Filmmakers Tom Berkeley and Ross White join us on Close-Up Culture to chat about their BAFTA-winning short film, An Irish Goodbye.
In rural Northern Ireland, a pair of estranged brothers reunite following their mother’s untimely death.
The narrative follows two estranged brothers, who reunite in rural Northern Ireland following their mother’s untimely death. Can you tell us where the inspiration came from for the story?
Tom: It’s often hard to recall the initial catalyst that sparks an idea into life, but I do remember having been at the football with my dad where I saw two brothers (much like the pair you’ll see in our film) sat a few rows ahead of me, arguing ferociously with each other over the game. These were big, strapping lads – salt of the earth – and they spent the entire match hurling abuse at each other. The younger brother happened to have Down syndrome, and I found the duty of care that was present in their otherwise fiery relationship really compelling.
The match ended 0-0 and was by no means a classic, and I spent most of it watching these fellas go through just about every human emotion together over the course of 90 minutes. The next day I told Ross about these two brilliant characters and we immediately knew we wanted to write something based around that relationship. The story went through various incarnations, but finally settled as a tale of embittered, estranged brothers who, in their attempt to find a fitting farewell for their late mother, somehow find each other again.
Can you tell us a bit about the casting process, particularly the two brothers Lorcan (James Martin) and Turlough (Seamus O’Hara)?
Ross: The script for An Irish Goodbye was actually the first that Tom and I had written together for screen, but we ended up shelving the project to work on other things. That all changed when we came across local actor James Martin in the BBC comedy ‘Ups and Downs’. I was aware of James for his advocacy for learning disability charity Mencap and his much adored appearances on a local radio show, but I hadn’t realised that he was an actor until I saw the show. His charisma and charm just jumped out at us and we knew we had to build the film around him.
And Seamus O’Hara is one of the most exciting Irish actors coming through right now – we really lucked out and managed to catch him at a good time. Since our film, he’s had roles in The Northman, Mandrake, and Netflix’s upcoming season of Shadow and Bone. He’s a director’s dream – easy-going yet heavily invested in the work, and most importantly, able to create a spark of magic out of thin air.
James is an award-winning actor with Down’s Syndrome (he won numerous awards for his lead role in the BBC TV film drama Ups and Downs). As a filmmaker, what are the additional responsibilities you take onboard when working on such a story, and with an actor with Down’s Syndrome?
Tom: As both writers and directors, our responsibilities extended all the way from creating authentic characters on the page to cultivating the best working practices and environment on set. It was really important to us that Lorcan’s Down syndrome was not the defining part of his character or his role in the narrative, but rather that he was a complex, mischievous, multi-faceted person that had agency within his own story.
When we then began working with James, we wanted to provide him with the working environment for him to do his best work, as we would with any actor. We factored in a few days of rehearsal with the cast which was vital in giving them the opportunity to build the rapport that was so necessary to the film. We also spoke a lot with the lovely Eoin Clelland, who directed James in Ups and Downs, about their experience of working together which was incredibly useful for us going into the shoot.
James was a joy to direct. He’s got a wicked sense of humour, is a wonderful raconteur and has great empathy for his characters – all of which make him a very compelling actor. I’m so glad we gave ourselves the time to build up a close working relationship together before we got to set as I know that contributed to how efficiently and creatively we were able to work on the day.
The brothers have a list of the 100 things their mother would like to have done before she perished. We haven’t got time for a full list of 100…. But what are one (or perhaps two) of the things you’d most like to do in this coming year?
Ross: As Tom has alluded to, we’re both big football fans. He’s a Leicester City fan (god bless him) while I follow Liverpool. Being based in Belfast, I don’t get to see half as many games as I would like, so I’d love to bring my Dad over to see a match at Anfield this coming year.
And I suppose I’d love to travel a bit more as well. Luckily, film festivals give us a great excuse to visit places we’d never otherwise get the chance to. I’ve never been to Asia, so I’d love the opportunity to head to a festival in Japan or India, say.
Can you tell us something about your creative process when working on a film?
Tom: Writing, directing and producing with Ross means we both are always in a constant dialogue about the vision of the film and how best to achieve it. It’s an intense experience but one we both really thrive off, and it means that right from when we first put pen to paper we’re already talking about how we might execute particular shots or cut together a particular sequence, which is exciting.
Music is very important to us and we will often make extensive shared playlists to listen to when writing. Similarly, we like to build up a bank of stills from other films as references, and sometimes before we draw our own storyboards we’ll actually plot the film out using these reference images from other movies, which is always an illuminating experience.
On set, as a pair we have the advantage of being able to split up and delegate responsibility, which speeds things up. When in between takes it’s a blessing that one of us can liaise with and give notes to the cast while the other one might be chatting through something technical with the camera team.
An Irish Goodbye is now shortlisted for the 95th Academy Awards, in the “Live Action Short Film” category. What are the blessings and the challenges of having a film that’s a potential Oscar contender?
Tom: The blessings are many, of course. It’s a wonderful opportunity for us to raise the profile of the film and introduce it to a much wider audience, which is fantastic for a short film. We’re also very proud to be the only film from Ireland & UK, in fact the only English-language film, left in the category. As emerging filmmakers, it’s moments like these which are so crucial at introducing your work to the industry and establishing yourselves as creatives that can go on to work in longer-form work at bigger scales.
The main challenge for us is to remember the long and rewarding journey this film has already been before now, and that the fantastic experiences of seeing it resonate with audiences at film festivals across the world will never be taken away if we don’t make it to the next stage of these awards. We’re so grateful to be in the mix, but we’ll always be proud of this project regardless of what happens from here.
Other films from Ireland are also vying for Oscar glory in 2023: Irish-set feature The Banshees of Inisherin starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson is tipped for Oscar success, and Colm Bairéad’s Irish-language feature An Cailín Ciúin (The Quiet Girl) has been shortlisted for Best International Film. What makes this such a good moment for the Irish film industry?
Ross: Both myself and Tom are longstanding Martin McDonagh fans, right from his early plays that were all set in the West of Ireland, so it was such a treat to see him return to this landscape with Banshees, and it’s no surprise that it’s another masterpiece.
Similarly with An Cailín Ciúin, it’s been absolutely joyous to watch this little independent film with a massive heart make history as the first Irish language film on the short list. There can be a lot of doom and gloom around whether people even want to go to the cinema anymore or if it’s all about TV and streaming, so to see this gorgeous, confidently told gem of a film smash box office records and really resonate with audiences globally just feels like a massive win for independent filmmakers everywhere.
It can be a bit of a cliché, but I do think there’s such a deep rooted respect for storytelling in Irish culture. And for what is a geographically small place, it’s really incredible the amount of quality work that comes out of our Island. Having been blown away by the work of so many of our peers at film festivals around Ireland in the last year, we hope it’s only the beginning of a golden age for the film industry here.
Finally, what do you hope audiences take away from watching An Irish Goodbye?
Ross: For me, it’s a story about brotherhood and learning to share the burden of the hard times that life can throw at us. And then there’s also this idea of making the most of the time we have, which is something that really speaks to me. But above all else, we want audiences to be able to laugh and invest and really lose themselves in this little story for twenty five minutes – I think that dose of escapism is what most excites me about making films.