Monday 21 October 2019

Meet Oscar winner Ben Cleary - Irish film's best kept secret, until now

Overnight fame has been bestowed on Academy Award winner Ben Cleary. But who is this cinematic dark horse? Ed Power finds out

Producer Shan Christopher Ogilvie (left) and director Ben Cleary with their Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film for Stutterer.
Producer Shan Christopher Ogilvie (left) and director Ben Cleary with their Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film for Stutterer.
Winners: Ben Cleary (right) celebrates with producer Shan Christopher Ogilvie.
A scene from Stutterer, starring Matthew Needham

Who the hell is Ben Cleary?

That was the question that echoed around the world as the young Dubliner was awarded the Oscar for Best Short Film last weekend.

Cleary's win for the moving character study Stutterer was by no means a shock. But, with his nomination thoroughly overshadowed by fellow (and ultimately unsuccessful) Irish hopefuls Saoirse Ronan and Lenny Abrahamson, his presence at the Academy Awards had flown beneath the radar.

Since Sunday, however, he is assuredly no longer a well-kept secret. Cleary (32) became a minor internet sensation thanks to a heartfelt acceptance speech ("Everyday is a proud day to be Irish but today more so than usual," he told the great and good of the Academy). More than that, gaining the Oscar has confirmed his standing as one of the bright new hopes in Irish cinema - a director suddenly regarded as having the potential to join Abrahamson, Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan in the pantheon of Irish movie greats

Winners: Ben Cleary (right) celebrates with producer Shan Christopher Ogilvie.
Winners: Ben Cleary (right) celebrates with producer Shan Christopher Ogilvie.

This is a remarkable feat considering that Cleary bankrolled Stutterer out of his own pocket. Unable to secure funding for his self-penned script, he took a job working at a burger bar in London and, over a year of back-breaking graft, raised the €4,000 budget himself. It was the only way he could make the film on his terms.

"I wanted to direct," he told reporters this week. "I was finding that, in the funding that I was applying for, we were getting the script shortlisted. They were saying that  in order to direct, you need to have a reel to show. 

"So I just had to go out and save up some money, get together with some friends and try and convince a load of people to trust that I could do it." 

"Stutterer is a great short film, even more impressive given it's Ben's first time directing," says producer Ian Hunt Duffy who worked with Cleary on the earlier short Love is a Sting (for which Cleary wrote the script). "To win the Oscar first time is an amazing feat. The win will be huge for Ben and his career going forward."

Stutterer tells of a man with a speech impediment whose world is thrown into chaos when an online date asks to meet him face to face. The film, which stars Matthew Needham and Chloe Pirrie, is by turns pithy, funny and emotionally devastating - a rollercoaster that plays out in 12 minutes. Its inspiration was a childhood friend of Cleary's who grew up with a bad stutter.

 "Ben really brings you inside the character's head from the get go, and within the opening seconds of the film has already made you empathise with his protagonist," says Hunt Duffy.

"It feels like a convincing portrayal of what it might be like to live with such a speech impediment. At the same time, it's also a modern love story that's witty and sincere. It's a crowd pleaser."

If it seems as if Cleary has essentially come out of nowhere, perhaps that is because, in a certain sense, he has. A business and law graduate from UCD, he studied screenwriting at the London Film School and received acclaim for his work on the aforementioned Love is a Sting, which won a prize at the 2015 Cork Film Festival.

A scene from Stutterer, starring Matthew Needham
A scene from Stutterer, starring Matthew Needham

"Ben's writing and the type of stories he's interested in strikes a chord in people," says Love is a Sting director Vincent Gallagher.

"They deal with themes and have vulnerable characters that everyone can relate to."

The Oscars, needless to say, are in an entirely different league. He secured his nomination the hard way, through unstinting toil. Cleary entered Stutterer in a pre-qualifying festival, LA Shorts, where it won the award for best foreign film. From there it made the longlist of 140 for the Oscars, which was then reduced to five nominees. Nothing about his victory is a fluke.

Cleary grew up in Rathmines on the southside of Dublin. It was a bohemian upbringing, his parents encouraging the kids to express themselves by drawing on the walls of the family home ("Ben was conjuring up madcap stories and characters from a very young age," goes his London Film School biog). He attended St Michael's College in Ailesbury Road, a school that has an enviable track record in the dramatic arts, with other past pupils including Love/Hate actor Killian Scott and Allen Leech of Downton Abbey fame.

His long-term ambition is naturally to direct full-length movies. To be simply nominated for an Oscar was enormously helpful in that respect and, in the weeks leading up to the Academy Awards, Cleary was taking meetings across Los Angeles.

"Being an Oscar winner will definitely open some doors, and he should have no difficulty getting funding for his next project," says Ian Hunt Duffy.

"It's also a great boon to everyone involved with the film, and Irish film-makers as a community. That old saying 'a rising tide lifts all boats' is actually true, and Ben winning an Oscar will only further shine a light on all the emerging talent we have here in Ireland."

That said, Academy recognition is no guarantee of future success. When last has anyone heard of Mat Kirkby, Anders Walter or Shawn Christensen, winners of the best live action short in 2013, 2014 and 2015 respectively? Cleary will still have to work hard and be smart about his career.

"An Oscar nomination for your first film is an amazing public endorsement of your work, and it does to some extent put you on the map and bring your work to the attention of a wider audience," says Juanita Wilson, the Dublin film-maker and producer who received a best short film Oscar nomination for her feature The Door in 2010.  

"But there is still a long way to go in terms of financing a feature film, despite the nomination… It certainly strengthens your CV and that helps when it comes to trying to make other films... It is life-altering on paper."

Ultimately, though, an Oscar should be viewed merely as a springboard, she says.

"Nothing is guaranteed, and financing and making a film is tough and depends on so many factors - the idea, the script, the cast and the team behind it and these factors will determine the funding of the film in concrete terms.

"My life is still the same as before but just with something extra to talk about when I go to pitch that next film."

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