Benjamin Cleary talks 2016 Oscar success of Stutterer

[Pictured above: Producer Shan Christopher Ogilvie, left, and director Benjamin Cleary with the award for best live action short film]

Last year’s Academy Award win for Benjamin Cleary’s Stutterer came as something of a surprise for those who follow the short film circuit.

The film itself was a delightful and low key affair full of humour and pathos. It told the story of a man with a crippling stutter, so bad that he found it almost impossible to communicate with the outside world. When a girl he’s been developing a relationship with online wants to meet, he must face some of his deepest fears. A clever script, strong performances plus assured and confident direction from debut helmer Cleary meant that the film proved popular around the world.

But the film had not risen through the usual channels of film funding and support. Indeed, it was very much a DIY affair. Without this support would Cleary and his crew really be able to steer the film all the way to the Academy Awards? By the end of the evening on February 28th 2016, with Cleary clutching the golden statue, it was clear that they could.

At the 2016 edition of the Krakow Film Festival – where Cleary served on the International Short Film Jury – Cineuropa Shorts sat down with Benjamin Cleary to find out more about his career, the unusual journey he took with Stutterer and just what it was like to be part of Oscar madness.

Cineuropa Shorts: Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into the film business

Benjamin Cleary: I’m from Dublin, Ireland originally. I’ve been doing film stuff for years: the usual six year old obsessed with Disney. I started writing at an early age. Then I got into music but I said 'I’m going to go for it,' and looked at the Masters at the London Film School. So I applied for the Screenwriting masters there about 5 years ago. I did that, and that was my route in. That year was a great year for me and I learned a lot. I started writing some short scripts which were getting made. But I was finding it difficult to get funding myself as a director, because I had nothing on my reel. So it got to a point where is like 'Look, I’m just going to try and fund my own thing and write and direct something.' And that was when Stutterer happened.

The one script which got made was Love Is A Sting. The stuff I was writing had more of magical element to it but when it came to doing something for myself I felt like I wanted to do something without a magical realist thing and deal with something that – although the world in Stutterer is kind of hyper real in a sense - feels like a real story.

CS: Where did the actual idea for the film come from?

BC: Stuttering is something that I have a bit a personal relationship with. A good pal of my mine when I was growing up had a severe stutter. I got to see first-hand what that was like. For a kid growing up it’s really difficult. Communicative barriers are really terrible. I don’t think you realise how bad it is and then you like back. I saw something online one day, a gentlemen was talking about his own stutter and the fact he found it incredibly hard to talk on the phone though he got to the point he was able to communicate face to face. This really struck a chord with me. I couldn’t put it out of my head and that is where the character emerged I suppose. I started to think about what it would be like for some with a severe stutter navigating through the world. I drew upon my experiences with someone I know. That was where the spark came from.

CS: One of the remarkable things about Stutterer is that it is self-funded. How did you get the funding together and why did you avoid some of the funding opportunities out there for filmmakers?

BC: We saved up bit by bit and did it that way. We didn’t go for funding because in my previous experience with these funding things, you get shortlisted and they say ‘Who’s going to direct it?’ and you say ‘Myself,’ and they go ‘Well, you’ve got nothing to show so get someone else to direct it.’ We didn’t really want to go by that route.

We made the film for five grand or there about. I was working in a mate’s burger restaurant for a year and a half. We were just basically putting everything into it. I wrote about an animation about a young raindrop’s first ever fall to Earth that got made and I got a fee from the Irish Film Board for that so I put that into it. The rest was saving up and doing it the old fashioned way: borrowing a few quid from mates, paying it back a few days later. I rented out my apartment and slept on couches. That was just the way it was. It was DIY really.

CS: Was doing it this way liberating?

BC: We started out as three mates: me, Serena [Armitage] and Shan [Christopher Ogilvie] the two producers. I was living at Serena’s at the time, and Shan was around a lot, a good friend of ours and it really did start with dinner chat around the table: '…let’s make something.' It was liberating not having anyone else telling us about the scripts. The only notes were coming from Shan and Serena and the draft that I gave them originally wasn’t massively changed. They did add some lovely flourishes to it to improve it, but the script that was there at the start was the one at the end.

I found in various funding things in the past that notes that come through can be great but they can also be not particularly thought out and the filmmaker can be struggling with a note. That can be great but it can also be destructive. I would say 100 per cent it was liberating. It was a great learning process to be involved with all the aspects of it.

CS: So it’s a DIY effort and it was your directorial debut. How was actual shooting?

BC: I wouldn’t say it was easy! I had never directed before and I was learning every second of every day. I surrounded myself with really good people which helped a lot. It was a really good experience having that freedom. It was very run and gun, we didn’t have permits for anything. If we wanted to get a shot on a bus, we had to hail the bus, have the camera hidden, run upstairs and shoot it. If we wanted to get on the [London Overground Railway], we snuck in with the camera, hoped no one was going to stop us and did it between stops. It was a great experience. I have since shot things where you have to get permits and it’s like 'Oh god, can we not just go and do it?' It was a baptism of fire. 

There was a lot of experience on the set but myself, the cinematographer Michael Paleodimos, Serena and a couple of other people had never worked on a film before. I think our naivety was a really good tool because if I’d looked at the schedule now and said “There’s 35 set ups a day and we’re going to 3 locations…” Well, Ignorance is bliss and we had no idea what we were getting into. And thank god. I suppose it has taught me that if you really want to make something happen that is quite ambitious, you can do it. If you get people to rally around the script and go 'We think this is a special script and we really like this,' then people will get involved and you’ll make it happen. You’ll stay later and do crazy hours and stuff. At the end of the day you can end up with something that is cool. But, yeah, it was wild., I don’t think I’ll ever be that crazy again in my life. Which is good. But I don’t want to speak too soon!

CS: How did you go about getting the film into festivals?

BC: We’ve learned a lot in hindsight. We read a lot of stuff online, talked to friends who had done films already. We decided to go the route of the Academy qualifiers and the BAFTA qulaifiers. Looking back on it we were slightly blind to the fact that for some festivals – given that it’s not an ‘arthouse’ film – it would never have a chance in. So we learnt the hard way about some of them.

We did have some good foresight into knowing it would most likely do better in the States, so we structured our strategy around getting it into some of the bigger festivals there. We didn’t really pay attention to the premiere thing which could have been a mistake. We had a really good hit rate at the start but then the rejections came and it was a dose of reality. It’s a Catch 22 – you never know if it’s going to do well. When we got into Galway [where the film had its World Premiere] I nearly fell off my chair going ‘..this is incredible.’ All we wanted to do was get into a festival. We had ambitions but we had no idea we would go on to play so many festivals across the world.

CS: How did it get on the road to the Academy Awards?

BC: It started gathering the momentum. The way it happened was mind boggling. We won at LA Shorts, which we couldn’t believe, and that put us on the long list [the list of 10 shorts that would later be whittled down to five nominations]. We didn’t even know the long list was going to be announced and I remember genuinely thinking it was a prank at first. It was quite an amazing and surreal experience. I’m not really anwering this in a good way but that’s because it was so surreal.

CS: Can you tell us just what it was like going all the way?

BC: There were moments when you’re thinking “What the hell is going on here?”. But it’s funny how it happens – the whole thing happens in stages. The long list comes out and that’s probably the most overwhelming part because there’s a massive spotlight thrown onto you and your inbox becomes a scary place. You’re then gearing up for the 10 to become five and - though that’s huge - you’re a little more prepared for it. When waiting for the announcement of the five nominations it was the most nerve-racking ten minutes of your life. Then you get in and it’s beautiful. Then your inbox goes crazy again and phone calls and everything. All the way along you’re starting to do interviews and getting less nervous about that. It’s all happens in sequence – it gets bigger and bigger so it’s not like you’re suddenly standing on stage in front of 50’000 people and having to speak. It’s all been a very slow – but kind of nuts – increment.

We got over to LA and spent 6 weeks there. [All the nominees] have all been thrown into this strange world together and you’re going through similar things. But it’s all done incrementally – you’re doing radio shows, Q&As and the like. I am not sure if it done deliberately. In the week before the Oscars you’re speaking about the film every night at a big Q&A and a big event and it’s a really, really lovely week. They take very good care of you and make sure you’re included in everything. It leads up to the big night – which is nerve racking and everything – but once you sit down in that place you realise “OK, it’s a room – it’s quite a large room full of incredible people – but it’s a room,” and somehow your brain deals with it. Then you sit and wait – and we had to wait a while as we were number 17 or something.

But it was a great experience. It helped me get over some of my nervousness over public speaking – before I would have chosen death over public speaking

23 February 2017, by Laurence Boyce