Director X on Toronto and How To Get Your Creations Noticed
Director X’s resume includes an unforgettable portfolio of work for Drake, Rihanna, Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar, which only scratches the surface on the scope of his career. Here, the Toronto-based director and producer shares his insight on leadership, meditation, and talent.
— On His Career and Lessons Learned:
Q. Looking back on the terrain you navigated early on in your career, what would you go back and teach yourself?
A. To meditate. There are a lot of things in young, wild energy that are not as productive as you think. Yelling in a work environment might get people to move in that moment, but now I also know that you lose passion and drive. You are cutting your nose to spite your face and, at best, what you get with a real proper crew is that they shift down to minimal professionalism. That extra passion and heart—you’ve evaporated that by raising your voice. Being a director, by definition, is a leadership position.
Q. Today, the amount of content being produced is impossible to keep up with — over 300 hours of video are added to YouTube every minute. How do you get your creations noticed?
A. How do you break through the clutter? You have to engage other creatives the whole way through. If you make music, you need to get your creative visual artist friend to get involved. You need to find other people that are passionate about what they do to aid you in your process. If you are a director and you want to make a music video, somewhere out there is a friend that makes music. Say you use your phone and make a video. You upload it to Youtube and Instagram and it doesn’t hit. You do it again. Then you do it again. No one paints just once and says, “I painted a painting once.” You keep doing it, and the phone allows us to do it.
Q. There is still the chance that it won’t take off.
A. Part of our mindset in this world is if you are doing something in the arts, and you are not destined to be a giant success and become a millionaire, then why are you doing it? Why can’t you just do it because you enjoy it? Why can’t you get your camera, your friends, and make a movie without expecting it to blow up? Quite weirdly, that is often the stuff that blows up. The beginning of expression should be expression, not results. That never works out. It’s getting back to the purity of the art. Once you start calculating, then things go wrong.
Q. You work at a global-scale. What advantage do you see talent from Canada having when they are working on the world’s biggest stages?
A. The average person growing up here has a better understanding of other cultures, other people, and other things. It makes everything they do stronger. Our top two exports are Drake and The Weekend, and you look at the make-up of the group of friends they move around with and it’s incredibly diverse: Italian, Lebanese, East African, West African, West Indians, White—all of these kids mixing together and making art. Drake, especially, because it’s not just around him. He pulls it into his music. That knowledge of culture can’t come from anywhere else but here. We all benefit from this.
Q. How has your understanding of the role of a director evolved?
A. As a leader, you have to find a way to motivate people without micromanaging. You have to figure out what is going to motivate the performer, and not by telling them, “make sure when you say this line, you do this thing,” because you are unravelling them. You’re not helping them at that point.
Q. How do you see the opportunity that technology has offered creators?
A. We now live in a world where, with your phone, you can shoot something, put it on the internet and on all of these different platforms, and it can blow up. Back in the day it was a videotape, where if you made something, there was no chance that it would ever be broadcast. Even if you dedicated yourself to showing everyone you could, you might get 200 people to see it. You put it on social media now and 2,000 people can see it.
Q. Do you notice a difference in how the people you work with react based on how you used to handle the pressure and how you do now?
A. Being in charge of a $20 million dollar movie can be stressful. Going overtime with a producer on your back, that can be stressful. Everyone experiences stress, and now we know what it does to us. Stress – especially long-term stress – will shrink your pre-frontal cortex where decision-making happens. The amygdala gets bigger where emotions are regulated. The hippocampus where learning and memory happen can get stuck in a fight or flight state. These are the effects of long-term stress. Meditation reverses all of this – the opposite of what happens from long-term stress.
— On Toronto and Young Talent:
Q. There is an urgency in how you are sharing Operation Prefrontal Cortex as a part of the solution to the issue of gun violence in Toronto.
A. Literally, lives are at stake. We know what to do, we have to act on it, and to not do so is negligent. This was birthed out of a response to the violence, but the deeper I research, the more I see that this is something we all need to do. What walking and eating healthy does for your body, mindfulness does for your brain. You are making feature films and shooting television. This was birthed out of a response to the violence, but the deeper I research, the more I see that this is something we all need to do.
Q. Toronto is known around the world for our music. When do you see the film and television being made here having an impact on that same level?
A. We are known for production here. This is a busy, busy town. What VideoFact did was train the film and television people out here. The vast majority of people that are working on film and television sets got their foot in the door at some point through VideoFact. This kind of thing is investing in the arts and investing in talent. Right now some kid is writing the script that is going to be our Top Boy. Right now some kid is writing the Toronto love story. It’s all bubbling. As Toronto is really coming together, the kid on the street making music is just a person away from someone in a corporate board room that wants to do something.
Q. In the era when you started your career, Toronto was known as the ‘Screwface Capital.’ How would you describe what we are now?
A. The nerd in high school that got cool after graduation, and figured out fashion and swag. Toronto is the story of a city that is finding itself. Now, when you meet an artist, there is a part of you that says, “this could be the next big thing.” That is a real possibility. These are legitimate thoughts when you meet some young singer, rapper, or artist of any kind—they might go all the way. Those were not thoughts we had when we were growing up.
Q. How do you identify new talent and people doing it for the right reasons?
A. They show it in their work ethic. If you have a choice between studio and edit, or home or a party – which one do you choose? I worked with Joe Silver and when we first got the music from Future for Superfly, it was the middle of the night and my phone rings. You wouldn’t have felt anyways to say, “we got the music from Future, see you in the morning.” But, no, it’s around midnight and here is Joe saying, “I’m on my way to Sony, you coming?” That was a reminder for me. He is way deep in the game. This is Joe Silver, who made Die Hard, Predator and The Warriors, making what might be his final studio picture — If anyone has the right to say, “listen to it tonight and I will see you in the morning”, [it’s him] but no, it’s “I’m on my way to the studio.” That’s why he is Joe Silver. That’s the choice. That’s the factor. Where do you want to be? .. A lot can be said about that and who you are.
Q. You joined onto this #PowerUp campaign with Samsung. Can you tell us about the project?
A. Three up and coming directors on the verge and bring them together and challenging. Here is this new technology that shoots 4k and shoots underwater, has the stabilizer, shoots wide-angle and has all of these amazing features. We are at a new place asking what can you do this? So we put it to the test. So we paired every director with an artist and said go shoot something, while adding some constraints to test the features of the phone and show what is possible.