Ghostlight Directors Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thomspon Discuss the Powerful Indie Gem (INTERVIEW)

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Filmmakers Alex Thompson and Kelly O’Sullivan made a big splash with their feature debut Saint Frances, which won the Audience Award at SXSW in 2019 before going on to win the John Cassavetes award at the Film Independent Spirit Awards. Their latest feature, Ghostlight, premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, where it was one of the most acclaimed films of the fest.

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We at FandomWire got the opportunity to speak with Thompson and O’Sullivan about Ghostlight, along with their exciting budding careers.

Ghostlight Interview

FandomWire: I think although there are certainly some similarities between your films (including the criminally under-seen Rounding, even though I know that was more of a solo project), they’re all very different in style, tone, and theme. How do you see your approach as filmmakers evolving from your first film to Ghostlight?

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Alex Thompson: I’ve always appreciated the storytellers who don’t preempt judgment on their characters and on the scenario, sort of let them be. And I think making space for actors is one way to do that. I think as each film has come to pass, there’s been more room to do more with film language, more room to create more happy accidents on set and to let us and the actors find things.

Kelly O’Sullivan: I’m always interested in, first and foremost, how weird it is to be human and all the tricky things that we go through. So very much grounded in character and relationship. And I think the nice thing that I’m evolving towards is not feeling like everything has to be autobiographical.

In the beginning for Saint Frances,  there was so much pulled from my actual life and my actual experience because I felt like that’s the only thing I was allowed to write about, because I was too scared to write about anything else in case it didn’t feel true. And I think now, I’m able to still find ways in which I’m similar to the characters I write about, but it doesn’t have to be directly pulled from my life, which is very freeing.

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Keith Kupferer in Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson’s GHOSTLIGHT. Courtesy of Luke Dyra. An IFC Films release.

FW: Absolutely. And I think one of the really special things about Ghostlight is that while this story surrounds an incredibly specific experience, it does so in a way that feels very relatable. Why did you want to achieve this balance between specific and universal?

O’Sullivan: Yeah, I mean, I think the more specific a story is, the more universal it becomes. I just talked about how non-autobiographical it is. But there are things that are built on my real life, which are my love of theater and my experience in community theater, which I grew up doing. And so I was able to make that super, super specific.

I think the thing that is universal is it’s very scary to share complicated feelings, especially pain. I think, culturally, we don’t really know how to deal with it, especially when it comes to death by suicide. It’s something that people are encouraged, sort of subtly and in not-so-subtle ways, to look away from because nobody knows how to handle it or what to do. – Kelly O’Sullivan

So, showing the experience of somebody left dealing with that was something that I was scared to show, but also didn’t want to look away from as well. But grounding it in this super specific place of community theater, I think, then makes it a more universal experience.

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FW: I think the other delicate balance you strike wonderfully is humor and poignancy. Ghostlight is obviously a very sad film at moments, but there are also some genuine laughs to be found. Why did you feel it important to take this approach?

O’Sullivan: For me, that’s my favorite thing to consume. It’s my favorite thing to watch. I love Fleabag. I love the way that Greta Gerwig writes. Our touchstones for this film were if Manchester by the Sea and Waiting for Guffman were intertwined.

Because I always find that when I’m watching something, I want it to feel the way that real life feels. it’s both absurd and horrible and beautiful and hilarious. It’s all things all at once. It’s not like things are easily categorized into comedy and drama.

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And then comedy does a really good job of opening people up and putting people on the same page. And once they’re opened up, you can start to bring in things that they wouldn’t necessarily have been open to, to experience catharsis and forms of tragedy.

Thompson: I think the script itself is all those things, but then there are a lot of films that try to tread different tonal lines and fail. And I think in the execution of it, looking at Manchester, and then looking at, for me, Moonstruck was a big reference point. Not so much at how did they do it, but just knowing that with confidence, it was possible to walk that line.

Like Kelly said, I think this is just real life. In real life, your parent passes away, and you step in a puddle, and you know, something hilarious happens. I think it’s more realistic. 

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Our production designer saw Caché for the first time a couple of days ago, and she’s talking about the scene where the main character says to his wife, “An old woman on the street told me that I reminded her of her dog.” And it’s hilarious, but it also cuts to the heart of what is so terrifying about being in that world of that film. And I love that. I mean, that’s just life. And I think sometimes you set out to make a film and to not bring that stuff in is to ignore something, actually. That’s where stuff feels less successful, I think.

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Keith Kupferer, Katherine Mallen Kupferer, and Tara Mallen in Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson’s GHOSTLIGHT. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

FW: On another note, I’ve found the recent trend in film of using existing literature to be a jumping off point for another story to be fascinating. Obviously, you guys do it in Ghostlight with Romeo & Juliet. Another good example is Drive My Car with Chekov’s Vanya. What do you find interesting about this narrative device?

O’Sullivan: It’s kind of stealing from the best. I firmly believe that a lot of art is like stealing and repurposing. And it’s a way to get to reference something that is in the culture that, if you reference it, a lot of people are going to know what you’re talking about. There’s a shorthand. But it’s also you get to borrow from people who did it the best ever.

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As I was sort of piecing together bits of Romeo and Juliet to have in the film, like Lord Capulet’s speech when he finds his daughter and he thinks she’s dead, I was reading it, and I was like, “This is some of the most beautiful,” and I haven’t always felt that way. I haven’t always loved Shakespeare. Even that scene,  I’ve never really paid attention to it before. But the line “With my child, all my joys are buried,” I was like, “What a weird way to say it, but that’s a banger.” It doesn’t get better than that.

So I think getting to use something that’s a cultural touchstone to get us all on the same page about something and then re-examine it maybe with a different lens or from a different point of view, it recontextualizes it in a way that’s, I think, very useful.

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Keith Kupferer in Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson’s GHOSTLIGHT. Courtesy of Luke Dyra. An IFC Films release.

FW: Well, Ghostlight is very much a family outing. Not only are your leads a family, but you two are a couple. What do you think there is to be said about creating art as a family unit?

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Thompson: I think there’s an immediate vulnerability and a willingness to go there. If you’re working with someone you don’t know, you get frustrated with them, you schedule a time to talk. And there is none of that with their family and with our family. We have to deal with it. We have to interrogate it and chase it down. And it means we’re more honest with each other. And that trust is like iron-forged. It’s forged in fire or something. It’s experienced a lot of intense heat and pressure, so it is not brittle. It’s a good way to do things. 

It’s kind of what you want in any working relationship. You hear the great actor-director pairings, they sound like marriages. They talk about them, and it’s like you’re listening to a married couple. Not that marriage is the — we’re not married…

O’Sullivan: (jokingly) But he’s gonna propose right now! No, hahaha.

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But I’ve always been jealous of people like musical families who jam together, who can take out a guitar or whatever, and who can just communicate in that way and on that level.  That’s what it feels like we’re doing. We’re able to jam together for people who don’t play instruments.

Thompson: I do actually play instruments, by the way.

O’Sullivan: What instruments?

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Thompson: Piano and clarinet.

O’Sullivan: Prove it!

Ghostlight is now playing in theaters.

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Written by Sean Boelman

Articles Published: 174

Sean is a film critic, filmmaker, and life-long cinephile. For as long as he can remember, he has always loved film, but he credits the film Pan's Labyrinth as having started his love of film as art. Sean enjoys watching many types of films, although some personal favorite genres include music documentaries, heist movies, and experimental horror.