Writer/ directors Tom Berkeley/ Ross White and actor Seamus O’Hara spoke to David Hennessy about their short film An Irish Goodbye making the shortlist for an Oscar.
The black comedy An Irish Goodbye is the only live action short film from the UK/Ireland to be shortlisted for the 95th Academy Awards and has just nominated for a BAFTA.
Written and directed by Tom Berkeley and Ross White, the film was shot in Antrim with a cast that includes Seamus O’Hara (The Northman, Game of Thrones), James Martin (BBC’s Ups and Downs), Michelle Fairley (Game of Thrones, Gangs of London) and Paddy Jenkins (Hunger, into the Badlands).
An Irish Goodbye is the story of estranged brothers Lorcan and Turlough who reunite following the death of their mother.
Turlough wants Lorcan, who has Down syndrome, to go and live with their aunt so he can return to his life in London.
But on the morning that Turlough is to take Lorcan to their aunt Margaret, Lorcan reveals he found an unfulfilled bucket list of their mother’s.
The brothers come to an agreement. They will do everything on the list in their mother’s memory and then Lorcan will go to Margaret’s.
An Irish Goodbye has also qualified for IFTA consideration.
The Oscar nominations will be announced on 24 January.
With An Cailín Ciúin (The Quiet Girl) and The Banshees of Inisherin also hoping for good news, it could be an exciting Oscars for Ireland.
The Irish World chatted to writing/ directing partnership Tom Berkeley and Ross White as well as Seamus O’Hara who plays Turlough to ask how it feels to be in the running for an Oscar nomination.
Tom Berkeley told The Irish World: “It’s still very strange to hear people speaking about Oscars to be honest.
“The Oscars are iconic.
“It’s something that you grow up hearing about so to even be close to it is a very bizarre experience.
“But one we’re really fortunate with, and I suppose it just serves as a reminder of how the film’s been able to resonate.
“It seems like we’ve been able to touch upon something which is a universal truth, which is firstly the process of grief being something that we don’t have to go through alone, but also that there is lightness as well in death and in tragedy, it’s never just one thing.
“This kind of space we like to write in is this kind of no man’s land between tragedy and comedy, because it feels closest to life.”
Ross adds: “Short film is unbelievably strong at the minute.
“There were 200 films on the long list so we kind of thought, ‘We’ve qualified for an Oscar, that is further than we thought we would go. That’s an amazing achievement’.
“And then to get down to that 15 and to be the only film from Ireland or the UK is a surreal moment when we’ve seen the quality of other work out there from our peers.
“It’s a bit ‘pinch me’ still.”
Seamus O’Hara continues: “We don’t expect such praise really on the global stage.
“We knew when we were making it it was very, very good because the script was good.
“We thought, ‘I think we’ve done something really special here’.
“So it’s nice to have that feeling in some ways validated.
“But it’s a very bizarre feeling.
“On one hand, it’s very surprising and on the other hand, it’s entirely unsurprising.”
Following their mother’s passing, Turlough thinks it is practical to sell the family farm while the last thing Lorcan wants is to leave his home.
The film makers explain the idea came from a time when they both returned to their own home towns of Belfast (Ross) and Gloucester (Tom).
Tom says: “Me and Ross had been living in London together for a while.
“We both moved back home to our respective hometowns and I think themes of returning home and being flung back into the family organism were quite prevalent for us at the time, and how that can be difficult if you’ve been away for a long time.”
An Irish Goodbye is Tom and Ross’ second short film. The duo’s debut short Roy starred David Bradley and Rachel Shenton and was shortlisted for Best British Short Film at the 75th BAFTA Awards.
Tom continues: “Our first short film was similarly about chaps struggling to be good at the process of grief, or even kind of acknowledge its existence at all.
“We were interested in that and I’d actually been to the football with my dad and I’d seen these two brothers that were a couple of rows ahead of us who ended up being the very early blueprints of the characters.
“They were strapping working class lads and had a very fiery brotherly relationship and it just happened that the younger brother had Down Syndrome and the older brother was there as a kind of carer as well as your normal brotherly relationship.
“I found that very interesting: That element of responsibility was mixed in with all the usual that you would expect from brotherhood.”
Seamus, who is originally from the Glens of Antrim, adds: “There’s a particularly Irish rural approach to the death.
“I come from a rural background myself.
“I did really respond to mostly the unsaids in the script, the things that weren’t said, the things that weren’t shown.
“I think that the script was so well written that it was all very, very clear what the vision was from the directors and I felt in very safe hands.
“I didn’t have any major questions, I kind of knew what kind of story we were looking to tell.
“So from just a personal background point of view, I definitely recognise that kind of sadness, that kind of joy and that kind of grief.
“And then from an actor’s point of view, the script’s unbelievable, the script’s really, really strong and really tight, looks like great fun.
“And it was all those things.”
An Irish Goodbye is both moving and funny.
Is that perhaps how the Irish approach death, always finding the joy even in dark times? Ross says: “Something that really interests me is the kind of gallows humor that we use as a way to cope in these really challenging moments.
“I think it’s a very human thing and I love it so much but I also see the danger in it when it becomes the only mechanism to cope.
“You’ve got Lorcan, played by James Martin, he sort of experiences this all very from a heart led perspective and he’s very open.
“And then you’ve got Seamus’ character Turlough, who I guess is more repressed, ‘I’ve got to be very practical. I’ve got to sort out this stuff, the emotions will come later’.
“And I think that kind of repression, sadly, is probably very, very typical of an Irish outlook.
“I think what we were interested in looking at in this film was how the two characters could benefit one another and sort of try to find one another again.
“Siblings, no matter how old you get or how long you’ve been apart, when you come back together, you sort of resume the roles that you would have had when you were ten and six or whatever and it’s hard to escape that.”
Seamus adds: “There’s the thing that happens in the film as well where the environment becomes the next character in the movie because it’s so open, unforgiving, raw, expansive, there’s no hiding place.
“So for a man coming home from England, which is a busy, metropolitan place to the openness can be quite a shock and I felt that where we filmed.
“Being exposed to the elements and how that kind of goes hand in hand with how these people are grieving but also the relief that it gives us because it’s like the world is telling you, ‘It’s okay to give space to this, you can be as quiet or as loud as you want to be about it, these mountains were here before you, they’ll be here after you’.
“I find something about the environment really comforting during grief.
“The other Irish aspect would be around that time when Irish characteristics were being defined, the country was experiencing so much national grief, conflict, trauma famine that it is unsurprising that one of the ways to talk about the abyss in front of you was to not talk about it at all.”
Ross comes in: “It’s either ignored or as we say joked about.
“I think men particularly do that a lot and I would hear stories about pubs in Belfast during the troubles flying about with jokes about the traumas of the day just as a way to manage those feelings because they’ve got to come out somehow.
“So that’s the only way that they come out in a socially acceptable way.”
Tom and Ross say they couldn’t have assembled a better cast for An Irish Goodbye.
“We couldn’t have found a better Lorcan,” Tom says of James Martin.
“James is the full package.
“He’s a very, very enigmatic, charismatic, interesting guy.
“Ross was aware of him maybe not as an actor but as a local hero before we started writing the script.
“And then we finished a very early draft of it and saw James in the BBC Northern Ireland TV movie Ups and Downs.
“It was a revelation.
“It was really clear to us at that point that we’d have to engineer this project around him so the first port of call was getting James on board and seeing if he liked the script.
“He’s a natural raconteur and he’s a natural comedian so I think he enjoyed being able to flex those funny bones, but he’s also got a superhuman capacity for empathy as well.
“He’s a very instinctive actor and he was able to get on board with the darker themes very well as well.”
Paddy Jenkins’ Father O’Shea, a man with verbal diarrhoea, is the only other character seen on screen.
“And then Paddy Jenkins: An absolute pro and honestly, I don’t think we could have found a better trio if we tried.”
Ross adds: “Paddy’s brilliant.
“Again, he’s such a natural comic and he does so many great comedy pieces in Northern Ireland.
“Paddy works non-stop but I think he’s still a criminally underrated actor in Ireland in general.
“I think the capacity he’s got as well to sort of do every genre at such a high level is remarkable.
“We were just very lucky to get the chance to work with him.”
The cast is completed by Michelle Fairley, known as Catelyn Stark in Game of Thrones, to provide the brothers’ mother’s voice from beyond the grave.
Ross says: “You write these emails very speculatively kind of hoping they maybe connect with something in the script.
“Especially with this kind of short film with all of the actors, you’re asking people to find something in the project that they care about.
“And with Michelle, it was exactly the same and we just got very fortunate that she read the script, really connected with it, really was excited by it and was willing to come on board and to work with her even in a studio to do the voiceover was great.
“Voice-over parts can very easily sort of be quite forgettable the way it can be phoned in kind of thing, ‘Just get it done’.
“Michelle came in and just gave it so much specificity.
“She is a veteran and an icon and that’s why she is where she is, because she treats everything with such attention to detail.
“She wasn’t willing to settle with anything until she felt like she got it, which is a director’s dream.”
On his fellow cast members, Seamus says: “I just felt spoiled to be honest.
“On any project it is a genuine miracle for such a large team to come together so quickly, so strongly, so passionately.
“One of the miracles of film making is that a group of people can meet and after one day, they’re a team or a family, and you’re very, very close.
“It was a dream gig in terms of the cast and we all got on so well.
“We were working off the same page.
“Everybody brought a lightness of touch to it.
“We were dealing with big, heavy things quite a bit, the way to deal with that on set in between takes is by talking and having fun and joking.
“I think there were a couple of times the directors kinda got fed up with us talking and joking and having fun but it all fed into our sense of ensemble.
“I just felt very, very lucky.
“Once we’d done all the prep work, the filming itself was a total joy that didn’t feel like work at all, we were just playing.”
Tom and Ross have been working as a partnership since 2018 when they co-founded Floodlight Pictures as a vehicle through which to mount their filmmaking projects.
They spoke to us from where they were editing their third short film, The Golden West, a Celtic Western set during the crossover of the Irish Famine and the Gold Rush, starring IFTA-winner Eileen Walsh and IFTA-nominee Aoife Duffin.
Tom says: “Our luck continues in being able to work with fantastic actors.
“It’s slightly different.
“It’s about two warring sisters who flee Ireland to try to seek their fortunes so it’s a bit of a psychological thriller/ Western/ black comedy, it’s all over the place but we had a lot of fun making it.”
Ross adds: “And Eileen and Aoife are two absolute pros.
“We’re very lucky.
“We always say we’ve just got to get the right actors in front of the camera and then we just stay out of the way and just let them do their thing.
“That’s what a good director does, I think.”
Seamus can soon be seen in In The Land of Saints and Sinners with a cast that includes Liam Neeson, Ciaran Hinds, Colm Meaney, Kerry Condon and Sarah Greene.
“It’s just been dream come true,” Seamus says.
“Being Northern Irish, Liam Neeson is the man.
“You’ve grown up watching him, talking about him and then to work with him…
“And he’s a stone cold gentleman. He’s a stone cold professional and to watch him work and how he carries himself on set, it was one of those moments where you were pinching yourself, and also going, ‘That’s how I want to work and that’s who I want to emulate’.
“To watch those great actors, how they manage themselves is a privilege.”
Before we let them go, we ask what the film makers and actor would include on a bucket list of their own?
“To go the Oscars,” Seamus says straight away with a laugh.
That could come true before too long.
The nominations for the 95th Academy Awards will be announced on Tuesday 24 January with the Oscars ceremony held on Sunday 12 March.
For more information on Floodlight Pictures, go to floodlightpictures.co.uk.