INTERVIEW: Thomas Wilson-White Discusses Grief and Queer Genre Films with ‘The Greenhouse’ (2021)

This interview contains spoilers for The Greenhouse.

This year’s BFI Flare festival was host for numerous world premiere’s, including Australian writer and director Thomas Wilson-White’s feature length debut The Greenhouse: an poignant story following Beth (Jane Watt), a grieving woman who is able to travel to the past to experience happier memories, but at a cost. After seeing the film and watching Wilson-White discuss the film at a BFI Film Academy panel, I was fortunate to have a personal conversation with him about the writing process, developing a personal story around grief, and weaving queerness into a genre film.

GS: The Greenhouse largely focuses on the theme of grief, did the writing process begin with that theme or was it something else?

TWW: It started with a lot of interrogation as to what I wanted to say, and I really needed to talk and write about something that I cared about that would see me through this whole process. And at the time both of my moms had cancer. So, I was focusing ahead and thinking, what if I could already see what that was doing to my family? I guess I was thinking about the future and that was the genesis of writing the film: how vulnerable I felt when I thought about that concept of losing my mom or one of my moms. So, grief was definitely the jumping off point, but I think a couple of other things came really to the fall pretty quickly, which was yearning and nostalgia. I’ve grown up so much faster than I thought I was going to. Things change so quickly, and I think that that is a really universal thing.

GS: How did you flesh out the story from there into a narrative centred around a fantasy concept?

TWW: I think it was probably a two-pronged approach. I knew that thematically, that’s what I wanted to speak about, but I also knew that the films I enjoy are heightened and elevated. I was writing my (master’s degree) thesis on magic realism as well, in terms of how magic realism and queerness intersect, and how magic realism has often been used to say really political things by making fantastical situations that are actually allegories for genocide or discrimination or whatever. So, I was really interested in how that was going to work in the storytelling, which was how do you have a family drama about grief but turn it into something that is heightened and cinematic as well?

GS: You previously wrote and directed short films, so what was the jump to writing a feature like for you? Was that daunting at all?

TWW: Well, I think my shorts were all quite long, and the three-act structure really opened my brain up. I think when I first learned about it was years and years and years into my career to be honest. I’d really rebelled against formula when I first started, so a lot of my early shorts very ambitiously tried to revolutionize cinema and fight against all the structures that we’ve inherited. And then I got over that really quickly and started making shorts that were a bit more traditional in the storytelling, and in a structural sense. And that’s when it clicked for me. So, jumping from shorts to features, it just felt like a homecoming.

Like I was able to really tell the story I wanted to tell. Scenes were able to go for six pages instead of half a page. And there was the ability to have a more intricate plot with tangents and being plots and stuff. It was daunting in a sense that it was a big risk. There’s so much opposition trying to get a feature made in Australia, particularly an LGBT film, but once I started doing it, it just felt really liberating and I really enjoyed writing the film.

A young woman stands amongst some shrubbery as she gazes into the distance with concern.
Image courtesy of BFI Flare

GS: The story is mostly inspired by personal experiences, but were there any other influences that helped with writing?

TWW: Yeah, I definitely think you go on a quest to finding precedents that will guide you somewhat. You find a whole lot of films, or art, or anything really that has maybe tried to attempt what you are attempting to do. And I fell in love with (Ingmar) Bergman while I was making this film. I read all of his diaries, I bought every book that I could find and read everything I could that he’d written, because a lot of the tension in his early career with himself and with the wider audience was that he was attempting things that were peculiar. But in saying that there’s a lot of people actually. I think Joey Soloway and Transparent, the TV series, was a really big reference for me because it introduced a mythology and a magic to the queer experience in contemporary Los Angeles. And I’ve not really seen anything be so bold and still so grounded in a way like it was. It was really tackling some really big themes, and doing so with this flare that I thought was really exciting and scary.

GS: What do you think was the most challenging scene to write for The Greenhouse?

TWW: Yeah, I thought about this question a lot actually. There are two scenes: I think one of them is the mother’s birthday speech. I always knew that I’d wanted it to read like a eulogy, and that it’s more that she is wrapping up her life and saying farewell in a way. And that is a such intense pressure to put on yourself as a writer, because it also carries the thesis of the film. For me, the point of the film comes across in that speech. She talks about how, irrespective of how hard life was most days, they just felt normal. And that’s the line in the film for me to really summarizes my upbringing. Every day I would just have my lunch packed by my moms, but the world outside would tell me we were different, but really, I just felt like a kid growing up with parents. And so that seems really hard and what ended up happening was I don’t think I had it written. We got to set, and we started shooting the film and I was working with Carmella who plays Ruth, the mother who’s going to say this speech. We were talking about what I wanted for it, and I went home one day and just wrote the first draft and gave it to her. She said this is it, and then we filmed that I think two days later.

And the second hardest scene is the last scene where they see Lillian again in that limbo space where they end up at the end of the film. I think originally that scene was two pages long. There was so much that I wanted to say, so much that I thought if you were given the chance, irrespective of the actual context of where you are or how you’re even there, to be in a space where you and someone you’ve lost can speak to each other and be sentient and conscious of each other’s presence. You just wouldn’t stop talking! So many questions you would have, there’s so much you’d want to say. So, it was really hard to write it because I wanted to write two pages of dialogue and I wrote six lines in the end. And the six lines are really achingly simple and, actually, they don’t speak about anything. But I think in that moment they just get to interact and that’s the destination for Beth: one more shot at connecting with her mom and seeing her mom.

GS: As well as the theme of grief, The Greenhouse is very much a LGBTQ+ story with plenty of queer characters. You mentioned in the BFI film Academy talk about gatekeepers, so was it difficult to finance The Greenhouse once you had the screenplay ready?

TWW: I mean it was really difficult to be honest. There wasn’t really a film like this that exists in this country, and particularly one that centres on an alternative family that isn’t really about the alternative family and the differences. It’s more about the things that make us like anybody else. And so I found we really had no option other than to find private investment and go off and make the film. Once we’d shot the film, that’s when it became much easier because we had the rushes and we had a product we could show to people and say look, it just needs some TLC.

GS: What stands out with The Greenhouse is how it’s a genre film that just happens to feature queer characters. Was this intentional and something you want to bring into future projects- to write queer characters into genre films that aren’t exclusively about queerness?

TWW: I’m really touched to hear you say that about the film because that is my exact manifesto for the film and for anything that I make. I really wanted the film to feel like queerness was sown into  the fabric of the world-building, but completely not the A plot and not what’s driving us forward. That was a really hard thing to straddle writing the film because I also want queerness to be celebrated in this film. I want to explore the nuance of being queer, but I want it to feel domestic and normal and everyday, because that’s how it feels for us.

We don’t wake up and think “I’m queer”, we just wake up and live our lives. So that’s really awesome and the response has been 100 times better than I could have ever dreamt of to be honest. We were in post-production on this film for a couple of years and that was a huge roller coaster of emotions. There were times where I really lost my sight and my vision of what this film was, and then to come out the other side of that experience and have so many peaks and start to hear how people are receiving the work and the story. It’s validating in an artistic and professional sense. But it’s also validating in a personal sense because this is my family and this is my mom’s story and my life story to an extent, and my whole life I’ve spent trying to say to people, this is my family and having them devaluate that and see it as abnormal. So, to make a film about my family and have people see it exactly how I wanted to is really beautiful and really empowering.

Tickets to watch The Greenhouse can be bought at the BFI Flare festival.

Header image courtesy of BFI Flare