At 68 Irish filmmaker Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s name is turning up in several of TV’s best series. He tells Michael McDonagh why
Sharp-eyed TV viewers of the excellent Shetland, Call The Midwife, and Vera will have noticed the name of director Thaddeus O’Sullivan. The Irish World caught up with him for a libation on the altar of friendship and a catch-up chat about his career.
Back in October 1981 when the single When You Were Sweet Sixteen by the Furey Brothers was slowly creeping up the charts we were desperate to get them on Top of The Pops.
The BBC house rule was that a group would only get a chance to get on this important show live if their record was going up but in exceptional circumstances, if the band was abroad, they may use a video of the song.
All the record promotion guys would wait in anticipation outside the door of the Top of The Pops production office at TV Centre at 8.30 am on Chart day until producers Robin Nash or Michael Hurl called out the names of the lucky bands going up the new chart and asked about availability for that week’s show.
The problem was that the Fureys were contracted to be in America so Mick Clerkin, who owned Ritz Records, took the brave calculated risk to ask me to make the first promotional film they had ever done with only a few days to turn it around. We rushed to Dublin to make the film.
Thaddeus was recommended to me. He had just graduated in film from The Royal College of Art and was working as a lighting cameraman, whilst trying to develop his directing career. We still laugh at the memory of filming back then in the cold and wet of Wicklow. It was all very basic and shot on real film.
We ended up with the Fureys and Davey Arthur outside the pub in the freezing village of Dunlavin, shooting outside as we did not have the money for a generator to light the interior.
As the darkness of the day closed in Thaddeus used his cigarette lighter to be able to peer in the gloom at the controls on his camera so the last shots could be squeezed on our low budget.
It was madness but Thaddeus did a remarkable job in terrible circumstances (so good that the atmosphere and quality of the film allowed us to take a still of the sweet sixteen year old girl Ann Marie Elliot whom we had found in a pub in Dundrum) for the film. We were able to blow-up the image from the 16mm footage to become the iconic album cover that was so successful for the band.
The finished promo film delivered in three days was used all over the world to help break the band and their classic song. From those early days Thaddeus went on to direct commercials with Sir Harry Secombe, Ralph McTell, a classical album project called Green and Pleasant Land, shot in the Lake District, and a project with Mary O’Hara filmed near the home of George Bernard Shaw in Hertfordshire.
Even though these were modest record company projects the quality of the work Thaddeus delivered was always excellent Always destined to be a ‘proper’ film director Thaddeus went on to make award winning feature like The Woman Who Married Clarke Gable with Brenda Fricker and Bob Hoskins, which earned him his first BAFTA nomination, and then in 1991 he made his first fiction feature December Bride, described as “an important film in the development of contemporary Irish cinema.”
Way back then he cast the talented actors Ciaran Hinds and Saskia Reeves whom he has now cast again in Shetland. From these early films he has gone on to direct numerous acclaimed feature films including the very funny Ordinary Decent Criminal loosely based on the Dublin gangster Martin Cahill and played by Kevin Spacey. This was followed by Stella Days and Into the Storm, about Sir Winston Churchill, for which Thaddeus was awarded an Irish Film and Television Award for Best Director (Television).
Brendan Gleeson got an Emmy Award and has built on that a highly successful career. It was Thaddeus who saw his potential early on and cast him way back in 1991 for his film In Border Country.
Thaddeus was never in any doubt about his star’s ability and recalled of his performance as Churchill in Into The Storm: “Apart from all the obvious things, his ability as an actor and his physical looks, he has an impish sense of humor. He’s a very complex man.
“At the same time he’s being very funny, he thinks about things very seriously; he’s very socially minded, very conscious of the complexities that make up the people and the characters.
“He has a great breadth of interest and understanding about things around him and, like a lot of good actors, he pushes and pulls and re-examines every line and every idea”.
For seven years Thaddeus lived and worked in Hollywood where he made a film about the Mafia called Witness to the Mob, produced by Robert De Niro. Speaking of those Hollywood days he told the Irish World: “It is so hard really, you spend forever trying to develop a script and to raise the money and it is so competitive but it is a very slow process and for most of the time until you finally get into production you are not being paid, it takes so long”.
Is that why he and so many others are attracted to the greater creative freedom and quality of TV drama? “Oh yes it has definitely changed over recent years with HBO and others making some ground-breaking TV series but here too the ‘Scandi noir’ thing has had a big influence and now the producers are looking for more production values.
“Series like Shetland are featuring one story over several episodes to allow characters to develop. “Working with Brenda Blethyn on Vera we were shooting feature-length episodes on location in Northumberland rather than the traditional one-hour episode of other crime series and even the Sunday night drama Call The Midwives is now reflecting some serious social issues like Thalidomide.”
Thaddeus has always had a special talent for his casting skills and I asked him about that: “After a good script the cast is crucial and actors are so professional these days so they turn up every day word perfect. I always try to cast people who will be great for the part but who will also get on and be part of a happy team.
“That way we are all in it together to get the job done and it makes my job easier.” It is clear from what is on the screen in both Vera (starring Brenda Blethyn) and Shetland that this is the case. His old friends Ciaran Hinds working closely with Saskia Reeves have been very powerful in this beautifully shot nuanced crime drama.
Thaddeus is also known for his use of beautiful landscapes filmed dramatically and the landscape in Shetland looks spectacular by using drones for aerial shots and some CGI for dramatic effect. Last year, for the 150th anniversary of William Butler Yeats’ birth, Thaddeus was commissioned to create a short film-featuring actor Michael Gambon reciting The Song of Wandering Aengus against a backdrop of beautiful Sligo landscapes.
Senator Susan O’Keeffe, the chair of Yeats2015, said: “It is a beautiful piece of work and brings a new joy to poetry for the public.” I asked Thaddeus, who will be 69 in May, what he wanted to do next? He replied: “To keep on working, just to keep on working”