Interview: Thomas Wilson-White

Cinema Australia Original Content:

Thomas Wilson-White.

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2021 was a great year for The Greenhouse. A successful run on the local and international festival circuit was followed by award nominations and wins, and a VoD release in the UK.

Now, general audiences will finally get to see The Greenhouse when it hits Netflix on February 16 and the film’s writer and director Thomas Wilson-White could be more excited.

“It’s been a wild time. It’s been great to be releasing the film now,” Wilson-White tells Cinema Australia over the phone from his home in Sydney.

“We finished it in 2020 and to be perfectly frank, it’s kind of a miracle so I’m happy to be releasing the film now to such a good response.”

Here’s the official synopsis for the film: It’s been years since the death of one of her mothers, but Beth still languishes at her family home with her surviving mother, Ruth. Her three siblings, on the other hand, have moved on and moved away. On the eve of Ruth’s sixtieth birthday and after a vivid dream, a vision entices Beth out onto the property, where she discovers a greenhouse that sends her into the past – where her mother Lillian is alive, and a younger Beth is trying to deal with her own burgeoning sexuality. As her siblings and a past love return home, tempers flare and Beth’s retreats to the greenhouse are discovered. But as the fractured family begins searching for what they’ve lost, an unexpected decision will change not just their past, but also their future.

The Greenhouse might be Thomas Wilson-White’s debut feature film, but this isn’t his first rodeo.

Wilson-White’s other film credits include short film St. Augustine, which screened in official completion at Melbourne International Film Festival 2019; Back To Earth, which was accepted into The Rhode Island International Film Festival 2015, Cinequest 2016, Down Under Berlin 2016 and won the Gold Remi at Worldfest Houston 2016, and is currently on ABC iView; and The Gay Son, which won the Byron Bay Queer Film Festival and was runner-up at the St Kilda Film Festival.

Here, Wilson-White takes us inside to the world of his new magical realism drama.

“It’s meant to be an ecosystem that appears welcoming and lures you in. And by the time you realise that you’ve been sung a lullaby and you’re in danger, it’s almost too late.”

Director Thomas Wilson-White on the set of The Greenhouse. Photo by Jack Baxter.

 

Interview by Matthew Eeles

What lead you to become a filmmaker?
My grandma started the Nowra Players which is the oldest-running regional theater in New South Wales in 1951. And so, I was raised in a family of people who were really quite active in the theater. And my grandma was an actress, and my mum would build sets, and I would go to drama classes and things like that as a kid. And so, I was just raised around the arts and around scripts and performing, and stuff like that. But I really got into filmmaking in high school when I realised the only subject I excelled at was creative writing. And I just loved cinema growing up. And I was just obsessed with it. I think it was a bit of a crutch to get me through high school. And so, the day I realised that I could marry the writing with telling people what to do, I was like, “Wow, that’s a career? I’m going to do that. That sounds fun.”

A woman discovers a greenhouse on a property is a portal to the past. It sounds batshit crazy but you’ve executed it incredibly well with restraint and a subtle beauty. Where did the idea for The Greenhouse come from?
The genesis of the whole concept comes from a really autobiographical place. I was raised in regional Australia with two mums, and at the time, one of my mums had been diagnosed with cancer and had been fighting cancer for a couple of years. And I guess I was in this place thinking you really don’t realise you’ve crossed the threshold until you’re on the other side of it. And you look back, and it’s very easy to get stuck yearning for the past and looking into the past and thinking, “Gosh, I wish I’d known everything was going to change on this very day. I wish I’d known I was going to cross into the point of no return,” so to speak.
And so, I knew I had to write something that was making me feel exposed because this was going to be such a long journey, and I really wanted to care about this story, and I needed to care about it for several years. And so, yeah, it started with this idea of yearning. And then I guess, for me, there’s a different version of this film that doesn’t have the more elevated magical aspects to it. I mean, hypothetically, I felt like I could write that version, which was just like a drama, but I’m really drawn to magic realism. And I’m really drawn to lifting the story somewhat so that you’re not just watching tragedy. And I think it allows me to deliver a message and start a conversation.

So, where did the actual idea for the greenhouse as a portal come from?
There’s magic in grief. What’s the source of that magic? And the magic, for me, is derivative of that feeling of yearning and grief. And so, the greenhouse came to me in a more visual sense to begin with. I hadn’t really related it to a theme yet, but I was like, “I would love the portal to be a greenhouse. This sort of mythical place that none of the family realised or know about that is isolated off somewhere in the woods and that you’re drawn to, and takes you through into the past. And as I kept working on the film, I realised how those themes of what a greenhouse actually is, that it is protected from the outside and that the plants in it thrive, and that’s kind of what the past was in the film. It’s meant to be an ecosystem that appears welcoming and lures you in. And by the time you realise that you’ve been sung a lullaby and you’re in danger, it’s almost too late.

My nanna had a greenhouse we were never allowed to go in. Now it’s got me wondering whether that had something magical in it.
[Laughs]. Yes, or maybe something else that was illegal, though, actually. I would never infer that. [Laughs].

Shiv Palekar, Jane Watt, Kirsty Marillier and Joel Horwood in The Greenhouse.

So, what came first for you, wanting to explore magical realism, or how we cope with the past?
I think it was magical realism at first, because I was writing my thesis at the time as well on the genesis of magical realism as a genre in literature and art, and how it eventually moved over into film, and the way that magical realism allows you to say quite political, social comments about things without literally saying them because you are heightening the world. And therefore, you can use it as a smokescreen, and that really appeals to me. It really aligns with who I am as a person and the things that I believe. I do think there’s a couple of ways to have those conversations. And with my art, I really want to have it and make it enjoyable, and make a genre, and make people come out of it going, “I was really surprised by how much that alternative family and those queer characters were like me.” You know what I mean?
So, the magical realism was first. And then yeah, I did a bit of soul searching and I was doing a lot of writing around it. Before I’d written the film, I was exploring what I wanted to say, and the loss of a parent was just like a monolith in my life at that point. And so, it was so clear to me that I had to write about what was making me tick in a way and feel so exposed.

Adoption, sexuality, diversity, loss, grief, isolation, and connection to family. I assume you’re not a time traveler, but how much of your own life experience did you draw on for The Greenhouse?
[Laughs]. No, I’m not a time traveler. I wish I was. A lot of it, to be honest. I would say at a time, one hundred percent of this film was my story, and it slowly moved away from that, which I think was healthy. But I come from an alternative family. I’ve got four siblings. We grew up in a regional town. We were isolated from the community because of my parents’ sexuality and I myself, and a couple of my siblings also came out in our twenties. And so, that was a perspective I really wanted to write about.
When I came out, my mum asked me if I was sure, because they were like, “It’s a really hard life. And if you don’t have to have it, we would say don’t have it,” which was the opposite of what I was expecting and, I think, what the broader world would expect as well, in terms of your queer mum saying, not necessarily baking you a cake and throwing you a party. So, yeah, I guess the whole film comes from a personal place, and it’s very nice to see my family up there.

Jane Watt as Beth in The Greenhouse.

You’ve chosen this unfamiliar cast, and I find it easier to lose myself in something as fantastical as The Greenhouse when I’m not comparing an actor to their previous work. Tell about casting The Greenhouse.
I’d worked with a couple of the actors in the film on shorter projects in the lead up to the film, to the creation of The Greenhouse. And I’d worked with Jane Watt, who’s the lead who plays Beth. We’d done a lot of comedy together, but I saw something in her where I was like, “I really want to give this person something.” And I think she’s really clanging for that experience and would really throw herself in there.
So, when I wrote the film, I said to Jane, “I really want you to be Beth. You know my family. You know me and you understand what I’m going for here.” So, she met me in that place really bravely. And it wasn’t an easy role. She’s in every scene, basically. Sometimes she’s in the scene twice, literally. And the emotional journey she goes on is quite intricate and required a lot of her. She’s an amazing actor. She brought her whole heart and soul to it. And I think the film is a million times better because of her. It really benefits from her performance.
And then the rest of the actors, particularly her siblings, a couple of them, I also knew from just the industry and some of them went to acting school with Jane. So, when I was casting, I thought it would be really smart to get a couple of people who know each other to play these siblings so that we’re not also having to spend too much time getting to know each other behind the scenes. We didn’t have a lot of resources and we didn’t have a lot of time so it was about making smart choices, casting the actors that I really wanted, who also just happened to know each other. And then that way, rehearsing and getting them comfortable with each other, we were able to circumnavigate it, a lot of that, because they had a shorthand already. And then it was about approaching the mums. We went through their agents and they read the script, and it was very easy, to be honest.

Beth is the main character here, but I was also drawn to Doonie played by Kirsty Marillier. Tell us about Doonie’s origins, because compared to the other characters, she has just as much depth and backstory as Beth does.
Well, I think in an alternate reality, all of the siblings had that much screen time and it definitely became apparent in the edit that Beth was the lead and Beth’s journey was the through-line for the whole film. And as we were working in post-production, I realised that Doonie was also the comic relief. And that she was also really necessary because I think you really need to be able to laugh and make an audience laugh to then make them feel something else. There was definitely an edit of the film at one point that was really dark and didn’t have as much comedy, and as much lightness. And I think it meant that it was harder to really suspend your disbelief and go where I wanted you to go emotionally.
I just love Doonie in the film, and she’s become a fan favorite, which I’m so happy about. I’ve got people on Twitter sending me messages saying, “You need to write a spin-off of her TV show that she’s in in the film.” And people have said to Kirsty that she really smashed that and it was so nice to see Doonie in that world as well. So, that’s kind of inspiration.

You just mentioned that TV series within the movie, Jurisdiction. Did you shoot those scenes or did you use a second unit for that? It looked like it would’ve been a lot of fun to shoot.
I did it, because it was so much fun. We shot for a whole day. We’ve probably got enough material to actually edit together a five-minute episode. And I gleaned dialogue from existing Australian cop dramas because I was trying to, I guess, make a point about the breadth of variety and in the existing TV procedurals in Australia and how cringey some of them could be, without naming names. But it was a lot of fun to make. We had a great time.

Daniel Bolt’s cinematography here is truly world-class. I kept thinking about this cinematography from beginning to end. I was completely absorbed into this film through that camera. I don’t know if I’m right here, but every shot seems to be at the eye level of the characters depending on their arrangement in the scene, almost as though you’re an observer in the actual film. It felt like virtual reality without being in a virtual reality headshot. Can you tell us about working with Daniel and shooting in this style?
Daniel’s cinematography is so beautiful and when we were planning the film, I felt very passionately that the film needed to feel as naturalistic as possible to sell this idea that you can walk down into the woods and into the past, and that trying to go in a different direction might actually do us a disservice in taking the audience on that journey.
And so, a lot of it is about comfort, and an audience watching an actor at eye height is comfort, because that’s what we’re used to when we’re in the real world addressing somebody. And so, we wanted it to feel like that in the present. And then in the past, we really wanted to feel like a voyeur. So, instead of shooting a flashback that would be just from the point of view of whatever we wanted to situate and anchor the audience with the character who’s watching the past as often as possible. And that brings about a really interesting feeling when you’re looking over the shoulder of somebody, instead of at the two people in the past talking. You’re looking from a different angle and I guess thematically, that really speaks to what I’m trying to say with the film. It is a reflection and a rumination on the choices you’ve made and the things you’ve done. So, I wanted it to feel like you’re a bit of a fly on the wall there.

DOP Daniel Bolt on the set of The Greenhouse. Photo by Sarah Wilson.

I have to ask you about this stunning property. What can you tell us about it?
Well, we wanted to shoot in Jervis Bay where I grew up in New South Wales. My producer grew up there as well and Daniel, the cinematographer grew up there, and Ellen, actually, our costume designer, she grew up down there. So, we thought let’s go back to our hometown and make our first feature, and let’s tell everyone we’re there and see who can help us and what corners we can cut, really.
And so, I started scouting locations. I think I looked at three, and this property is owned by a family friend, the Robertsons. And they invited me to come and have a look at their property, and basically just said, “Shoot it here. Do whatever you want. We love art. We’re supporters of art. And we understand what we’re getting ourselves into.” And I was like, “Awesome.”
So, they put us up on the property because there’s cabins all over it. And we stayed there for four weeks and shot the film while they were still living there. So, I’d come in, be like, “Hey, we want to shoot in the kitchen.” And they’d just go and occupy a different room of the house and we’d shoot this really dramatic scene, two meters away from them or something. It was so beautiful.
By the end of it, we were really just like this ecosystem. We all just understood what each other needed. We were shooting nine pages a day, some days, so there was a really big schedule and a full professional crew as well. And they were just so gracious. But yeah, Jervis Bay, it’s beautiful. Have you been to Jervis Bay?

Steve Jaggi is credited as an executive producer on the film. He’s one of the busiest blokes in Australian cinema right now. What was his involvement and what’s your relationship with him?
Steve was the miracle worker who found us while we’re in post-production and watched the film and said, “We’ll come on board to help you finish it.” So, we were very much knocking on every door after we’d shot the film. We spent about two and a half years in post-production because it was a real mission to get those people and find the people that could work on it, and find the money to do it as well. And Steve came along at the exact right time and churned us through post-production at the beginning of 2020 while we were all in lockdown, actually. So, we did a lot of it over zoom, with actors all around the world, actually, doing ADR. It was wild.
But I’m deeply indebted to Steve Jaggi. He’s definitely saved us.

The Greenhouse had quite a bit of success on the festival circuit. What’s that feeling like as a first-time feature filmmaker?
It’s so beautiful. I mean, I think you just don’t know what pathway it’s going to have and how people are going to receive it. And the Queer Film Festivals that have supported us have given us a huge launching pad, in a way, to get, also, attention from non-queer film festivals, which is really beautiful and really speaks to the manifesto of the film because I do think it is a family drama before it is anything else.
And it’s so lovely to be recognized by festivals from such a broad variety of festivals. We had CinefestOZ in Albany and Gold Coast Film Festival. We’ve done BFI Flare in London for two and a half weeks, which was amazing.

The Greenhouse will premiere on Netflix on February 16.

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