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 2007, Petit and his business partner, and fellow director, Nick Parish have created an impressive portfolio of independent feature films and bespoke commercial work for premium brands such as Jack Daniels, Hewlett Packard, and Nike. 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 Parish decided they would prioritize their happiness by establishing two separate companies, which allow them to finance passion projects with paid work. Descriptors such as defy, disrupt, and upset are used to explain their mission—with the most positive connotation possible. In their films, they dare the world to look at life differently. Another way in which they go against the grain is by feeding their bank accounts—without letting their inspiration starve.
What was the initial idea for Milkwood?
RP: 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.
What initially attracted you to film?
RP: 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 primarily in the murder mystery world, also influenced me.
Was it intimidating to follow in their footsteps?
RP: You want to define yourself rather than follow in their shadow. Fortunately, I received the right kind of motivation early on from those around me. I became obsessed with editing early on in my career, mostly because it was cost-effective, and closer to what I wanted to do in life than pour pints behind the bar. (Laughs) In one of my first jobs, where I was a runner, I learned about the power of editing and how it can craft a story. However, today I try not to edit my own work. It’s helpful to trust someone else’s eyes, which might take your project in an unexpected direction. When a filmmaker and editor have a great relationship, the film takes on a life of its own. It becomes increasingly independent of you.
What happened right before the founding of Milkwood?
RP: 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?
RP: Without risks, you end up making stuff that’s grey and disappears. Nothing is more disheartening than just contributing to the digital noise.
What were you looking for when you decided to leap outside of the system?
RP: We wanted more freedom, money, and time because those are the finite resources that anyone is dealing with. The system that we developed enabled us to take more gambles. It was an urge that we both needed to feed.
What was it about your business partnership that you knew would make for a nice balance?
RP: 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.
If you two did have a conflict, how would you meet in the middle to resolve it?
RP: If you set up a partnership, whether it’s business or a relationship, you definitely have to learn how to negotiate, which is something I’ve learned over time. Relationships have their own unique chemical compound. Nick and I need one another’s brains to solve an issue. Sometimes conflict is necessary.
What do you think has been one of the secrets to your success?
RP: 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?
RP: 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.
It’s all about the education. What’s some advice you can offer to others in your industry?
RP: 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.
And what is your favorite thing about being a filmmaker?
RP: This is not something I admit usually but when I was ages nine to 13, I was obsessed with magic. I used to practice my tricks all of the time because I got such a high off creating something that made others suspend their belief in how the world works. Filmmaking, whether it’s an advert, documentary or a feature film, also presents an illusion—although one that is as close to the truth as you can make it. Whether it’s ten year old me doing a card trick or a 32-year-old director, it’s the same magic. I have the opportunity to change the way people think, which will hopefully make the world a little bit better. If I don’t have that drive then, what’s the point?