From kick-starting his career in acting to writing and directing his own short films like Buy The Dip (2018), Sam Lucas Smith shares the tricks of the trade in how he decided to invest in producing his own work to get his foot in the industry. Working as a US-based filmmaker, Irishman Sam takes us through his inspirations and vision behind Okay Google (2021) alongside the reality of working to a strict budget and shooting during the pandemic.
Encouraging other filmmakers to take the leap when it comes to developing projects, Sam gives us an insight into the casting process for his upcoming dark comedy as well as the demands of playing a lead role, writing and directing a short film
FF: How did you get into filmmaking originally?
SS: I continue to work as an actor, which is how I started, working professionally in film and television in the UK and my home country of Ireland. I had always enjoyed writing and creating short low-budget comedy sketches and short films with friends. A few years back, I moved to the USA after booking a role in an independent feature film and signing with a new manager. Even with representation, I found it incredibly hard to “get in the door” without having existing connections and recognisable American credits. I decided to invest in writing and producing my own work as a means of establishing myself and broadening my network. Making films has provided me with the opportunity to work with and learn from some incredibly talented people and it has given me the chance to showcase myself as both a writer/director and an actor.
A comedy in the vein of Black Mirror (2011 – )
FF: How long was the filmmaking process from start to finish? Are you able to give a breakdown of the development stages?
SS: This particular film stems from a half-baked idea I pitched as part of a writing group a few years back. The group liked the idea, and someone else ran with it. What they made was not what I had written. I’ll leave it at that and call it a learning experience. I knew there was something in the idea, so I left it on the back burner for a while. Fast forward a bit and I had an opportunity to work with a well known production company who had commissioned an anthology series of short comedies I had pitched. The idea was “Black Mirror, but funny.”
I signed a shopping agreement and worked alongside them to fine tune everything as we targeted networks. Ultimately, the concept wasn’t picked up by the networks we were approaching. With that, I was left with a series of unproduced scripts I had written. Rather than wait for someone else to give me the money, I took a chance and made it myself. I teamed up with Troy Smith, a fantastic director of photography I had worked with on my last short, and we set about planning our shoot. Then Corona happened, and rather than give up entirely, the chaos and uncertainty going on in the world somehow gave me the impetus to get the thing made. I had a fully fleshed out script and I was determined, so I set about assembling our crew.
Keeping to schedule
As an actor, writer, director, and producer on my own project, I can definitely say I was wearing way too many hats, but such is the nature of low-budget self-funded filmmaking. Thankfully, I was able to share the load after linking up with Kristen Vaganos, my producer, who also works as an actress. We planned our shoot during the height of Lockdown, and when filming was permitted to resume, we locked in our dates. Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t have been a big deal, but we both had to tackle the immense challenge of shooting during the pandemic while union guidelines and safety precautions were in the process of being established.
Casting for the film hadn’t been locked in until close to our shoot. I was to be playing one of the 3 lead roles, which was always the intention (one less person to pay!). I reached out to offer the second lead male role to a good friend and exceptionally talented performer Samuel David, who I had worked with on a Funny or Die comedy short a few years prior. Then I was left with our lead role of GOOGLE left to fill. A vindictive AI assistant who breaks out of the cloud to terrorize her owner… it was such a specific and challenging role, and everything counted on finding the perfect person for the part.
I held auditions for the part and received some phenomenal tapes from some very talented actors. I came to casting Rebecca Black by chance after reaching out to her agents to inquire about licensing a certain song which I had wanted to play during a key moment of the film. As we were still looking for the perfect person to play the part at that stage, I offered to send over the script for Rebecca and her team to consider. She liked it and we scheduled a read through on zoom. She killed it, I offered her the part, and two weeks later we were filming on set.
We wrapped filming in September and it was only last month that I was able to say that the film was fully completed. Post production took a little longer than anticipated as I made the decision to include some heavy VFX sequences, and my budget only allowed me to hire one guy to do all the work. With the film now complete, I’m looking forward to some (hopefully in-person) festival screenings. After those are out of the way, I’ll be sticking it up online for the world to see.
Collaborating with YouTuber, singer and actor Rebecca Black
FF: There was such an energising dynamic within the cast. Can you elaborate on your casting process? How did Rebecca Black come onboard the project?
SS: I always intended on playing one of the male lead roles, and I had been looking for any reason to work alongside Samuel David again. He’s a brilliant actor with impeccable comedic timing! Plus, he has such a positive energy and is always open and available in his work. It’s people like that who I like to work with.
Making films can be a stressful endeavour, but I like to do everything I can to create a positive and fun work environment. It’s important to me that my cast and crew know they are appreciated and that they enjoy being part of my film.
Casting for the part of ‘Google’ was a longer ordeal, but I was happy to take my time as it is such a specific part and a very challenging role. I had shortlisted some very talented actresses after running an initial round of auditions. I was close to casting another talented comedy actress in the part, but I came around to Rebecca after I reached out to her agents to inquire about licensing a certain song I wanted to play during a key moment of the film. As it turned out, it wasn’t possible as the license belonged to someone else, but then I got thinking… Rebecca Black as ‘Google’? I quickly decided she’d be a perfect fit for the part. I had a chat with her managers and sent over the script. I heard back that Rebecca loved it and that was all I needed to know to send over an official offer.
I have admired Rebecca’s work for years, and particularly how she has overcome online bullying and flourished as an artist since being thrust into the spotlight at such a young age. She brought her A-game to the role and truly made it her own. She is the best crazed AI assistant I could have hoped for.
FF: What was it like being the writer and director for the project? Did the final product come close to your original vision?
SS: The final product is almost exactly as I had intended it to be. That’s the benefit of not online writing, but also directing and acting in your own work. Usually, as a writer, you hand things off to the director and they use the script as a sort of blueprint.
I like to be in control. Sometimes too much. I’ll be the first to admit that. I definitely wore a lot of hats on this film, and I do feel there can be a conflict of interest when acting and directing in something you have also written.
It was certainly a challenge and, at times, I can say that I felt too close to the material. It’s always nice to have an unbiased eye behind the camera. In this case, I was very fortunate to have my co-director, Troy Smith, who also acted as director of photography.
Challenging as it was, I was quite adamant about what I wanted to achieve, and with a script as far-out as this one… and with a budget as restrictive as mine, I was happy to take on as many roles as I could. Next time, though, I’m definitely coughing up the extra money to get someone else to do the catering.
The message behind the vision
FF: Okay Google (2021) was such a thought provoking concept with underlying potential truths behind social media and advanced AI technology. Can you explain more about the themes and ideas behind the narrative?
SS: I have always been fascinated by the potential of AI technology. With Okay Google (2021), I choose to explore the theme in an absurdist manner by asking, what if your AI assistant was so advanced it had its own opinions… and could talk back to you? That suggested reality sparked so many ideas for me. Considering how fast technology continues to progress, it’s not entirely inconceivable… is it?
AI technology and digital privacy go hand-in-hand. As does social media. Which I both love and hate in equal measure; we sacrifice so much for the sake of convenience and I definitely hint towards that in the film.
The influence of Cryptocurrency
FF: I think there’s a lot of lessons that audiences can take from your work in terms of trusting and relying on technology so much these days. What influenced and inspired you to make this film?
SS: I’m a big Black Mirror (2011 – ) fan, while also being a big fan of comedy. I’d like to think my work is identifiable as Black Mirror (2011 – ), but funny.
I came to writing about technology in particular after losing a significant amount of money in the early days of Cryptocurrency. I was mining back in the day, buying and accumulating before most people had even heard of Bitcoin. Let’s just say… I could have bought more than a few pizzas back in the day. But then… years later, when I attempted to cash in, I discovered that I had made a fatal error. I didn’t back up my wallet correctly. I saved my public key, and not my private key. Essentially, this stupid mistake meant that I could open my wallet and look at all my pretend money, but I could NEVER withdraw it.
That experience and the ridiculousness that was going on in the world of cryptocurrency at the time compelled me to write and produce my first short comedy film, the Cryptocurrency-themed satire Buy The Dip (2018).
While I lost more hypothetical money than I care to think about, I’m happy to say that the film proved to be quite successful and I decided to keep up the habit. I continue to be influenced so many things, but technology in particular evolves at such an incredible pace that there is always something new or the next big thing that’s guaranteed to inspire me.
Learn from the ground up
FF: What advice would you give to other filmmakers trying to emerge in the film industry?
SS: Take a chance. Do it yourself. Learn from the ground up and don’t wait for permission. Invest in your own work and people will be willing to invest in you.
FF: Which directors or filmmakers most inspire you?
SS: Far too many to mention. I love multi-hyphenate writer-actor-directors. Phoebe Waller-Bridge gets a mention for sure. Her wit and timing is flawless, plus she has such a unique voice that shines through in her work. From an aesthetic standpoint, I love Wes Anderson. Also, Lenny Abrahamson, who wrote and directed my favorite Irish film Adam & Paul (2004) and has gone on to achieve widespread success since directing Room (2015) and Normal People (2020).
I find my influences tend to shift according to whatever I have been watching recently. I just saw Promising Young Woman (2020) last week, which blew me away, and I’m now obsessed with Emerald Fennell.
Editor: Millie Hayward
Second Editor & Artwork: Richard Williams
Images courtesy of Sam Lucas Smith