How to go from Rathmines to working with Hollywood’s A-list

Oscar-winning Irish director Benjamin Cleary on his thought-provoking metaphysical sci-fi debut

Five years ago, in an extraordinary example of a nation punching above its weight, three Irish filmmakers, including Lenny Abrahamson and John Crowley, were contenders at the Academy Awards. Brie Larson scored the Best Actress award for her performance in Abrahamson's Room, but only one director returned to Dublin with an Oscar: Benjamin Cleary who won with his live-action short, Stutterer.

"I look back and it feels like a surreal dream," says Cleary. "Honestly, when I was editing Stutterer, I was living in East London, working in a burger shop, and sleeping on friends' couches, because I had no money at the time. And there were points when I just thought: this is just not good enough to even enter into a festival. And then I remember walking up the aisle in such a daze I think I forgot my team. And I saw Steven Spielberg. It was crazy. I kind of remember getting up onto the stage and then it's a bit of a blackout. I think I managed to rattle out a few words."

Stutterer, which concerned a typographer with a speech impediment living a garrulous double life on social media, additionally won a Cannes Young Director Award, a London Critics Circle Award, and an Irish Film and Television Award. It opened doors, says Cleary. These days, he can call fellow-nominee Lenny Abrahamson for career advice. “He’s an absolute genius filmmaker,” says Cleary, “And he’s always very helpful”.

Five years on from Stutterer and Swan Song has arrived. The writer-director's Apple-produced, starry debut feature, pivots on an ambitious conceit and stars Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Glenn Close and Awkwafina.

Even though Swan Song is like a completely imagined premise set in the near future, I saw very clearly that I was ... shining a light on some really painful stuff

“When I was trying to find the film that I wanted to make for my first feature, I landed on Swan Song, which is a concept I came up with years before. I had put it away in a drawer. It just took me a long time to write it. And then a long time to get it made.”

The Oscar-winning Mahershala  Ali, star of Moonlight, True Detective, and Green Book, proved instrumental in the long process of getting Cleary’s first feature off the ground.

“I was so close to that material at that point, I’d lost all objectivity about the script,” says Cleary. “I wasn’t feeling the emotional stuff as I read through it And then reading it with his voice in mind, it slowly came alive again. We had this brilliant two-hour conversation where, just minute by minute, I was more energised and inspired. He’s just really is a wonderful, kind soul, a brilliant person. And for me to go in and meet such a big star, I was obviously very nervous, but he puts you at ease. And we got straight into this brilliant conversation about the philosophical questions in the script. And as soon as he was on board, other brilliant actors, like Naomie Harris, were interested.”

Just as Stutterer was inspired by a childhood friend with a bad stutter, Swan Song comes from a semi-autobiographical place, specifically, the death of three of Cleary’s friends. “Considering the story being so personal to him, there were moments where I felt this extra responsibility because I felt I was sort of playing him at times,” Mahershala Ali said of the director at a recent industry panel.“This was due to things in the story that were just so deeply personal and true to him.”

“I lost three friends when I was 19, 20, and 21,” says Cleary.  “At that young age, seeing what that did to everybody around them that was left behind, not getting a goodbye, brought my brain to this place where I was constantly thinking about what would happen if someone else passed away? What would happen to my family if something happened to me? And, even though Swan Song is like a completely imagined premise set in the near future, I saw very clearly that I was going to be, for lack of a better term, shining a light on some really painful stuff. When these events were happening,  the idea of therapy, or going to see a therapist or something in Ireland – this is nearly 20 years ago – was unheard of. Luckily, those things seem to be changing.”

My team got sick of me saying 'too much sci-fi' all the time. It was really important to me that the world felt grounded, because it's a human love story

In Swan Song, graphic designer Cameron Turner (Ali) hides his terminal illness from his wife Poppy (Harris) and seeks out a doctor (Glenn Close) and psychologist (Adam Beach), offering an experimental cloning service. The procedure replicates their clients' physical and conscious forms. Their replacements, as Kate (Awkwafina), a young woman who has already undergone the procedure can testify, never know they are clones. Nor do their nearest and dearest.

A cerebral science-fiction film, bolstered by Annie Beauchamp’s glorious production designs, Swan Song was a brave new world – both in front and behind the camera – for Cleary.

"I think I have spent something like 14 or 15 days in my life – in total – as a director," he laughs. "And then I walked out on set. And there's like 200 people in the crew. There are trucks and all this equipment and then I'm looking at some of the best actors working today and rehearsing with them. I was pinching myself all the way through."Although Cleary found some inspiration in Spike Jonze's Her, working closely with his design team and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, the director was determined to fashion an anti-science-fiction science-fiction. There are no blinking lights or tinfoil couture.

“My team got sick of me saying ‘too much sci-fi’ all the time,” says Cleary. “It was really important to me that the world felt grounded, because it’s a human love story. We never want to veer into that place where it felt sort of foreign to us and took the focus away from that love story at the centre of it. We needed to create a world where we could believe this technology exists, but also never felt not of our world.  So all the aesthetic decisions were based on that. Themes of nature versus artificial thinking were worked into reflections and doubles”.

I was writing scripts since I was a kid. I'd just scribble ideas for films, but never thinking I'd get to make them

Directing Mahershala Ali and Awkwafina in two roles, while not as complicated as, say, staging a martial arts battle between Jean Claude Van Damme and Jean Claude Van Damme – see Replicant – required a great deal of blocking and nuance. Both actors, remarkably, find different terrain with their DNA and subconsciously accurate doubles.

“That was an amazing challenge,” says Cleary. “It required meticulous preparation leading up to it to work out how to do technically. And a big part of my job as director was to try and have the least amount of technical stuff in their way on the day. That wasn’t always possible. The first twinning shot that we did was him coming down the stairs, and then the dog; that was actually that was incredibly technical, but doesn’t really look it. But I was surrounded with a really good crew, who were with me all the way, nerding up on all these things.”

Cleary grew up in Rathmines where he enjoyed excursions to the much-missed Laser Video and rifling through director-themed shelves. There he discovered Krzysztof Kieslowski whose Three Colours trilogy helped shape Swan Song.

"No one gets to make films," says Cleary. "That's what I thought growing up. I got into music, engineering and music technology. I went to Pulse recording college there. I was writing scripts since I was a kid. I'd just scribble ideas for films, but never thinking I'd get to make them. then someone said: you should just apply to London Film School – to the screenwriting programme. It was only then realised: oh, people actually do this."

Swan Song is in selected cinemas and  on Apple TV from December 17th