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Romance in the digital age isn’t easy, especially with a speech impediment, as evident in Irish writer/director Benjamin Cleary’s Stutterer.

Produced by Serena Armitage and Shan Christopher Ogilvie, Stutterer centres on a lonely typographer named Greenwood (Matthew Needham), a man whose stutter is a lifelong burden that hinders him from making a genuine connection with others.

With the exception of his father (Eric Richard), the closest relationship in Greenwood’s life is with Ellie (Chloe Pirrie), his online girlfriend of nearly six months. And when Ellie offers to take their romance “offline” for the first time, Greenwood is faced with his biggest challenge yet.

At just over 12 minutes in length, Stutterer is an incredibly charming, witty, and heartwarming story about a man who, to the outside, appears shy and introverted, but inside, as expressed through voiceover, is a full of quirks, insecurities, and humour.

Already a winner of numerous international festival accolades, including Best Foreign Film at the LA Shorts Fest, Stutterer is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. And Cleary, a Screenwriting graduate of the London Film School, is now in the running for the biggest prize in the industry: Oscar. His directorial debut is one of 10 Best Live Action Short Film finalists for this year’s Academy Awards.

Ahead of the Oscars nominations announcement, I had a chance to speak to Clearly, Armitage, and Ogilvie about their film. You can read the highlights below.

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On the real-life inspirations:

Cleary found a story online about a man who managed to suppress his severe stutter over the years. “It was at that stage where he was fine with talking with people face to face,” Cleary said. “But when he got on the phone, he found it really difficult, because there was no one across from him, no eye contact. It was just his voice.” That scenario was recreated in the opening of Stutterer, a closeup of Greenwood’s trembling mouth.

While that moment sparked his initial idea to write the screenplay, it wasn’t Cleary’s introduction to the condition — one of his good friends growing up in Dublin has a stutter. “So I suppose I had some second-hand experience of what it was like for someone,” Cleary said. “I guess that all informs the idea and was one of the reasons I felt compelled to go with the story, go with the script.”

On developing the film:

Cleary lived with Bare Golly Films producers Shan Christopher Ogilvie and Serena Armitage on Greenwood Road (hence the name of the film’s protagonist), in London. And with their combined years of experience, in film and television, their plan was to make a film together.

“Ben wrote a script in January, which we loved, but wasn’t feasible for budget reasons,” Ogilvie said. “In April, he wrote a couple more, which we were developing, specifically intended for a low budget, under eight minutes, and set in one location. But we weren’t satisfied with the tradeoffs with either of them.”

Finally, Cleary decided to abandon the idea of using a single location and came up with Stutterer. “The way he [Cleary] pitched it, the end blew me away and we knew that it was the right one,” Ogilvie said. Armitage added, “I knew it was the right project. I read the script in May and took a month off from ITV to produce it over the summer.”

On the challenges of making Stutterer:

With a budget of just five thousand pounds, and no outside funding, the team’s challenge was to manage with their limited amount of resources. “A lot of the challenges came down to how to make a little go a long way,” said Cleary, who rented his room for two months and slept on a friend’s couch.

He added, “I was just really lucky to work with two great producers, Serena Armitage and Shan Christopher Ogilvie, who just were great at getting deals, rounding up a really great team of people who were willing to work on it for free or for very little.” The long hours and sleepless nights, however, clearly paid off.

On the two leads:

For the lead role of Greenwood, the secretly witty stutterer, casting director Irene Cotton suggested former Casualty star Matthew Needham. As for Ellie, Greenwood’s on-screen love interest, who only appears in the film’s final moments, the team spent more time looking at different actresses. “The final scene is so crucial to the emotional payoff to the film,” Ogilvie said. “We had seen Shell and were aware of Chloe [Pirrie] and luckily she liked the script and agreed to play the role.”

After casting the main roles, Greenwood gave his actors detailed backstories for their respective characters. “The backstory would’ve detailed what their relationship was like between them and also detailed what they were like as humans, I guess, in a much broader sense, stuff you would never see on screen, but that exists outside of the script,” Cleary explained. It was the actors’ own choice, however, whether to use it or not.

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On Greenwood:

Through voiceover, Cleary immersed audiences into Greenwood’s internal thoughts. “That was one of the things that really interested me about this character,” Cleary said. “He had difficulty speaking to people and interacting out in the world, but, really, inside he was very eloquent and witty and charming and I think, personally, really likeable sort of guy.

“I found it really interesting, and I think it’s true to life. Just because someone isn’t necessarily able to express themselves, there’s still, potentially, this amazing inner person there and that was something I felt really passionate about trying to convey.”

On the definition of success:

“It’s just been really amazing talking to people after they’ve watched it at festivals or getting messages from people after they’ve seen it,” Cleary said. “They talk about being affected by the film or that it made them feel something or they hadn’t thought about certain aspects that are portrayed in the film.”

Armitage added, “A successful film is one that emotionally resonates with its audience, and one that leaves them with something to think about for a few afterwards.”

And audiences have responded. Stutterer won top awards at the DC Shorts Film Festival, the OFFLine Film Festival, and the Kerry Film Festival — just to name a few.

The possibility of ending that journey with an Oscar is something that surpassed all of their expectations. “If we were to be nominated for an Oscar, and to be associated as a part of that history, with all of the films and filmmakers stretching back across all of the years — that would really be something,” Ogilvie said.

On upcoming projects:

The next project for Cleary is Wave, a short film about communication, which he wrote, edited, and co-directed.

“I’m fascinated with communication,” said Clearly, who is now in post-production on Wave. “I’m fascinated with the rise of the Internet over the last 15, 20 years. So I suppose those things, which is present in Stutterer, that’ll probably crop up again in projects that are coming up.”

And although he is now back in Dublin, Cleary revealed that he plans to reteam with Armitage and Ogilvie “once the dust settles with Stutterer.”

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All 10 Best Live Action Short Film contenders are listed below.

“Ave Maria,” Basil Khalil, director, and Eric Dupont, producer (Incognito Films)
“Bad Hunter,” Sahim Omar Kalifa, director, and Dries Phlypo, producer (A Private View)
“Bis Gleich (Till Then),” Philippe Brenninkmeyer, producer, and Tara Lynn Orr, writer (avenueROAD Films)
“Contrapelo (Against the Grain),” Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer, director, and Pin-Chun Liu, producer (Ochenta y Cinco Films)
“Day One,” Henry Hughes, director (American Film Institute)
“Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gut),” Patrick Vollrath, director (Filmakademie Wien)
“The Free Man (Zi You Ren),” Quah Boon-Lip, director (Taipei National University of the Arts)
“Shok,” Jamie Donoughue, director (Eagle Eye Films)
“Stutterer,” Benjamin Cleary, director (Bare Golly Films)
“Winter Light,” Julian Higgins, director, and Josh Pence, producer (Innerlight Films and Prelude Pictures)

The nominees for the 88th Academy Awards will be announced on Thursday, January 14, 2016.

(All photos are courtesy of Stutterer.)