Irish co-writer, co-director duo Ross White and Tom Berkeley had their debut short film Roy screened at Bolton Film Festival this year for its UK Premiere and White sat down with Jordan-Luke McDonald to talk about the film, the pair’s introduction into the film world and their future ambitions.
The short film centres around the titular character of Roy, an elderly widower, portrayed wonderfully on screen by veteran actor David Bradley, who routinely calls random numbers from a phonebook out of loneliness in an attempt to make connections and have conversations. However, one day, he unwittingly makes a call to an adult hotline service and is connected to a woman named Cara (Rachel Shenton). From there sprouts a friendship that keeps Roy company and even pushes him to grow as a person by partaking in new experiences.
“Roy is the story of a widower who sort of cold calls people from the phone book, looking for little moments of companionship and friendship. Then he accidentally calls an adult hotline worker and they form this unlikely friendship over the phone. It just tells the blossoming relationship they develop, this friendship over the phone,” explains White.
79-year old Bradley is a highly recognisable face, having featured in the likes of the Harry Potter and Game of Thrones franchises, as well as various renowned BBC series, to name but a few. Bradley is almost always on screen and puts his vast skill to use.
The film is beautifully written by White and Berkeley – funny and melancholic in equal measure – and Bradley demonstrates an impeccable aptitude for both comedic timing and genuine, heartfelt emotion.
Having come from an acting background himself, White goes on to explain how his past experiences helped shape him as a director, the approach that he and Berkeley took with both getting Bradley onboard and then working with him on set, and how observing the actor’s work even gave them some performing pointers.
“Working with David, you know, the man is a BAFTA-winner and for good reason. He is just the most exceptional talent and the film rests so heavily on that central performance. He doesn’t really leave the screen at any point, so having an actor of that calibre really was a gift, a real gift for us. Tom and I come from acting backgrounds, so to watch somebody at that level work and do their thing was just an eye opener even then, and he is such a seasoned pro and the nicest man. The most approachable, lovely guy”, he says.
“People always ask the question ‘how did you get David Bradley?’ and there wasn’t really a sort of secret formula. We sent him the script and I think he is open and if he reads something that he connects to, like most actors, they will try and give their time for it if they have got a couple of days spare. Then it’s just a case of trying to logistically make things as easy as possible for him. He was living in Stratford-upon-Avon at the time, so we just tried to look at every location within a 10-mile radius of that, trying to do something close to his house and handy for him.
“But watching him work, it was a gift. One of the main things was, every take he would give you was firstly so usable, so in the editing process a joy and a headache at the same time because it was like ‘which one of these’, you know? It was so great. There was no dud from him. There was no filler. It was just brilliant, brilliant stuff.
“I think we do definitely feel more at home working with actors. We’ve been on the end of good direction and bad direction or difficult direction. That lets you know what to do and more importantly what not to do. I think the funny thing is, when you get an actor of David’s quality, it’s mostly about getting out of the way and letting him do his thing. On the morning of the first day of shooting, he was getting into costume and we were in his room and we said ‘shall we just have a readthrough?’ and he was sort of half doing something else. But just listening to him read the words, it was like you’ve just got this so instinctively, you know? You’ve got so much of it for free. So I think it was about really picking your moments to try and help things and it was mostly little logistical things, really not getting in the way too much with him.”
Having never written or directed a short film, having previously only been involved in theatre productions, Roy enabled White and Berkeley to put their stage-writing and performance knowledge to good use and served as an intensive learning experience for the pair, who began the project with limited technical expertise.
“With our first film, it’s such a heavy performance piece and I think that is because of our background and where we find comfort in working with actors. It was a big learning curve for us. This was kind of our very high pressurised film school. We’ve not been behind the camera before and not working on some of the technical aspects, so that was the stuff that definitely made us a bit more nervous, but thankfully we were guided by a great crew who helped us on that side of things.”
Working together in both the writing and directing arenas, White also explains how it came to be that he and Berkeley work on creative projects together as collaborative filmmakers, as well as how the pair ended up transitioning from acting to writing and directing films.
“We trained as actors and we’re always writing. [That] was the way into this side of things for us. We originally wrote for theatre. [That] was our starting place individually and we were both writing plays and we’d been helping each other with our plays and speaking about giving each other notes and stuff. We just found this shared voice and shared interest in something we want to write and we’re still very much finding our feet with that voice I think. We then were writing spec scripts for a while together while acting at the same time and then the writing started to take over a bit and I think it has taken over almost fully now.”
White also outlines the differences between his experience as an actor and then as a writer-director, offering some insight into why he prefers his latest endeavours.
“It’s a very different life as an actor. As a filmmaker, you can be a bit more ‘get up and go’, a bit more pragmatic. Especially on this kind of scale, you can make things happen for yourself. You’re at the mercy of others as an actor a lot more and we’re too impatient for that in a lot of ways. We still do little bits and bobs and it’s great to be on set. It’s interesting being back on set now having directed because you’re so much more aware of what everybody else is doing, whereas before it was just you’re in your little box, you’re in your zone, so that’s really interesting,” he notes.
“But I think moving forward, the writing and directing stuff is… it just has a very different kind of joy to it. As an actor, I think you can hop on and off of projects a lot quicker and do more, but seeing something right the way through, from the inception of the idea to watching at the cinema with you guys at the festival, it’s just a very special experience to know that you’ve had input at every stage along the way. That probably speaks to the control freak nature of most filmmakers. I think that will be us going forward. The writing is where it starts and then we’ll keep directing. Listen, if you’re going to pay us, we’ll act too!” he jests.
When discussing his early endeavours in acting on screen, a film called The Last Letter came up in conversation.
“So that was me as an actor many a year ago lending my face to a film with a brilliant, brilliant director called Terry Loane in Northern Ireland, who has very kindly held both mine and Tom’s hand as a bit of a mentor going through our first shorts. That’s been the other nice thing – you meet people as an actor – and he always knew that we were both writing and stuff, and offered up his time so generously.”
As many creatives will know, the pandemic has taken its toll on every industry, from theatre and film, to art and dance. The cinema industry in particular has dwindled over the past 18 months, with blockbusters underperforming at the box office or suffering from flat-out delays. However, with things beginning to move towards normality, White explains how it has been for him personally with the distribution of his film and how it feels to be back at the cinema with the silver screen.
“The film has been doing its festival circuit since March, but it’s all been in America or elsewhere and that’s been great – some really fantastic festivals – and I have to say, some have made a real effort with the virtual side of the festivals as well to include international filmmakers. But it’s not the same, is it, you know? It’s just not, and not being there, it feels hard to… it doesn’t feel quite tangible that it’s actually happening,” he acquiesces.
“This is our UK premiere and to be in the cinema with it – it’s my first time ever seeing it on the big screen, nevermind with an audience – just seeing it in a cinema and to gauge that response from an audience and hear the reception is quite a special moment.”
The Irishman also gives his thanks to all of the volunteers and organisers of Bolton Film Festival: “Kudos to the team at Bolton here. They’ve just ran such a brilliant festival. A really eclectic programme and to be a part of it with some remarkable shorts is just a real honour for us.”
White also outlines his plans going forward, namely moving onto longer form film content with feature-length projects, but notes his love and appreciation of the short film culture and its affordances.
“That’s kind of the plan I think [to move onto feature films], as I say with us having been writers for a while but this being our entrance into directing and filmmaking. We’ve done two shorts. The second short we made is just about to start its festival run and it’s called An Irish Goodbye. Both of these films have been such a learning curve and I think if you ever look at a film you’ve made and think ‘oh, I’m totally happy with that, that’s perfect’, probably something’s gone wrong somewhere along the line. So it’s a constant learning curve. But we’re always looking to develop into longer form stuff. I think it’s a mixture,” he asserts, with regards to the type of content that he hopes to produce.
“There is something quite enjoyable about the short form as well. Sadly there’s no money in it, but there is something really enjoyable about that as an art form in and of itself. I think writing wise and directing independent films, a feature in hopefully the not too distant future – and the writing stuff as well – is the plan going forward.”
The film itself, centred around a single character alone at home, draws some potential subtextual parallels to the isolation and solitude of the pandemic and its numerous social lockdowns. However, the film was actually devised before the Coronavirus outbreak.
“It wasn’t written as that, but then I think without us knowing and being conscious of it, that sort of just permeated everything to do with it. It’s that kind of ironic thing I guess of ‘you’re in prep for a film about a lonely man while you’re trapped in your own house’. I think it’s good that we weren’t conscious of it almost too much, but that definitely fed in for I think every crew member. When we all met up to shoot it, that was the first time any of us had been around people for six months. We filmed the shoot in that sweet spot gap after the first lockdown when we all thought it was going to be over, at the end of that first summer, which ironically lines up almost identically as a year ago to the festival, so that’s been a kind of nice full circle. So it definitely wasn’t about Covid in any way and I think the fact that people have been able to tap into it through that, it’s been a nice coincidence more than anything else.”
As White himself acknowledges, the selection of shorts at this year’s Bolton Film Festival was ‘eclectic’, with a very high level of quality and films spanning a wide variety of genres, tones, narratives, concepts and styles. Yet there was also a notably consistent throughline across the entire schedule of films with underlying themes of loneliness, isolation, anxiety and melancholia. Whether that was a result of a general collective conscience amongst society and creatives, or directly attributed to the pandemic, or a subconscious effect during the selection process by the organisers, White makes some astute observations on the topic.
“There’s something about all great dramas relying so much on connection, on strong connection, and I think maybe that just seeped into the filmmakers’ collective brains when that was going, to make something that was kind of a bit about that but not. I remember in the first lockdown, watching Normal People on the BBC as it first came out and I remember Lenny Abrahamson tweeted saying ‘it feels so surreal to watch something that was once so normal but now feels so alien to us all’ and it made that show so special. I mean, already a fantastic show, but just seeing human connection on screen… So I think maybe that’s just both something the filmmakers are thinking about and it’s also in our minds as viewers, you know, we pick up on a lot more more and go ‘oh, we’ve not had that for a while, that’s nice’.”
The short film also does some great work too at humanising the character of Cara, the female adult hotline worker with whom Roy forms a friendship, which is particularly pleasant to see given how problematic and disparaging some people’s opinions can be of people in this line of work. Such a development is all the more impressive given the fact that she is never seen on screen!
“I should say Cara on the end of the phone, played fantastically by Rachel Shenton, we were so lucky to have Rachel with us on set, off camera. We never see her, but she gives such a rounded, great performance, that you feel like you kind of do know her and you have seen her, and that’s just a testament to her.
When asked if humanising the often dehumanised individuals who work as hotline workers was a specific goal of the film, White proceeds to explain that they “had that original kernel of the idea that just felt funny and sweet and this accidental…”
“We then were reading a lot of stories online and stuff from adult hotline workers, and yeah, I do know what you mean. I guess like, you know, it’s just normal people doing their job, isn’t it? There are so many funny stories and just like the things these women and men are asked to do sometimes. It just felt like a really human profession and it felt like, I guess, just like working in a kind of weird call centre, a kind of strange, off-day call centre. I’m glad that came across. We never really spoke about it too much and I think Rachel brought so much humanity to Cara as a character. It kind of is about both of them and both of what they’ve got to learn from each other and that was our intention with both of their arcs.”
Was there ever a discussion of including Cara on screen or was it a conscious decision to omit her visually? It appears that here, the answer is the obvious one: the latter.
“For Tom and I, no, there wasn’t ever. Then you go through production and you work with more and more people, and as you say it’s a collaborative process, you’re working with a lot of people and there were maybe some questions. But I think when we explained what we wanted to do and why we didn’t think there ought to be, people got that and saw what we were going for. It’s both a creative decision in the fact that for Roy and his isolation… we shot in that 4:3 as well, where he is like a little man in a box and that’s all for a reason to kind of trap him in there.
“And I think if you cut out to somebody else, you almost let us as the audience off the hook a bit. It is obviously his story. It was a conscious decision. The logistical side of things as well, obviously that helps because, as much as we wrote it before, it then became the script that we had that was most suitable for shooting in pandemic circumstances. Also, you know, [our] first film, we had no fecking money. Nobody was going to give us money, so it was kind of, ‘what can we afford? Let’s get one actor in one location’. I should say, it started off as a very humble enterprise and did stay like that for most of the way, and then David came on board and it was like ‘okay, we better actually really pull our socks up here’.
“But it never was in any way a mega budget short. It was done for a shoestring budget. I think that’s part of the charm of it as well. We had to think creatively around what we could do and what we couldn’t do and what we could show. I’m pretty sure we looked at every Airbnb in England, trying to find the right place that had all of the aesthetic of Roy’s life.”
A charming, funny and uplifting tale, Roy is not currently available online, but for information on when, where and how to watch the short, visit www.flootlightpictures.co.uk.