'Superfly' director on how making music videos for Drake and Rihanna taught him how to thrive in the Hollywood studio system

Paras Griffin/GettyDirector X.
  • The director of “Superfly,” Director X, is best known for his landmark music videos for artists like Drake (“Hotline Bling”) and Rihanna (“Work”).
  • But he’s now taking the skills he learned making music videos and commercials to build a career in Hollywood.
  • He compares working for Madison Avenue or Hollywood to being a chef or mercenary who has been hired to follow through on an order.

Director X can easily recall the biggest cinematic moment of his youth.

“‘Empire Strikes Back’ is the movie that I remember affecting me immediately,” X, whose real name is Julien Christian Lutz, told Business Insider over the phone. “The Legos I used I was trying to recreate the spaceships from the movie. That’s the standout.”

Born and raised near Toronto, Director X said he was always a visual person. Around the time he was being amazed by the “Star Wars” saga, he was also running around with his friends in the neighbourhood shooting little movies with a video camera. And when he wasn’t doing that, he was drawing in a notepad with dreams of one day getting into the comic-book business.

It’s that thirst for the visual arts that led him to cement himself as the premiere hip-hop music video director working today.

Hotline Bling Cash MoneyCash Money‘Hotline Bling.’

If you’re not familiar with his name you most certainly have seen his work: “Hotline Bling” (Drake), “Work” (Rihanna), “Excuse Me Miss” (Jay-Z), “Hot in Herre” (“Nelly”) aren’t just standouts because of the artists behind the music, but the look of the videos. They are crafted by X with polished production design and his trademark opening and closing of the videos with the horizontal or vertical frames of the shot, expanding to reveal the shot and closing in until the screen goes black.

Now X is getting his chance at a studio movie, as he’s director of the reboot of the Blaxploitation classic, “Superfly” (in theatres).

The plot points are similar to the original movie (1972 “Super Fly“) – a cocaine dealer named Priest (played by Ron O’Neal in the original movie and Trevor Jackson in the reboot) is out for one last major score – but the new version tweaked it to give it more of a 2018 feel. Instead of being set in New York City, it’s in Atlanta (the generous tax credit for shooting movies in the state of Georgia may have also motivated this change), and instead of the cops providing Priest with the massive amounts of cocaine to sell, like in the original, a Mexican cartel is the distributor.

These changes and the injection of hip-hop in the movie (the soundtrack was produced by artist Future) make it an experience at the multiplex that is extremely entertaining.

As X put it, “If you don’t know the song the cop is singing when he pulls Freddy over, you shouldn’t be seeing the film.” He was referring to when one of the members of Priest’s crew is pulled over and, while the police search his car, the officer sings Chamillionaire’s anthem, “Ridin’.”

Superfly Sony finalSonyTrevor Jackson in ‘Superfly.’

But even with the movie’s playfulness, X sprinkles in moments of seriousness. One gang leader dies at the end of a car chase by crashing into a Confederate statue, which is a nod to the string of monuments celebrating Confederate figures being torn down last summer around the country. And at the end of the movie, Priest has a fight with a cop, pummelling him with his martial-arts moves. It’s a moment that isn’t just borrowed from the original movie, but a recognition of Black Lives Matter.

“No one is under the illusion that what’s been happening lately is a new occurrence,” X said of police violence. “The original ‘Superfly’ was a moment of revenge, even if it’s a fantasy, you got to feel it. So this movie I feel is the same way. It’s a fun ride but really it’s the moment of fantasy to see somebody get their f—ing deserved a– whipping.”

For X, the release of “Superfly” is a landmark moment in his career, as he ascends to a new level in filmmaking.

But he’s seen firsthand that it all can change drastically. One of his biggest mentors is legendary music video director Hype Williams. Like X today, he was behind the most ambitious videos by the biggest artists in the late 1990s (The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Mo Money Mo Problems,” Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” TLC’s “No Scrubs“) and early 2000s (Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin’,” Kanye West’s “Stronger“).

At one point, it was Williams (along with fellow music video director Alan Ferguson) who gave X the pep talk he needed to stay in the business after a rough day of shooting on his first music video, in which he said “he got walked on” by everyone on the set.

“Hype’s main thing was that voice that you hear that you suck is the enemy and you can’t listen to it,” X recalled. “It was the inspiration that I needed to keep on going.”

Belly Artisan EntertainmentArtisan EntertainmentDirector X was a visual consultant on the Hype Williams movie, ‘Belly.’

A few years after that incident, Williams made the movie “Belly,” which X was a visual consultant on. Starring Nas and DMX, its highly stylised story of the drug game became a cult classic and a beloved work for many in the hip-hop community. But Williams has never since gotten another feature film made. X absorbed what Williams went through. He also built an understanding of how to work collaboratively with corporate executives over the years through countless music videos and commercial shoots, and seems destined to handle working for Hollywood better than Williams has.

Comparing himself in some moments to a chef and in others to a mercenary, either way X is making the point that he sees his job as completing a project using the blueprint formed already – whether by a marketing executive, screenwriter, or producer.

“Joel Silver has been trying to make ‘Superfly’ for 20 years, so who the f— am I to take it out of his hands and act like it’s mine,” X said. “Studio pictures definitely have a lot of things flying around and the idea that the director is the one sole creative decision-making source is not real. It took me a long time to get that balance versus my vision.”

X pointed out that a sequence at the end of “Superfly,” where a flashback scene is used to drive home the connection Priest has with his mentor Scatter (Michael Kenneth Williams), exists because of note from the studio. Going forward, X sees his experience on Madison Avenue benefitting him greatly in Hollywood.

Going back to that chef analogy –

“This is the job, you are getting hired to prepare a meal, in a sense,” he said. “As a director you are in the kitchen cooking it up and if they ask for a steak you better bring them a steak. I approached ‘Superfly’ to fulfil the order that had been made.”

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