Meet Your Makers: Michael Ciccone on Falling in Love with a Film Set


14 December 2022
Delmar Terblanche

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?

I was studying Journalism with the idea of maybe working in sports. But after a year or two, it dawned on me that I absolutely hate writing articles. So I started to explore documentary, which basically became a gateway for me to get into film.

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?

When I started out in the industry, I was getting work as a camera assistant and as a best boy. That was pretty great in terms of exposing me to different levels of production; from one-day commercial shoots in a suburban house, to car ads shot on 35mm, and eventually a gig working on the HBO series “The Pacific” where my job literally was washing mud off the grip equipment. They all had their quirks, but I started to get a sense of how these productions were being pulled together. How people talked on set, what certain equipment was used for, what things cost, and so on. It was both motivational in understanding the level I wanted to get to, and reaffirming that this was an industry I wanted to forge a career in. The experiences also taught me that I didn’t want to work for other people, that I didn’t want to bide my time becoming a producer – I wanted to be a producer - and soon enough I started Truce with a couple of mates. We knew we were playing the long game, starting from the bottom and learning on the run, but we also knew it was the path that gave us ownership of our own destiny, and would ultimately help us build a brand to be proud of. 

How did you learn to be a producer?

Along with Journalism, I had also part-studied a Commerce degree. I was reasonable at accounting and had accumulated other business certificates, so I had a numbers brain and a sense of organisation. The rest of it was a more natural process. I liked surrounding myself with good people. You put trust in them, and you kind of acquire knowledge along the journey, working out what approaches suit you and what don’t. I sought guidance from people I looked up to. I fondly remember fleeting conversations with people like Wilf Sweetland (The Sweetshop) who would kindly offer advice. I completed the odd short course with instructive titles such as ‘Running a Creative Business’ or ‘Producing and Production Management’ – but eventually, when Truce was already about 4 years old, I bit the bullet and enrolled to do a Masters in Producing. It was a great course (and more long form focused), but it basically just reaffirmed that I was on the right track. It’s funny because I built a career in a bubble really, not knowing what industry norms for commercial producers were, and just did things my own way. I took it one production at a time, and learnt…  It seems to have worked out, and peers seem to think I know what I am doing. A few years ago Elise Trenorden joined Truce as an EP partner. That’s been great to bring in some outside perspective, and a different way of doing things – which has helped me take the next step in my professional development as well. 

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?

It was actually well before we started Truce, but myself and the other two founders (Nicholas Clifford and Charlie Sarroff) worked in Beijing through 2007, in the lead-up to the Olympic Games. It was my first time away from home, in a country where I didn’t speak the language, trying to wrangle together a tv documentary series that was set for international distribution. It was there that I learned you really need a solid foundation of preparation and planning to be able to execute anything. That a good schedule is a godsend. And that it’s important to hold people accountable, otherwise you’ll get rolled over. It showed me that a successful production requires a lot of hard work, but it can expose you to a hell of a lot of fun (or crazy) things that the average person will never get to experience. After a manic six months, I returned to Australia exhausted but completely fulfilled and driven to keep chasing the dream.

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?

I agree to some extent. Any production has certain stages that you would go through that are reasonably similar; research, crewing, logistical management, a launch/shoot date, but the nuances are going to be a lot different. I’ve pulled together some live activations and they’re both a lot of fun, but also generally high-risk productions that require a lot more contingency building than you would experience on a typical commercial. I think I find that if you do something every day and perfect your craft in that medium, then it becomes second nature.  Today, if I was to try produce a live activation, an event, or a VR installation I’d need to do a hell of a lot of study to understand how to best deliver, which ultimately makes me slower than the next person. So at the end of the day it comes down to efficiency. 

What’s your favourite thing about production and why?

So many things – and I find it really hard to articulate to anyone outside our industry, as I think commercial and film production is such a different beast to everyday life. I love the fresh challenge that a new brief brings. It’s a way of constantly being exposed to new ideas, and subject matter that means you’re always learning. I love the early collaboration with directors, and I thrive on the competitiveness, knowing that there are other production companies out there vying for the win. I enjoy the opportunity to be creative, and to express myself visually. The need to find solutions to problems. The interaction with like-minded creative collaborators – both production and agency side. Rocking up to set filled with nerves, wondering “how is today going to go?”. And then invoicing, that can be pretty fun too. 

How has production changed since you started your career?

From a production company perspective, and I guess one that’s been on a growth trajectory towards competing with the bigger players, there’s been a growing unknown of where the work is going to come from. You have some agency networks trying to do production in-house, you have some brands taking creative in-house, there are production companies engaging brands directly, and then you have some agencies staying exactly the same and doing things the way they have always been done. And it’s all cyclical, the in-house production will shut down to expand offerings, the client will pivot again to brief out creative to agencies again and so on. And no matter when you’re reflecting on this, “now” is always the most volatile it’s ever been. But a while ago I learned that the work isn’t going away, and if you keep doing good work the phone will continue to ring. So you put your head down, trust the process, and keep on keeping on.  

And what has stayed the same?

Client’s always want to spend less, crew always want more, and you’re stuck in the middle trying to steer a big boat. 

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?

I tend to think certain personalities make for good/effective producers. But I also believe that being a good communicator is basically 90% of the job. If you can listen and understand a brief, then you can sell that in to a director in a way that challenges them to do remarkable work. From there good communication helps coordinate your production team, corral a crew, and inspire talent. With all those elements combined you can uplift a client or creative team with your response. Communicating well keeps people on the same page, keeps a production on schedule, and on budget. Communication obviously isn’t everything, but it is a basic fundamental that some people don’t get right. 

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

In Australia there used to be a film festival called Tropfest which played shorts in front of a 100,000-strong audience in the middle of Sydney during summer, and it was broadcast nationally live on tv. It was basically the Superbowl, or the equivalent of playing at Wembley, for short films. Every year the winner was always met with bickering about why they weren’t deserving of the Best Film award, and we were guilty of this too. So we (we being my partners: director Nicholas Clifford, cinematographer Charlie Sarroff and co-producer Jim Wright) said to ourselves “if it’s so easy, let’s go win the bloody thing”. The next year rolled around and we scrambled together a little comedy with a fun hook, we shot and entered it, and the film was selected as a finalist... but come the night we didn’t win. (Alethea Jones did, and she’s kicking many goals in her directing career now). We were shattered, but we reflected and thought “we showed that we can make them laugh, but we only really made a sketch, lets show them that we can make a film”. So as the next year rolled around we went at it again… we made a drama, we shot it, we entered it and we got selected as finalists again. We honestly thought that was an achievement in itself. Come the night, Centennial Park is absolutely packed, there’s a whole host of celebrity judges, and our film gets called out as the winner. Easy right? It totally wasn’t, we had put absolutely everything we had into that little film. But win or lose, it was rewarding. I had a broken foot at the time and I vividly remember hobbling through the crowd from the VIP area to get up on stage to stand next to Nick as he accept the award. Nothing prepares you for the moment when you look up to see 100,000 people looking back at you. I was so dumbfounded by the enormity of it. I still have photos from friends on my phone from the tv broadcast, my hands are glued to my forehead - obviously in shock. It was a hell of a lot of fun, and I guess the moment that cemented for us that we were on the right path.

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

During Covid, MullenLowe Singapore came with a brief for Clear Shampoo and one of our directors – Bill Irving. The campaign was for the Indonesian market, but it was a bit of a brand refresh, it had this youthful gritty edge to it which was exactly the kind of work we were looking for. It was a really great creative, and Bill nailed his treatment… I remember in the pitch presentation, the client saying “well Bill, we’re certainly swept up by you’re enthusiasm”. We were so into it. But 90% of the world was still in varying degrees of lockdown and we couldn’t attend the shoot. So we had our friends at Passion Pictures (Jakarta) help us with line production. It certainly was difficult being kept at arm’s length, which is obviously not ideal for anybody. Trying to location scout, run a casting session, or do a wardrobe fitting - it all just took a lot longer to get right. But the Passion team were great collaborators, and they pulled it off. Our camera and art teams were unreal and watching the shots stream through our little remote monitor at home - seeing it all come to life, was super rewarding. 

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?

A number of years ago we produced a dining-in-the-dark live activation, where the director wanted to do a David Copperfield trick and have the guests transport to a different location from where they started without them knowing. We had built a pop-up restaurant which we filled with extras, and four people would sit at a certain table over an hour-long service, and in that time the floor underneath them would rotate, and under the cover of darkness they’d be transported into a living room. The take-home was “restaurant quality pizza at home”. We did a tech check during a lunchtime service, but naturally, there was still ambient light seeping through little cracks in the roof meaning if the guests were switched on, they could basically see what was happening. Everyone was freaking out and we only had that one night to pull it off. We could see that the concept was working, we just had to trust that the darkness would be our friend, and like Copperfield’s vanishing of the Statue of Liberty, it would all come together in the end. Thankfully it did. We did 7 service runs that night, and by the fifth we knew we had what we needed in the can. With wine in hand, the AD asked the crowd of extras to drink up and pump the atmosphere. The tension had certainly lifted by then. 

What are your personal ambitions or aspirations as a producer?

When we started Truce the question in front of us was – how do we survive long enough, as filmmakers, to actually get to the point of making films? So we started building a business that made commercials. Over the years I’ve fallen in love with the craft of producing ads, as well as the challenge of growing the business in an ultra-competitive environment. Truce now has two siloed departments, with a great batch of commercial directors, and a film & tv development slate we’re truly proud of. There are some pretty exciting things happening in the background. We’re on the cusp of realizing that initial dream of making films, which will be a special moment when that happens. But the hunger is very much there because I know we’re still on that growth trajectory – building our capacity, improving our craft, taking on the world. I love working with our directors and helping them find their voice too. That will never get old. Over the next 12 months we’ll open a second office and begin generating business in a new market. Hopefully with that we’ll acquire some new and established directing talent and keep pushing out the Truce brand. We’ve only just scratched the surface really. 

As a producer your brain must have a neverending “to do” list. How do you switch off? What do you do to relax?

I tend to be on my laptop most nights, but I’m lucky to have a loving partner – Lauren, and two children. They’re my world and as much as I can, I try make a point to spend quality time with them every day. My eldest daughter, who is two, is overflowing with personality and she likes to keep me on my toes, including for required ‘dance time’ together after dinner. Her smile makes me smile, and it’s easy to forget about work when you’ve got that. 

Producers are problem solvers. What personally fuels your curiosity and drive?

There’s that saying “your last job gets your next job”, which I guess when you’re growing is in some ways very true. But I think that also speaks to my fuel and desire to be continually improving, to keep chasing the next job, the better brief, the new relationship, the bigger brand, to keep offering new challenges for our directors. There are some amazing production companies around the world, making incredible work. One day, hopefully we’ll have that same esteem. 

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

Make sure it’s something that you’re passionate about doing because the early starts and long days are a hell of lot more manageable when it doesn’t feel like work. After that, just put good people around you, like not just good at their job, but good humans. They make you look good, and it makes the work enjoyable. When people are treated with respect – from client down to the intern – human decency goes a long way, and it isn’t hard. 

From your experience what are the ingredients for a successful production?

A clear brief that knows what it is trying to achieve, that fits within the timeframe of the deliverables, and is remotely achievable on the budget. It’s crazy to think how scarce that can be, but it is so important. Otherwise, your starting position is from a place of problem-solving, not elevating the brief creatively, and that makes such a difference to the end result. 

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

I pretty much said it before, but communication is everything. Also, just don’t be a dickhead. There’s no time for it. We’ve been pretty lucky to have had no ‘bad’ experiences with clients or agencies, and I think that’s testament to our personal qualities, and those of our production team and directors. We understand the hierarchy too. We all want to do good work, but your interpretation of “good work” is irrelevant if it’s not fitting with the client’s brief.

One specifically for EPs: Producers are naturally hands on - they have to be. How do you balance that in the more managerial role of an EP?

This is something I am forcing myself to learn as we speak. Unfortunately for those on my team, I can be very hands-on. I have a bit of a production manager's brain. I have a pretty reasonable idea of how much things cost, opinions on crew that would be good for the project and basically how to slice and dice a brief. As we grow I am needing to step back more, and put trust in my producers and production managers, allowing me to focus on the business development, which is itself exhilarating. For so long, when agencies have called there’s perhaps been an expectation that I’d be the one running the job and now that is starting to evolve. I am enjoying being less in the driver's seat and more managing the team, but like any weening process – it’s baby steps with me! In six months or so I’ll have to sit back and reflect on how that’s going. Perhaps you can check in on me?


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