Gardening Time

James Kleinmann

He warns me to keep my dictaphone close to him as he has a notoriously quiet voice. However quiet their voices, most filmmakers exude in unselfconscious enthusiasm when discussing their creations. There are always exceptions though, and Thom Fitzgerald is one of them.

It’s not what he says that makes him seem indifferent and often uninterested in his film, but the way that he says it. The tone with which he describes all aspects of his film is slightly less enthusiastic than a bored housewife might discuss an afternoon spent ironing. Perhaps the man I met was just a stand-in. At times it really didn’t seem as if it could be the same person that had made the startling, compelling and affecting film that The Hanging Garden is.

The film opened this year's London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival and was rarely challenged by any of the films that followed. In the rest of the world the film hasn’t been shown in its capacity as a gay movie. This isn’t just to sell more tickets. The film lacks the traditional elements of ‘gay film’, and homosexuality is not the most permeating element, just one of the ingredients.

Fitzgerald says that he set out to make “both a slice-of-life drama and a surrealist fantasy”, which succinctly sums up what he has achieved with The Hanging Garden.

The film tells the story of Sweet William, who returns home after a ten year absence for his sister’s wedding. He left as an obese, unhappy and closeted teenager (Troy Veinotte). He returns as a slim, attractive, and openly gay man (Chris Leavins). Immediately he recognises that little at home has changed. His foul-mouthed sister Rosemary (Kerry Fox) is the not-so-blushing bride, whist Grandmother Grace compulsively practices her senile devotions.

William is soon plagued by visions of his former self, and as his past haunts him, so we see his motives for running away in the first place. Soon the present and past begin to merge, things get surreal, and William discovers his own corpse.

Fitzgerald says that he made a similar move away from home when he was younger, but he decided to leave the going back up to William. “If I’d have returned, it’d probably have been obscenely horrible.” By sending a fictional character home instead, the writer could give it whatever ending he wanted to. “I always wanted my mother to run away, but she never did, which is why I wanted to write about a mother that does. And the reason why we never find out where she goes is that I didn’t want to make any false promises. This is why we don’t ever see where William is now living or meet his boyfriend, Dick. That part is left for the audience to figure out for themselves.”

William’s unfortunate ‘coming out’ incident rivals even that of George Michael’s last month. William’s mother tells him and his friend to strip out of their wet clothes before they come into the house. They get naked, and just as they begin to enjoy some fumbling around in the bushes, William’s grandmother looks out of the window.

“This is from a real life event of one of my friends,” Fitzgerald explains. “So the incident felt real to me, though I think it’s one the most hackneyed scenes in the film. But audiences seem to respond well to it. Every time that I’ve sat in at a screening there has been an audible groan as the granny gets up to go to the window.”

Seeing the 350lb teenage William nude is quite an experience, and it is not surprising that casting proved troublesome. “To begin with the producers thought that we’d never find an obese young boy to play a gay role, that had to do a nude scene as well. Eventually we found Troy, who actually lost a little weight for the role! And he’s now been listed in a Canadian magazine for best nude scene of the year.”

Having acted in the past, Fitzgerald sees these as an advantage on one level when it comes to directing. “Not all actors approach their characters in the same way that I would, though, and my background can be very different to other people’s. I do have a lot to learn about making movies. But generally I was really pleased with the actors, and that’s what the film has won most of its awards for, so I guess that’s the element that I’m most pleased with.”

At college Fitzgerald studied film and performance, where he learnt to think about film as a medium for art. Although this meant that he received no technical film training, he doesn’t see it as a problem. “The crew for The Hanging Garden were very much from the industry, and that’s part of what works. At times it doesn’t make much sense as a story, but it looks like a familiar film, not experimental at all. But what was difficult was that my crew didn’t speak English and I don’t speak French.”

Every character in the film is named after a flower and wear clothes that are the same colour as that flower, as are their rooms. Fitzgerald explains the use of this floral imagery as a structural element, a painting approach rather than a filmic one.“It never occurred to me that a wall could just be a wall. And the idea of having such an intense structure also partly comes from my experimental film background; setting up a system, a code and seeing what happens. A lot of people never actually catch on and that doesn’t bother me at all.”

The garden in which the wedding celebrations take place at the beginning of the film, and where the older William later sees himself hanged, remains a confused mess for whole film. This helps to create an uncomfortable atmosphere, rarely achieved in film. It did increase the chances of continuity errors though, especially when a compulsive tidier was left alone.

Fitzgerald sees the secret behind the film’s tense feel and the kudos of Chris’ performance “is that the audience does actually see things from his perspective, and starts to relate with his discomfort with everything.”

Although the subject matter might sound a little grim, The Hanging Garden isn’t depressing, more uplifting. It tells the viewer that if they hate the person they are now, things can always be changed for the better. Fitzgerald though, doesn’t come across as being very cheery and his sense of humour is displayed when he discusses the themes of the film. “Suicide, trauma, and abusiveness, aren’t humorous things. But I find them funny.” I ask him to explain why.

“The year that I graduated high school, eleven kids in my small town in New Jersey killed themselves. It was this mind-blowing experience for the whole town. But when you go through something like that you have to develop a sense of humour about it. And also as a kid who was getting thumped around a lot, I had to make myself feel superior to it so as not to feel inferior. So the one doing the slapping had to be laughable.”

Perhaps there’s more to the man than there seemed to be when we were discussing the film. There’s certainly a lot more to The Hanging Garden than a couple of hours in the cinema. You’ll be moved intellectually, emotionally and even spiritually. It could inspire you to change your life.

The Hanging Garden is now showing across London.

London Student Film is sponsored by The National Film Theatre.

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