Interview: Oscar Nominee Steph Green
Fri, 20 Feb 2009 15:40:46
Steph Green, director of the short film New Boy, has gone from festival favorite to 2009 Academy Award nominee. The film, an exploration of a young African immigrant’s experiences in an Irish classroom, travels across a nuanced emotional spectrum within its brief 10-minute running time, and the journey is lovely. Just a week before the ceremony, ARTISTdirect conversed with Green about the merits of short film, its place in the current Hollywood climate, and what the most valuable experiences of her career have been thus far.
How does it feel being an Academy Award nominee?
I get very excited, then I selectively forget. My parents remind me because they just can’t get over it. They can’t stop talking about it; it’s all they want to talk about right now. If I forget for even a second, my parents remind me.
The film is based on a serialized story [by Roddy Doyle]. How much did you collaborate with him on the adaptation?
When I approached Roddy, it was perfect, because he was too busy to write it himself but wanted to be involved. I had the opportunity to write it but had him meet with me [and] give feedback. I learned so much from that. It was terrifying to work with somebody so prolific and someone who I looked up to so much, but it was a really good exercise. Now I feel like I really want to work with writers. I’m searching for good stories and books. I used his dialogue quite one-to-one from the story, but there were scene changes and things that, in the story, we couldn’t make happen with the resources we had for this film. Most of what we changed had to do with the Africa memories, which were big scale in the story. I had to distill them down. [Roddy] was so helpful, and even when we disagreed it was still productive, which is a wonderful thing—to come to a solution not by placating each other, but by having good creative debate.
Why did you choose to portray Joseph’s past with such ambiguity in the short?
In Roddy’s story there was also a vagueness. We did speak about this. He was basing the story on experiences he had as a teacher and a lot of the new African immigrants that came into the school in which he was teaching. He wanted the story to speak to all of them. It wasn’t about the Nigerian boy or the Zambian boy or the Zimbabwean boy; it was about what they had in common, this universal experience of being “new.” I think what he did, in doing that, is write about what it feels like generally to be new. That’s why it resonated with me. I’ve never emigrated from Africa, but I have definitely stood in front of a classroom and been very alone.
“Continually wrestling with your confidence is a really big part of doing any sort of creative task.”
What were you looking for in the child leads, specifically Joseph?
With kids you’re looking for an imagination and an expressiveness. With kids, at some level, you cast the kid that’s already there. The less they act, sometimes the better. I really needed to find kids that already had that signature character that Roddy writes incredibly. Joseph had so few lines, so I needed a kid that had an amazing, expressive face. Even though he doesn’t speak, you’re hearing his thoughts the entire time, so you really get to know him. When we found Olutunji [Ebun-Cole, who plays Joseph]…it was immediate. We were sent a tape of him, and it was clear he was the right boy because of how expressive his face was and how quickly we empathized with him.
What do you enjoy about working within the medium of short film?
There’s a different poetry to shorts; there’s a different skill involved in the distillation process. What are your priorities? Whatever emotional journey you want to take people on, your assignment is to do that within a very short amount of time. To me it’s like telling a really good story. When you tell a really good story to someone, you don’t take an hour-and-a-half to do that. You do it in ten minutes, maybe, maximum. That is something to work on. You want to be involving [in storytelling], and I think short films are a great way to learn. I’m glad the Academy takes the time to acknowledge that.
Where do you see the place of shorts today? Audiences aren’t really going en masse to watch shorts. Do you feel like they’re relegated to a niche audience?
They used to be in front of features, and that, I think, is so wonderful. It’s such a shame that that has disappeared in favor of advertising in front of feature films. At the same time, we celebrate the possibilities that [the internet] can offer short films. We’re hopeful about online. I also think there are a lot of people that go to their local film festivals. Long may the film festival continue, because that’s where a lot of work that doesn’t get distribution ends up being seen.
What have some of the most valuable experiences of your career so far?
Staring at the blank page for so long and deciding that you’re completely worthless, and then still wanting to [write]. Continually wrestling with your confidence is a really big part of doing any sort of creative task. You’re always starting from scratch. I also [found] some mentors. I’ve watched incredible people make films. I also think that it’s not supposed to be easy.
What can you say about the feature you’re developing?
I’m sort of developing a lot of different things. The one I can talk about freely is a coming-of-age story and a thriller plot about a couple boys in Dublin who accidentally videotape a girl before she goes missing. I’m interested in watching psychological thrillers, and I often think, “What would happen if I put an adolescent in that main role?”
What were some of your favorite films of 2008, be they shorts or features?
Let the Right One In, which won Tribeca, was amazing. Rachel Getting Married—I thought there was great emotional truth in that film. I enjoyed Revolutionary Road and Slumdog Millionaire, of course. I saw [Slumdog] at an early screening at the Telluride Film Festival, and it was mind-blowing to go in with no expectations and see that film.