Killian Coyle & Aisling Byrne Talk Headspace

Headspace takes us on a journey with a young man, Tony,  who has Down’s Syndrome and struggles to find paid work, causing him to be faced with a moral dilemma whilst staying at a community home. This phenomenal film has qualified to be considered for a 2024 Academy Award after winning the OSCAR qualifying award at Cork Film Festival.

Producer Killian Coyle and director Aisling Byrne join us on Close-Up Culture to tell us more about this film.

What inspired you both to make this film? 

Aisling: For over ten years I had been working collaboratively as a theatre director and facilitator with intellectually disabled performers and spent a lot of time orbiting the world of disability services in Ireland. For me, it was a world rich with interesting people, unheard stories, complex dilemmas, and barriers to meaningful inclusion. It was a world I hadn’t seen represented very often on stage or screen. I became very interested in how art could platform some of the voices and stories from this community.

I also had developed great relationships with some talented actors with Down Syndrome and I was keen to make a film that would support an ensemble cast of disabled talent. Headspace was the culmination of this; and it’s a slice-of-life story, told sparsely and authentically that I hope represents a lived experience that we don’t get to see too often in film. I’m very inspired by the work of filmmakers like Ken Loach and Frank Berry and how they centre socially important stories from the periphery. In Headspace we follow Tony as he struggles with the challenges of shared living and tries to find a little bit of peace in a tumultuous world. 

Killian: Prior to working on Headspace, I had spent 6 years working as a theatre producer in Ireland. I hadn’t worked as a Producer in film, and I had always been trying to find a way to break into that space. I started work with Aisling and our company Run of the Mill on the back of a Dublin Fringe Festival 2019 show called Making A Mark – which we later toured Nationally. Aisling had been working on a year-long residency with Arcade Film (our now firm film collaborators) when we started to embed our creative practices together. On the back of this residency came the idea for Headspace. When I heard that it was going to feature an ensemble cast of people with intellectual disabilities it really excited me. I had no frame of reference for a film like it, nor was there any clear path to the meaningful creative engagement of an ensemble cast with intellectual disabilities – so I suppose for me it was the creative and logistical challenges more than anything that really inspired me to make Headspace

Can you tell us a bit about the cast? 

Aisling: The cast is led by Mark Smith in a tour de force performance! I wrote this film specifically for Mark and he was a script consultant on the writing process. I have worked with Mark for over ten years, and he is an incredible talent and a dear friend. Together we co-created an award-winning theatre show about his life Making a Mark (produced by Killian) which toured nationally in Ireland. Headspace is, surprisingly, his screen debut, and I doubt it will be his last! Jackie O’ Hagan who plays Mark’s housemate is also his housemate in real life.

The story of Tony in Headspace shares quite a few parallels with the lived experience of the cast, whilst ultimately being a work of fiction. Both Mark and Jackie are longstanding members of Run of the Mill – an arts organisation platforming learning disabled talent in Ireland which Killian and I run. The antagonist in the film Daniel Ryan is another remarkably talented actor with Down Syndrome who has racked up a number of screen credits in Ireland. We came across Daniel through his previous screen work and was the only actor that was cast from outside our Run of the Mill ensemble. I have since written another film for Daniel, Misread which recently premiered at the Galway Film Fleadh where he was nominated for a prestigious Bingham Ray New Talent Award.

Was there anything particularly challenging to film? 

Aisling: There were quite a few challenges as is always the case on any shoot but nothing that we couldn’t overcome. One of the most challenging scenes was a scene in the kitchen towards the end of the film between the two lead actors where they share some cans of Diet Coke. The scene was just finicky, and we went through almost a tray of Coke cans! The actors needed support remembering their lines as it was a meaty scene, so we opted for long rolling takes to try and get what we needed rather than resetting a number of times. There was one tiny scene that called for Jackie to shoot in an upstairs bedroom, and we had completely forgotten that she cannot manage stairs.

However, with some quick thinking from the crew we managed to make a downstairs room look as it needed to! It was a great exercise in teamwork. In another scene where Mark has to eat a chocolate bar from his pocket, we were experiencing a 30-degree heat wave and the bar kept melting before he could get it out. Generally speaking, working with a cast with no on-screen experience and some challenges recalling the script means that you have to be relaxed, and flexible and create a really nice environment to support the actors. That was less of a challenge and more of a consideration as director of what it would take to get the best performance possible from our talented cast. 

Killian: When engaging anyone with an intellectual disability in a professional capacity there is a complex set of logistical barriers that need to be overcome, which is very specific and unique to each individual. Negotiating and overcoming these barriers takes a good deal more time, consideration, and coordination over and above what we would usually view as “the norm”.

Sets can be very hectic environments; however, we went into this process understanding that things would need to be done very differently on set in order to ensure that we are giving the most time and space to allow our ID performers adequate resources to get the best out of them creatively – more shoot time, on set support worker, shorter shoot days to name a few. I suppose all this to say is that what was challenging was that we were wading into uncharted waters and that every aspect of the production needed to be thought of in a slightly different frame of mind. As long as we were making decisions putting access first, things would work out – and they did work out! Much of our crew said it was by far the nicest shoot environment that they had worked on, so there are definitely working practices we can take from this process. 

If there is one key message you would like the audience to take from this film, what would it be? 

Aisling: Don’t blare your music too loudly when you live with other people 🙂 But seriously, I suppose I would like the audience to just get the opportunity to empathise and connect with all of the characters in the story and get the chance to reflect upon and consider a perspective / lived reality that they may not have had the chance to consider before. There are no easy answers to the problems Tony faces – and that’s life, really. But I don’t think audiences often get the opportunity to really consider some of the challenges that might be inherent for a person with an intellectual disability who has to rely on complex, and often under-resourced systems to support them. That’s something I would love for the audience to get the chance to think about, but I would rather not hit people with a particular message, and just let an authentic story speak for itself.

Killian: I’d echo what Aisling has said above – I hope that people see that stories that are led by one or an ensemble cast of people with intellectual disabilities can be just as engaging as one without. 

Killian, what drew you to this story? 

Killian: My practice has always involved focusing on work that is socially engaged in its essence. Headspace is a story that lifts the veil on what most people in society wouldn’t have any experience of – what the day-to-day life of someone or a group of adults with intellectual disabilities looks and feels like in practice. I certainly had no understanding of the nuances, complexities, and mundanities of life as an adult with intellectual disabilities looked like prior to working with Aisling and Run of the Mill. The opportunity to be able to share this really excited me. 

For both Aisling and Killian, how do you think this film could help “normalise” disability?

Aisling: For me, it’s not about normalising anything as much as it is about making people / learning disabled lives visible. I often refer to the theorist Peggy Phelan who famously said the eventual goal of visibility is un-remarkability. To be so visible and seen as to be unremarkable (in a good way!). We aren’t there yet for disabled people. We aren’t there yet for most marginalised communities in society. However, culture (film, TV, theatre etc.) is how the world comes to understand itself – it’s a ‘mirror up to society’. If whole groups of people are underrepresented and misrepresented in culture and art, then it can impact wider societal understanding of that lived experience. I feel we are in an era of redressing that historical misrepresentation/underrepresentation, towards an eventual goal of ‘un-remarkability!’ I hope Headspace is a film that offers an authentic and well-told story of learning disabled lived experience. 

If we took away the fact that the characters have disabilities would that change the story in any way?  

Aisling: I think so, as it would be a very different story. Headspace is rooted in the nuances of a very particular lived experience. It’s set in a residential house for people with intellectual disabilities and thanks to Mark Smith’s script consultancy rooted in the authenticities of that world. The storyline is relatable (an irritating housemate, money woes, the redemptive power of friendship) however, it is told from a very specific perspective. I think it’s a more interesting story thanks to its disabled characters in that it shows a slice of life that’s rarely seen. Tony’s ability to mobilise out of his ‘stuck’ situation is hampered by the fact that there is a lot of gatekeeping in his life. This isn’t exclusive to people with intellectual disabilities, but it is rarer for non-disabled people to have a lot of their agency taken away by a system. Maybe it could be set in a dystopian near future!

What is next for you both? 

Aisling: My next film Misread, starring Daniel Ryan from Headspace is currently hitting the festival circuit after premiering at the 35th Galway Film Fleadh (winner of the RTE / Ardan Short Film Commission). 

Killian and I were both delighted to recently receive funding under Screen Ireland’s Focus Shorts scheme to make our next film Turnaround, a story from the West of Ireland, set to shoot in March 2024. After that I have my sights set on my first feature – the Focus Shorts Scheme is a wonderful training ground for that. I have a comedy-drama currently in development also with an Irish production company, so I am excited to continue work on that across the coming year. 

With Run of the Mill, we have lots of exciting theatre and film projects in the pipeline for our talented ensemble of actors with intellectual disabilities so watch this space. www.runofthemill.ie

Killian: I’ve got various theatre productions which will be developed and presented both nationally and internationally throughout 2024. As Aisling mentioned above, we are in pre-production for our next short film Turnaround, which we will shoot in Spring 2024 with Arcade film, alongside lots of Run of the Mill work upcoming. I’m hoping that soon I can look to my first feature film or TV production. 

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