Thom Fitzgerald busts the cuts
Thom Fitzgerald gets very blunt when asked about coping as a filmmaker amid so many funding cuts. “I masturbate a lot or the stress would kill me,” he says.
by Matthew Hays
Such frankness shouldn’t come as a complete surprise to followers of the Halifax-based filmmaker, who has written and directed an array of unusual low-budget feature films as well as two critically acclaimed TV series. He has created a body of work that includes Beefcake (1998), a docudrama about the gay subtext running through ‘50s fitness magazines that has become a cult phenomenon; the lesbian comedy road movie Cloudburst (2011); and the gritty and often brutal TV show about domestic violence and its repercussions, Sex and Violence. Fitzgerald has picked up a bounty of awards and accolades along the way, and has done so defiantly from his Halifax home base.
On the surface, his oeuvre may seem varied, but the Fitzgerald universe is unmistakable: his vision is marked by a sharp, wry sense of humour as well as marginalised (often queer) characters. His protagonists—and he has a particular strength depicting complex women characters—are often at odds with a mainstream culture that is absurd and unjust.
He first burst onto the scene in 1997, when his debut feature, The Hanging Garden, took its bow at TIFF. A bidding war ensued, and suddenly everyone was fascinated in this low-budget wonder about a grown man who returns to his hometown to revisit his uncomfortable, repressed childhood and adolescence. It was one of the most auspicious debuts in Canadian film history and a distinctly unusual and inspired film.
Those, as they say, were the good old days. Since then, many independent distributors have closed their doors, festivals have been deluged with a burgeoning amount of content, TV has supplanted cinema as the goal for many writers and directors and the internet has enabled an unprecedented level of piracy.
Government funding, something essential for the Canadian film and TV business, hasn’t always remained steady. Some governments (like the federal Liberals) see the benefits of subsidies to the arts, but many provincial governments have made austerity a priority.
For his part, Fitzgerald is philosophical about the major changes in the cultural industries. “Look, we go through periods of shake up, seismic shifts, in showbiz. This is one of them, around the globe and especially in my community. Nova Scotia eliminated its film equity investment program and froze the East Link Fund and diminished its tax incentive all at once, so I certainly felt change last year.”
He concedes this has led to personal frustrations for him and roadblocks for his own projects. “I coped with the loss of half the funding on the third season of Sex & Violence by shooting half the number of episodes. I wish I had a more clever solution [laughs]. But we rolled with those punches. Signs are that the local situation is starting to improve again. In the big picture, audiences are fracturing into smaller audiences, and along with that sometimes we see diminished resources. But that should also mean more diversity in the kinds of stories we tell, so I remain optimistic.”
The variety of Fitzgerald’s projects is matched by the versatility of his roles: he writes, directs, produces and acts in film, TV and theatre. The writing process is the beginning for him, and discussing that topic brings us back to government purse strings: “Nova Scotia also eliminated its script development program. Telefilm has really narrowed its development priorities as well. But script development takes a long time, so I haven’t really felt that as much yet. Linda Wood at FCINS [Film and Cultural Industries, Nova Scotia] and Stephanie Azam at Telefilm seemed to remain supportive for as long as they could.”
Fitzgerald describes the process now as involving far more juggling of various projects—something he doesn’t see as entirely negative. “I’ve not yet seen any diminishment in my writerly obligations, to be honest. I suppose as the available dollars have diminished, I’m writing more, not less. When there was greater development support I could sometimes focus on one screenplay for a longer period of time and get really immersed in it. Now I juggle more things to make the same money. I’m not complaining. I enjoy the creativity of it.”
The funding situation requires greater independence, and as a creative writer, Fitzgerald views that as a bonus. “I never flourished in a highly structured development pipeline. I hated writing those 20-page treatments with all plot and no dialogue. I think a character’s voice, a spoken line of dialogue, is a perfectly good starting point for a story. What a protagonist says out loud can change everything. That’s as important to a story as action. I also sometimes find it hard to muster enthusiasm to return to a script over the months it takes to raise a subsequent round of government funding. My muse doesn’t give a shit about waiting for the packaging phase decisions. It’s inorganic. But that’s business.”
Despite all the shifts in technology, the consumption habits of viewers and the funding blips, Fitzgerald has maintained a very strong and consistent style. He laughs when I call him a genre-buster or genre-blender. “I do like to blend genres a little. The Hanging Garden is a surrealist kitchen-sink drama. Beefcake is a docu-comedy. Cloudburst is a road trip romance. Forgive Me is a drama with threads of supernatural horror. I tend to find a comfort zone in between genres because I feel it allows for multiple interpretations.
“My background is in visual art, an art form where the viewer is much more often asked to bring their own interpretation to the experience. I like to afford viewers space to make some choices either intellectually or emotionally.”
But he is quick to add that he isn’t the same director he was when he made The Hanging Garden. “As a director, I’ve evolved. I used to approach a movie like a painting. I chose the colour of every wall and every costume. Over time I’ve learned to find the beauty and the ugly in the world without having to build it from scratch. I’m not much one for analysing my work. I consider my films to be optimistic. I’m fascinated by people’s contradictions, fragility and ferocity. I’m sure that comes through in the work.”
Fitzgerald is keenly aware that many see his films as being about underdogs facing off against maddening forces. He insists his interests lie mainly in the personal rather than political, and that he doesn’t ruminate about audience numbers much. “I’m an empathetic guy. My heart breaks for people’s struggles fairly regularly. For me, inspiration is extremely personal. I’m aware that some people interpret my films as overtly political. I wrote about people with AIDS in 3 Needles  because I saw so many friends get AIDS and in many cases die. It was personal, even if I was asking global-scale questions about why.
“When I wrote Cloudburst, I wasn’t thinking about same-sex marriage as a social issue. I was navigating my own evolving feelings about marriage as it applies directly to me. As much as I admire those artists who think in terms of what an audience wants, like ‘50 million people play this video game, thus a certain percentage will pay to see a movie based on it,’ I’ve never managed to think such thoughts. I’m hopelessly introspective. That said, there is a bit of a ‘ripped from the headlines’ aspect to Sex & Violence.”
Topical stories, like LGBT ones, can be a tougher sell. But Fitzgerald is heartened to see genuine efforts to diversify the talent pool along the lines of sex, gender, race and sexual orientation. “The US is 66 percent ‘white’ and Canada is 89 percent ‘white.’ A province like Nova Scotia is 94 percent ‘white.’ In a way, that means Canada has to work harder to bring minority voices to the table. We need to aim for overrepresentation of minority populations in the arts because if we go by the statistics alone we’ll end up with a fairly homogenous and inaccurate cultural voice. You can see how one production like The Book of Negroes seems to open doors for a Studio Black and Black Cop. It can make such a dramatic impact in terms of opportunity and growth in a place like Nova Scotia.”
And the work environment for gay men specifically? “Conditions seem better for gay white male directors than for women or people of colour, but I shouldn’t speak to what I don’t know. I’m off in my corner of the world doing my thing. I haven’t really gone out in the world looking for a job directing a Jason Statham action movie or anything. Well, not yet. I feel the extra hurdles as a producer. Pulling together resources to tell LGBT stories remains a bigger challenge, and I imagine that’s true of movies made for any niche demographic. I hear the darnedest things. ‘There’s no audience for this’ is a common one I still hear, no matter how often it’s disproved. LGBT audiences will flock to tent poles, but they also want to see well-crafted LGBT stories. Business folks should understand that a narrow demographic is still a big audience.”
Fitzgerald concedes that when the creative juices are flowing, film and TV are extremely collaborative media. “My vision gets influenced and changed by the cinematographer’s vision and the actor’s vision and the designer’s vision. It’s a bizarre accident of fate if I ever see a shot that looks exactly like the image in my head when I wrote it. I try to convey my vision and then everyone else dives in and they make it better or smarter or more credible or more orange or whatever. I rarely get stuck on a vision that I hammer into existence. That would be wasting everyone else’s imaginations.”
Fitzgerald says this teamwork is imperative, and gaining the trust of his cast and crew is vital to making each project work, both on set and ultimately on screen. “If my job is to direct, I direct. I don’t leave people hanging. If I don’t know the answer to their question, I tell them so, but I offer direction anyway. I am open regarding my weaknesses. Capable and talented people would rather feel genuinely needed for their specific talents than feel like soldiers in battle. That said, I don’t always win everyone’s confidence. It’s best when everyone gives everyone else the benefit of the doubt, but that’s not human nature. We talk about abstract things all day: emotion, intent, subtext, colour, depth, shadow.
“Trying to find the right way to talk to each artist is a challenge. I keep trying until I find it, but once in a while I fail. I’m honest with others if I think they’ve failed. But every day and every scene is different—there’s a weakness in there somewhere, but there’s also some amazing unexpected strength: a great performance or a great bit of lighting or prop, costume or set piece. Something unexpected. A scene sometimes gets built around an unexpected bit of genius that someone brings to it. If I can find and capture that bit of brilliance, it doesn’t matter that I didn’t get what I thought I wanted when we arrived at work. We got something better. I try to make sure that everyone working on my set knows that their own effort, their own bit of brilliance, may shine through on screen.”
When I ask Fitzgerald what the toughest roadblocks are when creating something for the screen, he doesn’t hesitate with a response. “It’s generally ego that trips us up, isn’t it? Mine or someone else’s. Fear, more precisely. We’re all walking around terrified of fucking up, when fucking up is a necessary part of the process. Doing a scene badly is an essential step in recognising when it’s good. Thing is, every film is always a new cast and crew. We don’t know each other’s idiosyncrasies and triggers. Yet we get put together often in confined spaces for 12 hours a day and we try to function as a cohesive creative force. There are going to be conflicts. For me, the solution is pushing ahead. Always keep moving forward. I’ve never had the budget or time to indulge anyone’s bad behaviour or bad luck, even mine.”
And then, he pauses. And responds with a bruising personal story. “Two years ago, when we were shooting Sex & Violence my brother went into a coma in New York. I had to go see my brother and my family. Yet I couldn’t stop the shoot. I begged Shandi Mitchell, who had worked with me as an AD in the beginning of my career and is now a wonderful director, to please direct for several days. She wouldn’t even have a chance to read the scripts. Shandi kindly and bravely pulled it off. The cast and crew pulled it off. My brother died, and I got to see him and tell him I loved him. But when I returned, I was not my best. And you know what? The cast and the crew stepped up. They pulled me along and lifted me up and the show got made.
“Some days can go sour over the little things but when the big hurts come, people pull together.”
Matthew Hays is a Montreal-based journalist whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The Globe and Mail, POV, Vice and the Toronto Star. He teaches courses in film studies at Concordia University and Marianopolis College and is the co-editor (with Tom Waugh) of the Queer Film Classics book series.