23 July 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network

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Oscar-winning Director Ross White discusses The Golden West
31 Oct 2023 : Luke Shanahan
The Golden West
We sat down with Ross White to discuss The Golden West, the new short film from An Irish Goodbye directors White and Tom Berkeley. The short is currently on the festival circuit.

Since 2021, co-directors Ross White and Tom Berkeley have directed three short films together: Roy, starring David Bradley (Hot Fuzz, Harry Potter series), An Irish Goodbye, which won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film earlier this year, and most recently, The Golden West.

The Golden West is set in 1849, and follows two warring Irish sisters who, having fled the Great Famine, seek their fortunes in the gold rush. But with winter fast approaching and nothing to show for their efforts, their age-old feud soon threatens to become deadly.

The short stars Aoife Duffin (Moone Boy) and Eileen Walsh (The Magdalene Sisters) as sisters Fionnula and Noreen. Walsh recently received the KIFF 2023 Maureen O’ Hara Award, which celebrates women who have excelled in film, TV and/or media. The short also stars Welsh actor Sion Ifan (Hidden).

The Golden West is produced by Jamie Tarr (Fly the Flag), alongside Berkeley and White under their production banner, Floodlight Pictures. David Clarke (Mattress Men), John Kelleher (September), Kevin McGrath (An Irish Goodbye), Stephen Pomeroy, David Power (The Guarantee), and Susan Simnett (Fadia's Tree) serve as executive producers, and Yves Dominicy (An Irish Goodbye) serves as associate producer.

We caught up with Ross White to discuss how White and Berkeley have continued to grow as filmmakers, what lessons they’ve learnt from their success, and the new challenges they faced shooting their latest short.

IFTN: The Golden West has played at festivals all over the world from Galway to Telluride to Warsaw and back to Ireland with KIFF. What has it been like seeing international audiences react to the film?

ROSS: “When you're making a short film with quite a specific Irish sensibility to it, you're always hoping that it'll still have the ability to translate and travel. Thankfully, we've been blown away by the reaction to The Golden West internationally. A particular highlight at this early stage in our journey was the Telluride screening. That part of Colorado has its own specific history with gold mining and prospecting, and the landscape isn't too dissimilar to what you see in our film, so it kind of felt at home amongst the mountains there and the audience seemed to really connect with it. We had a lot of lovely feedback. But we're always excited to bring work home to Irish audiences, particularly at our most recent Irish festival in Kerry where our co-star Aoife Duffin is from.”

IFTN: What lessons did you learn from the production of An Irish Goodbye that you were able to apply to The Golden West?

ROSS: “Every short film is a huge lesson and it's been our motto, if you like, to try to make sure we're not standing still and treading the same water. An Irish Goodbye was its own logistical undertaking and we learnt a lot about maximising time and resources on a low budget short to get the best results, but The Golden West was another kettle of fish in terms of ambition and scale.”

“Between shooting on 35mm film stock, working with animals, having live firearms on set and doing it all in a very wet and wild North Wales in the height of winter, it most definitely pushed us to the edge of what we were able to manage with the resources we had. We actually shot the film prior to the Oscars, BAFTAs and IFTAs, so it's a nice little time capsule back to the last project we shot before the madness of this year.”

IFTN: The Golden West is your first period piece. When did you first start thinking about telling a story set during the Famine?

ROSS: “I studied Irish history of the 19th Century in school and thought it was just the most fascinating time period. Everything that happened in that 100-year period seemed to so clearly impact the island as it is today and the Famine, or the Great Hunger, remains the darkest moment in our collective history.”

“From a storytelling point of view, I was speaking a lot with my collaborator Tom Berkeley about this time and about the idea of the gold rush, but initially as two separate story ideas. It was only when we realised that there was a direct overlap between the Famine and the Gold Rush, the 49ers, that we found the heart of The Golden West. To have these two polar opposites of human experience, a literal story of famine to feast, felt like such an interesting backdrop for a fable-like short story about greed and the terrible things humans are capable of doing to each other in the pursuit of wealth. With its similar themes of sibling rivalry, we like to think of it as the dark inverse of An Irish Goodbye.”

IFTN: Did you face any new challenges shooting a period piece that you hadn’t experienced on your previous projects?

ROSS: “Period films are tricky to execute in any case, but on a short film budget, it's almost impossible - which is why you see so few of them kicking about. Against a plethora of advice and our own better judgement, we made it a non-negotiable that the film had to be captured analogue - on film stock - as opposed to digital capture. There's a certain grain and a quality of film that offers an immediate authenticity to this period. Most digital films try to replicate it in some way, but there's nothing quite like the real thing. Then it was all about the detailing of wardrobe and props - we were fortunate to find two brilliant department heads here, Emily-Rose Yiaxis (Costume) and Cai Dyfan (Production Designer) who completely understood our vision and furthered it with their excellent work.”

IFTN: This is your third time on the festival circuit. How has your approach to festivals and getting your film in front of audiences developed since making your first short, Roy?

ROSS: “I think you begin to understand the kind of films that you make and the kind of festivals that appreciate those films. A poorly planned festival circuit is the quickest way to burn 500 quid/euro, so we really try to do our research on previous programmes before submitting. Something tangible that we have learnt is the value of premiere status. When we first made Roy, we submitted it to a lot of places without a specific plan or order of screenings in mind. We happened to get very fortunate and play at brilliant festivals early in our run, but since then we've been a bit more particular on where and when we begin the journey for our films.”

IFTN: What can you tell us about the feature film you’re working on?

ROSS: “Not a lot just yet. That's less from a place of secrecy and more from a place of us still being in the trenches writing on it. This might be my grandmother's superstition creeping in, but I'm always nervous to speak too soon in case the whole thing goes up in flames. Ever the optimist, I know. But what I can say is, like all of our work to date, it will be a grounded relationship drama spliced with a heaped spoonful of black comedy. That's our favourite space to write.”

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