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In Showtime’s Nothing Compares, co-writer and director Kathryn Ferguson presents a complex and at times tragic portrait of Sinéad O’Connor. The Irish singer-songwriter became a near-overnight international success upon the release of her 1987 debut album, The Lion and the Cobra — and her bold and brash outspokenness landed her squarely within the culture wars of the early ’90s when she gained infamy for ripping apart a photo of the pope during her musical performance on Saturday Night Live, which brought her career to a screeching halt.
Ferguson — who first responded to O’Connor as a fan, and later was asked to direct one of O’Connor’s music videos after completing a short student film in which she included the musician’s songs — provides a compelling origin story for her documentary subject, using O’Connor’s experience growing up within a repressed Irish-Catholic culture as context for the powerful rage and fury found within her songs. It was through music that O’Connor found her voice, and her ethereal vocals often softened the aggression of her lyrics. Her shaven head, too, became an instantly iconic look: It was transgressive for its militancy and its androgyny, and signified that O’Connor was an artist who had no interest in fitting in with the status quo.
While O’Connor topped the charts with her own original songs as well as her cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” she continued to poke at the powerful and the corrupt, onstage and off. And though the SNL performance may have derailed her mainstream career (and the film’s account ends there, rather than delving into the singer’s later mental health struggles), Nothing Compares shows that O’Connor is a survivor — and one who paved the way for other musicians and pop stars to speak out against injustice.
Ferguson spoke to THR about her lifelong connection to O’Connor and her personal despair during the singer’s public shaming, how she sought her out in order to share O’Connor’s story, and the challenges imposed upon her as a director when she learned that Prince’s estate would deny her use of one of O’Connor’s most popular recordings, referenced in the film’s title.
What was your introduction to Sinéad O’Connor?
I was introduced to Sinéad in the ’80s via my father, who was a mega-fan. I was still very young when The Lion and the Cobra came out in 1987, but he would play it on repeat as we were driving around the really miserable Troubles-ridden Northern Ireland. It became this visceral soundtrack to my childhood. I was a teenager in the early ’90s when I discovered her second album. My friends and I were Irish teenage girls, and we could really see her and hear her and understand what she stood for, everything she had to say and how she looked. The amazing thing is the music was what drew us [to her], but she became this amazing icon for us. But then we were really demoralized very quickly to see how she was treated, and to witness the backlash — to see this icon from Ireland [denigrated] by her own country. It was particularly raw. I honestly would say that’s where the seeds for the film were sown, because it made such a dent on [me at a] formative age. It was always something that really had shaken me up. It was really demoralizing … to see someone you look up to so much being absolutely publicly humiliated.
How did you connect with her as a filmmaker?
It was an organic journey to making this film. In 2011, I was [studying toward] a master’s degree at the Royal College of Arts in London, and we had to make a graduation film. I decided to make a weird, experimental, visually driven film that unpacks a lot of the things that are in the dark — Catholicism, namely, and its control over the women of Ireland. I reached out to her manager and asked if I could have access to her music, so I could deconstruct her songs for this experimental short. Thankfully, they agreed, and I then, out of courtesy, sent them my funny little film. I didn’t hear anything for maybe a year and a half, and they got back in touch then to say Sinéad was about to release a new single, called “4th and Vine,” and asked if I would direct the music video. That’s when I got to meet her, in 2012. It just stoked the fires further and made me remember why I was so obsessed with her as a teenager. And I also thought, “For goodness’ sake, why [is there not] a cinematic feature made about this incredible icon? This is madness.” I then spent the next five, six years talking to anyone that would listen about my desire to make a feature.
I brought that idea to her team in 2018, expecting a very polite “Thank you, but no.” I think it was the timing: There was so much happening regarding gender inequality. Trump was in power. We’d had #MeToo, Harvey Weinstein, all of that stuff happening in your country. In my country, we had the 2015 marriage equality referendum and were gearing up for our abortion referendum. It felt crazy that her voice wasn’t part of all this amazing activism. Thirty years ago, [she was] really kicking the door down — maybe not directly inspiring the people in 2018, but certainly indirectly she’s inspired many folks.
There’s a trend right now in which films and TV shows — for example, Framing Britney Spears and Pam & Tommy — are reexamining how the media treated female celebrities in the ’90s. Were you cognizant of that when you worked on the film?
We didn’t know about the other films until we finished our edits. There’s definitely a cycle, which is super interesting. I haven’t quite got there in my head yet to work out why they’ve all dropped at the same time. It wasn’t that I wanted to make a film about a musician — I wanted to make a film with her because of how she affected me as an Irish person. I’m very interested in women who put their head above the parapet and have been deemed too noisy or potentially too dangerous. It’s such a common trope that seems to happen again and again. There are so many women I admire that it happened to.
Both Peaches and Kathleen Hanna [say in the film that they] found it super demoralizing to see how she was treated, and they were obviously young artists themselves [at the time], wanting to break through as women. Just seeing somebody that they massively admired … Has it really changed today? Probably not, in some ways. I don’t think we’re in a much better position.
Especially when the media can fan the flames of a frenzy.
That burn-the-witch mentality, exactly. Over and over again. What was it about this young 24-year-old woman from Dublin that could cause so much of a stink? It’s kind of absurd.
The film ends with the backlash she experienced after her October 1992 appearance on Saturday Night Live. Did you consider delving into her life and career after that moment?
From the very first page, it was always ’87 to ’93. We never had any intention of doing a biopic, and the truth is out there. There are two parts to it, really: Sinéad has had such an unbelievably full life and continues to do so; to be able to put that into a 90-minute film is going to be an amazing feat, and my hat’s off to somebody who can achieve it. We always wanted to look at the cause and effect; we wanted to layer this foundational story of what happened [in her life] and why she did what she did. Her actions at the time were so bold and radical, and in many ways people didn’t really understand the messaging. And I think that’s part of the problem, particularly the Saturday Night Live appearance.
Have you heard from people who have seen the film and have changed their perspective about her, especially her SNL performance? The documentary provides a fuller picture than the imagery of her we still see from that era today.
It’s been amazing, the reaction. Of course there are the fans who are like, “I knew that!” But there are people who had, I suppose, dubious feelings about her at the time who come out [of the film] looking completely shell-shocked. And then we have young people, like 20 and below, who just come up to me absolutely galvanized, fists clenched. It’s so exciting to see a really bold woman, and it’s hard — it’s infuriating — to see how she was treated.
Prince’s estate didn’t grant you the rights to use “Nothing Compares 2 U” in the film. Was that disappointing for you?
At the end of the day, it’s their prerogative. What it did create was a fantastic creative challenge to keep the narrative beats of that section of the film, because that was such a crucial part for all of us. We had to work out how to keep the narrative and the emotion intact. Without music, it was a huge challenge. But what’s been fantastic is that so many people have said, because it’s such an iconic piece of pop art history, they hear it anyway.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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