Two decades after his feature debut The Hanging Garden won best Canadian feature at the Toronto International Film Festival, director Thom Fitzgerald takes a fresh look at family, sexual identity and small-town Maritime life with his newest film, Splinters. A lived-in drama that is as playful as it is weighty (and featuring an all-Atlantic Canadian cast), Splinters focuses on a young queer woman’s relationship with her mother in the wake of her father’s death. The Globe and Mail spoke with Fitzgerald ahead of the film’s world premiere at TIFF on Sept. 11.
The film handles all these quite weighty subjects but still manages to have a certain lightness of touch. How did you go about achieving that balance?
The play that the film is based on, written by Lee-Anne Poole, captured that “joking through the worst times” aspect of Maritime culture. It’s sort of an Irish thing. The kids, especially Greg, played by Bailey Maughan, deal with grief through jokes and keeping emotions at bay. That sort of intense sibling antagonism is how their grief manifests. That’s been my own experience of life in a big Irish family – it’s not a funeral without roaring laughter and a fistfight.
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The relationship between Belle and her mother is one that is complex and quite fraught with tension but is also explored in this refreshingly subtle way. How did you come to develop the relationship between those characters?
One thing I love about the characters is how Nancy, who is very old-school, struggles to navigate her daughter. Belle is very contemporary and her ideas about herself are fluid and changing; just when mom gets used to the idea that her daughter is a lesbian the rug gets pulled out from under her again. Nancy still has fixed ideas about sexuality. They’re both stumbling over a complicated, eternal love. The actress Shelley Thompson is the mother of a trans person, non-binary musician T. Thomason, and of all the people who I saw for the role of Nancy, it was clear that Shelley had a lot to bring to the role. Shelley is a wonderful mother, I should be clear, but I felt that her own life experience brought a lot of insight to the part.
Like Splinters, The Hanging Garden also looked at these enmeshed themes of sexuality, family and small-town life. Is there something in particular that draws you to these themes, or has drawn you to return them?
It’s a bit of a full circle. I think all of my films are concerned with rituals we perform – weddings, funerals, religious ceremonies. This is the most intimate film I’ve done in a long time; to extend the garden metaphor, it’s coming back to my roots. Lee-Anne told me that The Hanging Garden was an influence on her work, so it’s not surprising that I was attracted to the material in that way. I think it’s a fresh look at how our heroine conceives of her sexual identity.
How do you see yourself and your work in relation to the Canadian film landscape more generally?
I recognize, as I grow older, my outlier status. The things is, I’m still out here [laughs]. I was recently reading about the Toronto New Wave of the eighties and nineties, that group of filmmakers, which I was not a part of – and nor was I apart of the New Queer Cinema. I didn’t make my first film until 1997, so in terms of those eighties and nineties movements, I missed them in terms of geography as well as time.
Yes, it seems like Beefcake would fit so well within that umbrella.
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You would think, but the turn of the century was happening. But I feel like I have a sense of place out here, which is interesting because I grew up in New York.
Have you found that the experience of making your films within Canada shapes them in any particular way?
I’ve shot around the world and wherever you shoot has a tremendous impact on what the film becomes. I’ve shot in Europe, Asia and Africa, and the different ways that cultures approach cinema absolutely must impact the process of making it. With Splinters, shooting on an apple orchard in the Annapolis Valley has to be the most pleasant of circumstances. The air smells so sweet; it was an idyllic filmmaking experience. It’s languid and has that bit of Maritime gothic. That feeling that we had while making the film permeates the film itself – you can almost smell the apples yourself.
Splinters screens at TIFF Sept. 11, 7:15 p.m., Lightbox; Sept. 12, 10 p.m., Scotiabank; and Sept. 15, 6:30 p.m., Scotiabank