Director Thomas Wilson-White Shares His Artistic Process of Normalising Queerness On Screen
Thomas Wilson-White is a brilliant young Australian director, whose feature film The Greenhouse just saw the day of light in the U.K. and is bound to sweep you off your feet because in it Wilson-White masterfully manages to normalise queerness.
The Greenhouse, set in a rural part of the Australia takes us on a journey of immense grief and the possibility to reimagine the past until the danger of past musings gets too enchanting. After every pain comes the sunshine and time to face the present and imagine the future. In a delightfully peculiar way, intriguingly charming and curiously mesmerising at the same time, the film is a treat that brilliantly tackles the tentacles of mournful emotions intertwined with the unique possibility of reexamining the past.
We got the honour to speak with Thomas Wilson-White. He had an air of charming calmness, unique artistic expression and most intelligent insight. He was absolutely delightful to talk with.
First of all, I have to say that I love the way you normalise queerness in your film. The mothers in the film are simply parents. They don’t need to explain themselves. You didn’t justify them as characters or explore their place in the film neither did you spell queerness out to viewers and heteronormative standards. Instead, you portrayed queerness as an everyday reality. I felt that was so refreshing and new. I haven’t seen much of that. I feel that normalising queerness was a primary goal of your film. Would you care to say a few words about normalising queerness and how did you go about it? Was it challenging?
Firstly, thank you. To hear your response to that, makes me emotional because I feel so passionate about that. It is my family on the screen. I was raised by two mums and I grew up in regional Australia. I have never seen something that made me feel we were entered in a story and represented and so, to have that response is so wonderful for me. Thank you so much.
It was really hard. I wanted to tell a story about my family, but I didn’t want to tell a story about how my mums met each other or got together or how a lesbian couple would have adopted the kids. I didn’t want to give the audience those answers, because I think it is what we are told we have to write about. I feel that self-discovering and defining your identity makes a very juicy, dramatic story. The wider world has told us that as queer people that’s what we get to talk about and that’s it. But my lived experience was waking up, my mum had packed my lunch, I got on the bus and went to school; then I came home, we watched TV, we watched Master Chef, I did my homework and went to bed. I have two mums, but I didn’t see that. I saw my parents. So, I had this frustration in me; when I was first making films I thought I was pretending. Here I am, making stories that I feel I have to make and they’re all centred in the heteronormative world because I’ve been told I couldn’t write a story about my family as it wouldn’t work. So, the challenge, I guess, was to risk a lot and say “I’m just going to write the film I want to write and cast it the way I want to cast it and go away and make it outside of the system in Australia”. We had no support from the Australian government or anything like that. I thought I was just going to give it a shot because I had a hunch that there would be an audience for this film, and that people want to see a story like this. It took years, but I’m very proud of what it became and the response so far has been life-changing.
How many years in the making of this film has taken? Did this idea mature with you or did it just appear over night?
It was an interesting process because I knew I wanted to write a film about yearning and looking into the past and wishing you’d done something differently, which is really a state of mind I think I was in for the first half of my twenties. I was looking back, thinking I didn’t realise how good I had it when I was 17 or when I was 24 before my mum was diagnosed with cancer and we’ve crossed the threshold into a totally new existence. I didn’t know how easy life was and how beautiful it was. So, I started with that kernel of an idea and then I wrote a film that was close to what you’ve seen, but it needed a lot of interrogation because I needed to be achingly exposed to it. Every day I went to work on set and in the edit suite, I felt like I was ripping my heart out somewhat. So, it took a lot of interrogation and enquiry to figure out what the heart of this film was, and what I am trying to say.
When I figured out what I was trying to say, it was so simple – such a simple sentiment. At the end of the film, Lilian says “I wish we had more time” and Beth replies “Me too”. And I think everything was so intricate and complex and that really is the most simple sentiment that feels so universal and so potent to me still. Watching this scene still makes me cry and I’ve seen the film probably 200 times. You’ve really touched on something I feel very very passionate about. To answer the question, it took about five years to make. I wrote it in 2016 and we shot some of it in 2017, we did some reshoots in 2017 as well and then we were in the edit suite for three years, because my mum got really sick while we were in postproduction and I became her carer. So, postproduction got put on hold for 18 months while I took care of my mum. She then passed away at the end of 2018. [He says painfully and you can feel his heart-ache.] I got to show her a rough cut of the film and she loved it. And then it was the last thing that I wanted to work on. So, for most of 2019, I was just dipping my toes in it, but in 2020 we finished it really quickly. And here we are.
You mentioned there was no support from the Australian government. This is a big project, your first feature film. Was it challenging to get the funding and the crew together? Did you have the opportunity to select the crew or not and did you have to compromise?
That’s a great question. I think I’ve been making shorts for quite a while – for maybe 7 years. And I was studying as well at film schools in Australia because that was a way to make more work. So, I’d kind of met a lot of people by that point and also attracted a lot of people who had seen my work and who I was able to tell that I wanted to do something really ambitious. I could see and feel that everyone around me was really interested in this and wanted to go away and make something big. I was able to really nurture that and tap into that and say to the right people to come away with us and make a feature film. We had very very little money and so, it really was a passion project for everyone, including the actors. So, I was really really lucky to have a professional crew, who, a lot of them, gave their fees back to us. So, if we were going to pay them, they would just put it back into the film because they cared so much about the film. And that’s a really beautiful testament to what it felt like to make this film – it felt beautiful. I loved the experience.
Was it difficult to transition from making short films to making a feature film? What would you say to young aspiring filmmakers in this regard? What to watch out for?
It was easy in some ways. For example, my last short was seventeen minutes long and I think it wanted to be a feature. My shorts always had a three-act structure and were really formula-driven so, jumping into a long-form actually suited my sensibilities where I was actually able to write scenes that were three pages long, which you never get to do in a short film. I was able to craft character journeys that actually felt so satisfying because they took up more time. So, I really loved writing the film. I think for anyone thinking to jump from a short film into a feature film, my advice is that you know in your heart when you’re ready to do it. And I think you just need to listen to that and every day, no matter what challenge I faced, there was always this voice in me saying “You can do this, find a way to do this, you can find a way to circle or navigate that obstacle, find somebody who will do it the way you need it to be done”. This completely transformed who I am because there is such resilience and courage needed. And it just became my day; my bread and butter. Every day, I would question myself whether this is the end or whether I have put too much on the line. Then we would find a way to keep going. I have an amazing producer. We grew up together and our mums were best friends so, she really held me together and I held her together when things got too hard. We had a really honest and wonderful friendship which is why we were able to have really grizzly conversations on the phone and work things out together and tackle everything together. So, my advice would be to find somebody who is going to jump in the deep end with you and is just as passionate about the project as you are.
Is it important to have queer filmmakers’ support? Is that of crucial importance or not necessarily?
I think it is crucial. It is so wonderful to make queer work in a safe space; when you’re surrounded by people who get it, and who are not necessarily going to challenge the way you want to do scenes. I feel that for a very long time, telling stories of marginal people on screen didn’t fit the formula. And I loath to think about the number of filmmakers who could have been prolific, but were smudged down before their time by the industry and by the gatekeepers. For me, I was able to have and I usually want just LGBTQ people or women, because that’s where I feel safest and where I want to create work, which makes sense; I was raised by women, there has just been women all around me my whole life. For this project, because of the resources we had, I wasn’t able to be as specific as I would have liked, but I think everyone on set could tell this is Thomas’ film and he’s the captain of the ship. There was a real reverence for what we were doing and I really hold that memory dear to my heart, because it was very daunting. It’s scary to have to wake up every day and tell 50 people what to do and at the same time be putting your life story on screen, something that feels so personal. But I was really looked after by them and I was also able to look after them.
How do you feel about non-queer actors and actresses playing queer characters? What are your thoughts on that?
I think we’re at a time where we haven’t had enough of queer people being able to be openly out and playing queer roles so, I want to see more of that. The problem for me is not that a straight actor plays a queer role, because they’re actors it’s their job – the problem is the stigma associated with being out and therefore, what that means you can and can’t do. We would never ask a straight person what their sexual preference is and allow that to dictate their job and establish if they’re appropriate for a job. So, I wonder why does it not work in reverse? Why does a gay man not get a role, a leading role as a heart-throb? Why is that [his sexuality] anyone’s business and why does that dictate if he’s capable of doing that job? So, It’s a weird thing, because I find it very inappropriate and at the same time I understand how we got to where we are. So, I think for me, I just want to see more of it. Maybe then it will take the edge off and we won’t be so offended if straight people keep playing queer roles, because we’ll also have queer people playing queer roles. Hopefully, written by queer people. That will change the conversation for sure.
What would you say about genres and perpetuation of certain ridiculous queer stereotypes nowadays? Which are those genres in your opinion and which stereotypes do you dislike most?
It’s a big question. I won’t name names, but I do feel like arthouse cinema has a couple of things to answer for when it comes to the depiction of trans characters and some queer storylines. I think, if you were to ask the trans community what they hated the most, it would be the way that the trans experience is portrayed on screen in films where it’s very dark and dramatic and full of trauma and body horror and stuff like that. So, I think for me, I love arthouse cinema and it’s where so much progression happens, but sometimes I watch the films and wonder why are they so sad and dark and where is the hug and the lightness to that shade as well? And I’d also just like to say that in any genre of any studio movie, there is still a lot of aversion to risk-taking. The studios have convinced themselves it [queer film] won’t make money and it won’t be accepted by the broader audience. And that is a very damaging point of view to reiterate to the queer community. There was a moment where there was going to be a queer storyline in Star Wars and it’s a 5-nanosecond kiss at the very end of the movie. The studio patted themselves on the back like they’ve done it whereas every queer person watching that film felt it was actually adding insult to injury because it is incredibly offensive to say to us that that is the space we get to occupy in the mainstream. And then you have something like Black Panther, which cleans out at the box office and does so much for the community it is depicting. So, I don’t know how you can logically have the argument that those more specific marginal storylines and characters won’t work in the mainstream market. I find that my biggest [bedbug]. I really want the kids and the teenagers, growing up behind us, who are queer to see themselves in big movies like we weren’t able to and we had to envision. A world that didn’t exist. I want them to live in that world and not have to struggle as much as we did.
Going back to discussing your first feature film The Greenhouse, I find the greenhouse in the film to be a symbol of protection almost like a cocoon. In the greenhouse, the plants are protected from the harsh weather so they can thrive peacefully. It’s like a little bubble where all the memories are warm and nice and snuggly and you can go into them, but if you meddle too much, you can destroy the plants, destroy the equilibrium. Was that your intention? Was this symbolism something you had in mind?
Yeah, that’s amazing. That’s exactly right. I love your interpretation, it’s really cool. For me, the greenhouse is a manifestation of Beth’s grief. It’s born from her inability to process how she’s feeling and how she feels about what’s happened to her family and her mum. I wanted it to be the mirror image of the world and therefore it’s a reflection chip. I guess, the greenhouse is like a lullaby; it needs to be beautiful and it needs to be dreamlike because it wants you to relax in it so it can somehow destroy you. And she [Beth] literally wakes up with her arm in the earth at one point because I wanted to say that if you stay here for too long, it’s not good. I guess for me, symbolically, what that is representing is this idea that you can’t change the past and you can’t stay in the past, it’s not healthy – you need to face forward. And you need to choose to let go and face the rest of your life. I feel that the point of loss and grief is that it teaches you to really grasp what you do have and to live in honour of those people that you’ve lost.
What would be your words of wisdom and what advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers – is it important to draw on personal experiences?
I think so. I think that when you are doing a feature film or anything, you need to live with it for a very long time. I needed to write about something that I knew was going to sustain me when I thought about it, when I was visualising it, when I was in the editing suite, that for two years I would still feel this exposed and this passionate about it. And it can be anything. It doesn’t have to be a horrendous experience you’ve had. For me, I wanted to write about that grief. But the advice would be that it is just going to be that more engaging, if you write from your heart. I spent a long time training to learn how to write from the heart. It’s like a muscle. Once you learn how to express yourself, it becomes second nature. I can’t imagine writing something now that didn’t come from a really personal place. And that’s not to say that I will be writing drama for the rest of my life, but the mark I want to make on the world is just going to have to come from a really personal place. I think that’s the kind of stories that I want to tell.
You mention that this film is, though termed as drama, is ‘magic realism’ for you. We know what that entails, but would you care to elaborate?
From my point of view, magic realism is about the characters not needing to grapple with questions of ‘how is this real?’. And in a fantasy, they spend a lot of time asking ‘how is this real?’ and being like ‘wow, look at this place’, like in Narnia. In magic realism, it’s just accepted and this way you can get to the message faster. You can get to what you are trying to say faster. And I didn’t want to make a film where Beth couldn’t figure out how the greenhouse exists and why it’s there and all of that. I wasn’t really interested in that. I think I was interested in starting the conversation about memory, grief and nostalgia with audiences as quickly as possible.
What would you say rules your day? What keeps you going and makes you the artist that you are?
That’s probably the best question I’ve ever been asked. What fuels my day? I meditate, I really spend a lot of time with my thoughts and I try to centre myself. Particularly, if I’m writing. Because I found that in my practice, I have to scoop the top of the broth off, so to speak, and get rid of the most superficial things going through my head. So, I do free-writing before I start writing in the day. I will just write a train of thoughts for a page or two. I guess that’s the process. I find in my day to day that I’m really lucky to live with my partner and with our cat. I love having a life that’s completely removed from my work because I never want to lose myself in the work. I want to remember why I’m writing and why I make films. I want to reflect on a lived and beautiful life and to share that. First thing in the morning, a cup of coffee is just a luxury and I go to bed thinking about the coffee. I go “yes, I’ll get to wake up and have a cup of coffee”. I really look forward to that moment.
Do you have any final thoughts for the queer youth growing up at the moment, especially for queer youth also living in rural areas, where they might be feeling left out?
I think you have to have imagination. I think it’s about imagining a world and a life for yourself and then believing that you can have it. I think that’s a really courageous choice – to imagine something that maybe the world has told you you can’t have and to wake up every day and find the way to have it. I feel that’s what got me through my teen years and my twenties and to this point, is being a massive daydreamer and dreaming, dreaming, dreaming. And not accepting what the world was offering me and saying “no, I want more than that and I want the whole thing”. Pushing those boundaries that are put around us and pushing those limits and saying “I want more”. I think that’s a beautiful thing.