Relationships with our families are messy and complicated. They are the ones who know us the most and know how to push our buttons to a breaking point. Cinema is a great place to explore these complex relationships that have a shared exploration of what it means to care for someone who shares a part of you. Writers/Directors/Producers Tom Berkeley and Ross White highlight this exact point in their Academy Award-nominated short film, An Irish Goodbye.
An Irish Goodbye tells the story of estranged brothers Lorcan (James Martin) and Turlough (Seamus O'Hara) reuniting in rural Northern Ireland after the death of their mother. What comes is a delightful take on a family dramedy that pokes at the beautiful absurdity of the situations the brothers find themselves in while trying to navigate their relationships with themselves and each other.
Berkeley and White sat down with No Film School over Zoom to chat about the inspiration behind An Irish Goodbye, their collaboration as filmmakers, how their short films have been their film school, and what they've learned along the way.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: Congratulations on winning the BAFTA for An Irish Goodbye,and also being nominated for an Oscar. That's amazing on many levels. What was the inspiration behind this project?
Tom Berkeley: Thank you very much. Ross and I had been working together for quite some time, living in London. However, we decided to move back to our respective hometowns, Belfast for Ross and the West Country in England for me, to focus more on filmmaking. Being back in Ireland and England, respectively, themes of leaving home and returning home, and being re-immersed in family life, were on our minds quite a bit during that period.
During this time, I happened to attend a football match with my father and noticed two adult brothers sitting a few rows ahead of us who would later become the inspiration for the characters in our film. Their relationship was fiery and argumentative but had an added layer of responsibility as the older brother was also the carer for his younger brother who had Down Syndrome. I found their dynamic compelling and shared my experience with Ross the following day.
Together, we decided that these brothers would be interesting characters to base a story around because of their opposing energies and worldviews. The older brother was stoic and slightly cynical, while the younger brother, who became Lorcan, had a superhuman capacity for empathy. We thought it would be fascinating to explore these characters' experiences of grief together, as they navigated their differences and came to terms with their loss.
NFS: How long have you two been collaborating with each other?
Ross White: We met when we were a team. We did not go to film school at University in London. We were trying to be actors originally, and as soon as we were both interested in writing as well, we were writing for theater running plays initially. Then, I'd say we were in this theater company for four years after we graduated. That was our first kind of proper real collaboration. We were always helping each other with our plays and our other independent projects. Then, in the summer of 2019, when we moved out of London. We made a real concerted effort to begin screenwriting together. Initially, the idea was we would be screenwriters first, then as we went on that journey, we sort of thought we'd give directing a go and we'd maybe try a bit of producing and try and get something from idea right through to cinema screen.
An Irish Goodbye was the first screenplay that we wrote together. We made one another short called Roy because we basically weren't ready to make An Irish Goodbye. We tried to get other people to make it because we were too scared to direct ourselves. They all said “no,” thankfully. Then we had Roy, the first short, which was very paired back. It was one location, one actor in person, and then a phone call, and another actor for the voiceover. It was very simple.
Then, we caught the bug a bit for directing. Six months after we met Roy, which was our film school, we started on An Irish Goodbye. We always said that we'd learn on the job and try and use these kinds of shorts as a way to develop our craft really. Thankfully it's worked out okay so far.
Tom Berkeley and Ross White BTS on 'An Irish Goodbye'Credit: Floodlight PicturesNFS: Can you walk me through what your collaboration looks like from the writing process to when you are both behind the camera?
Berkeley: It all starts with preparation. We both place a heavy emphasis on preparation and have extensive conversations about it before even reaching the script stage. With the goal of eventually directing, we approach the project from a holistic point of view from the beginning. By the time we get to the set, we have covered a lot of ground and feel like we have a shared understanding of the project.
So when problems arise, as they often do, we have already discussed many possible solutions. This makes it easier for us to know which direction to push and pull things in. Our approach is very collaborative, with writing, directing, and producing being equally shared. Having worked together in various capacities before, we have developed a shared vocabulary that is directly reflected in our work.
White: I agree with Berkeley. The collaborative approach really helps to refine ideas quickly during the writing process. Constantly pitching ideas to each other helps to avoid going down the wrong path. if you were writing by yourself it would be a lot easier to go down a rabbit hole of mistakes or the wrong direction.
On set, having both of us there speeds up the process. With our shared shorthand, we can quickly communicate and delegate tasks to different members of the team. This way, no one gets overwhelmed or bored with seeing our faces and hearing our voices. So far, it's been working well, but who knows what the future holds.
NFS: For each of you, what's one lesson that you've learned that you're going to carry with you throughout your entire filmmaking career? Be that as a writer or director as a producer?
Tom Berkeley: As a director, there are rare instances where my co-director and I have slightly different visions for a scene or moment, which is specific to our collaborative approach. In these situations, we've found that it's more efficient to shoot both versions and discuss them in post-production. If we were to stop and discuss the decision in the moment, it would waste everyone's time.
Shooting both versions back-to-back can also be more interesting for the actors and can generate a more spontaneous performance. While it doesn't happen frequently, we will always try to carry this approach forward as it has saved us time and has led to better results. In the end, having both options available allows us to make the best decision in post-production.
White: I heard the actor Toby Jones use a phrase that I think perfectly describes the filmmaking process: An artistic process hard up against an industrial process. As a director, it's a challenge to balance the creative vision with the practical demands of making a film. One of the most difficult tasks is protecting the actors and core creative team from the logistical and technical challenges of filmmaking.
My role is to create a safe and collaborative environment, a playground of sorts, where the actors and team feel free to do their best work. I aim to shield them from the chaos and distractions of the film set, allowing them to fully immerse themselves in the scene and bring something special to their performance. When we succeed in doing this, I can see the difference in the final product - those special moments that truly stand out and elevate the film.
Seamus O'Hara as Turlough and James Martin as Lorcan in 'An Irish Goodbye'Credit: Floodlight PicturesNFS: I think one thing I want to commend you both on is your montage scene of all the different moments between the brothers and the ashes. What I like about that moment is that we're so focused on the story and the human aspect of it that all the other aspects of the time or the rules of the film don't exist. What is the trick, if any, of focusing solely on the story and not so much on the broader rules of storytelling?
Berkeley: Coming originally from an acting background, we're very focused on character development and how you can define that through the action of the film. So, character development is something that's always at the forefront of my mind. We strive to create a clear journey for our characters, and that's especially true in the montage scene you mentioned. We didn't want it to feel like a random collection of moments, but rather a cohesive story within the larger story. We achieved this through careful visual and performance choices, and we made sure to include a pivotal moment where Turner has a change in perception of his brother Lorcan. This moment serves as the apex of the story and anchors the rest of the montage. We deliberately built the montage around this moment to ensure that it had the necessary emotional weight. Of course, we also kept the broader rules of storytelling in mind, but ultimately, our focus was always on the characters and their journey.
White: Yeah, more broadly, we aimed to create a world that felt distinct from the one we live in - a sort of isolated, middle-of-nowhere space. We emphasized this in the first few minutes of the film with the characters driving across the mountaintop road, visually separating them from everything else. We wanted to establish this offbeat tone from the start and manage the audience's expectations accordingly. By setting this up early on, we could avoid having to shoehorn it in later on. So, we focused on little visual cues that would help create this distinct world and tone
NFS: I think I was having a conversation with someone recently about how people treat their family members or people they truly, truly love. The tone that you've created, which is this dark family comedy, reflects that kind of brashness of those relationships.
Berkeley: Thank you. I think siblings have a unique relationship where they can be lovingly cruel to each other in a way that's different from any other relationship. As brothers, Lorcan’s and Turlough’s dynamics were inspired by my own relationship with my older brother. It was interesting to think about how two characters from the same family could become so different and estranged, and what could bring them back together. As you get older, you realize that you are all individuals, even though you come from the same place. That's why we threaded in so many childish elements, like fart jokes, because it's those early, almost childlike urges that can reconnect siblings. It's a special place that you can go back to with someone who shares a unique set of memories with you.
James Martin as Lorcan and Seamus O'Hara as Turlough in 'An Irish Goodbye'Credit: Floodlight PicturesNFS: Do you have any advice for any filmmakers?
White: I think something that used to be said a lot was, "Oh, these days you can just shoot a short film on your iPhone," and while it's true that some people create amazing films on their phones, I always found it a frustrating and reductive way to look at it. I wanted to do the "real thing." Starting out from a place of restriction actually helped us in the making of this film. We knew what we could achieve, and we set up rules for ourselves, such as having one location and one or two characters. Sometimes these restrictions can help breed creativity. Being honest with yourself about what's at your disposal, based on what's around you, where you live, and if there are any funky locations you can access for free, can really spark something special.
Berkeley: Another common perspective is that short films are often seen as a stepping stone towards something else, and as a result, they may not be given the importance and weight they deserve within the industry. It doesn’t help that it can be difficult for short films to find a permanent home or long-term distribution.
I believe it's important for filmmakers to embrace the format and explore its possibilities, rather than viewing it as a temporary stop on the way to something else. It's a unique challenge to tell a story with a size and impact within a short timeframe, and it's not something that should be underestimated. In fact, successfully achieving this feat can be a greater sense of achievement than telling the same story over two hours. While some have suggested that our short film could be expanded into a feature, we are proud of how it currently exists as a short film. If we were to expand it, it would only be if we felt that something was missing or if we wanted to take it somewhere new. The content should always dictate the form, and we are content with our short film as it is.