Jim Field Smith interview
Images: Marc Brenner
Shot in a rain-saturated forest in the Scottish Highlands, Stag is a bleakly compelling three-part comedy-thriller for BBC Two.
The sadistically funny film stars Peep Show’s Jim Howick as Ian, a mild-mannered geography teacher forced to suffer the banter of a bunch of braying, over-privileged public schoolboys when he joins his future brother-in-law’s stag do.
The group includes Reece Shearsmith, Tim Key, Rufus Jones, Crashing‘s Amit Shah and Borgen star Pilou Asbaek, with Steven Campbell Moore as the groom and JJ Feild as his supercilious best man.
Braveheart star James Cosmo and Mountain Goats‘ Sharon Rooney are among the locals forced to endure their obnoxious sense of entitlement.
However, the stag’s weekend of hunting takes a terrifying turn when they discover it’s them that’s being hunted.
Director and co-writer Jim Field Smith has worked on both sides of the Atlantic, coming to prominence with the Hitchockian-thriller The Wrong Mans, starring James Corden and Mat Baynton.
Other credits include the second series of Episodes and the forthcoming US pilot, Pearl, starring Candice Bergen as a larger-than-life matriarch who becomes all-controlling when she’s diagnosed with cancer.
A member of the Perrier-nominated sketch group Dutch Elm Conservatoire, Field Smith set up the company Idiotlamp Productions with his Stag co-writer George Kay.
Here, he discusses the film’s cinematic inspirations, the challenge of making terrible people redeemable, why British comedy directors are in such demand in America and his future plans.
After Stag and The Wrong Mans, storywise, what is that you find so appealing about putting an ordinary guy like Ian into a horrible situation?
I think in TV drama and mainstream movies, particular in the action or thriller genre, the tendency even today is to have the bullet-proof hero. The guy who knows exactly what to do, how to do it, and doesn’t really bleed or cry or panic. And that person doesn’t exist. Or at least, if they do exist, I don’t want to know them. I mean, who would want to be mates with Jason Bourne? He’d be an absolute nightmare. I wanna see some version of me, of you, up there on screen. I wanna see how that person deals with it. It’s a strange mix of wish-fulfilment and “there but for the grace of god”.
Do you feel like there’s a bit of a gap in the market for comedy-thrillers on UK television?
I’m not sure if there’s a gap in the market. Maybe a sliver. A crack. I do think there’s an appetite for comedy that goes beyond the traditional sitcom formats of workplaces and flatshares. Why should dramas get to have all the fun? And equally I don’t think comedies should have to just be flat-out funny all the time. George and I like to explore the grey areas between the genres.
With more of an arc to establish the situation, does the comedy come more organically than when writing a sitcom?
Absolutely. Certainly we didn’t approach writing Stag by thinking “What would be funny?” In sitcom world, you’re having to orchestrate everything to allow for the funny set-piece or to service the running joke. And inevitably that means making decisions that can betray your characters, or not feel that truthful. With a serialised arc, it’s much more about thinking where you want the characters to start and end up, and what can we throw at them along the way that isn’t primarily funny but actually helps us change those characters for better or worse. And I think if you paint those characters right, and they are identifiable, then their struggle becomes funny organically.
Did you have any other films or shows in mind when you were making it, were you channelling the likes of Predator or Deliverance?
It’s influenced by all sorts of things – definitely both of those you mentioned. But we were influenced by other perhaps less obvious sources too. Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers both come to mind, in terms of how the group dynamic evolves in the face of atrocity. Lost was also a big influence on the first episode in particular.
Is it easy to persuade actors to take roles in which they get to play over-privileged pricks who die horrible deaths?
I think they relished the challenge of making these characters redeemable, however minutely. It was perhaps fun to play up to the boorish stereotype, but also there was an opportunity to add an extra layer to that – which I think they all did exceptionally well, in ways that weren’t necessarily indicated on the page.
How important was it that they all find a degree of self-awareness and redemption before the end?
Really important. We wanted them to start out as a seething, almost indistinguishable mass of yobs. But then as the events unfold, we start to see them more as individuals and we perhaps appreciate how they’ve come to be so blinkered, or what it is they might be concealing or compensating for. And hopefully at that moment, we start not to want to see them die – which is what you think when you first meet them – but actually we now want them to keep going along that trajectory of enlightenment and self-improvement, and perhaps cheat death. Sadly, for many of them, even if they manage the former, they rarely succeed at the latter.
What’s your favourite scene in Stag and why?
Many of my favourite scenes are in the final episode, so it’s hard to talk about them without spoiling the story. But I think after all the fireworks and stunts of the first couple of episodes, in the finale it does focus more intently on the few remaining characters and it’s often the simpler little moments that I ended up enjoying the most. Because although it is satisfying to put these louts through an horrific assault course, it’s more satisfying to see what effect it has had on them, and they are – hopefully – some very touching and tense moments in the finale that I think are more dramatic than any of the bigger set-pieces in the show.
This could be a breakout role for Jim Howick. Why did you want him for your lead?
We just couldn’t get him out of our head. When George and I started writing it, we wanted to have someone in mind so we could both have a mutual touchstone. And Howick is someone we have admired for a long time, and I have worked with him before on smaller bits and pieces, and always rated him very highly. We didn’t want a huge household name for Ian, we wanted someone relatable and likeable, and not someone who would pull you out of the show. So hopefully, when you see him, you feel he is Ian. And of course Jim managed to elevate it beyond being a kind of caricatured stooge, which it so easily could have been in lesser hands.
What were your goals for Idiotlamp when you and George set it up?
It was just our way of formalising what we’ve always done since we first met as a pair of creaky-voiced adolescents. We don’t have any goals beyond trying to tell original stories, and making them to a high-standard. And really just to try and do that on our own, for ourselves, when we can.
It seems as if British comedy directors do well on American television, despite the production differences between the two systems. Do you attribute that to anything?
I think perhaps British directors generally are more used to directing whole seasons of shows, and having a level of control more akin to a showrunner in the US. So I think they’re well equipped to come into the US system and have a vision for what a show needs to be. I also believe Brits are less clued up about what the networks, studios and audiences want or expect. And that’s a bonus because we’re more likely just to plough on regardless and try and make the show to the best of our ability, rather than second-guessing ourselves. And maybe that leads to a better, more original, authored end-result.
Do you think we’ll see more and more comedies like Episodes and The Wrong Mans that are conceived with international viewing in mind?
It’s hard to make ambitious comedies at the budget levels we’re used to in the UK. So generally speaking if there’s an opportunity to make the show appealing to an international audience, that’s an opportunity to bring more money in. But it would be a horrible mistake to start plugging in international elements left right and centre in an attempt to bring in that audience or that money. If it’s integral to the story, and doesn’t betray your original idea, then that’s great. George and I have a number of shows in development that have an international element to them, but only because it generally suits the type of story we want to tell.
So much of comedy performance seems to depend upon subtle glances, timing and the relationship between the cast. Do you think it helps you as a director to have been a performer yourself?
It definitely helps me understand the dynamics of a group, having worked in a sketch group myself – with Rufus Jones, funnily enough, who plays Cosmo in the show. I feel like I know how to create the right atmosphere, and how to allow or encourage those little moments to happen.
Tweets from some of the cast suggested it almost felt like a gruelling stag do while you were filming. Apparently Howick was treated for hypothermia. Did you purposely put them through the wringer?
Howick wasn’t treated for hypothermia on our show – that was when he was filming Hellboy. Although we certainly gave him a run for his money. We did really want to put our cast in the middle of that environment for real, and to place them as close to the jeopardy as possible. Not because I’m some insane method director, but mainly because it’s the simplest and most effective way to shoot it. We wanted it to feel real, we didn’t want to rely on doubles, or loads of visual effects. I wanted to just dump the guys in the middle of the Scottish Highlands, and be able to swing the camera in every direction and really feel like this was real. And so to do that, we kinda had to do it for real.
Can you tell me what attracted you to directing Pearl?
It’s a really great script, first and foremost. It’s surprisingly dark for a network comedy, but it’s funny and warm too. I also was really drawn to the idea of an older female lead – particularly when those roles are in short supply – and I just knew it would attract a fantastic actress too. It’s classy and simple, a really great character study – and also a refreshing change from the labour-intensive, plot-oriented complicated genre stuff I’ve been doing recently.
Do you have any other projects coming up?
Nothing I can particularly mention in any detail right now. George and I have a really nice slate of projects for Idiotlamp which we believe in really strongly. We’re lucky to have a few people that are asking us “what’s next”. Among other things we’ve committed to write a big transatlantic comedy which is hopefully going to be our next thing. Can’t say much more that that right now.
Will we get more Wrong Mans episodes?
Well, firstly i should say “never say never”. But it’s unlikely for a number of reasons, the most significant one being that James, Mat and I all feel that we took it to a really good place and to pursue it any further would be both stretching believability and outstaying our welcome. We tried to make the second series a companion piece to the first series, to sort of complete the circle and wrap it up in a way that leaves you wanting more but also being satisfied to let Sam and Phil walk off and have their peace at last!
Finally, Stag is only the latest show to reunite members of Dutch Elm Conservatoire. Will you ever work together again as a group?
Who knows? Are people clamouring for it? Shall we start one of those electronic petitions?
Stag begins on Saturday 27 February at 9pm on BBC Two. Watch the trailer: