Q&A with Kathryn Ferguson

The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Nothing Compares.

This is a somewhat personal film for you— and it’s your first feature. Can you discuss how you came to make this film?

Kathryn Ferguson: I grew up in Northern Ireland. My father, actually, was a huge fan of Sinéad’s in the late ’80’s, when The Lion and The Cobra came out, [Sinéad O’Connor’s] first album, and he introduced me to her then. I then became a bona fide fan on my own two feet in the early ’90’s, and in my early teens, and as soon as I felt that I had discovered her properly, and loved her, and appreciated everything she stood for… I was then very demoralized to witness how she was treated. So it made a huge dent, on me, as this young teenage Irish girl, thinking, “good God… this is seriously depressing!” This person that meant so much to me, and all my friends, is being treated in this way… it certainly wasn’t a great example of how things should go. And so, it made a dent. And then, in 2011, I was doing my masters at the Royal College of Art in London, and I had to make a graduation film. And I made a film called “Máthair,” which is Irish for “mother,” and it was starting to look at similar themes of control, of Catholicism, and of female identity in Ireland. And I reached out to her managers at the time, and said, “is there any way in hell I might be able to access the steams of Sinéad’s music?” Because I wanted to deconstruct them and to create a score from them. And — amazingly — they agreed! I made the short, and I sent it to them (which they liked), and then two years later they came back to me (in 2013), and asked me to direct the music video for Fourth and Vine, which I think was her first music video in fifteen years. So I then got to meet her, and I got to work with her, and with them… and that was really a very positive experience. And then, I suppose, this idea for this film… well, you know, the seeds were definitely sown in the ’90’s, when I was a young teenager, but then I just carried this with me throughout my entire 20’s and 30’s. And, basically, by 2018 I just felt an urgency to try and think about how I could bring this film to life. And the stars aligned, and I met the film’s co-producers and co-writers, [Michael Mallie and Eleanor Emptage], who were equally as passionate about her story as I was, and together we wrote a one-pager which I then brought to Sinéad’s team that I had already established a relationship with, and I think it was just that the timing was right, when I approached them. The world was kind of on fire in early 2018, we’d had to many things around women’s voices, and oppression, that had been in the news… from #metoo, to Trump being in power, and then — even in my own country — we’d had the equal marriage referendum, and we were gearing up for the abortion referendum. So much was happening at that time. And I think her team just agreed that it was an urgent story, and that it was absurd that her voice, and the recognition of her, of everything that she’d done, hadn’t been talked about, and wasn’t being talked about, particularly in Ireland.

I wanted to give her the platform that had been withheld from her previously

What were your initial conversations with Sinéad like? How did you gain her trust?

KF: I think it was very much to do with the organic process that we’d already had, leading up to the film. So it was to her team that I took the initial idea to, and they obviously they were very happy for me to go ahead. It took a few years, actually, to work out if we even could, given the funding and backers, given that I was a first-time feature director! I had a lot of people to convince that they could trust me with their money and with this story. So it took a long time, but by the time we got to do the interview with Sinéad in 2019, we were set. Everything was ready to go. Yeah, it’s bizarre (for something that should have been extremely impossible)… everything kind of just fell into place.

There is a tremendous amount of archival material in the film. How did you get your arms around such a huge amount of media?

KF: We watched and listened to hundreds of hours of media before we even got started, to be honest. Radio, television news, interviews, articles… everything. We really did a lot of research before we went near actually filming. And to be honest, we probably could have made the film without having a key interview, but what became apparent was that we just really needed a contemporary point of view from Sinéad herself, looking back on what had happened. So, we were really delighted to be granted that interview with her. I just think, really, for someone like her, whose voice has been so reduced in the past… it felt like a very strategic reducing of Sinéad’s voice across the media at the time… for me, having her tell her own story in a contemporary interview was just essential. I wanted to give her the platform that had been withheld from her previously. And the audience would just have to sit in a dark room and listen to her, because I feel that, so often, that’s what was taken away from her throughout the years. Whether through ridicule or reduction of what she’s saying. So it was important just to hear her. And that’s why using talking heads was never a question for me: I don’t want to see contemporary imagery that’s going to drag you out of her story and then throw you back into the time again. I wanted you [the audience] to be there, in 1987 to 1993, to be guided by what she was saying.