We met Justin Ervin at an NYC event, and were intrigued by his keen sense of style and, of course, his YSL shoes. After chatting with him and learning that he was Garden-State award-winning documentary filmmaker and cinematographer, we decided to try to learn more about his latest film, fashion, and the ins and outs of being married to his wife, model Ashley Graham.
Labeling Men: Tell us about your latest film project…
Justin Ervin: My latest film project completed is called "Six Months Later," and I actually shot it about close to three years ago at the Highline [in NYC]. I was in graduate school at the time for social documentary, but as a filmmaker, I am interested in both documentary, as well as narrative story, so I decided [to make the film] while I had the resources to make a short film. [The film] deals with a couple that had been married for six months and encounter some financial problems as a result of the economic crisis and hadn't talked about money in a very serious way yet. It is up to the film, up to the viewers to determine whether or not they are going to make it another six months. It’s been in about six festivals so far; I'm actually going to a festival this week in Martha's Vineyard.
Labeling Men: That's exciting! What are some of the other films you've worked on?
Justin Ervin: My thesis film is a documentary feature called "Elephant in the Room," and that is about Devonne Canady, a woman who is a former world champion boxer; she was the first woman to win the gold medal in women's world boxing. She and a friend of hers developed a gym where the other friend is training as well. Two girls who go [to the gym] together, who are best friends, one of them is having this big social problem that she isn't telling anybody about. The name of the gym is called "The Elephant in the Room" gym and as it turns out, they all come together to try and find out when the "elephant in the room" is that’s bothering this young lady.
Labeling Men: When does the most recent film come out?
Justin Ervin: "Six Months Later," I'm not sure right now, we will have distribution options from one of these festivals. "Elephant in the Room," we are being optioned for Hulu right now; that's exciting, it’s coming out in September!
Labeling Men: How did you get started in the industry?
Justin Ervin: Well, I went to school initially as an Illustration major, so drawing, painting, designing, that is all in my background. I loved it at the time - my undergrad is Columbus School of Art & Design in Columbus, Ohio. I enjoyed the process and going to school there, but I didn't want to stay with illustration as a career path so I tried photography and from photography - it wasn't quite what I wanted to do. While I was there, I encountered a photographer whose name is Duane Michals, and Duane works in sequences so there would be four, five, nine frames sometimes of an occurrence happening in sequence, it’s kind of like video. So I tried video and ended up staying at school an extra semester, studying abroad at Studio Art Centers International in Florence, Italy, did an independent study and that was where I made my first documentary film and I loved it!
Labeling Men: Haven't looked back since!
Justin Ervin: No, I love it. As soon as I found out I could be a filmmaker - I didn't have a frame of reference, I always liked films and prior to undergrad, I had looked at some Soderbergh, some Spike Lee. In Italy, I was studying the neo-realists, people like Fellini, who sort of helped create the modern sensibilities that we know right now of filmmaking, and I really took to it.
Labeling Men: Would you call them your inspirations behind your filmmaking?
Justin Ervin: As a cinematographer, my trajectory has switched. I thought being a filmmaker meant having to be a director. In grad school, I discovered that I really wanted to be a cinematographer. Cinematography is my passion in particular because you not only get to be creative, you kind of are a director in a sense. Director of Photography is very much the right-hand person of the Director or Producer of the project, whether it is documentary or narrative filmmaking. You get to paint with light, you get to paint with composition. You can tell your story through frames, through color; it’s wonderful.
Some of my current heroes are Roger Deakins, Sean Bobbitt, I'm a big fan of Robert Elswit. My mentor, Tom Hurwitz, introduced me to a film in graduate school called "A Time Before Burning," which is a great, great Verite documentary that I love. Verite is probably my favorite kind of documentary filmmaking.
Labeling Men: How did you come up with the name "ELEMENT Films” [his production company], and what is the significance of its name?
Justin Ervin: ELEMENT is actually an acronym for "Electric Emultion Entertainment.” I chose that name because people are increasingly using film less - the emultion of film is replaced with this digital, electric process. I want to have the quality and the storytelling skill of what we would see on filmmaking. Either way, I hope it’s entertaining, so hence the name "Electric Emultion Entertainment.” I created the company to showcase work of mine but to also collaborate with filmmaking friends of mine, under the umbrella of this company.
Labeling Men: How do you incorporate fashion into what you do?
Justin Ervin: In "Six Months Later," in particular, I wanted a specific look for each of the characters. Being self-financed on a micro-micro-budget, you can't really go all out, but I wanted to have their looks defined in a very specific way. Normally it’s the job of the wardrobe designer to come up with a look for them; I went ahead and did that. I'm sure, I know it happens all the time, going to department stores and buying the rack and you keep your receipts because people know behind the counter that you're using it for a film, hoping you'll return it with tags intact and no sweat. Bloomingdales got hit; Barneys got hit!
Labeling Men: What was theme of it?
Justin Ervin: The theme with the male lead in particular was sort of to keep up appearances. The thing is, his character was making a lot of money before the economic downfall, so now he's in the position where he has "champagne taste on a beer budget.” In terms of his look, it was very clean, very streamlined, stuff that I would actually want to wear.
Labeling Men: What are you wearing today?
Justin Ervin: I had a meeting earlier about a shoot I'm on hold for next week. You want to look the part; they always say, "Dress for the part that you want, not that you have." I'm shooting it, but you should always have your best foot forward. I like the look of looking streamlined, relaxed, and having sometimes the accessories speak for you more than the clothes. The shirt is Uniqlo; I like prints that look high end without having to pay for it, so I think Uniqlo is a great option for that. I like the cut of their clothing, you wouldn't know where its from, looks very clean, very fresh. The jeans are Levis, the watch is Brera, and my shoes - that is where you spend a little more for a nice pair that will last you a while - these are YSL.
Labeling Men: We definitely agree with that!
Justin Ervin: Shoes are important, what they do is they elevate the look of whatever it is. You could wear whatever sort of tracksuit that you want, but if the Nikes are very unique, that is what I tend to wear. This is jeans and button downs, but throw in the loafers and it transforms the outfit.
Labeling Men: We know that your wife is a model. Have you guys ever worked together or has she been in any of your films?
Justin Ervin: Yes, we collaborated on a commercial for her line, Ashley Graham for Addition Elle, and we shot it and it went on her website. So I lit and shot that. She was also a co-producer on "Six Months Later.”
Labeling Men: So you mix business with pleasure?
Justin Ervin: Yes, we mix business with pleasure! The fun part of it is that her eye is extremely well disciplined, and she has a great way of giving excellent feedback on composition, on lighting, even on the edit if something isn’t working quite well. She is also my first confidant when it comes to showing off my work.
Labeling Men: We know a model's schedule has her flying all over, and with your schedule, how do you make it work?
Justin Ervin: I think it is important for your spouse to really understand the vocation that you work in. I'm not saying it would be impossible if she was a model and I was a schoolteacher, but we wouldn’t understand each others' fields. We understand that there are long hours, that some things are spur of the moment. That actually happened this week! We were supposed to spend the weekend together and they called her - her agency, IMG - saying that she had to be in San Francisco and Canada. I've been alone for - I think it will be 10 or 11 days until she gets back. We used to have a joke that we were "married on the weekends,” we see each other on the weekends really.
Labeling Men: That's great that you guys really get that!
Justin Ervin: The main thing is that we are very supportive of each others’ goals, we wouldn't want to hold one another back by saying, "Well do you really have to go?" We miss each other, we say that out of an emotional standpoint, we truly say, "Go, go, keep pushing!," because we respect and champion each others’ careers.
Labeling Men: Do you any dating advice for the singles in New York City?
Justin Ervin: Yes! It is funny because in NYC, it is easy to remain single for a very long time. And that is a decision, if you intent to get married, you have to abandon that. If you find somebody and you really like them, try to go all the way! The best way to do that is eliminate the games. Everybody in NYC knows how to "play the game.” If you have some wits about you, you know how to play "the dating game,” which might mean a game of chess. You might move your rook here to take her pawn, but the queen is waiting in the background. I dispelled the game very early when I knew that I wanted to try and make a relationship out of this [with my wife]. Being very transparent, not being "the nice guy" who gets walked all over, but being "the good guy" who stands his ground, being particularly vocal about your intentions. So I'm going to tell the truth and if you're with that, then let’s see how far it goes, and if you aren't, then I guess I'll be single a while longer. It all depends on your intended outcome; you get out of the dating scene what you put into it. If you want a partner or a "fly by night" relationship, then that’s what you'll get. I believe that in life, you get what you want, and the evidence of wanting is you pursuing it.
Labeling Men: We love that; it’s really sound advice. Listen up New Yorkers! Do you have any dating funny stories?
[photos with wife Ashley Graham]
Justin Ervin: Well, we were still dating [Ashley], she was washing dishes after we cooked a meal and my back is turned and I hear "clink" from the sink. I hear her trembling yelling, "I can see the bone, I can see the bone!,” and I'm thinking, "Oh, she's probably overreacting.” I turn around and she's down to the knuckle, really see the bump, and I'm like, “Oh crap!" It’s funny because she used to be very accident prone, and growing with the person, she's grown out of being accident prone, thankfully! We had a date at the hospital; from having dinner at the apartment to the hospital and me being the filmmaker that I am, I'm recording every single moment of it, being in the waiting room going, “Here we are in the waiting room, folks, what do you think?” I'm interviewing the doctor who is giving her the stitches, I'm having a good old time! She, the whole time is thinking either “this guy is crazy,” or it’s amazing to see how he reacts in a panic situation where I'm not panicking, taking care of her and excited to do it!
One more story, it’s not as funny, but shows our personalities and our lifestyle. We do something every once in a while - we used to do it all the time when we were dating - called "The Justin and Ashley Show," which was us taking our eyesight camera on our laptops and recording an episode like "this is what we did today" or after a trip, or after a visit. So I knew I wanted to work my proposal into the continuation of the series of "The Justin and Ashley Show.” So we sat down, we just came back from visiting my parents’ house in PA, and we had a good time. I went specifically to show them the ring; the whole time I had the ring in my bag waiting to give it to her. So we get back and I set up on the grounds of the steps of where we live [Park Slope in Brooklyn]. We had a running joke that I was taking too long to propose and I'm just waiting for you to ask me and she's like, "It’s not reeeeally funny anymore." So I asked, “How do you think I'd propose if I did?,” and she said all this stuff which wasn't like me at all, so I said, "I would say something how I'm in love with you (so on and so forth),” and I said, “I'd tell you how you are the most important person to me, and I would probably get down on one knee” - and I did – “and I'd probably give you a ring,” and I did that. And then she started screaming! The kids next door proceeded to run over asking, "What's wrong?!" So our neighbor at the time saw what was happening, came out and brought us a bottle of wine! She said yes, of course! Its funny because I made her late for an interview that she was supposed to be doing with an online magazine at 5:00 and it was 5:45, she was just telling the interviewer that she was engaged. Coming full circle, I couldn't even take her out for dinner directly after the proposal because she had to do an interview! The proposal episode of "The Justin and Ashley Show" is somewhere in the vault!
Find out more about Justin and his films by visiting his website at www.elementfilmsnyc.com, and keep a look out for his film, coming to Hulu soon!
Interview by Nisim Frank
Photograph by Lelund Durond Thompson