For all the twists and turns in Sharper, what stands out the most is the film’s aesthetic: often beautiful to observe but also diverse in its rendering of different sections of its New York setting. Director Benjamin Caron and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen (The Hunt, A Quiet Place) tap into the labyrinthian quality of the space. There are secrets in alleys and skyscrapers alike.

What a pleasure it was, then, to speak with Caron about the decisions behind these choices. Not to mention the challenges of directing an A-list cast of actors while maintaining the illusions inherent in a confidence game.

The Film Stage: How does this movie come together? How do you find yourself directing all these great people in this cool movie?

Benjamin Caron: I was finishing working on Andor and I had a film that that we were going to make in the [United Kingdom] with Vanessa Kirby, but because of the pandemic it was becoming very difficult to make independent films in the U.K. for all sorts of reasons––including insurance––and my agent was sending me scripts that he thought were… you know, they have the most impossible job because they have to try and work out the kind of film that you might want to do next. And I give them very little direction. I’m mainly like, “I just want great writing. Great writing, great writing, great writing. It all starts there.” And they sent me Sharper. Sometimes when you get sent the script it says if it’s set up (at a studio), where it is set up (which studio), and who is maybe––if anyone––attached. And [for Sharper] it had A24, it had Apple, and it had Julianne Moore… and so already you’re like “Okay, well, that’s got the senses going!” It was late at night and I started reading [the script] in full honestly thinking “Oh, I’ll just start and then, you know, maybe I’ll pick it up tomorrow.” And then 90 minutes later I just sat back blinking and I inhaled it––and it was smart, it was funny, it was character-driven, and it was original. And it was everything that I was looking for but didn’t know it.

That all makes a lot of sense. So as you’re coming into this as a visual storyteller, are there con movies that you love, that you’re wanting to avoid seeming like or that you’re wanting to pay homage to? Are you worried about redundancy?

It’s really hard because the last thing you want to be is a copycat of something else that someone has done. I have no interest in doing that. But films are a kind of long conversation that you’re becoming a part of, and often when I start out of projects, I might go and remind myself of [films]. The Sting, for instance, I went back and watched that again, with Redford and Newman. That was the first film I remembered that was vaguely the kind of type of film Sharper was. I watched The Thomas Crown Affair and The Color of Money, but then maybe something that wasn’t necessarily in this wheelhouse. One of my favorite films is Klute and I just loved the look and the mood and the feeling of that movie and, again, that was shot in New York. I was watching that in an arthouse theater in Cambridge [Massachusetts] in the late 90s and being really struck by the way that Gordon Willis had lit that film and the framing of it and the naturalism in it, and the mood in the thing.

So I was like “Okay, maybe there’s something in there that we could try and hold onto.” So you talk to the people you have come onboard, whether it be a designer or your cinematographer. We had a screening of Klute, actually, at MoMA. We managed to get a 35mm print and we invited all the cast and sat down and was like, “You know, there’s an essence of this. I just love the flavor of this.” And as a filmmaker that’s all you really want to be able to do: try and help everyone know the kind of film that they are making and being part of. And sometimes you need a kind of shorthand, and that can be another film. It could be a picture, it could be a piece of art, it can be anything like that. You’re just trying to give them an essence of it.

With Sharper, you do a great job capturing the literal highs and lows of the metropolis. And I think with a setting like New York, not unlike the subgenre of con films, it’s been done every single way. When you’re talking to your DP, that visual language––without giving much away––there are a lot of different [narrative angles] in the film. When you’re talking creatively, are you focusing on each part of the story and how each thing will look? How it’ll be different, one section to the next? A different lens here? A bit harsher there?

I mean, yes: everything is deliberate. Every choice you make is deliberate. It has to be. I’m English, so I bring a slightly outsider’s point of view to this story about people who are trying to enter and pass through things. This is a New York movie to the bones. It’s a city that operates at the sharp end of the American dream. It’s a transactional city that, in a few short decades, has become the heart of market capitalism. There’s something about the chasm between the rich and the poor. It’s a city that venerates these types of people and I thought these [characters] could only live and exist there. The opening chapter [of the film] was a very deliberate choice of a kind of mood and a feel of that. It’s like if Richard Curtis had come to New York and we were making a slightly indie version of Notting Hill there, you know, we start in a bookshop. Boy meets a girl, girl meets boy, they fall in love…

But there’s some Gordon Willis going on there too!

Yeah, of course. I mean: that’s because I love photography as much as I do filmmaking. I just respond to Gordon’s films and there is something about that. I talked to [DP Charlotte Bruus Christensen] a lot about that, and thankfully she loved the feeling of that and that we were going to shoot on 35mm and she was really experienced, and thankfully the studio supported us. I remember watching Uncut Gems and Good Time and I thought, “The way that the Safdie Brothers shot New York, the energy that they managed to capture was so perfect for the kind of film that they were making.” I thought “Well, if we’re going to make a sort of neo-noir-y thriller and not a postcard version of New York [we have to] stay away from the classic shots.” It’s a bit like when Tomas Alfredson shot Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The way that he shot London was extraordinary. As someone who lived in London, I’d never seen London shot in that way.

So I thought “Well, that’s kind of what I’d love to do as an outsider coming into New York.” Look at it through a slightly different lens than if you were American or even from New York City. And one other thing which you were sort of alluding to: when I was 22 years old I managed to slightly blag my way to New York for the first time ever. I couldn’t afford to go to New York, but if you ran for a charity and you raised enough money for charity, they would fly to New York. So some friends and I raised enough money for charity and we got a free flight to New York.

Then I had to run a marathon, which basically meant I couldn’t walk for about seven days. So I’d run through all five boroughs in New York, but I couldn’t actually see any of New York because I couldn’t walk for seven days. [Laughs] But I remember the experience of first arriving in New York City and feeling that feeling of claustrophobia and the feeling of not really seeing horizons. It was sort of restricted horizons through buildings. And I thought that feeling of claustrophobia was really good for the larger part of this movie in terms of where these sort of characters operate.

And it’s cool how you open up the movie visually at a certain point…

Well, that was slightly borrowed from Se7en

Sure. Yes, that plateau and that edition of a clear horizon is unsettling here, right?

It’s two things––again, not trying to give too much away––but it’s two things. One: New York was a big character in the film up until that point. And at that moment in the film I didn’t want the location to be a character anymore. Because originally I think it was written in––and I mean sometimes these [settings] are placeholders and writers are waiting for directors to come on to [adjust]––I think it was written to be in a warehouse. And we were like, “We can’t do a warehouse that’s too cliche.” And the writers freely admitted that. But we were going “Well, where can it be?” And any location we came upon, it just felt that, again, it was a character, and I remember talking to Charlotte about it and was like “Well, what if we just remove the location as a character?”

And then I think we talked about Se7en. We were like “Well, actually, if you put it in an open space, there’s nowhere for the characters to hide.” They are all exposed and there’s nowhere to run for. And we’ve removed the location as a character. And also perspective. In that moment it was a deliberate choice to remove perspective because up until that act it’s been pretty pure in terms of the perspective of the character that you’re following. And in that moment there, those stabilizers are taken off and you’re left to work out whose story you’re actually with and who can you trust and who you can’t trust.

You have almost all of your lead actors playing two different characters in a way. And obviously you’re a director of images, but you’re also a director of actors. Are you just letting each talented actor do their thing, or is there too much machinery in the narrative to let that happen? Do you have to keep everyone on-point more than you normally would?

They will admit to you early on there was sometimes a temptation to show too much because, as an actor, what an amazing opportunity it is to be going “Okay, well: in one way I’m playing this, but then behind that, I’m playing something else.” And I think, as an audience, we’re incredibly smart and savvy even when you don’t want to get your spidey senses going. So we all had to protect the intention of that character in that moment and to play that in the moment, understanding that if someone else in the room could have seen that, you have to guard against that. In a weird way you’ve got to go back to when I first read the script. You’re reading this story and all of those twists and turns were so brilliantly delicious that you want to hold onto the integrity of that.

Sharper is now in theaters and arrives on Apple TV+ on Friday.

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