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Meet Your Makers: John Duffin and Mara Milicevic, Partners in Life and Business


The founders of Emerald Pictures discuss finding zen in problem solving, never stopping learning and a breakdown in the level trust among production partners

Meet Your Makers: John Duffin and Mara Milicevic, Partners in Life and Business
Born into a film family with a writer father and film editor mother, Mara Milicevic attended film school, then began a career in film and television, before transitioning into the world of advertising. She went on to produce work for some of the world's biggest global brands, including Apple, Facebook and Land Rover, and has served as head of production at kbs+. A seasoned leader with a strong hybrid of brand, advertising, and television production experience, Mara embraces an ethos of integrity, transparency, and creative ingenuity.

John Duffin emigrated to the US from Ireland in his teens, and later began a career in production. After forging his path as a line producer for many of the most iconic music videos of the 90s, he joined Epoch Films where he worked for 17 years - first as head of production, then executive producer. John went on to build Framestore Pictures, a production company under the umbrella of Oscar-winning global company, Framestore. A defining theme of John's career is his belief in the roster as a dynamic filmmaker community, nurturing up-and-coming talent alongside experienced filmmakers. This hands-on approach supports the creation of the finest creative work and has helped launch the careers of many of the industry's most successful directors.

Together, they are the founders of Emerald Pictures (as well as partners in life as the headline to this story suggests) and currently celebrating the company's two-year anniversary. We picked their brains to find out as much as humanly possible about their approach to and thoughts of the production industry.

LBB> What first attracted you to production - and has it been an industry you’ve always worked in or did you come to it from another area?

John Duffin> I've been in production from day one and what has always appealed to me is making projects come to life - whether it’s a music video, short film, long-form advertising, documentary film, or a standard 30-second commercial. The idea that we need to create a film based on words from a piece of paper excites me. It’s a mixture of the unknown and the pressure of balancing everything from production to actors - and making it all work for the money. An important part of producing is delivering something by a deadline, and not only just delivering, but having it be something truly special and super creative.

Mara Milicevic> I started in post, actually, for film and television, but quickly realised I wanted to be involved earlier in the process, so I could have more of a role in developing the creative and protecting it. I wanted to see things come to life and be more involved in the making of them. I didn't want to be the sole creator, I wanted to guide the creative and be connected and make something come to life. I also enjoy it from the perspective of bringing people together, whether it’s bringing the right directors to our roster or the right partners to a project. That's what attracts me to producing.

LBB> What was your first role in the production world and how did this experience influence how you think about production and how you grew your career?

John> I started kind of at the bottom working in the art department on low-budget films. Through all the challenges you forge these friendships, and that's what excites me the most. I love working with people, going places, and the experiences we end up sharing. What inspires me through the process is the storytelling and the understanding of what it took to tell this particular story. Watching a script come to life with a director putting his or her twist on it. The unknown - every day is different. You learn so much, you become a sponge, learning and growing. Still - every day. 

Mara> I started as a PA in television for Stephen Bochco and Michael Mann and worked my way up in production. Then I went over to the agency side and worked my way up to producing, then head of production, and so forth. So, starting on the lowest rung allowed me to see what goes into each role on set. When I ended up on the agency side, it humbled me a little bit, and my experience working with the actual production side ended up being really valuable. I was always drawn to come back closer and be able to guide the creative from the production side. 

LBB> How did you learn to be producers?

Mara> I don't know if I know how to be a producer! Just kidding. I feel like what John was just saying - there’s no finite point - you’re always learning on this evolving journey. Every project is so different.  Then there are unexpected things like Covid, and more expected things like media evolution and new social formats and the like. The industry is a landscape that’s dramatically shifting so I've learned to just roll with it and not be rigid as you navigate any given production. There isn't one answer to everything, because there's no rule book. 

John> No, there isn't a book. Take budgeting, for instance, which is one aspect of being a producer that I quickly had to learn. I had to learn how to approach numbers in a different way - how to move money around, take chances, and take calculated risks. To learn about production, you have to be in it and just do it. You work very hard and you learn from people who are more experienced than you. Also, there's so much I've continued to learn, like how much there is to be said about relationships and managing different personalities. It’s about understanding what your strengths are. 

Mara> Personalities, yes, I've learned a lot about that, especially because John often approaches things very differently than I would. Now, running a company together, there are certain personalities that we deal with, where I just know that John is better suited and vice versa. There's so much power in just understanding your own strengths and weaknesses. With understanding comes confidence, which is essential to producing. You have to have the confidence to manage a giant budget, an entire project, a whole set - a producer has to wear many hats, be super creative, and have great taste. Creative problem solving and understanding very strong-willed creatives and directors who need what they need to tell their story. And you have to respect that. But, you also have to be confident enough to guide them and tell them that their idea, although it may make sense to them, may not always be the right way to go. And it's up to you to show them that maybe there’s another way of looking at things or another option. It's that art versus commerce - that conversation is always there, especially now. We’re very well balanced, and we both have a very strong point of view, and we’re always actively working to make our directors better filmmakers. I feel like I play the role of mom, caretaker, protector, therapist, assassin... 

LBB> A good producer should be able to produce for any medium, from film to events to digital experiences. Do you agree?!

John> I agree with that 100%. As a producer, you're supposed to be able to produce something for five dollars, or five million dollars. It's about the story. Whatever the medium is, it doesn't matter, because storytelling transcends. It’s also about bringing the right people to the party. 

LBB> What’s your favourite thing about production and why?

John> For some people, maybe this is a complete nightmare, but I like pulling up to a set and seeing everyone working, and then you'll have some sort of 7am dilemma that you must sort out. I like that intensity and the challenge of pulling off. I like solving problems. I get into a Zen mode - no panic - I just deal with it. 

Mara> I think for me, it's probably more about my love of connection in the prep phase - people (like finding the perfect DP or production designer or costume designer, etc., etc. for a project), ideas, solving challenges, and pulling the perfect team together.

LBB> How has production changed since you started your career?

Mara> Oh my god, I feel like budgets are much more challenging now. It's not as singular as it used to be, if that makes sense. Now it's a million different deliverables. So, between technology and media needs, and the squeezed budgets and timelines, there’s more and more problem-solving and figuring out challenges. 

John> For me, the thing that has changed the most is the lack of trust. Trust used to be something that you protected, something that you had with the agency creatives, the clients, and between the people that you worked with. More than anything, there was a belief that, OK, we're gonna make this great. We're gonna make it different. We're gonna push the creative boundaries. That process. That whole reality has changed. It ties into what Mara was saying about budgets and timelines. There’s less room to explore together, so the creative suffers. 

Mara> Yeah, I agree with that. When I look at commercials on TV I see where they didn't have any money for certain things, or they spent the money on the wrong things and it shows… it’s lazy producing. Or they blame the result on not having any money. No, that’s wrong. The viewers are super smart and they notice. 

LBB> And what has stayed the same?

Mara> The technology available today does make it possible to shoot things for much less money, and you’re able to explore more. That said, the process hasn’t really changed. You still have to do all the various things - casting and scouting and such. The process still has to be in place, with new things now, because of Covid, like doing these things remotely. We’ve found a way to do it. It's always about finding the right people and having the know-how and the confidence to navigate it all. 

LBB> What do you think is the key to being an effective producer - and is it something that’s innate or something that can be learned?

John> I feel like you can learn to be a producer, but I don't know that you can learn to be a great producer. 

Mara> I think you often hear about producers who are very ‘by the book’ and then you hear about great creative agency producers. I think anyone can be taught the process, the rules, and the paperwork, but to be able to really keep everyone moving forward, maintain the authenticity of the creative, roll with the punches, and keep your head up - I think those are innate characteristics that someone has or doesn't have.

John> I definitely agree with that. Some people are just born with a mind that helps them to see things in a certain way. To be an effective producer, you can learn things, but you have to have certain characteristics - like being able to take over a room, connect with people, and be worldly enough to know a lot about a lot of different things. Know your craft. You don't have to go to college to learn how to do that. But you have to be a creative person in order to be an effective producer. 

Mara> I think that learning the craft is a huge component. We value that, having both come up from the bottom on set and so you really do understand what goes into each production. I think it's more learning through experience, rather than simply having innate creativity. But you do have to be creative. 

LBB> Which production project from across your career are you most proud of and why?

John> The project that I got a lot of enjoyment out of and I was proud of being a part of was the “everyday” iPhone campaign. That was fun and challenging. It was the first time the iPhone went out into the world - but I can't really talk more about it because I'll get assassinated. For me, that was very rewarding in so many different ways. That campaign created a genre. Many people contributed in a major way on that, both on the creative/agency side, and for the client to trust in us. That came full circle - the agency and production company - trust, right? 

LBB> And in terms of recent work, which projects have you found to be particularly exciting or have presented particularly interesting production challenges?

Mara> The piece we did with Chanel Miller and directed by Emily Moore was cool because it was a new and different source of creative. To be a part of something with a larger meaning than simply selling a product means a lot to me. The project we did with Lee Einhorn for The Shots Awards was cool because we had to jump in, all hands on deck, with a very challenged budget and timeline. John produced it himself, and I loved seeing him in his element, keeping so zen in the intensity of pulling it off. He literally found the boat for the shoot the day before the shoot. 

LBB> What are your personal ambitions or aspirations as producers?

Mara> I'd like for Emerald Pictures and our directors to find success within the commercial world while also protecting and staying true to the creative art of storytelling. I believe that having a small unique roster feels very authentic to us, and enables us to have that level of involvement in the projects that we engage with.

LBB> As producers, your brain must have a never-ending ‘to do’ list. How do you switch off? What do you do to relax?

Mara> I write it down...and I drink. And I make lots and lots of lists. But you know we never really turn it off. From work, to life, to home, to family - our brains are always switching back and forth, producing it all. It’s about finding the right balance.

LBB> What advice would you give to people who are interested in becoming a producer?

John> Run for the hills. No. Work on set. 

Mara> Find creative inspiration in other mediums. Study directors. Go to museums. Travel. Watch TV shows. There are so many now. When we were younger, TV shows were like, you know, Three's Company (which was a great show by the way) and stuff. Now, you have such filmic series that are all so accessible. There’s no shortage of access to inspiration.

John> Also, expose yourself to people and to art. After a while, it'll happen. If you're truly interested in being a producer, just go out and produce, no matter what it is. If it excites you, go do it. Find filmmakers. Even if you’re not making much money for a while, at least you're doing something creatively rewarding and stimulating that inspires you. 

LBB> What’s the key to a successful production-client relationship?

John> Respect and trust on both sides. 

Mara> Communication and understanding. Understanding what the agency and client needs are and how you can address those needs. Balance. Deliver what the client needs. It’s important for both sides to understand the process of the other. It's not as simple as just pulling off one shoot - there’s a lot of politics and a lot of different marketing needs. Being respectful and being honest - that’s how you become true partners. 

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Emerald Pictures, Thu, 01 Jul 2021 12:31:18 GMT