The Swifties who’ve watched Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” video 704 million times since it came out on August 27, may or may not recognize the name Joseph Kahn. But they’ve likely been freaking out about the auteurist videos he’s made with Swift for years. Ever since he and Swift first teamed up in November 2014 for that epic, four-minute, insane-girlfriend saga “Blank Space” (2.2 billion views), Kahn has been the director the singer has turned to most often to help her visually express her id — such as zombie Taylor digging a grave for her own reputation in “Look,” or sitting on a throne of snakes that represent her conquering of Kim Kardashian’s diss of her. Kahn did four out of six videos from her last album, 1989 (“Blank Space,” “Bad Blood,” “Wildest Dreams,” “Out of the Woods”) and the only two videos off of Reputation so far (“Look” and “…Ready for It”). He’s also a wildly outspoken 45-year-old Korean-American with a philosophy of answering any question that’s asked of him and a penchant for stream-of-consciousness tweeting — and has somehow become Swift’s de facto spokesperson in her post-snakes-and-receipts era of never giving interviews. Every headline you read that’s like, “Taylor Swift Director Claims Beyoncé Copied ‘Bad Blood’” — that’s him.
He’s also a pretty dope filmmaker. And at this week’s AFI Festival in Los Angeles, as Swift’s Reputation is on track to being her biggest album ever, he screened Bodied, an outrageous, politically incorrect battle rap movie he directed — as only his third feature film in 26 years in the business. Bodied comes to AFI still without a distributor. But at the Toronto International Film Festival midnight screening I attended back in September, the reception was through the roof, and I’m not just talking about the end of the movie, I’m talking throughout. Indiewire dubbed it “the most subversive hip-hop movie ever” and it took home the Audience Award in its category, before winning the Audience Award at Fantastic Fest. The story is like 8 Mile turned on its head, as a skinny white Ph.D. candidate, Adam (Calum Worthy), stumbles into the underground rap-battle world and discovers he has mad skills for spitting racist one-liners and skewering his own white privilege. Don’t worry, Adam may be the center of the movie, as he goes up against other battlers such as black philosopher and father Behn Grymm (Jackie Long) and Korean-American Dumbfounded (Jonathan Park), but he’s far from the hero. Kahn co-wrote the script with actual Toronto battle rapper Alex Larsen (a.k.a. Kid Twist), and Eminem is a producer, for that dash of extra cred. Vulture talked to Kahn about his working relationship with Taylor Swift, and how Bodied was inspired by “Wildest Dreams.”
You’ve had a lot of trouble getting distribution for Bodied. We all thought it was going to get sold out of Toronto because it was literally the biggest hit of the festival.
A lot of the major distributors didn’t understand it. I heard Netflix just didn’t like the way my protagonist wasn’t really a protagonist — which is the entire point of the movie! I’ve had offers that want me to chop up the rap, make the protagonist more likable. None of that is happening on my watch. But we’re close to cutting a deal.
What’s the disconnect?
Bodied is an indie film that has no stars and is not a horror film. People talk in ebonics for three-quarters of the movie. It’s hard to market. It’s a battle rap movie, but it has elevated concepts, so you’re looking for a smart audience who may not listen to battle rap at all. How do you market that?
Well, Get Out didn’t have a natural audience either.
Get Out is child’s play compared to Bodied. At the end of the day, that’s a horror movie, and when you have a horror movie, all it has to do to work is do one thing: Can it scare you? With Bodied, what are you promising? You’re promising people screaming at each other in rap.
Fighting words for Get Out.
No, it’s true! People don’t know what a battle rap movie means. It’s not a genre film. It does not fit into a slot.
I feel like Bodied is a movie you really want to see in a theater.
I think that distributors don’t understand why people go to movies. They think the only reason people go is to see spectacle, right? They think that the only way to trap them in a seat is to thrill them with a bunch of superheroes hitting each other and lots of special effects, and the audience feels like they get their money’s worth. It’s a really absurd thing to ask an audience, to willingly put themselves into a black box, filled with other people they don’t know, and force themselves not to be able to go to the bathroom, eat expensive food, and not look at their phone or check texts for two hours.
I don’t think special effects is the reason they’re [going]. When people go to Bodied and have this shared experience of laughing, being offended, and questioning things on an emotional roller coaster, that’s a reason for people to sit in that black box and not check their phones. Bodied supplies a catharsis. In a world where you’re not allowed to say anything offensive, this is a chance for people to share an open release for things that are not allowed in society. That’s an event.
Do you think it plays differently every time, based on what kinds of offensive things the president has said before people see it?
I find that the temperature of the politics affects the movie, because people have different hot topics in their head, and Bodied runs the gamut of everything. If you’re worried about racism, it’s in there; if you’re worried about sexism, it’s in there; if you’re worried about harassment, it’s in there. Either way, the movie never gives you an answer. It’s a box you throw problems in, shake it up, and listen to how it sounds. It may sound different, but ultimately, the shaking is what you’re experiencing. I think it just depends on what people are perceiving about the movie at that point. It’s a Rorschach test.
Do you think sexual assault in the news will change the way audiences react to the misogynistic one-liners — which are really skewering misogyny?
It’s not like sexual assault didn’t exist before last month. It’s not a surprise to women that sexual assault exists, and they watch the movie and love it. I think what’ll end up happening is that there will be males who probably overcompensate, because now they’re more “woke” than they were before. But one of the things I think the movie explores is that you can be “woke” but not understand what you’re “woke” about — it’s a superficial understanding. I think there may be a lot of people out there who go, “Oh, now I need to overcompensate to show how correct I am about this particular topic [harassment],” and they make an inauthentic interaction with the movie, because that line between actually thinking about something and wanting to think about something can be very bad.
Can we talk about the videos you just directed?
So we’re going from harassment to Taylor Swift? [Laughs.]
Ha, sorry, that was a rough transition. How did that relationship begin? This is now six times that you guys have worked together.
It just started as any other relationship, where a pop star asked the director to direct a video, and we just clicked. We had an immediate understanding of how we both perceive music videos, and our tastes are very similar. It’s just been a very fruitful collaboration, and it really has been a collaboration. None of these music videos are just me going off and doing my thing. They are very much mapped out between her and me at the beginning and through the whole process. And when we’re on set, we’re always throwing ideas at each other, trying to mine and figure out — I know it sounds pretentious because these are pop videos, but we really try to do every scene from a truthful POV, like, “what makes sense and what feels authentic for that particular scene.” She’s very good about that, and that’s what I seek out when I do these things.
Was she a longtime fan of yours?
She’s what, 27 now in 2017? By the time she was 14, she would’ve been watching “Toxic” and videos like that. She is a pop-culture sponge. I can’t confirm this stuff, but I can hypothesize, knowing her and how vast her knowledge is of music and pop culture, that she was very aware of my work.
What is the give-and-take and dynamic of your collaboration? Like, how did you guys figure out the concept for “…Ready for It?”
She called me up and pretty much had the idea mapped out in her head. It’s almost like she gave me a gift, because what she was thinking was right up my alley in terms of my fascination with Japanese pop culture and sci-fi. I really do suspect, on a certain level, this is a thank-you note to let me get my rocks off on my sci-fi fetishes! Wrong word, by the way! [Laughs.]
Were Blade Runner or Westworld influences?
Well, obviously the whole gamut of sci-fi.
When that’s happening, are you breaking out all your references? Does she have a vast knowledge of sci-fi that we don’t know about that she brings out for you?
She doesn’t talk in terms of “this looks like that,” or “I want that.” She just tells me a story of her battling robots and things like that, and then I have to frame it within the context of the sci-fi knowledge that I have and interpret it. Then I go back, pitch her images. It’s a very collaborative process.
How does it differ from making movies?
With Taylor, it actually feels like we’re shooting movies. You would never get that with other artists, but she’s just so fluid in her language of cinema. She understands what a close-up does, what a medium shot is. She understands an edit, and she’ll watch me edit as I shoot. She loves filling in the gaps. We might shoot two scenes and there may be an empty blank in the edit as we’re going along, and when she sees the blank get filled up with another shot, her eyes light up. I find it very gratifying to work with someone who is so edit specific.
How has the working relationship evolved since you started working on “Blank Space?”
I think we’ve gotten easier with each other’s language in terms of how we talk. Quite frankly, she has always been a very approachable person. Right off the bat, you can just text her and she’ll text you back. You give her an idea, she’ll respond immediately. What’s more amazing about the working relationship over this few years is how little has changed. As big as she’s gotten, she’s still the girl you can text and get answers back from immediately, which is very rare for an artist.
There was all that criticism for the “Wildest Dreams” video about it being racist, in that it’s supposed to be on a 1950s movie set in Africa and there are hardly any black people …
One thing I have noticed, being in Taylor’s world — god, this really is turning into a Taylor Swift interview!
People are interested! Besides we’re talking about the work you do together, not her personal life.
The thing I’ve learned over the last couple years working with her, and I’ve worked with everybody — I’ve been doing music videos for nearly 30 years now — I have never seen anyone else get the amount of criticism she gets for the slightest thing. It’s really odd, especially because she’s an anomaly: She is genuinely a nice person.
I’m telling you, this is the most insane thing I have ever seen. She is genuinely a nice, cool, well-rounded, totally stable person, and society doesn’t know what to do with a woman like that! They really don’t! They need to knock her down! I feel what’s happening is, they see this incredibly stable, super-secure, super-smart, eloquent woman who can talk for herself, which is very odd because most artists, male or female, can’t talk. And she can do it! She’s a writer! That’s what she is! She’s a poet, and she has very clear thoughts. I find that people are intimidated by it, and people resent it for some reason! They need to see her bleed, and they’re trying to make her go crazy to see her come down.
It’s the old story. You’ve seen it happen a million times before — and they don’t do it to guys, it’s always women. You take a girl who gets a certain amount of power, like a Britney, a Madonna, a Mariah or whatever, they get to a certain level of success, and then the media — I’m sorry, but it’s literally the media — write these horrible stories and insinuations. They want to tear the artist down to the point where they want to go to a hospital, and then they want make money on the comeback story, too. They do the celebration and say, “Oh, Britney is back!”
Taylor refuses to let that happen. She does not want to be another one of those stories of a girl getting who gets torn down by the media and suddenly rises on her feet again on the backs of everyone writing their think pieces about how great she is again. She’s not letting that process happen, and I applaud her for that. Fight! Keep your sanity and integrity! You don’t need people to tear you down and bring you back up to sell records. Just be you. I think that’s what’s cool about it. When it comes to criticism and things like that, I’ve been through the process many times myself, and I’ve been criticized over many, many years, but I’m a 45-year-old guy, and it took me longer to figure that out. She’s 27 and she’s already figured that out.
So there was all this recent backlash when Taylor’s attorney apparently went after a blogger who’d linked her with the alt-right. Your response was to tweet a photo of Kanye and Trump and said, “Let’s remember there’s one major recording artist who has publicly endorsed a white supremacist.”
Yeah, there’s this whole hullabaloo right now about Taylor supporting Trump — which she never has— and being accused of being a white supremacist, and meanwhile, that guy [Kanye] gets a free pass. And he’s the one that has been attacking Taylor for years! We treat men and women completely different! Can you imagine if Taylor had a photo of herself smiling with Trump? Donezo! Done! [Laughs.] Meanwhile, we look at Kanye and think, “Oh no, he was just a little sick at the time,” and then he comes onstage going “I love Trump,” and it’s, “Oh, we really don’t believe him.” How many passes do you give to guys over women? It’s the same thing with Trump! How many times has Trump done completely insane things for which we keep giving him passes, and meanwhile, Hillary — and I was a Hillary supporter, I’ll make no bones about that — I don’t think she did anything. The double standard was super crazy!
You’ve become almost like a de facto spokesperson for Taylor.
Yes but not by choice, and this is the reason why: My Twitter has always been there and I always speak my mind. I’ve done that since the beginning of Twitter and I’ve gotten in trouble for it. People who have followed me for years know that I just literally say what’s on the top of my head. Taylor, this album cycle, has not given one interview so the media is thirsty. They’re looking for any way in so they just go to me because I made a couple videos with her and they’re just mining my Twitter, or anything I say, for anything. If I go into an interview on Bodied which is — you said to me, “It’s the biggest hit of TIFF” — and people are asking me about Taylor Swift because they know that if they put Taylor Swift in the article the hits go up.
How interested are you in shaping the public perception of Taylor, especially through the videos? Are you throwing tiny references into the videos because you know they’ll go under a microscope?
Yeah, of course. Quite a bit of that comes from Taylor. I don’t give the message. We’re just trying to figure out clever ways to express the metaphors in the songs. But we go into it being aware of what the video’s agenda is. The think pieces you write about them are earned.
You’ve dealt with a lot of high-profile artists before. Have your videos ever been as scrutinized as much as they are now?
No, but I’ve been doing pop videos since before they were cool. Right now, people look back on “Toxic” and go, “That’s one of the greatest videos of all time,” and people write think pieces on it hailing it as a work of art. That would have never happened in 2004! Back in 2004, Britney was not cool. She was just a popular artist who was crazy and about to go into a hospital. I was this hack director just doing videos for her and Sisqo, right? I did not have any critical respect until, literally in the last four to five years, something happened where people suddenly started thinking that pop is art. I think social media and Twitter had a lot to do with pop getting intellectualized.
I remember putting my work onto a website in 2005 so that people could, for the first time, track how this one director did all these disparate videos. Somehow, with the collated version of the internet, there’s just been much more research being done on pop. I didn’t get my respect until things like Wikipedia, Facebook and social media became big and people could connect the dots. So there’s two things going on. One, the internet didn’t exist to the degree it does now so people couldn’t track my work, and two, in this sort of hyperbolic version of pop analysis, Taylor’s the biggest pop star in the world, so people are taking some serious microscopes into anything that we do.
What, exactly, is going on in “…Ready for It?”
Here’s the one thing I won’t do: I won’t speak for Taylor. I have to give her the right to express or not express what she wants to feel about these videos. At the end of the day, as strong of an artist as I am, it’s a collaboration with Taylor, and she is the ultimate artist in these videos. They’re her songs, her stories, and I am a great paintbrush, but she is the canvas and the paint. So when it comes to interpretation, I’ve got to let her control that.
Can you give me the timeline for when you started working on Bodied? I’m curious how it was influenced by the music videos you’d done with her before you shot it, and how it influenced the videos you did with her that came after it.
Believe it or not, Bodied was actually inspired by “Wildest Dreams,” the controversial video I’d done with Taylor.
Well, for the longest time, I wanted to make a battle rap movie because I love the art form. I love its freedom of expression, and the cleverness of the poetry being flung at each other as insults. As someone who loves competition, that’s fun for me. But I didn’t want to make a sports movie, which is what it would normally be. I reached out to Alex, the writer, who was a battle rapper himself, and I was going to write a comedy or a horror film with him. It wasn’t going to be about battle rap. But anyway, I did “Wildest Dreams,” and having been in the fold with Taylor and knowing how quick the media is to judge her on anything, we were trying to predict what would go wrong with this thing.
There were criticisms of it being racist and you issued this response that said that it was a video about a tortured love story between Taylor and Scott Eastwood, who plays her movie-star boyfriend, but that pretty much everyone behind the scenes had been a person of color.
There were two things we mapped out that we were pretty clear were points of controversy: one is that it was Africa in the ’50s, but it’s not like there haven’t been a ton of Hollywood movies about Africa in the ’50s, like The African Queen. (Note: The African Queen takes place during World War I, although it was made in the 1950s.) We knew that any time you go past the Golden Age of Hollywood, there’s segregation. It’s just a part of American life. Does that negate Citizen Kane or every other movie made before, say, 1969? No, that’s impossible. This is just part of the cinematic history of America and the world.
So I, myself, was trying to figure out how I incorporate, not African-Americans, but Africans, because this took place in Africa. One of my ideas was to make it with an African director, but we knew what was going to happen: It would be accused of whitewashing history and pretending apartheid didn’t exist. So on the flip side, I was thinking, “Maybe I should put the crew [in the video] somehow…” but then it’s like you’re running a plantation! It’s just a no-win situation all around. So what I did was, I just put a few crew members, like, as guards and things like that, who looked more authentic to what it was. So they’re in there. But anyways, what ended up happening is, you see white people in Africa in the ’50s, like Bogart or whatever. And it just hit at the right moment with #BlackLivesMatter and every particular issue going on at that particular moment in that three-month span, and it became a target of being called colonialism and racism and all these hot keywords that were being flung around at the time.
No matter what you would say, it would always seem like your argument would get negated, and people wouldn’t have it any other way. It got to a point where someone would write an essay about how “Joseph Kahn never puts black people in his videos,” or “Joseph Kahn doesn’t do any black videos,” which is absolutely absurd! Half my videos are hip-hop videos! All these accusations were going around that were just not true, and I found the social-media bullying fascinating, where facts didn’t really matter, it was just whoever could shout the loudest, right? That gave me the idea of, “Well, I know a venue where people shout really loud and the truth may not matter, and that’s battle rap.”
So you said you and Taylor tried to anticipate what controversy would come out of “Wildest Dreams.” Sounds like you went into it knowing it was a minefield.
The other thing was that Cecil the lion had just been shot, so we needed to make sure nothing looked like Taylor was in Africa shooting lions! We made sure there were photographers and things like that. You can anticipate what the Zeitgeist is going to do up to a certain point, but you can never truly know what it’s going to do at any particular moment, especially when it’s negative. You just don’t know how big it’s going to blow up, ever.
And it sounds like both of you have an attitude of, “I’m going to say what I want to say, and I’m going to go forward because it’s going to get shot down no matter what, so why not?”
Yeah, and the reality is, as negative as the social-media aspect of it was, in reality, it wasn’t really that big of a deal. It was just the media fanning a fire, and people who never would’ve bought her albums in the first place screaming really loud. Meanwhile, the video now has almost 600 million views and the song did extraordinarily well. It’s not like it made her poor! She did extremely well off of it. But that’s the way social media works: You can literally have 100 people retweeting each other, and some person at BuzzFeed can go in there and say, “The internet has spoken,” and they’ll collectively take ten quotes from random people and write an entire article about this. It is the laziest form of journalism there is. It’s not even journalism. I don’t know what that is! And by the way, there’s not even that many words in the article. It’s all pictures! So it’s a person going, “The internet hates Taylor Swift,” and then they show ten tweets from ten random people who might be a person with ten different accounts. You don’t even know! It’s a completely absurd situation.
I think it’s so cool that that video inspired Bodied. Has Bodied inspired your new work since you finished shooting it? Will fans of Bodied someday be able to look back and find new connections?
It goes deeper. Bodied, for me, was an expression of a thematic idea, in terms of freedom of speech, the nature of language, and the nature of truth and art itself. But underneath that, there is a systematic approach I had towards raising my craft, making it look a little more organic than my previous film, [teen horror film] Detention, where the craft was so surface-level that people could see it and react against it. Bodied is a bit more restrained. It’s literally about where I place the camera in terms of an over-the-shoulder shot. It’s a bunch of nuances I was working on for the last three years. Then, since I actually learned that those certain techniques work, it has informed me on my next set of videos. If you’re looking at “…Ready for It?” there’s a certain geometry to the way close-ups and movements work. This is stuff I don’t really want to talk about, because they’re secrets of my trade. I’m not here to tell every filmmaker how to be successful, because I’m still figuring it out, and it’s a competition, quite frankly. But yes, it has completely informed my filmmaking.
The opening shot of Taylor coming in in “…Ready for It?” reminded me of going to battle in Bodied.
Well, “…Ready for It?” is a confrontation video, so it’s definitely informed by the physical geometry of Bodied.
Do you have a good on-set story from the last two things you’ve shot with Taylor?
Yes! Speaking of the way we interact — on this one particular sequence in “…Ready for It?,” we were trying to figure out what her reaction should be, how she should perform as the camera comes towards her, and what is the intent of her character in that particular moment. The line was, “He can be my jailer / Burton to this Taylor,” and I said, “That’s a really clever metaphor,” and she goes, “I know. That’s why I wrote it.”
There’s so much physical stuff she has to do in these videos. Has she ever gotten hurt?
I’ll tell you one thing: Whenever I do videos with her, I am 100 percent all about her safety. I am not going to be the guy who gets Taylor Swift hurt. Then I will have a million Swifties try to kill me! She is completely protected when I work with her. I will literally throw myself in front of a car because I would rather get hit than her, because the Swifties will hit me with a car anyway.