‘Sharper’ Director Benjamin Caron Talks His Twisty Feature Debut and Making ‘Andor’ Stormtroopers Competent

A number of recent releases have flown under the radar due to the hustle and bustle of Oscar season, and Benjamin Caron’s Sharper is among those titles that warrants your attention. 

Released last month on Apple TV+, Caron’s feature directorial debut stars Julianne Moore and Sebastian Stan, as well as John Lithgow, Justice Smith and Briana Middleton. And while it’s best to go into the thriller completely blind, it chronicles a New York City-based confidence game that affects a number of interconnected characters. The story’s underbelly hit somewhat close to home for the filmmaker as he was able to draw on experiences from his childhood in the Midlands of England.

Because the film is most rewarding without the foreknowledge of con artists being involved, Caron was rather protective of the film’s marketing campaign. In fact, he even suggested a trailer that would include misdirection in the form of a rom-com.

“Right at the very beginning, I said to Apple and A24, ‘I don’t know how you are going to make a trailer for this film.’ Thank God they didn’t do this, but I was like, ‘You should pitch it as a romantic comedy.’ So [marketing] is a really hard job, and I’m really glad that’s not what I have to do,” Caron tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Sharper may be Caron’s first feature film, but the Emmy winner has had a storied career on the small screen, directing such shows as The Crown, Sherlock and Skins. He most recently helmed three episodes of the critically acclaimed Andor, including its explosive season one finale, “Rix Road.”

During Maarva Andor’s (Fiona Shaw) funeral procession, her pre-recorded holographic speech inspired the Ferrix locals to rise up against Imperial occupation, and the deadly conflict featured some rather unusual behavior for a Star Wars story, as the typically incompetent Stormtroopers were surprisingly effective and intimidating. Their blaster rifle accuracy was also the most accurate it’s ever been, and it turns that there’s a good reason for this.

“While I was developing [an SAS origin story], I met a one-star general, who was basically in charge of the SAS. And so when I came on to Star Wars, I phoned him up and said, ‘I don’t think the Stormtroopers look like an elite force of troopers … I want you to come and give me some military advice,’” Caron shares.

Caron adds: “So this guy and his sergeant major, who had basically been in every known and unknown conflict around the world since the 1980s, were on set with me every day when we were filming those big scenes in Ferrix.”

Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Caron also discusses the long road to his first feature film in Sharper, as well as the war film that served as reference point for him and Andor creator, Tony Gilroy.

Well, I first heard about Sharper from Tony Gilroy. He told me that he tried to get you back for Andor season two, but this movie prevented you from doing so. Did the eventual critical acclaim for that show make that scheduling conflict a bit more main painful in hindsight?

It’s always difficult leaving a party at the most exciting moment, but what can you do? (Laughs.) I’d much rather be a part of a very exciting party than not at all, but I think Tony is amazing. The brilliance he brought to that show was amazing. Michael Clayton is one of my all-time favorite movies, and the chance to work with him was just a gift. So it’s bittersweet, I’d say.

Benjamin Caron on the set of Sharper

Courtesy of Apple TV+

You’re certainly an experienced director, but Sharper is your feature directorial debut. How did the stars finally align?

Well, I’d been trying to make a feature film for the last 20 years of my life. There’d been a lot of wanting, willing and praying that one day I’d get to make a feature film, and I got lots of practice in the world of television. And that world changed when I was in it. The landscape exploded, and the streaming world made it so that the ambition, talent and budgets of the feature film world were a part of the television world. So I was making television shows that had the ambition of feature films, and a brilliant drama like The Crown, which I had the best time on, delayed my timing of making a feature film. But after four successful seasons on The Crown, I knew that it was time to leave and try to be in the running for feature films. 

I was about to make another film in the U.K. with Vanessa Kirby, but then the pandemic happened and everything changed. It was difficult to get insurance for a smaller budget film, and then Andor came along. So I pivoted from making a historical period drama to a sci-fi adventure with a completely different type of directing. And while that was happening, my agent Dan Aloni sent me Sharper, and he represented Picturestart’s Erik Feig, who’s one of the producers. He used to run Lionsgate. So Erik had been brought on by Julianne Moore because Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka’s script had been brought to her. She saw that there was a great part and wanted to do it, and then Apple and A24 came on board. So I got sent the script knowing that it was a Julianne Moore, Apple and A24 project, and I just inhaled it. 

So I wasn’t playing hard to get, but I was like, “I want to do this film, but I can’t do it right now because I’ve got this other project that I want to do.” And so we went through this funny dance. I’d keep meeting with more people on it, like the studio, Julianne and the writers, but the other project was just beginning to gain traction. It was January 2021, and then Erik phoned me up and said, “Look, we’ve got Julianne Moore, A24 and Apple. It’s green-lit. All other casting approvals are yours. This is your film. All you need to do is say yeah.”

And so it was this dream moment that you want to hear as a director. They had a date, and it was fully financed. That moment that I’ve wanted all my life was there. But for the respect of the people that I was working on the other project with, I had to say to them, “I’m really sorry, but I can’t do this right now.” And that was painful because I put so much time into it, but this was just an amazing opportunity.

Julianne Moore in

Julianne Moore in Sharper, now streaming on Apple TV+.

Courtesy of Apple TV+

Streaming and theatrical are often pit against each other, but I’m grateful for streamers because they’ve gone out of their way to make genres that the major studios are no longer prioritizing, such as more grown-up fare.

I agree with that.

Is that also the impression you got from Apple and A24 in regard to Sharper?

I have to be careful, but I did know that Apple was at the beginning of filling their shelf of prestige movies. It actually felt very much like the beginning of The Crown on Netflix. It felt like there was the same atmosphere of, “We want to invest in filmmakers and we want to invest in their vision.” And then right from the very beginning to all the way through, they were incredibly supportive. I don’t think I’ll ever have a better experience again. I was pretty much left to my own devices, which is a great thing. It’s also terrifying because you’re probably putting your head on the block. But I didn’t have the responsibility of the box office. I wasn’t going to wake up on a Monday and go, “Oh my God, how many people have gone to the cinema to see this film?” And so it was a bit of a relief. The cinema landscape is very different right now. It’s like the world has had a big stroke, and it’s sort of trying to figure out how to walk again. So it was nice not to be exposed to that, and for the studio, that’s maybe not as important to them. To your point, they just want the freedom to go and make films that maybe don’t live and die by box office numbers.

This movie chronicles a few con artists and their victims. Did you have any con-artist consultants, if you will, to advise and whatnot?

I think the writers consulted a few during the writing of Sharper. There’s a scene in a hotel room with Max [Sebastian Stan] and Sandra [Briana Middleton], and that was based on a really old con from the ‘40s called “The Lonely Hearts Con.” That was very prevalent as single men in hotels were taken advantage of, and so a lot of those real-life cons were drawn upon by the writers and incorporated into the film. 

I grew up in a pub in the Midlands [of England], and there were lots of individuals there who would come in and I would call them “Del Boys.” There’s a very famous television show in the U.K. called Only Fools and Horses, and it was about [an older brother nicknamed “Del Boy”] and [his much younger half-brother] who were opportunists and were always trying to make a quick buck. And growing up, I saw a lot of those characters that would come in and out of the pub. So it was something that I knew a little bit about, and when I think about conning, it’s more about deception.

And that’s one of the defining features of the movie. The film is less interested in crime and more interested in how people talk and flirt and lie and impersonate and connive in order to get what they want. And look at how pervasive cheating and lying has now become in the world, with fake news everywhere. People can go online and create profiles that give false impressions of who they really are, and so I think everything has to be questioned.

Sebastian Stan and Briana Middleton in

Sebastian Stan and Briana Middleton in Sharper, now streaming on Apple TV+.

Courtesy of Apple TV+

In the opening act, a character is conned, and as the viewer, I saw it coming before the character did. Did you want us to get ahead of the character, or did you want us to find out at the same time?

I tried to bottle the integrity of the moments that surprised me in the script and deliver them in the film. So before the end of the first act, I started to suspect that the relationship wasn’t everything that it said it was. But I didn’t know what the script was coming into it, so the surprises all depend on if you know this is a con movie or not. If you know, then you’re alerted in a way that I don’t think is helpful to the film. If I’d known before reading it, then maybe I would’ve looked out for it in different ways.

When we did the test screening in March or April of last year, those are the big questions you’re trying to find out from people, and one out of every ten people in that audience saw some of the reveals happening before they did. So there’s always going to be a small collection of people that do see it because they’re tuned into it. They’re just hardwired to see these things coming. So my job, as the filmmaker, was to try and distract you as much as possible from what kind of film this is and draw you into the drama so that you forget that there’s something to suspect.

Was marketing this film rather complicated since so much of the experience depends on unfamiliarity? 

Right at the very beginning, I said to Apple and A24, “I don’t know how you are going to make a trailer for this film.” Thank God they didn’t do this, but I was like, “You should pitch it as a romantic comedy.” (Laughs.) And they were like, “No, no, we can’t do that.” So that’s why I don’t work in marketing. But they did a trailer first up, and it was way too revealing. And then they came back with something that I thought was still too revealing to my taste, but it’s just part of the process. I think a lot of the people now don’t want to read anything about movies. They don’t want to see a trailer. They just want to go in completely fresh, which is what I like to do. I always think that you get the best out of it that way. Summing up a movie in two minutes is always going to give you a slightly different feeling or taste. So it’s a really hard job, and I”m really glad that’s not what I have to do. 

Briana Middleton and Justice Smith in

Briana Middleton and Justice Smith in Sharper, now streaming on Apple TV+.

Courtesy of Apple TV+

You can probably tell a good performance from a bad one at this point, so do you think you could identify a con artist more easily than others?

No, I think we’re all susceptible. For instance, if you said to me that I’ve got the next James Bond movie and that Barbara Broccoli is on the phone because she really wants me to make the film, I’d want to believe you. So, as long as you find that thing that makes you start looking through things with rose-tinted glasses, then we’re all susceptible and gullible. So I’d like to think I’m better than most, but I’m also aware that there’s some really good con artists out there.

It’s amazing that my favorite Star Wars story since the ‘80s was spearheaded by a number of people who weren’t lifelong Star Wars fans. Tony also told me that he urged the fans he did hire to put their reverence aside. So when he hired you, could you tell that his interest was piqued by the fact that you weren’t a die-hard fanatic?

Well, I was a Star Wars fan when I was a kid. I’d seen the first three that became the middle three, but I hadn’t seen the George Lucas [prequels]. I also hadn’t seen the later ones. So I was like, “If you’re going to ask me a question about the Star Wars legacy, then I have no idea.” And Tony was like, “This is great. I don’t want Star Wars fans. I just want really good storytellers whose work I admire, and who understand why I’m telling this story and what’s exciting about it.” And I said, “Okay, great! Because I am a big fan of yours. Michael Clayton is one of my all-time favorite films, and I loved what you did with Jason Bourne.” And then we talked about the character of Cassian [Diego Luna] and this incredible journey that he was going to go on.

He was like, “What was Che Guevara like before he became Che Guevara?” So it was about how this individual who was a bit lost and just trying to make a quick buck could start believing in something bigger than himself, and that would be the start of a rebellion. Tony is a brilliant, brilliant mind. He’d been listening to all of these various podcasts about the fall and rise of different empires, and the machinations that can be orchestrated to begin a rebellion. So that’s what he was interested in, and we just talked about that and point of view. Tony also talks a lot about the idea of protein [in regard to storytelling]. Sugar might give you a big rush, but afterwards, it doesn’t leave you feeling satisfied. Whereas if you’re eating protein, you may not get an instant high, but you are going to get something deeper and richer if you’ve invested the time.

I worked together with the producer Sanne Wohlenberg on Wallander, and I guess she told Tony what kind of filmmaker I was. I actually pitched him a reference for the last episode. One of my favorite films is The Battle of Algiers, and I was like, “There’s something about your writing that feels similar to that.” And he was like, “Yeah, that’s it! I’ve gotta go back and watch that.” And so we just jammed about how great that film is and how much of that flavor and texture we could get from it. So that became a big reference point for the [season one] finale where the locals rise up against the Empire.


Fiona Shaw in the season one finale of Andor


So I heard the story about having Fiona Shaw drop a big F-bomb to conclude her final monologue, but you ultimately had to go with the line, “Fight the Empire!” Is there anything else you’ve been wanting to share from your time on Andor

I was lucky to have one of Denise Gough’s first days on set as Dedra, and she’s talked a bit about this, so she won’t be angry with me. This was actually in episode seven. She had this monologue that was half a page long, and as a professional, Denise had prepared the night before. But unfortunately, when she stepped on set, all the words just vanished, and so we just cut. And I said, “We’re going to leave it, and we’ll come back.” 

This was something that I [encountered] when working on Sherlock with Benedict [Cumberbatch]. He had these huge long monologues, and early on, I remember him struggling with lots and lots of words. And somebody said, “You’ve just gotta hit this at pace. You’ve gotta hit this really hard.” And I remember saying to Denise that the only way through this is pace. “Pace is going to be your friend.” So she went away for a couple days, and I think she also spoke to Jodie Whittaker, who played Dr. Who. And she said exactly the same thing about learning it fast and just hitting it. 

And when Denise came back to set, we had one of those scenes in the politburo with Anton Lesser, and she had this takedown of one of the other characters. And she hit it with such force to prove herself to Anton Lesser’s character. She just nailed it. And at the end of that whole monologue, the entire floor just applauded because it was amazing. Suddenly, Dedra had arrived.

In the finale, you actually made Stormtroopers intimidating. They also had the best aim they’ve ever had in Star Wars.

Before I came on board to Andor, I had a feature film project that I was hopefully going to make about the origins of the SAS [British Army Special Air Service], but a television series [SAS: Rogue Heroes] by Steven Knight beat us to it. I don’t think it killed it, but for me, it slightly took the air out of it. Anyway, while I was developing that, I met a one-star general, who was basically in charge of the SAS. And so when I came on to Star Wars, I phoned him up and said, “I don’t think the Stormtroopers look like an elite force of troopers. The way they operate doesn’t have that professionalism.” And he said, “Is this a joke?” And I went, “No, I’m being serious. I’m working on Star Wars.” And he went, “I’m the biggest Star Wars fan in the world. When I got married, I walked up the aisle to Darth Vader’s Imperial March.” And I was like, “Wow, that’s pretty strong. I want you to come and give me some military advice.”

So this guy and his sergeant major, who had basically been in every known and unknown conflict around the world since the 1980s, were on set with me every day when we were filming those big scenes in Ferrix. And what was brilliant was that they gave me the know-how of taking real-world skills and translating them into the Star Wars universe. So they would take the Stormtroopers and show them how to clear a street, and it actually reminded me a bit of the amazing firefight in Michael Mann’s Heat. That’s what I wanted in Star Wars, and they spent weeks with me. All of the actors liked having those guys around because as an actor, you want to hang your coat on something real. So when I watch it back, I’m really proud of what these military advisers created for the world and the way the soldiers moved and blockaded the street. 

It’s easy to forget it, but those uniforms are really terrifying. So, for four weeks, I got to blow up Stormtroopers, and bear in mind, this was the first time I got to properly do action sequences. I had 60 stunt people, and it was amazing. I’d basically gone from working on a classical piece of music to heavy metal. When I blew up my last Stormtrooper in the morning, I then had this scene that didn’t actually make the cut. It was between Stellan Skarsgard and Alex Ferns on the steps, and it’s now a better and more profound moment of [Ferns’ character Linus Mosk] on the steps alone. So we ran the scene, and I’d almost forgotten how to direct drama after blowing stuff up for so long. I was snow-blind from all the action that I’d lost the receptors for drama, and they just laughed. Luckily, they were old enough and good enough that we worked our way through it.

Lastly, are you going to stick with features if at all possible? Or are you open to wherever the best story takes you? 

I came into television at a time when people in film slightly looked down on people in television. So I’m just happy that the two worlds have suddenly crossed over, and wherever I work, I just want to work with great writers and great stories. And I’m so fortunate now that I can hopefully choose the next project, whether that be in television or in feature films.

Sharper is now available on Apple TV+. This interview was edited for length and clarity

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