From Gangsta Rap To ‘Wildest Dreams’ – How Director Joseph Kahn Got His Start

emilee lindner, MTV.com
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There are so many awards on Joseph Kahn’s shelf, it’s literally bending from the weight.

And on Sunday (Aug. 30), the music director may take home some more metal for Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” video, which has been nominated nine times at the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards. He might have to get a sturdier shelf.

Kahn is one of those legendary directors; he’s helmed projects for everyone from Brandy to Britney Spears to Eminem to Blink 182 to Ciara to the Backstreet Boys to Lady Gaga to Katy Perry to, most recently, Swift (“Blank Space,” which has been viewed more than a billion times, “Bad Blood” and the upcoming “Wildest Dreams“). He’s won Grammys and VMAs — although that doesn’t matter that much to him. Kahn says the people’s appreciation is far more important that any award.

But before he starred in any “Making the Video” episode, he started off making $500 gangsta rap videos in the ’90s.

“I just wanted to make Madonna videos, but I ended up working with the Geto Boys,” Kahn told me, calling from Los Angeles. “It was an eye-opening experience. Being an Asian kid from the suburbs, shooting in black neighborhoods, that was an odd thing to see back in ’93, ’95. I was one of the only directors who wanted to do the videos.”

Moving from Texas, Kahn started working in Los Angeles and New York, looking for bigger gigs, but no one would sign him. Soon enough, though, everybody wanted rap and an urban feel in mainstream music. “I came to L.A. as the weakest type of director, and suddenly, as Diddy started coming out… I was in the right position.” From there, he got more work with pop artists, but instead of replicating Madonna’s videos as he once dreamed, he infused his new visuals with the street culture he was so familiar with.

Name an artist, and there’s a high likelihood that he’s directed one of their videos — Shakira, Aaliyah, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, DMX, Mariah Carey, Jordin Sparks, Christina Aguilera, 50 Cent and Destiny’s Child just start the list (surprisingly, he actually turns a lot of projects down if he thinks he won’t give the song a good treatment). But the past year has been all Taylor. His latest video, “Wildest Dreams,” is premiering Sunday at 8e/5p during the VMA pre-show.

musterhausen

Although Kahn couldn’t talk too much about the video, a still from the teaser clip revealed a clapboard with the director name G. Munsterhausen — Kahn’s alter-ego, who also made an appearance in his videos for Muse’s “Knights of Cydonia” and Busta Rhymes’ “Light Your Ass On Fire” featuring Pharrell Williams.

“Sometimes I feel like these videos are directed by other people,” he said. “On a conceptual level, I’m a character actor, and you know how when you’re a character actor, you become a different person? Sometimes on a video, I feel like I can’t be Joseph and I have to become something else and trick myself into being that person to make the video.”

Musterhausen has changed over the years. He put himself into the mindset of a 1940s animation director for the Busta video, and for Muse, Musterhausen was an “Eastern European quasi-porn director who was taking money from weapons companies and funneling it into his movies.” “Wildest Dreams” is supposedly set in the ’50s and Musterhausen won’t be directing the video — he’ll be in it, Kahn teased.

When it comes to talking about his projects, Kahn is a classic Internet troll. He’s one of the most outspoken directors on Twitter, and a week before “Wildest Dreams’” debut, he Rick Roll’d followers by posting a fake clip, titled, “Wildest Dreams Leaked.”

Needless to say, he tricked more than a few with that one.

He likes to tease fans on Twitter — while he was filming “Wildest Dreams,” he kept calling it a “toothpaste commercial.”

“When I did ’Blank Space,’ I called that a ’pancake commercial’ because I didn’t want anyone to know I was doing a Taylor Swift video,” he said. People didn’t think he would troll them again by saying “Wildest Dreams” was a “toothpaste commercial.” But he did.

“I promise you I won’t do that again.. or maybe,” he said.

His fake-title concept actually started with his non-music-video project “Power/Rangers,” his 2015 short film that puts the original childhood superhero squad into a much darker story. He didn’t want people to find out he was filming it, so he called it a “tampon commercial.”

Turns out, “Power/Rangers” was taken off the Internet after “Power Rangers” company Saban Brands took issue with copyright. Kahn eventually was able to re-release the project as a fan film, but with a disclaimer.

If some of Kahn’s videos look cinematic to you, that’s because he’s a self-proclaimed “film geek,” studying Steven Spielberg and David Fincher, and has directed two feature-length films (“Torque” and “Detention”). “The secret to me is, deep down inside, I’m an extremely frustrated filmmaker who watches these giant movies and thinks, why not me?” Kahn said. “That’s been driving me for the last 25 years.”

“Bad Blood” is basically a mini movie, and Kahn said that he tries to take any narrative music video and make it better than a movie. Having Swift as a collaborator makes his work that much easier because she “understands filmmaking and editing on an instinctual level.”

“She is willing to go to town on these videos,” Kahn said. “No one puts as much time as she does, no one puts as much money and effort that she does. Every video, if I’m like, ’Maybe we should go to Paris,’ she’s like, ’Let’s do it! I can’t wait.’ She’s into making the greatest videos possible.

“I wanted to work with Michael Jackson, and unfortunately I never go that chance, and what I mean from the Michael Jackson perspective is that an artist that takes music videos very seriously and wants to push the art form and do great things with it,” Kahn said. “But I’m working with Taylor, and she’s my personal Michael Jackson.”

Like Swift, he always thinks his latest work is his favorite work — “Right now, ’Wildest Dreams’ is the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Kahn will be at the VMAs on Sunday when “Wildest Dreams” premieres, but he’s not the partying type. He’d rather be at home studying film.

And plus he has a new shelf to buy.

Oh, and that “pharmacy commercial” he’s working on…