We talked to Benjamin about his intention to make a film about stuttering, why he joined the FFL Agency and how he feels about potentially becoming an Academy Award winner…
‘It’s been a damn good month,’ Benjamin Cleary smiles. The Irish filmmaker is absolutely right. The great news for STUTTERER keeps on rolling in. Most notably, STUTTERER, his short film directing debut, has made the Oscar shortlist alongside 9 other outstanding short films. Besides being accepted for major festivals and winning awards at festivals such as LA Shorts, DC Shorts and the Aesthetica Short Film Festival, the romantic drama has also been nominated for a London Critics’ Circle Award. No wonder that STUTTERER was one of the first films the FFL Agency, the newest division of FilmFestivalLife, reached out too.
Jana Dietze, FilmFestivalLife: First of all congrats on the Oscar shortlist! How did you find out that STUTTERER made the Oscar shortlist?
We had no idea when the Oscar shortlist would be announced. At the time, I was editing another short film that I just co-directed. Me and the co-director were taking a break and I was just checking my emails… and there was a bunch of emails in my inbox. The first one I clicked on was from this great lady called Jamie I met at the Galway Film Festival. She said ‘congratulations for making the shortlist’. I looked at it and was kind of speechless. I nudged my mate and the two of us just felt out of our chairs. It was just quite a shock. A brilliant shock.
What was the intention to do a film about the theme stuttering?
I saw a video about a guy who had a stutter online. He had it for years and he was making this video to help other people. He said that one of the things that was difficult for him was talking on the phone. Whenever he was on the phone it came flooding back, he couldn’t act the words and there was no one physically opposite to him, just a voice. I find that quite moving. That was kind of the starting point for the film. It’s that image that opens the film. From there the character becomes clear and you start to think about how he is dealing with the world…
What did you do when STUTTERER was ready, how did you start your festival strategy?
Our team, both myself and my two producers, are quite new to this. None of us has done a film festival run before. We just started researching. We found great articles online and talked to people who did it before. We decided to just go for the Oscar– and BAFTA-qualifiers first. We decided on some preferences and started to apply for them.
Galway was the first one that we tried to get into. It was weird because we’ve heard so many horror stories about not getting into festivals. So when we got the news that we got into Galway, I couldn’t believe it. I was probably both shocked and delighted. That was kind of it – we targeted certain festivals and waited to see what happened.
What is your advice to other filmmakers who have just finished their first short film?
I guess one thing we’ve learnt from some of the rejections is to look at the sort of films the festivals program. When we started looking at festivals we just sorted the Oscars and BAFTA qualifiers and didn’t check their programs. We experienced quite a few rejections at this point, but sometimes it’s probably because we’ve applied for a festival that just doesn’t program films like ours.
Another thing is – we thought there was absolutely no chance that we would end up at any A-list festival. So we didn’t really necessarily go for the big A listers at the start, but I think if I did it again I would try to aim as high as possible. At the start, you never know, and when you’re getting in a very big festival at the beginning that makes your start a lot more powerful. It might make it way easier to get attention afterwards.
How do you value the importance of film festivals for short films?
I think film festivals are invaluable for short films. We weren’t able to attend so many festivals, because of our budget, but the ones we have attended were amazing. We were at the Savannah Film Festival two months ago and it was just amazing. They put us up and they introduced us to amazing people and this amazing theater. Festivals are really important for a short film in terms of exposure and in terms of the people who you meet as a filmmaker…the more the better.
What was your favorite festival you have visited so far?
There have been some great once: Aesthetica was brilliant and Galway was the first festival I’ve ever attended. The Offline Festival is another lovely festival, hosted in this little town called Birr in Ireland. But I must say the Savannah Festival was just incredible. Savannah itself is an amazing town. You think the Irish are friendly but the people in Savannah are just amazing. The festival is a really big deal there, the theaters are huge and we were treated amazingly there. Doing the Q&A there was nerve-wracking but great. I would love to go back there in some day in the future.
You are one of the first clients of the FFL Agency. What is your experience with the FFL Agency so far?
Submitting to festivals is almost like a full-time job. You guys came along at a good time when the film started to get momentum and the workload started to become very big. It’s been really good to work with you as insiders, with all your expertise in festival strategy. We are really happy to get your expertise in terms of strategy and planning, as well as using your contacts. All the discounts also really helped, as we’re working on such a small budget.
We weren’t really thinking about the kind of programs the festivals have. It’s been great having you guys to let us know sometimes when a festival isn’t necessary and suitable for the film. Some of the festivals we didn’t know before but they are actually really interesting, cool festivals, that really suit the film. It just makes sense and has been really good so far.
Alongside directing, you are also a writer. Notably, you were the writer of LOVE IS A STING, which recently won at Cork. Do you prefer directing or writing?
I don’t think I prefer either, as they are part of the same process for me. Writing is quite a solitary thing and then directing is such a team effort. I really enjoy that part of it, but when I am sitting down to write something I am thinking fully of the end product. I love the whole process and the editing too.
Directing has always been the plan for me. One of the reasons that I was writing scripts for people was to get funding. You don’t get any money if you don’t have any experience or something to show that you did. So I was going to these screenwriting things to getting shortlisted for the script. To receive money as a first time director is hard. I was very lucky to find someone, who was willing to take a risk with a first time director. I also have great producers on board, which helped a lot.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
No idea! Hopefully I will have made some features by then – that would be amazing. But I must say I haven’t thought that far. The near future will be about learning more by making more short films, but I think the goal is features. That has always been the goal and hopefully I will get an opportunity to make some.
What will you do when STUTTERER is on the Oscar nominee list?
That would be just incredible, if we would make it. I don’t know we haven’t even…it’s just so surreal still, the thought that we could actually be nominated is kind of mad and hard to process. So I don’t know – I will book some tickets to LA, I guess.
And we will drink a glass of champagne!
Thanks Ben. Our fingers are crossed for the 14th January 2016.
United Kingdom, 2015 | 12 min 54 sec | Narrative fiction | Drama | Short
Greenwood has a truly debilitating stutter but we hear his inner thoughts through voiceover and his online conversations with his only friend and love of his life, Ellie. Outwardly a mute, Greenwood is sweet, witty and charismatic on the inside. Ellie surprises Greenwood with the news that she has travelled to his city for a few days and he is suddenly faced with the truly daunting task of meeting her in person for the very first time.
Director’s filmography: Benjamin is an Irish writer and director from Dublin. In 2011 he completed a Screenwriting MA at the London Film School. He chose to focus on screenwriting to learn as much as possible about the narrative side of filmmaking before venturing into directing. STUTTERER is Benjamin’s first film as director.
Director Benjamin Cleary
Producer Serena Armitage
Producer Bare Golly Films
Screenwriter Benjamin Cleary
Editor Benjamin Cleary & Charlie Doran
Director of photography Michael Paleodimos
Production designer Russell De Rozario
Music composer Nico Casal
Sound Gustaf Jackson
Animation David Magnier
Galway International Film Fleadh, IRL
Flickers: Rhode Island International Film Festival, USA
Encounters Short Film & Animation Festival, UK
Los Angeles International Short Film Festival
Vancouver International Film Festival, CAN
DC Shorts Film Festival (Washington DC), USA
Edmonton International Film Festival, CAN
Savannah Film Festival, USA
Heartland Film Festival, USA
Seminci: Valladollid Film Festival, ESP
Offline Film Festival, IRL
Tallgrass Film Festival, USA
Aesthetica Film Festival, UK
Show Me Shorts Film Festival, NZ
Leeds International Film Festival, UK
Shortlisted for the final 10 – 88th Academy Awards 2015 (Nominations announced in January 2016)
BEST FOREIGN FILM at LA Shorts Fest 2015
AUDIENCE AWARD at the DC Shorts Film Festival 2015
AUDIENCE AWARD and JURY SPECIAL MENTION at OFFLine Film Festival 2015
SPECIAL JURY AWARD at the Savannah Film Festival 2015
AUDIENCE AWARD at Kerry Film Festival 2015
BEST INTERNATIONAL SHORT FILM at Kerry Film Festival
SECOND FICTION PRIZE at Fesancor Chile International Film Festival 2015
BEST ACTOR for Matthew Needham at Fesancor Chile International Film Festival 2015
BEST DRAMA at Aesthetica Short Film Festival 2015
Benjamin Cleary’s short film STUTTERER is an FFL Agency film, find out more about the agency and how you can get involved: www.filmfestivallife.com/agency