Benjamin Cleary has made his directorial debut with short film Stutterer, which has been playing well on the festival circuit and has been picking up gongs and award nominations - including the shortlist for the Best Short Film Oscar.
We caught up with the writer and filmmaker to chat about Stutterer, reuniting with producers Shan Christopher Ogilvie and Serena Armitage, and the response to the film so far.
- You are in the director's chair for new short film Stutterer, so can you tell me a bit about the film?
Stutterer is about a man with a severe speech impediment but an eloquent inner voice (which we get to hear through a voice over). His only window to the world is an online relationship with a girl who messages him to tell him that she has come all the way to London and would he like to meet in person for the first time. This throws his whole world into chaos.
- As well as being in the director's chair, you have also penned the film's screenplay. So where did this project start for me?
I saw an article about a man with a stutter who found phone calls particularly stressful. This image stuck with me and the film opens on an extreme close-up of our protagonist struggling to speak to customer service operator on the telephone.
- Can you talk a little bit about your writing process - do you start with character first and then plot? Or do you start with the plot and then the characters?
It varies, but usually, an idea comes from something unexpected - something I see, something that happens to me, something I overhear, but almost always, it begins with something from real life. Ideas never seem to come when I'm sitting at my desk trying to come up with one!
Once I have the initial idea I begin to think about it and start to explore the possibilities in my head. I need a compelling ending quite early on in the process or I find the idea often won't amount to much. I only begin putting pen to paper if the idea has kept my interest for a week or so and intriguing moments or ideas about where it could go seem to be multiplying.
- How much did the story/script change from the initial idea to the final film that we see on screen?
It's quite similar really. I dropped a few small moments in the edit which I felt we could drop without affecting the whole. I also added a few things in the voice over after we had shot everything. But essentially the final film is very close to the original script in my eyes.
- The movie has seen you team up with producers Shan Christopher Ogilvie and Serena Armitage, so how did this collaboration come about? How instrumental have they been to getting this film off the ground?
Serena, Shan and I are mates and I was living in the same house share in London as Serena at the time. I had reached the point where I was going to go nuts if I didn't direct something and the guys had been reading my scripts and luckily seemed to like them so we just decided, let's make something together.
- We are always hearing about how difficult it is to get funding for films in this country, so how tricky was it getting this project off the ground and ultimately made?
Well, we didn't even try to get funding because I was a first-time director which makes it next to impossible to get funding. But I had a couple of grand saved up and got another fifteen hundred for a writing job I'd just done, and that was it.
We set about trying to make this really ambitious film for next to nothing. Without the guys pulling in a tonne of favours and rounding up the troops, we never would have been able to reach the finish line.
- Stutterer sees you make you directorial debut - how have you found the filmmaking experience?
The lines between screenwriting and directing are quite blurred I feel. So directing the script felt like a natural extension of the screenwriting process in many ways.
But there are differences. For example, screenwriting is a solitary process, directing a very collaborative, social one. I must say, I loved every minute of the directing experience and I'm excited to do a lot more of it.
- Matthew Needham takes on the central role of Greenwood, so what were you looking for when casting this role?
Within 60 seconds of meeting Matthew, I knew he was perfect. There is a vulnerability in this character that I was looking for. It's something in the eyes. It's partly in the physicality. But I sat with Matthew and we talked for quite a while and he just completely got the script and he was excited by it.
It was such a pleasure working with an immense talent like Matthew. Our wonderful casting director Irene Cotton alerted me to Matthew and I'll be forever in her debt for that.
- Can you also talk about getting Chloe Pirrie and Eric Richard on board?
I came across Chloe online and she had the right look. Then I watched the film Shell which she had starred in and I was blown away by her performance. A truly exciting talent. So when I got the news that she had agreed to do the film I was over the moon and her performance speaks for itself. Eric Richard was a suggestion from Irene Cotton and I think he's wonderful as Greenwood's Dad. It was a pleasure working with him too, a real gent.
- The movie has been playing well on the festival circuit, so how have you personally been finding the response to the film?
It's been totally unexpected but really lovely. When you hear people speaking about how the film has affected them in certain ways it really brings you back to the initial writing of the thing and reminds you why you wrote what you did in the first place.
- Stutterer has also been picking up awards and nominations and is now on the Oscar shortlist for Best Short Feature - you must be thrilled?
Thrilled, overwhelmed, slightly baffled! Getting the news about the London Critic's Circle nomination has been great. We didn't expect it at all so we were surprised and thrilled when we heard and we're very honoured to be included on the list. Fingers crossed for January!
- Finally, what's next for you?
I'm trying to raise funding to make another short in the new year. so fingers crossed!