Wild Court

An international poetry journal based in the English Department of King’s College London

Thaddeus O’Sullivan – ‘The Poetry of Making a Film’

Thaddeus O’Sullivan, edited by Ruth Padel


This essay sprang from a film-maker’s notes about directing. It has been written up by a poet eager to understand and is based on a conversation the two of us had, at a POETRY AND event, in King’s College Chapel, on St Patrick’s Day 2016.

Thaddeus O’Sullivan is one of Ireland’s foremost film directors. He established his career in England but he lives and works between Ireland and England and played a key role in Irish cinema’s development from experimental and avant-garde in the 1970s to more conventional and mainstream narrative. His own career mirrors that journey too. He left Dublin for London in 1966, studied graphics at the Ealing School of Art and film at the Royal College of Art and in the late 1970s made two experimental films exploring immigrant experience in London – the strangeness of not belonging in a new place but feeling increasingly untethered from the old. An important core of his work ever since has been what happens to feelings of identity in the cultural interplay of any between. He worked as a Director of Photography for ten years in the 80s while directing his own films which included a documentary on the painter Jack B Yeats and a poignant short film, The Woman Who Married Clark Gable, and in 1989 directed his first fiction feature, the award-winning December Bride which became a milestone of Irish cinema. He has worked in many genres since of feature film and television.

I was lucky enough to sit beside him one evening at dinner and asked what it was like, directing. He talked of the moment before shooting, when you make decisive choices that will determine the feel of the film. “That’s where the poetry comes in,” he said, and I of course said, “What do you mean by poetry?” Which led to an evening when he very generously gave his time, and thoughts about his work, to an event with Glyn Maxwell we called “Poetry And Film”. Glyn read stunning new poems of his around films and also Auden’s Fall of Rome, which he suggested was deeply influenced by the emergence of cinema and cinematic terms, like jump cuts, fast forward, fade out.

Thaddeus sent me notes beforehand, on which we based our conversation for the audience. I thought what he said was too valuable to lose.

So this essay is a poet trying to do justice to what a director said about his work. I wrote up my notes on Thaddeus’s notes: Thaddeus expanded, refined and corrected them. I wanted to explore what it means for poetry, that Thaddeus thinks in terms of poetry while directing. But I also thought that other people should have the chance to hear a master talk about his art.



When I started making films I adopted what I considered was a ‘poetic’ approach. I was inspired by the New American Cinema seen at all-night screenings at the Arts Lab in Drury Lane. This was 1967 and after the claustrophobia of Ireland, London was like being re-born. The form of these early experimental films was inspired by the abstract language of painting, poetry and music. For me, a more ‘poetic’ approach  meant wielding the camera without too much fore-thought and editing the material by first letting it ‘speak’, not imposing a shape on it. I was going to re-invent cinema, even before I knew anything about it!

Eventually I worked my way towards a more linear narrative style, more ‘classical’. So, how to imbue this apparently more conventional form with the richness of the more ‘poetic’ style? How do you control the audience’s experience of the story, while establishing that wonderful ambiguity unique to cinema – the imaginative and emotional style of expression we call poetic?

The best of cinema consists of a subtle but complex mise en scène. This, to me, is where all the elements are first viewed in isolation and the role of each is clearly established and understood before being re-assembled again into a fluid style. Each element – design, script/dialogue, actors, lighting, costume  – must be judged separately and, with the themes in mind, their priority within the frame established. The themes reside in the mise en scène . These elements have to be exposed carefully because this is where – without stopping the forward movement of the plot – the film achieves depth. So, when putting a scene together I decide what’s seen in  foreground,  what is background, what’s in close-up or in wide, how does light and shade play, is the actor/performance dominant or is the performance a more discreet contribution?

In arranging costume, sound, design, lighting, actors in a scene, focussed through the camera, I’m controlling the story and ultimately establishing the style of the film. All of the elements that go to create an image are, if you like, the film’s ‘alphabet’. This, to me, is mise en scène – the essential language of film.

When I’m shooting and everything is assembled on the set, the scene is ‘blocked’. This is where the actors are rehearsed and the elements are arranged for the camera. This is the first time I will have seen everything together on the set and  I like to think of is as a moment of innocence, where I feel I’m starting from scratch and anything goes.

After a few rehearsals it becomes apparent what the dynamic of the scene is going to be. This is the moment when the weight of each element within the frame must be decided. The camera’s role now is to focus the audience on what it is I want them to understand, and for the lighting to provide the precise visual context in which it’s all viewed.

When you consider the time that goes into mounting a film, this period before shooting is alarmingly short and  that’s why I make every effort to ‘ring-fence’ that time. I like to think of it as my ‘moment of tranquility’. It’s a moment when the decisions made now can become the defining ideas and may contribute substantially to the style of the film. I enjoy shooting because it’s exciting to witness the elements coalesce into something unique but also, frighteningly, into something I  never thought of. Despite all the planning, you also have to be prepared for the unimagined and the unexpected. And it’s this moment, during this process, that the magic happens – a kind of poetic synthesis takes place.

The great film editor Walter Murch says he cuts a scene first for for emotion, then for story, finally for rhythm. That pretty much describes how I approach a scene when shooting. What you want, above all, is for audiences to remember how they felt.     

When deciding shots, I like to imagine assembling a scene like a poet composes a sentence, likening the balance of elements within the frame to arranging syllables into words.  These shots become scenes, the scenes will become a sequence, just as words become sentences and then stanzas. And finally the filmed sequence will have its beats, stresses and rhythms just like a poem.

In a poem the subject matter may well be clear but the depth, the exploration of that idea,  is achieved differently than on camera. A poet might find ways to discombobulate the reader with jagged endings, lack of rhyming etc. whereas a film-maker might create a similar effect with light, editing or performance. Or a poem might choose words whose sound suggest a mood of reflection or memory but whose meaning suggest something different. A corollary in film might be very direct storytelling contrasted with an underlying mood of reflection articulated by movement of camera, particular lighting, use of colour, etc

As a poet weighs every word, so a film-maker will weigh each element. How much of it do you see? What meaning do you want an audience to get?  How does the architecture or costume embody the themes? Do you want the costume to say something about a character or to create an emotional effect? If a character’s depressed state is represented by wearing dark clothes and living in a brown environment, while another’s joyful spirit is expressed by a life led amidst flowers and pastels, it can be easily too obvious and audiences will tire of the references and resent their repetition. Audiences must experience these idea or themes  at a more subliminal level. As in poetry, you want to suggest a mood without explaining yourself.

Poetic they may be, but in film words are just one element in the mise en scène. Audiences get things very quickly and so I try to keep dialogue that is exposition to the absolute minimum. I’ve directed a number of episodes of long-running series and whenever expositional dialogue appears, no one wants to say it!  The actor who is lumbered with such dialogue will always try to cut the lines – or get another actor to say them. No actor wants their character to be the messenger: they want to be the story.

Dialogue as mise en scène is not telling you what to think or where to look. Its role is to be allusive, suggestive. The other extreme is dialogue as sound effect. In major studio films – mainly action films but not all – it’s not so much the meaning of the words that counts but how they’re spoken, or mumbled. This is more about some notion of realism and how characters sound rather than what they’re saying. Episodes of a couple of TV series recently had audiences ringing up broadcasters to complain about dialogue which they couldn’t hear. Actors, lost in the ‘reality’ of their characters, were unintelligible for pages of dialogue. David Mamet (who directs and writes), on the other hand, eschews realism and does not allow the actors to colour his dialogue, insisting that they speak it in an ‘uninflected’ voice. This is to focus attention on the words and not what the actor brings to them.

A writer I worked with, David Rudkin, writes dialogue which is pure poetry but he also writes the silences into the scene. ‘Pauses’ are carefully noted and though we tended to ignore them in rehearsal, when we realised how profound they were, very quickly reverted. These scripted moments were important because David understood what other elements in the scene would contribute, and so his dialogue (and pauses!) took them into account.

The best actors understand this too because they know they aren’t alone responsible for telling the story. They are sensitive to their place in the mise en scène and adjust their performance accordingly.

Actors have an innate understanding of what’s needed and so when shooting I prefer to wait and see what they offer up before jumping in. I worked with Ian Hart  on a film some years ago. In his first scene in the film Ian’s character was to approach a bar and assassinate his victim as he exited. Since this was Ian’s first scene in the schedule his character hadn’t been established on camera yet. I had always envisioned the assassination as a deliberate and controlled series of movements by this fanatic. But when we turned over and the victim emerged from the bar, Ian ran like a greyhound out of a trap and shot the victim countless time within seconds. I was about to ask Ian to do it again and to do it as I had imagined it. However, I hesitated just long enough to realise that he actually had this character figured out and here he was showing me the uncontrollable impulse of a psychopath. So I kept quiet and we moved on to the next scene. Even Carl Dreyer, whose style was austere in the extreme, trusted his actors and gave them the freedom to move within the scene so that he could see what they were offering before jumping in.

Architecture as an element in the film’s design has always fascinated me. I enjoy the challenge of extracting poetry from making an architectural location and making it work for the story. I recently worked in a location, a house whose floors had glass sections and huge plate glass windows. We used what was on offer – strong reflections, harsh direct light, strong shadows, geometric lines and concrete walls and yet with glass floor sections that made the whole lot feel tenuous. From this set we generated a powerful visual context for the story of a violent and secretive character and made the audience feel edgy and unsettled in his presence. The house was not just a backdrop, but evolved as dynamic presence inseparable from the audience’s view of this man.

A terrific use of locations (exterior and interior) can be seen in the series TRAPPED, recently on Channel 4. The crime series was blessed with Iceland as a location, which they chose to shoot in the depths of winter.  This gave the film-makers a whole catalogue of elements to play with – snow, blizzard, avalanche, the town isolated by mountain and water extraordinary light helped by graphic quality of the black and white effect the snow brought to it. The environment was a massive element in the story but also gave the filmmakers access to a host of moods which they played with brilliantly. Ultimately it also worked as a metaphor for the main character’s tough emotional life and his unrelenting determination to carry on through all manner of adverse situations.  A lovely synthesis of character and the elements. A great mise en scène.

The closest I know in film to the experience of a poem is Tarkovsky’s Mirror.

The story, the director’s memory from the point of view of the present, is told in a flashback structure. The film is a mixture of documentary, highly stylised images and more conventional dramatic scenes. Much is alluded to and not explained. But this narrative structure doesn’t feel awkward or confusing because the viewer is not conscious of the passage of time but experiences it as  one continuous present. It is an immensely satisfying watch because all the elements are properly weighted, anchored firmly in Tarkovsky’s  vision. It possesses that imaginative and emotional expression that is wonderful to see – and when film is as good as this, it is always the word ‘poetic’ that we reach for.