Nearly every year that Director X spends making music videos, he gives hip-hop some of its most indelible images. This year, it was the Caribbean zeitgeist perfectly visualized. In 2015, he made the biggest rapper in the world dance like a drunk uncle shepherded to the family BBQ's furthest edge. Over a decade and a half making visuals for pop and hip-hop musicians has made Director X one of Toronto's most steadfast cultural exports to the globe.
So why make the jump to movies? “It's time. Growth is needed,” he responds from the offices of Creative Soul, his production company based in downtown Toronto. Across The Line, his feature film debut, is the story of a young black hockey prodigy (played by Stephan James of Race and Selma) navigating the racism of a small town Nova Scotia. The film is set in North Preston, a historically black community founded by escaped slaves that travelled the Underground Railroad. “North Preston is far away from the city, it’s far away from the main road that just got paved,” X tells me. “There are no layers, there is no mixing, [the black and white kids] are from separate places until high school comes along. They don’t know who the other person is or understand it.” For X these simmering—and occasionally explosive— tensions are more than just timely subject matter, but “a piece of Canada you haven’t seen.”
I talked to X about his creative transition, before Across The Line opens in theaters today across Canada.
You’ve spoken in previous interviews about how your work on music videos is a collaboration with the artist. What was it like taking the reins creatively on a feature film?
Movies are the music videos of the film and television industry and if movies are music videos, then television shows are commercials. With commercials, you’re executing [a clients] thing—they know what they want. With music videos [it's] really your show. So it was not that big a difference like there was a freedom I’d never had before. In this case, instead of a musician you have a writer. You have a producer. A producer is almost like a coach if you use them right. It’s someone who can look at performances and stories and say, “Something’s not making sense.” As a director you have a world of stuff that’s in your head. Freedom-wise there were parallels for sure.
Talk about your experience directing actors.
Usher’s been Usher since he was 13. He sings Usher’s songs, he’s onstage being Usher, then he does music videos as Usher. So you don’t need to sit down with Usher and talk about “What does Usher think about Usher?” He knows. He’s got that covered. In film they’re getting to know these characters as they go. There are times in film where once you’re in the environment, it might not feel like you thought it would. The location is dictating a different performance, maybe. Or the script says he’s sad, but it doesn’t feel like him. It’s not television where the actor’s been playing the guy for seasons. We’re all new to this person that we’re creating. There’s never been a time in a music video where we’ve had to sit down and work on performances because it didn’t feel like Usher.
What were the big lessons you learned that you want to take to your next film project?
I’ll be getting back to story structure, how important those things are that they teach you in class and in those books you read. Antagonists, protagonists, beats. How important our concept of pace is. We can debate how much of it has been learned in watching movies or is it subconsciously there because movies were shaped this way to fit our expectations? Think about a song that would have no chorus. After awhile it wouldn’t compute the way it’s supposed to. There’s things you expect. I err more on the side that things that connect, connect because it hits the right notes on our programming. There’s a reason we tell stories, there’s a reason Robin Hood has been around for centuries, Beowulf has lasted so long, it’s a certain story structure that resonates with us.