Longtime collaborators Tom Berkeley and Ross White, working collectively under the Floodlight Pictures banner, are currently in the running for an Academy Award and have also been nominated for this year’s BAFTAs with their heartwarming, laugh out loud comedy short An Irish Goodbye. This second film from the co-writer/director duo follows two very different embittered brothers dealing with the death of their matriarch and struggling to leave their Irish homestead. With cracking shots of rural landscape framing their final hurrah to bid farewell to the farm they grew up on, Seamus O’Hara and James Martin brilliantly embody the fractious brothers, with wry injections of genius from Paddy Jenkins and Micelle Harley’s soothing narration An Irish Goodbye is a balm for the soul. Berkeley and White smoothly tread the line of delicacy in dealing with grief whilst goading audiences to revel in the, often dark, but hilarious situations the brothers find themselves in. Ahead of an exciting week of award announcements to come, we were able to take some time with the directors to talk about their desire to work on a much larger scope for this sophomore short and how they managed to fit that larger ambition into a five day shoot, the speed and efficiency they have developed as co-collaborators over the last decade and carrying the baton as the only English speaking live action short film on the Oscar shortlist this year.
– The following interview is also available to watch at the end of this article.
Am I right to say the spark of inspiration for An Irish Goodbye came from a pair of brothers you saw at a football game?
Tom Berkeley: Yeah, I was there with my dad and I saw a couple of brothers who I instantly found very compelling. It was quite a boring match so I ended up watching these two for a lot of it. What I found most interesting was the duality of the fiery, normal brotherly relationship; hurling abuse at each other and at each other’s throats but then also this added element of care and responsibility because one of the brothers had Down Syndrome so the other brother was there as a carer as well. Ross and I spoke about it together the next day and both found it a really interesting jumping-off point.
Did either of you have any direct experience writing for someone with Down Syndrome?
TB: When I was at drama school, where Ross and I met, I’d written a play set in my hometown in the West Country and one of the key characters in that had a developmental disability.
Having those two come up against each other felt like a good way to have a solid character study.
Ross White: I’d worked with a lot of kids with special educational needs so that was my experience with it. What really interested us, especially with this story, is the empathy, openness and honesty that often comes with people with Down Syndrome. They’re not as jaded and cynical as some of us. When we found James Martin, the actor who plays Lorcan, that was very true for him. We were really interested in the idea that you’ve got these brothers coping with grief, one character is very open and heart-led in dealing with this and then another who is very closed off, pragmatic and repressed emotionally. Having those two come up against each other felt like a good way to have a solid character study of that idea. They are these estranged brothers who are flung back together at such a pivotal, difficult moment in their lives so it all felt like a little concoction of ideas that came together.
Alongside everything else, Lorcan’s one-liners are so brilliant, was all of the dialogue scripted and how did you work with James to bring out the amazing comedy in his performance?
TB: Most of it is scripted, James did throw in a couple of his own lines but they tend to crop up later in the film. We factored in some rehearsal time which was really beneficial, you don’t often get that luxury working on a short film with limited resources, but we felt for this it was going to be really necessary. One full day getting the brothers together and starting building that relationship. It’s important for us as directors as well to understand the best kind of working environment and processes for all of our actors, not just James. That was so key for us initially to see how well he was going to connect with the comedy.
RW: You don’t have to tease the comedy out of James, he’s a natural comedian. He’s full of jokes and was constantly making everybody else on set laugh and if anything, there were moments when we had to tone down the funny and get him to concentrate on the drama.
He was exactly what we’d written but he also brought some new ideas for the character.
Were you able to immediately sense the chemistry and engagement between the brothers?
RW: Seamus O’Hara is such a phenomenal actor. We built the script around James but it’s so difficult when you’re casting brothers as you have to get the pairing right. We were really worried about that but when we saw Seamus’ tape come in we immediately relaxed and realised we had found the right guy. He was exactly what we’d written but he also brought some new ideas for the character. Those two just hit it off immediately, rehearsal was as much about us giving them time to get to know each other as it was about running scenes. They were running lines over FaceTime in the evening and they’re great friends to this day.
With only a five day shoot to capture everything, knowing the unpredictable weather in Northern Ireland that can’t have been easy.
TB: We started shooting up on the Sperrin Mountains, we were on our way up and it started to snow, in April. Within about 15 minutes the entire mountain landscape was just covered in snow. The film doesn’t take place over 6 months so we were hanging around waiting for it to melt and then that Northern Irish rain came quite quickly and washed it away. We had four seasons over the first two hours as you do in Northern Ireland! It was an intense short film but we were carried through by everybody being so on board with this story and putting 100% into it. We were quite clear that we wanted to do something quite ambitious that had a sense of scope to it, we wanted it to feel like it was trying to push outside of its means. Luckily we had, what we were always described as, a small but mighty cast and crew who carried it across the line with us.
RW: Tom and I met when we were 18, we started in theatre writing plays individually and always giving each other notes. Then we ran a little theatre company that toured for quite a while so we basically developed a shared shorthand and brain. Our first short, Roy, was a very contained little short and that was our first time behind the camera which was a big learning curve, a baptism of fire. We started this 6 months later which was a lot bigger. Having a co-director partnership does speed you up in a big way in terms of having the ability to finish a take and knowing exactly what we’re after so we don’t even need to speak about it, there’s an efficiency to it. We prep so heavily in the pre-production phase that it means when we get on to set there’s rarely any kind of problems.
TB: That preparation period is so vital because as you say, it speeds us up but only if we’ve done the work beforehand. If we’ve not crossed all the t’s and dotted the i’s and then we get there and we want to have a big discussion about the meaning of the scene or shot, there’s no time for that. We need to be across things as much as possible before we get to set.
How did you move into the post-production stage?
TB: We went in quite quickly and did quite a lot of it in London. Both our short films were shot in lockdown but the first required us to do the edit over Zoom which was tricky. An Irish Goodbye was our first time together in the room with our Editor Stephen Dunne. We had a good couple of weeks working with Steven which we both really enjoyed. It was one of those where it was a joy looking through all of those rushes and pulling things together and then we had a Northern Irish composer who was working away on the score and brought very particular Celtic roots which is really key. We didn’t want it to feel too twee but we wanted it to stay true to the roots whilst also having this slightly offbeat black comedy tone. I think that’s a really difficult thing to capture but Tony did that really well.
We didn’t want it to feel too twee but we wanted it to stay true to the roots whilst also having this slightly offbeat black comedy tone.
Your cinematography really captures the tones of Northern Ireland which are set against the vibrancy of the brothers’ relationship.
RW: We wanted to give it a bit of an Americana feel, we joked about the weather as it had a summer feel about it but we nearly died when we saw the snow! In the grade we were really keen to create this real sense of isolation, especially with the landscapes. In the opening shots of the film, we don’t see any kind of funeral for the mother, so we wanted to create this sombre atmosphere that really felt true to the guys coming back from this wake. Then, undercut it straight away with a gag to set up this very disjointed kind of feeling questioning, are we in a tragedy or in a comedy? We wanted to let our audience know that you’re allowed to laugh but you might not know exactly when.
Congratulations on your major awards shortlist selections! You’re the only English speaking short film nominated for the Academy Awards this year, how does it feel to be representing Ireland with such a heartfelt story?
TB: It’s a huge honour, we never set out thinking we would come anywhere near any accolades or plaudits. It’s beyond the icing on the cake, I don’t know what’s on the cake right now but we will eat it. We always say that one of the nice things about filmmaking is getting to go to festivals and see all the work that’s being made from the world over. We’ve been really interested in short films even before we were making them and we’ve definitely seen that the standard is growing exponentially every year with the scope and the quality increasing. A lot of the films that we’ve loved over the circuit have ended up on these lists so to be rubbing shoulders with them is a big honour for us. It is bonkers but we are so glad to be carrying the baton.
We wanted to let our audience know that you’re allowed to laugh but you might not know exactly when.
Can you tell us what’s coming next for you both?
RW: We’re editing our third short film, it’s a little bit different, it’s a period short set in the 19th century, 1849 at the crossover of the famine in Ireland and the Gold Rush. It follows these warring sisters who have fled Ireland to seek their fortune finding gold and they’re not having a great time.
TB: We’re branding it as a psychological thriller, slash Celtic western and we’re fortunate to be working with an amazing cast. It’s slightly more bloody than the previous two!