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Directors and actors always get all the credit. But how about some love for the person behind the scenes? The one who makes the movies possible in the first place, the producer? Enter: Adi Shankar, the man behind some of your favorite flicks. In the past couple years, he's produced Liam Neeson's The Grey, the Mark Wahlberg/Russell Crowe crime thriller Broken City, and the Brad Pitt-starrer Killing Them Softly, all under his own production company, 1984 Private Defense Contractors. On the peculiar name, Shankar noted that it was part-Orwellian reference, part-reference to military contracting. "I thought it would be cool if we were able to build a mythology around the company and pretend to be in a completely different industry," says Shankar.
Complex got a chance to speak to the prolific producer about why he strictly takes on R-rated movies, what motivated him to break into the biz, and the impressive roster of films he's got lined up: Lone Survivor, The Voices, and his all-female Expendables project.
Interview by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)
Your twitter bio says you strictly do R-rated movies. Why is that?
If I'm going to a movie and I know it's R-rated, there’s almost no limit as to where the movie can go. It adds an extra element of mystery to it. When it’s PG-13, it can’t push the concept that far, especially in the genres I work in. Also I find that when movies are PG-13, they can become cartoony in a lot of instances, like the way death is portrayed. While the R-rated movies are generally way more graphic and shocking, they tend to be a more realistic portrayal of whatever is going on.
Do you have a specific in action-thrillers, or have some dramas intrigued you as well?
I would argue that every single movie I’ve done, including the short films I do, has been a drama disguised with the motif of a man with a gun or a man trying to survive. My next movie, The Voices, is a kind of drama about mental illness.
What I enjoy about these mash-ups is that you can take dramatic ideas and disguise them with the motif of something far more palatable and far more mainstream. But you still have that dramatic backbone that, for me, drove the movie. One would hope that the audience leaves with this message.
I’m really excited to see The Voices, but I haven’t read much about it. Is there anything more you can talk about?
The way I pitch it to people is this: it’s American Psycho meets Dr. Doolittle. It’s an inventive movie. I’ve been a fan of Marjane Satrapi, the director, for years. Persepolis was a masterpiece. I was so honored that she would do this movie with me. It’s genre bending, so there are going to be a lot of things that are going to be hard to classify. Ryan Reynolds is great in it, and so is Anna Kendrick and Gemma Arterton.
Can you talk about their roles in the movie?
Well, spoiler alert, the trick of the movie is that you’re actually peering into the mind of a serial killer. So there’s logic to what this guy is doing—it's very far removed from the logic of a normal human being, but there is still a logic. You’re still seeing it in real time, and you’re seeing it through, like, a Wes Anderson lens. It feels fun and happy, but there are moments in the movie when you’re no longer seeing things from his point of view but from everyone else’s point of view and you’re like, “Oh my god, that’s so dark and fucked up, what the fuck are you doing?” That’s the trick, and Ryan Reynolds is the serial killer.
It’s a lot of fun and it’s a script I love. Marjene brought such subtlety and humor to the whole thing.
Are Anna Kendrick and Gemma Arterton a couple of those people outside who watch it from another perspective?
Yeah, Anna and Gemma are—I hate using the word love interest, but if I had to classify it, they would be love interests in the movie.
Are you surprised that Lone Survivor has gotten some Oscar buzz?
I tend to ignore everything because last year people were saying the same thing about The Grey, at least for Liam Neeson’s performance. The whole Oscar thing has always kind of gone over my head. I don’t mean that in an arrogant way at all. I just don’t pay attention because I maybe have low self esteem or something and never believed that anything could happen. I’m like, "Yeah, that’s what Spielberg and Chris Nolan get to do."
What motivated you to make movies in the first place?
I always loved them and I never believed that I would be able to do this. I was actually working at a credit card company right after school and I realized right after I graduated that I could not live a conventional life. It bothered me that I couldn’t. I wasn’t looking down on a conventional life. It's just that I would look around me at all the people who were really happy making films and I'd think, “Oh my god, I wish I could do what you’re doing. That sounds so awesome.” It was something I had to do.
What was life like for you growing up?
"The idea of a big break is a fallacy that’s been perpetuated. For anyone with that longevity in this industry, it was never just one big break."
I'd say I was a good student, but I got into a bit of trouble. I hate calling myself a creative person because it sounds douchey, but as a creative person, just sitting still and absorbing information and going to your room was stuff was difficult for me. I would end up getting really good grades. In my high school, I had one of the highest GPAs, but I was always in trouble for talking back or doing weird things.
I went to a very, very bizarre high school. It was a boarding school in Newport, Rhode Island. I only went there for two years, junior and senior year. It was a big culture shock for me because I had moved there from Hong Kong and I had never been in a boarding school before. I had never been exposed to this whole prep school culture. Man, it was a rough experience. People would get expelled per week in that school.
Is boarding school actually like what you see in the movies?
Yes! It’s actually Dead Poets Society. It's based on a rival school actually, the school we played sports with. I was like, “Oh my god, Peter Weir made Dead Poets Society and these people watched it and didn’t find anything wrong with that.”
Also part of my rough experience in school was because my parents are of Indian origin, and they were just not used to having—this sounds so messed up when I’m saying it out loud—a person someone of Indian origin. I wish I was making this up because it’s funny now, but it was horrible back then. Senior year, the deans called me in and were like “Look, we know you’re on massive amounts of drugs, you need to stop.” I was like, “What are you talking about?” At this point of my life, I didn’t even know what drugs looked like. It was just something I saw in movies. And they were like, “Well you have dark circles under your eyes, so you must be doing drugs.” I was like, “What? My mom has dark circles. It’s a genetic thing. It’s an Indian thing. People have dark circles.” And they were like, “Nope, that’s a sign of cocaine use.”
I ended up doing a drug test and they were like, "Oh, well, keep going to class and stuff." A lot of it was cultural misunderstanding.
Do you find that still happening in the entertainment industry? Do you find yourself having to defend or make people feel better about who you are?
No! That’s what I love about the entertainment industry! Everyone here is an outsider. It's almost like you're part of a club. I hate using the word “club” because there’s something elitist about the word “club”, and it’s not. I find this industry very egalitarian because if you do good work, you’re rewarded for that. Once you’re in the club, your life circumstances become so weird and different in a good way. It’s almost like you’ve peeked behind the curtain of consumerism and this whole consumer culture and you’re like, "I get it. I’m in on the joke.” That’s why the whole entertainment industry attracts outsiders. Every filmmaker I know has an anti-establishment or had an anti-establishment streak to them until they became the establishment.
Do you feel like that’s inevitable?
Yeah. Art is born out of conflict and if you’re one of those mellow guys or gals, there’s no need to vent and no need to rant. You’re not going pick up a pen and draw something. You’re not going to write a poem about how pissed off you are. You’re not going to make a movie that challenges what you think is fucked up. You’re not going to write a song about it. The greatest musicians were usually pissed off at some point about something.
What would you say was your big break in the entertainment industry?
Oh man, I’ve had so many, a series of mini breaks. It's cool and then you forget about it and you keep going. The idea of a big break is a fallacy that’s been perpetuated. For anyone with that longevity in this industry, it was never just one big break.
Did you ever have one of those down periods that make you rethink your career?
I have, like, four of them a day.
Can you talk about the female Expendables that you’re trying to put together?
There's not a whole lot to talk about except that, for me, it was about shattering this notion that women can’t open movies and they’re not action stars. I just don’t buy that. The movie started as an attempt to disprove that and now I hope it happens.
There are examples out there, like Kill Bill, The Hunger Games, and video games. Women drive videogames in terms of characters. Most of the great video game characters are women.
I saw that Sharni Vincent was attached and I thought that was awesome because she's great in You're Next.
Right! You walk away from You’re Next and you’re like, “That girl should be in a major movie star." I’m shocked that she doesn’t have 10 roles being offered to her every month.
Was it true that you guys were trying to get Meryl Streep?
No, that’s a competitor project. After word leaked that I was putting this together, one or two competitors emerged. There’s always rumors that I’ll end up getting called about and I’m like, “Check my call sheet. Nope, did not reach out to Meryl Streep.”