Lily Hansen | Interviews

“Let’s Do Business our Way”: How Director Rob Petit Forges his own Path

Still from Graceland. Image courtesy of Rob Petit.

In this limited series, Design Observer features conversations with creatives that have gained a foothold within the bustling London design community. Interviewer and author Lily Hansen takes conversation with others from chore to professional vocation, and as oral historian Studs Terkel put it, talks with creative people “about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do.”

We selected five such conversations—with illustrator Ella Paton, author and science communicator Kat Arney, filmmaker Rob Petit, historian (and consultant to the Netflix series The Crown) Robert Lacey, and toy designer Luc Hudson—to enlighten us as to what they do, why, and how they found their creative voice within the cultural crossroads that is London, England.

Rob Petit. Image courtesy of Lily Hansen.

One sunny morning, after a rather soggy couple of weeks, I sat down at one of London’s last greasy spoons with Rob Petit, co-founder of film production company and creative studio Milkwood. Since meeting at MTV’s offices over a decade ago, the pair came up with a business plan to solve the eternal creative crisis—how do you pay your bills while still keeping your artistic spirit alive?

Together, Petit and his business partner, fellow director Nick Parish, decided they would prioritize their happiness by establishing two separate companies, which allow them to finance passion projects with paid work. The duo has created an impressive portfolio of independent feature films and bespoke commercial work for premium brands such as Jack Daniels, Hewlett Packard, and Nike. In their business, they go against the grain by using commercial work to subsidize independent projects. In their films, they dare the world to look at life differently.

What initially attracted you to film?

Whether it’s a feature film or an advert, you are always telling a story. Career-wise I’ve never wanted to restrict myself to film, which is why I love having the ability to alternate between multiple mediums and platforms. Initially I got into film because it is my father’s craft as well. All of his equipment was always lying around the house. My mom, a writer; and stepmom, a film editor, also influenced me.

Still from Dreams. Image courtesy of Rob Petit.

What was the initial idea for Milkwood?

Setting up Milkwood was a solution to the conflict that all filmmakers have: we need to bridge the gap between commercial work and the stuff we want to do. We set up a unique business model, which allows us to take risks by financing them through paid projects. Our two companies, commercial work and independent feature films, essentially feed off one another. The funny thing is, clients are attracted to the passion projects we work on. They want to see that you have influences and interests outside of your portfolio.
Without risks, you end up making stuff that’s grey and disappears.

What happened right before the founding of Milkwood?

My current partner Nick Parish and I were working at MTV at a user-generated, UK and Ireland-based channel called FLUX. No one had ever done anything like it before. Everyday there was a different challenge, which over three years, taught us a lot. Unfortunately, it didn’t succeed because it was a risky venture in a big institution. When the channel was shut down, Nick and I turned to each other and said “let’s do a business our way.” It was the fork in the road where you decide, “do I work for the system or outside of it?” I don’t think I quite understood the implications of my decision at that moment.

What was the biggest lesson you learned?
Without risks, you end up making stuff that’s grey and disappears. Nothing is more disheartening than just contributing to the digital noise.

What was it about your business partnership that you knew would make for a nice balance?

I guess we didn’t completely know, but we’ve been around for ten years so we must be doing something right. We’re different, which definitely helps. If you have two people who are exactly the same, the room can feel a bit too crowded. We teach each other things and keep one another’s perspective fresh. Running a film company and making films are two completely different things.

Still from School of Sunshine. Image courtesy of Rob Petit.

What do you think has been one of the secrets to your success?

I was given a massive amount of responsibility quite early on in my career. If you join a massive institution, you can spend a lot of time trying to prove yourself. To find our base of clients and team, we’ve identified the people who have the most energy and tried to match it. From that, good things always come.

What’s the biggest challenge in today’s filmmaking world?

You are expected to shoot, edit, direct, and manage the entire project, which takes a lot of stamina. While it’s entirely feasible, if you aren’t careful the quality bar can easily drop.

Budgets are plummeting on a daily basis. The solution is to help your clients understand why you need specific resources to sustain the quality of your work. If you can communicate that, then hopefully they will make the right decision.

What’s some advice you can offer to others in your industry?

Keep doing interesting things and feeding whatever it is that keeps you creative. If you spend too much time working on projects for other people, then it’s very easy for your ambitions to set. Suddenly, you look at your work and it isn’t as exciting as it used to be. Whether it’s reading or climbing a mountain, you have to do what makes you feel most alive. Young filmmakers should consciously remind themselves all of the time why they do what they do.

This interview has been edited for length. Read even more from Lily Hansen in Word of Mouth: More Conversations.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Media

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