What do you do when you've already broken the Internet? For director Joseph Kahn, who last week crashed the Web thanks to his music video for Taylor Swift's Look What You Made Me Do, the answer is to offend just about everyone who doesn't already hate him.
This week, Kahn brings his third feature, Bodied, to the Toronto International Film Festival, where it opens the Midnight Madness program. The Eminem-produced satire, focused on the down and extraordinarily dirty world of battle rap, fits neatly with Kahn's subversive, and polarizing, filmography. As with his previous features – the misunderstood action comedy Torque and the unjustly ignored slasher spoof Detention – Bodied is built on familiar genre elements, but twisted into entirely new and boundary-pushing material (with a significant assist from Toronto rapper Alex Larsen's screenplay).
On the eve of Bodied's TIFF premiere – and in between endless Twitter wars with Swift haters – Kahn, 44, spoke with The Globe and Mail about free speech and social-media warfare.
It must be nice to take a break from your battles in the Swift universe.
It does take up quite a bit of my time. On one hand, I've got an army of 16-year-old girls crazy about Taylor Swift, and on the other hand, I'm trying to promote this film about free speech. The intersection of the two is a little catastrophic, to be honest.
How difficult is it to reconcile those two halves of your artistic output?
I'm known as a big pop director, but I'm a punk-rock dude deep inside. Even though I do these mass-scale projects, inside, I reject that stuff and look for other ways to do things. I like to light a match when things are getting a little too easy. I'll make a Detention or a Bodied. It just happens to be that one of my biggest projects ever in the pop world and one of my most angry projects in the film world are both being released in the span of a week. It's a bit of a mess right now.
Is it a happy mess, though? I mean, it must be nice to have this much attention being paid to your career in full …
Well, it's a little confusing for the media. They don't quite understand what's going on. If you're in the lane, say, of writing for Teen Vogue, you're not quite understanding what I'm trying to do with Bodied.
What are you trying to do with Bodied, then?
I want to do a treatise on the way the world exists today. Right now, the thing that is consuming the world, specifically North American culture, is race relations. And how you live in a world of multiculturalism and where are the spaces you can talk abut things and not talk about things. When I was making Detention, there was something beautiful happening with kids, because they were so politically correct in a way that was very conscious, very woke. Flash-forward seven years, and where did that take us, though? I see a new form of censorship and close-mindedness where we're so afraid of offending anybody that we're not actually saying anything.
And the arena of battle rap was the way to explore that?
It was the perfect format. Two people go up on stage and it's the last safe space for free speech, where two people can be as offensive as possible and yet afterward, they go get a beer together. People laugh, people get mad, then they're friends. That's what I wanted to explore.
The use of "safe space" is interesting, because here it seems like a rebuke to today's definition of "safe space" as somewhere protected from offensive viewpoints.
It's a complex thing. The other thing I wanted to make sure is that Bodied is a satire. I have a definite perspective on my love for free speech, but I wanted to give it a fair shot, to see if there was a limit to how far you can offend someone. Are there legitimate concerns?
I think the movie roasts everything, and in doing that, you're giving everyone a fair shot. One of the complaints I can see coming for the movie is that it doesn't take a position. But I don't think I have to answer anything. That's not my responsibility as a satirist. I'm just there to examine and simulate the experience of being a human in 2017.
And to poke holes in everyone's argument, including your own?
To poke holes, yes, but also … 2017 is trench warfare. We have developed the tools through social media and now there's no battle that can be truly won any more. If battle rap wasn't timed, it would go on forever. And on the Internet, there is no time limit. No one ever wins. All we do is fire at each other from the trenches.
Do you ever want to duck from the fire and stick to the world of pop?
I don't know. Making movies is such a giant obsession for me that I've been in a real Bodied cloud for the past two years. You wake up thinking about every little detail and I won't be able to stop until it plays Toronto.
As much as I love doing all my commercials and music videos, the personal projects take the most energy out of me. Movies are painful to make. It's like chasing Moby Dick. I feel like I've caught my whale. I now need to go eat some blubber for a second.
Bodied plays TIFF Sept. 7, 11:59 p.m., Ryerson; Sept. 9, 1:45 p.m. Scotiabank; Sept. 14, 8:15 p.m., Scotiabank.
This interview has been edited and condensed.