Interview: Chris Overton Discusses the Poignant Deaf Advocacy of his Oscar-shortlisted ‘The Silent Child’

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Depicting an important topic we don’t often think about, “The Silent Child” is one of the most poignant and meaningful of this year’s shortlisted films for the Best Live Action Short Oscar. This tender-hearted drama is directed by Chris Overton, based on a story written by his fiancé Rachel Shenton, who also stars in the film. Shenton plays a social worker named Joanne, who takes a keen interest in the deaf child of middle class family and teaches her how to communicate. As their relationship grows, both Joanne and Rachel’s lives are changed for the better. Recently I had the pleasure to speak to Overton, as we discussed his tender approach to the story and the importance of its commonly neglected message.

Shane Slater: This is such an important topic that we don’t often think about. Did you have any prior working experience with deaf children?

Chris Overton: The inspiration came from Rachel, her dad was profoundly deaf. When she was 12, he lost his hearing overnight. And I think that gave her the impetus to learn sign language. So her passion for deafness comes from that. Rachel is my fiancé, so I’m very lucky that I’ve been introduced to the deaf community. It’s been awesome.

SS: Was this film based on a specific true story?

CO: It’s based on a lady Rachel lived with when she was working on a show called “Switched at Birth” in LA for ABC Family. So a lot of this lady’s life is in it. There are so many stories like this and so many silent children out there. And we had so many letters of support from people all over the world saying, “this is literally what happened to me.” So a lot of people can relate to it. It’s a problem across the board and something that so many deaf people that are now adults can relate to. That was their childhood growing up. Not being included in school, being isolated. There’s still a lot of work to do, but it was even worse before.

SS: How did you arrive at the film’s tone? I could envision a version of this film being a lot more confrontational.

CO: We wanted to set the tone from Joanne and Libby’s point of view. From that moment where we put the audience in Libby’s shoes and get them to experience what it’s like to be deaf, that sets the tone. From that moment you’re locked in. It should be a little shocking, when you can see everyone talking around the table.

We wanted to make it very classical in the way it was shot. The DOP is from Iran, so we had a fusion of ideas. What came together was quite interesting. We wanted to make it a human story. There’s a little bit of darkness in there, but at the same time it comes from the mother. But she’s not supposed to be a bad mom. Some people are quite confused about whether they should hate Sue or not. She is a woman who’s trying to do her best but she’s got two other kids and she doesn’t really know what to do. I think she’s trying to keep up with the Joneses and make everything seem great. When she first meets Joanne she says, “my other kids are doing so well.” We wanted to show that she has to prove to Joanne that her other two kids are doing well. I suppose it’s not that she’s embarrassed by Libby, but she’s desperate to have a happy family and make Libby “normal”.

SS: Is the actress who plays Libby deaf in real life?

CO: She is. There was no way we could have a hearing child play that role. It’s so important. We talked to hundreds of kids with varying hearing impairments and Maisie was the only child that was profoundly deaf. And she’s the only child that came in whose first language was British Sign Language. We fell in love with her within 20 seconds. Because she only relies on her eyes, she has this laser focus. For all of us, but especially Rachel, she really pushed us. That’s what the whole film is about. We’re trying to prove that deaf kids can do anything that hearing children can do if they’re given the right support. And Maisie proves that in abundance.

SS: Did working with a deaf child require a different directing style from you?

CO: Yeah! [Laughs] It was challenging because not only is she 5, but we didn’t speak each other’s language. Her first language is British Sign Language and mine is spoken English. So Rachel and I made sure their relationship was spot on, but also mine with Maisie as well. For a few months leading up to the shoot, we spent a lot time with her and I had to work very hard to gain her trust. So when she did come on set and I asked her to do something, she could do it. She was just amazing. She’s 5 so I don’t think she understood why she had to do it so many times. She’d just say, “Can I finish? Can I go and play?” So we had a lot of kids’ breaks.

SS: How have audiences reacted to this story?

CO: We’ve always had amazing reactions. The #1 thing is that it’s opened up a conversation about deafness. The most amazing thing at our world premiere in Rhode Island was, a 65-year old man came up to us and said, “you know, I never thought about that.” And you know, before I met Rachel, it didn’t really come across my radar. It’s not life-threatening and you can’t see it. So it’s quite a difficult subject to raise awareness for, which is why we made the film. And I think it worked. One of our main aims is to get sign language in every school across the globe. We screened in London in the House of Parliament in May and those types of people have the power to make those changes happen. So the reaction has been amazing and it always starts a conversation. People just want to see more.

SS: What’s next for you?

CO: Rachel is currently writing the feature film for “The Silent Child”. This story needs to be told on an even bigger scale, on a commercial basis.

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MOTION PICTURE | DIRECTOR |
LEAD ACTOR | LEAD ACTRESS | SUPPORTING ACTOR | SUPPORTING ACTRESS | 
ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY | ADAPTED SCREENPLAY | ANIMATED FEATURE |
PRODUCTION DESIGN | CINEMATOGRAPHY | COSTUME DESIGN | FILM EDITING | MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING | SOUND MIXING | SOUND EDITING | VISUAL EFFECTS |
ORIGINAL SCORE | ORIGINAL SONG |
FOREIGN LANGUAGE | DOCUMENTARY FEATURE |

ANIMATED SHORT | DOCUMENTARY SHORT | LIVE ACTION SHORT |