Some people meander aimlessly through life, doing university degrees they don’t use, working a string of meaningless jobs, watching cat videos, wondering at the meaninglessness of existence, the futility of human endeavour, and whether they should change their name to something more badass like ‘Jet’. Ok, full disclosure. “Some people” is me. I do that. Then there are people like Thomas Wilson-White.
From the age of 15 he has unwaveringly known what he was put on the planet to do, and has doggedly worked at making that vision a reality. In doing so, he has created around himself a team of talented, beautiful souls who work together, with love and laughter, to bring magical visions into existence. Tapping into his own unusual upbringing, TWW specialises in telling the stories of the ‘Others’; the ‘weirdos’, the voiceless minorities, outsiders who’s tales are rarely told in film.
Which is all well and good, but the other night I found this:
So we’ll call it a draw.
A while back DSM had the honour of sitting down with the man himself and getting his thoughts on life, his craft, and his upcoming feature film ‘The Greenhouse’. Strap in for an insight into the beautiful mind of Thomas Wilson-White.
Feature image by the very awesome @s.wilson_photography
DSM: How would you describe the shit you do?
TWW: I make sick work with people I love. I’m a writer/director and I’ve been writing and directing my own work for about 10 years.
DSM: How old are you now?
TWW: I’m 24*. My first film, ‘The Good, the Bad and the Mexican’ was written when I was in Year 10. It was hilarious and has inspired more of my work than I thought it would, to be honest. An absolutely ridiculous film. I made it for school and it was the first film my best mate and I made together.
We wrote it, he shot it and we both acted in it actually.
“I directed it and we had a cast of about 20 friends of ours from high school, which was so stupid. Looking back, it was possibly racist… definitely racist…”
DSM: A bunch of Aussie kids pretending to be Mexican?
TWW: Yes exactly! And we subtitled what the Mexicans said even though they were speaking English, just really bad, poor form. But I was like 14 so… no regrets.
DSM: So in your very first film you had a go at writing, directing and acting. Was it clear from that first experience that directing was what you wanted to do?
TWW: I think with writing and directing it was immediately clear that I had more control over what I wanted to see on screen.
“I’d been writing for years and I thought I wanted to be a writer who sat in a house by the sea and wrote for the rest of my life. But then I realised I was far too outgoing and social to just do that. So I was like, “You’re an idiot. You want to be making films.”
“I love working with people I love.”
Collaboration is why I keep doing it. I was really lucky to find what I wanted to do when I was 15 years old. And there’s not been a single day that I’ve doubted it.
Around the same time my mum let me watch Kill Bill 1 & 2 and Sin City and they just blew my mind with the style and the visuals. Especially Kill Bill. I’d never seen anyone do anything like that before in cinema and I was like “This is so up my alley”. Even seeing a strong female lead, which is something I’ve had more or less in every film, I feel like it really shaped me. Even though I feel like we all outgrow Tarantino a little bit as we get a bit older maybe.
DSM: His films are more director-centric also, as in, even people like me, who aren’t film experts, can spot his distinct style.
TWW: I think that’s a good and a bad thing. As a filmmaker now myself I would say, to have your fingerprint on it in such an overt way can sometimes do a disservice to the honesty of it, so there’s a happy medium to be found somewhere there. Between that, and not being able to see the director at all and that’s also not where I want to end up.
DSM: I can see some sort of ‘Thomas fingerprint’ stylistically though in your work, how would you describe it?
TWW: I think I figured out that it’s Magic Realism. I’m currently doing my thesis on that in my Masters degree, but I didn’t quite realise that that’s what it was until I saw a lecture on it.
DSM: So you did it, then heard about it and then realised you were doing it already?
TWW: Yeah exactly and my world fell into place.
DSM: That was me when I realised I might be a hipster. I saw a buzzfeed list on like “It you have these tattoos you’re a hipster” and I had like 3 of the 5 tattoos. It was a hard day.
TWW: Yeah totally, I definitely found with Magic Realism that all of the films that I love and aspired to make films like, like ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’, Michel Gondry’s films, and Spike Jonze’s films, even back into childhood, the films I loved the most always had Magic Realism elements.
DSM: I don’t know the genre what is it exactly…
TWW: So it’s like magic is normal to the people in the world.
DSM: Like Neil Gaimen novels?
TWW: 100%. It’s sort of like going into a trap door into John Malkovich’s head and being like, “I’m not going to have a conversation about how ridiculous that is, I’m going to talk about the philosophical implications” or whatever. And then from there you just have this basis of magic being part of the world, so now lets talk about whatever we want to talk about in the film. Pan’s Labyrinth is another dubious example because some people argue that it’s fantasy but the magic is a real part of the world.
DSM: Why do you think this genre has resonated with you so strongly since childhood ‘til today?
TW: I think it’s just the way I see the world.
“I would say I look around me with stars in my eyes a lot of the time. I find coincidence, the ability to love somebody as much as you can, the sort of lives we live are just riddled with magic. If you want to look at it that way. Some people have sort of condemned me for being too naive a lot of my life, and I’ve found that it’s actually my weapon of choice now.”
To flip that on its head and show people the beauty of what’s around us is so important, now more than ever, to remind people what we’ve got.
I try keep my films with a positivity to them. I think that naturally comes out in the way I write. But also with an alternative underlying political message at all times. Growing up with two mums and a bunch of queer siblings and being queer myself has meant that I have a duty to sort of rewrite that narrative as well. Change the way people see queer cinema, change the way we write characters, because it’s not really good enough. So I would say the idea is having all this spectacle, all this great fun magic stuff, and underneath that, having real honest human interaction that carries a message that I think is really important.
“And just making things that I’m like, ‘Fuck, I would want to see this film so bad, and I made it!'”
I think we’ve all made something and been like “What am I making if I’m not making something that I would want to see?” I think I spent a few years making films and ended up thinking “Have I really been put on this earth to overthink everything, never follow my intuition, and try and be clever, or have I been put on this earth to follow my heart and at the end of the day make a film that I would pay $25 to see?” I think you just have to trust yourself, that you know how storytelling works, and overthinking that can sometimes destroy the honesty of something.
DSM: What stories do you want to tell most?
TWW: I think I want to tell stories about the “Other”. Like about alternative family units or the person who feels like they’re underrepresented in the media.
“I grew up with two mums, and looked around the world at media and there was nothing that said “You’re normal.” You know? Not even like, “You’re special”, just, “You’re normal.”
And having two mums is still legitimate and you can still have the life you want to live. And the way that’s covered at the moment seems to often be either really angsty or really flamboyant and I don’t want to do either of those. I want to normalise the “Other”. I want it to be the centre of attention in a way that the storyline of those characters can be completely different to the way they’ve been written in the past.
DSM: Why is it important for you to tell these stories of the “Others”?
TWW: Because that’s the world we live in.
“We live in a world that is outrageously opinionated and fighting constantly. And that’s partly because there’s no one communicating, no one stopping and gently telling somebody why they’re being transphobic or why what they said is fucked or discriminatory or whatever. And so we need to be telling stories that do that job. Stories that bridge the gap between a heteronormative, white audience and every single other person on earth.”
Because that’s kind of what it’s like at the moment, there’s this real divide.
DSM: And the reality is, the “heteronormative white dude” is just a tiny little segment of greater actual society himself…
TWW: And that person benefits from the traditional narrative. They get a more “wholesome”, understanding life in front of them because those are the stories being told.
“That’s why I’m trying to do it through cinema, because if I was to say to somebody “These are all the things you’re doing wrong”, that person is just going to shut down, like the way I shut down when somebody says to me “You didn’t do the dishes right”. Even if they’re right, I’m like, “I’m not listening to you now because I’m a fully grow autonomous adult”. But if I can show you a film that sweeps you off your feet, and along the way you realise that the people in the film are breaking boundaries and breaking gender norms and breaking binaries…”
DSM: And you find yourself identifying with someone who is perhaps living “contrary” to your current way of life.
TWW: Yeah and you might find yourself saying “Yes that’s a gay man, but his story wasn’t about his sexuality, it was about losing his mum, and I can relate to that.”
DSM: There is a real gap in that kind of storytelling isn’t there.
TWW: Yeah and if these kinds of things are portrayed it’s often so overtly sexualised. And that’s something that personally has not been my trajectory. Like I spend most my day trying to stay fully clothed, you know.
DSM: I have always found it interesting, our obsession with defining people primarily by their sexuality. Like obviously sexuality is a big part of who we are but I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s the defining feature of a persons personality.
TWW: I feel exactly the same sentiment but it follows me around. It’s my adjective. It’s how I’m introduced to people sometimes, and that’s fine, but not quite as multifaceted as I actually am.
DSM: It’s amazing so many people care so much about what you want to do with your dick.
“And how little I am doing with my dick, and how hard I’m actually just working on my film.”
And it’s the same for people with other ethnicities and cultural backgrounds.
Even with the film I’m making now about a family, there’s never a moment when you can “pin them down” and that’s completely deliberate. The siblings are outrageous and funny and annoying and shitty, and they have boyfriends, but then they have girfriends and you can’t grab them, box them and understand them, and I wanted to do it like that. I wanted to present a family unit to Australia that you struggle to understand for a bit, then give up half way through the film trying to figure them out, and then you’ll hopefully just enjoy yourself.
“It’s taken me a year to write it and it’s taken a lot of self-excavation to uncover my inherrant phobias and really question what I think. Like, ask myself why I havn’t been making queer films for the last ten years.”
I realised I had a lot of issues with queer cinema myself and that’s because nobody had said “You can do whatever you want”. I’d kind of been told “This is what queer cinema is.” It’s hectic and I often don’t even like watching it so how can I expect anyone else to?
DSM: It seems when a film has a big serious undertones and messages, they’re often not particularly enjoyable to digest.
TWW: And I’m not an inherently dark person, although I like putting some sinister stuff in my work. I think those stories have had their time, where a persons dark side was their sexual side. Now it needs levity. It needs to be buoyant. We need to bring it up into the daylight and be like “This is the day to day activities of a gay person,” or whatever. Just normalise the shit out of it. And that’s only the beginning. The really frustrating feeling is, this is the renaissance now, like this is new queer cinema that is developing and growing. Now we need to get rid of the label “Queer Cinema”.
DSM: That’s what I was going to ask, is the label “Queer Cinema” still desirable or necessary? It might be a naïve question, but would it be better to just be “Cinema… and this story that happens to portray a range of sexual identities”?
TWW: I think at the moment it’s inevitable because it’s still so niche. It’s been made to be niche. It’s been pushed back into the fringes of the cinematic world. And it needs to just spill across naturally. Just like with female film makers and all of that, there needs to be less fanfare and less pats on the back and just more of it.
DSM: Getting these stories to the screen is obviously your passion, do you remember seeing depictions of the “Other” that made an impact on you?
TWW: There were a few films and books that I read. I would say “Transparent” the TV show just changed my life when I started watching that. It’s about a super alternative family who just break norms down constantly. Jill Solaway, the maker of that show is my absolute hero. She just lives her life for equality. She runs her sets in a really beautiful, intuitive way where there’s no yelling and it’s not like the military and the hierarchy is collapsed and everybody talks and shares.
“Instead of screaming “Action” and expecting your actors to go to the depths of human experience after you’ve just yelled at them, they just gently go into filming. And it shows.”
If the show was shit you might be like “Whatever,” but it’s Emmy Award winning, Golden Globe Award winning and that really inspired me.
DSM: Is that how you run your sets?
TWW: I took a huge leaf out of her book and really tried to question the film set in itself. The film set is sometimes… often populated by a lot of ‘Alpha males’. There’s a really strict hierarchy, and yet we’ve forgotten that we’re trying to reflect the human condition and pure emotion and you’re trying to move your audience. And it feels like… has anyone ever actually watched a Marvel movie and had an emotional reaction other than “Whoaaaaa siiiick”? We’ve lost it. People are losing it. It’s become something else. We’re lucky to be in Australia because no one is looking at us so we can just foster this.
DSM: Is Australia a good place to be as a film maker?
TWW: I think so. I think my struggle is, is that I will battle for the rest of my life to make films here. No matter how good they are I know that I will still fight for the next one, and the next one.
DSM: Why is that?
TWW: Because there’s not enough money to go around.
“There’s not enough people saying “Boldness is good.” And if anything, my films are bold. They have charaacters you will not have seen before saying ridiculous shit and doing ridiculous shit in a Magic Realist world.”
Hopefully that’s something I can continue to do because I love it, but I just know that until things change I will have to fight. Whereas if I went to America I feel like more oportunties could open up in front of me. But I’m an Australian so I want to stay here because this story in America is just one of many, but telling a story here people are like “This is sick, I haven’t seen this before!”
DSM: So Australia is a bit of a blessing and a curse. Apart from the classics I have to admit, I don’t really get excited for Australian film. On a plane recently there was a subcategory of “Australian Film” I totally skipped it. Why is that?
TWW: I watch them out of duty. I’m not sure. It’s hard to talk about and not get shit for. But is it because we hate our own accents? We do struggle to embrace ourselves. And Australians often carry this underlying weird guilt.
DSM: We’ve got the tall poppy thing and our cultural cringe…
TWW: Yeah but I think it’s time to move on.
DSM: It’s like the only films we enjoy that are made here are taking the piss out of ourselves.
TWW: Totally. But what changed my perspecitve about staying here was Mad Max Fury Road. Which I know was filmed in South Africa, but watching that film and hearing our accents and being like “This is sick, we can do this!” So after watching that film I was just like “Now George Miller is my idol and I can do this if I stay here.”
DSM: Most kids who grew up in rural/coastal NSW where you did seem to have had the options in post-school employment of either the Navy or a trade in mind. ‘Film Maker’ isn’t high on the list for most kids from around there. Did you come from a creative family?
TWW: My grandma started the local amateur theatre down here in 1951. The ‘Nowra Players’. It started as her and a few of her mates in a book club. And they started reading a play and they decided to put the play on. So they got this space and I grew up watching her act and she made us all do drama. And more than that she and my mum really fostered a love of old Hollywood cinema in us. I grew up watching Hitchcock and Carry Grant movies and Grace Kelly. I reference those films so much in my own work. And as “un-PC” they are often, they carry a real sense of magic with them. I think my film making came from that.
“We had nothing to do down here. I’d just watch a shitload of films. I was always watching films. It was that and the beach was all I did for, like, the first 17 years of my life.”
A lot of people I know from this area are creatives because of that. There was lot of time to foster obsessive obsessions with things and dream really big. Its crazy to now be seeing those dreams come true. Making my first feature film now at 24 years of age, and that’s crazy to me.
DSM: Tell us about this film!
TWW: It’s called The Greenhouse. It’s about a family of four kids who were raised with two mums. And basically, one of the mums have passed away and all of the kids have moved out of home except for the eldest daughter who is kind of paralysed by fear of change and fear of leaving her widowed mother alone in that property. She finds this trapdoor one night in the property and climbs into this tunnel which takes her back into the past. So she starts going into the past and revisting all the shit that happened to them as kids, all the battles their parents had to fight to be lesbian women with a family, and starts seeing her dead mum again, and becomes addicted to the past. Starts abusing the past. The living mother finds out and decides she will go in there and never come out because the love of her life is in there. But things start to get a bit crazy from there, as the past goes crazy if you break the rules.
DSM: Feature films are expensive and difficult to make, yet you persist in making them your focus, rather than earning big buck$ making coke commercials.
TWW: Yeah I made the choice a few years ago.
“I realised that if I went off and made the things I could make just for the money and to survive, every second that you are working on “that thing” is a second you’re not working on your thing. So I decided consciously to be poor for this next decade, but after that I will reap the rewards and have fun the whole time I’m doing it. Because I don’t know when I’ll be gone, and I don’t want to spend a second of my life making something for this or that, I want to make what I’m here to make.“
It takes thousands of hours to get to the place you should be artistically. It’s taken me ten years to get to this point and I’ve never made something I didn’t want to make. And I’ve never made something I didn’t write or create myself.
DSM: So how do you eat?
TWW: Barely. Like to be honest, a lot of the time I’m just scraping my rent together. I work a couple of days a week, I do my masters full time, and for the last couple of years you get used to living at bare minimum. It’s a beautiful existence. I don’t have anything I doing need. I eat, I cook, I enjoy my life and I am 100% artistically and creatively fulfilled at all times because I am doing this work.
DSM: What motivates you to give up a more lavish lifestyle and make the sacrifices of this minimalist way of living. It’s a very long-term payoff…
TWW: I just don’t think there’s another option for me. The feeling you get when you wrap that film or when you get that take and everyone behind and on screen has gone above and beyond and you see something that you never imagined you would see in your life it is insanely addicive.
“Making work with people who you know and love, and putting your heads together, it’s like being a team of superheros. These people come together and do impossible things.”
DSM: Is it the process or the finish product that you find so addictive?
TWW: It’s a bit of both. But I would say that by the time you have a finished product you’re pretty much done with it and onto the next project and it’s already taken too much of your life! Like “I have a beard now and I’m a different person”. It’s the process where you see amazing things happening on a daily basis. The process puts you at your best.
DSM: Did your formal studies help?
TWW: Yeah. Right now I feel like I’ve studied too much. Undergraduate in Melbourne and post-grad and masters at the Australian Film Television and Radio School in Sydney. All up over five-and-a-half years now. But a lot of that was for economic reasons, to facilitate making things, I needed stuff to get things made and because of that I’ve made 18 short films in the last ten years. Unless you’re rich as fuck or spend 5 years making a shit load of commercials… it’s hard. But I feel, for me, my growth rate from doing my own projects in the last few years has been huge because I wasn’t off doing those other things. And earning enough money to eat better.
“But whatever. I’ll eat later.”
DSM: For people who are essentially you ten years ago, and for people who are creative and want to pursue their passsions, and for people who may even feel like “The Other”, what would your message to them be?
TWW: You will always doubt yourself and your ability because you’ve never been told that you are the one that will succeed. Because you’re on the fringe. You aren’t the things you “should be”, what you see is reflected in the media. But that’s actually where all your power comes from. That is where your strength should come from. The difference you hold, that is so sought after.
“Whatever you’re trying to do, just trust the voice inside yourself, regardless of who you are, because it will look after you. You will go to bed and wake up with yourself every day so you just have to think you’re the sickest.”
Be stoked about what you’re doing. Don’t try to be anyone else because everyone else is just struggling along too. So look after yourself. Or something like that. I wish that someone had told me that as a kid. Trust yourself. No one’s going to help you. Love yourself and believe in yourself. And have a big dick. That always helps. Don’t publish that.
Since this interview Thomas has wrapped filming on The Greenhouse and it’s currently in the final stages of post production. They had an incredibly successful trip taking the film to Cannes Film Festival this year, won a Queer Screen finishing grant of 10K, and the film should be on screen sometime around the start of 2019. As we speak TWW is writing his next film, which we’re told fits in the crowded genre of “fishing village mystery”. For now check out the trailer below!