One of the more stirring shorts competing for the Oscar in the Live Action Shorts category is Steph Green’s “New Boy,” based on the short story by Roddy Doyle (The Commitments) about a young African boy named Joseph (Tunji Ebun-Cole), who endures merciless taunting from his new classmates on his first day at a school in Dublin by reflecting back on his time in Africa.
After months of writing, pre-production and casting, Green filmed the short in just five days, and in under eleven minutes, it’s simply one of the finest and purest forms of storytelling we’ve seen on film this year. Going by “New Boy,” Green is likely to be one of those filmmakers we see in a few years with a feature that blows our socks off equally.
ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk with Green about the short and its prestigious Oscar nomination, where the film might be seen as the underdog, though like Joseph, it could also be the kind of new blood the Oscars need to make the category a more interesting one.
ComingSoon.net: I know this was based on a short story, so was this something you read and decided to pursue? Steph Green: The short story is by Roddy Doyle; it has the same title, “New Boy,” and it appeared in “Metro Éireann,” which is Ireland’s multi-cultural newspaper in four sections, so week-by-week, you got another section of Joseph’s experience at school. Then the short story also appeared in “McSweeney’s” short story collection that Dave Eggers publishes. I read it and I never thought about making a short film from a short story before, which had been an oversight, since here was this story that had so much to offer. I felt almost immediately, even before reading the last scene, that it would make a good short film and contacted Roddy, wrote him a letter, and sent him a few pieces I had with kids and he responded.
CS: I have to say that I’m kind of surprised, because you don’t sound Irish. Green: I have Irish heritage and background, and I’ve been living in Ireland for the past 8 years, so I’m an outsider, like Joseph. (laughs)
CS: When I found out I was talking to you, I just expected you’d have a heavy Irish accent. Green: Yeah, plus I’ve been hanging out with all these L.A. people so quickly I tend to lose any sign of my Irish leanings, so I can fit in. I’m kind of between the two places, but I definitely make my films in Ireland and it’s an Irish film.
CS: Fair enough. So when you contacted Roddy, did he have any concerns about how the short story is adapted and did he want to be heavily involved or did he just say “go for it” and it was a matter of getting the rights? Green: He was so generous. I think he saw that I could work with kids and that was the main thing he needed to know, and then we figured out that we had the same goals, which were to communicate the story without it becoming overly-sentimental, which is a struggle when you’re telling a story like this, where you want this humanity to come through without it getting saccharine. That was where we tried to talk and he was very involved. I wrote the adaptation myself, but I’m consulting with him the entire time and he had me over for tea at his place, and we chatted then. He was very involved with giving feedback during the editing process. Of course, we disagreed, but in a healthy way, which was good creative debate, which hopefully lent to a good end result.
CS: I talk to a lot of filmmakers and authors involved with adaptations, and some of them don’t want to be involved whatsoever, and you never know how people are going to feel about taking their words and visualizing them. Green: Yeah, it’s a risk.
CS: How long was the original short story? Was it structured very similarly as far as going back and forth between Ireland and Africa? (Note: there is a minor plot spoiler in the following response.) Green: Good question. I’m trying to think how many pages it was. Maybe 18 or 20 pages, but the main difference was that it was completely told from Joseph’s point of view. “Why is the teacher telling us to put our hands up? Who is that guy behind me poking me?” It was a perspective from the little boy’s point of view, and there was a lot of comedy that came from that, that unless I had done some sort of inner monologue voiceover, which I wasn’t prepared to do, my concern was that I didn’t lose that same humor and that it still felt like a film from Joseph’s point of view. Instead, I sort of focused on the other characters and the relationships between Joseph and the other characters. That was one of the challenges, which was sort of the shift in perspective, and then other differences, there was a private scene in the story between the teacher and Joseph. I think people should definitely read the short story just to see the other half of things, and there was also a dramatic large-scale massacre scene in the story, which is how the father was killed and of course, I didn’t have the budget or resources, and I was in Ireland instead of Africa. I had to really simplify the scene where the father is killed into something quite manageable, and I hope in the end effective without being able to pay for the war.
CS: I wasn’t sure if that was his teacher or his father, but I wanted to ask about that, because there does seem to be some turmoil in his life that might have been the reason for him leaving Africa, and I wondered if that was elaborated on at all in the short story. Green: It was more overt in terms of that scene had more texture in terms of there were a lot of bodies and a lot of people and a lot of chaos outside in the dust, but it was actually no more specific in terms of which country. I talked to Roddy about this, and he felt that this was not a story… he’s a teacher and this story came a lot from his teaching, and he felt like so many boys had this story from so many different places, he didn’t want to limit the story by making it about one particular circumstance, which I thought was interesting, and I sort of went with (that).
CS: The young actor who plays Joseph, we don’t really hear him talk very much and he has a very expressive face. I was curious how you went about finding him. Green: It was so challenging, I have to say, and all the boys that you see in the African schoolhouse were boys that we had met originally for Joseph, and we had met tens and tens of more boys, looking for exactly what you just said, which is that expressive face. He literally has four lines of dialogue and three of them are one word, so we were really reaching out to different community groups in Ireland, because as you can imagine, those boys in the African schoolhouse are real versions of Joseph. They are boys that often have just moved to the country, so not a lot of them have signed up on the casting agents’ roster. We went far and wide, and in the end, we were also communicating with casting people in London and Scotland and other places. We found Tunji, because he had been sort of discovered by a casting agent when he opened the movie “Casino Royale.” He runs in the militia scene and he runs to his father with two bottles of Coca-Cola; his part was the “Coca-Cola Kid.” He had been identified by someone and we benefited from that. It’s just his little head bobbing on the screen and he opens the film. He was absolutely the most wonderful child. His mother is Gambian and his father is from Sierra Leon, so he was familiar with varying accents, and that was what he used when he spoke, but once the camera cut, he had a strong East London accent. (In a strong East London accent) “Is that alright, Steph?” We’re hoping that he’s going to be joining us for the Oscars, and I’m very excited for him to be my date.
CS: The other kids, were a lot of them kids who had done previous acting or had experience or were there a lot who were acting for the first time? Green: Yeah, it was about half and half. A lot of them were in different little acting schools in Dublin, and that can work for or against you when you’re auditioning sometimes. There’s too much acting. Some of the best kids like Fionn, who plays Seth the “I didn’t have my hand up” boy, he had never been in any sort of performance and was so shy and resistant to the audition that that’s actually why I ended up casting him. He was to play this resistant character, so it took forever to fast forward and rewind through the footage to find the best character, who I’d always imagined as this big fat kid, and then we found Fionn. I thought he was fantastic and had never done anything before, whereas Sinead, the little Hazel girl and the bully boy Christian had both been in Community Theater. Simon was the son in “Veronica Guerin” so he had a lot of experience being on set, but the best part of all was how well they all got along. They all became best friends and want me to write them a sequel. (laughs)
CS: Excellent! I’m curious about the road to the Oscars, because obviously, your film has played in a lot of film festivals where they have short programs and won some awards, but do you have any idea how a movie goes from there to the Oscar nominating committee? There’s obviously a lot of short films made over the course of a year. Green: Oh, yeah, it’s amazing. You start out your festival run, hoping to get into these key festivals, and if you have any desire to have it submitted to the Academy, you check on the website, it’s public information, which festivals the Academy recognizes that will help your film qualify to be considered for the Oscar. So there’s a long list of festivals and if you win any of those festivals, immediately your film is eligible for the Oscar consideration. The other way you can become Oscar-eligible I believe has something to do with having public paid screenings happen of the film, so if you get distribution in L.A. I don’t want to be too specific about something I don’t totally understand, but there’s other ways of qualifying as well. In our instance, it was from winning some qualifying festivals, and we were lucky enough to win more than one. And then you’re sort of put into the pool, which I believe this year was something like 100 and something films, and then your fingers are crossed…
CS: Have you seen any of the competition and is there anything that impressed you out of the other four movies? Green: I’m embarrassed that I’ve not seen the competition but everyone’s talking about it and I’m actually due to sit down today. I just got back from Berlin and I’ve got some copies of movies that I’m going to check them all out. I hear that it’s an amazing group that we’re part of.
CS: Do you have any inclinations to do a feature? One of the things I keep noting is that there are a lot of great short films and unfortunately, barring festivals and Oscar nominations, there’s not many theatrical opportunities for them. Green: Oh, absolutely. It hopefully becomes that calling card that provides more opportunity and being more visible that you can kind of get that meeting where you’re able to pitch your next idea and of course, that’s why this is such an honor and we’re so grateful, because I think it helps us get the door open to pitch ideas and of course, I have a bag of ideas I have to take in and talk about to people and they’ll listen and take me seriously. So it’s exciting.
CS: Well, I’m certainly pushing for it Oscar night because it’s my favorite of the five short films, having seen it three times now. Green: Oh, thank you so much! We’re excited that we’re at this place, but of course, once you’re in the race, it’s hard not to hope for the best. Definitely.