We recently had the opportunity to speak with film writer and director Ben Cleary, who wrote, directed, and edited the 2016 Oscar-nominated short film Stutterer. Once you’re finished reading about his filmmaking experiences below, be sure to check out Stutterer!
NSA: Tell us a little about how the idea for Stutterer originated.
Ben Cleary: Initially I saw something online by chance. A man with a stutter was speaking about how his stutter was almost imperceptible when he was speaking face to face with another person, but when it came to speaking on the phone it was a completely different story and he found phone calls impossible. Stutterer opens with an extreme close up of a mouth struggling to speak while an impatient phone operator gets frustrated and eventually hangs up. As I began to imagine how someone faced with the difficulties presented by a speech difference might navigate through life, the idea for Stutterer emerged. Growing up in Dublin I had a friend who had a quite severe stutter so I got to see how hard that can be for someone, especially when growing up which is already so hard. But from day one, this story just grabbed me and I felt really compelled to tell it and to try to tell it in as interesting and sensitive a way that I could.
NSA: After writing, directing, and editing Stutterer, what insights have you gained about how stuttering affects someone’s life?
BC: It sounds very obvious, but I think it’s important that everyone understands that just because someone might have difficulty getting words out sometimes, it doesn’t mean that they are in any way like that on the inside. I chose to use voice over to try to express this dichotomy. Greenwood has this wonderful inner voice, this great, witty, charming inner world that he is free to express online or in his thoughts, but tragically cannot share with people face to face. This was something I was fully aware of before I made Stutterer but it was only in the deeper exploration of what life might be like for someone facing this dilemma that I really gained some greater insight into what it might be like on a day to day basis.
NSA: Has becoming a filmmaker changed how you view movies, and if so, how?
BC: You get into it because you love films more than anything and it’s important to keep that love as an audience member. I often watch films numerous times but the first view I always try to turn off the analysis part of my brain and just enjoy. After that I’ll watch it again and start to look into the acting in depth and the decisions that have been made from a filmmaking point of view. Then sometimes I’ll watch a film on mute which can be incredibly useful or I might go to a particular scene and watch it a few times to dissect it. The geek in me is coming out now!
NSA: What advice could you give to an aspiring filmmaker?
BC: I’m only a novice myself really! I guess it’s totally different for everyone and you can get into it in all sorts of ways. But to me, script is the most important thing. Everyone says just go out and shoot something and certainly that works for some but I think before going near a camera or any of that, learn every single thing you can about film narrative and plot and character and subtext and all that, because it’s the foundation upon which everything is built. Start with a good script and you’ve got a chance of making a good film. Start with an okay script and it will be a real struggle to make something good. That’s my opinion anyway from my experience so far.
NSA: What films can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?
BC: I’ll be exploring the theme of communication again, that’s for sure. Maybe not for my whole career! But certainly the next few projects all revolve around human communication in some way. I find it so interesting.
NSA: Congratulations on the film’s success! How did it feel when you found out about its Oscar nomination?
BC: I never knew the whole jelly legs thing actually existed. And I think I nearly had a heart attack as the names were read out one by one. We were called out last! My sister was watching in Ireland and her link failed after the fourth name! She was running around frantically trying to find out if we’d be nominated or not! But yeah, after we saw our name called out it was really nice to share the moment with five of the wonderful people who helped make the film happen. A really special day.