Thaddeus O’Sullivan: Ireland, Lourdes, & The Miracle Club
Set in 1967, The Miracle Club follows the story of three generations of close friends, Lily (Maggie Smith), Eileen (Kathy Bates), and Dolly (Agnes O’Casey) of Ballygar, a hard-knocks community in Dublin, who have one tantalizing dream: to win a pilgrimage to the sacred French town of Lourdes, that place of miracles that draws millions of visitors each year.
We sat down with Director Thaddeus O’Sullivan to talk about his Irish roots, a personal connection to Lourdes and the making of The Miracle Club.
Interviewed for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: Nothing ever happens super quick in Hollywood. I know that you were approached with this story about 15 years ago, then it was able to come back to you again. Talk to me about how your Irish roots helped develop The Miracle Club.
Thaddeus O’Sullivan: Well, I grew up in a very intensely Catholic household, and my parents were very devoted Catholic. My world was a Catholic world. The institutions I attended, wherever they were, were always run by priests or Christian brothers or nuns. First engaged with this film 15 years ago, whatever it was, and probably better able to do it now. That just says older and wiser and a better filmmaker probably than I was 15 years ago.
All that taken into consideration, it was a good time to make this film as well as I felt very comfortable making it. I felt it was a world I knew very well. I left Ireland actually in that period, which is why I wanted to set it there because it was a period that I had taken with me, if you like. It was interesting to then treat it as memory and see and put these people into these homes that I knew very well and examine these characters in that context. But obviously, to examine their journey, I saw it as a kind of a rogue movie. They leave their home, they get going, and they don’t know what’s going to happen. They know they’re going to go to Lourdes, but they don’t know what’s going to happen. It felt like that making it, that it was a kind of a rogue movie.
RM: Talking about these characters, their shoes are filled by Maggie Smith, Kathy Bates, Laura Linney, incredible actresses and talents. What was it like? How did you help direct their performances? Because so many times their emotion is felt just through their actions as well, because they’re so powerful storytellers.
TS: Exactly. Put your finger on it. They’re such great storytellers. That’s what actors do, but these do it to the power of a thousand, and so we were constantly stripping away lines, or the actor would say, I don’t need to say that, and I would agree. Together, they found they were so invested in the characters and they had such an instinct for the characters that they told those characters’ story because they understood it and they knew how to express it. They would offer up things to me as well. I would say that they would offer things to me and say, what about this? Would you like this? What about that? Would you like that?
Once we were on the set, and as you say, it took a long time to get this thing made, but once we got on the set, really the best thing that I could do would be to stand back and let them work and not get too involved with the directing, not be a director. The one thing I’ve learned over the years is you don’t direct. You put things together and then you put the actors in that space and you see what happens. If it starts to go wrong, you try and put it right. But if it’s going right, just let it go right. Leave it.
RM: I love that. That’s such a great philosophy. You’re steering the ship in the direction that it needs to go, which is…
TS: I think a lot of directors will say that. A lot of very, very experienced and much wealthier directors than me will say, oh yeah, I don’t do much of that. Unless you’re James Cameron or something.
RM: I was fascinated to find out that our Lady of Lourdes is an actual sanctuary in southwestern France, and people go there on pilgrimage and hold miracles and healings. This I understand actually has a pretty personal connection to your upbringing. Can you share a little bit about the trek and then how you related?
TS: Well, we grew up with it. Religious people made pilgrimages, but Catholics go to Lourdes or Fatima or Medjugorje or Knock in the west of Ireland. We grew up with all these places in our minds that were places where you went and expressed your faith and you went looking for a miracle maybe. Lourdes loomed large in our Catholic life. But you asked experience of it. Well, I didn’t go to Lourdes, but everybody had somebody in their family who went there for some reason. My mother and father went there, and the reason they went there was because my father had been very, very ill, and my mother had prayed and he had got better and she had prayed to Our Lady on his behalf, on her behalf praying for him.
He got better and she decided, I’m going to go to Lourdes and we’re going to say thanks. We’re going to go to Lourdes and express our joy and our thanks because our prayers were answered. She wouldn’t talk about a miracle. She never mentioned a miracle, but she would talk about the prayer. She would talk about, we prayed and he got better, and so I went to say thank you, and that’s what they did. It was great. They went to say thank you. They just went to pray and just be around and be inspired by their spirituality all around them.
RM: I love that. Then when you’re showcasing this on screen, what for you is the most meaningful part of capturing for that pilgrimage to Lourdes? Was it more the atmosphere or was it more like individual personal respects? Because each of the women had very different reasons for wanting to go, but it was so important and so personal to them.
TS: They didn’t really know the reasons they went until they got there, until Laura Linney’s character starts to stir things up and then the miracle begins to emerge out of the mist. But in answer to your question, the idea of Lourdes is an extraordinary thing for people who go there because in both believers and nonbelievers, it is a very spiritual experience, but particularly interesting, I think, for nonbelievers. So when they go there, the people I’ve spoken to find what people have called the Lourdes effect.
The sheer effect of being there puts you in touch with something that is surprising, spiritual moment that you have or that you engage with or something in your life that becomes a bit more meaningful just by being among all these people who are engaging with the world so spiritually. It’s not about miracles. It’s about people being together in that communal spirit and engaging with their religion, but also engaging with themselves, with their spirituality.
RM: Thank you so much for taking the time today. I love that the movie is able to showcase compassion and showcase forgiveness and showcase healing, but all in such an experiential way versus just being told that these things all happen in life, so thank you for that.