"It's hard to explain the certainty you feel, when an actor understands the role, embodies
Justin Ward began his career working in film development for Mick Jagger at Jagged Films, then went on to work under such talented directors as Robert Redford, Terrence Malick, Norman Jewison, James L. Brooks, Richard Donner, Ron Shelton and Jon Amiel. He has also worked with some of the most well-known producers in the business as well, including Arnon Milchan, Mark Tarlov, Patrick Markey, Gary Foster, Grant Hill, and Joel Silver. For 12 years, Ward produced and directed over 300 hours of sports, culinary, music and travel series for such networks as CBS, NBC, NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Spike TV, FOX, Fox Sports Net, The NFL, Warner Bros., Disney, and The Travel Channel. Ward also helped develop, direct and produce the documentary series "UFC Countdown," and "UFC All Access," and was the showrunner on "Inside the UFC," all on Spike TV.
After having produced several documentaries (including Rock Stars, for National Geographic Channel) and his first narrative feature film, The Meanest Man in Texas, which won 21 awards, Justin wrote, directed and produced his second feature film, Relish, an adventure drama about five teenagers who escape a private treatment facility, led by a rebellious transgender young man. They go on a life-changing road trip, and discover they have a lot more in common than they ever imagined.
Relish recently won 4 awards at Festigious, including Best Picture, Best Narrative Feature, Best Actress (Hana Hayes) and Best Ensemble (September 2019). We invited Justin to join us for an interview. Here's his story.
The cast of Relish
How did you come up with the story for Relish? Where do you draw your inspiration from? What were some of the visual references that came to mind?
Terry and I have wanted to work together for a couple of years before RELISH. Terry wanted to do a movie that was LGBTQ inclusive, and I was developing a transgender character I really liked, and wanted to bring to life, (he was a trans man who wasn't a victim, but was fun, witty, wild and the life of the party). I had also always wanted to do a road trip film. During my teenage years, I was fortunate enough to travel all over the US, with my family, and met so many unique people from different walks of life, and felt that would be an incredible backdrop for a movie-- what if these teenagers, who would never spend a moment with each other in any other circumstance, went on a road trip together?
Justin Ward. Photo by Jose Cervantes
Let's chat a bit about casting. Saying the ensemble in Relish is wonderful is really an understatement. As a director and producer, how can you tell when a person is right for the part?
Yes, they are all amazing and I was fortunate to work with them! I think all it starts with a strong casting director. I was fortunate my wife, Laura Ward, cast both my films. We would discuss for hours each character, and what I was looking for in each one. She would watch hours of self-tapes and find these amazing actors. It was important to me that, whether they have one line or were a leading role, they were strong actors. It's hard to explain the certainty you feel, when an actor understands the role, embodies the part, and owns it. There is no other choice when that happens. That's how it was with this group of actors... and at that point, you just hope they connect with the material, and want to join you on this journey.
How did you work with the actors, particularly with Hana Hayes and Tyler DiChiara, to achieve such wonderful chemistry and ensemble work?
I met with each actor privately to discuss their character and go through every scene in the script with them. With Tyler, he had never acted in a film before, I knew he would need some time. Also, based on our tight schedule, the actors would only have a couple takes, so I needed to create a safe space for the actors. The LaValle Actors Workshop let us rehearse in their space for a week before shooting. It was a chance for all of us to block out scenes, find key moments, discuss relationships, and turned out to be a great opportunity for all the actors to bond. Beyond being extremely talented, every one in this cast were able to create incredible performances under an impossible time constraint. I am so proud of them all, and honored to have had a chance to work with them.
Relish - Trailer
Relish is such an energetic comedic drama, and the eccentric characters you brought to life are very relatable and lovable. Obviously, completing a project like that testifies to your talent and skills, but also, it's a team effort! Who are the key crew members who helped you bring this project to life?
I defer to the credits, but every single cast and crew member brought RELISH to life! Filmmaking is a collaborative art, for sure. There are a few key players, however, that made it possible. Bryan Koss and his camera crew were an incredible asset, moving like a well-oiled machine. Their positivity and humor got us through some tough days. I will never do another film without UPM Bernie Gewissler and Amanda Isaacson. First Assistant Director, Clenet Verdi-Rose, a talented director himself, and his AD team kept us on track. Script Supervisor Kimberly Roper had my back with a smile and great sense of humor! I think having only 9 days to shoot this film created an atmosphere of instant teamwork. Added to the fact that every cast and crew member said they really felt this was an important story to tell and movie to make. We all wanted to get it right. It was an incredible experience and it was an honor to work with Terry Nardozzi, Brad Wilson, and such a dedicated team! And of course, Jennifer Patredis, the agent at Innovative Artists, who has always been a big supporter of this film, and who reps several actors in the film.
Can you talk a little bit about your distribution plans, when will the film be released, and on which platform?
We are excited to announce RELISH is available now On Demand and on Amazon Prime.
With Relish, you won Best Picture here at Festigious, Best Feature Film Best Original Screenplay at the Madrid International Film Festival, and Best Drama Feature at the Burbank International Film Festival. You have so many accolades under your belt! What are you most proud of?
The film has been out two weeks now, and the DMs we are getting from young people are the most rewarding accolades. So many have written about how they relate to the film, or a character in the movie. We are getting such great feedback from those who say they connect to it on a deep, emotional level, and it is now their favorite movie. That is the dream. That is why we all worked so hard to make this film.
Since 1999, you have produced and directed over 300 hours of sports, culinary, music and travel series for such networks as CBS, NBC, NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Spike TV, FOX, Fox Sports Net, The NFL, Warner Bros., Disney, and The Travel Channel. Can you share with us some of the experiences of your journey? Pretty sure this wasn't a stroll in the park... What are the challenges of working on shows of this magnitude?
There are so many, from hanging 200 feet off the ground filming rock scalers, to traveling to remote islands no film crew has ever been allowed to shoot, to kayaking the raging whitewaters of the Ocoee River! I've been fortunate to have had such an exciting opportunities. I think that experience has given me the tools to handle any situation. What I've learned, is that the end of the day, whether your filming sports, documentaries, or narrative projects, it always comes down to character, story and a strong production team!
Having worked with some of the most well-known producers in the business, such as Arnon Milchan, Mark Tarlov, Patrick Markey, Gary Foster, Grand Hill, and Joel Silver, what are some of the most valuable insights you've learned over the years? Do you have any good tips on how to create and foster business relationships?
I have been lucky to work with and learn from some successful talent in this business, and they all gave me incredible advice over the years. But what I learned most from watching them, and what I saw was that they surround themselves with talented people.
When hiring a crew member or a department-head on a project, do you base your decision purely on talent, or are there other factors that come to mind?
There are always other factors, including personality, compatibility, a personal and professional connection, ability to see and contribute to the vision of the project, and unfortunately, sometimes, budget.
Having worked on such a big variety of content, is there a medium that you feel more comfortable with? Do you see yourself focusing on a certain aspect of filmmaking in the future?
I have always loved narrative and documentary films. For me, with Documentaries there is so much to learn from real people, and with narrative there is so much to learn about ourselves. Those are the two mediums I love the most.