Thaddeus O’Sullivan on Putting His Faith in a Mighty Set of Actors in “The Miracle Club”

It was no small miracle that Thaddeus O’Sullivan would come to direct “The Miracle Club.” He had first been attached to the film, about quartet of women from his native Dublin in the 1960s who set off on a religious pilgrimage to the French town of Lourdes, where the Virgin Mary was said to have made an appearance, when it was in development at HBO, for whom the filmmaker would eventually direct the Winston Churchill drama “Into the Storm” with fellow countryman Brendan Gleeson. The script from Jimmy Smallhorne, who drew on memories of growing up in a working-class neighborhood where women endured the unimaginable because of their faith, had enchanted all who read it 15 years ago, but as these things do, it simply didn’t come together at the time and O’Sullivan moved on, though his ears perked when a friend mentioned they were doing a rewrite on the film and it would soon be looking for a director.

“It’s a long journey,” says O’Sullivan, who it could be argued had been prepared to tell this story his entire life, having grown up in the same area as Smallhorne. “That period of the mid ’60s was a period I knew very well. It was the time when I left Ireland, so it was frozen in time in a way for me, and it was film that I felt very easy with, if you lay aside the enormity of taking on those three talents.”

O’Sullivan is referring to Dame Maggie Smith, Kathy Bates and Laura Linney, who couldn’t help but be charmed by the adventure that Smallhorne and eventual co-writers Tim Prater and Josh Maurer put together, straddling comedy and drama when a pillar in the tight-knit community passes away, leading to her daughter Chrissie (Linney) to reluctantly take her place on the bus to Lourdes with Eileen (Bates), Lily (Smith) and Dolly (Agnes O’Casey) after leaving Ireland altogether for America decades earlier. Having resettled in Massachusetts and appearing a little less devout than her mother’s neighbors and friends, Chrissie immediately seems at odds with her travel companions, though there are deeper reasons for her discontent that gradually reveal themselves as they make it to the holy site where whether or not one believes in a higher power, the baths purported to wash away sin can at least offer the potential of a clean slate.

The women may leave Dublin with heavy hearts, but being relieved of domestic duties and the tight parameters of their small town becomes an opportunity for adventure in “The Miracle Club,” which would be colorful in its florid decor and costumes alone, but is particularly brilliant because of its formidable ensemble of actors, including Stephen Rea as Eileen’s husband. An introduction at an amateur talent show where Eileen, Lily and Dolly can be heard singing the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine,” seems like a cheeky nod to the extraordinary cast that O’Sullivan has on hand, able to handle just about anything thrown their way in terms of either drama or comedy, and with the film now making its way to theaters for a summertime treat, the director spoke about what it was like to work with the impressive cast, actively reworking the script during production to play to the strengths of what he was seeing and bringing the world he grew up in into the film.

As much of a personal story as this was for the screenwriter Jimmy Smallhorne, it seems like it might’ve been for you as well, given that you grew up in this part of Ireland. Did you feel you could make something of it pretty quickly?

Yes, I felt very comfortable with it. The religious side of it was very familiar to me, the whole Lourdes thing. We all grew up with that Catholic culture and always had a big place for pilgrimages, and Lourdes was the one to go to. I had never been, but my parents had, and everybody on the street had been to Lourdes, so they brought back their little bottles of holy water and every mantelpiece in a Catholic household had a little souvenir from Lourdes. And the bottle of water you never, you never touched. You’re supposed to sprinkle it and do whatever you want with it, but people were afraid to, so they spared it and it was always sat there in this ancient bottle of water. For all those reasons, I found it good fun and easy to get involved in.

It has a really vibrant color palette to reflect that sense of fun, which I found unexpected of this particular time and place but likely accurate. Was it exciting to play with?

John Hand, the production designer, along with the costume designer [Judith Williams], came in and we looked at lots of pictures from the period and they were a bit younger than me, but Ireland took a long time to shift, so what [John and Judith] remember from the ’70s is probably just as good for the ’50s and ’60s to some degree and we all were surprised at how much color there was there. That doesn’t mean you have to use color and it’s a frightening thing to use for a lot of people. I’ve quite often been led down the path of a more muted look or feel that it has to be color coded, like red for danger — and I’ve always been very much against that. I did do a film once where the beatnik character was all in brown and the sophisticated character was all in bright colors, and it was so color coded that everybody who wrote about it mentioned it, so I learned something from that. I wasn’t wrong to do it, but I think to make it so big in that story was a bit in your face and they couldn’t resist reacting to it.

So [for “The Miracle Club”] we looked at all the wallpapers and all the clothes and we decided that we would go with quite a strong palette. The only [element] that was color coded, was the woman coming back from America [played by Laura Linney]. We put her in this yellow coat, because we all had memories of Americans coming back and being dressed in a very ostentatious way, [at least] by our standards, so that was something that we didn’t mind. And Agnes O’Casey, the young girl, she’s very modern — she would’ve been quite comfortable walking down King’s Road in London in the mid ‘60s, but she’s got one foot in the old camp with the things that she grew up with, so she was joining the dots in a way between the past and the future and there was a bit of color coding there [too].

In the end, it came down to what was real as well, and what you can identify with as people wearing them. They’re all working class, but Maggie Smith’s [character] thought a bit more of herself, and would have dressed a little bit sharper, and put more money into it, despite not having much, and I’ve got to hand it to Kathy Bates. She looks quite frumpy in what we gave her, but she climbed into that costume and just absolutely loved [because] it just felt so real to her, so she was like a child in a sandbox.

Speaking of which, what was it like to get Kathy Bates and Maggie Smith up on stage to sing together?

Well, I just took a deep breath because that wasn’t in the original script that [Maggie had] been sent, so when that came up she didn’t say anything. She just said, “Yeah, I’ll just learn the lines. We’ll need a rehearsal for that.” And there’s never any time to do much rehearsal in these budgets, so we got the right people in a room, and we got to rehearse it, not for very long, but enough to make her feel reasonably comfortable and she was so game. And Kathy Bates, of course, is firing on all guns because she’s a good singer and everything, and [they] worked with Agnes O’Casey very well. Everybody liked each other, but Agnes and [Maggie] got on particularly well, and Laura is a very old friend of Maggie’s, so they were just happy to be together and and be self-supporting. Once we got shooting, it was an absolute joy.

In the press notes, it’s mentioned that the scene where Stephen Rea makes a stew for his family was largely improvised. What kind of latitude were you giving to the actors generally?

They only got in the room together alarmingly a week before we shot, so there was work to do on the script because we had conversations on the phone. But Maggie didn’t want to discuss the script [beforehand], so there was plenty to talk about when she actually got to Dublin. And we’d gone through different drafts, and they had different reactions to different drafts and [once] we met in that week before we shot, I did another draft so they were all comfortable and you have to have the script solid, but they loved the material, and they were very good at contributing.

With the men at home, the earlier drafts had all the men doing things that were more predictable and getting into getting into trouble and generally being absolute idiots, so I tried to give them a bit more character. And Stephen is a very charming man. When he [came on], we threw a lot of [the original script] out, and it was obvious that the children just loved being with him. They responded immediately to him, so he in turn then just built on that. And they were just bemused — didn’t know quite what to make of him — but we shot that and there was no sense of where to put the camera or cut around. [The family] were just having a stew, which they didn’t want to have and then they felt sorry for [the dad], and [Stephen] slipped in a thing then about the mother being away, so the kids then were able to be sympathetic. [There’s another scene] where he’s carrying a bag of groceries and his daughter comes out and they have a little exchange in the street and it’s quite funny, so when we handed Stephen the string bag of groceries, he looked at it and he says, “Is this for my stew?” And I said, “Yes, exactly, you’re going to make stew of it.” And he said, “There isn’t a turnip in there. [laughs] And I have to say, “It’s all right. We’ll get you a turnip on the day. Can we just shoot the scene?”

Sounds like he made a meal of it in an entirely different way. From what I understand, you were actually able to shoot the bath scenes in Lourdes on the final day of shooting. Was it special having the emotional climax actually happen at that point in the schedule?

Well, very special because it was originally at the front of the film, and we built the sets, but the scenes [themselves] that were going to take place in the baths I wasn’t happy with, so we moved the baths to the end of the schedule and in the course of the filming we rewrote the bath scenes entirely. Originally, Maggie Smith and Laura would go to the baths the first time, and not go and that was the last we saw of the baths. But I wanted them to go back because it was going to be the beginning of the last act really and we hadn’t got the script for it, so I got Tim Prager to work on that while we were shooting. And then Tim came up with these fantastic short scenes in the baths and I was glad we’d pushed it to the end.

And certainly the emotional journey they’d been on, it was easy to see how these scenes were going to work and we had to shoot those scenes terribly, terribly quickly when you consider the who they were and the production issues of water and the emotion [of the scene] and all of that. But they knew exactly what they were doing and it was just a question of going and doing it. But they were consummates and actors of that caliber put a lot of thought into it. It’s gold dust because they have real actors’ minds, and they interpret characters in a way which the rest of us can only dream about.

The thing that myself and [the screenwriter] Tim Frager used to talk about all the time, because he’s been to Lourdes a lot, [was] the Lourdes effect, which is to say people who weren’t believers would go to Lourdes, and they’d they’d be quite overwhelmed by the mood of those people who are dedicated to the whole thing of Our Lady and the Holy of Miracles and to see that spiritual engagement was very moving for people who are often non-believers. So we talked a lot about that when we were working on the script and how the women [in the film] went with a lot of attitude about this or that or the other, but in the end it’s being there that makes a difference. I saw it as a kind of rogue movie, [where] they have to leave the past behind in order to get somewhere, but of course when they get there, they find the past catches up with them, like any good rogue movie. I was thinking of “Thelma and Louise,” weirdly — getting out of the house, getting rid of the husband, getting rid of the kids, [going] out and confronting yourself and seeing what would happen, and the Lourdes effect was what happened for them, just being there. We didn’t make a big thing out of it. It’s just they are in Lourdes and they do change and we let the audience put the two and two together.

What’s it like getting to the finish line with this?

Well, it was a very, very hard thing to do. I won’t say it wasn’t and I didn’t know what we had. I thought the actors were amazing in that sense, because we were all a bit in the dark [with] the drama/comedy tone, whether we’d ever get that right, and that sense of the past — would we have to flashback, which I didn’t want to do, or would those key scenes do the job. I never knew if any of those things were going to work, and I didn’t until we had began to have test screenings. But it was awe-inspiring to be around those people.

“The Miracle Club” opens on July 14th in select theaters. A full list of theaters across the country can be found here.

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