Interviews

Adi Shankar – 1984 Private Defense Contractors

Adi Shankar – 1984 Private Defense Contractors
Drew Turney

You won’t find four more different movies than 2011 Liam Neeson hit ”The Grey” and last year’s ”Broken City”, ”Dredd 3D” and Mark Wahlberg smash ”Lone Survivor”. Which makes 1984 Private Defense Contractors hard to pin down.

Who?

You might have seen their kitschy ident ahead of some movies recently, a Tron-inspired, first-gen CGI clip showing a line-drawn city that’s as fun as it is a loving homage to another era;

Part of the new breed of boutique Hollywood production companies, 1984 Private Defense Contractors was the brainchild of co-presidents Adi Shankar and Spencer Silna and quickly established itself a player, signing a first-look deal with Canadian financier/distributor Entertainment One in early 2013.

Though the company doesn’t have a perfect track record with releases (theatrical disappointments include ”Machine Gun Preacher”, ”Killing Them Softly” and ”Dredd”), smash hits like ”The Grey” and ”Lone Survivor” have assured the company a place at the table.

The path to success

Talking to the Indian-American Shankar is like trying to keep up with his influence in Hollywood – he switches between subjects and thoughts mid sentence while you’re left to pick up the threads.

But while it might make the 29-year-old sound undisciplined and cavalier, his feel for material proves anything but. Shankar and his company have a plan, and he intends to see it through.

“Every film we’ve ever done has been a drama,” he insists. “We’re telling dramatic stories through the lens of some sort of a crime or action element. But they’re all effectively dramas. We’re definitely sticking to that course.”

But while staying the course, Shankar is also taking things one film at a time, saying he doesn’t have a particular ambition to turn into a comprehensive studio, as former small-time genre label Lionsgate has become.

“I’d say we operate in a specific niche because we effectively make adult dramas that are kind of ‘thinking man’s action movies’,” he says. “Art house audiences and critics tend to like our kind of thing. Often they’re then accepted by mainstream audiences. Our niche is broad while being small at the same time, if that makes sense.”

The new brutality

1984 Private Defense Contractor’s movies have also been prominent at an interesting time in contemporary American cinema. Even though violent war and action films are a cornerstone of the industry, they’ve come under greater scrutiny recently.

First came the widely reported study late in 2013 (http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2013/11/06/peds.2013-1600.full.pdf+html) that assessed the rise of gun violence in movies from 1950 to 2012 (short answer; a lot). Then mogul Harvey Weinstein – famous for giving Quentin Tarantino a start in movies – very publicly told CNN he was done with gratuitous cinematic gun violence (http://www.deadline.com/2014/01/harvey-weinstein-renounces-violence-in-movies-nra-movie-cnn-video/).

What does Shankar – with a movie as violent as Lone Survivor behind him – think of it all? As he explains, there’s violence and then there’s violence. “I don’t blame him,” Shaknar says of Weinstein’s stance. “The violence portrayed in our movies is very dramatic and very realistic.

“Not to knock anyone’s movies, but in a lot of these tentpoles the way violence is portrayed is almost casual – ‘oh, this building exploded’. I’m sitting there in the audience asking myself how many people died in that explosion that was caused by the hero. It’s almost glossed over. I think that’s more dangerous than the violence in our movies. Vin Diesel jumping out of a moving vehicle catching Michelle Rodriguez in mid-air and landing unharmed on another vehicle is an unrealistic portrayal of violence.”

The fanboy producer

Shankar also knows he’s coming of age as a movie executive in a unique time. After his generation’s grown up online, he’s more platform-aware than the fusty 60-something moguls in their big studio offices trying to understand the carnage digital technology has wrought on their industry.

“When you release a movie you’re not just competing against the other movies that weekend, even movies in theatres,” he says. “You’re effectively competing against everything ever made. We have access to technology everywhere, internet everywhere, multiple streams and access to both current and historic content.”

He’s also proud of 1984 Private Defense Contractors’ slate of short films, one of which is set to make very big waves very soon. Many fans considered director Pete (Vantage Point) Travis’ ”Dredd” a creative success last year – finally putting the irascible 1995 Sylvester Stallone version by director Danny Cannon to rest.

The film didn’t perform at the box office, making $35m globally from a $50m budget, but it was the performance on DVD that silenced naysayers. ”Dredd” home entertainment distributor Lionsgate said 650,000 units were sold on initial release, making it 2013’s best selling new release DVD title.

Regardless of the money (it’s a common theme throughout the discussion – Shankar’s far more interested in creative integrity and making movies people love than first weekend box office, tracking and ROI; ‘As long as it’s someone’s favourite movie, we’ve won,’ he says), Shankar talks about the passionate ”Dredd” devotees.

“The fan base keeps growing to the point where the growth has eclipsed the intense depression I felt from the film’s initial commercial outcome,” he says. “So for the past year and a half I’ve been working on an ‘unofficial’ Dredd short. Tonally it’s very different to the movie, and like all my ‘Bootleg Universe’ shorts, it’s 100 percent for the fans. A thank you for being so damn loyal”

Partnerships

Beyond that, Shankar continues to align himself with filmmakers who have something to say. “We’re in a position now where we can effectively give people a shot,” he says. “A lot of the filmmakers coming out of Sundance are the ones I’m interested in at the moment. People who have voices – that’s what it comes down to for me.

“As I slowly get older and become more and more entrenched in this crazy town, I’m looking a lot at these guys thinking ‘oh my God, you’re as pissed off as I was when I was your age’. Whenever I meet a filmmaker who has that same spark, that need to tell a story or their head is going to fucking explode, I’m like ‘alright, we’re doing something together’.”

Next up for 1984 Private Defense Contractors is September’s ”A Walk Among the Tombstones”. Directed by Scott Frank (writer of 2013’s ”The Wolverine” and the upcoming ”Assassin’s Creed” movie), it stars Liam Neeson as a private investigator hired to find the man who killed the wife of a crime lord.

Even more of what you least expect will come after that, including what he describes as a ‘puppet gangster’ movie, making us wonder if he’s kidding for a second. “It’s in a world where humans and puppets co-exist but it’s a hard ‘R’, super violent, told through this parallel universe of humans and puppets.”

Crazy town

On that note and with our conversation coming to a close, it seems like a good time to ask about the obvious practical joke behind the company name.

“It’s an Orwellian reference,” Shankar says. “When we first started I thought we should just make sci-fi movies because that’s my genre. If I was to list my top 15 movies of all time you’re going to find a lot of retro sci-fi movies like The Road Warrior [Mad Max], RoboCop, Logan’s Run, Blade Runner. Even The Warriors, which is a dystopian movie.”

When a movie starts, Shankar thinks the audience should be entertained from the second they sit down – by the production company or studio ident if necessary. “These logos would always be something like a raindrop and then a big orchestra and they’re just really boring. I wanted to build a mythology around it, pretend we’re in a completely different industry.”

He adds that even though it’s clearly a joke (‘If you’re a private defense contractor you don’t call yourself ‘private defense contractor, right?’), his office staff still contend with people who don’t get it. He says people frequently turn up with resumes that list other private military security experience with companies like Blackwater, Inc. “One guy came in and said he needed us to transport diamonds that he had in his trunk or something. It was really freaky, I just kind of locked my door.”

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Interviews
Drew Turney

An Australian-based film critic and celebrity interviewer now based in Los Angeles, California.

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