July 25, 2024

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From Hype Williams Protege to Drake’s Go-To Collaborator, Director X Is About to Level Up

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Director X may not be a household name, but he is a legend of filmmaking. The Toronto native is responsible for some of music’s most iconic music videos, from DMX’s “What’s My Name?” and 112’s “Peaches and Cream” to Drake and Future’s “Life Is Good” in 2020. Over three decades, the visual artist whose real name is Julien Christian Lutz continues to elevate the bar.

Lutz started his career in the 1990s, first working under Hype Williams as a visual consultant on the 1998 film “Belly” and eventually becoming his protege. The experience gave Lutz the confidence to launch his own production company, Toronto-based Popp Rok, and adopt the moniker Little X.

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Getting behind the camera for some of R&B’s greatest records from the ’90s and 2000’s —  Lutz  recently posted a #TBT clip of Mystikal’s “Shake Ya Ass,” — his career would take him to the heights of the trade, directing videos for Kendrick Lamar, Miguel, Justin Bieber and multiple clips for Drake, including Future’s cinematic “Life Is Good” featuring Drizzy. With over 160 million views in under two months, “Life Is Good” features the two rappers working odd part-time jobs — garbage men, Apple techs and fast food cashiers, among them.

During a recent stop in Los Angeles, where Director X curated Tinder’s “Black Love Is” event, Variety sat down with Lutz to talk about his background, proudest moments and whether his future will  full-length films.

What was the music scene like in Toronto as you were coming up?
Toronto back then was called The Tdot, that was our cool term for the city. It was very different. No one had made it. No one knew if it was possible. People weren’t making music. I actually was the first person from the city to come to America and be part of the legitimate hip-hop world. … That was the late ‘90s and early 2000s — Drake’s generation — I was a guy that was a symbol of “hey, we could get from here to there.” And as a director, I was unhateable. The city could get behind it. No one’s angry that a director’s working with Jay Z. They’re all, like. “He’s one of us!” I also brought a lot of work back to Toronto. I shot Sean Paul out there; Donell Jones…

Who were your biggest influences visually?
First was Hype Williams. I was lucky enough to be mentored by him and be an intern at his company, where I would draw boards for him. Then people like David Fincher, Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, Mark Romanek, George Ackerman started popping up. Jake Scott did really beautiful work. They really shaped a lot of people. That’s when music videos really became something.

Which music videos had a big impact on you in your youth?
Growing up, I remember the a-ha video [for “Take On Me”] was a big one. I thought, “Oh my God, what a great video. I love this.” Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and “Beat It” were big for me. Back then I didn’t know who Bob Giraldi was, but I knew his videos. He did Lionel Richie’s “Hello,” he did Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” He made very cinematic videos that always looked big and impressive. … Madonna’s “Express Yourself;” Almost anything by Mark Romanek, especially the Nine Inch Nails videos he did; “Flava In Ya Ear (Remix)” that Hype did and Wu-Tang Clan “Can It Be All So Simple” are two videos that made me say, there’s something going on. We could feel there’s energy around the music videos.

When did you realize you wanted to be a director?
I was an intern at Much Music. While there, I was working on a show called “Rhapsody” and “Soul In The City.” Up to that point, I thought I was going to be a graphic designer. Seeing all the cameras and music videos, I thought “oh, it’s something about these cameras. This is a creative outlet.” That was the beginning. … When I was an intern for Hype, I found a budget for a video he’d done.  I saw how much the director got paid and was, like, “[gasps] woah!”

How much was it?
There was a K on the end.

What did your learn from Hype Williams?
I learned a lot being around him — about work ethic, knowledge. Most importantly, Hype knew all the departments. He knew about the camera; about filming; about hair, the makeup, wardrobe; editing. Learning from him, I thought that’s what a great director does. A great director understands all aspects of filmmaking. I strove to learn that same way, to really study filmmaking and all the other parts that come with it. That way, I can talk to my team about any part.

Music videos have really become elaborate short films, how did the industry get this way?
People always wanted to have fun but now that you don’t have constraints… with the internet, you could’ve never done a three-minute skit in the middle of your video. Now, you can. Remember there was a skit in the middle of Drake’s “Worst Behavior”? That skit’s longer than the song. It’s almost four minutes of them f–king around and doing all kinds of ridiculous shit. It’s a three-minute song, but a 10-minute music video. It allows people to really go with creativity and do what they want to do. It’s important for people who make music videos really understand that they’re not competing with other music videos, they’re competing with other content. The song’s entertaining on its own, but now you’re making a visual chapter to that. You do the best you can to make that its own piece of entertainment.

How would you describe your relationship with Drake?
We’re friends. I’m like the senior in high school to his junior. While I was off in America making music videos showing up on TV, he was 15 years old. He was a kid. We started seeing each other around and began to work with each other. Now having a trust in shorthand, it’s good. He’s a good guy. … We trust each other. I trust his instincts, he trusts me. We built these projects together and let them evolve. He has great instincts and great ideas, and we’ll do what it takes to make it work.

Back in Toronto, did you foresee this superstar path for Drake?
Not to this level. How could you? Who could? We’re talking about [the biggest rap star], it’s insane. I knew he was dope. I knew he could rhyme. As far as Toronto’s concerned, he’s one of the first rappers that the city loved. They played his music. They f–ked with him. He had records that the clubs would get excited for. He’s the first guy.

Is there a visual that you’re most proud of?
Actually, it’s a short film I did for Pyre Moss called “Seven Mothers.” It’s a fashion film, but we turned it into a proper short film. It won a silver Clio award and a gold Ciclope award. It’s a very moving movie about family, life, death, faith, community. Of all of my work, I put that at the top.

One of the ways music video has evolved is to list credits either at the top or the end of the video — sometimes both. Why is this important?
It’s a cool thing to do. It’s what the kids are doing. [Laughs] It’s fun and it extends the song. Why the f–k not? They’re short films anyways.

How much does the number of YouTube views on a video matter to you?
[shakes head] The views are nice. I know people get into all that, I don’t get it. The driving force of a music video is the music. It’s great to make a video that can push, then if you really go all the way and make it something more — but even then, I do my work.

Many music video directors have segued to feature films; is that your plan as well?
I have projects in developments for television. I’ve done a science docu-series called Mister Tachyon for Viceland where we did these experiments on fringe science. In the film world, I did “Superfly,” which is a really big fun movie. I worked with Joel Silver who’s a legend in the film business. … He was recently telling me stories about “48 Hours” and how the role ended up going to Eddie Murphy. That’s wealth and knowledge.

There’s a lot of people who feel that music videos are a lower form. It’s not. It’s equal to all the other levels of filmmaking. At its highest level, music videos are as meaningful and powerful. Go look at David Fincher’s videos, or Mark Romanek’s, or Spike Jonze’s videos, then shut the f–k up about music videos being lesser forms. Seriously, shut the f–k up.

Are we to understand that you’re using your birth-name professionally now? 
I’m not Director X anymore, I’m Julien Christian Lutz. There’s a reason I’ve dropped it — it’s been fun being in this hip-hop [world], but there comes a point where you have to be Dwayne Johnson, not The Rock. You have to be Will Smith, not Fresh Prince. Julien Christian Lutz is the evolution of me — to now make films and television shows, to do things that truly represent me. … I love music videos. I love working with the artists I work with, at the level that I’m working — with people who want to be creative and to make artful, entertaining, exciting, boundary-pushing work. l’m always there for that.

Tell us about your Toronto organization Operation Prefrontal Cortex.
We use meditation to reduce violence in the city [by] spreading the word of how the brain works. Violent and aggressive people, their prefrontal cortex, where decision-making happens, are too small. Their amygdala where emotions are regulated, it’s too big. This is what’s going on in their brain. Childhood abuse and neglect affects how a child’s brain develops. And chronic stress changes your brain. We see a very clear connection between the life you’re living, the environment or the job you might have, and how that can take you to a place where you’re more aggressive and violent. But meditation changes your brain as well, and violent people who have used meditation have seen great changes. Operation Prefrontal Cortex aims to bring meditation into all our schools, our community groups, our correctional system, our police force and into the streets itself through a mentorship program.

How did you come upon this particular cause?
I was shot in my back in 2015 and I did this TedxToronto talk called “Message to the Man Who Shot Me.” Using that as a narrative tool to explain not just to him, but to the audience, what’s going on in the brains of violent and aggressive people — where that comes from and how meditation can fix that. I structured my talk like a film, to take you on this journey where you see it. It’s an engaging talk. Not because the information is important, but because I use the tools of storytelling to make that talk more effective.

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