The SMUGGLER executive producer spends her working days producing for the likes of Mark Molloy but also can’t help herself and her spreadsheets when it comes to organising family events, she tells LBB’s Addison Capper
Directors often get all the limelight. Whether it be for a movie, commercial, short film, piece of theatre or music video, it’s the director’s vision and work that people are interested in. But behind every great director is a producer - or team of producers – making shit happen.
Sue Ahn is an executive producer at SMUGGLER, where her task is to oversee the work of big-name directors like Mark Molloy and Randy Krallman and nurture the blossoming careers of a series of directors on the roster at one of the world’s biggest and best production companies. In 2019 she was the producer on two of Apple’s biggest spots of the year, ‘The Surprise’, launched for the holiday season, and the DGA-nominated ‘Underdogs’.
Sue has been with SMUGGLER since 2018. Prior to that she spent 11 years at The Directors Bureau working with the likes of Roman and Sofia Coppola. Figuring that she might be hiding a few stories and words of wisdom up her sleeve, LBB’s Addison Capper chatted with Sue about all manner of trials and tribulations when it comes to producing commercials and producing life.
LBB> You produce for such a wide range of filmmakers - big names like Mark Molloy and Randy Krallman but then also younger, up-and-coming names. How does your job differ between the two?
Sue> I love producing for the range. But the truth is, in terms of management - it’s pretty similar. For both established and up and comers, I'm always thinking about where they want to go and how best to get there - what’s next? The difference being where they are in that process.
The more established directors have a good sense of what work speaks to them and why - so we’re keeping the train on the tracks or maybe pivoting a bit. But with the younger directors, I find myself taking on a much more hands-on, almost maternal role - with a focus on career management from the outset. Guiding them through the agency and client world, learning to work together, together.
I love storytelling and I love laughing and crying. So, while my forte may not be coming up with the initial ideas - I can certainly help make an idea better. Even if it’s only by asking the right questions. I try to help refine and hone their voice.
LBB> Speaking of Mark, what was the shoot for The Underdogs like? It's a joyous bit of film but I can imagine it was a pretty hefty undertaking!
Sue> As with every shoot, we always need more time! We shot over five days in Mexico City and with so many characters and the need to develop each personality and backstory we needed to be especially clever with time and locations. But Mark is also one of the hardest working directors out there and no matter how hairy it gets he manages to do it with panache and enthusiasm. Sometimes I wonder if the man sleeps.
LBB> And what are your fondest memories of The Surprise? There are lots of lovely, universal family nuances in it - how was it for you immerse yourself in those?
Sue> I literally tear up every single time I watch this spot, and I’ve watched it a dozen times or more. I’m such a softie! Again, casting was a huge task on this one. We cast all over Canada and the US and finally came across these two girls that were actual sisters. Both were talented actors but that true familiarity added a layer of authenticity that was incomparable.
LBB> As a producer, what are the keys when it comes to nurturing young directors?
Sue> I find that there are two types of young directors. The types that don’t know when to say no and the types that don’t know when to say yes. So, with the up and comers, as I said before, it’s the beginning stages of career management. Considering more of their future trajectory and how the creative idea or execution might contribute to their reel or relationships within the industry. I try to look at the work and approach conversations holistically and help them figure out what will get them closer to their goals.
LBB> And then what are the tricks of the trade when it comes to producing for more established directors on films for big brands like Apple?
Sue> There’s a lot of money on the line, whether it’s the specific job we’re working on or what the job represents to the director and the brand’s relationship to our company. Oftentimes that money and pressure less to fear or hesitation - from either the client side, agency side or sometimes both. In the best case scenario, the client and agency are coming to our director for their vision and expertise, so it’s engendering that relationship of trust. But often it’s allaying the worries of the client or agency and helping to find the balance of what the brand needs and what is best creatively. Assessing the right amount of give and take; staying calm yet firm. And wine. Lots of wine.
LBB> What are the secrets to a fruitful director-producer partnership?
Sue> What a cliche! But it’s trust. As a producer I need to trust in my director’s creative vision. And as a director they need to trust my producorial instinct. Without that - everything falls apart.
LBB> What were you like as a kid? Did you show any qualities that suggested you might make a top-notch producer later in life?
Sue> As a kid? I was cross-eyed and buck toothed. Actually cross-eyed. I had corrective surgery when I was 10. But that certainly didn’t affect my curiosity or how opinionated I was. Some producers are so high functioning at their job they can’t make any decisions at home. Decision fatigue. Not me. I was and still am producing everything - producing life. I’m constantly organising every function and event, everything from what we’re going to eat for lunch to creating detailed excel travel itineraries for my family vacations. I just can’t help myself. It’s a blessing and a curse.
LBB> What do you love about being a producer?
Sue> I’m a make-it-happen kind of person. I love seeing the fruits of my labour - tangibly. I’m also an extreme people person and communicator. I love navigating all the different temperaments and situations. At my core, I’m an extremely strong personality and that will never change. However, to work with such a diverse roster and revolving door of production partners, I have to adapt to the needs of the individual and figure out how to communicate to them in a way they will hear it best. I’m constantly asking myself - what is the goal of this conversation and what is the best tack? I love the psychology of producing.
LBB> SMUGGLER produces a huge array of different forms of media - how do you find producing across all of those?
Sue> Innovation has always been at the core of what SMUGGLER does. It’s one of the things I admire most about Brian [Carmody] and Patrick [Milling-Smith]. They’re always looking to redefine the status quo and create paradigm shifting work - and that permeates the company. The intangibles of being a great producer are the same no matter the medium. Start with an idea or insight or story, what's the appropriate way to tell that story and assemble the best team of minds to bring it to life. I realise that's a very matter of fact answer but it's the truth. Trust your instincts and creative convictions every step of the way. We all have a shared goal of greatness no matter the project.
LBB> I think producers have often got the best stories to tell - have you ended up in any particularly hairy or memorable scenarios during your career?
Sue> I was once meant to be shooting at the top of the Empire State Building. They have really strict and limited hours that production can enter - so we started our shoot at a location across the street. Two hours before we were supposed to load into the Empire State Building, we get a call from the site rep that there was a jumper and that they had to cancel our shoot. When we looked out onto Fifth Avenue there were fire trucks and ambulances all over the place. Horrified, we tried to figure out our next move and how best we could salvage the shoot given the bulk of the creative took place at the top of the building. Frantically calling insurance to find an alternate shoot date at the building, coming up with back up plans of shooting driving scenes, inserts, cancelling our helicopter pilot. It was madness. Then an hour later we get another call from the site rep saying they found the jumper - he had jumped on the windy side of the building and had been blown back on the lower observatory with a broken leg. All was fine and we were cleared to shoot. It was a roller coaster of a night.