was going to happen to me. In the world I lived in, everyone around me was forced to be a doctor, a banker or an engineer. I thought that was so boring. The people I admired were people who dared to be different. They were people who weren’t afraid to be themselves, disruptive and incited change. In a world where movies are becoming more like Happy Meals, I feel it is important for someone to be the yin to the yang. Saying yin and yang is so lame by the way! [laughs] You get my point! We need someone to be the disruptive voice on the other side.
Many of us became familiar with you from one of your initial projects, “Dirty Laundry.” Can you tell us a little bit about bringing that to life and the challenges you faced in doing so?
The truth is that there was no plan! This wasn’t some type of master-scheme. I just need to always be doing something. It’s like we were talking about earlier, we tell these stories and we express them through the technology that is available to us and we use the technology to preserve our stories. I happen to be alive in this time period where there are a lot of tools available. I understood the internet and I understood digital cameras, so I just kind of made something! I wish there was a cooler story there or some master plan but really I just wanted to make something and fortunately people responded. People liked it so I thought “Cool! I will make another one!”
Were you surprised at the response that the film received initially?
Oh yeah! I was totally surprised! I didn’t think anyone would watch it or even care! That is not a knock against the film. I like the film and it is actually one of the favorite things I have ever done but I walk into situations assuming no one is going to care. That is probably emotional scarring from being ignored my whole life.
Once you made the film and were on everyone’s radar from it, how did you life change? When did you realize awareness of your work had really started to gain momentum?
I talk about the idea of the big break a lot because that is the question I get asked all of the time, “What was your big break?” I feel like and I have always felt like the idea of the big break is technically a fallacy that has been created around the mid-80s and early 90s to sell magazines. If you do one thing, people find out about you. If you do another, even more people find out about you. It is a slow progression. Along the way you get access to cooler things, doors open and sometimes they close and sometimes you experience setbacks that lead you in interesting directions. It is never a cut and dry tipping point. I felt like it was almost a one-two punch with ‘Dirty Laundry’ and ‘Dredd’ coming out within months of one another that within the geek community, I had some street cred all of a sudden. It was cool going to Comic Con the following year with “Truth In Journalism” and was walking around the floor as a fan trying to get a few copies of “Days of Future Past,” the original print, and people would stop me. They would say “Oh my God! You are the guy!” I thought “Wow! People care!” That is always nice!
Where do you see yourself taking the Marvel Bootleg Universe? Is there anything else in the works there for future releases?
There is some stuff in the works. Here are my thoughts on that. We are kind of on the precipice of this massive war between the old world and the new; the old world being the world before the internet and the new world being this one we are effectively forging as we go along. This is almost a borderless world and people are now questioning the ethics, business practices and infrastructures that have been in place for the better part of the past century. It is interesting that for some reason the bootleg universe talk about it in the context of copyright or the war on copyright. Think of the culture of the 20th century. It is owned. It is owned by corporations. It is fascinating when people talk about The Bootleg Universe in the context of “It’s the people fighting back against these corporations that think they own the culture but they really don’t.” It is the whole idea of someone signing a piece of paper 25 years before I was born saying that you own Batman or another character but I don’t necessarily agree with that. Here is a real world example, what If tomorrow you decide you are going to bury Shazam because he is too much of a threat to Superman, it doesn’t mean I have to stand by and let that happen. I can preserve my own interpretation of that and I find that interesting. I find the internet is such an interesting tool in the way it brings a purely democratic sensibility to the preservation of content and proliferation information.
You are a producer and understand the power of the internet in relation to what they are creating. In the age of spoilers, leaked images and website trying to scoop one another for content purposes, are moviegoers short-changing themselves on their movie watching experience?
No. Actually, I feel it is quite the contrary. I think that is just a reality of life today. When I was I kid, I used to love getting to the movies early to see the trailers, right? Now, I see the trailer two seconds after it goes live. Should I not be watching the trailer on YouTube and instead of showing up to see the watching it there? No. Again, these technologies allow us to preserve these stories until the technology gets better and we start telling them differently. If you ask me, I feel movies have lost their cultural context. I remember when I was a kid, a movie would come out and the world be one way and the next week the world would be different because that movie came out. It happened all the time! Movies were the greatest art form, if you will, of the 20th century. Now, movies come out and by the time the idea is sold, developed, bought, edited and marketed, society changes so fuckin’ quickly. I will give you an example. I had a movie that I was lucky enough to be part of that came out a few years ago called “Machine Gun Preacher.” It was really about Joseph Kony and all the atrocities this guy had committed. It came out to very little fanfare for a variety of reasons. Months later, there was a clip on YouTube that went viral called “Kony 2012.” Literally, everyone in the world knew about this. All of a sudden, this movie I had been a part of got brought up a lot. I noticed that the movie was being searched a lot and talked about a lot. I thought that was fascinating because all of a sudden you have a movie being, basically, a companion piece to a viral clip on YouTube. Let’s think about that. You have a movie that is a companion piece to a viral clip on YouTube! That is the world we live in today. Are movie-goers short changing themselves? No because this is the world we live in.
As someone who is definitely on the forefront of the industry, where do you see the future of entertainment headed in the next few years?
You just opened Pandora’s Box, man! [laughs] I think the context through which we define entertainment is going to change radically. There is a hierarchy that has been in place for decades now and that is going to crumble. Let’s just talk about distribution windows. At the end of the day you have to ask yourself as a guy who makes movies, “Why the fuck are you doing it? Are you doing it to make money?” If you are doing it purely for profit, you should get out because it is too complicated! Go make pencils! It is a much easier business to be in. I know I am doing it and most of my friends are doing it to make to influence the cultural, to make an impact and to make people give a shit. This entire distribution model, the old way movies are distributed, is ass backwards. I see billboards and trailers everywhere pushing you to go watch movies in the theaters. A movie will spend tens of millions of dollars driving people to theaters. Guess what? Most people don’t want to go to the theaters! It is too much of a headache. People have to get a babysitter, pay for parking, people are talking, sometimes there are safety issues and the theaters are outdated. There are all of these issues. Then you get into the DVD window, the Pay TV window and the Free TV window. There are all of these windows. Doesn’t it make more sense for a movie to be available on all platforms at the same time? That maximizes the chance for cultural impact. By the way, the whole idea that a movie gets released in America one day, London a month later and Germany a month later is ridiculous. We live in a borderless world. It’s called the internet! I have friends in just about every country in the world on Facebook. Yeah, I have a diverse background but to this next generation, in ten years, the idea of a border is going to be archaic to them. You have one shot at making an impact, so breaking it into windows is going to be ass backwards.
The concept of the movie-star is something else that no longer exists in the way we traditionally thought about it in the 20th century. It is more about branded actors who have a very specific audience. Kevin Spacey is a terrific example of that and it is something he is really clued in on. He might not be able to open a 100 million dollar movie but he has a very specific audience that will follow him when he does a specific thing. If you look at his filmography, he has been super smart about it. “Margin Call” really proved the VOD model. When you look at “Margin Call” with Kevin Spacey in it, there is a lineage of Kevin Spacey political/financial thrillers that have worked and have a specific audience. It’s not the whole world, it is a very specific audience but they show up every time! It’s the same people who watch “House of Cards.”
What is the best advice you can give to those looking to pursue a career in the entertainment industry?
I will break it down into three things. First, do not wait for the system to validate you. It won’t, it’s changing and it’s in turmoil. You have to prove yourself in your own way and they will come. Two, respect your elders. Absolutely respect your elders but if you don’t believe you can eventually surpass them or at least add something significant to the dialog then get out right now because you’re dead weight. Three, you have to develop your voice as an artist. You need to be saying something. The era of vapidity is over. You have to know what your voice is and what it is you want to say and then say it. That will be the backbone of your career.
Do you feel there are misconceptions about yourself floating around out there?
Yeah, I do. At every point in my life, there have always been different misconceptions. I did an interview last year where I was asked “What was high school like for you.” I said “It was great but I nearly got expelled from this really preppy boarding school.” Back then it was “Why won’t this guy just follow, listen and be quiet?” When I first started making movies, it was the first time I ever truly felt at home. I felt like I belonged here because it was a creative, artistic community and I felt supported. I haven’t found a lot of turbulence in that area of my life. With all the things I was referring to earlier, it felt like the construct of the world around me was designed to make pupil’s apt. I spent a lot of time wondering what the point of life was. Was it really just to get an education, earn money, buy stuff and consume? Was it really to build a really great coffin, aka a house, reproduce and die? FUCK THAT! Our species survives because we built things! We made clothes, built shelter, created technology to sustain ourselves so we could improve the quality of your lives. In a sense, creating things and expressing yourself is the only thing that is really intuitive to our species!
It is inspiring to speak your mind and how people have really responded to what you are creating.
Thanks, man! That is why I love America. Having lived in all these different societies, it is great people listen to you here! Every time I go home, there is still this element of being patted on the head like “Oh, ok. You are just a kid.” But we will see! [laughs] It is a great time to be alive and it is a great fucking time to be alive and be a young person!
Thanks so much for you time, Adi. We will catch up with you again soon. Best of luck with everything you have going on in the meantime!
Thanks so much! Take care.