Take Two: CJZ’s Nick Murray and Michael Cordell
Nick Murray and Michael Cordell.
There’s one word to describe CJZ: busy. On its upcoming slate is Jimmy Barnes documentary ‘Working Class Boy’, true crime series ‘Undercurrent’, comedy ‘Street Smart’ for Ten and a live version of its SBS hit ‘Go Back To Where You Came From’. The production company is also behind the likes of ‘Bondi Rescue’, ‘Highway Patrol’, ‘Gruen’, ‘The Checkout’ and ‘Julia Zemiro’s Home Delivery’ as well as recent shows such as ‘Marry Me, Marry My Family’, ‘Muslims Like Us’, and ‘Court Justice’. Co-owners Michael Cordell and Nick Murray tell IF about working together to establish one of the most successful indies in Australia.
Nick was the in-house legal counsel at Ten while I was a reporter on their new current affairs show Page One. Sadly the show went belly-up but I reconnected with Nick a few years later at our sons’ footy. We got chatting flipping eggs at the sausage sizzle.
I’d bailed out of my first production partnership when I didn’t like the direction it was taking, but I still believed in the strength of teams. Nick is a savvy, highly experienced producer and with our combined strengths we began working on a few projects together. One of which was Bondi Rescue. The partnership began organically, then just grew and grew.
We’re an odd couple though Nick is oddest by far. Despite being very different characters the chemistry works. We laugh a lot. Importantly, we share the same ethics around honesty and fairness. And we’re not shy about giving difficult things a crack. Nick has the guts to back bold ideas, though I’m still dirty he didn’t see the genius in Barbeque Kings.
We have a very flat management structure [at CJZ]. We generally look after our own shows but when there are bigger issues to grapple with it’s all about debate, discussion and weighing options. Now that we’re a much bigger family there are proper grown ups we also consult with.
Nick’s been known to shoot from the lip on occasions, while I’m into quiet diplomacy. Maybe it’s a good double-act, but we’re equally stubborn. We’ve had a couple of dust ups over the years but we kiss and make up like an old de facto couple. Toni Malone, our straight-shooting director of production, always provides wise counsel. And bringing in Matt Campbell as CEO was a masterstroke. He’s fourth leg on the tripod. He’s umpire, roving diplomat and staff ski instructor.
I think we’ve probably learned to accept and understand each other’s eccentricities and foibles better [over time]. We celebrate each other’s strengths and manage our weaknesses. I accept Nick’s bizarre obsessions with bees, auctions and mobile phone jammers. He accepts it when I skive off surfing and am rubbery about my whereabouts.
[The programs I’m most proud of having worked on together are] Bondi Rescue because it’s uniquely Australian and now embedded in our culture. I love what it says about public service and egalitarian ideals. Rich, poor, black or white – you’re safe on Bondi. Guerrilla Gardeners was Nick’s baby and it says everything about him – subversive acts in service of a noble cause. This from the man who chained himself to a tree in Moore Park. Go Back to Where You Came From because it moved the dial on attitudes towards asylum seekers and was insanely ambitious on so many levels. House of Hancock because it was a fearless attempt to understand a complex and powerful woman.
Collecting a Rose d’Or with Nick for the best international television show of the year [for Go Back) is hard to beat [in terms of moments we’ve shared together]. We’ve also fought some brutally tough battles together and mostly won. Our stoush with Gina Rinehart left a few scars but we survived the ordeal. We also fought off a government minister who tried to kill off one of our shows. I’m proud we stared down such powerful forces.
Nick is gutsy and fearless. He delights in rocking the boat. He’s not frightened to fight for producers’ rights in a brutally competitive industry undergoing tectonic changes. It’s a major reason we’ve survived and grown. But that’s never been at the expense of fairness. We always do fair deals. On the creative side Nick sparkles most when he’s doing live TV and comedy. I love watching him on the set of Gruen. He’s a man totally in his element. Or a kid in an electronic sandbox. Comedy suits his subversive nature.
If we can navigate the treacherous seas of digital disruption there’s a golden age ahead for producers who can tell powerful stories on an international stage. The world is swamped with lies, frauds and false prophets. I think audiences crave honesty and substance. We want to continue making bold shows with heart and soul. People also want to laugh again.
We’ve worked hard to create an environment that encourages people to thrive. Colleagues tell us CJZ is a happy place to work. It’s like a kombucha scoby (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) where mysterious chemistry creates a wonderfully healthy elixir. We might be a couple of middle-aged white male dinosaurs but we’re also proud to run a company where women shine. Our NZ company Greenstone is totally run by women with barely a bloke in sight. In our own small way I hope we’re making the world a better place.
We met at Network Ten. Michael was a gun reporter on the current affairs show Page One, and I was the network business affairs manager and lawyer responsible for the show. Luckily, when the show was axed, I didn’t have to sack Michael – someone else volunteered. We met again at kids’ sport six years later.
We both thought that there was a gap in the market for commercial, high rating, factual entertainment shows. Michael brought the factual experience and I was making comedy and entertainment shows. We had two shows commissioned within the first six months.
We have very different skills and the mix has been really effective in pitching new shows and then making them. Michael is a very calm influence and a fantastic writer. As an ex-journalist his storytelling skills are wonderful and he has the rare ability to jump from high-end documentary into scripting a high rating commercial series.
We have a very positive collaborative work environment. It’s not just Michael and me; we have a great team which works in a very loose way. We all jump onto shows we love. That collaboration from the whole creative team is the key to our growth. We now have two bosses in Matt Campbell (CEO) and Toni Malone (director of production). They tell us what we should be doing, and sometimes we listen too.
We rarely disagree. We’ve had two arguments in 13 years. Michael still thinks that we are sometimes too tough on networks. Having run business affairs at a network, I disagree. But our underlying belief is the same: producers should be valued by the networks whilst business affairs should be assisting to get shows made, not making life harder. But we never disagree about our creative approach, which is paramount.
I don’t think our relationship has changed. We’ve always had adjoining offices. Michael is incredibly supportive of the shows I work on. He loves TV, and so do I. We love talking to the networks about shows and we are both still hands-on with most of CJZ’s shows.
[I’m most proud of] Go Back to Where You Came From: it contributed to an important national conversation and showed two sides of the debate to people who may not have otherwise watched a doc about refugees. Guerilla Gardeners was great fun and maybe ahead of its time. It looked at our neglected urban built environment and how it could be vastly improved with some care and illegal gardening. House of Hancock, this was a rollicking story about the rise of Gina Rinehart. Sure we got sued by her, but it was an important and difficult story and Michael’s determination to tell it was brave and admirable. Working on the legal case together and sitting in court when Gina was trying to stop it going to air bolstered our relationship when others may have faltered. Bondi Rescue was our second show and is still going 13 years later. It’s the oldest running local primetime show on Ten and has been wonderful to work on. Michael’s work over many years scripting and directing Osher Günsberg’s narration, gave the show a great character. And those lifeguards are great fun and real Aussie heroes.
There was a great moment [together] when Go Back won the overall jury prize for best TV show in the world at the Rose d’Or in Switzerland. We had no idea we were going to win, but thought it would be fun to go away together for once. But we have a lot of fun most of the time. I’m sure he wishes I would shut up sometimes, but everything Michael says is gold.
I have learned to be more compassionate [from Michael]. He is a kinder soul than me. He’s also reinforced the value of storytellers in this world. There aren’t enough of them.
We don’t tend to make long-term plans. So let’s see what the future holds. But there are lots more stories to tell and people to entertain.
It’s important to understand CJZ is not just us. Our model involves working with wonderful creative talent (like Julia Zemiro, Shaun Micallef, Tahir, Rob Shehade and Wil Anderson) and having a large, full time, in house team of producers and production management folk. We invested in building that team years ago which has meant we can guarantee quality control on our productions and create collaborative groups to create new shows. They should be named and shamed: Ursula Mellor, Rick McPhee, Kerri O’Keefe, Andrew Farrell, Claire Tonkin, Paul Bennett, Katie Shortland, Damian Davis, Selina Forbes, Leah Appleby, Simon Fraser, Bronwyn Speziale, Carol Ramirez, Vinessa Trikeriotis, Amanda Thong, Polly Connolly, Piers Goodhew, Adam Zoupantis, Adam Hughes, Jack Higgins, Lara Conway, Priscilla Ho, Adam Hughes, Matt Campbell, Toni Malone. Outstanding!