profile of Morgan O'Sullivan
by Martin Duffy
Being an Irish film maker is like being a Tibetan scuba diver.
But we make our own reality, and Morgan O'Sullivan's career in film is
a perfect example of how working in film in Ireland can be an
intelligent business choice. Man Ray said that the world needs more
practical dreamers. Morgan is the quintessence of that combination. He
is one of those few people who set out in life with a vision, and he
has reached the point where the realisation of that dream is in view.
He has struggled past frustrations and remains disarmingly positive and
generous. He is a decent and devoted man - perhaps the key to his
success - and is one of the most significant contributors to the
existence of an Irish film industry. Most remarkable is the fact that
the roots of his story run deep to an Ireland long ago and far away....
Morgan was a child actor in the radio repertory company. He was
one of the cast on the radio serial 'The Foley Family', and worked
frequently in his youth for Radio Eireann - taking the bus from his
boarding school in Bray to the station's offices in the General Post
Office in Henry Street. By the time he left school he had decided on a
life in the entertainment industry. The problem with making such a
choice in Ireland in the 1960s became clear to him in the years that
His first job was with Rex Roberts Studios in Dublin, a company
making documentaries and commercials. He was a trainee; "my main job
was washing Rex's car," Morgan says with a smile. He went on to work
for Colm O'Leary as part of the team on the Gael Linn newsreel that was
shown weekly in Irish cinemas. He worked with cameraman Nick O'Neill.
The newsreel was edited each Tuesday, mixed that night, and screened in
cinemas from Friday. He went on to work for Peter Hunt as a sound
recordist. It was a thorough grounding in film making. But the
characteristic vision and focus led him to a simple conclusion.
"At that stage," he says, "I decided that there really wasn't a
future in the film making business in this country." Much as he
loved the business, he could not see how it would provide him with a
career and a living wage.
Morgan went back to broadcasting. He studied speech and drama,
did voice training, and started work as a freelance radio presenter and
interviewer with Radio Eireann. Despite being kept busy doing freelance
work as both radio presenter and sound recordist, Morgan's restless
spirit soon brought a new move.
In 1966, Morgan married and emigrated to Australia with his wife
Liz. For the following three years he had the opportunity to live as he
had dreamed - working as both a broadcaster and a film producer.
"Australia was just starting in the film industry and so the various
places I worked for - ABC and Channel Three and so on - allowed me to
make movies." Morgan enjoyed Australia and Australians - he enjoyed the
'can do' attitude that was so in keeping with his own nature.
But Morgan was drawn back to Ireland. He returned in 1969 and
settled into a career in broadcasting. He was successful, but he was
still haunted by the ambitions of earlier years; "It always nagged me
that we didn't have a film industry. Why did I grow up in a country
where I wasn't able to practise what I really wanted to practise and
everybody had to emigrate?"
Back in Ireland, he made friends who mentored his next phase:
Michael O'Herlihy, Frederick Forsyth, and Michael Burke. O'Herlihy was
an Irish film director, Forsyth a writer enjoying the tax shelter in
Ireland, and Burke a retired US adventurer and media businessman
As Morgan's broadcasting career flourished, he found a new way of
courting his first love. As a radio broadcaster, he made a series of
interviews with people in the American entertainment industry. It was a
shrewd move - delivering radio programmes while also providing himself
with the means to go to Los Angeles and study the film business. He did
a set of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock, and interviewed many US
celebrities including Raymond Burr and Neil Diamond. He met Lew
Wasserman, head of Universal Studios, and he absorbed knowledge about
how the industry worked.
"Over a period of four years I kept going back - doing the
interviews but also sitting in on script development meetings and
production meetings. The great thing about the Americans is that they
love you to succeed. So I was welcomed and encouraged."
Morgan was particularly fascinated by the development process. He
frequently sat in on script meetings, and learned about what he calls
the US flair for 'visual dramatisation'.
"America has very few traditions, but one of them is film
making," he says. "It's why I love America so much - they really have
mastered all aspects of the industry from development through
production into marketing."
A seminal event for Morgan was his going to Hawaii to do a
television documentary about the hugely successful TV series 'Hawaii
5-O'. Michael O'Herlihy was directing the episodes. Morgan saw the
impact on the island of having a series that gave it such a profile,
and he wondered how Ireland might produce such a series.
Based on all this exposure to the US movie world, Morgan decided
that he would make a television 'movie-of-the-week' in Ireland. He
asked Frederick Forsyth to come up with a story and then went to O'Herlihy with the outline. What Morgan hoped would take a year to
realise took almost four years to make, but 'Cry of the Innocents' was
made and so began Morgan's career as an Irish film producer. On the
film, all the crew department heads were from the 'Hawaii 5-O' series,
with Irish crew understudying them.
"The only way to learn is the baptism of fire," Morgan says when
speaking of that experience. But the old problem remained - how to
maintain a continuity of work.
One of the friends Morgan made through his connections with
'Hawaii 5-O' was Bernie Ozeransky, who became head of production for
the television production giant MTM. Bernie contacted Morgan. MTM were
making a series called 'Remington Steele', starring Irishman Pierce
Brosnan, and had decided to make a set of episodes in Europe while Los
Angeles was hosting the Olympics. Bernie entrusted Morgan with the task
of crewing and overseeing the set of episodes. The enterprise was
successful, and Morgan decided to go to MTM and pitch the idea of their
establishing a production base in Ireland. Morgan met MTM chief Tom
Palmieri and sold him the idea that a joint venture could be set up
with a UK television company. MTM went a step further and decided to
buy Ardmore Studios with Morgan as its head.
"Kevin Moriarity and I worked together setting up the
infrastructure," Morgan says, "and MTM invested heavily by refurbishing
the Studio and building a new sound stage."
The enterprise was a victim of its own success. The UK television
company TVS bought MTM, but they had their own studios in England and
decided to sell off Ardmore. Morgan might have continued running the
studio, but wanted to remain in film production. He moved to Los
Angeles and established development deals with NBC and with HBO.
Once more, however, Morgan was drawn back to Ireland. Michael D.
Higgins was Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht and the
Section 35 tax incentive had been introduced to stimulate film
production in Ireland. Morgan saw a way of bringing American
productions to Ireland.
"I knew the business well, having learned it over the years, and
I had established many relationships in the US film industry." Morgan
brought some television series to Ireland, but was back in Ireland
little more than a year when he received a phone call from a US
"Steve McEveety called me. He was working for Mel Gibson,
preparing for the epic 'Braveheart', and wondered about making the
project in Ireland." With typical business flair, Morgan flew to London
to meet Gibson and the other producers. Morgan clinched the deal by
delivering one major bonus - the Irish army. By shooting battle scenes
in the Curragh using the Irish army, a huge logistical problem had been
solved. Michael D Higgins fully supported Morgan, and also arranged
filming access to castles around the country.
It was the start of several years of great success, with the
studio frequently working to full capacity. Crews were becoming more
experienced and the Irish reputation was growing. It was the fulfilment
of a life's dream for Morgan.
"But something happened to us in 2000, and it was Spyglass," says
Morgan. "We had become stuck in the television business with not much
theatrical work. Then I met Ned Dowd, head of Spyglass Entertainment,
and discovered that his grandfather came from County Kerry. Ned was
keen to work in Ireland, and offered me the opportunity of pitching to
have 'The Count of Monte Cristo' made here."
Morgan went back to Ned with a package that brought the film to
Ireland, and this in turn led to Dowd's bringing 'Reign of Fire' to
Ireland. Ned came to Ireland to produce the film - and decided to live
here. He brought the Veronica Guerin project to Ireland and has another
project due for production in Ireland next year. It has been a turning
point for the fortunes of the Irish film industry, with the growing
expertise here finally being acknowledged in the US.
"We are now getting to the stage where we have major US projects
from the studios coming to us. They have seen that we can make these
huge films, and they see Ireland as a great resource." Morgan is also
reaching the stage where he can pitch Irish projects to the major
studios and he sees that as the next vital phase in the evolution of
the industry. Working now with Catherine Tiernan and James Flynn, he is
developing projects with that aim in mind.
Now, however, developments have reached a frustrating plateau.
"There's a cap on the amount of money one can raise for a film
under Section 481, and that's an impediment to the large movie," Morgan
says. The economic benefits of bringing these major films to Ireland is
clear; 'Reign of Fire' received IRœ2.7 million through Section 481. The
production spent a total of IRœ35 million on Irish goods and services,
of which IRœ4.3 million was paid in direct taxation and almost IRœ5
million in indirect taxation. Attracting US films is a competitive
industry, with countries in Eastern Europe, as well as Germany, Canada
and Australia all vying for the opportunity. "It would make absolute
sense to double the cap so we can attract the big films. The Canadian
film industry is worth two and a quarter billion dollars to the
Morgan also sees a need to establish a comprehensive trade union
agreement. It's all a matter of treating film in Ireland as having the
potential to be a significant industry.
"We've had a few minor international skirmishes that have been
major successes - but not on a consistent basis. We haven't the
turnover and volume to make it into an industry. We need the business
framework to turn it from a cottage industry to something of substance.
It has happened with other industries here, like computers and food
processing. Music here is an industry, we in film have a long way to
Morgan's focus is unapologetically on the American film industry.
"If I've learned anything over the years, it's that the American
majors control the business. They have the international infrastructure
and it's ridiculous to try competing with them." His aim has been to
establish an industry here serving, and ultimately working within, the
US studio system. "We're a branch office to America in other business
fields - why not in film."
He has never tried to work the European system of co-productions
with multiple partners. He considers the fragility and frustrations of
that structure too discouraging.
"If we want to draw the best people to the film industry, we must
create an environment they can believe in as opposed to the
seat-of-the-pants European deals."
Morgan is enthusiastic about the new initiatives for making low
budget digital films here. He sees it as a way of giving more young
Irish people the opportunity to test, develop and demonstrate their
skills. "These productions can become calling cards for our talent."
The goal, Morgan believes, is to have a solid and viable industry
working at all levels from the big scale films being shot here through
to indigenous films. "If we get the scripts right and we can produce
the talent, the majors will listen to us. This is an art business, but
it's also a commerce business and we need to get the balance right
between art and commerce."
Morgan remains passionate about the concept of a sustained and
sustainable Irish film industry. Throughout his career he has developed
friendships and business associations that have led to a great deal of
film production in Ireland and a great deal of employment. He wishes
the industry here would attract entrepreneurs, and wishes also that the
government would comprehensively support the industry. Having started
out needing to leave Ireland to find employment in the industry he
loves, Morgan has played a key role in creating an environment in the
film industry here whereby people can be reasonably hopeful of being
able to make a living doing what they love to do.
"I admire creativity and I enjoy supporting talent. This is a
hard business and yet it attracts wonderfully gifted people. They
deserve the opportunity to succeed. If the potential to build a
thriving film industry here is properly supported the benefits could be
enormous. We are storytellers, we have the talent, and we have proven
Morgan is the business.