Dream big: ‘Ghostlight’ earns acclaim for Chicago filmmakers, acting veteran

Evanston actor Keith Kupferer, star of “Ghostlight,” the buzzy indie film that premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, knows lifetime opportunities are rare and good fortune is fleeting.

“My thought was this is my one shot, and luckily it’s with Kelly and Alex,” said Kupferer, referring to writer/co-director Kelly O’Sullivan and co-director/co-producer Alex Thompson, whose film has its Chicago premiere Friday, June 14, at The Music Box Theatre.

“I didn’t think that was ever going to happen for me,” said the actor, a Goodman, Steppenwolf and Rivendell veteran whose resume includes countless stage productions and more than two dozen films and TV series.

And if it all ends tomorrow? That’s OK, too.

It’s been quite a ride, he said of the experience, “the best of my career.”

Off-screen husband and wife Keith Kupferer and Tara Mallen play a couple on-screen in “Ghostlight,” a new film by Kelly O'Sullivan and Alex Thompson that premiered earlier this year at The Sundance Film Festival. The IFC Films release opens Friday, June 14, at Chicago's Music Box Theatre. Courtesy of Luke Dyra

Kupferer plays Dan, a suburban Chicago construction worker grieving the loss of his son, who finds solace performing in a community theater production of “Romeo and Juliet.” Kupferer’s real-life wife, actor/director Tara Mallen, plays Dan’s wife, Sharon. The couple’s daughter, Katherine Mallen Kupferer, plays Daisy, Dan and Sharon’s teenage daughter.

Had the Mallen Kupferer family not been available, O’Sullivan says she and Thompson still would have made the film.

“But I don’t think it would be nearly as good,” said the Chicago filmmaker and theater artist who wrote the role for Kupferer, who she met 10 years ago when they played father and daughter in American Theater Company’s production of “The Humans.”

O’Sullivan thought of her former castmate when she began writing the screenplay in 2021, a year into the COVID-19 pandemic. After reading the script, Kupferer requested an audition.

“There’s no need,” Thompson told him. “The role is yours.”

Keith Kupferer plays Dan and his real-life daughter, Katherine Mallen Kupferer, plays Dan's daughter Daisy in “Ghostlight,” which makes its Chicago premiere Friday, June 14. Courtesy of Luke Dyra

Soon after, Kupferer contacted the filmmakers mentioning his daughter wanted to be considered for Daisy.

“She loves the idea of cursing at us,” said Kupferer, laughing.

Happily following in her parents’ footsteps, Mallen Kupferer made her stage debut at 5 years old alongside her father in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s “Gypsy.” A rising junior at Evanston Township High School, Mallen Kupferer jokes that she is her parents’ retirement plan.

It didn’t take long for Thompson and O’Sullivan to recognize the family’s talent. But, said Thompson, “I don’t think we imagined they’d be as great as they are.”

The last to sign on, Mallen — founder and artistic director of Rivendell Theatre Ensemble (where Kupferer is an ensemble member) — compared the script to a beautifully written play.

“We’re really blessed,” she said.

Describing the experience as a gift professionally and personally, Mallen says the film inspires big conversations and does so with great humor, making it ideal for people coping with post-pandemic anger and grief.

“We all dance on the edge of laughter and tears all the time,” said Mallen. “We need to allow audiences to dance on that edge with us.”

Filmed last October on a shoestring budget in Waukegan, Highland Park, Deerfield and several other suburbs, “Ghostlight” is O’Sullivan and Thompson’s second feature film. Their first, 2019’s “Saint Frances,” was directed by Thompson and written by O’Sullivan, who also starred.

Chicago filmmaker Kelly O'Sullivan wrote and codirected the indie film “Ghostlight,” which premiered at The Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and opens in Chicago on Friday, June 14.

O’Sullivan can’t recall the point during production when she realized the film was lightning in a bottle. Instead she cites those moments — warm-up games, a table read — when everything clicked and scenes came alive.

“All these little magic moments together add up to lightning in a bottle,” she said.

Chicago filmmaker Alex Thompson codirected the indie film “Ghostlight,” which premiered at The Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and opens in Chicago on Friday, June 14.

Thompson was so optimistic, he all but guaranteed investors a Sundance premiere. O’Sullivan, worried overconfidence might jeopardize their chances, told him to bite his tongue.

“Being a screenwriter, you don’t want to toot your own horn,” she said. “I knew it was there on the page and I knew if we could get it on screen (the film) would be worthy of Sundance.”

With Mike Smith editing as they filmed, Thompson began sending scenes to Sundance.

Chicago actor Keith Kupferer plays a construction worker grieving the loss of his son who finds solace in community theater in the indie film “Ghostlight.” The IFC Films release has its Chicago premiere Friday, June 14. Courtesy of Luke Dyra

“That’s when I started thinking this is something special,” recalled Kupferer.

Four days after filming wrapped, Thompson sent in a rough cut of the film. Sundance officials asked them to trim it to under two hours. They did. And they were in.

“It’s a testament to Kelly’s script and these incredible actors,” Thompson said.

One thing more, he said, “it’s OK to dream big.”

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