Road Trip Romance

We grilled director Thom Fitzgerald about his latest film ‘Cloudburst’, a comedy about an ageing lesbian couple who set out to get hitched.

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Canadian theatre and film director Thom Fitzgerald's back catalogue of films is an intriguing but impressive one. Poetic and quietly quirky, The Hanging Garden - the director's impressive 1997 debut feature - follows a young man who returns home having come out of the closet. His 2003 relationship drama The Event and 2005's 3 Needles, which wove together three stories, both dealt with HIV. His latest film Cloudburst is a lesbian road trip comedy starring Oscar winners, Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker, as Stella and Dotty - an aging couple who drive from Maine to Canada in order to tie the knot. Their journey is disrupted by a young hitchhiker, Prentice (newcomer Ryan Doucette) who the couple pick up on the way. Entirely devoid of political sentiment, Cloudburst is simply a love story that rings funny, tender and true.

With Cloudburst set to screen at Tasmania's inaugural Breath of Fresh Air Film Festival which has just kicked off, we emailed Fitzgerald through a handful of questions.

Originally Cloudburst began as prose and has since become a play and a film. Where did the original story idea come from?

My stories come from daydreams and fantasies. Images that recur in my head. I was musing on elderly women; how some women lose their fear and become more outspoken in their old age. I've always enjoyed the company of an opinionated older woman. That was the kernel of creativity, really. I wanted to see a woman like Stella on screen. I don't think we've seen an 80-year-old foul-mouthed butch lesbian as a movie hero before. Then I started thinking about love...

It's a road trip movie and the scenery and sense of location play such a big role. Obviously this would have differed from the theatre version. Can I ask about some of the changes you had to make from stage to film?

A play and a movie are like dogs and cats: they have all the same basic elements but you wouldn't mistake one for the other. A play is more often about words... dancers tell a story on stage with images, but in a play the dialogue reigns. In Cloudburst, on stage, there was no truck... there was a Ford grill, two tires, a steering wheel, a seat. Instead of a landscape, there was a light, or an abstract sense of movement projected behind them. I toyed in rehearsal with using more of a truck, but kept peeling away elements, wanting to see the way the actors were sitting, how they held their knees, who was a seat hog, how they held their bodies. So the truck was more implied. Entire characters were implied - Prentice's mother was in the play but not his father. Some of the biggest laughs in the film are visual gags, and on stage they were in Dotty's dialogue.

The film has such a great tone. It's laugh out loud funny and really ballsy! Your previous films have dealt with gay relationships and themes but via all different genres. Why did you choose to tell this particular story as a comedy?

I see comedy everywhere, that's how I live day to day. I try to laugh and see the ironies and hopefulness in life. Even in the saddest things. They're one and the same, in their extremes. If you've ever seen someone truly happy, ecstatically happy, it is indistinguishable from grief. In terms of comedy, I think Cloudburst is really a romance - just not the beginning of one.  Not the sexy part. The funny part, later.

With regard to casting, some of the actors from the theatre version reprised their roles for the film, but the central characters don't. Was there ever a consideration that they would and did you have Olympia and Brenda in mind when you were penning the script for the film?

I didn't approach the play thinking any of the cast would be in the movie if and when there was a movie. I did have Olympia in mind for Stella as I wrote. She was my muse. Stella allows Olympia to utilise the strength, ferocity, and wilfulness with which Olympia lives her life, though Olympia is much more thoughtful, wise and shrewd than Stella. For Dot, I had the actress Joan Orenstein (The Hanging Garden), who I had worked with twice before, in mind. Joan was actually blind, and that's why Dot is blind; but Joan died before I finished the script. Brenda was my choice and Olympia's choice as well - we both like to take credit for casting Brenda. I knew she could bring that stabbing wit and luminous softness to Dot.

Did Olympia and Brenda interpret or shape their roles in ways that surprised you?

Actors bring everything to the roles. Their life experience, their bodies. It's completely collaborative. I wrote that Dot had hurt her hip, but Brenda had had her shoulder replaced and fractured an arm, so we adapted it to her body. What I love about Brenda and Olympia's performances is the lack of sentimentality. Olympia is in her 50th year of marriage to her husband. Brenda had a long marriage to the late Barry Davies. They understand how truly irritating a spouse can be. Even in the most romantic scenes in the film, they're bickering. Olympia brought her own foul mouth to the role, adding stray expletives wherever she felt them! But mostly the characters could have been less complex without those brilliant women. I know, I wrote them. The roundness of contradiction and the ferocity, the intimacy... I could not create that, the women did.

In creating the character of Prentice, who Stella and Dot pick up along the way, why did you want a stranger to go on this really personal journey with them? Did you want him to serve as an access point for audiences?

Prentice is the entryway for a lot of viewers into the story. Not everyone can relate to an angry geriatric bull dyke or a vision-impaired grandmother. Dot and Stella have been alone together for a long time in Maine. Stepping out on this adventure allows new people in; and putting Prentice in between them changes a dynamic between them that has been the same for 30 years. He changes them. And through him they see new things in each other. Plus, he's got such a nice smile.

Can I ask a little about how you came to directing? Was theatre your first love? Were there any directors that really stood out for you growing up?

Well I grew up a short bus ride from Broadway. As a teen I would go into Manhattan and see plays, take classes. I paid for university working as an office intern of one theatre company in Harlem and running lights for another in the Meat Packing District. After university I performed in a comedic trio for a few years. But every kid is aware of movies and so was I. In high school I was enamoured of Jean Cocteau, Ridley Scott, John Sayles, John Cassavetes.  In university, with Jane Campion, Terrence Davies, Russ Meyer, and Peter Greenaway. Those folks are my directing heroes, and their influences do turn up in my films. Greenaway in the vivid colours of the sets in The Hanging Garden, Sayles in my efforts to someday write a monologue as good as his, Cassavetes in the power of just holding a close-up of a face as beautiful as Olympia's.

Looking back on your film, some people may dub them as being partly "issues films." Does this kind of label annoy you at all?

Everything annoys me! I'm easily irked. Well, no more than any label. If I'm going to be pigeonholed, it could be worse than as a social issue dramatist. But there really aren't any issues in my issue films. No lessons or role models to be found.  Maybe the occasional cautionary tale. As for Cloudburst I'm sure some people will say it's a gay marriage film. Surely a million heterosexual marriages have occurred onscreen and somehow there is no such thing as a "straight marriage issue film." To me, it's about a funny ball-busting woman trying to save her relationship from the inevitability of old age, illness and frailty, but that may not be how anyone else describes it. There is not one minute spent examining the politics of whether or not gay marriage should be legal. They don't talk about politics because no one walks down the aisle thinking about politics. But if it's called an issue film that's cool by me. So long as they laugh and are entertained and catch a glimpse into someone else's life, I'm happy... 

Cloudburst is screening at the MyState BOFA (Breath of Fresh Air) Film Festival in Launceston, Tasmania on October 26. For more information or to book tickets, head here.

Picture caption (L-R): Cloudburst's cast - Olympia Dukakis, Ryan Doucette and Brenda Fricker

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