By Jonathan Monovich.

Being a real-life family, we didn’t need to try to create that dynamic like three unrelated actors would, so it made it easier.”

To close out the 11th Chicago Critics Film Festival (CCFF), the Chicago Film Critics Association saved the best for last. Ghostlight (2024) written by Kelly O’Sullivan and co-directed by Sullivan/Alex Thompson, is the duo’s follow-up to the acclaimed Saint Frances (2019). For Saint Frances, a comical journey of self-exploration told through a nanny’s midlife crisis, O’Sullivan was both the film’s main actress and writer and Thompson the director. For Ghostlight, O’Sullivan foregoes acting this time to join Thompson in the film’s direction. Their collaborative relationship proves to be a successful one as this marks back-to-back best narrative feature awards for Thompson and O’Sullivan at the CCFF. Before heading to Chicago, Ghostlight played at both Sundance and South by Southwest to rave reviews. Having created their dramedies in Chicago with locals for their cast, O’Sullivan and Thompson have established themselves to be among the city’s pride and joy. Seeing Ghostlight at the Music Box Theatre was one of the most energetic screenings I have ever attended. The sold-out show gave the cast and crew a well-deserved standing ovation, and everyone left elated.

Ghostlight’s story centers on a construction worker, Dan (Keith Kupferer), and the troubles that he faces both on the job and at home with his wife, Sharon (Tara Mallen), and his daughter, Daisy (Katherine Mallen Kupferer). Part of the genius of Ghostlight is that these three actors are a real-life family. The film would not have had the same effect if they weren’t. Dan’s fuse is running short, and erupts one day at work when heckled by a passerby. Furthermore, Daisy has been suspended from school for a confrontation with a teacher causing stress to follow him in every waking moment. All the while, Sharon tries to keep the family from imploding. All three of them also are grieving over the recent loss of a family member. With no expectations, Dan impulsively joins a local production of Romeo and Juliet. The relationships that Dan makes with the theater’s troupe of actors ends up becoming an unexpected stress reliever. When Daisy, a theater fan, learns of her father’s newfound hobby, the two bond in a way that they never have before through the power of acting. Furthermore, by exploring love through his performance on the stage with Rita (Dolly De Leon), Dan rejuvenates his marriage.

Ghostlight is a deeply moving film about the power of human connection and is the feel-good film of the year. During the Q&A after the CCFF screening, it was revealed that O’Sullivan penned the screenplay out of a place of isolation during the pandemic while longing for her Chicago theatre community. This heartfelt appreciation for communal relationship is deeply felt in Ghostlight. O’Sullivan also noted that she thought of her father while writing the film’s protagonist, Dan, recognizing that he is of a generation that was taught “emotion is a liability rather than a strength.” Actor Keith Kupferer also discussed that part of the reason Ghostlight worked so well was because theatre helps to capture emotion and allows actors to connect with the audience in a way that other mediums can’t. Production for Ghostlight had challenges as O’Sullivan fell sick with COVID while eight months pregnant during the shoot, causing her to be quarantined in a car with a walkie talkie while directing certain scenes. One would never have been able to tell, though, as Ghostlight is an expertly crafted film. A testament to their work ethic and their talent, many of the cast members spoke highly of O’Sullivan and Thompson’s guidance, leadership, and professionalism on set as well as their incredible ability to create a genuine community for those who worked on the film.

Ghostlight is the rare kind of film that you will never forget, and Thompson and O’Sullivan are establishing themselves as auteurs in real time. Their recurring thematic preoccupations of relationship tension, laughing at life’s absurdity, and taking things one step at a time, paired with their stylistic tendencies of snappy dialogue, cinéma verité-like camerawork, and capturing raw emotion make for an easily identifiable signature. The duo has created a true work of art that channels the realism of John Cassavetes and the humanism of Hal Ashby/Paul Mazursky’s similar genre-bending films. Sullivan and Thompson are two names to remember, and their next film is eagerly anticipated. Just before the film’s Chicago premiere at the festival, I had the opportunity to connect with Kelly O’Sullivan, Alex Thompson, Keith Kupferer, Tara Mallen, and Katherine Mallen Kupferer on the red carpet. While brief, the conversation perfectly encapsulates why the family dynamic was so crucial to the film and how the filmmakers were able to pull off Ghostlight.

Ghostlight will be released theatrically by IFC Films on June 14th.

Alex Thompson: [Looking at my DePauw University keychain] What? DePauw?

[Laughing] Yes, I went to DePauw for undergrad and am here at the festival as one of the honorees of the Chicago Film Critics Association & Rotten Tomatoes Emerging Critics Program.

Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson: Congratulations!

Alex Thompson: That’s amazing! You’re making DePauw proud!

[Laughing] You’re the one making DePauw proud! Congratulations on all the success with Ghostlight.

Alex Thompson: You know DePauw doesn’t have a film program. At least they didn’t when I went there.

They do have a film studies major at DePauw now. I double majored in Film Studies/Economics and graduated in 2020. Seth Friedman and the school’s wonderful professors have been doing a great job growing the program.

Alex Thompson: DePauw actually wouldn’t let me declare Film Studies as a major when I went there as it wasn’t formally offered at the time. I was supposed to get a double major, but it never happened.

Kelly O’Sullivan: Really? What did you major in then?

Alex Thompson: Creative Writing… in English only, though, and not any other language [laughs].

And here you are now! It’s so nice to meet both of you. I am a fan of your prior film Saint Frances.

Alex Thompson and Kelly O’Sullivan: Thank you! Nice to meet you too!

Alex, given that we are both DePauw alumni, I would like to hear your thoughts on how DePauw prepared you as a filmmaker.

Alex Thompson: I made short films at DePauw, but they were really rudimentary. I didn’t really know how to structure a shoot or how to shoot in general. It was just me and some friends. I did do the study abroad program at FAMU in the Czech Republic, which was great. Honestly, it was the classes at DePauw that prepared me the most. Specifically, the existentialism class with Wayne Glausser, postmodernism with Michael Sinowitz, and Istvan Csicsery-Ronay’s course. There were all of these structuralist professors at DePauw who taught in many different genres across many different classes that there was intention and that everything we love has intention. That’s where modernism comes from, that’s where postmodernism comes from, and that just drilled into my head. It got me so excited and made me into the most curious filmmaker. I remember thinking I didn’t go to USC and I don’t have a wealthy benefactor to pay for my first short film, but I have this and this is going to give me a different perspective. It was super gratifying. I took women and film and all of these courses, but ironically, it was the non-film classes that made the most impact for me. I should say, though, Angela Flury was amazing.

Professor Flury was my film studies advisor!

Alex Thompson: She actually let me stay at her house for a course that I guest taught one winter. She was very kind and a very good professor, but she does scare me a bit [laughs].

Go[ing] through the script line by line…is like finding what’s there already, saying it out loud, and committing to it.”

It’s such a small world. I saw an interview at the 2019 Chicago Film Critics Festival for Saint Frances where you cited Hal Ashby as a reference point while you were making the film. Did you have any specific films or filmmakers that you looked to while working on Ghostlight?

Kelly O’Sullivan: I looked to Christopher Guest, Kenneth Lonergan, and Greta Gerwig. All of them have a different role in the way that I thought about this film. Christopher Guest does such a good job building an ensemble of characters who may seem ridiculous but you really end up caring for them. As for Kenneth Lonergan, I love Manchester By the Sea. His dialogue is the most believable, the most heartbreaking, and so funny, which is how I aspire my dialogue to be. With Great Gerwig, Lady Bird is such a guiding star for me in its examination of what it’s like to be a young person, and I thought a lot about that film for the character Daisy.   

That is a great mixture of influences. The combination of these styles helps create a “dramedy” much like Saint Frances. Would you mind speaking about your collaborative relationship and your creative process?

Alex Thompson: We go through the script line by line together so we can have a mutual understanding of it, but I also try to leave room for myself to be surprised by things. For me, it’s like finding what’s there already, saying it out loud, and committing to it. With co-directing on this project we were worried about losing some of that intention. We said out loud that we wouldn’t compromise too much and that if one of us is really feeling strongly about something we should commit to it. For example, if Kelly was feeling 75% on something and I was 55% we would work towards the 75% together and commit to it. We’re both involved with the camera and we’re both involved with the actors. We don’t really split duties so to speak. We double up, and it miraculously works.

It certainly seems to be working as you’re now two for two as a duo. I’d like to transition in asking this next question to the actors. It’s my understanding that you are a real life family, so you’re obviously all very familiar with one another. Can you please discuss how this affected the process in comparison to prior acting roles?

Keith Kupferer: The scenes where we had to interact with one another, whether we were expressing anger or sadness or whatever was demanded of us were already built in. Being a real life family, we didn’t need to try to create that dynamic like three unrelated actors would, so it made it easier.

With the story of Romeo and Juliet being central to the plot, I’m curious do you have experience with acting Shakespeare and did this attract you to the film?

Keith Kupferer: Tara has more experience than I do with Shakespeare, and I certainly have more experience than Katherine.

Katherine Mallen Kupferer: Well, actually I have…

Keith Kupferer: [cutting her off] Zero.

Katherine Mallen Kupferer: [Laughing] In my freshman year of high school last year, I actually analyzed the whole Romeo and Juliet book.

Keith Kupferer: It’s not a book. It’s a play.

Tara Mallen: [Laughing]

Katherine Mallen Kupferer: But, it was in book form at that point. So, I was actually ready to go for the prologue which was great.

Tara Mallen: I did a lot of Shakespeare and Keith will tell you he’s terrible at it, but he’s actually really wonderful. I fell in love with Keith watching him in a play, and whenever I get to be in a play with him I fall in love with him all over again. Part of my work with Keith was continually telling him how great he is at it, and my work with Katherine was a little more challenging.

Keith Kupferer: [Laughing]

Katherine Mallen Kupferer: See, we really are a real life family as you can tell. All I do is get berated by my parents [laughs].

Tara Mallen: Oh, poor Katherine… Katherine actually really grasped what we are always saying is the beauty of Shakespeare and that’s that the themes are universal. This makes Shakespeare incredible and so much fun to act. Once you understand the words, it’s all right there for you on the page. The way that Kelly wove that into this script was really masterful and the way that Keith was able to then weave that into his performance was also masterful.

Jonathan Monovich is a Chicago-based writer and Image Editor for Film International, where he regularly contributes. His writing has also been featured in Film Matters, Bright Lights Film Journal, and PopMatters.

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