“During the first few months of the pandemic, I think everybody was in a state of disarray wherever they were in the world. There was a commonality that instantly connected you.”
In Nothing Compares, director Kathryn Ferguson tells the story of iconic singer-songwriter Sinead O’Connor, combining the artist’s own words, and the words of those around her, with a visual tapestry of archive footage. We spoke to Kathryn about the experience of directing Nothing Compares — which has been nominated for three BIFAs including Best Debut Director – Feature Documentary.
From the way COVID influenced the film’s approach, to the process of funding, editing and archive research, read our full interview with Kathryn Ferguson below.
I’d love to know a little bit about how you first decided that you wanted to make this film.
Kathryn Ferguson: Well, going right back, I was very lucky that my father introduced me to Sinead O’Connor when I was very young. When The Lion and the Cobra came out, I must have been about five. He spent the following years playing it on repeat as we drove around Northern Ireland, often with the rain pelting on the windows… It became this very visceral cinematic soundtrack to my early childhood.
I was a young teenager when her second album came out, and it felt like I rediscovered her on my own two feet. My friends and I felt like we could really see her, and hear what she had to say, as well as appreciate her amazing music. She became this musical god that we hugely admired, and we were very proud that she was from our own island.
To then witness this person we adored being absolutely destroyed and humiliated for speaking out about things that were so deeply important – that had a huge impact on me, and created a bit of a dent. Really, I suppose, the seeds for the film were sown at that very important moment of my life.
And then you discovered filmmaking?
Kathryn: I became a filmmaker in my twenties. I made a film called Máthair, which is Irish for mother, as my Masters graduation project. It’s an experimental short, but really it was starting to delve into a lot of the themes that we touch upon in Nothing Compares.
From the very get-go of making this short, I had it in my head that I’d love to use Sinead’s music to create an experimental score that would sit alongside the film. That’s when I first reached out to her team, asking: ‘Would there be any possibility of me please getting access to her musical stems so I could deconstruct them and create this score?’
They thankfully agreed. I sent them the short once I’d graduated, and two years later they asked if I would direct a music video for Sinead’s song 4th and Vine. Meeting her was obviously astounding, and exciting, and all the things that I had dreamed it would be. It stoked the fires further, in that I just remembered all of the feelings I’d had as a young teenager, and how uncomfortable it had all made me. Now that I’d found this medium of film, and I was able to try and express myself through my work, I thought, ‘My goodness, I have to try and tell this story if I can’.
I’d been working in shorts, music videos, fashion, and advertising. I’d certainly never got close to a feature documentary before. So, it felt like a huge mountain that I needed to try and climb to get anywhere close. It did take a few years of talking about it to anyone that would listen. Then , I met the film’s co-writers, and co-producers, Michael Mallie and Eleanor Emptage. I’d met my team, and we were equally as passionate and committed to telling this story. So, we decided to jump in together and give it a go.
How was the process of getting the project greenlit?
Kathryn: We put together a one-pager, which I then brought back to Sinead’s team, who I’d kept in touch with since the music video. They agreed for us to go and see what we could do. I think the timing and the political climate was hugely relevant. It was early 2018, and it really felt at that point like the world was on fire. Particularly with regards to women using their voices to speak out. We’d just had #MeToo, Weinstein, TIME’S UP, and in Ireland we had the equal marriage referendum, and we were gearing up towards our own abortion referendum. There just seemed to be so many things happening, but Sinead wasn’t mentioned in any of it. Yet I was very curious to find out how many of the young activists that were actually pushing things forward, and making a direct change, were in fact inspired by her. It turned out that many, many were. So, I think that was why it was initially greenlit by her team.
What about funding?
Kathryn: We wanted to remain independent throughout the process. So, we reached out and applied for all the national funds, Northern Ireland Screen and Screen Ireland. Then we began doing public pitching forums. We went to CPH:FORUM in Copenhagen, and the BFI Doc Society got involved straight after that. Then another big partner, Field of Vision in New York came onboard a few years in.
We were able to keep it incredibly independent, and work with these amazing not for profit organisations who really believe in filmmaking. The whole process of getting the green light, and getting partners onboard, took about two years from start to finish.
How did you find it moving from the world of shorts, music videos and commercials to making a feature doc?
Kathryn: On the other side of the mountain, it probably felt quite huge, and very hard to picture how I would be able to do it. What I had been doing for many years was looking at women’s stories, and how to elevate women’s voices. Even within my shorts it was a constant theme that I was going back to. So, in terms of my subject matter I was very confident with what I wanted to say.
In between the shorts I made and Nothing Compares, I made two slightly longer docs. A 20-minute doc called Taking the Waters, about a community of wild sea swimmers in post-Brexit Margate, and that was a fantastic stepping stone in many ways, and I was able to show that film whilst we were applying for funding. It was certainly a jump on from the very short pieces that I’d been making.
The Guardian then commissioned me to do another 20 -minute doc about a radical women’s centre in Belfast in a loyalist area. That again was another stepping stone of being able to go slightly bigger, mid-tier I suppose, in the storytelling.
I think a huge part of making the feature was having a phenomenal team around me - I wasn’t in a room on my own, hidden away trying to do this, we were able to communicate and discuss all of our ideas and work through this tremendous story together. It was the support of the team that meant that I could actually make the move to the next stage.
As a director, how did you go about establishing trust and connection with your contributors? You had a connection with Sinead already, but equally I felt an openness with the others too.
Kathryn: We did have a contributor wishlist as long as my arm of people that we originally thought would be relevant to tell this story. However, as we got into the film and the edit, it became very obvious that in order to keep the intimacy of the narrative, accessing very personal insights from the people that were there was the way to go.
COVID happened in the middle of our production, which maybe did change the way we worked. We had planned to go out and sit with these people, meet them, and get to know them, but that obviously just fell away as it did for everybody. We had to rely on Zoom, and tried to make things work in that way. Something about Zoom dissolved any social anxieties that might have been there if we’d had very formal sit down interviews. During the first few months of the pandemic, I think everybody was in a state of disarray wherever they were in the world. There was a commonality that instantly connected you.
So do you talk to your contributors just the once?
Kathryn: It just depends who it is. Chuck D, yes, definitely once! Of course, friends and family of Sinead that were there were different – we’d start with phone calls first, get to know them a bit. A lot of time was spent finding out how comfortable people felt, and what they felt they had to share that was worth putting in the film. It certainly wasn’t an instant yes for a lot of them.
Extending that thought to Sinead, how did you go about collecting your interviews with her?
Kathryn: We only did the one interview with Sinead, and it was at the end of 2019, over a long weekend in Dublin. I suppose, maybe back then we thought we would go back and get more — and then COVID happened a few months later so we used what we got in that one sitting.
We weren’t even sure, when we started the film, if we definitely needed a contemporary interview, because there was so much out there that had been recorded. As we started to lay down the edits it became more apparent that to have her telling her own story in hindsight would really help glue the whole thing together, instead of us trying to do a bit of a Frankenstein patch of lots of interviews.
I think also because her voice is so drastically different from when she’s young. It’s a lot deeper. We tried to make it a very defined separation between the two times.
Did you plan to include interview footage of contemporary Sinead, or did you know you were just going to use her voiceover?
Kathryn: No, we’d never planned to film her. With being so focused on 1987 to 1993, it was really important that the film be immersive. We just didn’t want contemporary talking heads, or footage, or obs docs style filming of her dragging you in and out. It was also very much that we wanted you to hear her.
A key thing for me was that I feel the media have done such a fantastic job of being very reductive of her voice, and of all that she has to say. So, her voice in this film had to be the key take away, the key character that you really honed in to, and that she could speak, uninterrupted, for 97 minutes — it just became almost like a conceptual part of the film.
Then, of course, we do show Sinead performing in 2020 at the very end of the film to show her amazing survival as an artist and a performer. It was very important to see her today and not leave her in that era.
Thinking about all of the archive footage, how did you get to get access to everything — and how did you find that process as a director?
Kathryn: It was very enjoyable. Using little pockets of funding, we were able to work with archive producer Jo Stones. She would do a few days at a time and just keep digging and digging. By the time we started the edit, we had so much footage there after years of Jo’s work.
A lot of the work up until that point had been through traditional routes. Going through archive houses all over the world, and gathering up everything that existed. It was only then when we started to meet the contributors that we were able to find the gems that appear in the film, such as the wedding, or the rehearsal footage. All of this footage came from talking to people. Somebody would say, ‘Oh, you need to talk to Mikey somewhere in America. I’m sure I heard that he’s got a box of tapes in his cupboard...’ This kept happening, and we’d go on this wild goose chase to try and uncover these never seen before gems!
For someone as famous as Sinead was and is, there wasn’t masses of footage of her from that era. There were lots and lots of TV shows which we’ve used. Not very many concerts. Lots of photography. Very little B-roll, or anything that felt more candid. So, being able to find these home videos and never-seen-before snippets, it was like digging for gold. It was so exciting. They all came very late in the day, and then we were asking “can we justify re-editing this whole section to squeeze this in?”…we all agreed yes every time.
I felt there was a real synergy between the words that we were hearing from the disembodied voices of your contributors. I was wondering about your vision there?
Kathryn: I just think for me it was about creating a visual tapestry. Sinead’s music videos were hugely influential and important to the style. The incredible John Maybury, who shot many of her music videos during that era, is an incredible director himself. Sinead and John were totally intertwined in my eyes, so there always had to be an element of homage to what he’d shot.
There’s an awful lot of different formats within our film, all from different sources. About 30% of the film we shot ourselves, and then 70% is made up from all of these other sources. I suppose it’s also pretty era-specific too, like the shots on VHS cameras, or 16mm. We were restricted to the footage we had, and that was frustrating for me sometimes. But, there just wasn’t anything else that we could use, and that’s a fact with documentaries. I just wanted it to feel that we really were able to capture her essence.
There were elements of the story that we had to recreate, even though I don’t like that word. I see them more as dream sequences. It was my interpretation of what I was hearing, as opposed to me saying ‘this is exactly what happened’. It was me going off to try and create the world that Sinead was describing in her interview.
How did you approach the edit?
Kathryn: Our editor Mick Mahon was in Cork and I was in Margate, we had to work remotely because we were in lockdown. I was making my first feature, and it was all completely new to me. I think because I hadn’t done it any other way I really loved the process.
We would talk madly at each other for two hours every morning about everything: theoretically, visually, everything we hoped for the narrative, and for the film. We would just talk it out. Mick would go off for the day, edit away, and every night he would send me a version of the cut, or a section, or something that we’d discussed. We just kept building blocks like that.
We did come together for a couple of extended blocks. The visual side of it all, where we were able to be more experimental, we needed to do that together. That was too hard to communicate across a screen. We just needed to be there and have fun with it.. I really loved editing like that.
We’re actually about to start a new project, and we’re going to go remote again. I think it gives editors freedom to be able to go and put their mark on it first. Then you can come back and go through it, work out exactly what it is that you’re trying to do. I think having that degree of separation, especially in the early stages of an edit, means you can get it laid down, you can look at what you’ve got objectively, and then dive in together when you’re in person.
COVID impacted directors greatly, so many have found and embraced new ways of working...
Kathryn: I had my first baby in the middle of it all. Ellie had hers a year later. So, we were trying to juggle new babies, edit, COVID, all of this together. We weren’t having to schlep into London to just sit in edit suites pointlessly. We were able to make it work for us and our families.
Congratulations on your BIFA nomination in the Best Debut Director – Feature Documentary category. How does it feel to be nominated, and why are the BIFAs important for the filmmaking community?
Kathryn: Shell-shocked is how I felt when I heard about all of our nominations. I don’t think we expected one, never mind three! We were just so thrilled. Recognising how important independent filmmaking is is what BIFA is all about, so it just feels marvellous. I’m also really excited for all the other nominees. I know a lot of them, because we’ve all been on the same wild journey for the last few years — we’re all thinking ‘how have we ended up here with our strange passion projects’!