Originally commissioned by and published on Film4 Online.
With his Film4-backed short film Two Single Beds now on All4, we sat down with director William Stefan Smith to find out how his career got started, what he finds funny and what he’s learned from Armando Iannucci. By Nicole Davis.
Smith’s career began “with a passion for comedy.” He used to perform stand-up when he was an undergraduate, before touring the student comedy circuit. It was only during a BBC production trainee scheme that he became aware of producing, and later directing. “I had no access to it. I didn’t know it existed.”
That changed when he met Armando Iannucci in 2009 on the set of The Thick of It. “When I saw him direct, I began to think I’d love to do something like that.”
He went to NYU to study a Masters in Film Directing, at which point Smith realised he was “going for this.” Still, it was no guarantee of success. “I didn’t have much idea of what would happen after.” He followed his curiosity rather than a preordained plan.
That’s not to imply that it didn’t take graft and commitment. Smith recalls sending dozens of cold emails asking for opportunities to shadow directors. “I had no tact or etiquette, I’d ask straight out.” In his time off from work he would observe directors on set, absorbing the different ways they operated.
Iannucci left a particular impression. “He’s the collaboration king. He’s very good at identifying strengths in individuals and bringing them together to create something even better.”
Smith also admired his lack of preciousness about ideas. Iannucci would just “go with the best”, irrespective of if he had come up with it. “He’s not threatened and he always keeps his cool.” Particularly impressive was his ability to maintain a sense of calm on fast-paced political satire Veep. “It makes everyone around him think he’s got it together. He’s a genius.”
With those wisdoms in his back pocket, Smith got to directing his own material. Daniel Kaluuya, of Get Out, Sicario and Widows fame, approached Smith with an idea to make a short film set in the world of stand-up comedy. The incentive was to make something that would appeal to their peers, rather than tour film festivals. “That was the dream.”
The premise boils down to an encounter between two stand-up comedians who find refuge in a shared night away from home. It stemmed from a desire to tell a story that’s not often told about “two individuals navigating their way through a predominantly white space, that we could both identify with.”
How does one make the world of stand-up comedy cinematic I wonder? “Visually it was about supporting the emotional state of the two leads. They both feel like islands, for different reasons, but are going about it in different ways.” Two Single Beds is ultimately about the struggle, and risk, of being vulnerable with another person.
It makes sense that Smith referenced the paintings of Edward Hopper, an artist well-known for his melancholic depictions of isolation. “They’re both struggling with different things and we’re just capturing the moment when it erupts.” The liminality of the hotel room becomes the perfect arena for their transgressions to play out.
Starring opposite Kaluuya, as a fellow comedian, is Seraphina Beh, who more than holds her own against the Oscar-nominated actor, and now screenwriter. Shaheen Baig, the casting director who discovered Florence Pugh, Tom Holland and Juno Temple among others, was responsible for recommending Seraphina to the team.
“She just felt confident. She caught our eye,” recalls Smith of Seraphina’s read-through. Two Single Beds is particularly good at allowing its female lead to encompass many different emotional states. She’s tough and stern, funny and insecure. And if the film does nothing else but allow a young black woman that moment of truth, it will have achieved something.
“Everyone’s going to take something different away, I just hope there’s an emotional shift”, says Smith of what he hopes the audience get from watching his short film. During a year where we could all do well to have greater empathy, particularly for what it might be like to feel lonely, Two Single Beds is a welcome addition to the conversation.
Given that audiences might be in need of a laugh, I wonder what some of Smith’s favourite comedic films are. “I love the Coen brothers. Inside Llewyn Davis was one of the references for Two Single Beds. Happiness by Todd Solondz. I wouldn’t recommend it to my Mum but I love films where they feel authored. Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt. Eddie Murphy’s Coming To America. Chris Morris’ Four Lions. Ice Cube’s Friday. And Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin deserves an honourable mention.”
On the topic of authorship and having a voice, it seems pertinent to ask whether Smith has found his. At what point did he feel like he had something to say? “The reason I quit stand-up was because I wasn’t sure I had anything new to say. When I watch good comedy, I feel like that person has got so much to tell the world.”
As a director, Smith is more sure of his taste and looks for projects that he can identify with on a personal level. “This year has been good for the fact I have read a lot of scripts and watched a lot films and reminded myself of what I’m interested in and what I like. Your voice comes from just trying things out for size.”
Two Single Beds was “a space for discovery”, says Smith. You could say he’s made his bed and now you can lie in it.