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I Believe in Me: Alex Thompson and Kelly O’Sullivan on Ghostlight

Alex Thompson and Kelly O’Sullivan have made one of the most moving films in years in “Ghostlight,” opening this weekend in limited release before going wider later this month. A tender and compassionate look at loss and creative expression, the film stars Chicago theatre actor Keith Kupferer as Dan, a family man who has been permanently altered by the loss of his son to suicide. Unable to express his grief or really be there for a daughter (Keith’s actual offspring Katherine, stunningly good here) who is lashing out in her own way, Dan almost stumbles into a community theatre production of Romeo & Juliet, which turns out to be the perfect way for him to say the things he can’t say around the dinner table. Kupferer is brilliantly vulnerable, the centerpiece of a deeply emotional study of grief and compassion. 

Directors Thompson and O’Sullivan (who also wrote the script) sat down with RogerEbert.com at the Music Box Theatre in advance of the film’s release there to talk about male grief, collaboration, being Chicago filmmakers and the film’s connection to “Alien.”

A lot of people have written about how different this film is from “Saint Frances,” but I want to start with something I think they have in common: Both bring to light things not often seen on screen. “Saint Frances was about abortion; “Ghostlight” is about male grief, which we don’t see often. Is that something you intend to do?

KELLY: Not consciously, for me. I worry that if it were conscious it would be a little message-y. For me, it starts from a place of vulnerability, saying, “What would scare me to write about?” That was very much the case for “Saint Frances,” even though I didn’t think that it would ever get made or that people would see it. It was like facing something you’re desperately trying to repress. It’s very scary to write from that place. Especially for men of a generation who are encouraged not to express grief.

Even in terms of cinematic representation, where we’re more likely to see female grief. How did you approach that aspect? Did you talk to people about loss?

KELLY: I think everybody’s experienced loss in some ways. I haven’t experienced this specific loss, but I was coming from a personal place. I’m pretty nosy. I think the kinder word is ‘observant,’ especially when it comes to my own family. Until recently, I had never seen my dad cry. What are the things that our parents keep private? I think Daisy and Rita are the closest characters to me in this, but I have a lot of interest in what it’s like if you have sadness, and if you express it for that to be called a weakness because I haven’t experienced that. To pay attention to it in men is curious and sad to me.

Curiosity sparks writing.

KELLY: Yeah, curiosity. There’s a curtain there that needs to be pulled back a little bit in terms of myself. I’m interested in knowing what’s behind it, and the best way to find out is to write about it.

ALEX: Something when you were writing that I noticed is that Kelly is always taking things in from the culture. The great gift of “Saint Frances” being out there is that you get to hear people talk about your work. And I remember part of the journey of writing this was. “OK, a criticism was that Saint Frances was meandering and episodic. So, what is a structure that would counter that?” That leads to the idea of going on a hero’s journey and, at the same time, the case that ended up in the documentary “I Love You, Now Die” is going on, and the Romeo & Juliet trailer comes out, I’m away editing, and I get this text that’s like this perfectly structured Hollywood film—literally the logline for the movie happens before the writing begins in earnest. We’re all kind of media machines, but with your writing, sometimes I see that these things smash together, and then, through the writing of it—through that curiosity, the associations get made.

So you don’t set out to tie all these things together, it happens in the process.

KELLY: Yeah. There are a couple of things that I know I’ll tie together but then there are some things that tie in [on their own]. In “Saint Frances,” I knew it would be about abortion. This would be about a guy who would never choose to express himself in front of people being forced to be in a play that makes him express himself at his most vulnerable. And then a bunch of other things open.

Were you guys theater kids?

BOTH: Yeah.

So what’s the play that changed your life?

ALEX: Probably the first? My elementary school had a motto that was “I believe in me. I can be anything I want to be.” For folks who know me, that is like the engine for everything, which is crazy because I forgot that I recited that every morning with the Pledge of Allegiance. Every single day. That’s pretty cool. When [my son] starts talking, that will be on the wall. We did like a fifteen-minute version of a Shakespeare play.

In elementary school!?!?

ALEX: Hamlet was third grade.

The elementary school version? A little less murder? Or all the murder?

ALEX: The murder was there! (Laughs.) I remember the kid pouring the poison in the guy’s ear and being like “What the f*ck?” It’s funny because I didn’t catch the theatre bug by being the lead. The loud kids were the lead. I remember the rehearsal process. Just the process of making sense of a story with a group of people and seeing the audience’s reaction. I was like “Guard 1” in Hamlet. I was the guy who dresses up as the woman in the play in Midsummer. The Tinker, I think? One of the Rude Mechanicals. I was like the drunk in Macbeth. I was never the lead. But I loved it.

KELLY: That’s the second time today you said The Scottish Play. I’m very superstitious about it!

ALEX: In elementary school, it was all about the work. (Laughs.) We didn’t have the superstitions. I literally never stopped. Honestly, the three years of middle school when I didn’t have it were like the hardest, most depressed years.

What’s a transformative show for you? Or a film?

KELLY: Very similarly, mine was Little Women when I was six years old. I played one of the children who gets the Scarlet Fever that kills Beth.

ALEX: Made an impact.

KELLY: I remember at the time being like, “This play is about the kids who get Scarlet Fever.” No matter the size of the part. And I also remember it was like the first time I felt the power of being on a team. I played basketball and it was a disaster, and this was a team for non-sports people. I remember making my best friends backstage, and the feeling of community that comes with doing a play and being a theater nerd. I was like, I want to do this forever.

Community. Collaboration. You’re writing for Keith, but he has a little more experience with this kind of person. How collaborative are you guys? Could Keith say, ‘No, this guy wouldn’t say that like this or do that’?

KELLY: It was very collaborative. I will say that almost never happened. There would be times when he would ask very smart questions. We try to work with actors who like the material and feel connected to it. The first impulse is, ‘How do I make it work?’ And then, if for some reason they can’t, then it becomes a question of, can we do it a different way? But that didn’t really happen.

ALEX: Keith was, along with a few others, a part of our workshopping of this script. He would ask the question, “Would Dan really do this?” Would he really turn back and sit down and play this role? I remember even on set, before we shot literally the close-up of Keith when he makes the choice to sit, I said, “It’s the cut. The cut will do it. We cut and you’re there. So the pressure is not on you.” What I love about Keith is he’s always listening, and he understood that and immediately went and sold that. His little half-smile, kind of rakish look, maybe this is for me – totally sells that. I remember when we shot that. I knew we had done it. Dan makes this choice, and it’s not gonna be the weak leg of the table. I think that it was really cool that Keith was asking the questions and then always interested in how we would pull it off together.

KELLY: We did try to create an environment where actors could say something. A couple of times, Dolly came up to me and asked, “Is it OK if I say this?” Yeah! It would be annoying if an actor did it with every line, but when you can tell they’re discerning, and it makes a difference to them and their understanding of the character—yeah! Go for it!

Let’s talk about that cast. How did you find them?

KELLY: I wrote the part for Keith. He and I did a play together ten years ago. Keith had already played my dad. So I had him in my brain.

ALEX: I would offer that there’s a bit of you in Dan. You are guarded about revealing that vulnerability, especially to a group of strangers. I think you, like Dan, believe that, to a certain extent, you will be able to figure this shit out on your own. There’s you in Dan.

KELLY: Yeah. Keith had played my dad, so I saw him from this far away every night. Oftentimes, I would be in scenes with him and just be awed. It’s distracting. It’s annoying, honestly, how good he is. We’d come to a scene, and I’d be like, “This scene isn’t gonna work,” and he’d make it work. So, as I was writing Dan, I already had him in mind. He wrote and said he’d love to audition, and I told him I wrote it for him. Surprise!

ALEX: The best thing you can say is, “It’s yours.”

KELLY: He’s never gotten to play the lead before. It’s just cool to get to do that for your buddy. You’re awesome; you should be a lead. He then wrote and asked if Katherine could audition. She came in and did a reading and did amazing. She thought she did a terrible job, and she was backstage saying, “I screwed up. I was flat.”

ALEX: It was behind like a scrim, and it was funny because they were very much in the room with us but didn’t know it. Keith’s like, “Kid, kid,” in the way that he does.

KELLY: They had that dynamic. Tara is an amazing theater actor. Why don’t we just cast the whole family?

ALEX: I think I said that.

Who gets credit?

KELLY: He can have it.

ALEX: I think it was me. (Laughs.) We have this ensemble, but we've never worked with Keith, Katherine, or Tara. We have this ensemble to pull off. And I think we were all thinking about who from “My Summer Vacation” or “Rounding” or “Saint Frances” we pull, and then our casting director was talking to Kelly. You knew Tara’s work well. I watched her reel. “Oh no, this is very unlikely, but they are all incredible.” We could have cast three of the best actors working in Chicago to play father-mother-daughter, and I don’t know if we ever could have gotten to the level of vulnerability they get with one another. I don’t think we could have done it with all the theater games in the world. (Laughs.)

There’s an emotional throughline that wouldn’t have been there. An unspoken connection.

KELLY: Yeah. On camera, I can see them playing with and challenging each other in a super fun way. They’re almost like, “I did this, now what are you gonna do?” Sometimes, with Tara and Keith and then with Katherine and Keith, I see a lot of play.

It’s a Chicago movie. Why is that important? Why are you a Chicago filmmaker, and what does that mean for the final product?

ALEX: What’s cool is that this is where we live. So, unlike many writers, we’re writing this for a specific place we live in. So that specificity doesn’t come if we chase a tax credit in Toronto. Yes, there’s a good tax credit in Chicago, but this is where the relationships are. There is no better place to cast a movie. Period. I think you can get this level of performance in other places, but I don’t know if you get the buy-in from actors and crew and all that peripheral stuff. Most of our costumes were borrowed from local theaters! 70-80% of our props were borrowed from theaters. The theatre space and the rehearsal space – I think we paid for 3-5 days, and they just allowed us 14 more days to store our gear there. And to use the bathroom.

That would cost money in L.A.!

ALEX: Yeah! You can’t do it. I don’t think we get to put the amount of production value up on screen anywhere else like you do here. It’s an ensemble city. It’s a very selfless, self-motivated place. It’s a place that people like to come to because of that. When people say, “Is there any way we can do this crazy thing?” Usually, the answer is yes, whereas, on a traditional film, I think there’s just like, “OK if your film is under a million dollars, this is what it looks like and how many days it is and…” Those were conversations we’d have talking about other movies in development. “This independent film is a little too big for the budget level, so can you make it smaller?” Whereas with “Saint Frances,” out of ignorance, we’re not going to ask Kelly to write fewer locations or cut characters or cut days. We’re just gonna do it. And that’s the ethos here.

It goes back to your elementary school motto.

ALEX: I believe in me.

KELLY: Dan is such a Chicago guy. Everything about him is put your head down and work. That’s the way Chicago is. And this earnestness comes out, which I think is 100% Chicago when I think about it. We are just, for better or worse, we are heads-down-work, but also, when shit gets real, very earnest.

Totally. And I feel like blue-collar people are treated differently here than, say, L.A.

ALEX: Yeah! Even New York. Think about the Safdie brothers. They make extremely specific and authentic films with a deep cynicism. Our films are NOT cynical. I don’t know that there’s much of that in the city.

My son keeps asking how people can see this movie. So let’s get into that a little bit. When it’s so hard for people to see things in our current climate, how do you get this movie to people? How do you reach an audience? An actor once told me that he believed that the best things get to their audience; the cream rises to the top. Is that how you have to operate, or do you worry it gets lost in the content algorithm?

ALEX: I genuinely believe – Kelly has the opposite opinion – cream rises. I do.

KELLY: I do not. The cream sinks. The best stuff is at the bottom!

It’s getting harder and harder.

ALEX: It is. We’ve talked a bit about the Olympic mindset in the context of my delusions. They have to be actually delusional to do what they do.

KELLY: And Alex is delusional.

ALEX: Actually. I’m not pretending to believe in us – I actually really do. And so when we’re making this stuff, I think it will get to everybody. It will. It can. And if it doesn’t, that’s OK. It’s gonna open here, but it’s gonna go wider. I believe it will be in AMCs. It will be at the Wayfair up North. It will be in the outer suburbs. It’s because of the reception of Sundance, and we have a distributor who believes in that. It’s also because we expressed our hopes and dreams for this movie. On the one hand, you gotta have a marketing team and a distributor that believes like you do. But you must also have your own narrative and hold it close to your heart. Like you’re saying, it’s so weird out there. You have to hold the truth close. This is a big movie that a lot of people should see. Kelly is looking at me like I’m psychotic.

KELLY: No! I think this is a word-of-mouth thing. We discovered with “Saint Frances” that so many people found out from a friend. IFC said to us in our first meeting that they wanted to have it in theaters a while because it’s a slow burn. It’s going to be one of these things that grows as people talk more and more. I hope the cream will rise because people will tell their friends. We have Dolly but we don’t really have known actors. But I have heard that people know about it. Like somebody talking about it on a bus at Sundance or a coffee shop at a festival. Tell your son to tell his friends!

Go see “The Garfield Movie” and “Ghostlight”!

KELLY: (Laughs) Double feature!

ALEX: It would be cool if it did its two weeks at Music Box, moved to the small theater, and then demand was such that it came back. It’s so crazy to put that out as success. I think there are a lot of versions of success. But that kind of buzz would be awesome.

What are some interesting responses that you’ve gotten from people? I’m assuming some have been emotional. Have they shared with you?

KELLY: I think the only time I’ve ever seen my dad cry was after this film. That was meaningful to me. My dad. And then, of course, he had notes for us later. (Laughs.) He responded to it. And I was like, “Dad, did you like it?” And he said it was a masterpiece. “Oh my God!” I think that’s very meaningful. A lot of people have come up and said that Dan reminds them of their dad. I’ve had a couple of people say that they lost somebody in this way. Anything that relates to their lives when they say it made them think of their life or somebody in it. We’ve had many people raise their hand and say, “I played Guard 1 in my high school,” and they miss this. Those kinds of anecdotal responses make me happy. We’ve had people say that they want to go to an acting class.

ALEX: A random woman in the Milwaukee audience said she was going to track down her local theater. And then it happened again. At a screening, someone said, “I’m going to get my mom into an acting class. She’s a senior. She doesn’t have a lot to do.”

KELLY: Did you ever see “Alien on Stage”? It’s a documentary. I’m obsessed with that documentary. It’s about this group of London bus drivers who put on this production of “Alien” on stage. I was thinking about that a lot when I was writing this.

You should remake this with “Alien” instead of Romeo & Juliet.

KELLY: Would people still cry? They’d probably cry harder. (Laughs.)

“Ghostlight” opens at the Music Box Theatre and in New York on Friday, June 14.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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