Halifax-based film director Thom Fitzgerald can be forgiven for feeling as if he has suddenly become a character in someone else's movie. On Sept. 14, Fitzgerald's first feature film, The Hanging Garden, which was shot in Halifax on a modest $1.5-million budget, captured two of the top trophies at the Toronto International Film Festival, including the Air Canada People's Choice Award. In previous years that prize, chosen by festival viewers, had gone to such films as Shine and Chariots of Fire, which went on to garner several Oscar nominations. For 29-year-old Fitzgerald, it was the culmination of 10 frenzied days of being chauffeured to meetings with agents of the fabled Hollywood studios, and then rubbing shoulders with them at parties and premières. After returning to Halifax, where The Hanging Garden opened the Sept. 19 to 27 Atlantic Film Festival, Fitzgerald was still trying to put his startling success in perspective. "Part of the blessing in all this," he told Maclean's between sips of coffee at one of his favorite local bakeries, "is that I don't know what the hell is going on."
What seems to be going on, judging by the critical acclaim and commercial interest that greeted The Hanging Garden's initial screenings, is the emergence of a major new talent in Canadian cinema. The film, which Fitzgerald also wrote, is an often humorous and curiously uplifting account of an extremely obese gay teenager, William, who appears to commit suicide, only to return 10 years later to the bosom of his dysfunctional Nova Scotian family. It includes a hard-drinking father who verbally and physically abused the teenager, and a mother whose first response to her son's homosexuality was to fix him up with a neighborhood woman who turned tricks on the side. The film-maker is deliberately ambiguous about whether the older, slimmer William, played by Toronto-based actor Chris Leavins, in fact survived the suicide attempt - or if his reappearance is just some collective family hallucination.
None of which would seem to be standard Hollywood fare. Yet, in addition to the accolades - The Hanging Garden also shared the $25,000 Toronto-CITY-TV Award for best Canadian feature with Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter - the film has reeled in a juicy $700,000 contract with MGM for distribution rights in the United States. That deal was struck during the Toronto film festival after what Fitzgerald describes as "one of those bidding war dramas that you hear about and envy as a film-maker." The Hollywood deal-makers, he recalls, "wanted to take me to breakfast and lunch, and so I went. Some of them were really transparent, brutal assholes, promoting themselves by putting down the competition. But most were not. They all wanted something, so they were very nice to me."
Amid all that attention and flattery, the approval that Fitzgerald says mattered most to him came from his mother, Pat Denkyo, who flew in from her New Jersey home to attend the Toronto première of The Hanging Garden. It was her credit card, after all, that Fitzgerald lived on for six months while writing the screenplay. Denkyo later told her son that she had called his father, whom she divorced when Fitzgerald was a young boy. "She hadn't said civil words to my dad in 20 years," marvels Fitzgerald. "She told him that their son had made a very beautiful film, and that he should be very proud. "
Mention of his sometimes troubled family life raises an obvious point: just how autobiographical is The Hanging Garden? Gently clearing his throat, Fitzgerald responds: "I'm queer. I was a teenager. I considered suicide." As early as his high-school years, he adds, his classmates and teachers knew he was gay. While he remained popular - he was a class president and a choir soloist - his self-esteem took a beating. "It wasn't that other people didn't like me," he says, "it was that I didn't." In part, he made The Hanging Garden as a way of telling other young gays that life is worth living. "You know, a friend pulled me aside the other day to tell me about a 15-year-old boy who had just hanged himself after a relative asked if he were gay," says Fitzgerald. "Probably watching this movie wouldn't have made a difference. But you never know."
The buzz surrounding The Hanging Garden, which is set to open in theatres across Canada on Nov. 7, promises to send Fitzgerald's career - and life - on a whole new trajectory. Born in New York state, Fitzgerald moved to Halifax in 1987 to attend the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. He later scraped together a livelihood making short videos and working in a local theatre collective. These days, Fitzgerald, now a Canadian citizen, is being inundated with offers to direct movies (typically, Hollywood has typecast the young film-maker, sending him projects involving abusive fathers).
For the time being, Fitzgerald is content to finish shooting a long-planned, low-budget documentary, Beefcake, about the gay men who published and purchased the popular muscle-building magazines of the 1950s. He is also taking his celebrity one day at a time. "I'm just figuring it out," he says, "and trying to stay out of my own way." With the fickle film world beckoning, a level head is probably just the ticket.
Maclean's October 6, 1997