Poetics and Perseverance - Thom Fitzgerald of "The Hanging Garden"
by Anthony Kaufman
Thom Fitzgerald may be the only Canadian filmmaker who is both not
Canadian and has never received an arts grant. Born in Westchester, New
York, Fitzgerald moved to Nova Scotia when he was 19 and has lived
amidst its wide open spaces and warm-hearted people ever since.
Fitzgerald has worked in both theater and short films prior to his
unique writing/directing/producing debut "The Hanging Garden" -- the
story of a man's return to his dysfunctional family after a ten year
absence -- which opens this Friday, surprisingly from MGM/UA.
Surprising since this small, independent Canadian film, which plays like
a poem with time and color and deals with themes such as homosexuality
and suicide, is incredibly far from what we'd usually think of in a
large studio acquisition. Fitzgerald's filmmaking journey which started
with a script that was rejected by the Canada Council for the Arts
because they thought "I was homophobic" and ended with Alliance selling
the U.S. rights to MGM, is one of those success stories that many would
find envious. Fitzgerald spoke with indieWIRE from his now native
Halifax where he's recovering from an annoying press junket in New York
and finishing up a new film "Beefcake" about 1950's men's muscle
indieWIRE: So what's it like working in Nova Scotia, this remote area that
people don't normally think of as a hotbed of independent filmmaking?
Fitzgerald: I'm learning some of the challenges currently. I think when
you shoot a movie, movies get shot in all kinds of weird places, the
desert, and so on, you kind of expect to have all kinds of weirdness
during those intense few weeks of shooting. But this is the first time
I'm editing, trying to finish a film in Nova Scotia, because we did "The
Hanging Garden" in Montreal. And we're spending so many hours how to
use the editing computer because nobody in Nova Scotia knows how to do
it. And just the simplest little tasks, everything has to come from a
thousand miles away. That's the strangest part. No one knows any
better than I do and people should know more than I do.
iW: Your film played at Sundance, and you've been going to festivals
with your short films prior to that? How has that been?
Fitzgerald: I went to San Francisco. And I went to London, England and
that was really good because I invited the actress, Carrie Fox, to come
see my short film and the next day, she agreed to do "The Hanging
iW: Were you able to get financing through your film festival
Fitzgerald. That trip to London, and I met Carrie the following day
after the screening. The day after that I went to Channel Four. And I
suddenly had an actress that the lesbian programmer at Channel Four had
a huge crush on. It was a good karma trip.
iW: So you spent a lot of time going around with your script?
Fitzgerald: I was smart enough to realize that I wasn't going to find
money in Nova Scotia. So events like the Toronto Film Festival where I
met the financiers of the film, met the Toronto producer, Louis Garfield
["Lilies"] and Charlotte from Alliance and Brian from Cineplex, and
these people all had the script for ages, and either not read it or read
and loved it and that didn't matter, because it doesn't matter even if
they love your script, you can't expect anyone to respond what they got
in the mail. So I went and bought them all drinks, with my last few
quarters. All of these film festivals I went to when I just had the
script, and I wasn't invited to any parties and I had to crash and
trying to sneak up behind people and put the script in their beltloop.
iW: That takes a lot of perseverance.
Fitzgerald: That and some naivety. But what are you going to do? It's
kind of the reason that these festivals exist, so it's not like I was
bugging them at home. If you live in Nova Scotia, Sundance and the
Toronto film festivals pretty well represent the only access points to
people in the film industry.
iW: Have the short films you've gone to some of these festivals with had
a more experimental approach?
Fitzgerald: They started out to be and they've gotten less and less so,
because I realized I wanted to make this feature film, because I had
this particular story that I wanted to tell and I thought this was the
right medium for it. So you go to the head of Alliance and you say, "I
want to make this feature film and here's my 30 second black and white,
upside down experiment" and they say, "That's nice." So by doing these
short, comedic pieces, it was an effort to prove that I could direct
something dramatic. One thing, I know, the vice-president of Alliance,
heard the idea of the film and actually said, well, she wasn't
interested because it sounded too soft and television. But then she
found out that I made all of these scratchy experimental films, and
suddenly, her interests were piqued. So there are certainly people in
the corporate film world who are taken by cinema.
iW: Let's hope so. Now Alliance sold the film to MGM and its playing
all over now. You've been doing press for the first time; how has that
Fitzgerald: Doing press is really weird. When in its slots of days at
a time, like in the Toronto Film Festival, I must have done 100's of
interviews, people come in and its hard to remember that every new
person is a new person. So it's not that they don't believe the answers,
but it starts to feel like you're being interrogated, like how you see
it in NYPD Blue and they send in the next cop to ask the same questions
to see if you fuck up your answers at all. At a certain point, I start
to crack, and I tell people what I know that they really want to hear as
opposed to the truth because I just want them to stop asking. New York
was a bit like that. People want to know if this is an autobiography,
right? And it's not. And generally I'm at the point where I just sort
of say, "Sure, it is. Whatever you want." But I suddenly couldn't do
that in New York, because my family knows it's not about them and they
can sue me.
iW: As a first narrative film, was it especially difficult to
coordinate the mass of a feature film?
Fitzgerald: Mass? That's good. The blob. There's a lot of people
working on these things. There are several people dedicated to
coordinating the mass. Still, it was a totally sensory-overload for
me. Finally, getting to the point of shooting. Good god, I had no idea
of the sheer number of questions I had to be prepared to answer. And
not answer vaguely and not say, I don't know. Because people don't
expect that from a director. Even though I didn't really know. That
was the hardest part. I tend to be dysfunctionally honest, stupidly
honest, admitting that you don't have the answer to a hundred questions
in a hundred minutes.
iW: Another writer/director I've talked to mentioned that so many of
those choices are made in the writing. Do you feel that way?
Fitzgerald: That's interesting. Some questions are answered in the
writing. But, no. At certain points, a writer/director is at an
advantage. For instance, with directing actors. Because for one, the
director can always rather authoritatively talk about character
motivations. But no, when I wrote the screenplay to "The Hanging
Garden," I could not account for the hugeness of the location, the
actors, the people around, the size of the budget -- all those things
kind of change every answer to every question on the set.
iW: Were there things once you got on set, anything specific, like "I
didn't know this was going to be this way" or a scene where you were
like, "This isn't coming out they way I intended it to?"
Fitzgerald: Constantly. For instance, I don't think a lot of people
have tried to hang a 350-pound boy from a tree before. Cirque de Soleil
came in and helped us, try and string him up. And the circus people
failed, because their harness couldn't hold him. And we had to send
them the night before, we were so desperate, we had to go to Toronto to
have a special harness built and we could still only get him up there
for 90 seconds at a time and he had to spread his legs and able to
divide the weight evenly in the tree. So we couldn't do wide shots, and
that kind of thing, so you can never predict so many things.
iW: How was it working with the actors? I read in the press notes that
you got to a point where you were like, "I don't know anything. I don't
know why your character is angry."
Fitzgerald: I remember at one point Chris told me something felt
stupid. And I said that I didn't care how it felt, he should just do
it. And he said, "You're an asshole." And I said, "That's even a
better reason to just do it." The film is so ethereal. The key to the
film is that it's so open to interpretation. And I think maybe that
made the amount of questions that I had to answer doubled. Everything
was up for interpretation. In Chris's defense, he had to figure out
whether he was dead or alive. It's a lot more than most actors have to
iW: So you said you're editing something new right now.
Fitzgerald: Yeah, I'm working on "Beefcake". "Beefcake" is all about
the athletic model guild, sort of the origins of the muscle magazine in
Fitzgerald: Partly, I'm really working hard to find the right balance.
I interviewed some men who posed, some men who photographed these
magazines and published them. Then we painstakingly in-studio recreated
some events and some biography of one of the photographers who's the
sort of granddaddy of them all. Bob Meiser who's dead. And it really
looks like a fabulously bad 50's B movie. I kind of wanted to take
these stories that these men were telling me and dramatize them in a way
that they would have at the time that the stories happened. So
everything is sort of more beautiful than it really was and it was sort
of shiny and sillier than it really was.
iW: So has "The Hanging Garden" helped you to make this movie possible,
either financially or creatively?
Fitzgerald: Financially, the package was all together before "The
Hanging Garden" was ever screened, so the budget was even smaller than
"The Hanging Garden." But I was committed to the project and the men
who wanted to tell their stories. Creatively, what's changed, is that I
was talking about all those questions on "The Hanging Garden," and how
basically people would question everything that I said. People didn't
think that I was as smart as I am. And on "Beefcake," now they all
assume I'm smarter than I am. That's the biggest difference.