The director of acclaimed music videos from Taylor Swift and Eminem explains why it was the perfect time to make a highly offensive (and hilarious) movie about battle rappers

(L-R) Calum Worthy and Jackie Long in ‘Bodied.’ Neon/YouTube
  • Joseph Kahn, known making music videos for the likes of Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga, is releasing his latest feature film, “Bodied,” on Friday.
  • It is a hilariously un-PC look at the world of battle rapping, where you win by destroying your opponent with the crudest (and often most racist) lyrics you can think of.
  • Kahn told Business Insider why a movie like this is perfect for the woke-sensitive world we live in today, and why he self-financed the movie with $US2 million of his own money.

Joseph Kahn is known best for his highly stylised music videos that he’s been making since the 1990s for the likes of Snoop Dogg, Destiny’s Child, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Eminem, and Taylor Swift.

And through that time, he’s been trying to figure out how to make a movie about the art of battle rapping – where two highly skilled lyricists face off in front of an audience and use only their words to completely decimate each other. In battle rap, nothing is off limits. You can talk about the person’s race, looks, medical condition, sexual preference, their dead mum. Nothing is taboo.

“Bodied” (opening in theatres Friday and available on YouTube November 28) is basically “8 Mile” if it wasn’t made in Hollywood. We follow Adam (Calum Worthy), a white graduate student who is fascinated by the art of battle rapping and befriends one of Oakland’s best, Behn Grymm (Jackie Long), to be his guide in the battle rap culture so he can write a thesis paper on it. But it turns out Adam has some skills, and he quickly finds himself on the circuit with Behn battle rapping. Eventually Adam gets so engrossed in the rush of the culture that he’s willing to alienate his family, friends, and even Behn to rise in the battle rap ranks.

The movie, which Eminem is a producer on, isn’t just a satirical exploration of woke culture and the echo chamber that is social media. Kahn uses his talents to tell two stories: one vocally through the storytelling of the raps (penned masterfully by real battle rapper Kid Twist) and the other visually, as Kahn scatters the movie with special effects to heighten the prose.

Business Insider sat down with Kahn in New York City to talk about why the only way he could make the movie was to self-finance it, how he passed on a major Hollywood blockbuster to make “Bodied,” how he put the actors through battle rap boot camp, and why the movie makes you feel less racist because it’s so racist.

Jason Guerrasio: Would this have been made without you self-financing it?

Joseph Kahn: Absolutely not. Can you imagine taking this script with two hours of racist, misogynist, homophobic jokes?

Guerrasio: It would be watered down to the point of being unwatchable.

Joseph Kahn Getty
‘Bodied’ director Joseph Kahn. Getty

Kahn: Right. And here’s the thing, battle rap does exist in the popular culture in things like roasts and “Drop the Mic” and all that stuff, but that’s not really battle rap. That’s saying someone who gets into a pity-pat slap fight is boxing. No, in boxing you’re supposed to get hurt. The entire agenda is that your opponent is knocked out. In battle rap, you’re supposed to hurt the opponent to the point they are dead.

Guerrasio: In the early days, did you ever think that someone out there might get what you wanted to do and write you a check instead of you using your own money?

Kahn: The story behind this is I made this short “Power/Rangers,” which is this thing I put online that I made in secret for a year. I wanted to make a commentary on grim, dark superheroes and how Hollywood markets the stuff. Doing a satire by making the most serious version of the silliest kids property. After that came out, literally every studio knocked at my door. And I looked at every project floating around and I couldn’t find one property I was interested in doing.

Guerrasio: You were even being offered the major IPs?

Kahn: They were there, and I had the opportunity and nothing interested me. So I was talking to Adi Shankar, my producing partner on “Power/Rangers” and he said, “What do you want to do next?” And I said, “Well, I have choice one, which is this big property, or choice two is I want to make a battle rap movie.” And he said, “Do choice two.”

Bodied Neon
‘Bodied.’ Neon

Guerrasio: So what kind of check did you have to write yourself for this?

Kahn: I did it for under $US2 million.

Guerrasio: It looks amazing for what you put in.

Kahn: That includes soundtrack, by the way. And we shot it over 23 days with a SAG crew. If anyone knows anything about film business, that’s extraordinarily hard what we did. Which shows me that if I ever wanted to do one of these big Hollywood movies, I’ll know how to do it.Guerrasio: But the thing is you won’t be able to do it your way. You’ll have to collaborate with the executives.

Kahn: And by the way, I’m not opposed to that. I just need to make sure I’m in a position where I believe in the project. I mean, I do Lexus commercials, I think I can work with others.

Guerrasio: Here’s the irony of what you did with “Bodied.” You self-finance the movie, do it how you want to, but now you have to sell it to a distributor or streaming service so audiences can see it. You have to play the game. Before going into that process, did you consider self-distribution?

Kahn: It was a serious thought at one point. And I’ll tell you exactly when it was, it was when I was submitting to film festivals and getting turned down by every one of them. Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca, New York Film Festival.

Guerrasio: Then Sundance showed it this year.

Kahn: Yeah, the year after I submitted it. What happened was everyone was very uncomfortable with the film because it didn’t fall into a very specific category. I do feel that the movies that are on the indie film circuit, and I’m a liberal person, these are just movies that have liberals clapping themselves on the back. Like showing, “I’m so woke.” This movie says murder is bad. Well, of course murder is bad.This movie had this amazing message that slavery is bad. Yes, it’s bad. What exactly are you saying that you don’t already know? I find these weak, quite frankly. Something like “Bodied” is a morality tale, but a satiric morality tale. With satire you don’t have to state your moral. You can criticise a moral without having an answer, and that’s what we did. We are criticising today’s world. I don’t think filmmakers should be giving answers, because who are these guys and girls? Just because they were able to finance a movie they suddenly are philosopher kings that have all the answers to life? This is a ridiculous thing.

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Guerrasio: What made you not go the self-distribution route?

Kahn: The last major film festival we did, Toronto. We were in the Midnight section and from what I understand we were right on the fence. Specifically the young people, the millennials, were like, “This is so racist you can’t program this,” and they voted against the movie being in the festival. The young people voted against this movie! Which is crazy! But it played at Toronto and won the Midnight audience award. Then it played at AFI and it won the audience award, and at Fantastic Fest it won the audience award. It turns out people are not offended by this movie, people are enjoying themselves. This whole concept that woke culture has of the completely not-racist person that sees no stereotypes that lives a perfectly amazing life, this person does not exist. The reality is differences in people are funny. It’s a movie that makes you feel less racist by being more racist.

Guerrasio: You should put that on the poster.

Kahn: [laughs] And the movie changes depending on what the national politics are at that point. Look what’s happened this week, bombs being sent out to the left, a synagogue being shot up, and then we have Megyn Kelly being fired over blackface comments. This is the context of how this movie is being released this week.

Guerrasio: Who knows what will happen two weeks from now.

Kahn: It might be some completely different context.

Bodied 3
Adam (Calum Worthy) reaching for racist lyrics during a battle rap. One of the many visual effects used in ‘Bodied’ that director Joseph Kahn calls ‘inter-subjective camera work.’ Neon/YouTube

Guerrasio: What’s great about this movie is the camera work. The cutaways you do to show reaction shots of battle rap lyrics is as funny as the lyrics themselves. The creative over-the-shoulder shots. The visual effects that pop up in the middle of raps. Were all of these things in your head for a while and “Bodied” was the vessel to use them?

Kahn: In my off time I often think on a quantum mechanical level of how films work. I’m not talking about just story or act structure, I’m talking about how to edit work. I have really been getting into subjective filmmaking, how to isolate the camera to go into someone’s perspective for subjectivity. So the visual effects are intersubjective camera work where you’re blending in watching the person and experiencing what that person is saying, all at once.

Guerrasio: Outside of the visuals, there are the performances. How did you get these actors to give a naturalistic feel of being battle rappers?

Kahn: There was a huge rehearsal beforehand. They went to battle rap school. There’s this battle rapper Rone who taught Adam to be more racist, to put it frankly. Like the line about cutting the bonsai tree, he told him, “But say it with an Asian accent.” [laughs] So there was a two-month battle rap school they went to and that was still happening on set. It was so critical that they get all the lines exactly right. It was, no joke, like Shakespeare. Most films you can screw up the lines, with this, for the structure to work, you must hit exactly the word at the point you’re supposed to hit it.

Guerrasio: What did Eminem think of the “8 Mile” insults in the movie?

Kahn: He loved it. He watched it and was into it. His whole camp was like, “This is stuff we hear every day, so we love this.” This is the thing about Eminem, he’s incredibly self-deprecating. He knows who he is, he knows how he plays in the culture. The reason why he’s successful as opposed to other white rappers is that he gets it. He’s always referencing himself as a fraud or fake Elvis, and I think the self-deprecation serves him well.

Guerrasio: I’m curious, do music video directors root for one another when you guys go out and make a feature? Like, did you drop Director X a line and wish him luck on the release of “Superfly”?

Kahn: I am the worst person to ask about this because I am the most antisocial person. It’s surprising that I have a healthy career in music videos because I am the last person that should be hanging out with any celebrity. On my daily basis, when I’m not shooting, I’m literally just surfing the internet or reading a book. That’s all I do.

Guerrasio: So it’s not like the music video director community hang out a lot.

Kahn: I really don’t know any other filmmakers. I just don’t hang out.

Guerrasio: Is this breaking news to you that a music video director made “Superfly.”

Kahn: I actually didn’t even know there was a movie called “Superfly.”

Guerrasio: [laughs] You should see it.

Kahn: And here is the other thing, it’s very hard to get me in a movie theatre. For me it’s not a financial issue, though for most it is. I think that’s why most go see a Marvel movie because it’s a safe bet. It’s a low risk.

Guerrasio: You’re not doing a good job selling “Bodied” right now.

Kahn: [laughs] I would like people to picture “Bodied” as Amazon back in 1998. We are a $US5 stock. We seem risky as hell, but I feel if you invest in us, we’ll rock your world.