Of being timely and timelessness. Looking up To the Moon, Interview with Tadhg O’Sullivan

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This past week Bucharest has had some great moons, and as the recently screened To the Moon (2021) suggests, so it may have also been elsewhere. Many of us have been looking at different skies, but at the same beguiling orb. I caught myself doing exactly what director Tadhg O’Sullivan pointed out to me we often do, which is, when we’re particularly mesmerised by something, the instinct is to want to share those images with others. I instinctively sent a few messages to my loved ones to look out the window, to the moon.

To the Moon (2021) celebrates the satellite as a catalyst for human imagination, exploring the many meanings it has taken across cultures and across time. Just like Debussy’s Claire de lune that we’re quick to recognize playing, the film is much like a poetic trance, a meditative cinematic essay on the more luminous but also darker qualities of the heavenly body, structured in nine chapters around its phases, from full moon to full moon again. Collected images and lunar-themed sounds and texts take us around the Globe in an ode to the communion-like feeling the moon incites in us, but also seemingly celebrating cinema as a collaborative effort. There is much archival search and work behind the film and there are fragments of original footage, some filmed by the director himself and some commissioned from other filmmakers around the world, as well. A mix between iconic imagery (such as excerpts from Dreyer or Murnau) and lesser known – yet equally splendid – pieces of art (image, songs, literature), To the Moon is an occasion for new discoveries as much as for reflection. Tadhg O’Sullivan excels at creating a sense of melancholic familiarity, one perhaps like the moon itself, an object so obviously familiar to us all, yet always so distant and mystical, beckoning in the night sky and inspiring us one generation after the other.

We sit with the director and discuss what it is that inspired him and how the moon fascination can bring us together.

Most times it feels like the moon is the most perfect object of contemplation. It encourages many poetic feelings, let’s say. Maybe as if the night sky was made for humanity to look up to. This gesture of looking up to the sky also seems essential to your film. What is it about the moon that you found fascinating?

I think wonder in the natural world is something that really captures our imagination, and, even as we get older, we can never get sick of it. The moon is one of these things, possibly the one which most perfectly encapsulates that idea. Even after years of seeing the moon in various guises, it would take someone with an incredibly stony heart to look out their window, see a giant golden moon rising over the skyline and not be struck by some sense of wonder. It is also something we share with almost everybody that is alive in the world, no matter where they are. And we share it with everybody who’s ever lived, as well. Universality was something that really just caught my imagination and led me down countless rabbit holes of investigation, whether through the history of cinema or through literature or sound, poetry, mythology etc. from all over the world.

That sense of shared experiences and shared joy is also something that I think every society features and places prominently in their culture. There’s a huge part of the moon that articulates that. If you’re walking down the street with someone and you see a giant moon hanging between the buildings, the first thing you do is hit the person next to you on the shoulder and say “Wow, look at the moon, it’s beautiful”. So, looking together is something that is as timeless as our experience of the moon. And for a cinema full of people to watch a film about the moon together is something that I really looked forward to when I started making the film.

Does this universality, this sharedness of experience translate to how you see cinema, as well? There is a lot of bringing together that your film does. It feels like a celebration of cinema, but more specifically a celebration of how universal cinema can be, at times.

It’s a funny thing. I started making this film around the beginning of 2017 and I finished it in 2020. So, maybe the film, in a funny way, has become very timely, because it explores this collective sense of wonder at a time when we’ve realised we shouldn’t take shared experiences for granted. And cinema, in particular, is this amazing space where we share that awe with loved ones, friends, but also with a collection of strangers.

Ultimately, that’s what the film is all about. How the sense of communion that you can have with a person you don’t know much about can be quite profound. Something that can bring us together as a society in an increasingly fractured and fragmented world is really important. I’m not trying to say that my films can change the world, at all, but that it’s worth acknowledging that creating spaces where we share the wonder, together, as humans, is incredibly important. And that film can do that I think is something that we would do well to remember, in an era of conversations within the industry as to whether cinema is going to live on in a world of streaming services and big televisions at home and all that kind of thing.

In many ways the moon is one of the most iconic images of cinema – we all remember Méliès’ moon, for example. Was your intention to pay homage to certain images from cinema history?

Yes and no. When I first sat down thinking about whether you could make a film that is drawn from cinematic archives and that explores the moon and moonlight, it didn’t take long to come up with a list, drawing on my own cinema knowledge and my own memory of films that I’ve seen over the years. You do think of these iconic images, you think of Méliès, obviously, but you also think of E.T. and all sorts of things. But at a certain point the question is, are you simply representing great moon imagery from the history of cinema and saying to the audience “Hey, look at all these great things” or are you doing something more authored? Are you making your own film that needs to be a coherent kind of essay around some aspect of the moon?

For me it was more important that I make something new and original, that went beyond the source material. Something that, absolutely, presented these beautiful things, but which is in the service of a broader point. What I was interested in was to explore the ways in which the moon has served as a canvas for the human imagination. The film became not a film about the moon, but a film about the human imagination, reaching back centuries and through the history of cinema, but also reaching back to Greek writing, to Romanian mythology, to Irish lullabies and so on.

Rather than go for that clip where Elliot and E.T. fly past the moon on their bicycle, I also thought it’s more interesting to find less well-known clips that really just demonstrate the power of imagination. Overall, as an artist I am really interested in creating a space where my work is in dialogue with all the other people, living and dead, whose work I draw on in order to create something that is a celebration of both their work and my work, but that is also something new for the viewer.

Could you develop on that idea of the moon as a canvas?

The connection that can have with cinema is really interesting here because, in the end, the moon is simply a silver reflective surface, for the sun and its light, but that we also use to put our imagination onto. And that’s what a cinema screen is. Cinema screens are not themselves very interesting, what’s interesting is that they are spaces onto which we project this amazing art that is film. And so with the moon, as well. It’s like a timeless, ancient cinema screen, onto which people since the dawn of humanity have projected their ideas about everything from love to madness, to death, to rebirth to the connectedness of the cosmos.

Your film feels like a collective experience also in terms of how it was made, given that you commissioned work from some filmmakers all around the world. How much of an essential process was it to collaborate with others?

As I was suggesting, early in the film I felt I needed to bring something to the project that was new. Like a dialogue is a dialogue if only both parties are speaking. I felt that I needed to speak my part, and the way to do that was to film things in the world now, material that expresses something about our moment, but that wasn’t necessarily rooted in our present, something that could also exist outside time. I also wanted to film in different parts of the world – it’s not a dialogue if it’s just only Ireland talking to the world, either. So I started looking at different filmmakers, in Scotland, in the States, In Italy, in China, in India, a total of 25 countries, people that I could approach and that I could ask to go out into their world and show me what the moon looked like in their landscape, or what it meant to them, based on paintings or pictures or poems that Iiked and that I would send them. I’d look at the footage they’d send me via a laboratory for processing and more often than not it was beautiful. For the most part people threw themselves into the work and loved the idea of expressing for me what they thought was beautiful about the moon, it was again that sharedness of wonder.

How do you see these segments of recent work interacting with the others? It feels like a dialogue, but a very subtle one, in the sense that everything feels like it belongs to the same fibre.

We decided to film them on 16mm because I think you can’t really tell if something on 16mm was shot yesterday or if it was shot fifty years ago. That’s quite unique to the medium. There are all sorts of wonderful digital technologies now for image capturing, and some of them are amazing, but they tend to be stuck in a particular time. In five years’ time, in twenty years’ time, they might look like and you might be able to tell they were shot in 2020. I wanted the new, original work to melt into the background, into the past, and not draw attention to itself as being about our present moment. With that in mind we shot on 16mm film, and to a large extent, I think people don’t really know which bits are archive and which are original, which is what I intended. It’s a beautiful medium for capturing that kind of timelessness, if that’s what you’re interested in, which I often am.

You mentioned you search for more perspectives rather than be in one place, which is something that seems to apply to some of your other films, as well, such as The Great Wall (2015). Is that something you pay attention to in your approach as a general thing, or is it something that depends from project to project?

I’d say there are two things that are common to almost everything that I do. The first is that I don’t really know what’s going to happen when I set out. If I knew, then the process of making the project doesn’t have a purpose – you’d just be exploring something that you already know. For me the creative process is the process of figuring out, of understanding and learning and of proceeding along a kind of curiosity. The other thing is that, as I was saying, I am slightly obsessed with this idea of timelessness. I am interested in things that can reach backwards and forwards. Things to be shared with people who are not with us anymore and things that would reach forward to those who will follow us. It’s not for me to say if I attain timelessness, but the great work that I love, whether it’s literature, cinema, or anything else, I feel they never go out of fashion. The stuff I loved ten, twenty years ago I still love, because there is that kind of timelessness that lifts them above their own present. And on some level, I suppose that is what I aspire to, as well.

So, then, this search for timelessness was also a criterion for the text you selected, as well. Because the texts you use do have a memorable quality to them. And it is indeed structurally important that the film is a great combination of filmed image and text, where they complete each other quite beautifully.

When I was looking for poetry and songs and literature that would work into the film, I was drawn to the things that I personally love. So I found myself reaching for Irish writers like Joyce and Beckett, whose work would subscribe to those timeless qualities. Particularly Beckett, he exists almost outside of time. Joyce is more rooted in a specific time, like how Ulysses is set on a particular day in 1904, but at the same time he also transcends time, in his genius way. But I think it’s simply a quality of great writing that it goes beyond time so, in a way, it’s something that came with the work that I wanted to use for the film anyway, without necessarily using it as a rigid criterion.

As much as Joyce and Beckett are instantly recognisable as Irish, I’d say Irishness in your film is more of a quiet presence. Some of the original work for the film is footage you shot yourself, in the county where you live in Ireland, but it all sits quietly with the other material.

There are filmmakers whose Irishness is quite obvious, I suppose, because they deal with Irish themes and Irish worlds, if you like. Whereas my work tends to look beyond this place, but also beyond a particular time, as we’ve discussed, searching for a dialogue with the wider world. However, being an Irish person, working in Ireland, that makes my work Irish, in a way. I do think there is the Irish landscape, the Irish relationship with nature, the Irish relationship with literature, particularly the poetic, that are prominent in my thinking. And I think that comes across in anything that I do. It is something that is there, but I guess I wear it lightly. I think that it’s important for any nationality, for any national culture, to simply look at what the people in that culture are making and redefine what their national culture is, maybe in response to that. I’m not saying that Irish culture should redefine itself, but that it’s important not to be so stuck on what Irish culture is – exactly because it can be so many things. For me Ireland is at its best when it’s reaching outward rather than looking inward. I guess I am part of a generation that would like to embrace that.

Speaking of that and, finally, looking to the future, there’s been a lot of promising work coming out of Ireland recently – the arts are having a bit of a boom, I would say. Is there any spirit of the times, or of a generation, that seems more poignant now?

A little, I don’t know. I think there’s one in recent Irish writing, where you have a generation that is younger than me, who came of age during a recession and a lot of the promises the capitalist boom made them when they were very young were broken or turned out to be absolutely hollow and empty. I think that experience has given that generation a healthy cynicism about the world they live in. And it’s led to some really remarkable work coming out of Ireland. I really admire that generation of writers because they’re not really looking for any permission to do what they’re doing. They simply get on with it. And they get really good support from funders, and the State, but they’re the ones doing the work.

I’ve also had the good fortune to be Film Artist in Residence at University College Cork this year, where I’ve had the occasion to work with master and undergraduate students there. What that generation is going to do in the next ten years, and not just in Ireland, but all over the world, is going to be great. They have grown up as totally native to video and they can just make imagery at the drop of their hat and it’s funny, or captivating, or compelling or beautiful. I think what they do as they get older is going to absolutely change what we understand cinema to be. I’m not that young anymore, and I’m not of that generation, but I’m really looking forward to see what they will get up to. I think we’re in a really healthy position that way.

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