Irish director Thaddeus O’Sullivan shares his knowledge with young filmmakers
Having started his career in film and television in the 1970s, Dublin director Thaddeus O’Sullivan has seen many changes and technological advancements within the industry.
And while he says the directing premise “remains the same,” he’s more excited than ever about the opportunities for filmmakers.
“It’s more accessible and exciting now. There are so many different ways to see movies and learn about them,” he says.
He also recognizes that the public is more demanding. “It keeps us directors on edge. I heard recently that viewers of Netflix shows decide whether or not to watch a show within the first three minutes,” says the 74-year-old, who runs a talent lab online about making with young people next week as part of this month’s Cinemagic festival.
Something that has affected his work is the Covid pandemic, during which he was working on the upcoming RTÉ crime drama One Hidden Assets.
Starring Peter Coonan and Angeline Ball, the six-part series, which will air this fall, follows the connection between a wealthy Irish family, a hoard of rough diamonds and a series of deadly bombings in Belgium.
The story takes place between a small town of Co Clare and the diamond capital of the world, Antwerp – the logistics of which were extremely taxing for everyone involved with different quarantine rules.
“On set, we had to employ full-time Covid supervisors. Everyone wears masks, so communication is more difficult, but you get used to it after a while.”
O’Sullivan has a varied background, as a cinematographer and director. His early films were mixed-mode experimental films that explored the workings of memory, particularly among Irish people living and working in Britain.
“When I left film school, I was a genius, and for me I was going to reinvent cinema. It didn’t last too long,” he laughs.
His first feature-length fiction film as a director was December Bride in 1990. Based on the novel by Sam Hanna Bell and adapted by David Rudkin, it told the story of a scandalous threesome in a Protestant farming community in 19th century at Co Down.
“David and I were very in tune with each other and we had a terrific creative journey,” O’Sullivan says of the film starring Saskia Reeves, Donal McCann and Ciarán Hinds.
It received critical acclaim at international festivals, including Cannes, and established O’Sullivan as a film to watch.
However, it was his 1995 film, Nothing Personal, set during the Troubles and exploring it from a loyalist paramilitary perspective, that brought him to Hollywood’s attention.
While grateful for the worldwide recognition of the film and his skills as a director, O’Sullivan says what he remembers most about making the film is “never wanting to do anything like that again.” .
“The movie was huge because people had never seen The Troubles portrayed in such an intense way from a personal perspective before,” he says.
“The whole process was very, very intense and difficult. I guess I got too involved.”
“We also struggled to find locations due to the sensitive subject matter and the need for tanks and weapons on set. We had about eight night shoots during the winter and the experience nearly killed me. “, he admits.
O’Sullivan had some success in America, directing Witness to the Mob (1998) with Robert De Niro’s production company and the TV movie Into the Storm (2009), which starred Brendan Gleeson as Winston Churchill and was nominated for 14 Emmys.
But he admits it was a period of “frustration” as initial budgets shrunk, leading to him taking significant personal pay cuts.
“I just found out, when I was making a movie, that I was almost one of the main investors. I had two kids to support, so I moved into TV where the work was more regular” , he said.
Over the past decade he has directed many top drama series including Vera, Shetland, Call the Midwife and Silent Witness.
I ask him if it’s difficult as a director to enter into a series that is long-term and to impose himself while remaining in continuity.
“It works best when you get the chance to work with the writers. I especially enjoy the freedom and collaboration in Silent Witness. They are very open to me coming in and having a say. I found them very satisfying .”
O’Sullivan worked on 14 episodes of Silent Witness, the most recent about knife crime in London last year.
The program has enjoyed 25 years of enduring success, which O’Sullivan believes is due to “good characters” and “side stories that keep viewers guessing.”
He admits that when it comes to personal TV viewing, he almost always watches TV through his director’s eye – but he doesn’t let that get in the way of the fun.
“Quite often I watch shows that I wouldn’t be very good at anyway, like Apple’s The Morning Show. I really admired the consistency of tone and style and appreciate what they’ve accomplished .
“Then you look at something like True Detective and it’s extraordinary and experimental with its complex tone.”
Something he would have liked to be involved in is Lenny Abrahamson’s Normal People.
“I would have loved to work on it, but I don’t think I could have done better. It’s a masterclass with so much character detail,” he enthuses.
Delighted with the current opportunities for young people to get involved in film and television in Ireland, his advice is “talk to the people involved, try to get on set to watch and get a real understanding of all the roles involved”.
Showing no signs of slowing down or retiring, O’Sullivan began production on The Miracle Club next spring.
Starring Maggie Smith, Laura Linney and Kathy Bates, the film follows working class women from Dublin as they make a pilgrimage to Lourdes.
:: The production with Thaddeus O’Sullivan Online Talent Lab for 16-25 year olds will take place on October 11 at 6 p.m. For tickets and the full festival programme, visit Cinemagic.org.uk.