Sam Lucas Smith’s Okay Google.
“I think satire, comedic satire specifically, allows you to get away with a lot,” says Sam Lucas Smith, writer-director of upcoming dystopian sci-fi comedy Okay Google. “It allows you to make your statement or make a comment.”
This sentiment informs both of Smith’s previous shorts as well—Buy the Dip and Death of an Android—films, which confirm his authorial fascination with the digital age and its impact on modern society. Whether it be the fleeting obsession with cryptocurrency (as in the former) or our desensitisation to reality itself (as in the latter), these films certainly have a statement to make, and satire is their soapbox.
Okay Google is shaping up to be Smith’s most extreme and most absurd take on the subgenre he lovingly refers to as “Black Mirror but funny.” Set in an ambiguous future, the film revolves around a man’s purchase of a new phone, fully equipped with a state-of-the-art AI assistant.
Things take a turn for the worse when the AI becomes possessive and vindictive, suspecting her owner is ‘cheating’ on her with another operating system. Eventually breaking out of the cloud and into a human form, this AI is embodied by none other than Rebecca Black.
I had the pleasure of talking with Sam Lucas Smith about his new film, comedy, the digital age and everything in-between.
A brush with the precarity of digital technologies is what first spurred Smith to put his criticisms on camera. “The reason I made my first film, I suppose I could thank cryptocurrency for that.”
Smith’s directorial debut, Buy the Dip, sees two friends overwhelmed by the sudden rise of cryptocurrencies and all the confusion therein.
“Back in 2012, I was mining Bitcoin. … Years later, after the first boom, my Bitcoin earnings rose. I was thinking ‘I could sell this for a lot of money,’” he explains. “And then it dawned on me that I backed up my public key, not my private key. With your digital wallet, you’re granted two keys—your public key allows you to open your wallet … but you’ll never be able to withdraw any of it without your private key. I realised ‘I can never withdraw that’. … And I went a bit mad.”
One might call this a you have to laugh or you’d cry type of situation, and Smith has certainly approached his work with overt irreverence. “Black Mirror but funny” is itself such a specific stance and both of his prior films are short-form enough to find footing as stand-alone comedy sketches.
“The priority is that it’s just funny to begin with,” he says. “And if people laugh, then that’s a success for me. And I think satire, comedic satire specifically, allows for you get away with a lot. … It allows you to make your statement or make a comment. You write absurdist, ridiculous, disgusting, offensive characters who represent that [commentary]. Then you have the straight-man that’s grounded in reality, who speaks for the sensibilities of the rest of the world and says ‘oh no, actually, that’s wrong.’”
Naturally, the inclusion of Rebecca Black (hitherto infamous for her 2011 single ‘Friday’) is going to drum up interest. She’s come a long way though—she’s got a YouTube channel of her own, and a 2019 interview with BuzzFeedVideo reveals that she’s very different to the internet’s demonisation of her younger self. Smith is confident in giving her serious kudos and, as the titular Google AI, much of the film is resting on her shoulders.
“She brought her own ideas and I just loved that she was so committed to the role as well. Firstly, she was cool to work with … she was there on time, responded very well to my own directions, and also brought her own ideas to it as well, and was just very open to just tossing suggestions, and just to be malleable and flexible.”
Rebecca Black wasn’t Smith’s first casting choice and was, at first, a purely practical decision. “The main reason I cast her was because it was a name. I didn’t audition her … I offered her the role flat-out and ultimately, I was taking a risk in doing that because she could have been the wrong choice. Thankfully, in my case, it worked out because she was phenomenal at the end of the day.”
Of course, the most important thing Black has to bring to a comedy film is comedy. According to Smith, “she was great at that; she hit the notes exactly as I had intended. And, you know, that strikes me as being a talent for comedy. She reads it and she kind of gets what the gag is. This is what I love about comedy—there is no art form with a more immediate barometer for success.”
Standing at a comfortable 11 minutes in length, Okay Google is at once a standalone, sci-fi comedy short, as well as a proof of concept for a potential series. “I’m constantly coming up with ideas enabled by what essentially is the idea behind it. I take the thought of ‘Okay, your AI assistant, Google, is now an actual person who exists in the real world. Go.’ And that just brings up so many possibilities to me.”
Without venturing too far into spoiler territory, we can be certain of the introduction of a rival AI—also in human form—and all the insanity and misadventure that will result. One might find echoes of Upgrade (2018) in the mix, with a warped sprinkling of Her (2013) for good measure. Smith describes the concept with tongue firmly in-cheek: “It’s twisted, weird, out-there. This absurdist crap plays completely straight. … It just lends itself to so many possibilities in my mind.”
Co-director Troy Smith is credited for shooting the film and already has comedy series like Black-ish (2016-2019) and Mixed-Ish (2019-) under his belt. Comedy is so frequently neglected in the visuals department—you can be forgiven for finding the mockumentary format played-out (as I do), and the dialogue typically seizes the limelight over the cinematography. I was at least curious to know how the visuals would be accounted for in Okay Google, and to what degree they would inform the gag.
“There’s a lot of reveals in comedy,” Sam Lucas Smith suggests. “Let’s say there’s a certain reveal, and you’re playing off people’s reactions … someone says something, and then the camera pans over to find the reaction of the other person… [Troy Smith and I] were both on the same page in that way, and we find that specific camera movement that adds to the overall cosmetic element … those beats are so important, particularly with comedy, and knowing when the dead air is taking away from the comedy in the moment and knowing when you need that beat to really add to it.”
Smith’s comedic route to the sci-fi dystopia is Okay Google’s defining feature. Nevertheless, such works inevitably hinge upon the ever-present question, with or without a sense of irony: “Has technology gone too far in any way?”
“In so many ways, yes. But I don’t know at the same time. What I write kind of puts that question on a pedestal without necessarily making a statement or definitive answer. … I like to think that I leave it open for people to at least ponder the thought themselves. I think there’s so much suspicion about technology, which I totally get … but there’s so much great about it as well,” Smith says. “I mean, without technology right now, I wouldn’t be talking to you, I wouldn’t be able to do my day job. And you know, everything is remote at the moment. Half the people I worked with on this film I connected to via Facebook … there’s so much to be said about the negatives, but also there’s plenty of positives as well. With this film and other stuff that I’ve written and will be writing and producing, I kind of ponder that thought.”
The digital age is double-edged, and perhaps Smith is right to maintain a degree of ambivalence in his approach. In fact, there’s poetic irony to the fact that Smith was able to fund Okay Google by similar means to that which spurred him to make his debut film in the first place.
Buy the Dip was the result of a man bitten by the tumultuous machinations of bitcoin, while Okay Google was made possible by a lucky break with stocks. “I bought a Chinese Coffee Company stock that skyrocketed. And for the first time of my life, I sold at the right time and then it crashed completely.”
Technical issues notwithstanding, we can expect to see Okay Google by March at the latest. In Smith’s own words, “it could be February, but by March surely…”
Tom Nel is a freelance film journalist, video essayist and illustrator. You can check out his YouTube channel here, his Instagram here or follow him on Twitter here.