Benjamin Caron on Sharper, The Crown and the importance of the pub


Benjamin Caron is discombobulated. It’s the week that Sharper, his debut feature film as a director, is being released on Apple TV+ and the English filmmaker has spent countless hours speaking to the world’s press about the psychological thriller — which stars Julianne Moore, Sebastian Stan, and John Lithgow, and tells the story of a young con-artist taking on Manhattan billionaires.

While Caron has previously directed various episodes of some of the most popular television shows of the last decade — Skins, The Crown, Sherlock, Andor — this is the first time he’s ever had to do interviews on such a large scale. Speaking about himself, or even his projects, in such a detailed manner had never crossed Caron’s mind when he initially decided to become a director.

“Far from it. I’ve done some interviews before, but nothing like this,” Caron says over Zoom. “In many ways, it’s like when you first sit down with the studio, the actors, and the heads of departments to discuss your thoughts, the tone, and your vision for the film. I’ve already been communicating that for two years.”

Having delivered Sharper to Apple TV+ and A24 before Christmas, Caron is candid about having to rewatch the film and go back over his notes ahead of this media cycle. It’s refreshing to hear a director being so honest and vulnerable. Many want to present themselves as intense and professional. But Caron is an anomaly.

First of all, he was raised above a West Midlands pub. “You read lots of stories about directors being given Super 8 cameras when they were eight years old and suddenly realising that they want to be a filmmaker,” he says. “I grew up in the Black Country. I grew up in a pub. I was told by my careers teacher that I was either going to be a lawyer or join the army. Being a director just wasn’t in my brain.”

The television was constantly on, though. With his parents working in the pub below, “the TV was the babysitter for my sister and I.” As a result, Caron was exposed to a diet of classic British films, like Rita, Bob, And Sue, Too, and the Merchant Ivory movies, mixed in with mainstream Hollywood fare from Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis.

Looking back, Caron is able to join the dots that led him to a career behind the camera. During his GCSEs, he became fascinated by photography, performing arts and English. He also became a leader in the cadets, too. “When you look at those four things — acting, drama, photography and leading people ­— it makes sense that I’d become a film director.”

I suggest that being raised in a pub might also have been an influence. After all, at locals across the country tales of tragedy, humor and heartache play out every weekend. “I saw everything in that place,” Caron agrees. “There were tears, fights, love, and just high emotions. Especially when you throw alcohol into the mix. It was a big part of my upbringing. It could be difficult, though. Very lonely. You sometimes saw things that no child should really be seeing.”

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Caron on the set of Sharper with Sebastian Stan and Briana Middleton

It was Hal Ashby’s dark romantic comedy Harold And Maude that really opened Caron’s eyes to the possibilities and wonders of filmmaking. “Something about it just spoke to me. Especially that opening scene with Cat Stevens,” he says. Caron was travelling the world at the time and, upon his return to the UK, was supposed to either study law or join the Royal Marines. He ditched both and plunged headfirst into a career in the arts.

Caron’s took the first steps on this path at Homerton College, Cambridge; a teacher-training college where he met and collaborated with students at the distinguished university it was part of. This included working with members of the renowned Footlights amateur dramatics club, which has launched the careers of some of Britain’s best-loved talents, including Peter Cook, Eric Idle, Hugh Laurie, David Mitchell, and John Oliver, to name but a few.

Even after he’d finished his studies, a career as a director still seemed like a pipedream. A chance meeting with producer Kate Walker, however, secured Caron a job on iconic 1990’s morning show The Big Breakfast. Soon he was making short segments for broadcast. By 25, Caron was directing The Big Breakfast’s replacement RI:SE, all with the intention of one day moving into movies.

“I was directing light entertainment documentaries, music videos, commercials, and going on training courses,” he recalls. “I had to make a short film but I just didn’t have the money to do it. I had to pay rent.” After directing a one-hour special on illusionist Derren Brown entitled The Heist, which was nominated for a BAFTA, Caron got an agent.

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The cast of Sharper at the UK premiere

However, far from being his big break, the first gig presented to him by said agent was an episode of Hollyoaks. Rather than being disgruntled, Caron took it as a challenge. “I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to make the best Hollyoaks episode possible’. I dragged all the actors in on their day off to rehearse. They really hated me. Eventually, though, they were like, ‘Okay, this is fun’.”

Slowly but surely, Caron began to work on more prestigious projects. He’d set his sights on making his first movie by the age of 25, just like Spielberg, but with the continued success of The Crown, Sherlock, and Andor his priorities shifted and Caron found himself smack bang in the middle of the Golden Age of TV. “The television landscape changed. The streaming universe now had the ambition and budgets that were in the movie world. Plus, there were writers like Peter Morgan and Tony Gilroy. I was really lucky to be in the right place at the right time.”

Caron could have left The Crown after the first season, especially as the dream of directing a feature film was still lurking in the back of his mind. Instead, he stayed on until season four because he knew the show was “setting the standard for everyone else… I wanted to be a part of it as much as possible.” By the time he eventually left in 2020, he had directed 11 episodes.

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On set with John Lithgow

When Caron was approached about directing Sharper it finally felt like the right time to make his first movie, after nearly two decades of “plugging away and working really hard” to get where he wanted. The allure of A24 and Apple TV+, along with Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka’s script and the involvement of an award-worthy cast, meant Caron just couldn’t resist.

“It’s a really smart, funny, sexy, character-driven original movie,” he says. “It felt like a throwback to movies that I love from the 1970s. I loved all the twists and reveals. I liked how mischievous it was.”

His eclectic past meant that Caron was perfectly placed to inject Sharper with his own unique perspective. “I’ve never done anything to the level of the characters, but I could relate to the deception in it. I loved that I could bring an outsider sensibility to this story about people trying to enter and pass through different worlds. I understood it.”

Sharper is available to stream on Apple TV+ from 17 February 2023.

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