Aisling Byrne told David Hennessy about her short film Headspace, making the longlist for the Oscars and giving a platform to performers with intellectual disabilities.
Following the Oscar and BAFTA-winning success of An Irish Goodbye last year, another Irish short film looks to give a platform to actors with Down Syndrome.
Having premiered at Cork International Film Festival, Headspace won the Oscar-qualifying Grand Prix Best Short award and now qualifies to be considered for a 2024 Academy Award.
Following the daily struggles of a young man with Down Syndrome, the short film has a supporting cast that includes Simon Delaney who is well known. Aisling Byrne’s directorial debut tells the story of Tony, who struggles to find paid work, causing him to be faced with a moral dilemma whilst staying at a community home.
Writer and director Aisling Byrne is the founder and Artistic Director at Run of the Mill, an award-winning arts organisation at the forefront of inclusive arts practice in Ireland supporting learning disabled artists and performers. Their recent work includes a nine venue national tour of the award winning Making a mark and the All-Abilities Casting initiative in collaboration with the National Talent Academy aimed at levelling the playing field for people with intellectual disabilities in film and tv.
Aisling was selected to represent Ireland at the Screen Talent Europe/Cinesud’s Directors Village 2023. Her narrative short debut Headspace has been selected for the Prestigious European Film Awards. She continues to work alongside Killian Coyle on the Screen Ireland Focus Short Award recipient short film Turnaround, set to film in April 2024.
Aisling told The Irish World: “I was working as an artist in residence in a disability service provider in Kildare called John of God’s community services. I was working mostly in theatre and theatre facilitation and as soon as I graduated from drama at Trinity, I began facilitating drama workshops for adults with intellectual disabilities. That would go on to become our arts organisation Run of the Mill that is now a much bigger animal.
“We produce films and stage productions but at the time, I was going around and running drama classes and working with, I’d say, over 50 men and women a week with intellectual disabilities across various workshops and classes. So across the course of that, I met lots of fantastic people who would go on to become my collaborators and chief amongst them was Mark Smith, who you will see in Headspace as the lead actor, Tony.
“Mark was very ambitious and very creative and very talented, and we began to work a lot together. We made shows together. We actually toured a production that was autobiographically based on his life. But I suppose when you’re orbiting this world or the space that Mark and his peers occupy of disability services, whether they’re day or residential, or supported living or community houses, you become a bit of a fly on that wall.
“Mark would have been regaling me with anecdotes of what life was like in his house that he lived in and that he shared with five other adults with an intellectual disability. It was not just Mark, a lot of the actors that I was working with at Run of the Mill, that was their lived experience, they lived in houses in the community, supported houses. I used to think it’s such an interesting world, you couldn’t write it.
“I suppose we all know what it’s like to live in shared accommodation, but when you’re a disabled adult with access requirements and support needs, that kind of conflict between wanting to live an autonomous life and have agency as an adult comes up against that barrier all the time of requiring support and relying on staff members to support you to fulfil your wants, needs and wishes whether it’s via a shared car, or bringing you to where you need to go.
“I was really, really artistically drawn to showing this world on film because I didn’t feel like I had seen it represented before. That very much inspired me to write Headspace. I wrote it knowing that I would cast Mark in the lead role because whilst it’s a fiction and it’s not authentic to his exact lived experience, it touches on the chaos that can exist when you have five very different people trying to live alongside each other and oftentimes reliant on one rotating staff member who’s overworked and under resourced. I wanted to somehow capture that world on film.”
I can understand that, was it about giving this community a voice they have often not had?
“Absolutely. That was important for me, that authentic representation of rich, multi-dimensional characters which are important for good filmmaking of any description. But I felt as well, having worked with artists who have intellectual disabilities for 10 years, that I hadn’t seen too many representations on screen that I would feel were doing justice to the talent of that community or that were very richly written.
“Often you would see inclusion or disabled characters or people with Down Syndrome in cinema popping up on the periphery of someone else’s narrative, and not quite involved as the person whose story that we’re actually following and really invested in so I was really interested in making Tony the protagonist. It’s him that we’re following. It’s his story that we’re investing in.”
What has the reaction to the film been from the community itself?
“It’s been great. We’ve been able to share Headspace in a very kind of celebratory way with the people we work with, so not only did we have a cast of four learning-disabled actors in the film, we also have our whole community of other actors from Run of the Mill who have attended the screenings and come to the premieres and got to really enjoy it. So the reaction has been really, really positive and really strong.
“Mark Smith, the lead actor, was also a script consultant so he contributed very much to the creation of it. Generally people have a very positive response to seeing something that resembled their lived experience reflected.
“And really, really, really positive responses from the community of people who work in disability services in Ireland saying it’s so brilliant to see some of the conundrums or the conflicts or the challenges and the triumphs of this kind of world shown so authentically.
“Because I suppose the type of films that I enjoy and that I aspire to make are ones that just allow lived experience to speak for itself and not hammer the audience over the head with a position being taken.
“We very much show this world in Headspace and the challenges that Tony faces are a product of a kind of a difficult system that’s under resourced, but we’re not banging people over the head with a strong opinion on that, we’re just showing the story and allowing it to speak for itself and allowing people to be opened up to that world. And people who orbit that world or work within it have actually felt very represented by it too, that has been our experience.”
The film boasts some impressive guest stars from Simon Delaney (The Woman in the Wall), Clare Monnelly (Moone Boy) or Lauren Larkin (Deadly Cuts) who plays the carer.
How did you get such great people on board?
“It was fantastic. But the arts community in Ireland is like a little family so we all we all know each other very, very well. Lauren is my best friend. That was an easy phone call. Clare Monnelly is a great pal of mine as well. Lauren actually was instrumental in helping us to get Simon. Mark was absolutely mad to work with Simon Delaney. Mark loves Simon and we had appeared on Ireland AM a couple of times to talk about our show, Making a Mark. And Lauren had worked with Simon in The Snapper at The Gate so she put in a call on our behalf. It’s great.
“I do find the acting talent in Ireland is so impressive, we really punch above our weight. I’m actually just back from a residency in the Netherlands and I couldn’t believe how renowned Ireland was on the world stage. And I don’t mean just from the Banshees of Inisherin or the Colin Farrells or the Brendan Gleesons: In the independent filmmaking world Ireland is really renowned.
“But the big talent if they’re available, they’re often very open to being in your short film because if they like the team behind it and they think it’s going to be good this film can potentially get on the Oscars long list or be nominated for European Film Award like Headspace is. So basically, I cast a lot of my friends in it, I’m lucky to have a lot of very talented friends.
“But what was very, very important to me and partly why I wanted Lauren Larkin to play the lead staff member was Lauren had been in a number of Run of the Mill productions so she had experienced working with a cast of actors with intellectual disabilities. That doesn’t require any great expertise, it just requires you to be very relaxed, and very open to working in slightly different ways.
“So there’s little accommodations that we would have made to support the needs of our actors like longer rolling takes or shorter shoot days and more rest periods. So you want to know that the non-disabled cast that you’re working with are just sound basically, and happy to make those accommodations and be open and generous.
“We’re very lucky in Ireland that we have actors that, despite enormous success, are actually just the soundest heads you’ll ever meet. I think that’s what sets Irish talent apart.”
Headspace follows in the path of An Irish Goodbye which, starring an actor with Down Syndrome, went on to win an Oscar, a BAFTA and an IFTA this year.
Was it good to see that film do so well?
“Absolutely. Whilst the films are very different in kind of style and tone, I loved An Irish Goodbye. I was so happy to see the success that that had as an Irish filmmaker but moreover as somebody who has been working for 10 years to platform learning disabled talent in the industry, any milestone moves like that are absolutely huge. We all share in that success.
“So we have been plugging away at the grassroots of cultivating talent with intellectual disabilities for years so when a film goes on to have that kind of global and international success, it has an immediate trickle-down effect on casting directors and filmmakers saying, ‘Wow, I’d love to work with people with intellectual disabilities. That story was so much more interesting for the diversity and inclusion that was in it’.
“That’s what made it so great, James Martin’s performance so you have this broadening and opening happening. And as well as being a filmmaker, I am the artistic director of Run of the Mill, so that opening up is so amazing for our actors because it means there’s more opportunities coming down the line for them. So it was brilliant.
“It feels like a bit of a moment for learning-disabled talent in Ireland because not long after An Irish Goodbye got shortlisted for the Oscar, we won Cork with Headspace which places us on the Academy long list so it kind of feels like a bit of a bit of a moment. Although Mark is funny. He’s watching James getting invited to Elton John’s gaff and he’s like, ‘That better happen to me. I’m happy for him, but also a little bit jealous’. He’s setting his sights high, you know?”
Aisling would love to see Headspace emulate An Irish Goodbye.
“We’ll be working to see if we can make it to the Academy shortlist. It’s a long shot, but we’re going to try our very best.”