Julien Lutz, better known as Director X, is the mastermind behind some of the 21st century’s biggest and boldest music videos. Helming the likes of Drake’s Hotline Bling and Nelly’s Hot in Herre (to name a few), the prolific Toronto native is now lending his signature style to the development of the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Massive party – one of the city’s hottest fundraisers now in its 15th year – which happens this month.
With invitations sent, Director X sat down with Addicted’s Myles Herod to discuss his wide array of influences, music video memories and his hopes for Toronto’s upcoming epic night.
ADDICTED: Tell me about your role with this year’s AGO Massive party.
X: I’m the creative director. I’m involved in choosing some of the artists that will be displaying their work, helping with the technical aspects of the party – where the DJs go, who is going to play – all that stuff is important. I’ve always had a spatial mindset. I find myself in clubs saying to myself, “the DJ shouldn’t be there. The bar shouldn’t be against this wall.” It comes from my graphic sense and my work in music videos. Those things are important, and those are the types of things that go into an event like this. Making sure the Feng Shui is right.
Is this the first time the AGO has asked you to collaborate?
X: Yes, this is the first time. It’s fun. The Art Gallery of Ontario is an important place for Toronto. Culture and art are an important thing. This is a fun way to be part of the effort.
The AGO Massive party has been around for 15 years, why did it take them so long to reach out?
X: Exactly! (laughs) You know what I mean? Everything happens for a reason. Everything happens in the right time.
With all your success, what’s kept you in Toronto?
X: I have family here. I’m always traveling and an airplane takes you where you need to go. I joke with people who travel a lot: “We don’t actually live anywhere, we just keep our stuff somewhere.” So, I keep my things in Toronto.
I read that your initial plan in high school was to pursue graphic design as a career path. And before that, aspirations as a comic book artist. Tell me about finally deciding on filmmaking.
X: I had an internship at MuchMusic. I was a unit assistant on their shows like RapCity. Being surrounded by the cameras and the lights, I said to myself, “this is a creative outlet as well. Maybe I can do this?” Filmmaking is a culmination of the arts. All these things I loved fit into it.
Tell me about your time at MuchMusic.
X: It was an education. I carried lights. Did whatever I had to do. Intern stuff. That was the turning point. It’s where I said, “this might be a path to follow.”
When did director Hype Williams come into your life?
X: After I finished school, I went to New York City and took on another internship. I ended up drawing his storyboards amongst other things.
I’m sure it left a lasting impression. What impact did it have on you?
X: It was everything. It taught me about the game. You know, things like creativity, how a competent, knowledgeable director works. He was a great person to learn from because he truly understood all the departments. He understood filmmaking as a real filmmaker.
During that period, what films and filmmakers influenced you?
X: You have to remember that I didn’t come into filmmaking through a normal path. I liked comic books, I liked graphic design, I liked hip-hop, and then I found music videos. Even with the AGO, I don’t come from the art world where you need to know the right name of the right person to make you an expert on it. Nah, I come from a place where I just enjoy this shit.
Speaking about your music video career, you’ve directed over 100 of them. I wanted to ask you about working on set with other artists. How collaborative is it between yourself and them?
X: Depends on the artist. Some artists are right there from the beginning. Some have ideas. Some people are involved when you’re right on set. Some people just show up, do what they do, and go home. Back in the day, when they put director credits in music videos, if you ever saw the artist’s name beside the director’s, that meant that they came up with the idea.
How collaborative was it between you and Drake for Hotline Bling?
X: That one was different because, up until that point, it always stemmed from his ideas. He would bring them to me and we would work on them together. However, this particular time, he asked me to come up with the idea. They specifically said that they liked my Sean Paul videos. They liked that era. So, they let me come up with the concept. That’s what led us down the path, taking inspiration from the artwork of James Turrell.
Since you’ve made the jump to feature films, scale and budget aside, what’s the difference between movies and music videos?
X: Time. The amount of days that you have. It also depends on how far you push an artist to perform. There’s a discipline to working with actors. Technically speaking, being on set, it’s the same equipment, same crew, same everything. The real difference is that you’re going to be doing it 30 to 40 days opposed to one or two.
In 2016, you collaborated with Nuit Blanche on a large-scale commission called Death of the Sun. To this day, it’s still talked about, thanks in part to social media. What does that say about contemporary art?
X: Speaking outside of myself, if you could have put the perfect thing in front of the perfect building, with everyone coming with their expensive cameras to take a picture of it, it was Death of the Sun. It changed colours, it was a huge experience. It was what you wanted Nuit Blanche to be. It was artistic, it was intelligent, it was something you could only do there.
Does art have to be big, bright and shareable to get noticed?
X: It has to leave an impression. The point of art is that there are no rules. One day it’s a big giant painting of a tear, the next day it’s a piece of Lego. You never know what’s going to hit people. With that said, when art is outside, and there are no ceilings, you have to have a big spectacle and exploit that.
Do you see the AGO’s Massive party attracting the same response?
X: It’s different. The city of Toronto spent a lot of money on Death of the Sun. And I believe they did it rightfully and intelligently. It attracted people downtown – drinking at bars, staying at hotels, money flowing in. It was a good investment I felt. On the flip side, AGO is different. It’s not the same kind of experience, and we’re not spending the same kind of money. It’s a fun party in a more intimate kind of venue.
What do you hope people get out of the event?
X: I want them to have a good time. I hope they feel good about helping fund the arts. This is a fundraising event. What we are trying to provide is not your typical party music. If I could pin down the vibe for this event, it’s a culmination of 1970’s New York City Basquiat and Blondie hanging out with Fab 5 Freddy and Kurtis Blow. It was an art scene that was really expansive, coming together. The real power of art is that we are a community where everyone is welcomed. So, carving a space out like that for the AGO, to bring folks in and meet other like-minded people, is what it’s all about.