- Film & TV
- 23 May 23
As they continue to bask in the afterglow of their Oscar win, An Irish Goodbye co-creators Ross White and Tom Berkeley talk about Antrim days, Hollywood nights, giving Dylan the heave-ho, presidential shoutouts and why they’ll forever be grateful to Leicester City and Wolverhampton Wanderers.
The nominees for the An Irish Goodbye co-creator Ross White’s Best Moment of 2023 (So Far) are… winning the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film; being invited to Áras an Uachtaráin by President Michael D. Higgins and his wife Sabina Higgins; getting a shout out from Joe Biden in Belfast; hobnobbing with Elton John at a Hollywood party, and receiving a video message from Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp.
“The winner is… (cue sound of envelope being ripped open)… receiving a video message from Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp!”
As an Evertonian I’m baffled that anyone should be so enamoured of Jurgen Flopp but, hey, there’s no accounting for footballing taste.
“We were in the car on the way to the Oscars and I had this flurry of messages on my phone saying, ‘Call your Dad quickly’,” Ross tells me. “I was thinking, ‘Oh my god, what’s the emergency?’ I called him and he was like, ‘Check your WhatsApp’. I did and there was this passion-filled ‘best of luck’ message from Klopp who invited me to come over and see a match at Anfield. So, I was buzzing even before I got to the Dolby Theater!”
Talking of footy, it’s White’s partner in filmic crime, Tom Berkeley, attending a Wolverhampton Wanderers vs. Leicester City game that was the catalyst for An Irish Goodbye.
“I went to see Leicester playing at Molyneux with my Dad a few seasons ago,” Tom explains. “It was a very boring game so I started looking around the crowd and happened to see these two adult brothers hurling abuse at each other. It was real fiery, at each other’s throats stuff. What made the relationship particularly interesting was the obvious duty of care the elder of the two had towards his younger brother who had Down’s Syndrome. At the time, we wanted to do something about the process of grief and men who are struggling with it, so I mentioned these two characters to Tom and we decided they were a great double act.”
Are Leicester City aware of their role in the An Irish Goodbye success story?
“Apparently so because I’m being given the directors’ box treatment at this Saturday’s game, which coincidentally is the reverse Leicester vs. Wolves fixture,” Tom beams.
Now both 27 – am I the only one feeling like an underachiever? – Ross, who’s from East Belfast, and Tom, a Gloucester boy, met at college in Guildford just outside of London.
“We originally trained to be actors – that was the dream,” the latter resumes. “We did bits of screen work – being on set gave us a good grounding in film – and set up a theatre company, which we ran for four or five years. So, we’ve been working together in a number of creative guises for most of our adult lives. At some point, we realised that what really mattered to us was telling stories.”
Their first one being Roy, the story of a reclusive widower played by that brilliant English character actor David Bradley who absolutely killed it as Ricky Gervais’ dad in After Life.
“Funnily enough, in the run up to the Oscars we had dinner with Guillermo del Toro who’d cast David as Geppetto in Pinocchio,” Ross reveals. “He said – and he’s right – that David is such an underrated actor who’s never been given a leading role in any feature-length movie.
“We wrote David a letter saying, ‘We’d love you to be in this tiny little micro-budget film we’re shooting. It’s the one actor in the one location, so we can make it easy by coming to you and using your living-room.’ If it had been me, I’d have chucked the letter in the bin but, amazingly, David connected with the story and said, ‘Yes!’ People sometimes forget that actors just want to act and do things that they’re passionate about.
“So, we did a two-day shoot at the height of COVID, which went like a dream. The lovely postscript being that we saw David in the bathroom at the Oscars and he said, ‘People still come up to me and speak about Roy.’”
SPOILER ALERT: Mentioned at the time as a BAFTA contender but – boo! – ultimately failing to get a nomination, it proves that An Irish Goodbye is no fluke with Bradley melting your heart as the OAP who rings random numbers hoping to have a chat with whoever answers, and ends up befriending an adult hotline worker.
With Roy as a calling card, Ross and Tom managed to piece together the funding for the equally micro-budget An Irish Goodbye which, the former notes, “is about Lorcan, who has an almost superhuman capacity for empathy – he’s got such an open heart – and his stoic, somewhat repressed older brother, Turlough.”
Did the relocating of the brothers from the Molyneaux terraces to County Antrim require Tom to undergo a crash course in Northern Irishness?
“During the nine years we’ve known each other, I’ve been over to Northern Ireland a lot and hung out with Ross’ family and friends,” he responds. “So, I’d osmosis-like got a sense of the people and place. I’ve always been interested in language and dialects and the way things are phrased – growing-up me and my Dad did a lot of accents – and there’s a richness in Northern Ireland to all three which made the dialogue such a joy to write.”
The casting of Lorcan could have been difficult, but thanks to what Tom describes as “a planet aligning sort of moment” was remarkably headache-free.
“We’d written the first draft of the script and were aware that it was a niche casting pool we were entering into,” he acknowledges. “Then, almost immediately, Ups And Downs came out on BBC One with James Martin in it – we both watched and knew, ‘Here’s our guy!’ James was everything we’d written on the page. The character is so much more than his Down’s Syndrome – Lorcan is also incredibly mischievous, enigmatic and complex. It was obvious from his portrayal of Conal in Ups And Downs that James could embody all of those traits, so we wrote a letter essentially begging him to come on board and very luckily he did.”
Having seen James comprehensively steal the show at the Oscars and in the Áras, I’m wondering does anything phase the guy?
“Not a thing,” Ross smiles. “Even when he got a shout from President Joe Biden in his speech, James just got up and waved back at him.
“As you can imagine we were quite nervous during the Oscars – the red carpet is a daunting thing and then you’re sitting with all these cinematic heroes you’ve looked up to your whole life. We were desperately trying to not look out of place and then you’d turn round and he’d be in an embrace with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson: ‘Hi, I’m James Martin, how are you doing?’ That broke the ice for the rest of us and meant we were able to really enjoy the occasion.”
The singing of ‘Happy Birthday’ to James by everybody in the Dolby Theater audience goes down as one of the all-time great Oscar moments.
“It was an out of body experience more akin to a simulation than real life,” Ross continues. “I remember Paul Mescal giving me a thumbs up and saying ‘Well done!’ as we walked towards the stage and then when were on it, Harrison Ford singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to this kid over here and Cate Blanchett joining in over there. It just felt so… ridiculous!
“When we found out a couple of months before that the Oscars were falling on James’ birthday, Tom and myself said to each other, ‘If we manage to win this award, it writes itself what we’ll say.’ When you go up you’re told, ‘You’ve got 45 seconds to give the speech, then you’re off and we’re going to start playing the music.’ Instead of trying – and failing – to say all of the necessary ‘thank yous’, we stuck with the plan and dedicated the moment to James.”
It was a massive moment for not just Mr. Martin but also his fellow members of Babosh, the drama group for adults with learning difficulties that he got his start with.
“He’s a wonderful advocate for that community.” Tom notes. “One of the nicest moments of this entire An Irish Goodbye journey was when we did a cast and crew screening in Belfast’s Strand Cinema. Two hundred people got to see it before anyone else and the whole front-row was made up of the friends James had been doing drama with since he was about fifteen, plus a lot of people from Mencap who he’s an ambassador for. We got to the Q&A part and almost all of the hands that went up were in the front-row. As the microphone was passed along, they each told James how much it meant to them seeing him up there on the big screen. They fell in love with the character and how it represented them and the community.”
An Irish Goodbye features an equally bravura performance from Seamus O’Hara, a Ballymena thesp who previously appeared in The Northman and will next be seen starring alongside Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Justice Smith and Hugh Grant in Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves.
“Sibling pairings are notoriously difficult to get right but Seamus blew us away with his video audition – and his big farmer’s beard, which we instantly fell in love with. It was so Turlough!” Tom says. “They only had one physical rehearsal day before we started shooting, but had been Facetiming each other for a month, learning their lines together. That groundwork really helped us out in terms of the chemistry between them being there from frame one of what was a four-and-a-half-day shoot. They became the best of mates and have kept Facetiming just to chat.”
Northern Ireland has been blighted down through the years by what Good Vibrations, Game Of Thrones and Blue Lights actor Richard Dormer calls ‘Troubles porn’. An example being 2013’s grotesque A Belfast Story, which one of its stars Colm Meaney had the good grace to apologise for after promotional packs were sent out that included a balaclava, nails and a roll of duct tape.
“Good Vibrations and Derry Girls both have the sensibility of this place,” Ross reflects. “They’re not ignoring the violence – it’s there in the background – but it’s not the be-all-and-end-all. I wanted to show a different side to this place. In a sense, An Irish Goodbye could happen anywhere but it happens here. It has a specific Northern Irishness and the sort of gallows humour that you don’t get anywhere else.”
Coming from the same neighbourhood as him, what did Ross make of Kenneth Brannagh’s Belfast?
“The default position in Northern Ireland is, ‘We’re going to hate it until you make us not hate it’, and he 100% did that. I saw it in an East Belfast cinema and everybody loved it. It felt very authentic – which of course it was, telling the story of his own childhood.
“It’s really interesting that a lot of the great films about Northern Ireland – the likes of ‘71, 50 Dead Men Walking and Hunger – were made by directors from outside of this place. I suppose they’re seeing us through completely fresh eyes.”
Lisa McGee is still recovering from the shock of Martin Scorsese professing to being a Derry Girls fan. Mickey D and Uncle Joe besides, who’s An Irish Goodbye’s biggest celebrity admirer?
“We had an Elton John encounter,” Tom marvels. “It was at one of those very busy Hollywood parties where we stuck out like a sore thumb. I think he noted our nervousness, came over and spoke to us for half-an-hour about seeing the film and loving it.
“Afterwards, he invited us on Facetime to one of his farewell tour shows, which we had a brilliant time at a couple of weeks ago. Elton’s a passionate consumer of art in all of its forms and has a track record of looking after artists who are going through hard times. It’s really admirable that with so much going on in his own life, he’s still discovering new things and being a beacon to other people.”
Just days before Ross and Tom’s Hot Press sit-down, it was announced that they’ve signed to William Morris Endeavour Entertainment, the same Hollywood talent agency that looks after the careers of Ben Affleck, Whoopi Goldberg, Matt Damon, Amy Schumer, Denzel Washington and Jessica Alba – and that really is just the tip of the A-List iceberg.
“It’s like being a young academy footballer and suddenly you’re under Pep Guardiola’s wing,” Ross says returning to the football analogies. “You spend so much time scrapping away and grafting. We’ve come up through shorts with the hope of one day making a feature film. The whole crazy experience with An Irish Goodbye has hopefully expedited that process.
“We’re just so thrilled to have the backing of an agency like WME and an agent, Craig, who’s been representing one of our heroes, Robert Eggers. These are people we admire and aspire to be like.”
Adds Tom: “We’ve a few feature ideas that we’ve been kind of percolating for a couple of years now. We’re excited about hibernating away and getting the work done on those. A lot of people are like, ‘Are you nervous? Do you feel the pressure?’ We do but it’s a pressure we’re happy to put on ourselves.”
Before that hibernation starts, the pair are looking forward to the release of their third short, The Golden West, which co-stars Aoife Duffin of Moone Boy renown and Eileen Walsh who was all sorts of wonderful in The Magdalene Sisters.
“It’s a period short set in 1849 at the crossover of the Famine in Ireland and the international gold rush,” Ross concludes. “We shot it before Christmas and are calling it a bit of an Irish western. It follows these two warring sisters who’ve fled to seek their fortunes in the west. It’s another sibling pairing but very different to An Irish Goodbye. We can’t wait for people to see it.”
The feeling, we assure you, is entirely mutual!
The new issue of Hot Press is out now.
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