It’s not easy to tackle a gruesome subject matter with humor. And to make the Irish dark comedy work, its filmmakers drew inspiration from their own ideations of life and death. An Irish Goodbye, written and directed by Tom Berkeley and Ross White, follows a pair of estranged brothers who must learn to get along after their mother’s untimely passing. Lorcan (James Martin), an adult with Down syndrome, takes his mother’s death the hardest and soon fears that his brother will abandon him. While Turlough (Seamus O’Hara) grapples with whether he should ship Lorcan off to live with their aunt in London or learn to care for his brother.
Although death is not a revolutionary topic in the cinematic medium, the unique and heartfelt way Berkeley and White explore grief through centering on the unusual brotherhood is poignant. Fresh off of a BAFTA win and headed to the Oscars, the filmmakers discuss their inspiration, casting actors with disabilities and creating a sentimental exploration of love and grief.
DEADLINE: What was the inspiration behind this short?
TOM BERKELEY: Ross and I had been living together for a long time in London, and we decided to move back to our hometowns. I moved back to Gloucester in the West Country of England; Ross moved back to Belfast in Northern Ireland. So, the themes of leaving home, returning home and being flung back into the family unit we were once a part of were prevalent in our minds at the time.
Then, I happened to go to a football [soccer] match, and I saw these two adult brothers, a couple rows ahead of me, watching the game, and I found their relationship very interesting. The younger brother had Down syndrome and the older brother was there as a caretaker. [I noticed their dynamic] was a typical argumentative, fiery, brotherly relationship. So, I found that kind of duality and juxtaposition of those two things compelling and interesting. And then we spoke about it a lot the next day, and we found those characters and what a story would look like seen through the journey of them reconnecting together might look like.
DEADLINE: Though this film is about grieving and death and how tragedies can bring people together, it’s also this touching story about brotherly bonding. What exactly is the meaning behind An Irish Goodbye to you both? And how did you manage to tread that delicate balance between sadness and comedy?
BERKELEY: It’s about reconnection and redemption as well. And I think it’s about the idea of how, in the darkest moments for those two characters, it’s within trying to find that kind of ritual around losing a parent and how devastating that is that they end up finding each other. And it’s never on the cards for either of those characters at the beginning of this film. The last thing they’re really thinking about is their bond repairing, but through their commitment to their mom and their mom’s memory, that ultimately brings them together. It’s about the idea of, firstly, grief being something that we think of as a very personal individual journey, but it’s something that you don’t necessarily have to go through alone, and grieving with another person can lead to that healing. And then also just about family.
ROSS WHITE: With the dark comedy, that’s something that we’re always really drawn to. That line between tragedy and comedy feels very human and real to us, and we really love playing with audience expectations and almost teasing as to when and when you shouldn’t laugh, when you should laugh, and not knowing exactly where you stand. And maybe there’s a moment of comedy followed directly by a moment of sincerity and earnest performance. That excites us as a way to explore this, and when we knew we were setting out to make a film about grief, we wanted to make sure that it was still enjoyable to watch.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk about the importance of inclusivity in casting James Martin and your experiences writing a character with a disability.
BERKELEY: Having that experience of seeing those brothers [one with Down syndrome, one without] at the game really instigated the idea, and we just felt like those were the characters we wanted to portray. It wasn’t anything we necessarily had to wrestle with in terms of whether we kept [that trait] or not. I mean, other people maybe at times said it would be a lot easier for casting and stuff like that to maybe think about this elsewhere. But we just thought, if we can’t make it work, we won’t make the film because that’s what we are attracted to here in this story. It’s this dynamic where you’ve got these two characters who process life and their emotions and grief in completely opposite ways. You have the older brother, who’s typically stoic and cynical and that very repressed male emotions kind of thing. And then the experience a lot with people with Down syndrome is they have this superhuman capacity for empathy, which makes them an interesting juxtaposition. So that was always key for us.
And very soon into writing the script, we then saw James in this BBC Northern Ireland TV movie called Ups and Downs, and he was the lead in that. And then we were like, “That’s our guy. We need to engineer the whole project around him.” And it just happened from there. I mean, I’d written some, because when [Ross and I] first met at drama school, we were writing plays separately at that time, and I’d written a play that had a main character with a developmental disability. That was my first window into that.
WHITE: I worked in a special educational needs unit as a teaching assistant for a while in the U.K., which is my experience with that. Once we decided that that was a factor of the character, we didn’t really speak about it all too much because I think something that’s really important for us is representation. It’s not enough just to put that in front of the camera and say, “OK, we’ve got a character with Down syndrome; there you go.” It’s like, that is the least exciting thing about this character. We wanted to write this character that is so multifaceted. Who is mischievous, full of heart, and full of swearing. And it just felt, when we met James, he’s got so much about him beyond his disability. There’s so many more interesting things about him. So, in that sense, we really wanted to make sure that, though it is an element in the story, it’s not just about a character with Down syndrome.
BERKELEY: And it’s your job as writers to write a character that has a sense of agency in their own story, and they’re as complex and colorful as any other character that you’d write. So, that’s what we set out to do, and then with James coming on board with all of his colorful personality traits just made it perfect. We’ve had some really lovely responses from people, either with Down syndrome, or with children with Down syndrome, or family members, that say they feel like that’s, in Lorcan, it’s a character that they feel they recognize, as opposed to a two-dimensional person.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]
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