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The Entertainment Industry’s Counterculture: An Interview With Producer/Showrunner Adi Shankar

You may or may not know the name Adi Shankar (you really ought to). His achievements are remarkable in their range and style; as an executive producer, Adi’s responsible for the likes of 2011’s The Grey, 2012’s Dredd, as well as Netflix’s Castlevania (the latter which he is also the showrunner for). Castlevania returns October 26th for its second season, promising fans even more thrills and horror.

Adi recalls when the thought of a Castlevania show was first brought to his attention. “[The idea for Castlevania] had been floating in the ether for a bit.” he says. “Around 2012, around the time Dredd was coming out, I was actually approached with doing a live-action Castlevania. Now to be clear, it was a different project; [writer] Warren Ellis was not involved, [and the show had] different people, different everything. And I walked from that scenario because I thought it was gonna be a disaster. It was not gonna jive because it felt like it was an attempt to leverage the Castlevania name, to create something that really maybe had 10-15% of Castlevania in it.”

During this time Adi found himself in a place where he was frustrated and ready to hang up his career; however, before taking off, he set out to do one particular project, one that would alter his view in creating art. “In 2015,” Adi shares, “I was getting ready to peace out from Hollywood; I was done [and] didn’t want to deal with [Hollywood] anymore. I made a list of a couple things I wanted to do and put out before I left, kind of to make me feel good about leaving it all behind. One of those things was this Power Rangers short film that I wanted to do. It was kind of the lens through which I saw that show as a kid; it was really a show about weaponizing youth to go fight an intergalactic war they had nothing to do with. Basically some blood diamond shit. [I] went out, made the short, released it, and the response to that short was interesting.”

He continues, “That all culminated in Netflix calling me, or rather reaching out to me via Twitter, [and] calling me in for a meeting. What was proposed to me was, ‘Make a show, no interference, kind of do whatever you want.’ Immediately at that point, it was Castlevania [and] doing it as an anime as a throwback to those OVAs I grew up watching in the 90s. [I wanted to give] it that Vampire Hunter D/Ninja Scroll vibe.”

Castlevania is just one of the many forms of art that Adi adores. From The Power Rangers to The Punisher, Adi’s passion for art has shaped his drive to create. In particular, he runs a YouTube channel called, The Bootleg Universe, which is where he released his Power Rangers short. It’s through this platform that Adi has released his fan films, while engaging with fans on a casual academic level regarding pop culture. In making these fan films, Adi had an epiphany; not only did they bring him a sense of joy and accomplishment, but he noticed how others viewed the work (in comparison to more mainstream films).

“I think another interesting take away from [creating the fan films]—up until that moment, I almost had two separate careers; it was like one was doing these normal movies that ended up in theaters, some of them did kind of well, some of them did okay, and the other half of my career was doing these fan films, what I was calling The Bootleg Universe. What was super fascinating about it, I had this epiphany: when [I did] the normal movies, it [felt] like there [was] this element of going through a sausage factory; there [was] this element [of being] soulless, and [being] driven by this marketplace, and it just felt gross. But when [I] did the fan films, they felt real authentic; like people were there because they thought they were cool, or they were passionate about them, or they were like they were fun, exciting, or different. And it’s almost like I went into these two things with completely different sets of philosophies.”

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Photo credit: Warren Remolacio

Thanks to his fan films he now finds himself in a place where he has much more control over what he wants to create. “I don’t think people really tell me what to do anymore. I feel like I’ve entered this weird nebulous zone where it’s not like I’m specifically being told what to do. I feel like I’m associated with a vibe, tone, and aesthetic; … as long as [what I do is] appealing to [my] core fan base, that I guess I have, then I’m good.”

For Adi, the pop culture he loved as a kid has guided him towards amazing opportunities. Being a fan – whether it’s anime, comic books, or movies – can bring a lot of pleasure into life; part of being a fan is also having a community to connect with. Now that nerd culture is so much a part of the mainstream, we are used to hundreds of different kinds of conventions all across the world.

Having been born in India, Adi had access to all the movies, TV shows, and anime beloved around the globe, but without a means to connect with the fandom. “You know, I was watching these things in a vacuum. That was the crazy thing. I was literally watching all these things in a complete and utter vacuum. There’s an element of groupthink I’ve come to realize when there’s a community of fandom that builds around a franchise or a brand or what not; to me, I just was not exposed to any of it. So making that Power Rangers short for instance, I had no idea that Power Rangers even had any fans; to me, it was just this random thing I watched when I was a kid that I felt was awesome, that other kids pretended they didn’t like. I didn’t realize The Punisher had any fans; to some extent, kind of the same thing applies to Castlevania because I connected to this thing as a kid, I was a fan of this thing as a kid.”

He adds, “It just so happens that the things I connected with also connected with other people; that’s really cool because people watch it, people like it, people thank you for it, and then you realize, ‘Oh I don’t feel alone right now.’ Because this thing I experienced was not actually an isolated incident, it wasn’t just me in an actual vacuum; it was me in a vacuum, also connecting with a global community that just didn’t have the means to connect because the internet didn’t exist.”

Upon immigrating to America at 16, Adi found himself entering in a time of national tragedy, worried how others may view him. “The first thing I did [when I came to America] was I changed my accent; the voice I’m talking to you in is a completely fabricated accent. I moved at 16, and then two days later 9/11 happened. The lens through which I was viewing reality at that time was [that] I was concerned everyone thought I was a terrorist or Apu from The Simpsons. So I did everything in my power to assimilate.”

Overtime Adi made his way through college and into his career, eventually moving out west. In his time as a producer, he has had the chance to work with a variety of films and shows, while also being able to recognize the changing trends in the entertainment industry. While we have all these properties we love being put out into the world, Adi sees authenticity being traded in for “brand awareness”; that the act of monetizing art is now presenting watered down versions of what nerds/geeks grew up loving.

“The future seems kind of bleak,” Adi says, speaking to the entertainment industry. “Ultimately, you go to Comic-Con or really any kind of pop culture thing … [and they] show you how nerd culture like Game of Thrones [and] Walking Dead [are] basic. These would have been niche shows back in the day and now their super mainstream, super popular, super basic. I look at these things, and they’re all big brands; what is the mark of success today? It’s being allowed to have a big budget and a big brand. Maybe even what being an artist is changing. You know, maybe it’s no longer being a radical new voice, [but] being a brand manager.”

To present authentic art to the world, Adi wants to act as the counterculture to the current industry, playing into the elements of success while making sure a work of art stays true to its story and ideas. “When I [say] I want to be the counterculture movement, it’s almost like I want to be Tom Ford [the fashion designer]. If you go in and you fuck up your shoes, you drop bad shoes, and everyone thinks you’re wack, you call in Tom Ford to fix that brand; in our world I want it to be like ‘Yo you call Adi Shankar because he’s gonna make your brand cool again.’ But the non-sell-out version of that.”

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Photo credit: Warren Remolacio

Commenting further on a changing industry, Adi speaks to how platforms such as YouTube are now producing and distributing their own content. “Now YouTube literally is green lighting TV shows. YouTube is vetting for fucking movie content. In fact, I have a movie coming out a week after Castlevania comes out that’s being put out by Neon and YouTube called Bodiedwith Eminem. We’re seeing the reconstruction of the old world order, it’s just happening in new things, and new players really.”

With all his success Adi still has a journey ahead of him. His resume of films and shows demonstrate his range in creativity, using his artistic and industry smarts to shape the stories we love. As a producer and creator, Adi hasn’t spent much time critiquing himself or his work; it’s only recently that he has begun to look back and think about his drive and how far he has come.

He shares, “I was misdiagnosed with cancer when I was 18, and that really fucked me up. That put me in this really weird head space where I felt like I could die at any moment then on. So [at that time] I was trying to create as much stuff and put as much stuff out there, or help others create as much stuff as possible, to the point that the rest of my life fell by the wayside. There’s no way a 20 something-year-old can have two movies and a big short film come out every year for like five years and have any semblance of balance. Not possible. I think maybe this year I’ve kind of realized all this and gone, ‘Oh wow, there is a lack of balance.’ I take [creating art] so seriously and I think it gets read as passion; like people going, ‘Oh he’s passionate about this stuff’’; which is true, I’m very passionate about this stuff. But I think now I’m in a space where I’m growing because I’m seeing a bigger picture finally versus this myopic thing I had of things.”

Adi promises some big news on the horizon; what that news could be, who knows? But if the craft, beliefs, and dedication of Adi Shankar mean anything, it’s that whatever Adi touches, it will be special. It’ll offer something unique and fun that gets you to think in a world full of art and nerdy things we all adore. With Castlevania releasing soon, Adi looks to the future to see what else he can share with the world. The art he grew up loving has forever impacted him, filling his life with passion. It’s warming to see that among all the Hollywood success and big budget films, it’s the art he grew up loving that inspired his fan films, that have brought him some of his greatest happiness.

“The big takeaway from [creating the Power Rangers short and being pitched for Netflix’s Castlevania]—literally I’ve gone from packing my bags and getting ready to leave this entire business, to being told  [I] can do whatever [I] want now. I realized, man I need to just approach everything the way I approach the fan films. So Castlevania is just a fan film; it was approached with that same mindset.”

You can watch both seasons of Castlevania on Netflix, with season two releasing October 26th. You can also find Adi’s Bootleg Universe (including his Power Rangers film) on YouTube via this link.

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