A film release we’ve been eagerly awaiting here at DN, director Sam Baron concludes his joyous tragicomedy shorts trilogy starring Amit Shah with Tall Dark and Handsome. Beginning with The Orgy and then followed by Big Ears, all three films delve into a shared exploration of modern masculinity and the fragility that lies within with humour, nuance and a sensitivity you might not expect from the comedy genre. Tall Dark and Handsome, co-written by Shah, examines the complexity of identities, drawing upon both the writer/actor’s experiences in cross-cultural relationships and the insecurities that can sometimes arise. We invited Baron back to Directors Notes the speak to us about Shah’s intricate and detailed approach to the script which ensured every word served the story, his love of using comedy to explore some of the more complex and difficult issues in our lives and incorporating a darker more psychological side to his protagonist’s outwardly comic portrayal.
I love this finale to your trilogy with Amit Shah, how did the story and film develop in light of what came before with The Orgy and Big Ears?
I was in Bristol for the filming of the BBC series Chloe, and Amit was there to film the ITV show The Long Call. We met up for a walk one afternoon, and as Amit stepped out to the street, he nearly knocked over Christopher Walken who was there to film The Outlaws (top tip: if you want to work in TV production, move to Bristol). It must be good luck when a Walken crosses your path because while we were out for our stroll we had the idea for Tall Dark and Handsome. We’d been talking about our lives and our relationships; about how our identities affect how we’re viewed, and why we choose the partners we do. We were discussing the paranoia of comparing yourself to your partner’s exes when the idea struck: what if Amit played a man who discovers his girlfriend has a history of dating “men like him”?
We were immediately intrigued by the question of “what’s okay and what’s not?”. What counts as a healthy interest in moving away from your homogenous little bubble to broaden your horizons, and when does it become a fetishisation of someone else’s culture? We saw how this could set off a spiral of insecurity which would escalate things to an outrageous degree and threaten to unravel the entire relationship, stirring up provocative questions and taking the audience to uncomfortable edges, whilst always rooting the story in truthful dynamics and vulnerabilities that we knew intimately. We quickly recorded a voice memo, riffing on the idea and making each other laugh, and within minutes we had tons of jokes and many of the key lines the characters throw at each other in the big argument scene. We knew this was our next film.
I was curious to try playing against that, to take him into edgier territory where viewers might find their sympathy with his character tested.
We had been wanting to build on the style we had established in The Orgy and Big Ears, and we were keen to push our exploration of the flaws of modern masculinity further. Amit has an inherent ‘goodness’ to him, the audience can’t help but sense his big heart and root for him, so I was curious to try playing against that, to take him into edgier territory where viewers might find their sympathy with his character tested. I’d been impressed by a darkly funny short film called The Devil’s Harmony which had won the Jury Prize at Sundance, so I sent the script to Nathan Craig who produced that film. Nathan loved the boldness of what we were going for and pushed me to be as ambitious as possible with the design of the film, just as Tilly Coulson had done with me on The Orgy.
I had loved shooting Fragile Package and Big Ears with Alistair Little, and he was excited by the visual possibilities in this new project, so he joined our team, along with Sofia Stocco who had done a stellar job of production designing The Orgy. We also brought back casting queen Lauren Evans, who had followed up her work on The Orgy with the global mega-hit Sex Education. The last thing Lauren needed to do was a short film, but she’s the bomb and agreed to help. Lauren had cast Laura Aikman as Amit’s ex-fiancé when we did a table-read for The Orgy TV series, and Laura was outstanding, so I was thrilled when she agreed to star opposite Amit in Tall Dark and Handsome. With our core team set, we started filling up every remaining role with outrageously talented people, we even had one of my favourite emerging directors Ben Hector as a runner (when Alistair Little heard this, he teased me mercilessly: “What’s next? Do you want Martin Scorsese doing the catering?”)
How has your working relationship with Amit Shah developed through the making of the films and your direction of his always engaging performances?
Amit and I became friends during The Orgy and stayed close after the shoot was finished. We’ve supported each other through ups and downs in our real lives, and that has created trust and safety that allows us to go deeper and ever more personal in the stories we tell.
We connect as people. We talk as people. We try to bring the parts of ourselves that we feel most vulnerable about.
Amit stepped up from being an actor in The Orgy to being a producer on Big Ears, to now being a co-writer on Tall Dark and Handsome. He has always been forensic in his script analysis, he’s like a scientist, every word and pause needs to make sense to him, and he brought this meticulous eye to the script development process. By the time we got to set, I hardly needed to direct him as he had such a clear understanding of everything. I’m very proud that when you look at the three films, you see both of us reflected in them. That’s how we work. We connect as people. We talk as people. We try to bring the parts of ourselves that we feel most vulnerable about. We push each other to be as honest as possible, knowing that we each love what the other can bring. And we trust that if we reveal ourselves in our work, the audience will hopefully relate to it too.
Through the veil of race, the film really focuses on deep-seated insecurities. How did you write the comedy into such a sensitive exploration?
I’ve always enjoyed tackling complex subjects, from sexuality in The Orgy to mortality in Big Ears. It’s never for shock value, it’s because I believe the best comedy comes from inviting viewers to face what Jung might call our ‘shadow’ sides: the areas we splinter off from regular life because acknowledging them means accepting the parts of ourselves that we’re most afraid of. It’s a delicate line to tread, but if you approach these toe-curling topics with authentic curiosity, and if you’re willing to get really vulnerable, you can use the audience’s discomfort to build tension and get bigger laughs because they feel safe knowing that the comedy is rooted in universal insecurities and our shared humanity.
I believe the best comedy comes from inviting viewers to face what Jung might call our ‘shadow’ sides: the areas we splinter off from regular life.
This film is ultimately a personal story into which Amit and I both poured so much of ourselves. I come from a family which was a mix of two different cultures, so I grew up feeling the impact that can have on a relationship, and a family, yet naturally, I was nervous to direct a story set within a culture other than my own. I’m so grateful to Amit, as well as our brilliant cast members Shobu Kapoor, Sagar Radia and Bhasker Patel, for giving me their input and trust as we all collaborated on getting the details right. Their nuanced perspectives and ideas were invaluable. We ended up winning the Audience Award at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, which meant a huge amount.
We knew we wanted the film to have a darkly paranoid edge to it, drawing on psychological horror and conspiracy thriller elements in the visual language as Amit’s character’s insecurity grows and his world threatens to fall apart.
The pacing is spot on in the first part where Varun can’t get the obsession out of his head about how many Indian guys Ellie has dated. Talk us through the planning of those integral moments.
Most of my premises start off as comedy sketch ideas, before I go deeper into them and explore the character drama beneath, so that first section is really just us relishing the comedic escalation of the premise, seeing how far we can take it, jumping through time to cherry-pick the funniest moments, trusting the audience to fill in the blanks, and building up the momentum and tension so that the dinner party feels as loaded as possible. We knew we wanted the film to have a darkly paranoid edge to it, drawing on psychological horror and conspiracy thriller elements in the visual language as Amit’s character’s insecurity grows and his world threatens to fall apart.
I’d been inspired by Alistair’s cinematography in Fragile Package, and I was excited to have some fun mirroring the character’s breakdown with our camera. We planned special moments like the Steadicam shot in the park, which slowly moves around to isolate Amit as the sound fades out; and the low-angle zoom-in on him at the end of the Christmas scene as the tension crescendos. Our focus puller Anil Duru had some key beats to hit, like the sudden shift to Amit in the living room which had to match perfectly with the performance. Luckily Anil is a master craftsman and he nailed the timing without a rehearsal.
The whole film feels lived-in showing the everyday of their situation. What camera did you use and how did you build that comfortable world?
We shot the film on an ARRI Amira, which Alistair operated himself. He lit the interiors to feel warm and cosy, in direct contrast to the cool blues outside, which makes the house feel like a home and enhances the emotional stakes for both lead characters as their dream life as a happy family is put on the line. Production designer Sofia Stocco and art director Lucie Brooks Butler filled every frame with little details which evoke the history and everyday reality of the relationship, and likewise our costume designer April Church and make-up designer Frances Hounsom did beautifully subtle work drawing out the different sides of each character at each point in the story, tracking the ways they each change.
We were lucky that many of our cast already knew each other, so there was an immediate sense of chemistry and shared history that we could use. For example, when we were filming the dinner party scene, the actors kept making each other laugh between takes, creating an amazing atmosphere in the room. Alistair and I looked at each other, and without exchanging a word, we adjusted our process: we stopped calling “Action” or “Cut” and simply moved the camera into its next position while the actors enjoyed themselves. Laura Aikman naturally had the instinct to restart the scene whenever the vibe felt right, so it all kept flowing. I’m extremely grateful that our patient editor Ian Robertson didn’t mind wading through all that footage (in fact, he ended up including a few improvised moments at the beginning and end of the scene).
The last moments of the film were meant to be quite different, but when it came time to shoot, the young baby wouldn’t stop crying — so with the clock ticking, we had to change the ending to make it make sense with a bawling child. I love the way it ends now, so I’m glad things didn’t go to plan — it was a great lesson for me to always pay attention to what’s alive in the moment, and use it however you can.
I found that the tension and absurdity are also guided by the sharp injections of sound and weird beats.
I always knew I wanted to be as bold with the sound as with the visuals, but it was our editor Ian Robertson who actually cracked how to achieve this. Ian has an impressive knowledge of obscure music, and he found the track which plays every time Amit’s character’s insecurity starts to spiral. Ian sped it up, slowed it down and chopped it up to perfectly fit with how the character is feeling at each point, creating a unique style which now feels essential to the film. Sound designer Nick Baldock at Art4Noise and our post-production team at Onsight embraced this approach, leaning into the character’s emotional descent as they crafted the audio landscape and the grade.
Tall Dark and Handsome is as sad as it is funny. Why didn’t we get a happy ending?
The film is what I call an ‘illustration of danger’ story, showing what can happen when insecurity goes too far, and when we’re not honest with the people we love. The questions about race are too complex to be resolved in fourteen minutes, so we hope the tragic ending serves as a kind of challenge to the audience. We want people to disagree at the end about who was right and who was wrong and hopefully talk to each other about it.
The film is what I call an ‘illustration of danger’ story, showing what can happen when insecurity goes too far, and when we’re not honest with the people we love.
What else have you got in the pipeline now the trilogy is complete?
I’ve got three new short films hitting the festival circuit this year — Office Royale, Tippy Toes, and No One Understands Me (which is my first animation). We’re also steaming ahead with a new version of The Orgy TV show, with a new production company and a new broadcaster. I’m very excited about that, as they really understand the show we want to make and are supporting the vision we have for it. It helps that we now have the trilogy of short films to showcase what we love to make – from a big comedy like The Orgy to a romantic drama like Big Ears, to the psychological complexity of Tall Dark and Handsome, we hope we’ve shown how our process of honest, personal filmmaking allows us to take on big themes like love, death, work, sex, family and identity, and to always find big laughs and big emotions when we shine a light into places that are usually kept hidden.