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.”
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.
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 Facebook, Twitter 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.
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.