Tom Berkeley and Ross White ran into an unexpected source of opposition when An Irish Goodbye, their charming Northern Irish comedy of death and reconciliation, landed on the Oscar shortlist for best live action short film.
“The Swifties were absolutely killing us,” White, a Belfast man, says with a laugh. “No, no, we got the occasional funny tweet at the shortlist stage. From Swifties.”
“Fourteen-year-old girls coming for us,” Berkeley adds.
Ah, yes. I had forgotten that. When the 15-strong list landed just before Christmas, the world expected Taylor Swift to get a nod for directing All Too Well: The Short Film. She wasn’t there. An Irish Goodbye scored and went on to land among the five nominations for the Oscar itself. There is (the odd Swift and, also last year, Kendrick Lamar aside) not much publicity around the short categories until the names land. Was that initial shortlist a total surprise? Were they favourites with the specialists?
“I was just sitting in Café Nero with a bunch of friends when they came out,” White says. “I thought it was going to be Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar and all. I saw it come through and it was just absolutely ridiculous. That was four days before Christmas. We’d just shot a third short film in north Wales. We were finishing up for a Christmas break. Let’s get ready for Christmas! That put it on pause for a bit.”
An Irish Goodbye, now joint favourite for the Oscar, is an absolute charmer. James Martin, who has Down syndrome, and Seamus O’Hara, a burly befuddled presence, star as two brothers who argue their way to a reluctant understanding after the death of their mother. O’Hara’s character wants to sell the family farm, but his brother is having none of it. The inspiration came from an observation Berkeley, who is originally from Gloucestershire, made while at a football game with his dad.
“We saw these two chaps. They were adult brothers,” he says. One of the two men had Down syndrome. “They were much like the lads in the film – quite burly, solid chaps. They were hurling abuse at each other for the whole game. It was just a very cool, brotherly relationship in that sense. But then there was that added layer of care – that layer of responsibility. Ross and I talked about it the next day. And we thought that would be an interesting character study.”
“Hurling abuse” indeed. I wonder what overseas viewers have made of the characters’ way of expressing their awkward strain of affection. The Irish have always prided themselves on their gift for slagging. That propensity is even more pronounced in the north-eastern corner of the island. I imagine cinemagoers from countries with less robust social habits may be taken aback by the stream of insults the brothers exchange.
“Yeah, well, I’m from Belfast and I think that rings true,” White says. “There’s no prudence or sincerity. We deliver our love through these backhanded compliments and quips. We spoke about that in terms of grief as well. How we cope with grief. We sort of underplay things and just use gallows humour to get through difficult moments. We don’t need to go into too much detail about why that’s developed. It’s pretty obvious I think.”
So much hangs on the charming – if stroppy – performance from James Martin. The son of popular Northern Irish DJ Ivan Martin, the young actor has already excelled in the 2017 TV movie Ups and Downs. Berkeley remembers seeing the film after writing a first draft and deciding that Martin had been presented to them through “divine intervention”. White also knew James from occasional appearances on Ivan’s radio show and agreed they should invite him on board.
“When you meet James there are 20 other things you think of first before you think of Down syndrome,” White says “He is such a multifaceted guy. He has got such charisma. He’s got a mischievous glint in his eye. I think sometimes he plays around when he knows exactly what’s going on. He is just a really magnetic guy to be around.”
Berkeley and White, agreeable young men at home to warm cackles, met at 18 when they were training to be actors in London. They went on to write plays and, realising they had a similar disposition, set up a theatre company together. Their 2020 short film Roy, starring the veteran actor David Bradley, won awards at a host of film festivals from Atlanta to Edmonton to Norwich. None of that can, however, have prepared them for the circus that is the Academy Awards. As we speak, they are back in Los Angeles after a bunch of events, the most dizzying of which may have been the nominee’s lunch.
“Yeah, we came out for that one,” White says. “It was bizarre. That was a crazy day. We came over for that, stayed for a couple of days, went back for the Baftas and then came back out for this final run.”
Who most impressed them at the lunch?
“The first person we were thrown in front of was Tom Cruise,” Berkeley says. “He was really nice. He was good with us because we were fairly monosyllabic. And he was very present with us. And then we went from him to Steven Spielberg. We were laughing that when he was our age, he was making Jaws.”
We know that getting an Oscar nomination really changes things. Benjamin Cleary, the last Irish person to win a best live action short Oscar, went on to make Swan Song, a well-received science fiction film, for Apple only a few years after his triumph in 2016. I assume producers are already circling.
“It felt it came immediately after the nomination kicked it,” Berkeley says. “The emails came in. I guess you go from not being on anyone’s radar to being on their radar. It’s like a machine. This whole place is set up to make film. They’re incredibly passionate about finding people coming up through the ranks. I think people are actually very nurturing – even if that’s often shown in a different light.”
Berkeley and White arrive as part of the most Irish Oscars ever. Fourteen nominations have gone the way of Irish talent and Irish films. The Banshees of Inisherin is up for nine. Paul Mescal competes in best actor for Aftersun. And, of course, An Cailín Ciúin, directed by Colm Bairéad and produced by Cleona Ní Chrualaoi, is the first film in Irish to compete for best international feature. What is it like being part of a wave?
“It’s unbelievable,” White says “The Cailín Ciúin team have been so generous. They’ve been doing this for quite a while longer than us. When we got involved they saw that and took us under their wing. They really looked after us. And then, when we were at the lunch, we met the Banshees team and we got this photo together. There is just a real sense of pride in the work that we’ve all done. A shared pride.”
An Irish Goodbye is on RTÉ 1 on Saturday, March 11th, at 10.40pm