Irish film director Thaddeus O'Sullivan shares his knowledge with young filmmakers

Jenny Lee chats to Emmy-nominated Irish film and tv director Thaddeus O'Sullivan about working on December Bride, Nothing Personal, Silent Witness and his new RTÉ crime drama

 Angeline Ball and Wouter Hendrickx in Hidden Assets. Picture by Guillaume Van Laethem/Saffron Pictures/RTÉ/AcornTV
 Angeline Ball and Wouter Hendrickx in Hidden Assets. Picture by Guillaume Van Laethem/Saffron Pictures/RTÉ/AcornTV

HAVING started his career in film and television in the 1970s, Dublin director Thaddeus O'Sullivan has seen many changes and technology advances within the industry.

And whilst he says the principle of directing "remains the same", he is more excited than ever at the opportunities available to filmmakers.

"It's more accessible and exciting now. There are so many different ways to view films and learn about them," he says.

He also recognises audiences are more demanding. "It keeps us directors on our toes. 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 is holding an online talent lab on directing with young people next week as part of this month's Cinemagic Festival.

Something that has affected his job is the Covid pandemic, during which he was working on the forthcoming RTÉ One crime drama Hidden Assets.

Starring Peter Coonan and Angeline Ball, the six-part series, which will air this autumn, follows the link between a wealthy Irish family, a stash of rough diamonds and a series of deadly bombings in Belgium.

The story moves between a small town in Co Clare and the diamond capital of the world, Antwerp - the logistics of which were extremely taxing for everyone involved with different rules on quarantining.

"On the set we had to employ full-time Covid supervisors. Everyone is wearing masks, so communication is more difficult, but you do get used to it after a while."

O'Sullivan has a varied background, as a cinematographer and director. His early films were experimental, mixed mode films that explored how the memory works, particularly amongst the Irish living and working in Britain.

"When I left film school I was a genius, and as far as I was concerned I was going to reinvent cinema. That didn't last too long," he laughs.

His first fiction feature 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 ménage-à-trois in a 19th century Protestant farming community in Co Down.

"David and I were very much in tune with one another and we had a terrific creative journey," says O'Sullivan about the film starring Saskia Reeves, Donal McCann and Ciarán Hinds.

It played to critical acclaim at international festivals, including Cannes, and established O'Sullivan as one 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.

 Director Thaddeus O'Sullivan will be sharing his years of experience of working in film and television with young people at the Cinemagic Festival this month
 Director Thaddeus O'Sullivan will be sharing his years of experience of working in film and television with young people at the Cinemagic Festival this month

Although grateful for the recognition the film and his skills as a director achieved around the world, O'Sullivan says what he remembers most from doing the film is "never wanting to do anything like it again".

"The film was massive as people hadn't seen the Troubles represented in such an intense way from a personal point of view before," he says.

"The whole process was just very, very intense and difficult. I suppose I just got too involved."

"We also had trouble getting locations due to its sensitive subject and the need for tanks and guns on set. We had about eight night shoots during the winter and the experience almost killed me," he admits.

O'Sullivan enjoyed some success in America, making 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 original budgets dwindled, leading to him taking significant personal wage cuts.

"I just found, by the time I'd make a film, I was almost one of the major investors. I had two children to provide for, so I moved to television where work was more regular," he says.

Over the past decade he has directed many of the leading drama series, including Vera, Shetland, Call the Midwife and Silent Witness.

I ask him if it's difficult as a director coming into a long-standing series and making your mark, whilst retaining continuity.

"It works best when you get a chance to work with the writers. I particularly enjoy the freedom and collaboration in Silent Witness. They are very open to me coming and having my say. I found them very satisfying."

O'Sullivan has worked on 14 Silent Witness episodes, most recently one on knife crime in London last year.

The programme has enjoyed 25 years of enduring success, something O'Sullivan believes is down to "good characters" and "parallel storylines which keeps the viewers guessing".

He admits that when it comes to personal TV viewing he almost always watches television with his director's eye - but he doesn't let it stand in the way of enjoyment.

"Quite often I watch shows that I wouldn't be very good at doing anyway, such as Apple's The Morning Show. I really admired the consistency of the tone and style and appreciate what they have achieved.

"Then you look at something like True Detective and it's extraordinary and experimental with its complex tone."

Something he would like to have been involved with is Lenny Abrahamson's Normal People.

"I'd love to have worked on it, but I don't feel I could have done any better. It's a masterclass with such detail in the characters," he enthuses.

Delighted by the current opportunities for young people to get involved in film and television in Ireland, his advice to them is "talk to those involved, try to get on set to watch and get a true understanding of all the roles involved".

Showing no signs of slowing down or retirement, next spring O'Sullivan begins production of The Miracle Club.

Starring Maggie Smith, Laura Linney and Kathy Bates, the film follows working-class Dublin women as they make a pilgrimage to Lourdes.

:: Directing with Thaddeus O'Sullivan Online Talent Lab for ages 16-25 will be held on October 11 at 6pm. For tickets and the full festival programme visit Cinemagic.org.uk.