San Luis Obispo International Film Festival executive director Skye McClennan opened the festivities Thursday by talking about how films help people hear each other’s stories — and Ghostlight, the opening presentation, perfectly encapsulated that idea.

The screening presented an entryway into the 30th anniversary edition of the festival, which will also include appearances by Josh Brolin, Heather Graham and Beau Bridges, as well as a new Community of Skate celebration with a focus on skateboarding, to match SLO’s long-running Surf Night that celebrates surfing onscreen.

Guided by Ghostlight

Ghostlight is about a middle-aged construction worker (Keith Kupferer) in the midst of a family crisis who is invited by a new friend named Rita (Dolly De Leon) to join a production of Romeo and Juliet. It takes him far out of his comfort zone, but the experience helps him reconnect with his daughter and wife, played by Kupferer’s actual daughter and wife, Katherine Kupferer and Tara Mallen.

A ghostlight, the film’s writer and co-director Kelly O’Sullivan, explained in a post-screening Q&A Thursday, is the single light that remains in a theater when all the others have gone out. “And that’s for practical reasons, but also, it’s said that it’s to appease the ghosts of the theater… It’s to light the way for the ghosts of the theater to honor them.” 

The metaphor becomes clear by the end of the film, which debuted at Sundance earlier this year and is now making a festival run before its release by IFC Films in theaters this June.

O’Sullivan, who directed the film with her husband, Alex Thompson, wrote it with Keith Kupferer in mind — and then realized his family shared his talent. Katherine Kupferer plays the angry but talented teenager Daisy, and Tara Mallen plays her mother, who feels blocked out.

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“He and I did a play together 10 years ago, and I knew that he was amazing, because I got to see him act every night,” she said. “And once we cast him, he had a daughter who was in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. And he wrote us an email, and he was like, ‘She’ll kill me if I don’t ask if she can audition.’ And so then she did a reading for us. And she just sort of was Daisy. She walked in, and she was like this little mini version of Keith. She had all of his anger and attitude. We were like, God, she’s perfect. 

“And then we knew Tara from the Chicago theater scene. She runs a theater company called Rivendell, and is an incredibly respected Chicago theater actor. And so with the help of our casting agency, PR Casting, they were like, ‘Why don’t you just cast this whole family?’… And we got to harness their actual chemistry on screen, which is pretty cool.”

O’Sullivan had the idea for the film during pandemic lockdowns, “when I was, I think, along with everybody, feeling a lot of loneliness, and really desiring a community.”

“And I’m also a Chicago theater actor. And so I was thinking about my community of actors who will probably never be famous, but who do it sort of for the love of it. And it sort of sprung from there. And then I saw a trailer — the National Theatre of London had pivoted to do a filmed version of Romeo and Juliet,” she said.

“And I saw the trailer for that and I just started spinning in my head this idea of a man who needs a place of expression, and the play Romeo and Juliet forcing him to confront something in his own life. It really sprung from there.”

Main image: Dolly De Leon and Keith Kupferer in Ghostlight, the opening night film of the San Luis Obispo Film Festival. IFC