30 March 2023 The Irish Film & Television Network
“The film is ultimately about the shared experience of wonder - it was really important that people's individual sense of wonder came through;" director Tadhg O’Sullivan discusses To The Moon
03 Dec 2021 : Nathan Griffin
Tadhg O'Sullivan's To The Moon
A poetic and cinematic ode to Earth's nearest neighbour, To the Moon is the latest feature project from filmmaker Tadhg O’Sullivan.

Made primarily from international cinematic archive in combination with literary fragments and original moonlit cinematography filmed across five continents, To The Moon steps lightly through the ages and ideas that people have drawn from the moon to meditate on the fragile and fleeting nature of humanity.

An essay film, To the Moon does not seek (nor could it ever achieve) a total cultural history of its subject. Rather it weaves its stories and fragments into a thread that serves as a guide across unexpected and magical terrain. Following the cyclical structure of one complete lunar phase, the film moves through its themes, combining an associative freedom with a controlled narrative style.

We spoke with writer, director, and editor Tadhg O’Sullivan, to find out more about skillfully crafting this incredibly collaborative piece, which is currently on screen in IFI, Light House, Pálás Galway, and Triskel Christchurch Cork.

Produced by Clare Stronge (The Farthest, Shooting The Mafia), To The Moon is supported by the Arts Council, Screen Ireland, and Arte – La Lucarne Ireland. Eclipse Pictures is handling the distribution.

It's been a long road since finishing the film - like so many film-makers I worried that the events of the last 18 months had killed off the possibility of a cinema release, so I'm really delighted to have the film on the big screen now,” O’Sullivan told IFTN. “Every film-maker wants their work to play on the cinema, and I'm no different - what is slightly different is that To the Moon is all about the shared experience of looking, so finally having a room full of people gazing up at the screen together is really great.

The film has deservedly earned some significant accolades including Best Irish Film at the Dublin Film Critics’ Awards following its screening at the Dublin International Film Festival. “The DIFF programme is always excellent, and the Irish films there are usually the best Irish films released in a given year,” said O’Sullivan. “So to be selected by the critics from a really strong field is wonderful, and very gratifying. I really like that the award doesn't distinguish between drama and documentary too - it's just about cinema, which is how it should be I think.”

The film is centred around the universal experience of looking at the moon, something the director took time to establish a clear, definitive approach. “It took me a surprisingly long time to figure out what now seems a very obvious structure: framing the film as a lunar cycle with phases and themes,” O’Sullivan explained. “Once I thought of that the project really opened up for me: with any non-narrative film there is a need for some kind of structure, however subtle.”

“Paradoxically, having such a structure is incredibly liberating, allowing the vastness you mention to be given the freedom it requires,” he continued.

The film makes use of archive material sourced from 130 films across 25 countries. During the project, O’Sullivan worked with 34 induvial archive researchers around the world as well as a number of leading national film archive institutions.

As such, human collaboration acted as the cornerstone to telling this deeply human story and make this project a possibility. “Having previously made films with very small teams, this business of working with dozens of people around the world was both new and slightly terrifying,” O’Sullivan admitted. “What I found worked was avoiding being prescriptive and instead talking to everyone involved about the themes, tone and atmosphere of the film and encouraging them to find their own creativity within that.

“The film is ultimately about the shared experience of wonder - it was really important that people's individual sense of wonder came through, whether they were searching archives, writing music or filming a moon-rise in New Zealand,” O’Sullivan explained.

The film also features original footage from 14 cinematographers working across five continents over a number of years. O’Sullivan selected the collaborators, who were left to work independently after the director briefed them on what the director wanted. “In most cases I worked with people whose work I admired - artists like Margaret Salmon, Joshua Bonnetta, Scott Barley, Jimmy Gimferrer,” said the director. “In others, we found people in interesting places who seemed to get what we were up to.”

“In each case it was about asking them to find that sense of wonder I mentioned, in their locale. I showed them images I liked, or poems or paintings - gave them a sense of tone and atmosphere and hoped that they got it,” O’Sullivan continued. “For the most part they really did, and delivered work that I would never have thought of, had I been there on their shoulder. 

When asked about the process of remote collaboration, O’Sullivan was hugely positive about the experience on the film. I really loved it. I think communicating with really wonderful people through the creative process is a remarkable way to get to know people,” he explained.

The brief requested that the landscapes chosen to accompany the moon were timeless. Why was this important to you? “A central idea of the film was to draw out the universality of the moon and moonlight in the human experience - that universality is across space (the moon in Japan is the same moon we see in Ireland), but it is also across time: the moon we will see tonight is the same as the moon seen by people reaching back to the beginnings of humanity,” O’Sullivan explained. “I really wanted this connection though time to be present in the film and so avoided shooting in cities, choosing landscapes that would be familiar to the countless human experiences that stretch back through the ages.”

The film was shot on 16mm, something the director said was also a concerted effort to create an air of timelessness to the visuals. “For me, 16mm film has a look that is not bound up with our present moment,” O’Sullivan told IFTN. “Intercutting between 'new' material on 16mm and archival sources from fifty years ago creates no jarring disparity between past and present, which allows the film as a whole to exist outside of our particular moment.”

Alongside writing and directing, O’Sullivan also edited the project with help from assistant editor Jack Lunt, who helped him organise and structure the vast amounts of source material made available for the film . “Jack was a wonderful collaborator on the film, helping me organise the vast source material and doing some really vital archive research too,” said O’Sullivan. “Because we had a structure from the outset, which matched certain themes (love, death, madness, etc) with phases of the moon it was relatively straightforward to organise the material, and to work on small sections within particular themes before assembling everything into a single film.

“That said, there is no substitute for simply knowing the material, and holding it all in your head while working, which is hard to ask someone else to do,” O’Sullivan admitted.

In terms of what is next for the multidisciplined filmmaker, the past 18 months have not been a quite affair for O’Sullivan who has kept busy during the pandemic. “Lockdown was strangely productive and 2021 has been a really busy year,” O’Sullivan told IFTN. “I've been working as Film Artist in Residence at UCC, made work for Lyric FM, Cork Midsummer, and shot a new feature. Next year will be taken up with the edit on the feature, which I'll be back to tell you about then.”

To The Moon is currently screening in the IFI, Light House, Pálás Galway, and Triskel Christchurch Cork.

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