Editor-turned-director, Misha Manson-Smith’s CV includes hard-hitting documentaries, acclaimed TV series and high profile ad campaigns. Tim Cumming talks to the industrious filmmaker about improvised Google spots, massive real-world hoaxes and why comedy is a high-wire act.
Defining what makes something funny is no joke, because the secrets of comedy – and their effects – tend to evaporate the closer you get to them.
But knowing when something’s funny, and running with that, is a skill that editor-turned-director Misha Manson-Smith has brought with him across work in TV, film and advertising. As a director, he’s a Bafta- and Emmy-winning veteran of drama series No Offence, with writer Paul Abbott, dramadies such as Pramface for BBC3, and hidden-camera comedies My New Best Friend and the more recent Gooseberry, made through Sacha Baron Cohen’s production company and starring Manson-Smith’s long-time comedic accomplice, actor Marc Wootton.
“A groundbreaking new partnership with Channel 4 is so secret that all he can tell me on record is that “it’s a new large-scale social experiment in the world, a massive thing that exists like a huge hoax”.
He coaxed a brilliant, twisted turn from Michael Sheen for the cult 2017 film short Barbados (penned by George Kay, show-runner behind French Netflix hits Lupin and Call My Agent). Then there’s his improv-based comedy spots for the likes of Google and KitKat (a thread he’s picking up again after signing with EP Danny Fleet and Presence in January) and a groundbreaking new partnership with Channel 4 that is so secret, he says, that all he can tell me on record is that “it’s a new large-scale social experiment in the world, a massive thing that exists like a huge hoax”. Not the Royals on Oprah, then.
Above: Manson-Smith directed episodes of the Paul Abbott-penned TV series No Offence.
However, his move from editing suite to director’s chair came in circumstances as far from comedy as you could imagine. “I was a documentary editor,” he says of his start in the industry. “A lot of BBC and Channel 4 stuff.” The crossover project was James Miller’s documentary feature, Death in Gaza, released in 2004. “James had been directing it, and I was editing it, but he was killed during the making of it by the Israel Defence Force, and so I completed the film.” Going on to win three Emmys and a Bafta, “it was a combination of the film he was trying to make,” says Manson-Smith, “and the story of making that film and what happened to him.”
“James [Miller] had been directing it, and I was editing it, but he was killed during the making of it by the Israel Defence Force, and so I completed the film.”
It wasn’t long before he landed his first TV comedy project with actor Marc Wootton. Together they fashioned the British Comedy Award-winning My New Best Friend for BBC3, and followed that with more sick twists to the mockumentary template in High Spirits with Shirley Ghostman and La La Land. As well as Wootton, some seriously major talents have since passed though his work in commercials, film and TV – often long before they hit the big time – including It’s a Sin star Ollie Alexander, and Daniel Kaluuya, who leads the acclaimed new Black Panther biopic, Judas and the Black Messiah.
Above: Manson-Smith has worked with actor Marc Wootton on a number of projects including High Spirits with Shirley Ghostman.
For Manson-Smith, the secret to great comedy is in the prep and, once you’re on set, in the belly, where gut instinct takes the director’s chair. “With drama you can work really hard at it, study a scene, where the characters are, and you can analyse it, get the crew together and execute it in a way that’s slick. But with comedy there is another, much bigger element of intuition, [of] what you think is funny, and you have to keep pushing performances in a way that is completely down to your own instinct. You need more of yourself in it, which is why a lot of the best comedy feels so particular. And you can’t prep for it in the same way.”
“If a joke is anything less than funny, you’ve got egg on your face. Whereas, if you do something that’s only 60 per cent as dramatic as you’d hoped it would be, it’s still pretty dramatic.”
“With comedy,” he adds, “it’s more of a high-wire act. If you aim for something funny and miss, it’s a clear fail. If a joke is anything less than funny, you’ve got egg on your face. Whereas, if you do something that’s only 60 per cent as dramatic as you’d hoped it would be, it’s still pretty dramatic. So there is more of a danger with comedy. You need to know [it’s funny] there and then, although you’d be amazed at how much more you can bring to it in the edit. But, generally, if you’re laughing on set, to the point where you have to stop or you’re ruining the scene, then that’s a keeper.”
Above: Manson-Smith used improvised comedy in his campaign for Google.
While heavy prep and gut instinct may be your reliable field guides to a successful comedy shoot, Manson-Smith says his years in the edit suite stand him in good stead, too. Improvisation doesn’t only happen in front of camera. “What you get from editing is that you’re writing it as you go, in the sense of nearly anything is possible. Rather than it being, ‘you’ve got your boards, you’re going to shoot the boards, and we’ll pick the best shots and remake what was on the boards’, it’s more about being aware of the potential of all the new dimensions you can bring to it in editing and in post. The post side of it is something I always stay very involved with.”
When you improvise, you need a lot of ammunition in your store. You need more prep for improvisation, in fact.
Whether it’s a series with Marc Wootton, or the check-out spots he pulled off for Google Analytics, Manson-Smith is more than happy to run with improvisation, “but only when it’s appropriate,” he adds. “There’s a lot of things where planning and precision is required. Not that improvising doesn’t come with those things, too. In fact, you have to massively over-prepare for all the different ways a scene could go when you improvise, so you need a lot of ammunition in your store. You need more prep for improvisation, in fact.”
Above: Manson-Smith’s spot for Kit-Kat.
The Google Analytics shoot is a case in point. “Google came to me saying they’d seen the work I’d done with Mark. A lot of it’s heavily improvised, so it was about bringing a lot more than just an executional approach. Google’s idea was to take the agony of the online checkout process and put it into the real world. The key in all this is having an inherently funny idea and, if it’s a really great idea, it almost writes itself. And they definitely had that.”
There’s a sort of electricity that comes with [improvisation], because not everyone in the scene quite knows what is going to happen next.
Manson-Smith’s method was to hold auditions and present the situation without any script, and then improvise around it, taking notes and going away to write a script they then shot and edited as a test, before going in once more for the final shoot. Such creative freedom, he says, is unusual. “Google was a great client in that regard, but what you realise is that it is entirely cast-dependent. Some actors are in their element improvising, and others don’t enjoy the process at all – they’re much more interested in interpreting a script.
“Trying to find that alchemy of casting and funny, that clash of types, is hard, because casting is crucial, especially if it is improvised. There’s a sort of electricity that comes with [improvisation], because not everyone in the scene quite knows what is going to happen next. So, people are really listening in a way that sometimes they aren’t when it’s a script. And even if that effect is subtle, it does translate into how the audience leans into something. You have some of the spontaneity of real life in it.” Don’t miss new shots content – sign up to our mailing list.SIGN UP
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Above: Manson-Smith’s two-minute spot for The Joke Appeal.
While spontaneity and real life can be rare commodities in the heavily story-boarded commercials world, for Manson-Smith a 30-second advertising spot has never been a ‘stepping stone’ to something bigger, but an end in itself. “I’d always wanted to work in commercials,” he says. “It was always a space where I wanted to bring out some of these ideas I’d been developing in documentaries and TV series.” And since signing with Presence we’re likely to see a lot more of him in that space. “There’s great comedy work in commercials,” he adds, “work that’s really simple and doesn’t need to be over-egged. Simply executed dialogue pieces, which are really exciting to do, especially when they’re well written and conceived, and you can bring your own great cast to them.”
There’s great comedy work in commercials, work that’s really simple and doesn’t need to be over-egged.
Meanwhile, as the world slowly unbuckles itself from pandemic conditions – Covid-19 must be the world’s biggest ever reality star – Manson-Smith has that ‘huge hoax’ to conjure up with Mark Wootton as head genie. Go on, then, tell us a bit more. “Remember those social experiments that got banned in the 1970s? After they went really wrong?” he says, grinning with relish…
He’ll not be drawn on further details. Just watch this space.
By Tim Cummings. Published in Shots Magazine. Spring 2021.