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This filmmaker got his conservative parents to talk about their passion project: Prosthetic nipples

There’s a heartwarming new documentary that’s winning a whole lot of awards on the festival circuit, and it's showing in Scottsdale this week only.

It’s called “Mom and Dad’s Nipple Factory,” and it’s about one couple’s journey after a breast cancer diagnosis and subsequent mastectomy, when they figured out how to create ultra realistic — and difficult to produce — prosthetic nipples.

And it was made by their son, Emmy-winning filmmaker Justin Johnson, aka Justinsuperstar. He joined The Show to talk about the film.

JUSTIN JOHNSON: My parents are these incredible polar opposites. And it’s a thing where, like, when I was a kid I’d always think, “Oh, well, Mom, she’s the fun one and Dad, he’s just kind of quiet and boring.” So as I started making this film, and as I started really telling people some of these stories from our childhood about all these, weird little inventions that my dad would make or like little businesses that he would start, I started to really understand, oh my dad’s actually also really interesting. And so they have this incredible, introvert-extrovert, like the most polar opposite sides of both.

And it’s pretty amazing that they, like, really genuinely make that work. They’re very interesting characters. And the thing about making a documentary is you kind of distill the subjects into characters. And so that like, as you can imagine distilling your parents into characters, it’s an interesting process.

LAUREN GILGER: Yeah. And I’m sure we’ll hear more about that as we go here. So in this documentary, you’re telling their story in one of these inventions that your dad made, and it happened after your mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to have a unilateral mastectomy. Tell us a little bit about, first of all, about your memories of that. Do you remember her being diagnosed and what this process was like?

JOHNSON: A big part of this film’s journey is also my own journey. This is what was kind of shocking to me as well, is I really became somewhat estranged from my parents. And I think a lot of that was their religious background, and there was just a lot of pushiness around that. And so when my mom told us all about cancer, I had just moved to New York City for a job at a startup. And I really just became fully absorbed in New York City life. And when I went back to look through some of my archival records and dig through my old emails, I found this email from my mom that says, “Hey, you know, I’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer Here’s the next steps. This, that the other thing.” I was pretty shocked to find that I actually hadn’t even replied to her for a week. And it wasn’t like I called her right away, and I didn’t email her till later. I really was so absorbed in this New York City life and really kind of consider my parents boring people who lived in Wisconsin. That that was pretty heartbreaking and pretty shattering for me to realize the depth of just how distant I had grown.

GILGER: Wow. Yeah. So bring us from there to you obviously going back there for some significant amount of time to make this film, them agreeing to have you make a film about them. How did that happen?

JOHNSON: Well, it started as all great things start with, with a lie. Unintentionally. I told them — so I just finished my first feature documentary and had done a little film festival run, and I really wanted to get something else out there. So I’m like, “OK, I’m gonna make a documentary short, and it’s gonna be about my dad building me a third nipple.” So really that — after my mom’s mas mastectomy and all that — the nipple construction process was my dad's latest innovation. So I’m like, it’s gonna be called “My Dad’s Nipple Factory,” and it’s gonna be this father-son bonding moment.

And I shot some of it, and I just couldn’t figure out the heart of it, because even at six or seven minutes, I’m like, “OK, this is kind of cute. Like, it’s interesting,” and I just really struggled with, what was this thing going to be? It wasn’t until I found the core of the story really is my parents’ love story. And that is the sort of lengths that — especially my dad who’s very, both my parents are very conservative — the lengths that they go to to burst outside of some of those norms in terms of just being open with female nudity, very specifically, and this thing which can be very sexualized but is of course a very important aesthetic part — functional, very raising children and everything — but like a very important part of someone’s identity.

GILGER: Yeah. So they were not the type to really want to talk about nipples in public but found themselves in this position. Did they kind of keep it a secret, it sounds like?

JOHNSON: It was definitely a secret. And it was in that classic, kind of Midwest secret of — when I brought that up with my parents, like, “Well, it wasn’t really a secret, We just didn’t talk about it.” OK, well, yeah, but you got this locked room filled with like nipples that we can’t get into like. OK, that’s like a secret, right?

And so part of this was really freeing for them to — I can have very long discussions with my dad about space rockets and electric cars. But for us to talk about this thing that he had spent years perfecting and developing and for him to get into a space, he could feel open talking about that, I could really see those floodgates open and, and all of a sudden he’s like, “And then I figured this out, and then I did this and then I did this,” and I’m having this incredible, like hourlong conversation with my dad about nipples, something I never would have expected as a kid.

GILGER: That’s really cool. So tell me a little bit about the science of this and like how he did it and why no one had really come up with this before. It sounds like making a prosthetic nipple is actually incredibly hard.

JOHNSON: There’s a lot of factors and really one of the main ones is just having the edges be extremely thin. And so when you’re dealing with silicone, it can be a very finicky process. So when my dad was looking at the market of other options out there — especially 15 years ago in 2007 — there just wasn’t a lot out there. And really specifically for people who have been through the unilateral [mastectomy], you have still your original side. So for my dad, it was using the same brain that he had used when he worked at a supercomputer company or when he was devising devices to make sure we didn’t watch too much TV. It was this idea of, “I’m gonna take this to its logical conclusion.” And really it’s not a patentable thing, but it was the care he put into developing just the molding process and then especially the color matching. And really first for my mom, but then as it grew for other people that have been through this that just want to feel whole again and feel like they don’t have to look in the mirror and think about cancer.

GILGER: Right, right. It’s so personal in that way. Tell us, Justin, how big this has become. I mean, all of these women that they’ve been able to help. It’s grown, it sounds like, exponentially.

JOHNSON: It has. I mean, the growth is limited by the fact it’s just my mom and dad. And I think they did something like 500 within the first three years. And then now they’re at over 5,000 nipples that they’ve made for people around the world. But when you’re talking about it, like it’s not like my dad is going around driving a BMW with “nipple king” custom plates, right? Like they make, I think it was something like $10,000, right? Like it’s, it’s very much a passion project. It’s a ministry for them, and it’s a way for them to spend their golden years together.

GILGER: What do your parents think of the film and of you making a movie about this?

JOHNSON: Yes. So my parents, especially my dad is a very shy, very quiet, introverted person. And so this is a story that in a lot of ways I consider the fact that this film exists is his gift to me as his son because he loves me. They weren’t looking for publicity. But so we, our premiere was at the Milwaukee Film Festival, and we were lucky enough to be their opening night film. So we had this sold-out, 1,000 seat theater. It was unbelievable. We got multiple standing ovations. Most of my family was there. And afterwards, when we asked dad “OK, what do you think of the film?” Dad said, “Well, I think it’s well made. I just wish I wasn’t in it.”

And I’m like, “Yeah, you know, you’re kind of an important part of it.” But I think that’s kind of, in a world where everyone is obsessed with getting famous, getting their 15 minutes, getting their 15 seconds of fame, whatever it is — I think it’s really refreshing to see people like my dad who really truly don’t want to be on camera. But in a lot of ways, it was understanding that my parents are movie stars that was another kind of evolution of this process. Because they really do shine on screen, and they really are delightful people.

GILGER: Yeah. Well, that’s wonderful. Thank you so much for coming on to talk about it. That is Justin Johnson aka Justinsuperstar. Justin, thanks again.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.