Coming home-o: Thom Fitzgerald returns to queer rural Nova Scotia with TIFF must-see Splinters
20 years after he made history at the festival, the filmmaker is going back to his roots
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
In 1997, Thom Fitzgerald's debut film, The Hanging Garden, did something no other film has ever done at the Toronto International Film Festival: it won both the award for Best Canadian Feature and the People's Choice Award, the latter of which typically goes to Oscar-bound American films (it beat out Boogie Nights and L.A. Confidential, no less).
The film was also notable in its depiction of LGBTQ themes through a distinctly Nova Scotian lens, following a closeted young gay man who returns to his small hometown after a decade-long absence. The occasion? His sister is getting married...to a man he had sex with as a teenager.
The Hanging Garden's thoughtful and vividly emotional storytelling clearly hit the right notes with TIFF attendees that year (and rightfully so: it's a wonderful film) and launched Fitzgerald's directing career, which has since included Beefcake (1999), The Event (2003), 3 Needles (2005) and Cloudburst (2011). But it took him 21 years to return to his rural Nova Scotian cinematic roots with his latest film, Splinters.
Adapted from Lee-Anne Poole's play of the same name, Splinters follows another young queer Nova Scotian making a small town homecoming, except this time it's for a funeral. Belle (Sofia Banzhaf) has made the pilgrimage because her father died, and unlike The Hanging Garden's protagonist, she arrives having come out a long time ago. But that doesn't mean things are functional. Her conservative mother Nancy (Shelley Thompson) has never quite come to terms with Belle's sexuality, and is also unaware of a recent twist in that regard: Belle is now dating a man.
Reluctant to give her mother the pleasure of thinking her daughter might not quite be a lesbian, things unravel from there — and Splinters opens up to once again offer a unique exploration of the interconnections of family, sexual identity and small town Nova Scotia. Though The Hanging Garden 2 this is not: its feminine perspective (aided by its female-written source material in Poole's play) and contemporary setting (a lot's changed since 1997) give it an entirely different air that shows Fitzgerald's evolution as a filmmaker.
"Lee-Anne Poole saw The Hanging Garden when she was very young and I think it spoke to her life experience a bit," he says. "The way they're most related is almost generational. They're the two most Nova Scotian of my films."
Fitzgerald saw Poole's play on stage in Halifax in 2010. He loved its point of view, and optioned it not long afterward.
"I wrote the adaptation on and off for a few years, and in that time some of the play's forward-thinking themes of sexual fluidity became more mainstream," he says. "I'd been doing a lot of TV series and I had a window of opportunity for a more intimate project, and it just felt right."
What also felt right was that Splinters is actually Fitzgerald's first fully Nova Scotian cast (Sarah Polley was among the posing Ontarians in The Hanging Garden).
"I've never had better ensemble," he says. "My role in directing them was to keep them deeply immersed in that world, in those characters. There's something iconic about Sofia's Belle, walking across fields in sunglasses with her little yellow suitcase — she's this inherently cinematic person. Shelley seems to be at the height of her powers, having developed such skill over years of working. They both write and direct their own short films, so they had more understanding of the camera, lights and the overall filmmaking process than most actors do, and I think their common bond as filmmakers created the choreography of the film."
Fitzgerald hopes that TIFF audiences (and beyond — it opens Halifax's Atlantic Film Festival two days after its premiere in Toronto) can connect to Belle and Nancy's struggles, perhaps learning a bit about themselves in the process.
"I love the way the family copes with tragedy through humour and passion," he says. "Brother and sister are mercilessly poking each other's weak spots. Belle and Nancy will never be reconciled. But they'll never stop trying, because they deeply love each other. Some people have to give up on their families, but the film shows the great beauty in the trying."
And if the film leaves you hankering for some more of Fitzgerald's work, you won't have to wait long: he starts shooting his next feature on September 14th. Entitled Stage Mother, it stars Jacki Weaver and Lucy Liu and follows a Texas housewife and Baptist choirmaster who inherits her estranged son's San Francisco drag bar.
"We'll be shooting in Nova Scotia, San Francisco and Texas and I'm going to have a fucking blast," he says.
Splinters. Written and directed by Thom Fitzgerald. Toronto International Film Festival. September 6-16. www.tiff.net