Benjamin Cleary's first directorial effort culminated in an Oscar. Here's how it all happened.
Stutterer doesn't look or feel like a first film. Its confident direction, from bold voiceover to distinct visual style, belies the fact that it was director Benjamin Cleary's first time behind the camera.
Fortunately, these attributes were not lost on the Academy. This year, the short film Cleary subletted his apartment to fund won an Oscar for Best Short Film at the 88th Academy Awards.
Now streaming via the New Yorker Screening Room, Stutterer is a poignant drama following a young man, Greenwood (Matthew Needham), who struggles with a stutter speech impediment. He rarely speaks; when he does, it sounds almost like beat poetry. We enter his internal narrative through a conversational voiceover that reveals his ever-present social anxiety, particularly potent when it comes to his burgeoning online romance. So when his online girlfriend asks to meet up in person, Greenwood is naturally paralyzed. Will she reject him when she learns he's a stutterer?
"If I looked at that script again today and was told I had $5K and three and a half days to shoot it, I'd probably think it was impossible."
"I had a friend growing up who had a stutter, so I had seen what that can be like for someone," Cleary told No Film School on the day of the film's online release. "I got the idea for the film when I saw something online about someone with a stutter who found phone calls extremely stressful. This thought stayed with me...a character quickly emerged."
Though Cleary had harbored directorial ambitions since he was eight years old, he had never picked up a camera. The thought of doing so for a short film that only a few people at some small festivals might see gave him pause. But he decided that as long as he kept the budget low, it could be a worthwhile endeavor, even if just for learning's sake.
"I was kind of jumping in at the deep end with the ambition at the script [stage]," Cleary said. "I had eight actors, dozens of locations, and many setups each day of production. If I looked at that script again today and was told I had $5K and three and a half days to shoot it, I'd probably think it was impossible. But luckily I had a little naïveté on my side."
Cleary, whose background is in screenwriting, told us that he'd always written with cinematography in mind. ("Never as directions on the page, of course!")
"I'll sketch up storyboards as I write scenes," Cleary said. "Storyboarding for Stutterer, every shot was designed with the story in mind, our movement, our framing, and so on. All shot decisions were made to drive the narrative forward."
This intentionality and attention to detail enabled Cleary to get the film off the ground. Armed with a RED Dragon, $5,000, a talented cast, and "two great producers, Serena Armitage and Shan Christopher Ogilvie, who helped me to call in a load of favors," Cleary was able to shoot Stutterer the way he'd envisioned—though he did have to pitch in more of his own money. To finish the film, Cleary subletted his apartment and lived on his friends' couches.
Although Cleary submitted the film to "a lot of festivals," Stutterer was rejected from every major one. In line with his expectations, however, the film did screen at a handful of smaller festivals, such as the Los Angeles International Short Film Festival, the Tallgrass Film Festival, and the Vancouver International Film Festival.
"There were lots of rejections along the way, but we just kept going," said Cleary. "Every time I could save up 50 or 60 quid, we'd enter a couple more."
At this point, Cleary was satisfied with his learning experience. He'd made a film he was proud of, and that was enough.
Then came the phone call. "When we were shortlisted for an Oscar last November, it was just a shock really," he recalled. "None of us could believe it. We were just hoping to get into a festival or two at the start, so the film's success has really blown us all away. It still feels a bit surreal, to be honest."