“Detention” director Joseph Kahn hard at work.
You may not know him by name, but you’ve most likely seen his work over the last decade. Since 1990, Kahn has directed more than 100 videos. He’s worked with some of music’s biggest stars, including Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Katy Perry, Chris Brown and Justin Timberlake. In 2002, he won his first Grammy for Eminem’s “Without Me” video, which also won the MTV Video Music Award’s Best Video of the Year. In 2009, he was awarded the Music Video Production Association’s Best Video of the Year for Katy Perry’s “Waking up in Vegas.”
Kahn has shot TV spots for Adidas, Burger King, BMW, Budweiser, Nascar and Playstation. Recently, he directed campaigns for Old Navy, Coca-Cola, and an ad starring Bruce Willis. In between his video and commercial work, he made his feature film debut in 2003 with the Warner Bros. motorcycle film “Torque.” His second film effort is the teen horror-comedy “Detention” starring Josh Hutcherson (who is currently in “The Hunger Games”) along with Arlington, Mass., native Dane Cook and Spencer Locke.
Kahn, who’s traveling around the country to promote “Detention” was in Boston recently for a one-on-one about the film.
This was a labor of love for you. How long did it take for you to put this together from beginning to end?
It took a total of five years. I was on a train in Manchester, England, on another job, and I was going back to London when I had an epiphany in my head like, ‘Why am I going to take it to a studio who is probably going to change it?’
I was like ‘what does your heart tell you to do with this movie? What is the version of the movie you want to make?’ In my head, I was like ‘I don’t want to have any stars in it. I don’t want to revise anything. I just want to make the movie that I really want.’
The trick was if I was going to make it myself with my own cash, high schools were letting out for the summer and it needed to be shot at a high school and it needed to be done in the next month and a half. I didn’t want to wait a year. At that point it was a Saturday and I said ‘I’m going to make it,’ and I told my producer that. We flew back on Sunday and on Monday morning we started prepping it. A month a half later we had cast it. We had all the outfits and everything bought, and we shot it literally a month afterwards.
Once the film company picked it up, did they want to change it or did they understand your vision?
It was all my cash. So, they didn’t change anything. I had the option of walking away.
Did you know at that time that Josh Hutcherson would be as big as he is now?
I can honestly say that I knew Josh was going to be a big star. I was looking for that type of guy.
How did you know?
I’m pretty good at spotting talent. That’s what I do for most of my career. I work with music videos. Half of the music video is coming up with the video concept. The other half is knowing what songs are going to be a hit, which [one] to support, and which artist you think is going to pop, and then the video makes them stars. A good video director worth his salt creates “it.” So, I knew Josh was going to pop at some point. He had the charisma and the talent.
How different was this experience for you compared with “Torque?”
It was completely different. With “Torque,” I walked in and basically every decision I made had kickback. Everybody disagreed with everything I did. It was like this crazy uphill battle on every creative decision I made. The crew hated me and the studio wanted to fire me. It was just the most miserable experience ever. “Detention,” it was my script, my money and my crew. It was pure fun.
What did you learn from your first film to your second film?
I made the second film eight years later. Eight years of just knowledge off my first movie and all the work that I’ve done in between. I like to think that (after) every job I get smarter and smarter. I’m always learning. I know how to do a dialogue better, a story better. I know actors better, I know a camera better and I know lighting better. My next one will have even more knowledge. I never stop learning.
How is it working with a performer versus an actor? Is it any different?
I love performers in any regard whether they sing, dance or act. I love Steven Spielberg but I don’t watch “Raiders of the Lost Ark” for Spielberg. I watch it for Harrison Ford. On a certain level, it’s a dialogue that happens. It’s a human connection that I love when I work with them as a director. I try to talk to people as people. An actor will know more about acting, a singer will know more about singing, and a dancer will know about more dancing. I can only be the receptive audience that provides that feedback.
How excited are you about going around promoting this film?
I’m super excited. This is my first kick-off in a series of cities. I’m putting my own money into this. I’m flying myself out and talking to everybody. I’m that happy with the movie and that confident in it.
You work between videos and films. Does it help you creatively?
I love short form. I love long form. If this was running as a sport, I like the sprint and the hundred-meter. I love doing the marathon. I love doing it all. I find that hopping back and forth keeps it interesting.
Are there any other artists you’d like to work with?
I really wanted to work with Michael and that’s too late. The only other person on my list is Madonna (laughing). I just don’t think I’m cool enough for her.
“Detention” opens in Boston, Friday, April 13 at AMC Loews Boston Common.
Bruce Bruce returns to The Wilbur Theatre on Saturday, April 14 for one show at 9:45 p.m.
Showcase Live in Foxboro presents R&B crooner Keith Sweat on Friday, April 20 at 8 p.m.
Grammy Award-winner Esperanza Spalding performs at the Orpheum Theatre on Sunday, April 22 at 7:30 p.m.
The award-winning Broadway musical FELA comes to Cutler Majestic Theatre April 24 to May 6. Tickets are available at www.artsemerson.org.
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