A GoPride Interview

Kelly O'Sullivan and Alex Thompson

Leave the light on for Ghostlight

Sun. June 9, 2024  by Jerry Nunn

It felt like a big show opening.
Kelly O'Sullivan and Alex Thompson

kelly and alex

photo credit // jerry nunn

Ghostlight brightens up theaters everywhere

A new film called Ghostlight takes audiences on a trip to theaters in a story about a construction worker performing in a small-town production of Romeo and Juliet. The drama stars husband and wife team Keith Kupferer as Dan and Katherine May Kupferer as Daisy.

This dramatic feature was directed by Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson. This is a follow-up to their debut film Saint Frances. O’Sullivan is a Northwestern University film graduate and wrote the screenplay for Ghostlight. Thompson is a writer, director and producer based in Chicago.

The duo met up at the Music Box Theatre to flip the switch on Ghostlight.

JN: (Jerry Nunn) Where are you both from originally?

KOS: (Kelly O’Sullivan) I am from Arkansas.

JN: My family used to drive through Little Rock, Arkansas on our way to Oklahoma from Tennessee.

KOS: You never stopped there?

JN: No.

KOS: I don’t blame you.

AT: (Alex Thompson) I am from Kentucky.

JN: I went to Western Kentucky University.

AT: I used to go to Bowling Green all the time for the speech team. I know that campus very well.

JN: Go Hilltoppers!

AT: Yes, it’s actually up on a hilltop.

JN: I studied theater there, which brings me to your movie. What is the response to people that have seen it so far? Do theater enthusiasts love it?

AT: Being at the Chicago Film Critics Festival here was very emotional. It felt dangerous because if there had been a fire then we would have lost the entire Chicago theater community. People I hadn’t seen in years were here.

KOS: We hadn’t been here since pre-pandemic.

AT: It felt like a big show opening.

KOS: People were very warm. I was excited that theater people loved it, but I was also excited that nontheater people found their way into it. They connected to it just as deeply.

I was very relieved that people seemed to like it. I am always worried.

AT: We are meeting a lot of people that are identifying with theater for the first time and thinking they should try it. Some of them want to join community theater and maybe even get their mom to try it. It is really sweet.

JN: Theater can change people’s lives. Was that the goal? Did you want to inspire audiences?

KOS: Yes. We wanted people to feel a real sense of catharsis and to laugh a lot. Sometimes when people hear the plot line they think it will be heavy, but there is a little joy in the film.

I hope they feel a connection with another audience member and hopefully identify with some of the characters.

AT: I have a lot of fun with Kelly’s scripts because I am very story-focused. I rarely think of the big picture. I love piecing together what the movie means to me and what it will mean to the audience. It is really cool and inspiring. Kelly knew all along! [all laugh] I love to receive the gift of the audience interpreting it for me. Hearing the critic's and journalist’s thoughts and ideas brings it to life again.

JN: Artists and writers work in a bubble. We don’t know how an audience member will react when we create something. Watching the movie with them is like seeing for the first time all over again.

KOS: Exactly. I am never sure if something is going to read to people. I might think something is crystal clear, but for whatever reason the audience may not pick up on it. You never know. It’s always a big leap if what I intended is going to come through or not.

It can be enriched by all of the people who have collaborated on it since the completion of the script, such as the actors and the crew.

JN: What was the inspiration behind Ghostlight?

AT: What is interesting is the way that Kelly pulls from all of these places and under the pressure of her enormous brain comes this clear thing. Around the same time that the National Theater had put out a trailer for Romeo & Juliet.

KOS: It starred Josh O’Connor and Jessie Buckley  It was supposed to be a live show and then they pivoted to make a film version of it because all of the theaters were closed. The trailer was in my head and I was researching The Hero’s Journey because I had never taken a writing class before. Our previous film Saint Francis had received criticism because it was perceived as wondering so I decided to play with structure. I thought about an unlikely hero like in The Hero’s Journey. Those things meshed together in my brain and I knew I wanted to explore what happens when someone is forced to confront something that they are trying to repress.

JN: That brings me to my next question. Is there any queer angle to the story since it is Pride month?

KOS: Dolly de Leon’s character Rita and Hana Dworkin’s character Lanora were originally in a relationship that was much more overt. That ended up on the cutting room floor during the script stage.

AT: Obviously we have queer actors and queer crew members who brought themselves into the process and the roles. I think that is always wonderful. We got the sense that something that isn’t even on the page would suddenly come to life as people would walk in the character’s shoes and make it their own in exciting ways.

JN: I don’t think it always has to be blatantly obvious but June a coming-out month for some, so I wondered.

KOS: Yes and it is theater, which is a safe haven for many.

JN: It changed a little gay kid’s life like me.

KOS: Of course!

JN: I found my tribe and wasn’t bullied anymore.

KOS: Exactly. It’s the idea of people who have been marginalized finding a safe place in the theater world. It’s for people who are queer and people who don’t have a place for expression anywhere else.

JN: What was the most challenging scene in Ghostlight?

KOS: For me with writing it was the deposition scene because I knew nothing about depositions. I had to do a lot of research. There was a very fine line to walk of what information does Dan need to say in order to fill the audience in on everything that they have been missing up to that certain point. It is basically a monologue. I had to think about his emotional journey and how to get him to say it’s not someone’s fault. That was really difficult from a writing perspective.

AT: It was difficult to film because I was really tired because it was a long scene. In the movie, it runs for seven and a half minutes. Each take was about 14 minutes.

I remember sitting at the monitor and Kelly was crying while emotionally connecting to Dan’s performance, which was jaw-dropping.

KOS: A lot of it comes down to timing constraints. We had so little time to film. Katherine May Kupferer was 15 years old at the time and only allowed to work eight-hour days. In the scene where Dan first erupts and Sharon is making the garden outside we had limited time to shoot.

AT: We had exactly seven minutes to shoot that scene.

KOS: Her guardian was standing on the side of the set and was ready to pull her out of the scene in three minutes. That scene was filmed with so much adrenaline and we were running around. We didn’t want to lose Katherine.

AT: We yelled at Sharon who plays Tara Mallen to try things again and again.

KOS: We only got to do Tara’s close-up once.

AT: I remember she seemed sort of heartbroken because she felt like I was her mother and was able to have some agency in terms of how long she could work.

KOS: She wanted Katherine to give it a go again…

AT: And give it her best! Miraculously we got it done. It is a very important scene.

JN: This story is stressing me out just hearing about it! [all laugh]

AT: We shot the rehearsal with Katherine running across the front of the lawn. We started following her with the camera and it was intense.

JN: It sounds like that adds to the intensity of the scene.

KOS: Yeah, the adrenaline of it.

JN: Ghostlight refers to the light that is left on the stage when no one is around right?

AT: Yes.

JN: I remember learning about that in school and thinking it was creepy. The theater is like a church with ghosts in a way.

KOS: Absolutely.

JN: It seems mixed with superstition as well. Was that always the title?

KOS: Yes it was, from the very first moment when I wrote the plot. It is because I liked the idea that not everyone is going to know what that means. People not in the theater world ask me, “What is a ghost light?” Many people do know what it means. We are lighting the way for the ghosts. We are acknowledging the Shakespearean idea that a ghost is in the room. It is also respecting theater tradition while keeping the light on for someone.

JN: This makes me reminisce about all of my theater days…

AT: Me too! I remember looking at the stage after we struck the stage for Much Ado About Nothing and seeing the bare set. I was just excited to be in theater in college.

JN: I was in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost in college.

AT: Which part were you?

JN: Don Adriano de Armado. The part changed the trajectory of my college days. What are you both working on next?

KOS: I am always scared to talk about things because they might not happen. This specific upcoming film project called Mouse has fallen apart before and Ghostlight leap-frogged it to come out before it.

I am in hopes of manifesting it and the intention is heading towards us shooting it this fall. It’s another feature that will co-direct.

AT: It’s another feature that has some theater in it and is about people finding ways to express themselves truthfully.

JN: We will keep the light on for it! Is there one dream actor you would like to work with?

KOS: Cate Blanchett. I adore her and she is a theater person. She does theater and movies so flawlessly.

JN: I met her and she was very down to earth.

KOS: She has a great sense of humor too. She was in a zombie movie with a full hazmat suit in Hot Fuzz!

AT: I pick Jessie Buckley and forever on my list is George Clooney. I have been a stan for George since I was a kid. He is from Kentucky and might have flirted with my mom in the ‘90s. He was swimming at The Jefferson Club and talked to her. I have always wanted to ask him if he is my dad or not. [laughs]

JN: A DNA test could be very valuable and you could have a big budget for your next film!

Ghostlight shines in theaters on June 14, 2024.


Interviewed by Jerry Nunn. Jerry Nunn is a contributing writer to the GoPride Network. His work is also featured in Windy City Times, Nightspots Magazine and syndicated nationally.