An Irish short film about a charismatic ice-cream man and the surprising challenges he faces in the course of his job is set to screen at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
While ice-cream vans are synonymous with childhood, summers, and innocence for most of us, there’s a darker underbelly to the trade with ongoing turf wars which have, at times, turned violent.
Aptly titled 99 Problems, the short delves into this world through the story of Ireland’s self-declared ‘king of the ice-cream men’, Pinky, charting his day-to-day dealings across his particular patch of Dublin and, through animation, his past.
However, persuading the ice-cream men of Ireland to contribute to the film proved challenging. When director Ross Killeen and producer Louise Byrne eventually decided to focus solely on the charismatic Pinky, getting him on board was a long, arduous process of building trust, and a close relationship, over the course of two years.
“People in the ice-cream business aren’t very open. There were a lot of phonecalls where they’d hang up and they just weren’t interested,” says Louise. “Not everyone is dodgy of course but there had been a lot of violence in that industry so some people just didn’t want to be associated with that.”
As for Pinky, he was “very guarded” she says, adding, “He did not want to be involved. Ross slowly but surely would check in with him, not push him too much, but just kind of make him realise he was legitimate and it wasn’t going to be an expose on him.”
Ross explains, “It was a long courtship of trying to get him to agree to it. He thought it was going to be some sort of Prime Time/Roger Cook report, an investigative thing about ice-cream men and all the dodgy stuff they might be up to.”
While Ross wanted to highlight the little-known murky undertones in the business, he was also conscious of not destroying people’s memories of their childhoods so, by using animation to tell the back story, he managed to keep it “kind of surreal and in that innocent, childlike world”.
“The ice-cream man is a nostalgic, fun thing for everyone. It brings you back to your childhood and summer but there is a kind of undertone and an underbelly going on that not a lot of people are aware of. We wanted to tell that but keep the childlike innocence.”
Screening the finished product for Pinky, despite the fact that by that stage they were firm friends, was still a nerve-wracking endeavour for Ross.
“I was still a bit nervous the day when he came to watch it and you’re sitting there for 13 minutes and it’s over and you’re looking over at him, waiting for the reaction. Then he just started clapping and smiling and he was like, ‘It’s deadly!’,” reveals Ross.
In fact Pinky is enjoying his moment in the limelight so much he is even travelling to New York for the festival, as are Ross and Louise, with the support of Culture Ireland. They are, says Louise, “chuffed” to have had the film accepted into such a prestigious festival.
99 Problems, also which recently won the Audience Award at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival, is a bit of a departure for Ross, whose company, Motherland, is best known for its content and commercials for brands from VHI to Dulux to Heineken. Most recently they were responsible for Tesco’s cuddly Cedric the bear ads.
However, ads are not where he started out. It was another nostalgic documentary short which put the company on the map.
Becoming Men was filmed on a whim across the road from Ross’s office one day. When he uploaded it to Vimeo it went viral, leading to five years of non-stop offers for commercial gigs. Now that that side of the business is successful, he can finally take time to focus on shorts, and ultimately, features.
On the back of 99 Problems, there are several other projects already in the offing for Motherland. Among them is Void, which Louise also produced, a narrative film directed by Ger Duffy and executive produced by U2’s The Edge, which they hope to highlight at Tribeca.
Despite five years honing their craft, Ross and Louise tried and failed to secure funding to make 99 Problems.
“It’s a decision that was made out of my hands but I think it’s because we didn’t have a track record,” says Ross. “I honestly think it was, ‘Who’s this commercial company coming looking to make a short film? They haven’t made short films’. So, it was like we needed to make one and have a track record and that’s what this film has done for us, hopefully.”
Has there been similar scepticism from others in the industry?
“I don’t know, I sometimes wonder about that,” says Ross although he does recall one comment. “I remember someone saying to me once, years ago, ‘Once you’re an ad guy you’re always an ad guy’ and sometimes when people say things to me I’m like, ‘I’m going to prove that person wrong’,” he reveals.
“I remember that stuck with me. I think people are capable of whatever they want to achieve. Everyone’s walking around with ideas for films in their heads. They’ve just got to get out and do them.”
99 Problems will screen four times at Tribeca, which runs Thursday April 25 to Sunday May 5.