Award-winning director Kahlil Joseph is a hard man to get to know. As far as the internet is concerned, he’s practically a ghost. A New Yorker essay on his growing relevance was distinctly devoid of any biographical markers, and Google has been repeatedly checking in to make sure I’m not referring to an actor named Kahlil Joseph who starred in Legally Blonde: A Musical. It was unsurprising, then, that any questions I sent Joseph edging into vaguely personal territory were returned unanswered--his work is conspicuously quiet, too. “It’s really about letting the footage dictate what it wants to be,” Joseph tells me. It's a fitting sentiment for a director whose films feel wild and unbridled, the camera guided by the hand of some kind of omniscient being.
Last year, Kendrick Lamar commissioned Joseph to direct a short film based on the rapper's 2012 debut, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, after he and Joseph collaborated on Kendrick's Yeezus Tour production. Set to debut this Saturday at Sundance’s first annual NEXT Fest, the 14-minute short reimagines the autobiographical, deeply personal narrative that album wove, and was a dream gig for the director. "I loved some of his earlier albums, and my producer was playing GKMC a lot at our studio," he says. "I was getting requests to do videos for bigger and bigger artists, and none of the music resonated as much as Kendrick’s. The Yeezus tour was the perfect opportunity to have the time and resources to collaborate.”
A proper film was the obvious next step. When Kendrick first unleashed GKMC, it bore the subtitle, “A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar," stuffed with immersive skits and music videos that brought characters to life. Throughout his stops on the Yeezus tour, gritty, magnetic scenes of Los Angeles framed Kendrick's set: homies bloodwalking along the LA river, wide sweeps of Compton street corners, tight shots of dusty Chuck Taylors. Kendrick continued to tease the idea in interviews, but scheduling conflicts held things up. “We had been trying to work together since the beginning of 2013, but timing was always an issue. We didn’t have long conversations or anything,” Joseph says. “One night, Flying Lotus and I met with him, and we talked openly about how fresh and simple his whole concert could be. Kendrick had some ideas of his own that I tried to adapt, but eventually it became about what I can do with my collaborators in the window of time, and at that point things became a little more free form.”
If Joseph's catalogue has a throughline, it's formlessness. Often forsaking dialogue altogether, Joseph manipulates alternating stretches of silence and soundtrack to devastating effect. In his hands, a Flying Lotus video laments lost innocence and urban violence, a fashion film portends the dangers of overfishing, an Intel-sponsored short plays as a godchild of the sparse, inscrutable films of Michelangelo Antonioni. Everything Joseph touches seems to swell with meaning, and m.A.A.d promises to be just as potent. Joseph drew directly from Kendrick’s personal history casting amateur actors from ground-level Compton. “Kendrick gave me the number of his childhood friend Tremell, whose grandmother does all the skits on the album," he says. "Tremell really helped me find all the cast members from his deep relationships with the community. I filmed both of Kendrick's parents, including some great improvised acting and some scripted stuff. It never made the final cut, but they do make the film in the personal home footage that Kendrick gave us from 1992.” He promises “a kaleidoscope of storylines and ideas that defy typical categorization to explore new languages and new forms,” suggesting the film will truly be a Kahlil/Kendrick joint: autobiographical without sacrificing the enigmatic symbolism that has defined Joseph’s work to this point. "This is probably more about Compton than anything else," Joseph says of the city he hopes to capture and the story he hopes to tell.