It’s not like film directors just appear working
feature films with no prior experience. Most great directors have
gotten their feet wet working on short films: including Steven Spielberg
(“Amblin’”), Martin Scorsese (“What’s A Nice Girl Like You Doing In A
Place Like This?”), Tim Burton (“Frankenweenie”), Gus Van Sant (“The
Discipline of DE”) and George Lucas (“Electronic Labyrinth THX-1138
Hoping to join these celebrated directors is Steph
Green, an Irish-American writer and director who has been nominated for
an Oscar® for Best Live Action Short for her film “New Boy.” The short
is based on a story by popular Irish writer Roddy Doyle, who has also
had his books The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van
turned into movies.
In “New Boy,” Green takes an intimate look at an
African boy who is shyly trying to cope with the experiences on his
first day at a new school in Dublin – a strange place with strange
people. Other shorts which Green has filmed include “Transit,” about a
man who has to decide if he wants to get involved after he sees a purse
snatcher get onto the bus he is riding.
The nomination for “New Boy” has put Green in good
company. Past winners of the Best Live Action Short Oscar have included
Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman, Ray), David Frankel
(The Devil Wears Prada, Marley & Me), Martin McDonagh (In
Bruges) and Claude Berri (Jean de Florette).
A couple of weeks before the Oscar ceremony, Green
gave us a call to discuss “New Boy,” her career, her aspirations and her
How surprising was it when after all the shorts
made in a year, yours was one of the ones to be nominated for an Oscar?
Surprising. (laughs). Definitely.
Definitely. Very exciting.
I also watched your short “Transit,” which, like
“New Boy,” is about chance meetings of strangers and the importance of
opening yourself up to help people you don’t know. Why does this theme
resonate to you?
Wow, that’s really nice that you’ve seen that in
both of those films. I’m still working on what it is about these themes
that is so resonant for me, but I’m very interested in how we are all
the same – and different. I’ve been lucky this year to travel a lot and
be on a lot of buses, a lot of subways and planes. It’s really
interesting the degree to which we are strangers – and not strangers.
What does it mean to have to sit next to someone? That’s the same in a
classroom as on the bus. There is something about the humanity of that
which I like looking at. It’s really nice that you can tell that.
What was it about the Roddy Doyle story that
inspired you to turn it into a film?
Well, the story itself is just really well told. I
would encourage anyone who liked the film to go read the story.
Now, I have to admit though I have read some of
Doyle’s work, I’m not familiar with the story. Was it called “New Boy”
It is. It’s called “New Boy.” I read it in
Ireland’s multi-cultural newspaper Metro Ireland. I also saw it
in McSweeney’s short story collection. It is also in Roddy’s
newest release of stories called The Deportees, which really
focuses on the new multi-cultural Ireland. His story is told from
Joseph’s [the little African boy] point of view. It’s sort of this
stream of consciousness. Joseph experiences all this newness in the
classroom. I just thought it was extremely sincere. And really funny,
about how we sort of misunderstand things when we first arrive and that
never happens again. You can never get back your first responses to
things. Your first impressions. Then, of course, the characters are
signature Roddy characters… this amazing dialogue. The end, I felt,
where the way these boys end up getting along has nothing to do with
someone telling them to get along. It has to do with sharing a laugh.
That creates friendship. That cannot be planned or prescribed, but has
to just happen.
Do you feel that hatred and prejudice is
something that is unnatural to children – they are taught it, but
otherwise they would always find some common ground?
Yeah, I think kids have just less fear, often than
adults – while they may be overtly noticing differences. A lot of funny
stuff came out with the cast, with parents telling us when their child
first saw their first African person. How they stared at them or said
something totally inappropriate. But it wasn’t born of fear, it was
curiosity. It’s only as we get older that I think there’s a
defensiveness and threat felt. I think we have a lot to learn from that
and how kids work with each other.
The teacher role was rather funny in her
exasperation. Was she fun to write?
It was so fun. (laughs) I mean, Roddy is a
teacher. He’s been teaching for a long time. This story definitely
came from his experience with students and a lot of new boys. How they
find their place. And perhaps exasperation as well. He’s very close to
that, I think.
With shorts you have a limited amount that you
can show or explain – for example I was wondering how exactly the new
boy wound up in Ireland after losing his father. As a storyteller does
that make short films more challenging?
Well, a lot of it… you have to really figure out
your priorities, because your resources are so limited – both in terms
of your budget. For me, I had to show Africa and we were in fact in the
middle of winter in an Irish farmhouse. There were other interesting
examples where the story could go wider and I had to go narrower. But,
I think there’s a good distillation process that happens there where you
have to figure out what is very important in terms of watching the
film. In fact, in terms of what exactly happened to Joseph that got him
physically from Africa to Ireland – that was not in the story. Also
omitted from the story were any specifics about where in Africa he was
from. I think that’s because Roddy wanted to make a universal story.
We talked a little bit about that and he just didn’t feel that it
mattered if he was Nigerian or Zambian or Zimbabwean – in favor of being
concise and being in the moment where the kids didn’t know what happened
to Joseph. What was important to Joseph was only what he had lost in
his father and teacher – less than some of the details of where it all
Was it interesting as a filmmaker to submerge
yourself in not just one, but two different cultures than your own?
It was great. You can probably tell from my
accent, my heritage is Irish but I was born in the States. I split my
time. I’m very interested in a lot of places. Part of the fun of being
a filmmaker is the idea that you just might be able to travel or make a
film of somewhere else. One of my production designers, Shannon
Scrofano, had just returned from Africa. She ended up really working
with the African interior. So, I felt there was an authenticity we were
going for there.
Just a few years ago, Irish playwright Martin
McDonagh won the Oscar that you are nominated for. That opened the door
for his feature debut with In Bruges, which is up for a
screenplay Oscar. Do you see this film as a launching pad to doing
Well, I think that’s the reason I’m so grateful for
the nomination – the idea that it will help create more opportunity and
get the door open. That is sort of half the battle when you’re trying
to pitch your ideas. I love short films. I think that there are not
enough. I wish we all paid more attention to short films. It’s been so
fun to go to festivals and see shorts from all over the world. But, of
course, I’m aggressively trying to get interest in my next projects.
I’d like them to be feature length.
What are some of the ideas you have going?
I’m working on a
thriller set in Dublin, but it’s also a coming of age. A couple of boys
accidentally videotape a girl before she goes missing and get sucked
into her adventure. I’m also mid-process of optioning a few books
that I won’t mention, because they are not completely mine yet. Just
also hoping this allows access in terms of seeing what good scripts are
out there and meeting writers. I am a writer, but I am also interested
in material from other writers. Obviously, finding Roddy’s story showed
me what a good experience it can be to adapt good work. Hopefully more
opportunity will come.
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