Justin Izumi first came on to our radar last Christmas when, just days after Edeka launched its big budget festive ad, Lidl launched its own hilariously low budget version as an up you to Edeka and its high-priced groceries. The director behind the Lidl ad was Justin (check out the film below).
Justin’s relatively new to directing - he cut his teeth in film and TV as a senior producer and art director at MTV, the channel he’d obsess over in his ‘90s hip hop loving days. This year he signed to Soup Film in Berlin - LBB’s Addison Capper found out more.
LBB> Where did you grow up and what kind of kid were you?
Justin> I was born in Hamburg but we moved to a small town in Schleswig-Holstein when I was about four years old. Almost all my memories start there. We moved a couple of times, but we always had a house near a forest with a big garden. Growing up half Asian/Canadian (half German) in a small town with almost no foreigners made us special. I remember being called names on the street, but my younger brother, sister and I did not quite understand why we were treated differently. Besides that we really enjoyed growing up in the country. I was into a lot of sports, especially basketball. Day-in, day-out you could find me shooting hoops in front of our house and on court with my team. I was pretty shy in school and in public but on the court I was able to express myself.
LBB You initially studied movie and TV design - what prompted you to explore that side of filmmaking?
Justin> My roots lay in graphic design and motion graphics. I started working for a TV station called RTL right after I finished my social services. That’s where I learned working with all the Adobe tools. I started with image editing and then moved on to graphic design. And soon those graphics needed to be combined with motion. My interest in art started to influence my life at a young age. As far as I can remember, I have always loved painting and drawing. In high school I was very pissed that I could not choose art and sports as a major. I chose math and french instead, which did not really benefit my scores!
LBB> Where does your love of filmmaking originally stem from? Was it always an interest of yours?
Justin> It all started with me moving into the basement of our house. I really enjoyed having my privacy as the oldest of three. Then one day I discovered that little cable TV box in the wall. I somehow managed to open it, even though you actually needed a special tool to open it. And then I connected my little TV. I was the only family member who secretly was able to watch cable. I watched a lot of movies. The ‘90s were the best! But MTV was my favourite channel of them all! Germany only had a handful of regional shows in those days, so we were able to watch UK content. Ray Cokes, Headbangers Ball… and of course MTV YO! Raps. I was a big hip hop fan, so of course this was my show. I also had a passion for watching skateboard videos. So I must say, watching a lot of TV, especially MTV, was the beginning of my passion for moving images in general.
LBB> You were a senior producer and art director at MTV prior to becoming a director - what prompted your shift over to directing?
Justin> In my case working as a producer at MTV did not only include creating promo concepts and developing channel designs for MTV and VIVA. I also produced our channel promos and commercials for our advertising partner as a director - so directing was already a part of my job. I decided to totally focus my career on directing after leaving MTV in 2012. I wanted to shoot music videos, that was my big goal. I love to work with all film departments and exchange ideas in order to get the best result. Being on set is so much more fun and makes me happy. Sitting in front of a big screen all day long and pushing pixels from side to side just did not satisfy me anymore. I wanted to go out, travel and meet interesting people. And that worked out pretty well for me.
LBB> What lessons did you learn during that time that you’ve carried over to directing? How do they influence and aid your work?
Justin> Communication is the key. Sounds easy but it isn’t. When an apple is mentioned in the script, the agency might have an organic looking apple with a leaf on a stalk in mind, the client sees a green fresh apple with water drops on it and I see a red and green apple with a bite taken out of it. People think differently, have different tastes and have different imaginations. That is why I listen to the people I work for and with. Your clients and your team will be thankful and the work progress and result gets better. Never forget to be open-minded and in the end always trust your gut. For me, a director does not have to present the best ideas and solutions but decides which ideas and solutions are the best. That’s why I always choose my crew wisely. Even though I am the decision maker, filmmaking is a team effort. I would like to quote former NBA coach Phil Jackson: “As a leader your job is to do everything in your power to create the perfect conditions for success by benching your ego and inspiring your team to play the game the right way. But at some point, you need to let go and turn yourself over to the basketball gods. The soul of success is surrendering to what is.”
LBB> You’ve recently joined the roster at Soup - why is it a good fit for you as a director?
Justin> Soup has a small, well chosen roster of directors and a good board flow. I feel that I am not one of many but complement the roster and that’s a perfect basis for a relationship between a production company and a director. The team is great, understands and appreciates creativity and gives a lot of input. They don’t just think in numbers. For me it’s important to have a close connection to a production company because the films gain quality if you know each other well. Jumping from one company to another, does not make sense to me.
LBB> Your Lidl Christmas film is so cheeky and well put together. And has just picked up a D&AD pencil! Congrats. What can you tell us about that project and how it came together?
Justin> I was working on a prank commercial with Florida Reklame and BBDO. In an elevator encounter we met the BBDO managing director. He asked us if we want to produce a persiflage of a high-budget Christmas commercial which was about to be released. And with ‘high-budget’ he meant SuperBowl-level. In contrast our conditions were a mini-budget and a delivery in just one week including preparation, shoot and post. On top we had no information about the storyline at all. Our answer: ‘No problem!’ That was the kick-off. On the day the Edeka commercial was released, we all sat together and watched it on a big screen. You can imagine what we all thought. ‘Holy f***.’ Then everything went pretty fast, because it had to. We rented a studio, chose our cast (which already was on hold) and decided which scene had to be a miniature scene and which ones could be shot with real people. After three days of prep, two days of shooting, two days of editing and music composing we uploaded our version. Easy!
LBB> Which other projects of yours are you particularly proud of and why?
Justin> To be honest, I am my biggest critic and I am never satisfied with my own work. I always think I could have done better. I never stop learning and my goal is to improve my skills with every project. So being proud of a project is not easy for me. But there are a few films that I mention if somebody asks me which projects represent my style… Deutsche Bahn / Der Helm, Norma Jean Martine / No Gold, Milky Chance / Flashed Junk Mind.
LBB> How would you define your directorial style?
Justin> I don’t have a significant style because I always challenge myself to try out different things. I am not the guy that uses pastel colour codes in all his set designs and I am not that director who always picks the most obscure characters. I have done emotional storytelling, vivid visual projects and also authentic documentary portraits. It’s never the same. But I think that there is one thing that does connect all those styles and may define my personal touch… and that’s tangible emotional humaneness in many different forms.
LBB> Outside of work, what keeps you inspired? What do you like to get up to?
Justin> I travel the world, listen to music (all genres), read books (Murakami is my all-time fave author) and watch movies and internet stuff. So nothing really special. I really enjoy good food, tattoos and boulder a lot at the moment. Staying fit and healthy is very important for me. I try to avoid anything work related in my off time, this temporary distance helps me to see the world with different eyes and stay inspired by life.