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Oscar-Winning ‘Stutterer’ Director Benjamin Cleary on Portraying Communication Beyond Words

Oscar-Winning 'Stutterer' Director Benjamin Cleary on Portraying Communication Beyond Words

Set against the backdrop of war or the rigor of religious
parameters, several of the Academy Award-nominated shorts this year aim to
dissect larger ideas within their limited scope. Yet, one of the five selected
works, Benjamin Cleary’s “Stutterer,” is a character study that centers its
attention on a regular individual and how his idiosyncratic struggles shape his
interpersonal interactions. Cleary’s film is a intimate portrait of a young man
eager to express a myriad of ideas and complex emotions, but who is unable to
do so by a speech impediment that traps him in his own thoughts. Through
evocative voiceover, expertly executed sound design, and a delightful musical
score that’s hard to ignore, Greenwood (Matthew Needham), the protagonist, comes alive on the
screen, insecurities an all, in a way that goes beyond mere words.

Stutterer” is Cleary’s first short film and it proudly
represents the independent filmmaking spirit. Its production was a true labor
of love that had only a couple thousand dollars to bring it all together and
relied on the filmmaker and his team’s willingness to go to great lengths to
bring it to fruition. An Oscar nomination for a film like this exemplifies that
sometimes passion for the craft and an intimate, character-driven premise are
the right weapons to stand out and reach unimaginable recognition.

We had the pleasure to chat with Cleary about his fascination
with communication, renting out his apartment to finish the film, and what the
Oscar nomination changes in his career.

Carlos Aguilar: The film is centered around Greenwood, this peculiar
young man who finds it challenging to communicate verbally, how was this
character born and why did you find his situation so captivating?

Benjamin Cleary: One
day I was online and I came across this guy who was talking about his
own
stutter. He’d kind of gotten to the point where he was able to speak to
people
face to face relatively fine, but when he got the phone he just found it
very
difficult to communicate. I think he was talking about how hard it was
because it was just his voice and he didn’t have anyone there to make
eye
contact with. It was a real barrier for him. That image just really
struck a chord with me. It stayed with me and I started thinking about
what it
would be like for someone in this world dealing with that sort of
disadvantage
in terms of communication. That was really were the character was born
from. A
friend of mind growing up had a bad stutter when we were younger and I
also
started thinking about that. I remember that was very difficult for him.
It’s
hard enough growing up and navigate life as a boy and then into your
teens
without having this additional thing, so I supposed it was something
that was personally close to me as well. These two things combined.

CA: Tell me about the
idea of Greenwood’s
internal voice. We hear his thoughts and get to know him that way, but he can translate them into spoken words and that alienates from mainstream society.

Benjamin Cleary: I
can’t remember exactly at what point that came into play but I think that was
one of the things that really interested me as I started developing the idea
because in reality I think that’s exactly how it can be. Someone who has this
stutter finds it hard to get the words out, but the words are there. They are
completely there. I just really wanted to try, in someone way, to represent that
on film and the voiceover seemed like the best way to show the disparity
between his inner and outer existences. On the inside he is this quite
wonderful, charismatic, witty, and intelligent person. On the outside he is
shies away from actually speaking to anyone. For me that was one of the things
that really hooked me into the idea and kept me really interested
going for it. Hopefully it represents what it actually would be like in someway. I can’t speak from personal experience, but in a lot of the research I did that
was something people talked about.  

CA: He also has an
online voice, which is humorous and sarcastic. Online he can be truly himself without fear.

Benjamin Cleary: Totally,
and I’m fascinated with how we communicate online. It’s something that’s
relatively new to us, and it’s still very much developing and it really
interests me. Early on in the development of the character it occurred to me
that maybe he would have an online relationship whereby he was completely
fluent. Both the way he talks and the way Ellie responds to him are very quick. They don’t take much time to respond. There is a real fluency and a real quick conversational
nature to them online, that was something that I was keen to get across. This
is were Greenwood feels comfortable to express himself with her. Tying this in
with social media or online communication was an interesting thing to
explore.

CA: The ending caught
by surprise. Greenwood has trouble communicating, yet he is putting so much effort into learning a new skill that will allow him not to feel lonely. Where did the idea for this subtle twist come from? It definitely emphasizes the theme of communication.

Benjamin Cleary: When
you set up a twist I guess you want it to feel organic and not to feel
contrived. That’s hard to do and a lot of it comes down to  the writing of it first and then the
editing of it. You got to make sure that in the edit you put in these
little clues or these little things that are going to feed into the end. You have to do it as
subtly as you can, but it’s a fine line. I think some people have definitely
said, “Oh I saw that coming,” but hopefully most people don’t see it coming. It’s hard to
say where that came from but it just felt right and it was something I got in
my head very early on. I think that, in general, the scripts that I really stay with are
ones where the ending has come quite early on in the writing process. It’s
like, “OK,  I know how I can end
this. How do I get there?” rather than writing it and seeing where it goes.
That ending was something I had quite early on in the process.

CA: He also makes quick observations, or “snap judgements” as he calls them, about people he sees on the street, would you say that the fact that he
can’t communicate verbally as easily as most people makes this observations sharper?

Benjamin Cleary: Totally
and I think it ties in with how quick he is online with his communication. I
think he is on a “snap judgment” 1200 and something and this point. He’s become
a seasoned pro at it. For me it’s showing that quickness of mind, but
there is a sadness to it as well. He sees these people and he makes these,
either funny or touching, observations, but in reality he’s never going to go
up to them to say these to them. That was something quite emotional for
me. I think it’s something a lot of us can in some way empathize with.

CA: Sound, particularly near ending,  is a key element in the film and how we learn about Greenwood’s internal state. Was sound and the the atmosphere is creates something that was part of the story early on?

Benjamin Cleary: Definitely.
That was all in the script. I come from a sound background. I did sound
engineering and music technology for a few years prior to getting into film. I
really think about the audio very much so in the script. The idea of that
rising cacophony towards the end was something that I was really excited about,
but also nervous about how we were going to pull it off. Luckily we had a
really good guy, Gustaf Jackson, who did our sound mix for us. He and I just
got it all together. Matthew Needham, the actor, was amazing when we brought
him into the studio. I got him to read a huge page of stuff I’ve written, I stitched
it all together in the edit, then Gustaf help me make it all feel slightly
seamless. Audio was a massive consideration from very early on. I’m really
please with how it worked for the film.

CA: Tell me about working with
Matthew Needham, there are two parts to his performance, the one we see on screen and the one hear as voiceover. He definitely carries the film single-handedly.

Benjamin Cleary: Yes
that was an interesting one because he is playing two parts in a sense. Within
a couple of minutes of meeting Matthew Needham I just thought, “Yes, this guy’s
got it.” He was talking about the script with real insight and passion. He
really liked it and he really got it. He was a pleasure to work with. For me, he is
the film and I think he gives a really touching performance. Then going into
the post and having to do the voiceover, I think it was incredible how he was
able to represent a completely different side to the character, I personally
think, very effectively. That was a lot of fun actually, having the stuff we
did on set and then in post having to come with this other feeling for the
performance. I think he did a great job.

CA: Tell me the
trials and tribulations of making “Stutterer.” I’ve read that you really sacrifice comfort and financial stability in order to make it a reality. 

Benjamin Cleary: Obviously
the budget was really low and it was self-funded. When it got to the point that
we just needed a little bit more money to finish I subletted my room in my flat for a
couple of months. I was able to do that thanks to the great generosity of a big group of friend
who would let me couch surf in different houses. When a bed would come up they’d
me on the phone, “Hey we are going to be away for a few days, come over and
stay.” It was great and we used that money that I would have used to pay rent
for the film instead. All the people that helped out were just
amazing. It was a really nice team effort in that way.

CA: You really have to
believe in the idea and its potential in order to be willing to sleep on a different couch every night in order to finish the project.

Benjamin Cleary: [Laughs]
Yes, but let me tell you, there were some days at 6 in the morning sitting in
the studio that I just thought, “What am I doing? Should I just stop and not go
any further?” But  something kept
us going and the people around me were amazing, my producers Serena Armitage and Shan Christopher Ogilvie, Michael Paleodimos
our DP, and Nico Casal the musical composer. Those people kept me going and kept me
believing in the film in those dark moments. Luckily it all worked out in the end.

CA: Do you have any plans to turn “Stutterer” into a feature-length project? It seems that’s a common occurrence now, for a filmmaker to adapt his short into a larger version of the story. 

Benjamin Cleary:  Yes that seems to be quite a common
thing happening these days, but “Stutterer” was always its own story. I got
a feature in development that’s linked to it thematically. I’m fascinated by
the theme of communication and I’ve got a film that’s linked in that sense but
not specifically to any of the elements in the short film. I think “Stutterer” is
just going to stay as is it, but thematically I’ll be exploring similar things.

CA: The Oscar nomination is already a major achievement in your career. How does this change things for you as a filmmaker going forward?

Benjamin Cleary: We
are all still in mild shock. We never thought the film was going to get
anywhere near here. It’s quite lovely and quite amazing, and a great tribute to
all of the people who worked on it and did such a good job. In terms of what it
changes, hopefully it’s going to open some doors. It’s my first film, so I’m
really starting out my career and I hope that this is going to be a good
springboard. I’m already meeting some really great people and hopefully it’s
going to be great for everyone who was involved in the film.

You can watch “Stutterer” as part of Shorts HD’s theatrical release of the 2016 Oscar Nominated Short Films – Live Action playing in theaters across the country now.

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