Business, it is said, makes strange bedfellows -- a truism to which Joseph Kahn can attest. A 21-year-old film director of Korean descent, Kahn would never have guessed that he'd spend a Friday night behind a camera directing L.A. rapper and sometimes Korean-basher Ice Cube in a video shoot for Houston rapper Scarface's upcoming Rap-a-Lot single, "Hand of the Dead Body." The superficial juxtaposition might strike an outsider as an anomaly, but for Kahn, whose Prodigal Commercial Company is finding a film production niche in Houston with the Rap-a-Lot and Justice labels, it's business as usual.
Kahn traversed an Army-brat childhood in Italy, Europe and Fort Hood, four years of high school in Jersey Village and 18 months in NYU's film school. Along with VP of Commercial Production Greg Tharpe, VP of Music Video Production Alicia Valdez, Production Manager Darren Farley and Art Director Alvin Ho Young, he operates Prodigal out of an anonymous office complex in west Houston with the name of the suite's previous occupants still painted on the door. Inside are scattered desks, swivel chairs, telephones, Macintosh computers and a futon employed on frequent all-nighters. Prodigal is fueled by concepts and communication, which explains the office's bareness. Its employees are connected by pagers, cellular phones and, when on location, walkie-talkies. Cameras, generators, lights, props, costuming, effects, cranes, helicopters and whatever else an idea might demand for a shoot are rented on a case-by-case basis. The 16-mm film Kahn shoots is flown to Dallas for color processing and transfer to video format.
That he has to fly to Dallas to transfer film underscores one of the reasons Kahn chose Houston to launch his entrepreneurial effort. The industry isn't here yet. There are, he says, no unions demanding top wages. Insurance costs less, and prices for supplies and equipment are across-the-board cheaper in Houston, as yet uninflated by the ever-presence of the biz. L.A., says Tharpe, who also attended NYU, "is a strangled dying dog" of a city, overblown by its own monopoly. Kahn didn't like New York for the sameness of its landscape. "No matter what you do, it looks urban. If you want to shoot in a field, you just can't. But you've really got some of everything close to Houston."
The set Kahn chooses for Friday night's shoot -- Prodigal's seventh shoot for Rap-a-Lot -- is a suburban rental house in Ashford Park. Ice Cube, who contributes a verse to the Scarface single, is in town for this one night only, and Kahn's mental storyboard for the video includes a scene of Cube and Scarface seated at a table, surrounded by note-jotting, strobe-flashing reporters and delivering their lines press-conference style. Prodigal has built the set into the dining nook of the house. It's a cramped space flooded with hot lights, and Kahn rides the camera back and forth on a track parallel to the scene, adjusting the lens to keep it focused on a single point, creating a subtle sense of movement in the shot. This is done over and over again, back and forth. If you're not working -- and sometimes when you are -- a video shoot is boring as hell. There is much standing and waiting and repetition. Hours of film will be shot before the four-and-a-half-minute video is complete.
It doesn't speed things up any that the small house is filled to the gills with people. Aside from Ice Cube, Scarface and the Prodigal crew, there are the three residents of the house, a dozen extras dressed like journalists, one journalist dressed like an extra, a photographer and innumerable members of the extended Rap-a-Lot family filling in and flooding the room from the front yard, where dozens more mill. The street is clogged for blocks with cars. Valdez tells curious passers-by that "we're shooting a mayonnaise commercial." Never very far from Kahn is Rap-a-Lot CEO James "Little J" Smith, who gave Prodigal its first pro job shooting a 5th Ward Boyz vid that Kahn recalls as a "complete disaster."
"They wanted realism," Kahn says. "They wanted a street feel. I'm from the suburbs, I didn't really know what they were talking about. I made this video that had lots of diffusion, fashion photography and stuff and slow motion, and they just really hated it."
Rap-a-Lot came back for more, though, even if Smith keeps his hand in the projects.
"So many people get involved -- the band, the record company, the management -- I don't even know who gets final word," says Kahn. "Nobody really knows. It's like the record industry itself. As a director, I'm more of a gun for hire than anything."
Which, if you're trying to start a film production company on a year and a half of film school, a $1,000 bank account, homemade business cards and a single Macintosh, is probably the right way to play it. Prodigal has occupied its present suite only since September, when the company's business outgrew Alvin's bedroom and the pagers. Of the 16 videos Kahn has produced so far (one for a New Jersey band that subsequently signed with Sony on the strength of the video, seven for Rap-a-Lot, four for Justice including two recent Willie Nelson clips, and four for Hollywood Records and others), at least two have made notable splashes. The Geto Boys' "Straight Gangsterism" video charted higher than the album it promoted, and Kahn's claustrophobic clip for Die Krupps' "To the Hilt," shot in the old black-and-white men's bathroom of Catal Huyuk, is at the time of this writing in the top ten on MTV Europe. Rap videos sink or swim on The Box, a new pay-per-view video program presently unavailable in Houston, where the Scarface clip will likely surface. The mother of all video big-time, of course, is MTV, and what does or does not make it on MTV, speculates Kahn, is a "super-imprecise science." What definitely can't get on, except in the case of an artist with serious commercial clout, is fire, a black man with a gun, or a cop with a gun unless shown in a clearly favorable light. These are post-Butt-head, violence-demonizing rules that may not be written down anywhere, but they are known.
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It doesn't seem terribly likely that MTV will take a strong shine to the "Hand of the Dead Body" clip, especially considering the near-riot situations Kahn's storyboard calls for on Saturday night's shoot. This time we're behind Fleming Middle School, in the heart of the Fifth Ward. As the plot goes, Scarface and Ice Cube are holed up in a neighborhood safehouse, guarded by a squadron of almost 100 angry-looking black men, arms crossed, standing at the curb. There's a rented S.W.A.T. van parked down the street, a rented cop car and a platoon of extras dressed in police blue who run a confrontational pattern through blue smoke with guns raised at Kahn's command. A member of the Nation of Islam, which has taken an interest in the proceedings, shouts at the bodyguards through a megaphone: "We need very hard facial expressions, black men." The bodyguards, many of whom wear black T-shirts reading "Don't Blame It on Da Music," comply. A local radio station has revealed the shoot's location over the air, and hundreds of onlookers flock on the other side of the street. There is some worry on the set
hat the rented helicopter is late.
The Saturday night shoot wraps at around four in the morning, and on Sunday, Prodigal is scheduled to film a commercial in River Oaks for Dream Merchant. Greg Tharpe heads up Prodigal's fledgling commercial branch, and he's responsible for this shoot, the company's first job in that competitive field. Prodigal is in the habit of juggling two to three projects at a time, and turnaround from assignment to product is often as brief as two weeks. Calls are starting to come in from major labels in California, and the work with Rap-a-Lot and Justice is garnering a high profile. If they haven't bothered to paint their company's name on the door, it may be because Prodigal doesn't plan on staying this size for long.
Take a look at one of Prodigal's business cards, or the stationery they now have, or the T-shirts they've printed, and the expansion comes as no surprise. Under the Prodigal Commercial Company banner are three distinct columns: Prodigal Produc-tions, Prodigal Film, and Prodigal Music Videos. The feature-film category is, of course, the as-yet-unrealized dream of nearly anyone who's ever picked up a camera, but Kahn's still only 21, and he expects the company will eventually get there. When he starts talking about Prodigal's future, he sounds like someone who knows how to find the on-ramp to the information superhighway.
"That's another reason we came here to Houston. I never saw Prodigal as just being a video company or a commercial company, or even a film company. What we're actually producing here is software. Music videos and films and television programs -- it's all software. When all television becomes interactive, which it will -- maybe forty years from now, I figure time is on my side -- I see Houston as sort of a long-term goal. Houston was the number-two city to start up a company [that was in Money magazine two years ago] and Houston has the highest percentage of television watchers anywhere in the United States. Like 60 percent of us watch two to three hours of television a day. Once you start paying quarters for every program that you watch, you're going to get some major revenue.