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“…Just Being Aware of How Much Grief There Is In Our Collective Experience All the Time”: Alex Thompson and Kelly O’Sullivan on Ghostlight


Back in January, Sundance 2024 couldn’t have started on a stronger note for those of us who have kicked it off with Alex Thompson and Kelly O’Sullivan’s Ghostlight, a gentle tearjerker and a surprisingly tender comedy, marking the duo’s follow-up to their 2019 feature, Saint Frances. A film on the healing properties of a community of artists and a love letter to the joys of scrappy artmaking, Ghostlight set the right tone from the start for the indie festival with a story about grief, familial bonds and the therapeutic beauty of the artistic process.

Written by O’Sullivan and co-directed by the duo (this is O’Sullivan’s first time in the director’s chair), Ghostlight follows Dan, Daisy and Sharon (played by real-life family Keith Kupferer, Katherine Mallen Kupferer and Tara Mallen respectively), a family dealing with the aftermath of an unspeakable tragedy that O’Sullivan’s delicate script patiently reveals in small drips. A construction worker unable to manage his anger, connect with his wife or navigate his teenage daughter’s understandable angst, Dan finds himself slowly drawn towards his town’s community theater as a pastime after losing his job, claiming a key role in their upcoming production of Romeo and Juliet alongside a group of amateur actors that includes Dolly De Leon’s Rita. What follows is a compassionate tale where life and art imitate one another in unexpected ways.

Below is our conversation with Thompson and O’Sullivan, who previously appeared on Filmmaker‘s 25 New Faces list in 2019,  on their latest, in theaters, including at New York’s IFC Center, today from IFC Films.

Filmmaker: There are several meta layers to the story. For starters, you are a real-life couple as co-directors, telling the story of a family played by a real-life family. 

O’Sullivan: It was a totally organic evolution. Alex is always my first reader. When I’m writing something, we’ll discuss story. Originally, it was going to be just me directing it, and then we had two projects sort of flip-flop and suddenly Alex became available and was interested.

Thompson: Kelly was six-to-eight months pregnant on set. And the script was written before Kelly was even pregnant. I remember us wrapping [the shoot] and everybody had wrap gifts. And their wrap gifts were baby gifts for us. And I remember thinking, “Oh, that’s so sweet. But these are totally different things.” And then flash forward and we’re doing ADR sessions in the hospital room and Milo (that’s our son) is coming to every screening. I realized that they knew this—we were wrapping this film and beginning something completely different.

Filmmaker: So how did you end up casting a real family: Keith, Katherine and Tara?

O’Sullivan: Again, it was an organic evolution. I wrote the part for Keith because I had done a play with him 10 years before but was not thinking about his family. We didn’t even really know his family. His daughter was very young. And so, I wasn’t thinking of her as a teenager. But then he asked if she could audition. She had been in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. And he was like, “She’s an actor and she’d kill me if I didn’t ask if she could audition.” And so she came and she did a reading. She walked in, and she was a teenager. And I was like, “Oh my God!” She has this confidence and bravado and because she’d related to Keith, she has access to a similar anger and sense of humor. We wanted to cast her right away. And then Tara is such a beloved theater actor, I knew her work. Alex was like, “Well, let’s see her.”

Thompson: In Saint Frances, when we were casting Ramona, we saw a lot of girls for that lead role. But ultimately because we work very quickly with limited resources, if on a bad day we can point the camera in someone’s direction and they are already enough, it’s generally so much better to start from that place. Like, this person is already bringing a dynamic. And so projecting that onto a group of three people who share so many scenes together, it was a no brainer: this chemistry was worth exploring and worth betting on. But we did not set out for that. That was a very late game decision.

Filmmaker: And speaking of the speed in which you work, I remember this story from Sundance, that Ghostlight was a super-fast production.

O’Sullivan: The writing took a while because it wasn’t the number one priority of the projects that we were working on. But when the strikes happened as we were set to film something else, Alex was like, “We have Ghostlight.” And I was like, “Yeah, we can pivot and make that.”

Thompson: July [2023]. And then we shot in October, and we had a cut for Sundance on the 4th of November, four days after we wrapped. And we got in on the 9th. I’m sure we were one of the last films accepted, and I don’t think they are happy with that. I don’t think any filmmaker should think of this as like the new late deadlines.

O’Sullivan: Yeah, it’s not aspirational. We were all driven a bit mad by it.

Filmmaker: Another meta layer of life and art imitating each other is the inclusion of Romeo and Juliet in a story of relevant grief. Did you start with Shakespeare as an entry point or the story of the family itself?

O’Sullivan: The idea really came to me as both things at once. The idea of a person having to confront a tragedy in their life because they’re acting it out on stage. And so really it was never separate in my brain. It was always this combination of the circumstances of Romeo and Juliet and a man who doesn’t know how to deal with a very similar tragedy.

Thompson: The teenagers, I think, were also all happening at once, too. Like that trial with the girl [Michelle Carter] who drove her boyfriend to suicide over text. It’s weird, but there’s a shadow of that in the script as well. And I remember talking about that with you [to O’Sullivan]. I do think you’re like a sponge. It’s very cool to see the tapestry of what comes in and how what comes out is totally unique to you.

Filmmaker: Anger can be a common denominator, but grief is such an individual journey for everyone and you tap into that so specifically for each character.

O’Sullivan: It’s a combination of lived experience and paying attention when people are grieving, just being aware of how much grief there is in our collective experience all the time. That is something we’re all dealing with, if not immediately, then either in our past or we’re scared of it in our future. So, it’s a combination of things I’ve experienced on my own, things I’ve witnessed in people close to me, paying attention when people come out of that immediate cloud of grief and then reflect on where they were. I love the book, The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion. The way she dives into how adrift we all are after that kind of loss. I did a decent amount of research—I oftentimes go on message boards where people are dealing with something very specific, and I just read and note the things that people say.

Filmmaker: I know you have a background in theater, Kelly. That’s your education. So, did all of those acting exercises we see in the film are things you’ve done?

O’Sullivan: Oh, yeah. All of them! I still teach theater to teenagers, and so I’ve taught those games. I used to teach in an acting school where we did those Meisner exercises. And so all of those are real games and exercises that people practice.

Filmmaker: I love that cheeky confrontational, provocative question one. What’s one you asked someone, do you remember?

O’Sullivan: This is so dumb, but in my early 20s, there was this guy that I think I had a crush on in the class, I was up next to him. We were asking provocative questions, and I was like, “Would you be willing to cheat on your partner?” And I think he didn’t even answer. (laughs0. But I think his response was very, “Oh, you’re dismissive.” I’m dismissive, you’re dismissive. Something very silly.

Thompson: Sounds silly. (laughs)

Filmmaker: Alex, you were the sole director in Saint Frances. Why did you two choose to co-direct this? And what is it like to co-direct?

Thompson: We try to become unified on at least one element going into every day, for each scene. And that helps us. I really don’t know how other co-directors do it because I can’t imagine it working for anybody else. I think it works for us because we share a very similar taste, but then we have different passions. So, in execution, we don’t delineate: this is Kelly’s zone, this is my side of the street, etc. It’s more like we’re in it at the same time. And then very naturally, I’ll get drawn away by certain visual ideas that I feel like have to happen. And Kelly will see something in performance that she’ll want to figure out. And then sometimes those roles are reversed. Sometimes it’s production design, sometimes it’s script, but we don’t always agree. And it’s just like an interrogation. We’re just in constant communication and we leave nothing to chance, I guess. We really worked through everything.

O’Sullivan: After Saint Frances, I knew that ultimately I wanted to direct my own writing. Because it was such a specific process, and because I was in almost every scene, I never got to see what was being captured on the day. It was really inspiring to watch Alex direct, and I was learning so much from him that I knew I wanted to have even more agency over the story and how it was being told. And it’s the best. And a lot less stressful when you’re working with somebody as talented as Alex.

Filmmaker: It’s pretty clear to me that the synergy between the two of you reflected itself onto to the cast. They have amazing chemistry on the screen as a family and as a theater company. How did you build that energy amongst the ensemble off screen?

O’Sullivan: A lot of those actors have known each other for years and years because we pulled from the Chicago theater community for almost every role. So, some of that chemistry is them having acted in plays together over decades. And we really do try to foster a sense of community—like, we always have a pre-production barbecue or dinner where people can come and meet each other. And the filming of them playing games…we really had them play those games. And so when they’re laughing and cracking up, it’s because somebody did something that actually made them laugh. Being from Chicago, there’s this deep sense of ensemble, and so everybody’s coming to the table having that as a core value just from the way they work in general. And everybody’s like, “We’re making this together.” We had a very community theater feel to the cast and crew on set because we were working with limited resources. There was a scrappiness and an “all for one and one for all’ feeling.=

Thompson: We also try to have conversations out loud. We don’t silo one another, and we don’t really silo the actors too often. We have a wardrobe supervisor, but they’re only on set for three days. So everybody’s wearing their own clothes. People are doing their own makeup. And so, everybody is in the soup together. And that spirit of openness and our willingness to make mistakes and the way we talk to our department heads, everybody feels like they’re part of the same process. It’s not like the production designer is over here doing production designer duties. There were days when it was like, “Okay, Katherine’s clock’s going to run out soon (she was 15 when we shot), and we have to change this whole set around.” And the whole cast and crew coming together to move couches and be crafty…you really feel like you did it together at the end of the day. It’s both literal, and also a state of mind that.

Filmmaker: On that note of the scrappy nature of the production, I love how that’s literally the play, the production of Romeo and Juliet too. It’s wonderful that the costumes are a bit wonky on purpose. There’s a beg-and-borrow sensibility to it, like a real community theater.

O’Sullivan: Well, we begged and we borrowed. <laughs>. We went to a lot of small theater companies around Chicago and said, “Can we raid your costume stash?” One is like a couple of blocks from our house, Raven Theater. That’s where we got a lot of our Shakespeare-ish looks.

Thompson: Three Brothers Theatre is where a lot of the men’s [clothes] came from. Those colorful jackets are from Three Brothers Theatre in Waukegan. We put it all on a tub.

O’Sullivan: Yeah. We got tubs and tubs and got ’em in our cars. And then Michelle Bradley, who is our wardrobe supervisor, did a really good job of on the day. She would give them a little flourish, say, “What happens if you add a hat?” But I think all of the actors picked their own wardrobe. And then we returned all the costumes. All the costumes are back in those theaters.

Thompson: There’s a scene in the film where they’re going through the box. And Daisy and Rita are handing things out to everyone. And that’s the actors seeing the wardrobe for the first time and picking pieces that they like. So, it feels that way because it is that way.

Filmmaker: It was so exciting to see Dolly De Leon here. She has roots in theater too.

O’Sullivan: Yeah. She had done years and years of theater in the Philippines. And so, she understood it on a visceral level, on a lived experience level, what it’s like to do theater in larger and smaller settings. She immediately came in and fit into the ensemble in such a beautiful way. Because she was the only person not from Chicago, we sort of wondered, “Is she going to mind doing her own hair and makeup?” She is a star and we wondered if she was going to come in with any sort of star mentality. And I mean this as the highest compliment: she is a working actor, she likes to work. It’s not about ego. She was a joy with warmth and kindness. Even though I’m an actor, I was like, “I wonder if she’s like how she is in Triangle of Sadness. I wonder if she is that intense.” And that’s one tool in her arsenal, but she’s got incredible warmth, a great sense of humor. She’s so funny.

Thompson: It was fun to zoom with her and Keith for the first time. Something I like about the way we try to make films is that we do the easy thing as often as possible. You know, like borrow the costume, get the free location. But then every once in a while, the right choice is to cast the actor from the Philippines and fly them out, from LA or wherever they are. I remember Zooming with her and Keith and the dynamic was very much what you see on film. Keith is very tongue tied and adorable. And Dolly was very inquisitive, like pulling answers out of him. It was lovely. And she took the role very seriously. We didn’t want anyone to be making fun of this community theater. And I think she understood that this was a very serious and exciting thing for them.

Filmmaker: And Dan is a fascinating character, almost like a little study of masculinity. He hasn’t really allowed himself to grieve in an open way due to whatever stigma there is around men having feelings.

And at first, he is perhaps even a little bit embarrassed about doing this play. It was wonderful to follow him as he comes out of this shell.

O’Sullivan: I had always told myself that I was going to write female-centered stories. And then when the idea came to me, I was like, “Oh, I’m going to write this about a middle-aged man? That feels so off-mission for me.” Then as I was digging into it, I was like, “Could I make this a female character?” And it became immediately clear that I couldn’t because it is so specific to the way that a certain generation of men have been socialized to think about emotion. They’re allowed anger, and that’s about it. And so in my writing of it, I wanted to make sure that there wasn’t a lot of speaking to feelings even later on, even in the deposition when he says, “I’m old school. I don’t get all the therapy and all the talking.” It’s not like all of a sudden he becomes incredibly adept at expressing his emotion through language. He’s just able to start actually feeling it. And that’s what he does in both the deposition and the final death scene. So, yeah, just trying to bake in toxic masculinity without ever talking about it, just have it be a little example of a way it can be harmful to men and the people around them not to have full access to the expression of their feelings.

Filmmaker: Was there anything particularly tough for the cast to navigate? Something you had to hold their hands through?

Thompson: I remember the scene in the front yard where Dan yells as Sharon is making the garden, starting to intrude on his memory space. I remember our crew had a lot of feelings about that scene because they themselves have fathers who have repressed rage and repressed emotions. A lot of our crew members were like, “Whoa. I was really triggered by that. By watching Keith, this guy who I’ve come to really love and joke with, blow up.” It felt very real to them. And I remember having that conversation, like, “This whole movie is making me think about my relationship with my father and the way that he, etc.” Not true of my father, but you know.

Filmmaker: Your characters in the film learn how to move forward after a tragedy. Having made the film, did you similarly find new tools for yourselves as artists and people, to handle the randomness of life? Do you feel better equipped for the future after Ghostlight?

O’Sullivan: We talk about introversion and extroversion in culture. I experienced this on Saint Frances too—I would say I am more on the line of introvert. Sometimes it’s really difficult for me to put myself out there, to connect in ways that show all the weirdness. Alex is really good at that. He’s not hierarchical at all. [To Alex: You’re incredibly welcoming.] And so, I think I continue to learn that it is worth the awkwardness to connect. Dan is naturally an introvert. Dan, in the beginning, is awkward. He’s like, “This is stupid.” But ultimately it’s worth saying like, “I have this idea for a movie. Do you guys want to make it with me?” Even though it feels sort of stupid to do it. The  importance of connection for me is cemented again and again.

Thompson: When I was a younger filmmaker, or probably not a filmmaker but thinking of myself as one, I thought that to be a filmmaker would mean to be consistently successful. I’m learning that failure is not only a part of it, but all of it is like that. Doing something in the face of the possibility for failure, being very open to it, being ready to welcome it in, is something that feels new to me from Ghostlight. And that led to the best work and the most rewarding friendships on set. And I’m excited to bring that willingness into the next project and into my life.

Filmmaker: And your next project is?

Thompson: Mouse. It was on the Blacklist many years ago and it’s very similar to Ghostlight. I’m excited.

O’Sullivan: I wrote it and we will co-direct. So, we’re back in the saddle.

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