• Film

Docs: “Mom & Dad’s Nipple Factory”

Justin Johnson, aka Justinsuperstar, is an Emmy award-winning filmmaker (Double Digits: The Story of a Neighborhood Movie Star) and entrepreneur known as ‘the internet’s first video blogger.’ His interest in documentaries evolved during his position at YouTube, where he was hired to shoot documentaries around Europe and created content for Conde Nast, Google, Star Wars, LEGO, and General Mills.

Justin Johnson’s latest documentary, Mom & Dad’s Nipple Factory, is a touching and inspiring film that shows the power of love, perseverance, and innovation. It’s a must-see for anyone whose life has been touched by breast cancer.

Speaking via Zoom, Johnson talked about his new film. It turns out, it was much more than a job. It was a labor of love.

How did this idea come about for the documentary?

Well, my first goal in starting this project was, ‘How do I find out about what my parents do but in a way that’s not asking them?’ I think a lot of times, as creatives, we need excuses to learn things, especially when it’s a somewhat sensitive topic for your family. So, my parents agreed to do a five to eight-minute doc.  

What did you learn that surprised you?

I realized that this is more a love story than a story about a quirky business (certainly, there is quirk and it is about their business), but once that love story element really came into play, and once my dad actually agreed to really sit down and talk with me in depth, that’s when it expanded into a broader project.

How long have they been in the business of making nipples?

Around 2009 or 2010 my dad developed this prosthetic for my mom. Pretty early on, in terms of them talking to their plastic surgeon, they realized there was a market for it, albeit an extremely small market, but still, something that was very meaningful to them and, of course, would be meaningful to people who buy from them. So, it’s been about 13 years now, 14 years.

I’m surprised there’s not a big market for it.

There are a lot of other options out there that doctors will steer people towards. Certainly, the surgical option is pretty ubiquitous. And tattoos. You see a lot of tattoos. Some people are able to really express their creativity more with tattoos than prosthetics. Frankly, my parents aren’t really trying to run this big profitable business.

So, they always intended for it to be small?

Yes.  At the end of the day, it’s really just a way for them to spend time together in their golden years and have something to do. So, they’re selling these things not really with profit in mind. My mom puts a little religious tract in every box. This isn’t big pharma. This is really more about them.

What was it like working with your parents?

Working with my parents? (laughs). So, my dad is the first documentarian that I ever met. He was always capturing these very fly-on-the-wall moments of our family life growing up. I was able to work from this incredible archive of a hundred-plus hours of tapes, going back to the mid-’80s. I’m sort of the monster that my dad created just by virtue of him really being very sweet about trying to make sure that we had camera technology and things like that in the house, even though we grew up really poor.

What did you learn about your mom through this process?

First of all, is just down for anything. She’s so happy and outgoing. I could be like, ‘Mom, we’re flying to Swaziland tomorrow,’ and she would say, ‘Let’s go!’ My dad was a lot more hesitant. I’ve come to realize that, as I learned more about how thorough Dad was with creating this prosthetic business, my Dad doesn’t do anything by half measures.

How did you come up with the name Justinsuperstar?

That was my email address when I was 14 years old (laughs). I get a lot of joy out of things that are kind of dumb. As I would just be corresponding with people and then meeting them in real life, they’d be like, “Ah, superstar.” There’s a lot of Justin Johnson’s out there. I think there’s like 26 on IMDb. I was, like, “Ah, it’s just a little thing to help to make people pause and stop and remember” – then, hopefully, googling you later on and finding the rest of what you do.

Your bio also says that you are the Internet’s first video blogger. That’s quite a title. How did you come up with that? And how do you know that you are the first one?

So, having been in it extremely early, it’s a subject where there have been many debates. It’s really hard to tell, but I was putting up little bits and pieces of my life in the year 2000, the year 2001, very, very early. Internet video, just in general, was something that wasn’t accessible to a lot of people. There were cute pet videos. Maybe movie trailers. Things like that. But people weren’t really putting their lives on the internet. It was at a time when people were nervous to use their credit cards online. I was, like, ‘Here’s me and my friends hanging out and going bowling,’ for my 20 people who would be willing to spend 30 minutes downloading a two-minute video. So, yeah, it’s a thing where it would be hard to say: is this certified? But I didn’t know anyone else doing it. And I was extremely tapped in.

Your Emmy win must have changed your career.

Yeah, the Emmy win was really exciting. That was for a digital series that I directed and produced for Netflix about visual effects in their films and series. That was a real surprise. It’s really important to have that stamp of approval on my work, on my company’s work. It’s something that I’m really proud of because it certainly was in the documentary-type sphere. And being able to work with a company like Netflix was just a real honor. So, it wasn’t something where, instantaneously, my inbox was flooded with a ton of other opportunities.

So, on a practical level, how did it change things?

I have a content agency called BMP Creative. We were doing a lot of little bits and pieces for Netflix. After that Emmy win they started coming to us for more and more content. Now I have almost 30 full-time employees. We do well over a hundred pieces of content for Netflix’s social media every month. In terms of our relationship with Netflix, it certainly has grown and become something that’s way bigger than I could have ever imagined. But being a scrappy documentary guy and then also having a company with 30 people, it’s a lot of different modes to switch between, but it’s all similar. At the end of the day, like my mom, I just love people. Whether it’s employees or subjects of documentaries, it’s just nice to have a way of communicating and enabling folks.

Did you go to film school? How did you acquire these skills?

I think the best way of learning is to identify: ‘Oh, I want to make a film about this,’ or ‘I’ve never done this type of visual effect. Now I want to do it.’ So, it really was through learning. I went to school for design. A small school in Wisconsin. I got extremely bad grades and ended up dropping out. I moved to California. I was designing websites. Film school can be a great connector but it’s also a really fabulous way to get into serious debt. Being a poor kid from Wisconsin, I got the ‘poor kid’ scholarship. So, when I left home, I was able to go out into the world with very little debt and make those kinds of decisions that you can make when you’re not worried about student loan payments. It’s great if you can go to film school but, my gosh, there are just so many ways to learn and so many tools where you can figure it out just through doing.

What do you hope audiences will take away from watching Mom & Dad’s Nipple Factory?

Of course, I hope they enjoy the humor. It is a quirky, fun story. But what I’m really proud of, specifically about our family, is that I believe in many different things than my parents, whereas there are families in very similar types of circumstances where there have been estrangements that really divide that family unit. The thesis of this film is becoming whole again. Whether it’s our family becoming whole again, with me having lived all around the country and non-communicative with my parents for a while, and then coming back and being more a part of the family unit; or for the people who suffer from breast cancer who become whole again through this product. At the end of the day I think that’s really the thesis. I hope that it inspires people to put down their guard and really think about how they can connect more with people that they may not agree with on paper.