Oscar Shorts 2018: ‘The Silent Child’ Cast & Crew Interviews

Muse grill the people behind the Oscar-nominated short on making the film and its importance to society

With cinema’s most-hyped awards show just around the corner, Nouse turns its attention to an oft-ignored Academy Award: Best Live-Action Short Film. With access to some of the 5 films nominated, our team have been tackling them in a series of interviews and reviews. From thrillers with timely racial commentary to terrorism and religious conflict, there is plenty of wonderful work to see. The final winner will be announced at the Oscars ceremony on 4th March.

Image: Slick Films/Slick Showreels

The last few months have been quite something for Rachel Shenton and the people behind acclaimed short film The Silent Child. In just a short while, the former Hollyoaks and Waterloo Road star is headed to the Academy Awards, a far cry from British soapland. Her dual talents of writing and acting have helped The Silent Child garner enough praise to see it make the final five-strong shortlist for the Best Live-Action Short Film Oscar. Focussing on the life of a young deaf girl, the film not only tugs at the heart strings, but raises important issues too. Muse interviewed Shelton, along with director Chris Overton and actors Annie Cusselle and Phillip York.

Rachel Shenton – Writer and ‘Joanne’

Muse: What was it that inspired you to write this story?

RS: My lovely dad lived the last two years of his life profoundly deaf. I saw first-hand the huge effects deafness has on a family and I’ve been involved in the deaf community ever since. Whilst working with deaf organisations I’ve been exposed to the struggle deaf children face, which gave me the impetus to write the movie.

Muse: How difficult was it to perfect your idea?

RS: Deciding exactly what would happen and why was the hardest part – the story was heavily influenced by a lady that I lived with in Los Angeles and her childhood; the stories she told me about growing up where very influential to the story.

Muse: Why do you think it was important casting Maisie as opposed to a child who is not deaf?

RS: Authenticity is hugely important to me. Libby had to be deaf; that was non-negotiable. I feel that deaf/disabled actors are under represented in film anyway and our entire message was that deaf children can do the same as hearing children given the correct support, so there was no other option.

Muse: This is a story about caring. Was it a close-knit set? Does the mood on set tend to affect your work on a project?

RS: Of course. I think regardless of your profession, who you work with and the atmosphere is what changes a normal job into something special. I’m super proud to say everyone on The Silent Child was incredibly supportive and understanding of our message. All trying their best to learn bits of sign language to communicate with our little leading lady. I couldn’t have wished for a more compassionate cast and crew.

Muse: How does it feel to have your work nominated for an Oscar?

RS: I’ll never get used to reading that question. It’s so surreal and I just feel immensely proud of our whole team.

Muse: Do you think awards like this are important for your career? Are they a key part of the industry for filmmakers?

RS: I’ve never won one before so I don’t know how qualified I am to answer this but I think they probably help, particularly when making the leap from short to feature I guess an award or a nomination validates your idea and acts as a pretty decent proof of concept.

Muse: What was your experience of being both the writer and star of the film? Is it hard not to get too involved in the direction when it is your creation being used?

RS: Surprisingly no that wasn’t difficult, I trusted Chris implicitly and knew we shared the same vision for the story. I was heavily involved in the pre-production and had the privilege of explaining my ideas for the picture too. Being the writer certainly made my job as an actress much easier as I know the character so well because I’d created her.

Muse: The film clearly hopes to raise awareness, what do you hope to achieve from this in the future?

RS: Yes we aim to make a feature length version of the film and ultimately raise the profile of deafness and shine a much-needed light on access to education for deaf children. I believe film is an incredibly powerful medium to do that.

Muse: Why do you think short films are important? Are they a stepping stone to features or a crucial art form in their own right?

RS: Oh I for sure think they’re a crucial art form in their own right and not every short is intending to be a feature. That said, I also think it can make the transition a little easier – as it can act as proof of concept.

Muse: This film has been to several festivals; what is your experience of film festivals? How important do you think they are for the industry and for short films in particular?

RS: I have thoroughly enjoyed the festival circuit. They are absolutely necessary for the industry and an excellent way to showcase talent, meet other creatives and share your work. I can’t speak highly enough of the festivals we’ve attended. Rhode Island was the festival that qualified us for the Oscars and they have been such a great support network for us since winning too; any questions we’ve had about the process they’ve been right there.

Image: Slick Films/Slick Showreels

Chris Overton – Director

Muse: What were you looking for in your casting?

CO: Authenticity. We had to have a deaf child play this role. Nobody else could play Libby like Maisie Sly. She has a rare maturity I’ve never seen before and because she only has her eyes to rely on, she has this incredible laser focus.

Muse: Why do you think it was important casting Maisie as opposed to a child who is not deaf?

CO: If we cast a hearing child, we would be totally hypocritical about what we’re trying to achieve, which is to prove deaf children can do anything that hearing children can do. They just need the right support.

Muse: What themes or feelings did you hope to create with the visuals and sound design?

CO: Myself and the DOP (Ali Farahani) really played around with the use of colour. The film starts off very drab, with dull colours in the costumes and in the grade, and then when Joanne (Rachel Shenton) enters the story, bright vibrant colours emerge, with her signature red coat and red nail varnish. Half way through the story the colour is at its climax. Later on the colour changes again. This is to show Joanne is the light in Libby’s life and she is taking Libby away from the isolated life her parents are putting her in. We made sure Libby was always behind something, or in a dirty frame for the same reasons.

Our sound designer (Greg Claridge) really helped us to craft what the audience should hear when we put them in Libby’s shoes. We spent a lot of time on this particular scene, and tried so many different ways. We used Maisie and her mum for research to try and emulate exactly what it is they hear. We wanted it to be authentic. There were the obvious ways we could have done it, but we didn’t want to go down that road. In certain parts of the film we used the character of Joanne to represent Libby’s ears. They are subtle things the audience only notice subconsciously but they add a lot of texture to some heartbreaking moments.

Muse: This is a story about caring. Was it a close-knit set? Does the mood on set tend to affect your work on a project?

CO: The mood on set had such a family feel. If you ask any of the cast or crew, they’d all say we knew we were working on something very special and something that had a lot of heart.

There were about 15 crew members living in the same house as well as Maisie and her family. It’s quite rare to sleep on the set, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. Having the right mood on set really added to the success of the shoot.

Myself and Rachel made sure we spent a lot of time getting to know Maisie before the shoot – we wanted her to feel familiar with us and comfortable on the set. I think if we hadn’t have done that it would have been a lot harder to get the performance we needed from her.

Muse: How does it feel to have your work nominated for an Oscar?

CO: It does feel amazing, I can’t quite believe it. It’s been such a team effort and everyone involved deserves it. But more important is the message of the film and the deaf community deserve to have their voice heard a little louder.

Muse: Do you think awards like this are important for your career? Are they a key part of the industry for filmmakers?

CO: It’s my first film – so I couldn’t have hoped for anything better in terms of awards and recognition. There are many routes into the industry; festivals and awards are one root, but not the only route. Somebody said to me that awards help to make people take you more seriously so I’ll see if they’re right when I come to find the money for my next film.

Muse: What was it like to work with Rachel Shenton, who both wrote and starred in the film? Does her involvement in the story make directing her a more challenging or more exciting task?

CO: She’s the writer, actress and also my Fiancé – in for a penny in for a pound, hey? Rachel wrote her character so knew how to play her very well. I was there to mould her performance. We’re very lucky, we have a great working relationship and sometimes the best ideas for the film came when we were sitting on the sofa at home or walking the dog.

Muse: The film clearly hopes to raise awareness, what do you hope to achieve from this in the future?

CO: We hope to get sign language recognised in all schools across the world. It’s such a beautiful language – it deserves to be more widely recognised.

Muse: Why do you think short films are important? Are they a stepping stone to features or a crucial art form in their own right?

CO: Both. They are an art form for sure. To tell a compelling story in a short amount of time is no easy task, and to probably do it on a shoe string is even harder. It’s bloody hard work, but at the same time it’s a realistic way of completing a project and proving what you can do. Who is going to give a first time filmmaker a proper feature film budget? There might be somebody out there, but I’ve never met them. I would definitely say they’re a great stepping stone, not necessarily just for features, but for the careers of everyone involved. This short film has opened doors for the whole team in ways I could never have imagined.

Muse: This film has been to several festivals; what is your experience of film festivals? How important do you think they are for the industry and for short films in particular?

CO: My first ever film festival was Rhode Island International Film festival and that was our world premiere. We were very lucky to have screened on opening night in front of 2,200 people. It was an incredible experience and the RIFF team have huge hearts. We’ve also screened the film to about 39 people at other smaller festivals and it’s still equally exciting to hear the feedback.

Honestly I can say, I really enjoy film festivals. They’re exciting and almost have careers of their own. I love watching other short films. I’d always come away from a festival with so much inspiration and that alone is why I think film festivals are so important. As filmmakers we’ll never stop learning and I think festivals are a big part of that.

Could I say ‘festivals’ any more?

Muse: What’s your next project?

CO: We want to extend the story of The Silent Child. Whether that be a 3 part drama or a feature film. We feel the story has legs and already has an audience.

Image: Slick Films/Slick Showreels

Annie Cusselle – ‘Pip’

Muse: Why did you want to be involved in this short film?

AC: Before I went into the audition, I was aware of the important message that Rachel and Chris wanted to highlight in this film surrounding support for deaf children and for me, I wanted to help them achieve their ambitions of raising awareness.

Muse: When you read the initial script, what stood out to you?

AC: The thing that immediately stood out to me when I received the script before my audition was struggle for support and expertise in deafness within schools, which the film shows and most importantly Rachel captured it within her writing.

Muse: This is a story about caring. Was it a close- knit set? Does the mood on set tend to affect your work on a project?

AC: Sam (Rees) and I played Libby’s older siblings in the film and we knew each other really well before we started the shoot as we both go to the same drama school, ActorTribe in Cheshire. Therefore, acting as though he was my brother wasn’t a struggle at all as he’s almost like my brother in real life! For me, since this was my first professional job, the mood on set was very relaxed as we put each other at ease. I got on with the whole team really well and we all really bonded and we became a big family at the end of the shoot.

Muse: What did you take away from the film, in terms of experiences and lessons for the future?

AC: Being able to work alongside Maisie (Sly) and her family who were on location with us was so rewarding and I was able to learn some basic sign language to be able to communicate with the family. As I’m only 17 and very new to the world of acting, I felt as though I grew up massively on the shooting days and I learnt so much about the processes of film making and I had a huge awakening to all other aspects of filmmaking that I didn’t even think about before. I will treasure the experience of filming with that cast and crew for the rest of my life for sure!

Muse: Were there any difficult acting moments in the film?

AC: Every day, my co-actors and myself were absolutely in awe of Maisie and how amazing her acting ability was, despite the fact she had never acted before and she was 6 years old. There were only a few difficult times when on a few of the takes, understandably, things had all got a little too much for Maisie, but this didn’t happen very often and she even asked to shoot a retake as she wasn’t happy with the previous take!

Muse: What was it like working with Rachel Shenton, who had also written the film? Does her close involvement with the story change the experience of acting opposite her?

AC: Rachel is a huge inspiration to me as she wrote something that she felt truly passionate about and she has dedicated much of her life to raising deaf- awareness. Due to the fact I was speaking words that she’d written right in front of her, I did feel slight pressure to say them the way she had intended them to sound when she wrote it! Rachel’s writing was truly beautiful and captured the essence of the message exceptionally well and so being able to work alongside her was an absolute privilege.

Muse: This film has been to several festivals; what is your experience of film festivals? How important do you think they are for the industry and for short films in particular?

AC: We are all absolutely delighted with the number of awards we’ve picked up from all the film festivals we’ve taken part in. Even though my experience of them is quite minimal since this has been my first professional job, I have absolutely loved hearing about all our successes in the short film festivals. In my opinion, short films don’t receive enough credit in the film industry as the effort that goes into them is phenomenal and the messages behind them are always so powerful. For us to have received recognition from well-respected festivals across the globe has really given us the confidence that this film is not only perceived by us and our family and friends as being fantastic but also by professionals, critics and the general public across the world.

Muse: How does it feel to have worked on an Oscar-nominated film?

AC: It’s incredible to think that 12 months ago we had just wrapped up on set waiting to see the finished product and now we’re waiting to find out if we’ve won an Oscar! It’s the most bizarre feeling as I am a 17 year old girl who goes to a normal college and loves to act in her spare time but also now, I can say that my first professional film that I was involved in, went to the Oscars. It’s just a little mind-blowing!

Muse: Do you think awards like this are important for your career? Are they a key part of the industry for actors?

AC: This nomination for me, I’m hoping, will open up doors for me in the future and will allow me to take my acting career even further and so, to be involved with prestigious awards such as the Oscars is incredibly important for my personal career and for other actors too. However, despite all the prestige we’ve gained, it still doesn’t take away from the message of the film and the reason why the film came about in the first place. It’s easy to get caught up with physical rewards but for me the biggest reward of all was being able to work alongside some of the best people in their fields and that was truly the best thing.

Muse: Do you, as an actor, place much importance on awards? Or are you more focussed on finding interesting projects?

AC: Being considered for awards is an absolutely amazing feeling, knowing that you’re being acknowledged for your hard work and your skills is fabulous but finding interest projects such as this one is the biggest focus for me. I think finding projects as poignant and important as this one again will be hard to come by and I know how lucky I am to be involved with something with such an amazing motive behind it.

Muse: What’s your next project?

AC: As of now, I am hoping to carry on auditioning for anything I can and trying to become involved with another project because I’ve definitely caught the acting ‘bug’! Watch this space as I hope to get involved in other projects very soon!

Phillip York – ‘Paul’

Muse: Why did you want to be involved in this short film?

PY: Well written and interesting subject with insight to something I had not previously considered in depth.

Muse: When you read the initial script, what stood out to you?

PY: I read it three times before understanding the complexities. It’s not as straightforward as it looks.

Muse: This is a story about caring. Was it a close-knit set? Does the mood on set tend to affect your work on a project?

PY: Yes, if sympathetic to the story/theme

Muse: What did you take away from the film, in terms of experiences and lessons for the future?

PY: A clearer understanding of the importance deafness awareness.

Muse: Were there any difficult acting moments in the film?

PY: Balancing the marital relationship and family responsibilities.

Muse: What was it like working with Rachel Shenton, who had also written the film? Does her close involvement with the story change the experience of acting opposite her?

PY: Not really when she is an actress she is acting.

Muse: This film has been to several festivals; what is your experience of film festivals? How important do you think they are for the industry and for short films in particular?

PY: Great way to develop ideas and learn.

Muse: How does it feel to have worked on an Oscar-nominated film?

PY: Hasn’t really sunk in but thrilled for the movers and shakers who got the show on the road.

Muse: Do you think awards like this are important for your career? Are they a key part of the industry for actors?

PY: They might be  – acting and success remain a mystery.

Muse: Do you, as an actor, place much importance on awards? Or are you more focussed on finding interesting projects?

PY: Inevitably the latter.

Muse: What’s your next project?

PY: Another job and with luck one as interesting and fulfilling.

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