The co-founder of SMUGGLER tells Addison Capper about producing award-winning plays on top of ads, the foundations of his career and production company, and how the SMUGGLER family has adapted - and become closer - during Covid-19
Patrick Milling Smith and Brian Carmody were (we’re guessing) a fair few glasses of rosé deep when they first met at Cannes Lions. In Patrick’s words: “A great night of two clueless idiots talking a drunken big game about the future.” But, unlike most drunken plans that get drowned in a forgetful stream of booze, Patrick and Brian didn’t just remember theirs the next morning, they went on to actually act on them. The end result is SMUGGLER, a production company that needs little introduction.
We don’t have enough space or words to detail SMUGGLER’s iconic work since its launch in 2002 but a quick look at Patrick and the company's award wins over the years highlight not only the quality of work but the sheer variety of it too. There are Tony Award winning Broadway plays, tech-forward virtual and augmented reality experiences, a Grammy-winning album, Cannes Lions Grands Prix and Palmes d'Or, Clios, Emmys and Webbys.
Recent projects of importance for Patrick include Sing Street, which after its run at the New York Theatre Workshop, was set to open on Broadway this past March until the pandemic postponed proceedings. To fill some of the void until it opens in the coming months, SMUGGLER developed Sing Street: Grounded, a one-night-only livestream of an abridged Sing Street Broadway 'debut' on Facebook Live that raised money for the NY Mayor’s Fund to go towards supporting frontliners and NYC hospitals. Then there's Skittles Commercial: The Broadway Musical, the brand's unofficial Super Bowl ad of 2019, Squarespace's Emmy-winning spot with John Malkovich, eight-time Tony Award-winning musical, Once, the stage adaptation of Robert Evans' memoir, The Kid Stays in the Picture, and, well, loads more.
LBB’s Addison Capper chatted with Patrick about a bit of everything - the foundations of his career and SMUGGLER, the importance of emotional intelligence on top talent, and how the company has adapted - and become closer - during Covid-19.
LBB> What did you do before you fell into the world of production? Were you quite single-minded growing up or did you flit around industries before finding your calling?
Patrick> Pretty single minded or perhaps more strong headed, but like most people I had no clue there was an industry built around commercial production. I always wanted to do something that wasn’t boring and that was about as much clarity as I had. At 20, I remember wanting to direct plays and then realising there were a lot of people that wanted to do that and were likely more sure of it than I was. I was introduced to someone that ran a commercial production company and we had lunch. He knew everyone in the restaurant, was wearing jeans and a t-shirt and paid for the meal. I thought he seemed to have it all pretty well figured out and that his job seemed intriguing so I took his advice and applied to production companies to be a PA/runner.
LBB> What was your first role in production and what were your first impressions of the industry?
Patrick> A runner in Soho, London. Loved it. I was an assistant to a director and ex ad agency legend, Paul Arden. He was bloody minded, demanding, and as eccentric as they come, relentlessly uncompromising but real original as a person. It all felt like an incredible adventure at that age. He was the perfect introduction to production and the outsized personalities that are attracted to directing. There were always battles with every job as he was absolutely driven by getting exactly what he was imagining regardless of the practicalities. His unreasonable nature was probably what made him so great and the experience so exciting. He definitely taught me that anything is possible and making the impossible happen should be expected. There is always a solution if the will is there. His company instilled a strong ethos to everyone that worked there. It boiled down to: "great results demand a clear intent and a relentless work ethic. If it was easy then everyone would be doing it.”
LBB> Where did you initially grow up and what kind of kid were you? Was your family particularly creative or involved in the creative industries?
Patrick> I grew up in the UK. I moved to the US in my early 20s when Brian and I started SMUGGLER. My first year was in LA and then I moved to NY which is where I’ve been for the past 17 years. My father was a soldier, who ended up in the Middle East. He fell in love with the region and was someone definitely searching, on a quest for something. There are strange parallels to that for me with people in the creative world. Both he and my mother were from a long line of military families. There was no path to follow into production but I feel very blessed to have found it. I think it's a similar story for most people I know in our industry. Very few people, especially the interesting ones, decided they wanted to make 30-second commercials when they were 14.
LBB> You launched SMUGGLER with Brian Carmody in 2002 (I think) - what was your relationship with Brian prior to launching the company? And what was the mission when you launched and what was the inspiration behind that approach?
Patrick> My relationship with Brian was from the year prior when I was a line producer for UK-based director Neil Harris. We were working through the production company Satellite Films that Brian was head of sales for. We actually met in person at Cannes. A great night of two clueless idiots talking a drunken big game about the future. We could not be more different but a great compliment to one another. I was lucky to find the perfect partner. It would have been a lonely and far less enjoyable or inspiring journey without the Irishman.
LBB> Has the mission changed over the years? How has SMUGGLER grown with the times? Tell me about SMUGGLER’s recent signings.
Patrick> I would say the mission changes every year. The company evolves and we are very explorative as a group but the constants remain the same. The DNA of the company was very apparent early on; a familial culture, good attitude and a strong dose of optimistic naivety. We wanted to be the place that felt like a unique and supportive home to our directors but, equally as important, to our crews. One of the biggest sources of satisfaction for any company owner has to be the pride of taking care of everyone that comes through the doors. Making sure people want to work here again and building a loyalty and intent that really makes the difference in production when you need it to count. People show up if they are heard, seen and respected.
We have always been drawn to filmmakers as opposed to advertising creatives that direct. Craft has always been something that motivates us all. It's always been important to us that we are excited by the work but even more so by the person. There was a strict no asshole policy from the beginning and it’s still apparent today. Play hard but be decent.
The best directors know that it’s a long journey and a team sport. Talent is essential of course but then so is how one works with others. If there was a formula for the best directing careers it’s probably 70% talent and 30% emotional intelligence. No good having a great idea if you can’t bring along everyone around you on the journey. Early on we championed a majority of directors at the start of their careers. There is nothing more potent than potential and nothing feels as exciting or rewarding as being a part of that career trajectory early on.
To me SMUGGLER feels like a group of people that have all been on the same journey. This new decade has felt like the start of a renewal of that journey with a number of new directors signed over the past 18 months. We started a mentor program for the newer signings which has been really embraced by the more experienced directors on the roster. It’s been a very symbiotic and rewarding experience for all involved. We’ve learnt so much as a group and have never been afraid to fail at something. It’s important that the company and the execs are as creatively ambitious, engaged and restless as the directors. Everyone benefits from a shared hunger to make things we can all stand behind.
LBB> What initially led you to explore theatre as an avenue for production? Are you a keen theatre fan?
Patrick> Keen to a certain point, but by no means obsessed. Great live theatre is definitely one of the most satisfying and inspiring things to experience, though it's rare, much like any medium, but I'm definitely excited about great writing and story-telling in that form. So much room for originality and innovation in theatre. Nowhere to hide. You can't sit in an edit suite and cut around a performance. The very nature of a live audience demands that the whole production has to have a real reason to exist. I’m drawn to the truth of it all and the craft that carries a show off. We’ve done four first class shows. A play called Seminar (written by Theresa Rebeck and directed by Sam Gold), a Tony-winning musical called Once (written by Enda Walsh and directed by John Tiffany), a play called The Kids Stays In The Picture (based on the memoir of legendary film producer Robert Evans and directed by Simon McBurney). Our new musical Sing Street (written by Enda Walsh and directed by Rebecca Taichman), was slated to premiere on Broadway in April but the opening has been postponed because of the pandemic.
LBB> How do you generally find the process of producing for theatre as opposed to producing commercials / films / music videos? Was it more a case of applying the same methods you already knew or did you find the experience a big learning curve?
Patrick> The process of putting a show together feels very similar to producing a commercial. You need a great idea and strong writing. The writing then attracts the interesting director, the interesting director attracts the best key crew and talent and so on and so forth. I’ve always found that the best directors instinctively know when to say no to a project. Like most good creative people, they are instinctive enough to know when they can make something good and when they know they will fail. Careers are often defined by the scripts a director turns down. The flip side to that, from a producer’s standpoint, it’s easier to get excited and confidently, stubbornly put your all behind a production when the discerning talent is responding positively to an idea. The rest is about your own conviction, belief and experience to help create a positive and constructive process.
The production company’s role is ultimately quite clear; identify the talent, nurture the talent, champion the talent, find the creative opportunity and then protect the talent and the creative through to the very end. The best partnerships between directors and production companies are built from honesty and the trust that everyone has one another’s back.
If these last few months have demonstrated anything it’s the affirmation that we all crave communal experiences. Nothing compares to the excitement and energy of seeing something live whether a play, sporting event or a concert. We’re still a way off from that but it will come back and when it does I hope to continue to make work that fuels audiences’ passion for originality.
LBB> Last year you combined the two and produced a Broadway show for Skittles - what were your thoughts when you first became aware of that job? Can you speak about the experience of producing ‘Skittles Commercial The Broadway Musical’.
Patrick> When Ari Weiss [at the time CCO of DDB North America] first called about it, I said it was not possible to pull off and was reluctantly resigned to spending a month wasting a lot of time on an agency fishing expedition. With that being said, everyone at the company went for it. Ari and creative director Nathaniel Lawlor have that intoxicatingly stubborn and unreasonable belief in what’s possible, and, as we discussed earlier, that is often the ingredient behind great work. SKITTLES The Musical is definitely one of the most satisfying and thrilling productions we’ve been involved with. The whole thing was mad and had no reason to be as great as it was. Every single facet of the project was brilliant and wholly original. It was a fantastic moment for us all to bring the experience gained with Broadway to the relationships and trust built in advertising. Definitely one of our proudest moments.
LBB> What are your biggest memories / lessons from that project?
Patrick> The lesson is really more confirmation that anything is possible. You need first-class talent in every department and then a good healthy dose of naivety, which allows you to try things you perhaps have no reason to imagine you can pull off. Great ideas tend to have a habit of getting made. I’m very proud of the company at large, we have the experience and the talent to really add value and the impossible ventures are often the moments you can really show up and remind ourselves and others of who we are and what we do. We all live for things to believe in and rally around. It’s a life source for so many people here.
LBB> Can you tell us a bit more about Sing Street? It's such a fun film with an incredible soundtrack, which must be a dream to work with from a musical perspective - what were your initial thoughts when getting to grips with it? Was there anything specific that you wanted to keep or change from the film?
Patrick> We jumped at the opportunity to work again with the playwright/screenwriter Enda Walsh. We had an amazing experience working with Enda on our first Broadway musical and he also wrote a feature we made with director Jaron Albertin called Weightless. Enda is a master when it comes to exploring the simple human truth of a story. Sing Street, just like Once was, is an adaptation of a cult classic movie. Enda has that great ability to say more with less in his writing and in this instance went straight to the emotional essence and of what drives a group of school kids to start a band. At its core he made it about identity, purpose and the sense of finding a place to belong through the creation of music. Much like Once, we were all drawn to this material for a show as it’s about exploring what it means to be vulnerable, in love and finding your place in the world. I’m only really a fan of musicals that have a reason for people to be playing music. There has to be a truth and reality to what’s happening on stage and this show has that same intention. In Once, our protagonist was a street busker so there was a reason for his action and music. Similarly in Sing Street a group of school kids decide to start a band to get a girl's attention so you’re not suddenly pulled out of the show wondering why the hell everyone has just broken into song. One could describe both shows as plays with music.
While the show’s Broadway debut has been delayed, we’re excited to bring the show to audiences in the fall when theatres reopen.
LBB> It’s a trying time for the production business. How has SMUGGLER responded? What’re some of the projects you’ve been doing lately?
Patrick> The last few months have been unsettling but a great test and I feel very proud of the brain trust at SMUGGLER and division7. Each project possesses its own new obstacle and I think we’ve devised and delivered some unique solutions. Lessons are being shared and inventive steps are being made to push things forward.
We’ve always taken risks and jump at the opportunity to learn more and push the envelope to unlock an idea’s potential. We’ve done a variety of projects since the pandemic struck with each informing the next. The approach for Sing Street Grounded (a live online show designed to raise money for NYC Hospitals & Broadway Cares) paved the way for Dell, CVS and Heineken and allowed for an original comedy series
that we’re shopping to brands.
Sing Street Grounded is a great example of who we are as a company and the embodiment of what it means to be producers. You rally behind an idea you believe in, assemble a world class team of talent and confidently leap into the unknown.
With every swing you pick up something new; a lesson, something you’d want to do differently if and when you get to the plate again. (Have definitely been in America too long.) It’s a learning process fuelled by curiosity and ambition to create work that’s unique. Sing Street was a great adventure for us all and these experiences always dovetail into our core business. You never know what will be the most valuable piece of knowledge from the outset but it always seems to happen.
LBB> How are you and SMUGGLER adapting as a company?
Patrick> Ideas that once seemed easy to execute now require a high-level of problem solving and extensive production thought. The assembly line method of producing ideas is currently a thing of the past. The production company’s role is now more important than ever, because getting work produced once again requires a new set of skills, experiences and expertise.
I can’t speak for other production companies but we’ve become closer as a result. There’s a magnifying glass on everything we do and every step in the process has become more important. It’s been a great moment for us all to refocus on what we want to spend our time doing, what we really want to make, and focus on ideas that have a reason to exist. Challenge and innovation is a great motivator.
Our most successful projects have always come in response to ideas that seemed impossible. Making great work is always hard. There is no secret that changes that rule. It’s never been easy and won’t get easier. You have to be irrational to get great work made because the rational side of the brain can give you a host of reasons to not take something on.
LBB> How do you see the future of the business and the future for SMUGGLER?
Patrick> It’s obviously a pivotal year for our business and the world at large. The public health crisis has been unsettling but recent murders and the subsequent protests have further demonstrated the urgent necessity to be more engaged and to use our time and opportunities to help bring change. In order to be proud of one’s company and create a healthy business, there has to be focus on building a structure and culture that is representative of different voices and experiences.
We are driven by storytelling and the feeling of pride and satisfaction that comes from the work we produce and the manner in which we do it. What a privilege we have to tell stories and there is a responsibility and great opportunity that comes along with that. As proud as we are as a company of some of our past initiatives, it’s a tiny drop in the ocean of what we can do, and that’s a humbling truth while also being one of the most motivating and exciting realities. If the time we are living through can’t shake the production and advertising community out of its inertia and take more responsibility to play our collective part in shaping change then I don’t know what would. We are always talking about the journey we are on in this industry, but you are what you do, you are how you do, and you are the company you keep.
As a producer you are always trying to make things that are relevant and that cut through the noise. You want to produce something of quality that has a reason to exist. The reason to exist has even more added importance these days otherwise you’ve just spent valuable time and capital on something disposable, unimportant and even tone deaf.