BENJAMIN CLEARY and OSCAR
The Man Whose Creativity Knows No Bounds
photos by Gerry Balfe Smyth
The minute I watched the short film, “Stutterer”, my entire being was changed. The story, the music, the cinematography – it took hold of me in a way I wish all films would. I felt understood (and not because I have a stutter but because everything most writers trap inside is given life when poured onto the vacant screen). It was a masterpiece and, as it turns out, now a possible Academy Awards, “Oscar” contender (hence the title of this piece). The man behind this piece of cinematic beauty? Benjamin Cleary. Irish-born, film-loving, tenacious and witty, Benjamin Cleary. This interview was something I absolutely needed to do … As a writer, a screenwriter and a lover of brilliant filmmaking. Sweeping every film festival it goes to, STUTTERER is a film that extends the critical importance of humanity. A raw, exposed, totally relatable man who internalizes everything and is bound to limited verbal expression.
The film centers around the digital age of communication; the alter-egos, the people we want to be but cannot be, the secrets we hide, the transparency of our truths. In essence, it may have a main character that struggles with a stutter but it’s much more than that. Much like the writer, director himself, this film encapsulates our truest selves, our daily struggles, our deepest fears. It’s beautiful.
When the film concluded, I posted right away and thankfully, Ben replied with total and utter grace, thus brings us to this: the interview. Before you read it, note that this man is a rarity. His love of filmmaking is ever apparent and while he has successfully completed several shorts, he is now tackling a feature. I can only imagine how truly enlivening that film will be once it’s released. With all of the candor and fascination, and I must admit, a bit of a newfound love for Benjamin as a filmmaker and writer, the way his imagination takes hold of the screen, well, it is something to behold.
When you think back to growing up in Ireland, what moment in your childhood really awoke the desire for film?
Rather than one particular moment, I feel like my whole childhood got me interested in creating stories. My parents read to us a lot and got us all the Disney movies and let us draw and paint on our bedroom walls and stuff. It was a house where creativity was encouraged. I became an avid reader and a huge film fan from a really young age and as I got older I found that my stories always wanted to be told as movies.
“Stutterer” is a film that thrusts you in from the very first moment. What inspired the creation of your main character, Greenwood?
Thank you! I saw something online; a man with a severe stutter was talking about how hard it was for him to speak on the phone. With no one sitting across from him, just his voice on show, he could barely get out a word. This idea struck a chord with me and it is this image that opens the film, an extreme close up of a mouth struggling to speak on the phone.
All of my ideas start this way – I see something, I hear something, something happens to me, whatever it is. Some spark of an idea plucked from real life. Then a character comes along soon after and from there the story just kind of takes shape.
What was your biggest worry when you were making the short?
That we would run out of money! We made Stutterer for very little and I self funded it so the budget really was the biggest headache. But my producers pulled in great deals and lots of really talented people worked on it for free or for very little because they liked the story. I’m incredibly grateful to all of the crew for that.
What role do you play in this film (what character)?
Bystander with phone number 1. (Unfortunately we chopped his scene in the edit.)
As a writer/director, what has been the greatest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?
Scrutinize the script before shooting. Go through it with a fine toothcomb. Ask what is truly essential. If a scene isn’t crucial, drop it. Because when you’re running around to six locations in a day and doing thirty-five setups, you’d give anything to buy yourself some more time.
You had mentioned to me laboring over the film. When you watched the final edit, what gave you a sense that it was finally ready?
Editing something you’ve written and directed is a pretty intense experience, but I really enjoyed it. I loved re-telling the story, finding little things I could do to heighten the emotion in a scene. For someone like me who had never directed or edited before, the amount I learned was invaluable. But it got to a point where I was so close to the film that I couldn’t actually see the thing anymore. All objectivity had gone out the window. So I gave it a few weeks, maybe a month. After taking some time away from it I watched it again start to finish. And luckily, I got a sense that the story and emotional beats were all there. That was an important moment because from there on it was just minor tweaks really. I knew the story was understandable and we had everything I wanted.
Tell me something about you no one really knows.
I’m really quite shy but that doesn’t come across when you meet me.
What 3 films have guided you as you’ve submersed yourself into the curious world of film?
Hmmm I don’t know. I guess all of the films you’ve ever loved tend to rub off on you in a way, you know? Recently I’ve loved “Blue Is The Warmest Color”, “Under The Skin”, and “Force Majeure”. I love anything that first and foremost has a great script. Without a good script I’m convinced that you’ll struggle to make a good film.
You have a wonderfully nostalgic innocence when narrating the world. What is your greatest hope in your endeavors as a screenwriter and director?
Thank you! I’d love to make films that entertain and move people. To me there is nothing as good as sitting in a movie theatre completely enthralled for a couple of hours. When a great script is in the hands of a great director and all of the other crucial ingredients are present, the theatre is genuinely my favorite place to be in the world. To make a film that achieves something like that experience, that’s the dream.
You had mentioned how lovely it is to be back in Ireland, how warm and generous the people are. What are some of your fondest memories of Ireland?
It’s funny because I lived in London for four years and only recently moved back home to Dublin. It’s cliched to say it at this stage, but you do notice how friendly people are here. I mean I love London and had an amazing time there, but Dublin’s just a completely different pace. And it rubs off on you. You find yourself getting up thirty minutes later in the morning kind of thing. And people don’t take themselves too seriously here. You find yourself having chats with bar staff and people in shops and realize that you sort of lost some of that warmth while you were in London. It’s bigger and more frantic over there. But then, that kind of mad energy brings a lot to the table too and I really miss it sometimes. I wish I could have a bit of both I guess!
As “Stutterer” continues to gain momentum, do you have any particular way you want to celebrate when you get that Oscar? (Because I’m CONFIDENT you are getting one!)
Hah! To be honest, when we first sent Stutterer in to a festival and it got accepted, I nearly fell off my chair. I mean I’m very proud of the film as my first film, but I’m genuinely blown away by the response so far. It’s funny, none of us had even thought about awards, we were just delighted to be getting accepted to most of the festivals we were applying for. Then it was announced that we’d won something and we were like “We’ve won something? Hang on, no one said winning something was an option…” The best bit has been all of the mails I’ve been getting from people who have seen the film as it’s started playing the festivals. It’s quite touching. People have been very nice.
In all seriousness, is film something you want to spend the rest of your life doing or is it a catalyst towards something else?
Yep, this is it. Ultimately I want to make feature films. And I’m going to work tirelessly to make that happen.
What is your guilty pleasure?
If a storm came in, the deep grey clouds brimming over the hills, the threat of heavy rain caressing the air, the uproarious thunder bellowing down low – do you wait until the rain arrives, let is pounce on your skin and run in it? Or, do you watch carefully, study it’s patterns and take shelter?
Take shelter and marvel in the beauty. Then write about it later.
Do you feel life is romantic? If so, why? If not, explain.
Some days life is romantic. Some days it’s cruel. Some days it’s something else. But never boring. I think we tend to forget the cruel days. I like to think that on my deathbed I’ll say “Life is romantic!” but who knows.
What’s next for you? Can we look forward to a feature?
Next up is another couple of short films. Shorts are great because they teach you how to get to the heart of the matter very economically. I want to gain more experience directing shorts before progressing to features. But there are some feature ideas in the pipeline and I’ve had a lot of interesting meetings lately. The end goal is to start making features.
If you could sit in a room with 5 Screenwriters + 5 Directors of your choice – living or otherwise, to ask advice from or simply collaborate with, who would you choose?
I get the feeling collaborating with a lot of these auteurs might not work out too great but I’d love to sit around and chat with Krzysztof Kieslowski and his screenwriting collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz. Woody Allen. Steve McQueen. Wes Anderson. Sofia Coppola. PT Anderson. Alejandro Inarritu. Lars Von Trier. Martin Scorsese. Quentin Tarantino. I could keep going for a very long time here …
What makes you happy outside of film?
I must admit that for the last couple of years I’ve very happily spent the vast majority of my time completely immersed in film. I’m kind of obsessed with it and a lot of my friends probably wonder where the hell I’ve been. But I love all the usual stuff – dinner with family and friends. I read a lot. I’m a massive Manchester United fan. Guinness in the pub with mates. I listen to a huge amount of music too, although mostly when I’m writing. I feel like I’m filling out an online dating profile here …
(ATOD: We don’t mind …)
The best advice you’ve ever been given.
You can do anything you set your mind to. My mum always told us that growing up.
If you could tell your future self anything, what would it be?
Don’t forget to have fun.
If it’s possible to fall in love with the artist solely based on their creations, I think I’ve found that with you, Ben (platonically, I promise). I genuinely admire the way you create, the way you see the world around you, and the way you convey that through the written word. Your uncanny ability to transform story to visuals is not only seamless but thoughtful. From the music in Stutterer (Nico, you rock!) to the casting and the cinematography, you leave nothing unhinged or unraveling. Everything has a purpose and that is not only exquisite, but inspiring. Thank you for allowing me into your world for a brief while and for giving readers a look inside the life of a dreamer and filmmaker.
See you in February, Mister Cleary while we celebrate your Oscar nomination. (Trust me, it’s coming and I have no doubt it will be the first of many in your career …)
To learn more about Benjamin Cleary and his films, visit: www.benjamincleary.net
Benjamin is an award winning Irish writer/director from Dublin. In 2011 he completed a screenwriting MA at the London Film School. He chose a screenwriting MA to learn as much as possible about the narrative side of filmmaking before venturing into directing.
In 2012 he won the prestigious BlueCat short screenplay competition in Los Angeles. The same year he was hired by RTE, Ireland’s national broadcaster, to write for a children’s TV series. Two years in a row his screenplays have been awarded an RTE/Filmbase funding prize. In July 2014 Benjamin’s short animation script The Great Fall was awarded the Irish Film Board “Frameworks” funding. It tells the story of a young raindrop’s first fall to earth.
In 2015 he wrote and directed his first short film, Stutterer, which has been selected for 12 major festivals and counting including the Los Angeles International Short Film Festival, The Vancouver International Film Festival and Encounters Film Festival in the UK.