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Photograph: Courtesy of Alex Thompson and Kelly O'Sullivan/Sundance Institute

'Ghostlight' is a love letter to the Chicago theater community

The filmmakers behind the acclaimed Sundance indie discuss what makes Chicago special.

Zachary Lee
Written by
Zachary Lee

At the 59th Chicago International Film Festival, actor David Dastmalchian shared: “… Chicago isn’t a good city to start your journey as an artist or storyteller … I think it’s the only city to start and live out your journey as an artist [and] as a storyteller.” While Chicago itself is no stranger to being featured on screen, rarely has it been depicted as the galvanizing and inspiring force for creatives the way cities like LA or NYC have. That’s what makes directing duo Kelly O’Sullivan’s and Alex Thompson’s Chicago-set indie film Ghostlight, which opened to critical acclaim at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, so special. 

The film centers on a family living in the Chicagoland suburbs who are processing a tragedy to varying degrees. The patriarch, Dan, is a construction worker who has distanced himself from his wife, Sharon and his daughter, Daisy. By happenstance (and to his chagrin) Dan is roped into joining an amateur theater troupe that’s getting ready to put on a production of Romeo and Juliet. As he enters his thespian era, he experiences the catharsis that comes with processing his trauma through participating in the play. Dan, Sharon and Daisy are played by a real life family of actors (Keith Kupferer, Tara Mallen and Katherine Mallen, respectively) and their chemistry is palpable on-screen. The film powerfully depicts the ways art can help address buried emotions and is ultimately a tender love letter to the Chicago arts scene (particularly the theater community). 

Thompson and O’Sullivan are no strangers to fleshing out the nuances of their hometown on-screen. Their feature film Saint Frances, which Thompson directed, and O’Sullivan wrote and acted in, was set in the northern suburbs (specifically the likes of Evanston and Wilmette). Ghostlight was shot in Waukegan and the duo shared that this was due to the city’s overwhelming hospitality and also their desire to capture how Chicagoland actors often have to do their work in partnership with their city’s personality. 

“Waukegan opened its doors to us,” Thompson told Time Out Chicago

Where Dan and his theater coterie were practicing was in a famed Waukegan theater who shared some of their old props to the production. There was also a casual and collaborative dynamic that was heartwarming as well. Thompson shared that “Dave Motley, he’s on the city council, was essentially our locations manager. We’d say, ‘hey we’re looking for a bar to film a scene’ and he’d say ‘go talk to the one down the street at the opera.’” 

Additionally, one scene that will immediately resonate with Chicagoans in the film is when the theater troupe has to battle with the ever-present sounds of construction while they’re in the middle of rehearsal. The contrast between the intimacy of the theater and the bustle of the street truly does feel like night and day and for Thompson and O’Sullivan, it is quintessential Chicago. 

“I’ve been in so many theaters [in Chicago] where just right outside, they’re repairing potholes and you’re like ‘I hope this finishes by the time curtain is at 8pm,” O’Sullivan shared. 

Inspired by theaters such as Off-Loop and the Storefront, O’Sullivan and Thompson wanted to specifically craft the ambience of Dan’s theater troupe to be one that was very neighborhood-centric and that captured those dichotomies.

“In Steppenwolf spaces, you can still hear the train,” Thompson laughed. “You’re sitting in a theater, watching the best working actors in the most lauded space, and you’re interrupted by the elevated train. It’s very humbling. You can be as fancy as you want but it’s still Chicago and it will always be that.” 

Yet another way Chicago will always stubbornly assert itself is in being a space where people involved in theater all mutually support one another. In the film, despite Dan being the obvious odd man out once he joins the theater troupe, rather than alienating or teasing him, all of his co-stars warmly welcome him and allow him to go at his own pace. In particular, Rita (played by Dolly De Leon) comforts him in sharing that while “out there” emotions are a liability, in the safety of the stage, they can be a source of strength. This reflects the supportive and close-knit nature of the Chicago arts scene and was something Kupferer wanted to ensure was depicted on screen.

“It’s not cutthroat,” Kupferer explained. “The theaters are small enough to take risks with new work and really explore your work as an actor, writer and director. It’s a great place to really learn your craft.”

The risk taking is another aspect that’s well captured in the film as given the size of the production (troupe members play multiple roles in the play, often to humorous effect) the play is always shifting to accommodate the people at its center. 

O’Sullivan and Thompson hope that films like Ghostlight highlight what Chicagoans already know about their actors: that they’re worthy of all adulation and flowers.

“When things get filmed in Chicago, oftentimes they bring in L.A. or New York actors,” O’Sullivan shared. “The thing I feel very protective over is I know how good the actors are in Chicago and it pisses me off when we’re not treated in the way that we should be. With this film, it was so very important, especially since this was about theater actors and there are so many incredible theater actors in Chicago, to show the incredible wealth of talent we have.”

Indeed, given the talent on display, it will be hard to not hope for more stories to be told with this cast. When asked if there was a potential for O’Sullivan and Thompson to tell more stories of people finding healing through Shakespeare’s other plays, they confessed they had been thinking about it.

“It would be fun to do Shakespeare adaptations with this cast. It’s out there now,” Thompson joked, “I’m not sure Keith wants to be Hamlet but maybe he could do the Grave Digger.” 

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