Rachel Shenton and Chris Overton on their Oscar-winning short The Silent Child
Writer/actor Rachel Shenton with director Chris Overton
24th July 2018
The filmmaking couple, who are on our Short Support Scheme, made a film about a deaf girl who has difficulty communicating with her distracted family.
What gave you the idea for the story?
Rachel: My lovely dad lost his hearing very suddenly when I was 12, following chemotherapy treatment, so I saw how isolating it is and the impact it has on a family. I’ve been heavily involved in sign language and the deaf community ever since. I’m a proud ambassador for the National Deaf Children's Society and feel that access to education for deaf children needs to be a whole lot better.
How long did the film take to make?
Both: The first draft of the script was completed in May 2016; we took nine months to raise the money; 10 days to shoot it; and six months to edit. All in all the process was about two years from the first draft to… the Oscars!
Was it difficult to find funding for the film?
Both: Yes! It was almost impossible. We felt like we tried everything and got nowhere. There was no way we were not going to make this film, so we turned to crowdfunding, which was one of the hardest things we ever experienced. Getting someone to believe in your idea is tough, but getting someone to part with their hard-earned cash is even tougher.
How did you find Maisie Sly who plays Libby?
Chris: Directing Maisie Sly was my favourite part about making The Silent Child. I’m a big kid myself so I really enjoyed having fun with her in between takes. To give a five-year-old a note, and for it to be understood exactly how you want it, is one of the best feelings for me as a director. Maisie’s understanding of performance is mind-blowing. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. She’s won a few awards and she really deserves them.
Maisie is a very special child. She only communicates in BSL (British Sign Language) so I had no choice but to learn as much as I could, and I loved it.
The most challenging thing for me was gaining her trust. Rachel and I spent a lot of time getting to know Maisie before the shoot. She’s besotted with Rachel, so she had it easy, but I didn’t.
Maisie takes time to trust people, especially if you’re not deaf and you can’t speak her language. So I had my work cut out, but when I broke through, it was amazing. For Rachel, they were best friends within about 20 minutes.
Rachel: We knew the brief was pretty specific for that character and authenticity was paramount for me. So we did a nationwide search, we very candidly made a poster and asked all the deaf charities and organisations on Facebook and social media to put it on their pages. We saw more than 100 children with varying levels of hearing loss and then little Maisie Sly walked in and made the decision very easy for us.
Rachel, what was it like acting in a film you’d written?
Rachel: It’s very surreal, actually. It’s the first time I’d done it – I hope it’s the first of many. In terms of performance, I felt it was an advantage as I knew the character so well because I’d created her.
Maisie Sly and Rachel Shenton in The Silent Child
Has the film played many festivals? What were your best festival experiences?
Both: We started our festival run last August with the world premiere at Rhode Island International Film Festival, where we won the Grand Jury Prize. That meant we could submit to the Oscars. That was HUGE for our little film. We were all crying, phoning our parents and family and the other crew members, telling them we’re now able to submit to…THE OSCARS!
After that we played at around another 20 festivals, and after winning the Oscar we’ve had a lot more interest from festivals.
We had an amazing experience at Bolton Film Festival. It was their first year and it was so professional and so well organised. You really felt the festival directors cared about the films.
One festival I urge everyone to apply to is SCAD Savannah Film Festival. They really look after you. That was one of the best. Chris went out alone and was treated like a king.
Our hearts will always belong to Rhode Island, they opened the door and without them, we may not have won what is essentially the biggest festival in the world.
What did you do when you found out the film had been nominated for an Oscar?
Both: This is what we did:
What was the most bizarre thing about the Oscars circus?
Both: Just being there at the Dolby Theatre all dressed up was unbelievable. You can’t take it all in. We couldn’t believe a film we crowdfunded was now on the biggest platform in the world. It was quite bizarre doing the winners' walk, standing in front of a 100 photographers all shouting: “move to the left”, “hold the Oscar up” and “try to look happy for me, back centre right”.
What were the day and night of the Oscars like? Any highlights? Funny moments?
Chris: Yes quite a few:
It was really drilled into us that we had 45 seconds and 45 seconds only for the speech. They were not kidding. As Rachel finished her speech, I looked at the big teleprompter in the middle of the auditorium and it said: “3,2,1”. Just as I started to speak all I could see was “TIME IS UP” and then halfway through my speech I looked at it again and it said “TIME IS UP – GET OFF”. Then the music was turned up, they were trying to play me out. That was very funny.
We kept thinking we were in with a chance and then not. Someone with a clipboard came over to the guys from Watu Wote (other short film nominees who were sat next to us) and asked them to move to the front as the Live Action Short section was coming up soon. So we all just thought, that’s that then, never mind. And then five minutes later a guy came up to us with a clipboard and asked us to move to the front too. Then we thought, OK, it’s back on, maybe we have a shot.
We did some press at the Vanity Fair party with all the British media who had been so supportive, grabbed a burger (as we were very, very hungry) and headed back to the apartment where all our friends, family and some of the cast and crew who couldn’t come to the ceremony were waiting. Showing them the Oscars and being with the people we love and who helped us make the film is what it’s all about. That was very emotional. We had about 45 minutes there before we had to go in a car to do some more press. We eventually got in at about 4am.
The Silent Child
Rachel, why did you sign your Oscars acceptance speech?
Rachel: Our little leading lady Maisie was in the audience with her mum and interpreter and I didn't want her to have to take her eyes off the stage – I wanted her to be able to watch me and listen as it was all unfolding. Not that she was too bothered – she was as calm as a cucumber through the whole process.
What was the response to that?
Rachel: The response was surprising – I had lots of lovely messages afterwards which was very much unexpected. I’ve been signing for well over half my life so it's very normal to me.
What do you think needs to be done to give deaf children in the UK a better experience at school?
Both: Sign language needs to be taught in schools as early as possible. Change needs to start at a grass roots level. There’s a lack of awareness about deafness, so we feel very proud that our film may have contributed to the conversation. Now it's about continuing that conversation.
What’s next for the film?
Both: Hopefully the The Silent Child feature. We’re developing the script at the moment, which is fun. We’ve been overwhelmed by the response so far and we particularly hope that schools continue to use the film as an educational tool.