My history with Joseph Kahn is an odd one.
So when we spoke on Saturday about the top-secret project he's been working on since I saw him last summer at Comic-Con, I was aware how strange it is that Kahn would trust me with this secret. It is a testament to the way a real conversation with someone can change a relationship entirely, because by all rights, he shouldn't have anything at all to say to me. After all, I was rude to him about his first film “Torque.” I didn't review the film, but I did find a way to make sure to take a cheap shot at him at the end of the year.
In his second feature, “Detention,” Kahn sneaks in a few sideways digs at film critics, but the damnedest thing happened: I enjoyed the film when I saw it at SXSW and I gave it a good review. And suddenly we had no idea what to think of one another. It's so easy to assume something is antagonistic if you never talk to each other, and one we did, it was pretty clear that we had no real reason to continue behaving like that.
The truth is, snark is cheap. It's easy, and it can be funny, and I am as guilty as anyone of looking for just the right punchline to use to totally annihilate something I'm writing about if I don't like it. But I used to do it more than I do it now, and I try to remember when I do it that there is going to be an actual person on the receiving end of that punchline, and it may hurt.
Besides, once you start talking to people, you learn the most interesting things about them. I learned, for example, that Kahn is not particularly interested in making the blockbusters that are getting made right now, and it's something I can certainly understand. As a writer, I am not interested in a good deal of what's available for working writers. I don't begrudge anyone who decides to write these films, but the example I use is “Jenga: The Movie,” which was a real open writing assignment. I have a copy of a script for “Candy Land,” a copy of a script for “Barbie,” and a whole stack of pilot scripts based on movies. It's a time of existing intellectual properties, and a far more elastic definition of “intellectual” and “property” than I've ever seen before.
“The irony here is that I wouldn't even want to make “Power Rangers: The Movie' for real. Like if I had to make a 'Power Rangers' movie, this is it. It's 14 minutes long and it's violent and this is what I have in me. If they offered me the 200 million version, the PG-13 version, I literally wouldn't do it. It's just not interesting to me.”
It is safe to say that what Joseph Kahn has done is not rated PG-13.
What Joseph Kahn has done is “Power/Rangers”.
The first two words that come to mind are, indeed, “dark” and “gritty,” and in this case, when I think those words, I start laughing. When I talked to Kahn about this originally, it was clear that he was going to push those two exact words as far as possible, in a very straightfaced way.
Last fall, there was a momentary controversy around Katee Sackhoff shooting something, and people went nuts guessing what it was. The most popular choice was that she had been cast as Captain Marvel in “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” I couldn't share at the time that she was shooting her role as the Pink Ranger in Kahn's “Power/Rangers,” a 14-minute film that pushes every blockbuster stereotype to a weird sort of singularity. If Kahn didn't make this film, someone would. It feels inevitable, which is part of what makes it so fascinating.
Let's be clear… I have no idea what Lionsgate is doing with their upcoming feature film version of the “Power Rangers” franchise, and I hope they pull off whatever it is they're going to try to do.
This is a fan film, and as such, it's amazing, because it is not an act of devotion to a property. Instead, it's a lacerating straight-faced comment on where we are with these movies. It's not just the “dark and gritty” approach, it's the use of a property that was little more than a cynical merchandising trick the first time around. I spent some time with Isaac Florentine at ActionFest one year, and we talked about “Power Rangers.” He was there at the start of things, and listening to him talk about it, art was not on anyone's mind. I get that there are people who genuinely loved the show when they were kids, and that they would love to see something new. Their fondness for this thing is not the point of Kahn's film. Instead, it's more a matter of talking about how these things get squeezed and bent and molded into something new.
“It started because I was bored, quite frankly. I only make a narrative feature film of any sort like once every five years or something like that. So I was going to make a science-fiction film, and at the same time, I was meeting with Adi Shankar. You know who he is? The producer that did 'The Grey' and 'Lone Survivor' and 'Dredd' and all that?”
Indeed. Adi Shankar is a guy who has come on strong in the last few years, and who has picked some projects that made a lot of sense on the page, whatever the outcome. And I'm fascinated by the way he's doing these movies on the side while he's producing actual licensed movie versions of other things, like the “Dredd” movie and spin-offs. Copyright seems like a technicality to him, and the result in this particular case is something that looks like “the real thing.”
Kahn continued, “Shankar had done some fan films, he called them bootlegs, of 'Punisher' and Venom. And he said, 'If you're going to do this, I'll let you reboot an actual property that people are going to pay attention to.' And honestly, I'm not really into fan films at all. Two of the worst types of filmmaking out there that are not credible to filmmakers… one is porn and the other is fan films. So the minute that he pitched me into doing this, I thought, 'Okay, well, that sounds like fun actually. If it's that… completely without credibility… then that's something I could really get my hands around and see if I could do something new with it.'”
Kahn wasn't a fan of the material, so he asked for something to help him get his head around it. “[Shankar] sent me a script and there was already kind of like a thread, like a bare-bones version of what we ultimately did. I didn't really like the script. I didn't even know anything about the Power Rangers to be completely honest with you. I did some research and I rewrote the script and we started sending it out. The first person I thought of to play the main role was Katie Sackoff, and she signed onboard because Adi happened to know her. Then when I was looking for her nemesis, it was Adi who pitched James [Van Der Beek] and I think they're friends or something.”
The film begins with some big visual flash, and I asked him if he could have done it smaller scale and gotten away with it.
“I don't like shooting anything halfway on anything I do. In my day job, I'm a commercial music video director, so whatever budget you give me I'm going to throw in everything I know to the best of my ability to execute at the highest level. And so even if it's a fan film, I used all my resources. We made this on very little money. Am I proud that we made it on very little money? Actually, no, because I don't really like asking for favors, and I don't really like people working for below their rate and stuff like that, but I really didn't have any choice. So you really ended up getting like a real Hollywood movie, just because I asked a ton of favors.”
I asked him about how “dark” and “gritty” they played this “dark and gritty” reboot, and he started laughing about it. “It's funny… I've seen repurposed stuff on the Internet where they take a property that's serious and make it even more so, like a Batman fan film or something like that, or a video game or whatever. I've actually seen stuff like where they've taken ridiculous stuff like Mario Brothers and then tried to make the dark and gritty version, and they obviously play it for laughs.
I think the trick that I really wanted to do with this was to make that dark and gritty version that everybody keeps talking about, but really do it. Really see if I could totally accomplish it with essentially a really incredible incredibly silly property.”
Even after he started, he had his reservations. “There were a couple of things that were appealing to me. One, as opposed to like taking something like Barney and doing your dark version of Barney, there's at least a mythology there. The original mythology is really expansive and kind of silly in how many different…” Kahn collapsed into laughter. “I mean, these guys turn into dinosaurs. How do you take that seriously? But there's enough of like a groundwork of the original source material that they based off this repurposed Japanese show that has like norms of anime and kung fu and all that stuff that appeals to me because I'm an anime and kung fu guy anyways. I just took pieces that I liked and then streamlined it and made a bare bones version and really expressed the versions that seemed like they naturally fit within the down-the-middle dark and gritty reboot. And by the way, the dark and gritty reboot thing is such a cliché that the intention was not only to make it dark and gritty but make it even darker and grittier than you could possibly imagine, hence the brains, the blood and the violence and the sex.”
This film has some scale to it, and I asked Kahn how long it took him to get it up and shooting after I saw him at Comic-Con. “I was shooting a month after,” he told me. “I had written it two or three months before. James [Van Der Beek, who shares a co-screenplay credit with Kahn] went in there and did a polish of his dialogue and then I just shot it. And then for the last six months I've been doing different post on it every day.”
I mentioned the rumors about Katee and what she was shooting and whether or not there was any information about his project leaked at all. I certainly didn't remember any, and I was aware of the ongoing secret. I asked how he thought it went overall. “Well, some asshole, probably part of the crew, tweeted pictures and tried to sell the costumes after they were done. I had my suspicions who it was and I can't really say and they released something. It had a bunch of things convoluted about it, though. They said that we're making a pilot. I mean, none of it was true so I don't even think the crew member quite understood what we were doing.”
He seemed matter-of-fact about it now. “Some people got it out there. It was very vague. I don't think they really understood exactly what we were going for, especially in terms of the tone and things. And it was really funny because they had the costumes. One of the hardest parts of a doing a Power Rangers thing are the costumes themselves. Those costumes are pretty nuts. I mean… it's spandex. It's spandex with motorcycle helmets, so how do you make that look cool? So one of the things I had to do was like really figure out how to like sculpt it, make it more modern but still like… I've seen versions of people trying to do Power Rangers where they've taken the costumes and made them essentially like a 'HALO' thing, and I don't think that worked, I just tried to make it more classic, maybe a little tougher and more degraded. The picture they took was like the costumes on the ground. It looked terrible without anyone in them. And so it just looks like… the pictures out there look like this is the worst thing ever. Of course you've got to lighten the photographed costumes too. They don't just sort of like magically turn cool by themselves.”
Not having to ask anyone's permission gave Kahn room to do what he wanted with the iconography of the show. “What I really want to accomplish when you watch, is you should really take it seriously. There's nothing playful except for maybe the Hip-Hop-Kido thing. Maybe a few little like motivational character [things], interactions and stuff. Overall, it's a very serious thing. The joke isn't that you're laughing at each particular scene; the joke is that we did this 'fuck you' thing in the first place. You're going to look at it and you go wow I can't believe they fucking did that.”
The film is screening in Hollywood right now. Just let out, as a matter of fact. And I hope it went well for him. I thought it was sort of amazing in terms of how far they pushed it, and I'm curious to see what Saban and Lionsgate make of all of this.
“I'm just doing a screening for cast and crew because so many people worked on this, like hundreds of people worked on it, so I'm just giving a small little screening for them. And then Monday night just releasing it at midnight and nobody knows it's coming. You're the only person outside of this universe that knows this is happening.”
He said that he's not really saying something about “Power Rangers” in particular but that he's more pointing at the the way the entire machine works. “It's not just Lionsgate but all of Hollywood, they all keep toying around with this 'dark and gritty' concept, and they're all PG-13. I mean…. look at the gunshots. You have a guy going in there shooting a bunch of people and it's just like puffs of smoke. There's no repercussions to these gunshots, which to me is even more dangerous than when you actually show some blood. You're teaching kids that you can shoot a gun and there's no repercussions to it. It just looks like you fall down. So when I did the dark and gritty version of this, I mean, we go full out. There's blood, there's brains, there's gunshots, there's sex, there's violence. I mean, basically we made the version that Hollywood could never ever make. If I had to watch the 'dark and gritty' reboot, then this is the way I would want it. This is the version I would personally want to see, but I also know this is the version that could never, ever be made in Hollywood. They would be crazy, it would be financially irresponsible, but this is what I personally would like to see out of a Power Rangers film.”
Go. Behold. Joseph Kahn, Katee Sackhoff, James Van Der Beek, and the entire cast and crew have made something that feels like the culmination of so much of recent pop culture, all wrapped up in one straight-faced and absurd package.
I'll have a little more with Kahn in the next few. In the meantime, admit it… what would you say if this was screened at Comic-Con with the right name attached?
As of six months ago, Lionsgate had every intention of releasing a Power Rangers film on July 22, 2016, with Roberto Orci producing and Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz writing, and I assume that is still the case now.
Kahn's movie doesn't replace theirs… it is a glimpse, perhaps, into the darkest timeline.