For a guy who keeps saying and doing things that piss people off, Adi Shankar isn’t sweating it much. The last three theatrical releases he produced–the Mark Wahlberg Afghan war movie Lone Survivor, the Liam Neeson drama A Walk Among The Tombstones, and the Ryan Reynolds horror-comedy The Voices–were all well-received, and the “bootleg” short films he released using properties like the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and James Bond brought him headlines.
They also brought him legal hassles, but he doesn’t seem too worried about that either.
His dark “Power/Rangers” short–with James Van Der Beek and Katee Sackhoff–was removed from Vimeo and YouTube shortly after its February release, after the owners of the copyright for the Power Rangers filed claims. (They were restored a few days later, with Shankar citing fair use.) His animated “James Bond: In Service Of Nothing” short met a similar fate, with MGM filing a copyright claim and the video services ultimately siding with Shankar.
Meanwhile, Shankar took to YouTube–wearing Crow makeup–to provide regular, unfiltered, highly quotable, informative behind-the-scenes explanations of how Hollywood really works.
All of which suggests that, when attempting to predict Shankar’s next move, a three-picture directing deal with Maker Studios was probably not at the top of the list. But Shankar’s big on making unconventional moves, and opting for a deal to direct–something he’s yet to do–for a multi-platform studio owned by Disney, certainly qualifies.
The Maker deal gives Shankar a huge amount of creative freedom, which he says is what drew him to the offer. “I’m just a guy who wants to make stuff and not have to reverse engineer what I’m saying through someone else’s lens,” he says. “At that point, I might as well just be working at a bank or be a lawyer or something like that. If I’m going to be an artist, then I want to be an artist.”
Still, there are a lot of questions regarding Shankar’s deal with Maker, and he can’t answer all of them. When the deal was reported by The Wrap, they described it as “a three-picture directing deal,” but if that looks like what it usually means, even Shankar couldn’t tell you.
“I’m still figuring that out,” he says. “Not to get super philosophical on you, because I read back through old interviews, and I’m like, ‘Oh, wow, I got philosophical and it comes off as douchey,’ but someone asked me what my favorite movie of the year is so far. And my response was Daredevil on Netflix,” Shankar says. “They were like, ‘No, no, no, that was a TV show–what’s your movie?’ And I was like, ‘What’s the difference? Just don’t say movie. ‘What’s your favorite piece of 90-minute content that was screened in a theater?’ We’re using these archaic definitions to define things. But what is it exactly? The distribution platform? How we break up the ads?”
It’s possible that Shankar will decide to make three “pieces of 90-minute content” that get screened in theaters for Maker, but you probably shouldn’t count on it. He’s got a lot of ideas about how storytelling is evolving, and a big part of the appeal to a deal like this, for him, was the opportunity to work with people who are interested in going beyond the boundaries that the industry currently places on “movies,” “TV,” “webseries,” and more.
“It comes from the business community that surrounds the artistic community,” Shankar says. “They’ve created this paradigm that having a movie in theaters is greater than having a movie on television, which is greater than having something on YouTube. What does that have to do with anything? I have a TV, and my TV has HBO Go, YouTube, Netflix, and I have iTunes, where I can buy the latest shitty, popcorn, homogenized cultural genocide movie that’s in theaters right now. I’m watching it on the same device, so effectively everything is made for TV.”
Shankar’s filmography includes a lot of movies that you’ve heard of. He produced The Grey, Killing Them Softly, and Broken City, in addition to Lone Survivor and the other 2014 films. But the theatrical feature that probably best captures the sort of work that Shankar’s passionate about is 2012’s Dredd remake, which adapted the British comic book character Judge Dredd in a utterly grim, true-to-the-origins dystopian action film–rather than the goofy, arch take on the concept in the Sylvester Stallone version from the ’90s. Dredd combined the things that Shankar loves best–violence, unflinching grittiness, and other people’s characters.
In the years since Dredd, Shankar has embraced that love. He’s made short films for Marvel characters, the Power Rangers and Bond, and even another Judge Dredd story. “I wasn’t making the bootlegs to leverage them into anything else,” he says. “I started making them at a point in time where I really didn’t even need to be making them, and it was kind of weird that I was doing it. But I think that I’ve become more associated with that than I have with the traditional films.”
Shankar is coy when asked if the deal with Maker means the end of the bootleg films–rather than answer the question outright, he notes that his YouTube channel as a “bootleg universe” show every week, in which working writers and directors pitch their idea to reboot a pre-existing franchise. But he says that the point of the bootlegs isn’t just to make fan films. “In all my art, I’m flipping our global mythology and cultural vernacular on its head to make a comment on inequality and the hypocrisy that plagues our species. That’s what the bootleg universe is. It’s not like, ‘Hey, let’s have Power Rangers stab each other! Let’s have James Bond become crazy!’ This is indicative of the weaponization–and the glorification of the weaponization–of people. There are real parallels to wars that are going on right now due to this same mindset.”
That’s a good answer, but it also seems to indicate that, with his deal with Maker Studios, Shankar’s focused on finding ways to tell stories with his own characters.
The stories that Shankar wants to tell with Maker still deals with his usual themes: there are superheroes, and extreme violence, and gritty stories told without concern for tender sensibilities. And the first one, at least, will be animated. “I’ve always preferred animation, to tell you the truth,” he says. “You’re not restricted by real life. You’re literally only restricted by your imagination. That’s it. That’s the limit. You’re not restricted by budget or anything.”
Getting Shankar to go into the details for the story is tough–which is true of most people developing a new project after signing a multi-picture deal with a studio–but he gets excited when I ask him about post-modern reinterpretations of superheroes that have existed through the years like The Authority, Watchmen, and Astro City that have deconstructed the archetypes and myths of the genre, while also staying true to it. “You’re talking to a guy that’s not only interested in doing it, but is currently doing it,” he says.
Here’s what we know about the project for Maker: It’s set in India, and it pushes against the “White God” syndrome that Shankar sees in most Hollywood superhero films. It’s also based, in part, on the disparity that Shankar sees because he was born in a hospital in Calcutta, rather than in a slum. “On every side of that hospital is a slum. The odds that I was born in that hospital and not in the slum are so astronomically low, I won the lottery. This is something that I think about every day, and it actually really, really bothers me,” he says. “And then India isn’t an easy country to leave. For the most part, people just stay there. So the fact that I got to leave and express myself means that I won the lottery again. I won the lottery twice. And then the fact that I could come to Hollywood and live the life of an artist, and I’ve had some moderate success here–I’ve won the lottery three times in a row. It’s a weird feeling. I have this sense of civic duty now as a result, and that’s why the first thing that I want to do is set it in India.”
Setting his first project in India isn’t just a personal way to honor the fact that there are countless people in his home country who don’t get to tell their own stories the way that he does. It’s also a chance to open things up creatively.
“It’s damaging if you keep telling one guy’s story over and over again,” Shankar says. “Comic books were made by outsiders, and they were about outsiders. It’s weird that superheroes have become hyper-mainstream, and are feeding into that same alienating experience.”
Setting his story in India, with Indian characters, is a chance for Shankar to speak to more outsiders, then–and it’s a chance to reinterpret ideas that make a lot of sense in that context. Shankar relates that to his experience as an actor, which he’s found frustrating. “I’m a very good actor, but I refuse to act, because my options are to either play the terrorist or the nerdy Indian guy that’s never going to get the girl,” he says. “Fuck you. I don’t want to take a role from an Indian guy, I want to take Ryan Gosling’s role. And it’s crazy to me that that’s not even a conversation. It’s insane to me that this entire career trajectory is just not available to me. I can’t play Batman ever. But where does Batman make more sense? Would it be a crazy dude in India doing this, or a guy in the United States? Batman logically makes more sense as an Indian dude, because you have a high concentration of billionaires that actually go unchecked, and you’ve got a rampant crime problem. Everything the Batman movies are about, it actually happens in India.”
”At the end of the day, Age Of Ultron is about a group of white men standing around debating how they’re going to beat up the guy that doesn’t agree with their ideology.”
Ultimately, from the “bootleg” films to the projects he’s developing for Maker Studios–and the currently-filming dark, live-action superhero film Gods And Secrets that Shankar will make his directorial debut–everything Shankar is interested in involves a response to the dominant culture, and using superheroes to articulate that response.
“I didn’t have a lot of friends growing up, because every few years, I was moving by myself to another country, so the only real consistencies growing up were comic book,” Shankar says. “These characters, to me they’re real people. That’s how I communicate–I deconstruct these characters. It’s how I see the world.”
And seeing the world that way, but not being able to participate the way that others in his position might be able to, seems to motivate much of what Shankar does.
“This is why I love the digital space: Because in traditional Hollywood, you need a white guy standing in front of you to validate you as a minority,” Shankar says. “It’s my best-case scenario to be Ryan Reynolds’ sidekick–to be the guy in the third act that gives him the advice that helps him get the girl. That’s my best-case scenario, to be the court jester. It’s never to be the king. It’s never to be the guy who gets the girl. That’s what entertainment has taught me through the course of my life. It wasn’t until recently that I realized well, fuck–there’s a billion people that look like me and a few hundred thousand that look like him. This isn’t a knock against Ryan–I actually really like the guy–but he’s a placeholder for every white guy to me. It’s an epidemic in movies. Chris Pratt, Chris Evans, Chris Pine, Ryan Gosling, Ryan Reynolds–literally, as a not-white dude, they all look exactly the same to me. I can’t tell them apart. The literally look like the exact same person to me. And yet all the opportunities are going to these guys. That’s the movie industry. One of these ‘White Gods’ steps up to the plate and validates your story and pats you on the head. ‘All right, I’ve arrived, now I’ve been legitimized!’”
For Shankar, the chance to insert more characters into these stories who can’t be played by a white guy named Chris is an exciting opportunity. And it’s not just a creative opportunity–it’s also a business opportunity, too.
“At the end of the day, those white guys named Chris, they don’t really have an audience,” Shankar says. “They have an audience because the marketing machine is getting behind them and being like, ‘We lost our other guy named Chris because he didn’t work out. Quick, let’s find another guy named Chris and blow him up.’ And these guys continuously drop the ball. Literally every six months there’s a new Alex Pettyfer. ‘Oh, this guy’s going to be huge!’ I’m sorry, he’s not going to be huge because most people in the world don’t relate to that guy. That guy is not like anyone I know.”