By Olivia Tracey
Just as Spielberg’s Dreamworks has dared to make dreams come true, an up-and-coming San Francisco’s Irish production company, Aisling Works, is daring to do likewise. Headed by co-producers Mikel O’Riordan and Paul Barnett, the toddler company, born barely two years ago in 1998, is well beyond the crawling stage.
Hardly six months since I attended a screening of its first feature, "Black Eyed Dog," the 90-minute movie has already been sold to Panorama in New York after a successful run at the Mill Valley Film Festival. Shot on 35-millimeter film, this social drama examines the price that immigrants, in this case Irish immigrants, are willing to pay for success in America. Considering the nature of the story, it has universal appeal, but it will target a primarily Irish audience and is set for a limited theatrical release in Boston, New York and San Francisco. Following that, it goes to video and cable.
Keeping the momentum going, next cut begins June 5 in Ireland with "No Distant Heroes," a 1981 hunger striker’s story set in Belfast’s Long Kesh prison. Casting will take place this month in Belfast and Dublin in search of mainly actors in their late teens. Paul Barnett himself has already successfully auditioned in London with prominent director Les Blair who has two British Oscars under his belt for "Jump the Gun" and "Bad Behaviour," the latter starring Stephen Rea and Sinead Cusack. Also on board as a co-producer is James Flynn of Metropolitan Films, noted for "Nora" and "Angela’s Ashes." Nor does the prestige stop there as renowned musical composer, Patrick Cassidy, who wrote the "Famine Symphony," commissioned by the Irish Echo a few years back, has agreed to score the movie.
In fact, the Mayo-born musician is also fine-tuning for another Aisling project, "The Hand of God," a detective thriller currently in pre-production. The controversial issue of abortion is the theme of the movie, set in this instance among Irish communities in San Francisco. Star names are afloat here with a confirmed Patrick Bergin, "I Went Down’s" Peter Caffrey, "Braveheart’s" Sean Lawlor and "Apollo 13’s" Tracy Reiner, daughter of Rob Reiner and Penny Marshall. Approaches have been made to Stephen Rea, Angelica Huston and Rea Pearlman.
Also in the casting pot is Paul Barnett himself, who is smart enough to create his own opportunities as both an actor and producer. Performing constantly in San Francisco theater since his arrival from Donegal in 1990, he captivated local theater audiences with his critically acclaimed West Coast premiere of "A Night in November," a one-man show by Marie Jones, for which he won the 1998 Dean Goodman Choice Award. He was then invited to perform a selection from the show at the Guinness Fleadh in San Jose the same year. On film, he played the lead in his own "Black-Eyed Dog" as well as featuring on several TV commercials including Kodak and Canadian Yellow Pages. When his busy schedule permits, he also acts as production assistant to musician Phil Coulter on his U.S. tours. In fact, Coulter made his acting debut playing a priest in "Black-Eyed Dog."
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Keeping with the Coulter train, Aisling Works produced a 60-minute video recording of Coulter’s March 1999 concert in the Bay area’s Saint Paul’s Church, where some of "Black Eyed Dog" was filmed, as was Sister Act 1 and 2. The hour-long concert video has just been purchased by KQED and is slated for broadcast during one of their prime time fund-raising drives in March.
Other projects include "Shalom Ireland," a documentary about the Jewish community in Ireland, featured around former Dublin lord mayor, Ben Briscoe. Shot last summer in Dublin, negotiations are currently taking place with RTE, Channel 4, PBS and various European markets. Looking toward next year, Aisling Works are keeping a very keen eye on Gabriel Byrne and Leonardo De Caprio to play, respectively, Michael MacLiammoir and Orson Welles in the classic "Sodom and Begorrah."
Meanwhile, it’s back to the theater with the world premiere production of Darragh Kelly’s "By the Barrow," directed by Art O’Brien and starring Peter Caffrey.
The finance for these creative endeavors comes from various sources, with most of it raised privately between Ireland, Canada and San Francisco. The Irish Film Board are also lending their support with a $400,000 grant toward "No Distant Heroes," and Paul Barnett’s family connection to Dublin property developer Pat Doherty of Harcourt Developments cannot but help with the fund-raising.
In the meantime, the Aisling Works team are not only keeping themselves employed in one of this world’s riskiest businesses, but they are eagerly affording opportunities for Irish talent at home and in the U.S. The company’s mission is to develop the preeminent brand for Irish film, television and concert promotion. They also intend to return a percentage of all pre-tax profits to the West Coast Irish American community, in an effort to encourage aspiring writers, actors, directors, singers, painters and other creative artists to achieve their potential. Having lost his sister Aisling to leukemia, Paul Barnett is happy to dedicate the company’s creative works to her memory. For further information, call (415) 281-5855 or access www.aislingworks.com.