‘I keep thinking I’ll wake up and discover this isn’t real’
In any other year, Oscar nominee Benjamin Cleary would be the name on everyone’s lips – but he’s delighted to be in the race alongside Room and Brooklyn
You have to feel a little sorry for Benjamin Cleary. In any ordinary year, an Oscar nomination for best live-action short would secure him a place on the domestic front pages. In 2016, however, with best picture nods for Lenny Abrahamson’s
Brooklyn and John Crowley’s Room, the Dubliner has been unfairly overlooked. I trust he’s angry about it.
“Ha ha. Not at all. I’m so glad all this happened,” he says. “I saw Room and Brooklyn at the Savannah Film Festival and loved them. Room for me is film of the year. It was great to see them getting the recognition they deserved.”
Cleary’s Stutter is a lovely, clever piece of work. The film concerns a typographer who, hampered by a serious stutter, lives an eloquent parallel life on social media. Shot in London, the film does count as a British production, but, given that Cleary paid for it himself, we can surely also claim it for Ireland.
“Yeah, I saved up while living in London working in my mate’s restaurant, Butchie’s, who do the best chicken burgers known to man. I worked there for a year before and during the making of the film. It allowed me to work on the film all day.” What was the inspiration? “I had a friend growing up who had a bad stutter. So I got to see what that was like first hand. I think things like that stay in your consciousness.”
Cleary studied screenwriting at the London Film School after UCD and went on to write the fine short Love is a Sting, which won the Grand Prix at last year’s Cork Film Festival. He has a great eye and a taste for off-centre humour that suits the shorter form very nicely. But he still had to get himself noticed. How does that happen at the Oscars?
“You have to enter an Oscar-qualifying festival. We have Cork and Foyle here for example. We entered LA Shorts here. We were surprised even to get in and then we won best foreign film and that qualified us to get onto the long list for the Oscars. And there are about 140 films on that. Then they bring it down to 10. From there five get nominated.”
It cannot be denied that Ben will, this weekend, get less coverage than Leonardo DiCaprio or Kate Winslet, but he is just as Oscar-nominated as they are. At the nominees lunch two weeks ago, he was there with all the stars, shakers, movers and manipulators. (I think that’s him just in front of Stallone in the official photograph.) That must have been an extraordinary experience.
“I got to meet Lenny Abrahamson at that lunch. It was surreal and a lot of fun. When we went up for that photo, I got a sense of being part of it all suddenly. That is quite bizarre.”
He returned for the Sedona Film Festival in Arizona at the weekend and is now being trundled from party to party. There was a bash with the Irish Film Board on Wednesday evening. He will go to dinner with all the other short film nominees. Meanwhile, producers are taking note. There are few things that better boost a young film-maker’s career than an Oscar nomination.
“It’s definitely been good for getting into interesting meetings. That has helped both in LA and Dublin. You hope that it will open doors, and it looks as if I will get funding to develop my next short. And then I will develop my next feature.”
Oscar week is a blur. The corner of the city that abuts the Hollywood Hills only seems to have one subject of conversation. An amiable man with no apparent angles, Cleary now gets to see his film projected for the American Film Institute. He gets to meet heroes.
He can’t have seen this coming when he was preparing the world’s best chicken burgers. “I swear to God, I keep thinking I’ll wake up and discover this isn’t real.”
Left: Matthew Needham in the Oscar-nominated Stutterer. Below: director Ben Cleary