British Director Sam Baron’s sensitive and hilarious exploration of the fragility of masculinity is something we have come to love here at Directors Notes and so we’re happy to see him continue to mine that rich vein in his latest short Big Ears. After his successful collaboration with Amit Shah on tragicomedy The Orgy, Baron was keen to dive into another project with the actor and build upon the relationship they had built both on and off the screen. Further motivation came from his collaboration last year with fellow DN alum Chloë Wicks on Fragile Package, which proved the effectiveness of the micro-budget short as a way to bypass the obstacles which can often hold filmmakers back from creating new work. Big Ears follows the engaging Shah as health food shop assistant/struggling actor Kaan as he navigates a rather woeful life both personally and professionally, with Baron employing his skills as a writer and director to tread the very fine line between the tragic and the, frankly, awkward hilarity of Kaan’s situation. With Big Ears making its online premiere today we spoke to Baron about exploring the unnecessary yet all too common stoicism of men facing life altering news, drawing from his early work to engage with the character’s feelings and his initial misgivings about presenting Shah with a project highlighting one of his very obvious characteristics.
We’re big fans here at DN of the way you blend genres and I’d say that Big Ears has more drama interlaced in with the comedy than your previous work, where did the idea stem from?
When everything shut down for the pandemic, I busied myself with new writing projects but I found myself missing the human connection that comes from actually filming things with a team of collaborators. I’d had a liberating experience making the micro-budget short film Fragile Package with my friend Chloë Wicks, and I was eager to continue using that process. Finding character-driven stories that can be filmed with a skeleton crew in contained locations that you know you have access to as a way to bypass the usual obstacles that stop filmmakers from actually being able to make films.
I didn’t have a short film idea that would fit this micro-budget model but I remembered my improv teacher telling me, “You don’t need an idea to walk on stage. Just start moving and something will happen.” I knew that Amit Shah was keen for us to make something new together after our excellent experience on The Orgy. I knew we had access to a health food shop that we could film in on a Sunday when it was closed so I asked myself: “Why would Amit be in this shop? I guess he works there. Why does he work there? Well, I want to make an excruciatingly personal film, so let’s make him an actor, and the shop is his day job.”
Because I love putting the flaws of masculinity on-screen, I got excited to tell a story about men who don’t talk about their problems, even to the people closest to them.
This led to the idea of two actors meeting up: one with extremely bad news and one with extremely good news. That felt ripe for comedy. But I didn’t want it to be a sketch. I wanted to make it real. And because I love putting the flaws of masculinity on-screen, I got excited to tell a story about men who don’t talk about their problems, even to the people closest to them; men who stoically suffer in silence (as if that’s going to help anything). I saw how a cancer diagnosis could be the driving force for the main character; the bad news he struggles to share.
Making a short on a micro-budget is never easy, how did you pull together the team and equipment you needed?
I knew that Alistair Little (the brilliant Director of Photography from Fragile Package) had access to an ARRI Amira camera we could borrow. I knew that Amit’s real-life girlfriend Amy Green was a fantastic actress who was overdue a chance to show her skills. And I hoped I could convince my friend Mark Weinman to star alongside them (Mark is an outstanding actor who was in my girlfriend’s short film Sex Ed a few years ago, and he’s also an excellent writer and director himself). I was very happy when they all said yes. Guy Lindley came on board to produce the film with me and Amit, and this core team pushed me to keep rewriting the script. We spoke about experiences we’d each been through: health scares, depression, anxiety, rejection, shame, insecurity; and how we all have close friends and family we’re still afraid to be honest with. These conversations brought us closer together and helped us to develop trust and a common language.
We all felt that sequence needed to feel like the film was going off-piste, untethered from normal story structure and pacing, to keep us all on our toes.
Alistair and I drew on a range of references, from the intimacy and subjectivity of Normal People (which we both loved), to a no-budget short film called Middle Aged that I had made in 2011 when I was 24 years old. That film was also an awkward tragicomedy about isolation, depression, and a pair of male friends struggling to be honest with each other. I’d always felt that it reflected my raw instincts as an independent filmmaker before I’d ever worked in the film industry. As we created our shot plan, Alistair delighted in provoking me to connect with those early instincts: “How would the 24 year old Sam Baron shoot this?”
How has your working relationship developed with Amit through from The Orgy to this project?
I was nervous to send the first draft to Amit. The film is called Big Ears, and it’s clearly written for him. And his ears. Which are… larger than average. A fact we had never discussed. But I knew that he valued being honest, personal and vulnerable in his work, so I took the risk and sent it over. A few hours later, he left me a tearful voice memo saying how deeply he related to the story, and that he wanted to film it as soon as possible. We became friends during The Orgy and stayed close after the film was finished. We supported each other through ups and downs in our personal and professional lives and that connection created a platform for us to make Big Ears as personal as it is. Amit stepped up to be a producer on Big Ears, and he embraced the challenge: everything from creative oversight, to sourcing catering supplies, and schlepping rubber mats to the locations to protect the floors. If The Orgy was our first date, making Big Ears was like getting married. We know and trust each other more than ever. The love is real.
Amit’s commitment to the part was spellbinding, and his attention to detail kept me on my toes. I was stunned by how willing he was to expose the most vulnerable parts of himself – both emotionally and when we filmed a scene of him examining his testicles in the shower. It was amazing to see how he and Mark took the comedic setup of ‘good news/bad news’ and gave it layer upon layer of depth, grounding it in a devastating emotional reality.
That conversation between Kaan and Matt is so awkward and tense, was it all scripted?
That was all scripted, but the beauty of working with great actors like Amit and Mark is that they can bring the material to life in a way that feels like it’s improvised. I probably reminded them to keep listening to each other and to always remember that they don’t know what’s about to happen next. We all felt that sequence needed to feel like the film was going off-piste, untethered from normal story structure and pacing, to keep us all on our toes.
Whilst it is fundamentally a comedy, you have beautifully managed to balance the gravity of Kaan’s fears, how did you achieve that?
I’m a big believer that the line between comedy and tragedy is razor-thin, and a great film should have plenty of both (often at the same time). I always look for maximum comedy when I’m writing, but it has to be organic to the emotional reality of the characters and the story. I never want to go for a joke over the truth, and the brutal truth is usually the funniest thing anyway. And if you’re going after the truth, you’re going to find tragedy too. When it’s time to shoot, I always remind the actors to keep it real, play it deadpan, trust their instincts and feel every moment. We don’t think too much about whether each beat is meant to be funny or sad – we just try to make it all feel real.
Who did you work with on the edit and how smooth of a journey was the post process?
I edited the film myself, and the early cuts came in far too long. I tried shaving them down, but I just couldn’t get the film under 15 minutes. Then someone I showed it to suggested cutting a major subplot from the story. I was convinced they were wrong – we’d spent a whole afternoon shooting that stuff! The climax of that strand was one of the best sequences in the film! And it was essential connective tissue to get from – Oh. Wait. No. The film was stronger without it. The old ‘kill your darlings’ adage. Once it was gone, I didn’t miss it.
I never want to go for a joke over the truth, and the brutal truth is usually the funniest thing anyway.
I turned to my regular Composer Roly Witherow to create an original score for the film, and to Fred Pearson (who I knew from Fragile Package) for the sound design. I love working with the same collaborators on multiple projects because you develop a shorthand and a process that you can hone to fit the quirks of your own tastes and preferences. We couldn’t afford anyone to grade the film, so Alistair and I spent a few days watching YouTube tutorials and did it ourselves on a free copy of DaVinci Resolve in his living room.
What was a highlight from the whole process for you with this project?
We filmed the emotional climax of the film at the end of the last day of the shoot. Not ideal, but we were at the mercy of scheduling requirements. The clock was ticking and the sun was setting, and we only had a few minutes left to get Amy’s heartbreaking final close-up. Before the take I whispered to Amit to forget the script: “Just make stuff up. Tell her stories about how you fell in love with her.” I meant “in character”, but as the camera rolled he opened up about their real-life relationship, recalling real things they’d shared together. Amy trusted her instincts and stayed in the moment, bringing a deep well of genuine emotion to the scene. By the end of the take, we were all in tears. And that was a wrap.
I’ll admit, I’ve been nervous to share the film with the wider world. It’s not a big comedy like The Orgy. It’s an intimate character study; a tender slice of life. And while the story was created to fit the limited resources I had available, looking back I can see that it certainly did end up becoming something excruciatingly personal and confessional. So it’s been wonderful to take it to film festivals and to see audiences connect with it. And most importantly, the process of making it – talking honestly with my collaborators about things that felt vulnerable and exposing, and having to find creative solutions to make something out of nothing – made this one of the most meaningful creative experiences of my life.
The biggest lesson I learned is that I just love making stuff. I love finding my tribe and going on the journey together. So after we wrapped, I promised myself that I would keep using this process to bypass the usual obstacles and greenlight myself. I’m pleased to say that since finishing Big Ears I’ve made another short film with Amit – the climax of our tragicomic trilogy. Tall Dark and Handsome will be hitting film festivals next year.
Is there still a TV series idea from the films you’ve made with Amit and if so, what are the next steps?
We’re still developing The Orgy as a series, and we also have a brand new series idea that I’ll write and direct, and Amit will star in. It’s early days, but we have a strong concept that we love, and a huge amount of personal material ready to pour into it.
As someone who is always toiling, what are you working on next?
I’m excited to take our new short film Tall Dark and Handsome’ to film festivals next year, as well as to start developing the new series idea with Amit. I’ve also got several other micro-budget short films in the pipeline, and I have a few feature and TV projects which are tantalisingly close to going into production – hopefully more news on that soon!