Starting off as a music video director at the age of 21, Justin Edmund-White now has over 20 years of experience in production. A fan of being immersed within every aspect of filmmaking, he found himself drawn toward being a producer and developing a thick skin for the trials and tribulations within the industry.
With nine years under his belt at Sweetshop, a plethora of awards and many big brands as clients, he reflects on how the industry has changed since his days as a runner. Being in a consumer-driven industry, he talks about changes since the ‘golden-age’ and the importance of championing both diversity and inclusion.
“A modern-day producer has to master all the challenges their predecessors had to, and an array of new ones that go far beyond the technicalities of just simply making good films. We’ve had to sharpen our pencils, bring it on I say, after all, evolution is a positive thing.”
LBB> What first attracted you to production - and has it been an industry you’ve always worked on or did you come to it from another area?
Justin> As a bright-eyed 19-year-old who'd just left college and moved to the metropolis that is London, I had already set my sights on working in the film industry. I just didn't know what role I would follow or in what medium. Initially, I didn't actually gravitate towards production, as a full-time runner in TVCs, I began directing music videos at 21, which were so low budget I had to produce them as well, so that was my first taste of production.
As my career progressed, I realised that I really enjoyed the fact that in production you are the hub of the wheel of any project, involved in all areas of filming, in a fast-paced high-contact, sociable environment. It was hugely exciting at the time and of course, the learning curve was very steep, which perfectly satisfied my curiosity to learn and grow like no other role I had tried. And I'd tried a few!
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?
Justin> I think the learnings I took from directing and producing my own music videos lay the foundations for how I perceive the perfect producer should be - by being creatively astute and not just efficient button pushers. I've come to appreciate that directors have different needs, and some do not need a creative partner as much as a practical facilitator. So it’s horses for courses, but personally, I get the most job satisfaction and find it a much more rewarding experience when included in the creative process.
My rule of thumb though is that as a producer you need to be much thicker-skinned than a director when it comes to creative input. We have to respect this is subjective, sometimes your suggestions will be ignored, that’s fine and it’s the director's prerogative of course. Just don't stop putting the ideas and suggestions out there as it’s the minimum you can do to ensure the project is as good as it can be. The end result is a shared responsibility that to my mind falls as much upon the shoulders of the producer as it does the director.
LBB> How did you learn to be a producer?
Justin> That’s a great question, it was all on the job of course, but I can't understate the way I have learnt from each and every MD I've worked under over the years. Each one has been crucial to me becoming who I am. I've learnt equally from their wisdom, as well as from their mistakes which we all make of course. The key is being able to filter out the best bits from everyone you work with so you can develop your own hybrid style that makes you, you.
LBB> Looking back to the beginning of your career, can you tell us about a production you were involved in where you really had to dig deep and that really helped you to grow as a producer?
Justin> Oh yes, crikey. I'd been PM’ing in house for a couple of years and was really enjoying it with no intention of moving up to producing. Then I was asked to line produce a huge commercial for a well known Scottish liqueur with the James Bond director John Glen, starring Robert Hardy and Robert Powell, all on location in Italy way before the industry became fluent in the now tried and tested path of production service. So it was all hand made as it were. It involved the official team branded power boat, a stunt Ferrari, numerous helicopters, Bond girl stunt skiers, mountaineers, snow cats, a plethora of terrifying locations even for the hardiest of production tough nuts, and we were dealing in Lira not Euros, which anyone who'll remember that far back involved a lot more zeros that we're used to these days.
What could possibly go wrong? And it did of course, numerous times. I spent months and months on the road and was hardly home at all, I developed stress related eczema, and by the end had also developed a phobia of my phone ringing such was the intensity of the fire fighting I'd had to endure. I ended the production, almost held hostage in a warehouse on an industrial estate on the outskirts of Turin until I'd paid all the bills the Italians had presented me with. By the end I started to seriously question staying in the industry, but after a bit of time off and a few easier productions, I regained my confidence and began to reflect on the hilarity of all the events that I had been through. And it gave me brilliant material to dine out on for years to come. The commercial turned out really well in the end as invariably it always does, and suffice to say, the experience enabled me to grow exponentially as a producer although at the time it seemed very different. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger has never been more true and to this day I'm grateful for the trust and responsibility that was afforded me.
LBB> A good producer should be able to produce for any medium, from film to events to digital experience. Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Why/why not?
Justin> I agree that these days we need to be able to turn our hands to 360 degree productions but really excelling at all aspects is a more nuanced question as invariably each producer will have their own strengths depending on their background and experience. It’s a bit like saying a good director can direct any style of film, for example, we know some directors are great at comedy and others at emotional storytelling, OK, there are some that excel at both, which is rare, but confusing the skill sets needed to cover all mediums in production, I think can risk undervaluing the qualities that we seek from the very best. Jack of all trades and master of none as they say.
LBB> What’s your favourite thing about production and why?
Justin> It's the old cliche that no project is the same, each one presents fresh challenges and through that process, we often become experts on the most bizarre and random of topics. There aren't many jobs out there that offer that kind of variety and depth, so we're very lucky.
LBB> How has production changed since you started your career?
Justin> It's become harder on all levels. The inevitable race to the bottom in terms of budgets versus stiffer competition is a given within the natural course that capitalism takes us on and has been a constant trajectory of the industry. It’s evolved from the so-called 'golden days' of advertising when I first started as a runner.
But we've also witnessed a plethora of wider changes across the years such as the basics of moving from film to HD, the challenges of which have also helped us evolve into a new era of aesthetic styles that simply would not have been possible back in the days of ‘pay per minute’ film. That's a rabbit hole I won’t go down any further now though.
And just when we thought we'd reached a plateau, Covid came long and required us to reinvent the wheel again.
More recently, we've discovered we have a social conscience too and as a result, have implemented huge strides to correct the errors of the past through Diversity and Inclusion. And not just in name, but in real practice. We still have a long way to go, but it's a long-overdue overhaul that society, in general, is obliged to follow.
We've also begun to address some of the most basic attitudes of how we expect the crew to work. Collectively it all amounts to essential evolution on every level, and I wholly welcome it all. I hope that the industry I will one day leave will be a better one for the next generation to enjoy.
So to summarise, a modern-day producer has to master all the challenges their predecessors had to, and an array of new ones that go far beyond the technicalities of just simply making good films. We’ve had to sharpen our pencils, bring it on I say, after all, evolution is a positive thing. But we also need to know our history too and not dismiss it nonchalantly, with a clear perspective of where we have come from we'll be best placed to map out the future. That’s true in all aspects of life of course and production is no different.
LBB> And what has stayed the same?
Justin> A good idea should always trump everything else.
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?
Justin> I've covered this off at the start, suffice to say I believe the best producers have the ability to offer astute creative evaluation as well as be highly efficient button pushers, after all, you need to know where to spend the money. Can creative sensibility be learnt, yes to a point, but naturally it comes easier to some than others.
LBB> Which production project from across your career are you most proud of and why?
Justin> I think the fact that I didn't let that Italian project in my early days derail my career ambitions at the time gave me a sense of achievement and something to build upon.
Which ads do I enjoy watching the most that I've been involved in? Well that would be telling wouldn't it!
LBB> And in terms of recent work, which projects have you found to be particularly exciting or have presented particularly interesting production challenges?
Justin> I think the circumstances Covid has presented us with would qualify for some of the most interesting challenges we've faced. Specifically the myriad of remote configurations we have not just had to first educate ourselves with and embrace, but also convince agencies and clients to go with, and then to execute them to aplomb.
To date, I can safely say we've mastered a mind-bending array of remote configurations that no one would have taken seriously two years ago. With a view to reducing the industry's carbon footprint, I hope some of these new skill sets and practices we've all now become so familiar with stick, after all the biggest environmental impact we as an industry create is that of our flights and specifically long-haul travel.
LBB> Producers always have the best stories. What’s the hairiest / most insane situation you’ve found yourself in and how did you work your way out of it?
Justin> Yes you guessed it, the Italian job as we should call it. Trouble is, which story do I tell as I could write a book on it!
Here's one. After months of intense pre-production, lofty Bondesque expectations, celebrity crew and celebrity cast flying into Venice (the most expensive city on Earth to shoot), for the start of the shoot, we had to stage the first shot on our shot list. Our team branded power boat that we'd had to bring all the way from Germany to Venice, had its debut performance, a master wide as it gloriously powered up the Grand Canal in front of the Basilica on San Marco square, epic stuff indeed.
The night before we managed to steal a camera position from the roof of the Basilica after many thorny negotiations under the guise we were making a religious documentary not a liqueur ad. Camera set, we then returned back at dawn for the big moment, only to discover the Italian Navy had parked a battleship in the middle of our shot. The solution, a 600mm lens, but you'll have to wait for the book to find out more.
LBB> What are your personal ambitions or aspirations as a producer?
Justin> I think I would like to see the industry and the world in a better place than I found it when I started. So as well as embracing diversity and nurturing the next generation of talent, I'd like us all to capitalise upon our well honed skill sets as an industry to make commercials that do some good and bring about some positive change as opposed to just selling stuff people don't always need that can either go into landfill or erode our health, or both. Thankfully I'm not alone and we’re constantly being presented with such opportunities, and as the conscience of our industry evolves further I'm sure it’s just the beginning.
LBB> As a producer your brain must have a neverending ‘to do’ list. How do you switch off? What do you do to relax?
Justin> Mainly the boring stuff I'm afraid, the basics; clean living, sleep, exercise and meditation, oh and did I mention watching Rugby Union!
LBB> Producers are problem solvers. What personally fuels your curiosity and drive?
Justin> Mainly necessity! Seriously though, it's those same problems or 'challenges' as we call them these days, that keeps things ever-changing and our jobs more interesting as a result. Otherwise, we may as well go and work in a bank. Do we still have banks?
LBB> What advice would you give to people who are interested in becoming a producer?
Justin> Don't be afraid, just jump in, take all the opportunities presented to you and seek them out relentlessly. Make mistakes and learn from them, you will learn most from your mistakes. No pain, no gain holds true.
LBB> From your experience what are the ingredients for a successful production?
Justin> Good ideas first and foremost, healthy collaboration, talented people, and a half-decent budget always helps.
LBB> What’s the key to a successful production-client relationship?
Justin> A strong agency creative team and a brave agency account team. Sadly the latter is all too often lacking these days as agencies seem to lose... well... agency, which is when the house of cards starts to wobble. But get the basics right agency side and the results should speak for themselves.
LBB> Producers are naturally hands-on - they have to be. How do you balance that in the more managerial role of an EP?
Justin> Employing the right producers who I can trust, I hate to micromanage, so if I feel the need to then I'm obviously employing the wrong person.