More Than a “Stutterer”: An Interview with Benjamin Cleary
By Tom Ue.
Benjamin Cleary is a writer/director from Dublin, Ireland. In 2015 he wrote, directed and edited his first short film “Stutterer” which has played 70 plus festivals and won over 20 awards including an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short in 2015, a London Critic’s Circle Award, an Irish Film and Television Award, a Cannes Young Director Award, and Best Foreign Film at LA Shorts Fest. He wrote “Love Is A Sting” a few years ago: the short has recently been long-listed for an Oscar after winning Cork International Film Festival and best foreign film at LA Shorts Fest 2016. He is currently writing his first feature.
Congratulations on “Stutterer,” the first film that you wrote, directed, and edited! What have you been up to since the Oscar win?
Thank you! I’ve mainly been writing a feature and directing some commercials. It has been a very busy but very exciting year.
Has anything changed? If so, what?
It has opened a lot of doors I think. Lots of opportunities that I wouldn’t have had have arisen. I’ve been really lucky to get a great agent and great management too. That’s been amazing.
What inspired “Stutterer”?
I saw something online about a guy with a stutter who was fine speaking face to face but found phone calls extremely difficult. This struck a chord with me and I began considering what it might be like to navigate through life with a severe stutter. It’s something most of us take for granted, being able to communicate freely. With “Stutterer” I was looking at what life might be life if that was stripped away.
The other thing that drew me to this story was that I had a friend growing up who had a stutter so I had some insight into what it can be like and I drew on that quite a lot.
There’s a fine line between giving sympathy to Greenwood and denying him character. How did you achieve this?
Well, Greenwood has a severe speech impediment but it doesn’t define who he is – he is a three-dimensional character with hopes and worries just like everyone. I think when you treat a character in this way, hopefully you end up with a person who feels real and truthful.
The film relies so much on Matthew Needham, who plays Greenwood. Tell us about the casting.
Matthew’s a superb actor and was a joy to work with. Our wonderful casting director Irene Cotton suggested that I see Matthew and within minutes of meeting him I was certain he was perfect for the role. We spoke for maybe an hour or so and he just completely got what I was trying to do. I called everyone right after meeting him and said we didn’t need to do any auditions for the role.
What kinds of training did you and Needham go through in preparation?
Mainly we wanted to make sure that the speech impediment seemed real so we did a lot of study online and spoke about this a lot. I also like to work on character backstory. I think it can really help to create great depth in a performance – even if it’s just talking about what happened in the moments leading up to a scene.
It’s interesting to see how communicative Greenwood is and how differently he sounds online: did you create the different voices of him separately?
Yes, the voice over was done separately. It was very interesting because the person we see and the inner voice were very different; so in a sense it was like playing two different roles for Matthew at times. Something he pulled off with great skill.
The melding of silences and voice-overs was quite effective: tell us about the film’s sound design.
I come from a sound and music background so audio directions always feature quite heavily in my scripts (too much some might say!). I think the cacophony of voices is a good representation of the sort of heightened anxiety we can all experience from time to time. My initial tests were done with my own voice using my iPhone, recording lots of clips and editing them together. For the real thing I just wrote tons of relevant material for Matthew, then edited the snippets all together as I wanted them in Premiere. Then our excellent sound editor Gustaf Jackson mixed it all so it sounded full and all the levels were perfect. I’m very pleased with how that part of the film worked, it’s just how I had it pictured when I wrote the script.
It’s interesting to see how the entire tone of the film shifts when Ellie (Chloe Pirrie) agrees to meet Greenwood: the lighting is visibly stronger than it was at the beginning. If the beginning is more real, I think that the second half is more in the vain of a romantic comedy. Tell us about your decisions.
In terms of the lighting changing, I don’t know that I see that. If it’s there it was not a conscious decision. But what I will say is that you end up making a huge amount of decisions while you’re prepping and shooting, some on a subconscious level because it instinctually feels right for a scene. It might be something as small as the placement of an item in the background, an item of clothing the character is wearing, or the adjustment of a light. You do everything you can to try to support the tone you are trying to achieve and in the end the sum of the parts hopefully supports that tone.
The film is very suggestive in its use of clues: Greenwood’s shirt is always buttoned up, and he wants to give Ellie a copy of the reclusive J. D. Salinger’s Franny & Zooey (1961). Tell us about some of the clues that we may have missed.
I think that audiences are very astute and pick up on the little things, even if it’s just in the subconscious, so it’s worth taking the time to populate the spaces with items that feel like they support a character and the things you’re trying to say. I also like to do things that may only be noticed on a second view. Lots of my favorite films are an entirely different experience the second time you see them. One of the many reasons for this is that with familiarity comes time to “look around” a bit more.
London plays an important role in the film. Constant disputes about Broadband are stereotypically London. What do you see as being distinctive about communication problems in contemporary London?
Well, mobile phones have changed everything. No one looks into each other’s eyes any more. On the tube everyone is glued down to this little screen. Attention spans are dead. Conversation seems to be dwindling. It’s quite shocking to see what it’s like these days. Sorry, that’s very depressing stuff! And this problem isn’t unique to London so I haven’t really answered the question either.
What were some of the challenges of shooting in the city?
We just winged it. We had no permits or anything so we just went for it. No one gave us any trouble. It was great: we were very lucky with that stuff.
The Overground looked spotless and empty: did that take a lot of organizing?
No, we just snuck on and hoped we wouldn’t be caught and kicked off! It was a very run and gun style shoot. Sometimes the Overground is just empty and spotless: we got lucky that night!
Your new film “Love Is a Sting,” also a romance, is screening at multiple festivals. What’s next for you?
Yes we’ve been delighted with the reception to Love Is a Sting. I’m currently writing a feature, just directed two domestic abuse commercials, and I’m working on a short branded content piece for Amnesty International.
“Stutterer” is currently streaming online here.
Tom Ue was educated at Linacre College, University of Oxford, and at University College London, where he has worked from 2011 to 2016. His PhD examined Shakespeare’s influence on the writing of George Gissing. Ue has held visiting fellowships at Indiana University, Yale University, and the University of Toronto Scarborough, and he was the 2011 Cameron Hollyer Memorial Lecturer. He has published widely on Gissing, Conan Doyle, E. W. Hornung, and their contemporaries. Ue is the Frederick Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Toronto Scarborough and an Honorary Research Associate at University College London.