Thomas Wilson-White’s directorial feature debut, The Greenhouse (2021), is an emotionally evocative tale of loss and grief. Beth (Jane Watt) discovers a doorway to the past in her garden. Behind that door both of her mums are alive, and she’s able to witness happier times she enjoyed with her three younger siblings. There are also the bittersweet memories of love with her friend Lauren (Harriet Gordon-Anderson), thwarted by Beth’s hesitancy and fear. Beneath the magical escapism, a danger lurks that threatens the family that’s reuniting for a birthday celebration.
The filmmaker’s previous works include the short film The Gay Son (2011), which centres on a conservatively religious mother’s struggle with the revelation that her teenage son is gay, and St. Augustine (2019), in which a struggling relationship is set against the backdrop of the Australian coast. His most recent short, Fish River (2020), saw him collaborate with the lead actress of his feature, Jane Watt, who plays Ruth, a young woman housesitting for her parents. Alone on the picturesque farm, she begins to notice unusual occurrences, and her anxiety is only heightened by the strange encounters with the locals.
In this interview with PopMatters, following its UK premiere at the BFI Flare London LGBTIQ Film Festival in March 2021, Wilson-White talks about drawing inspiration from his own family and filmmakers that are willing to expose themselves. He also reflects on film as an ongoing conversation that becomes an ecosystem inside of us and filmS ability to offer viewers insight and healing.
Why filmmaking as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you?
My grandmother started the longest-running theatre in my hometown, on the South Coast of Australia, in 1951. They had a book club, and then they started putting on plays and eventually built a theatre that still exists. I was raised amongst a family of people who appreciated the art of storytelling. It was part of the fibre of who we were. My grandma was always acting, my mum would help build sets, and my siblings and I would all perform.
I love theatre, but I was obsessed with cinema, and particularly Hitchcock. My grandma would force-feed me films from the ‘golden age’ of cinema, including films starring Grace Kelly, and James Stewart. It was a very romantic education.
When it came time to figure out what I wanted to do, I’d been writing and I excelled at creative writing in high school, that was my schtick. I realised that I could turn my writing into directing and moviemaking, and from the age of 14, I set my mind on it.
A filmmaker friend told me, in a slightly frustrated tone, that the question about inspiration tends to focus exclusively on cinema, instead of considering broader inspirations.
I’m inspired by people in my life and what I see. It can be only a moment, or it can be seeing someone reveal a part of themselves. I’m inspired by those revelations. If I’ve been friends with someone for a decade and I’m surprised by their response, I’ll think, ‘I’ve got to take that and put it in a film.’
With The Greenhouse specifically, it was my family. I have four siblings and two mums, and I was inspired by the nuance and complexity of each of them. I wanted to write a film about them, but preceding that, it’s a little of my family and also European cinema.
I’m attracted to softness and tenderness in storytelling. Sometimes there’s a desire to be clever, but I’ve never responded to those stories. I respond to people exposing something of themselves and allowing me in.
For the audience, a film can open doors to our memories, allowing us to understand ourselves more fully. Do you view cinema as a form of talking therapy for not only the filmmaker but the audience as well?
As a writer, you run that gauntlet first, and you interrogate those experiences. You figure out, ‘What are the patterns I’m stuck in? What walls do I put up and why? Why do I dread losing a parent? Why am I stuck in the past? Why do I yearn for an easier time? Why do I struggle to move forward?’ I was asking myself these things.
You go off and you write that story, and then you give it to a range of people. It’s offering up a pathway for them so that they can maybe get there faster than you were able to.
Some of my favourite films have taught me huge things about myself, have given me the courage to say who I am, and to stand by those parts of myself. I live to do that, and it’s a beautiful thing to give your life to offering others insight, peace, healing, joy and terror. It’s a beautiful conversation to have.
Looking through your filmography there are recurring beats. If there’s the idea that some storytellers are retelling the same story, I’d argue it’s not replication, but that you’re drawn to themes and ideas. Would you agree?
How I want to look at my life’s work is that it was a conversation and whether I like or not, [the films] are going to be related. The things that keep me up at night are death, loss, and change. I find it hard to adapt to change, to accept how quickly it happens, and how many thresholds you may cross without realising it, and that your life is now different and it will never be what it was.
Following that to the nth degree, looking at death coming towards you, or for the ones you love, and asking what lies beyond death, are the huge philosophical ideas that I will never get sick of interrogating and writing about. We’re only here for a brief time, but we have so much to offer each other when we talk about the larger concepts. In saying that, it’s about taking a concept such as this and grounding it in real human relationships and emotion, because it’s hard to access.
I remember watching Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), and I almost had a panic attack because the concept just tapped something that was so ephemeral, huge, and molecular. I’ve never seen it again because it broke my mind a little. I want to make films that tap into that [idea], but at the same time are grounded in the world we know, and are human.
Short films are sometimes seen as stepping-stones to a feature film, yet that notion does them a disservice because there are stories that are suited to the short form, and some features fail to acknowledge this. I often think that in comparison to the literary, cinema’s shortcoming is that it has failed to commercialise the short medium. How do you compare short with feature films?
I made a short film two years ago called St. Augustine and it was more a tool of development for a feature I was writing. I wasn’t writing the film I wanted to and I couldn’t figure out why. I took all of the best scenes and turned them into a short film script. I knew I would work with a designer who would have questions about why I’d chosen these scenes, and I’d work with a cinematographer and actors who would be a vital resource of interrogation.
I made the short as a way to figure out what the feature needed, what it was trying to say. Out of that I got a short film I was very proud of.
It also rewired my brain because, on the one hand, a short film needs to be a stepping stone or a proof of concept, on the other it can also be something private that you use to further your craft, as well as the conversation you’re trying to have.
Short films are a black hole of money, you never get it back [laughs]. When I made St. Augustine, I knew I was going to spend much of my own money and I was never going to see it again. I never have.
What I gained from that was an exciting process tool. I would encourage anyone to reconsider the way we’re told films need to be made, which is you write the script 100 times, you prep the shoot, and then when you land on set together it’s the first time you see this world in front of you. There should be practice runs, you should be creating things along the way to test the world you’re about to realise — that’s what theatre does. [Theatre] has development, it has previews, and it does all of these things [necessary] to make sure it’s what it needs to be for opening night. Film needs to take some cues from that.
In theatre each performance is different to the next, whereas in cinema there’s the obsession of the final cut. Art, creativity, and expression is flexible, it can be negotiated with but never controlled nor repressed. I wonder whether we’re guilty of trying to lock film in this rigid and permanent form, when the way we respond to the film in the moment and in hindsight, defines it as impermanent.
If you give me your favourite book and say it changed and shaped your life, I’ll say I didn’t like that book, and so there is the algorithm straight away. It’s wholly personal, and my film is going to speak to somebody, but then somebody in the back row is going to leave saying it’s the worst thing they’ve ever seen.
The common thread is it’s a conversation. I wish we could see film as an evolving conversation that never ends, because once you’ve seen that film, and once you’ve started that dialogue, you live with it forever. It’s an ecosystem inside of you. But we don’t apply that criteria to film. It’s very black and white, which I’m guilty of as well.
With The Greenhouse, you’re not telling us what we need to know, and when we need to know it. The moments of revelation occur naturally, as in real life we experience moments for what they are, versus the mode of viewership that can lean into interrogation of the moment.
I wanted it to be a meditation and play with time. Writing it, I questioned what an audience needs to know to suspend their disbelief to go on this journey. Is it the context of, “I was 15 when Lauren and I kissed”, or is it emotion, and are you having a logical or an emotional conversation? For me the answer is obviously that it’s emotional. You can watch Beth and know exactly where she is, it doesn’t matter about the context, but what you’re getting is a piece of information that’s a piece of the puzzle.
Picking up on your point about the film being a meditation, you’d expect the greenhouse, which is a way for Beth to move between the past and present, to be a bigger part of the story. Instead, the experience becomes a trance, in which everything meshes together, and at some point the clarity of the narrative structure becomes irrelevant. It’s about the individual moments, how we feel about the characters, and how they feel about themselves.
It was a risk to remove those transitional scenes entering the greenhouse. I wanted to play with time and have the ability to say, “this is in the past”, and “this is in the present”. But in a way, that replicates Beth’s experience. She’s living in the past, she’s stuck in that world. So, it was a deliberate choice to make you think you know what this film is. You see her enter and leave, but after the second time, you never see it again.
I wanted to say something in the fabric of the edit, of the rhythm about the appeal, about the intoxication of wanting to live in the past and refusing to sort through what you need to sort through to evolve.
Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright (1971) and similarly Jennifer Reeder’s Knives & Skin (2019), are both about the anxiety of the human experience and could be described as human horror stories. The Greenhouse has shades of this human horror because Beth lives in the anxiety of her past. It echoes the truth that for many of us life is a ghost story; we are haunted by our past.
There are demons in your closet. There’s violence in the greenhouse is because it’s a violent thing. There is rage in trauma, and there’s anger and frustration in pain. The missing piece of the puzzle is when it gets physical because the greenhouse could not fully tell the story I wanted it to if it didn’t go to a place where it became angry and violent.
Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process, where it changes you as a person?
If I’m honest, I feel like a completely different person. I wasn’t born an artist, I didn’t walk out and think I know how to tell any story, nor am I a genius. I’ve found my artistry over a long period of time. It took a lot of failures and I was very passionate and very enthusiastic, but I didn’t have much to say. I’ve found that the person I am now on the other side of The Greenhouse, is a much calmer person.
I feel strongly that the stories are going to keep generating and I’m going to know what’s next. The journey is no longer about raging against the machine and not wanting to write in a three-act structure. I didn’t know why I didn’t want to write in a three-act structure, but as soon as I did, my work became so much better.
I’m incredibly happy with what I’ve been given and the path I’m on. It’s something that I could never have imagined I’d have. I took a big risk making this film and speaking frankly, it turned my life upside down five times over. To get to this point and see who I am, and see how much resilience and courage I have, and also how much conviction in the stories I want to tell, is a gift. It’s definitely transformative.