The Greenhouse Writer/Director Thomas Wilson-White On Bringing Queer Films to Netflix, Pride in Ones Own Work, and Fairy Tales in This Interview

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One of the curses of running a culture website is that you’ll often get the privilege of seeing films well in advance of the general public. Sometimes they just emerge out of the unexpected ether, becoming a little part of your soul, singing their song in your heart til you’re able to open your mouth and let that harmony sing true to everyone and anyone who will listen.

Today is a glorious day because one such film, Thomas Wilson-White’s powerful queer fairy tale, The Greenhouse, has arrived on Netflix for all to see. I watched The Greenhouse last year, and sat in anticipation waiting for the news of a wider release, and now we’re in the future, I’m able to say, it’s here.

I love The Greenhouse immensely. The cinematography by Daniel Bolt carries an ethereal quality that pulls this time-travelling narrative into a dreamlike state. Jane Watt’s powerful performance as Beth, a woman who carries the weight of grief and is afforded time with her mother who has passed, is profoundly moving, and yet, equally comforting as well, for in Watt’s performance, there is a glimmer of myself in there.

But it’s Thomas Wilson-White’s writing and direction that makes The Greenhouse feel like a vital slice of Australian queer cinema. I jumped at the chance to discuss Thomas’ creative process in depth, and explore what he wants to achieve as an emerging filmmaker in Australia. In this wonderfully open discussion, Thomas finds the comfort in being proud of his own work, and knowing that he will reach a wider audience on Netflix. He talks about the filmmakers who have inspired him, and the hopes of being an inspirational filmmaker for emerging artists in the world.

Read Nisha-Anne’s review of The Greenhouse here.

I watched The Greenhouse last year on AACTA TV, and I was blown away by it. And I kept waiting for the announcement of when it was going to come out to a wider audience, and now of course, it’s hitting Netflix. It’s super exciting. I didn’t know what to expect going into it, but I was moved and I felt just so comforted by it. And it is clear that everything that you had intended to tell with the film you’ve managed to do quite brilliantly. Congratulations.

It’s crazy. It’s surreal to — I’ve never had this part of the process, you know, particularly something of long form — to actually get to interact with people who have watched the film and kind of are picking up what I was putting down in a way.

I think in short films, you really don’t have that sort of breadth of conversation afterwards. I poured myself into The Greenhouse; my experience and my upbringing. I am constantly blown away that people enjoyed it. It’s crazy to me, because it’s so personal. I lost perspective. I think by the end of the edit-because we were in post-production for two years, almost two and a half years-, I was like ‘I know it has a consistent emotional landscape. I know that it feels a certain way.’ I’ve lost perspective on everything else in terms of performance and comedy and drama…  I just have to trust that I’ve made the best film that I can with the resources I have available.

And at the end of the day, if it’s making me feel something while I’m watching it for the 300th time, hopefully there’ll be people who receive that as well.

Definitely, that was the case. And it’s there. It’s all on the screen.

Thanks, Andrew.

It’s sad to hear that short films don’t get the same kind of respect that feature films do. They might have more or equal to the amount of emotional impact as a feature length film. What’s been your journey towards being a feature filmmaker? Obviously working on shorts and testing that out, did you ever kind of conceive short films as being their own entity? Or were they a test to getting the path to getting a feature made?

I think I always felt short films were like a really great way to say one singular thing and to obviously nurture my creative voice and my approach as a director. I feel like I broke my back on short films in film school that no one can watch, thankfully. But around 2014-2015, I made a bunch of short films. And the last one that I made, it’s actually unreleased, but it was a four-day shoot, and the first cut was fifty minutes long. And I remember going ‘okay, so we shot for four days and we have a fifty-minute film.’ And the short film ended up being twenty minutes-ish.

I remember thinking ‘so, all I’d have to do is shoot for twelve days, sixteen days, twenty days if I could, and I’d have a feature film’. And I think because my voice really lends itself to longer form and scenes that can be a bit longer and (the) character arc and character journey that can be a little bit more extrapolated, I kind of just went, ‘Let’s just do a feature, I think I’m ready’. I now look at that person and I’m like ‘wow, so naïve’. It took guts, I think, and I really respect that in my former self who kind of went, ‘Yeah, okay, let’s make a feature film’.

Ironically, I made The Greenhouse and then I went away and I made St Augustine, my most recent short film afterwards. Because I was writing what I thought would be my second feature and I couldn’t crack the concept and the theme. And so I went, ‘I’m going to turn it into a short and I’m going to go away’. I kind of had said to myself, ‘I don’t care if the short film is never seen, if it doesn’t go to any festivals. I’m going to do this as a process tool to find the kernel and the heart of the next film that I want to make’. So, I kind of went back to short films after the feature which was really beautiful. St Augustine went to festivals and did all of this stuff and has really helped me figure out what my next film is, which is cool.

That’s really good to hear. How do you know when you’re ready for a feature? Or what’s ready for a short? Is it just instinct? Like a gut instinct or gut feeling regarding the narrative?

I think it’s instinct. I’ve often found that it’s really useful. I’m really lucky because I’ve been making films with Lizzie (Cater) who produced The Greenhouse. We’ve been making films together since 2015. And she will often look at my concepts and go, ‘that’s a TV show’, or ‘that’s a feature’. I’m getting better at it myself now. I think for a while there, I was developing so many TV concepts because it gives you so much flexibility and variety. I love the freedom of creating ten characters and really drawing a story out and being able to play.

But recently, I’ve really come back to features because I think what I love about cinema and feature films particularly is they really have to earn themselves. The story has to be deserving of being a film, I think, and that’s quite different to TV. I think with TV, you can kind of throw everything at the wall and see what works. But with features, it has to be very singular, I find. Feature films feel more like the domain of the artists still, in my mind, and TV is definitely another beast. But yeah, I think it’s instinct. I felt ready to make a feature film.

And now ironically, I’m dreading doing it again. Because this is the fun part, coming up with the idea and writing it and sitting in my room and kind of, you know, romanticising it all is so much fun. But you know, the real hard yakka is on the horizon.

Obviously, these are completely different beasts, directing and making a feature film as opposed to writing a book, but there is this romantic notion of creating. As you say, you’re sitting in your bedroom and you go, ‘ah, I can think about this, and I can do that’, and you build it up in your mind. And then when you sit down and actually go to the process of it, there are days where you just go, ‘what are you doing? How are you even doing this?’ How do you deal with that?

Look, from one writer to another, I promise you, you will break through and you’ll come out the other side. I think I had probably been dissociating for a couple of years there. I look back on The Greenhouse and I don’t ever remember making the choices I made. How did I convince forty people to go away with me and make a movie? Like, how did we get here?

But I think on those hard days, I have often held on really tightly to a couple of other filmmakers and artists who went and did things similar to me before me, and who did interviews or wrote books, started podcasts or anything. I would go back to those people and listen to them talk about how they found resilience and galvanised and got through. It really was harder than anyone could ever have prepared me for, to get the film to where it is now. But it’s those people that I admire and respect so much who did it before me that became the example and would get me through.

Part of my joy of being on Netflix is that I can now be that for other people in Australia and be a reference point when they’re pitching their films and say, ‘Well, look at what The Greenhouse did and look at where it ended up’. And hopefully I can be that person for another queer filmmaker somewhere.

Who are those people that you look up to?

It’s quite a long list, but the main ones for me with The Greenhouse were Joey Soloway who created Transparent and Michaela Coel (I May Destroy You) was a huge one as well. Cate Shortland, Jane Campion, the filmmakers who really hustled at the beginning of their careers and moved mountains to make their first film. I really held on tight to those sorts of anecdotes of how crazy it is. I feel like we’re similar in the way that I feel very romantically about filmmakers who just go, ‘Let’s make a movie’. And I kind of indoctrinated myself with all of these writer-directors who just kind of went run and gun and just made a movie.

I think often about Christopher Nolan’s beginnings and these filmmakers who in twenty years are directing the biggest movies in the world, but who just started by shooting things with their friends, ultimately. I really wanted to walk in those shoes and just rip the band-aid off and do the first one. That was always kind of my mantra.

I’m glad you mentioned Cate Shortland, because that was the feeling when I watched The Greenhouse. I felt, ‘I’m getting real Somersault vibes from this’. Not so much the narrative, but the vibe and the visuals of the film gave me this feeling of that particular film, I just feel it is in the blood of this film, too.  It’s great to hear you mention those particular filmmakers. And I love to hear about you saying that you want this film to be that beacon on Netflix where other filmmakers can point to it and go, ‘well look at this great queer film on Netflix that everybody can watch and everybody can access’. Because the thing which I love about The Greenhouse is that it encapsulates what it feels like to be silent in a queer identity. And that is really something that is hard to kind of translate onscreen because it’s often so internalized. It’s a feeling that’s universal as well. Can you talk about how you managed to write that into the script?

I felt really passionate about the tone of the film being melancholic and this sort of reflective malaise is kind of the way that I kept on saying it. For me, the greenhouse is born from Beth’s sort of melancholy and grief, and dictated by her emotions and connected to her identity. For me, the film is about finding the courage to come out as the person you are, no matter what that is.

And for me, the really big important moment which many people probably don’t realise is that she finally gets to sleep at the end of the movie, in the car.

She’s spent the whole film having her sleep disturbed by the greenhouse, and to give her rest at the end of this film… it’s probably my favourite part of the film because she has just been running from herself for so long.

I was raised by two mums, and when I came out, it was not the celebration that I thought it was going to be. They were really worried and they said, ‘Are you sure? You know, it’s not a walk of life that we would want for you. It’s really hard’. And I think that’s the reality of the rainbow family or any family that’s different. It isn’t a cliche or a stereotype. There’s a lot of complexity there. And I really wanted to reflect that in the film, and use the other siblings who are maybe more expressive and more confident with who they are, to show that there is nuance inside of these families. And that it is not just, you know, ‘I came out and my mums made me a rainbow cake and were like “Yay, we always knew”’. They were really worried. And that was really sobering, you know?

In relation to the first part of the question, I guess, the film is a really niche family queer story that doesn’t maybe tick the boxes people associate with queer cinema. And so I’m really proud of it landing on Netflix and of us getting it to where it is because I hope it opens doors for filmmakers to have variety in their stories and to be able to say, ‘The Greenhouse found its audience and so can my story’, you know? I definitely held on to a couple of those examples. But honestly, particularly with the queer Australian cinema, it was very limited when I was pitching the film or in rooms trying to sell it or whatever. I was flying by the seat of my pants, just going like, ‘trust me, trust me. I know we can have a festival run, I know that we can find an audience’.

You’re right about queer Australian cinema being quite limited. There’s Teenage Kicks, Sequin In A Blue Room. These are all great films but the audience for them is often a little bit limited. And that’s disappointing — and it’s not because of the subject matter. It’s just because of where they end up in the grand scheme of things, that they’re either on a festival or they get buried as a video on demand thing. And it’s great to have them available that way, but the mentality of people is still, ‘well, I’ve got a Netflix subscription, so therefore, Netflix has everything’. And that’s the benefit of having The Greenhouse on there.

I’m looking at my notes that I had written as soon as I finished watching it, and what I love is something that you’ve kind of touched on there already, which is that this is a film about confronting memories, and it’s the Rubik’s cube of trying to make sense of the past and the present. And just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, the colours change, and that’s reflected in your coming out. There’s a often a belief, at least in media, that families are going to have that rainbow cake ready and go, ‘it’s gonna be okay’. But your mums were concerned for you. And then your life changes at that point, and I feel that reflected so deeply in the film itself. That we think that we’re heading in the right direction and then things just change. I found that really powerful, really emotional, and the way that it’s presented here is fascinating and reflective of so many different people’s experiences and reflective of my experience, at least. So I’m appreciative for that quite a bit.

Thank you. I find the hardest thing [is when] the thing that I can’t really handle in life has changed, I’m so opposed to it and so exposed when I have to really face it. And when I was writing the film, my mum had just been diagnosed with cancer, and kind of just told ‘your treatment’s not going to work and you will die’.

And so we were really — the whole family was crossing this threshold into the unknown and looking forward at a really scary reality. And so I think I just became fixated on the past and how good we had it and when we had no idea. Ultimately, it feels like a snapshot of time where everything was simpatico and calm, and we were just living our lives. And then these things happen to you that completely redirect your life. And I think all of my work is probably going to be thematically in there somewhere and tied to that, because it really exposes me, and I’m a big believer that if it makes you feel really vulnerable, you should write about it and put it in front of as many people as possible. (laughs)

Is there a comfort for you in being exposed, in being vulnerable in your work?

No. I’ve been grappling with this. My next film, I want to write a love story and write about love and how scary it is and how scared I am of it and how much I crave it. And it’s not easier. I thought it would be easier now that I’ve done The Greenhouse, but it’s just always really exposing.

Yes, I definitely have more resilience. I know it’s not going to matter to me if it doesn’t matter to me. So it has to. And that kind of comes with the turf now. But I also seem to have been lucky enough to have a couple of our projects that are comedies or, you know, this movie over here — someone’s asked me to write but it’s like a band-aid because it’s just so joyous or something different. So I can kind of balance it out a little bit.

Do you have a body of work in mind or a theme running through your work? Do you have that in mind as something that you want to achieve as a filmmaker?

Absolutely. Yeah.

I think there’s a couple of tenets that I’ll take through with my body of work. And one of those would be centering queer characters in genre films and putting them into stories that aren’t driven by their sexuality. I think for me, I really craved that as a teenager. I saw everything, I watched every movie and I constantly was projecting myself into these heterosexual roles. And when I started to see cinema or TV that centered queer people doing things that I had not seen them do before, it actually was healing and empowering. And I kind of went, ‘oh, maybe this is what everyone else feels all the time with film and TV’.

So I really want to push the potential for what we’re used to seeing with queer narratives. But I always think there will be a magic realist angle or sort of genre angle on my work. I think I’m just taking it away from reality a step, I find it really exciting. It’s the stuff I grew up watching that I loved. At the end of the day, I think you should be putting something into the world that you would want to watch as well.

Have you revisited The Greenhouse much?

I’m about to watch it this week at some point. But that’s probably the first time in a few months. I haven’t watched it since maybe the last festival we did, which would have been maybe June last year (2021), something like that. I definitely need to watch it again. Because I think in the periods where I don’t watch it, it turns into something else. You know, I’ll read this review or I’ll read that thing, and the movie changes, and then I watch it again, and it’s kind of like coming home, you know? I’m so proud of it.

I just love it.

You should be.

I can hear it in your voice as well. It’s quite beautiful. It’s great to hear because often Australian filmmakers — and I’ve talked to a lot of them — can often feel like they have to almost defend their work or be a little bit defensive of their work. And there is this denial of being proud about their work. So it’s really comforting to hear that you are very proud of it. This is a film that I’m so excited that is going to be on Netflix, because it’s something I can go, ‘Go and watch this movie’. And that’s what I love about what I get to do. You guys make this stuff, and I get to be out there and go, ‘please watch this’. Like, it’s so good.

One of the enduring conversations that I had with people last year was about genre in Australian film. And this film doesn’t really on the surface feel like it’s going to be a genre film, but then it skews into that magical realism. Do you consider it a genre film because of that?

I don’t know. I think genre… I didn’t really realise this until we were trying to pitch the film to people or sell the film, but genre exists mostly for marketing. If you think about the films that you love the most – and I find this with myself – yes, it says science fiction on the cover, but the film inside is a love story or is not science fiction, really, it’s fantasy. Films kind of get shoehorned into genres.

And I understand why. I mean, a lot of people have called it fantasy, The Greenhouse, which… I just would never have set out to make a fantasy film. It doesn’t feel anywhere close to what I thought I was making. Other people have called it science fiction. Other people have called it a psychological thriller. I’ve been calling it a fairytale, because we got labelled as a fairy tale about a year ago in a review, and I was like, ‘I’ll take that’. That’s the closest thing, because I mean, she goes down to the woods. It’s got a sort of ethereal nature to it. I don’t know what to label it. I just say drama. I say a time-travel drama.

Yeah. I think that works. Because fantasy makes it feel like, ‘oh we’re gonna go down to Rivendell and there’s going to be elves and stuff’.

(Thomas laughs)

No, this is not that. And that’s what I love about The Greenhouse as well, is it pushes against genre. It’s pushing against all of those things. It’s pushing against the norms. And I think that’s again something that Australian filmmakers have been a little bit afraid of doing, about pushing against what has already been established, afraid of trying to change it and shake it up. And I see you as a really powerful new voice in Australian cinema and very excited to see where you go from here. Because you know exactly what you’re doing. And it’s clear. It’s great.

It was a lonely path to tread. I think I now understand. I’ve read so much by people who have done similar things – and I would never compare myself to those people – but who have gone, ‘all right, I’m going to do this thing, and everyone’s telling me no, and I’m going to try and prove them wrong and commit to my vision’. And, it was really daunting because there were very few films that I could say, ‘it feels like this film’, or ‘it looks like this film’, or ‘it’s that film meets this film’. It doesn’t really lend itself to those sorts of comparisons.

But often in the film industry, that’s the comparison that sells the script to someone. It’s been bizarre. I’m trying not to overthink it for my next film. I’m trying to just intuit where I want it to go and then listen to it. What story do I want to write? What scene do I want to write? Why do I want it to go there? I’m not necessarily going to interrogate it until I’ve got a script. Because I think that’s kind of where the magic is actually.

It feels like you are really comfortable with your own work. And that’s really nice to see as well. Oh, I’m so excited.

Somebody said to me once – I mean, this is specific, like the exact moment in my life. I was prefacing a short film I’d made and I was like, ‘oh, it’s not very good. Blah blah, blah, blah, blah’. And the person was like, ‘why would I want to watch it if you tell me it’s not good? You can just be proud of it. It doesn’t matter. You can be happy with what you did.’

And it just like blew my whole worldview apart. Going into all of this for The Greenhouse and knowing it was going to go to press and that I’d do things like this (interview), I went ‘I’m just going to love it and be proud of it. I’m not going to defend it or feel like I have to, you know’.

That is so comforting. Because I think that we all do that. It’s taken me a while to feel proud about my work that I do. And it’s a hard step to get to there. It can sometimes be just having somebody go, ‘well, why would I want to watch that? Why would I want to pay attention to it?’ It’s as simple as having confidence in yourself. And that can sometimes be external. And sometimes it’s an internal thing. And I think that we all need to take that away and learn a bit of that.

It’s very Australian, right?

We inherit this from the culture we grew up in. But I think there’s a really nice balance that we can strike where – because if you’re too Hollywood, people will be like, ‘oh, no way. I’m not listening to you’… I try and do everything with love. I try and speak from my heart. But it’s a fine balance.

Oh, it is.

Where was it filmed?

So other than the train station and the driving scenes – they were shot in Berry in New South Wales – we shot the whole film in Jervis Bay at a friend’s farm like just off the water. It was a five-minute drive to the beach. And the family knew my mums and knew my family, I grew up with them. They were really passionate about hosting us and letting us shoot. I mean, they were literally eating dinner in the living room, and we’d be shooting this super emotional scene in the kitchen. We just took over their house. And by the end of it, it was like clockwork. I’d be like, ‘okay, so we’ll be shooting here, here, and here today’. They’d be like, ‘cool. We’ll just go out for the day or whatever.’ They’re amazing. So yeah, that’s their property.

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