“I’m letting you take a picture of me naked and showing the world.” That's what globetrotting DJ Steve Aoki told Justin Krook when he agreed to be the subject of the filmmaker's latest documentary, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, which was released in mid-August through Netflix.
“He actually just got the title of the film tattooed on his neck,” Krook says with a laugh.
Aoki had reached out to Krook’s company City Room Creative when he saw Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a documentary about master sushi chef Jiro Ono, directed by Krook's business partner David Gill. In the film, Jiro's son Yoshikazu lives under the shadow of his renowned father.
“Steve had seen the film,” Krook explains, “which is essentially a father-son story. It’s about how this 80-year-old chef runs one best sushi restaurants with his son, who is 55 — and [his father] won’t turn over the reins. He saw this film and he connected with it on a emotional level, and his people kind of reached out to us. And I had wanted to make a dance documentary for awhile, so it was fortuitous.”
Krook had worked as an editor and done special effects on music videos, working with the likes of Usher and Mark Ronson, as well as directing some TV commercials. He had never directed a feature-length film before, but he was undeterred. “It was kind of a nice, natural transition,” he says, explaining that the film's music-driven format made it feel similar to a music video or commercial. “The music in the film is almost a character — it’s pretty much wall-to-wall music.”
Music aside, Krook pitched the idea to make the movie more about Aoki’s family and their relationship with Steve's father, Hiroaki “Rocky” Aoki, a complex and very driven man who founded the Benihana restaurant chain. “So I pitched him the movie idea and said, ‘Let’s make it about your family legacy and your relationship with your father’ — which was a somewhat of a strained relationship,” says Krook.
“Before we made this film, Steve Aoki never really talked about his father,” he adds. “Over the course of traveling with him, we gradually built trust, and that really helped the movie not feel stale or feel forced.”
Krook's goal, he says, was to “humanize” the flashy EDM star at his film's center. He wanted to be sure to not put him on a pedestal. And luckily, he didn’t have to pry — Aoki was very forthcoming. “He trusted us to make an emotional film. I think he knew that if he held back, the movie would be stale.”
Putting the film together was somewhat of a challenge because “Rocky” Aoki had passed away in 2008. However, Krook and his team were able to gather archival footage, which was facilitated by Aoki’s family. In addition to popularizing tappanyaki-style Japanese cuisine with the flamboyant, knife-twirling chefs at his restaurants, Rocky lived an outrageously adventurous life, racing speedboats and beating hot air balloon world records. He had a plethora of media coverage around him at all times.
“We were able to paint a picture of this larger-than-life father figure that Steve looked up to as a superhero growing up, even though he might have not been in his life that much,” says Krook. “He was a big influence on Steve’s life, and Steve and the Aoki family were very accommodating to letting us tell this story.”
Krook quickly found over the course of filming that Steve was a pretty driven and larger-than-life character himself. “I've never seen anything like it. And I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Steve is the hardest working musician in show business. He love what he does and he grinds it out.”
The film crew had to travel light since they were flying in Aoki's small private plane, and because of his non-stop schedule, they had to frantically chase him from the club, to dinner and back to the plane. “We would leave from the club at Ibiza at 6:30 a.m. and then head to the beach were he would go swimming at 8:00 a.m., and then we would go to the hotel where we had a lobby call at 9:00 a.m. Sometimes we didn’t sleep at all.”
One of the more interesting creative choices Krook made in I'll Sleep When I'm Dead was to have Steve's mother Chizuru Kobayashi do all of her commentary in Japanese, even though she speaks English. He felt it was important to show the themes of work, ambition and parenting through the lens of Japanese culture, to help give some insight into what makes Aoki tick.
“His father raised Aoki with a Japanese [work] ethic,” Krook explains. “Nothing will ever be good enough; work hard; have a practical career. And back in the day, DJs weren’t even a thing. They weren’t Top 40 artists. It was a tough love kinda deal for Steve.”