’Cloudburst’ :: Oscar winners take to the road
If having Oscar winners Olympia Dukakis ("Moonstruck") and Brenda Fricker ("My Left Foot") play a lesbian couple of thirty years is not enough to pique your interest in the new comedy from Thom Fitzgerald ("3 Needles," "The Hanging Garden"), how about watching Olympia Dukakis butch-swearing her way on a trip to Canada to get legally married?
Originally a stage play, "Cloudburst" won the 2011 Merritt Award, Nova Scotia’s theatre award for Best New Play. The screen adaptation has been traveling the film festival circuit in Canada since late last year and has picked up awards from Vancouver to Montreal, and stateside in San Francisco, San Diego and Palm Springs. The film could likely be the gay film to crossover to mainstream success.
"Cloudburst" is essentially a road movie about Stella (Dukakis) and Dot (Fricker), a lesbian couple in Maine who after more than thirty years together, risk being separated by Dot’s granddaughter who is oblivious to the couple’s relationship. They decide that they should, once and for all, get married to give legal credence to their relationship. To do so, they travel north to Nova Scotia. Along the way, the couple pick up a hitchhiker Prentice (Ryan Doucette) who needs to get home to see his dying mother.
Without being political, the film takes a heartwarming look at an elderly couple’s journey to attest their love while shining a spotlight on the ordinary nature of same sex marriage in Canada as compared to the ongoing fight for marriage equality here in the U.S. The couple’s motivation to get married is simple: to keep the family together as they each approach the end of their journeys in life.
Olympia Dukakis excels in a role that she has never played before, a butch lesbian who leads in the relationship with her femme soul mate who is blind, played by the ever reliable Brenda Fricker. Before you can say "stereotypical roles," Director Thom Fitzgerald is quick to point out that he has done research to justify the traits in this long term romance.
Thom Fitzgerald talks to EDGE about his tribute to committed relationships, while reflecting this moment in history where same sex marriage remains a struggle for devoted couples.
EDGE: How does the story come about?
Thom Fitzgerald: I have been with my partner Doug for thirteen years so it was just an interesting thing on my mind, to think about how the world is changing so quickly now and how that would be even more extreme for someone who is 70 or 80 years old, to have doors that are closed one’s entire life suddenly open and the realm of possibility suddenly so different that not everyone is eager to go through the newly opened doors. This trepidation, sour grapes, they talk about in the movie with regard to the institution of marriage. So that is what is on my mind, really thinking about the pros and cons of getting married.
EDGE: The story is told from the perspective of a lesbian couple in the U.S. who has to cross the border to Canada to get married. The question that came to my mind is that, would their marriage be recognized when they come back to the U.S.? Why would they go through with it?
Thom Fitzgerald: That is quite the conundrum at the moment. In reality, in some states it is, in other states it is not. So their logic may be flawed.
EDGE: The couple lives in Maine, where same sex marriage is, as in California, taken away from them...
Thom Fitzgerald: I actually shot a scene that talks about that. When I started writing, there was no gay marriage in Maine, and then when we were close to shooting, it became legal and that changed everything. By the time we began the shoot, it was illegal again. I wrote a scene where they talk about wanting to be married for good. That they just have to do it once. That it would not be taken away like a see-saw instability. Dot said she is willing to do it but only once. They have to go somewhere where it would still be legal. I think it is a great romantic gesture on Stella’s part and she believes it will make a difference in a situation, whether it would is a completely different story. People who have seen the film would see that it never really makes a difference. Even Stella understands that, legal or not, their particular situation outside all the politics of it, they are not going to be able to stay together.
EDGE: After 31 years of being together, is marriage still important?
Thom Fitzgerald: I would say, after 31 years, it is up to the couple how a couple self identifies. It does not really matter how anybody thinks, probably including me, even if I made them up. That is what I concluded. I do not think I could say that it does not matter without being attacked. For those two, I think it does not matter. Self determination is the journey that they are on.
EDGE: If they are not married, they still have a granddaughter who is in the dark about their relationship. People still do not know about what their situation is.
Thom Fitzgerald: I think it is true for older people, they still carry the worldview of when they came to age. Everyone does, more or less. Back then, they fell into their butch and femme roles and they kept their relationship hidden. It had already caused big problems for their families obviously in the 1960s, so that is why it is probably their fault that their granddaughter does not know. You can hardly blame her.
Issues of discrimination
EDGE: There are also other issues like inheritance, the power of attorney. At their age, it is something that they have never thought about when they were younger. Even for same sex couples right now, it is not something that they would think about.
Thom Fitzgerald: You are right. I do not have a will! That is not unique to people in same sex relationships, but I guess we have more reasons we should be diligent about it. I think that for Dot, it is her house. She is younger than Stella. I do not think they have given much thought as people do not. It is just something that is not on their minds. Even if they go through all this.
EDGE: Even as they age...
Thom Fitzgerald: Once they are threatened with separation, although Dot keeps uttering the refrain, ’Let’s get a lawyer.’ Stella is very single minded. What it comes down to is Stella really wants to be married and that is what she fixates on. Marriage is certainly not the only option to address the issues that they are facing. A lawyer is probably very sensible.
If you think about it in terms of interracial marriage, it was the proliferation of places that became legal that ultimately led to it being legal everywhere which was fairly late recently, somewhere in the late sixties. By then there were only 16 states where it was still illegal. It became legal state by state by state. Of course the anti-misogyny laws, even the states reflect their own biases, like in the south, it was illegal for Mexicans to marry European people; in California, it was Asians who were not allowed to marry European Americans, in the east coast it was African Americans who were not allowed to marry European Americans. So the only difference for gays and lesbians, is that they are everywhere.
EDGE: Even in Canada, for the longest time, you also have that issue of not allowing certain ethnicities to marry others as well.
Thom Fitzgerald: For sure, although Canada tends to be very slightly in the big historical context, ahead in the curve than America. Because Canada, which is still part of the Commonwealth has closer ties with Europe and tends to see how things work in Europe a little sooner than the U.S. does. Slavery ended sooner in Canada. I actually did not know much about anti misogyny in Canada. I was just writing a scene about how Anna May Wong (the first famous Chinese American actress), was not allowed to cross the border into Canada when she was on tour in the 1920s, and Canada actually barred all Asian women, Chinese women in particular, from entering Canada for a couple of decades. Canada also did not welcome Jews during World War II, for example. There are lots of shameful racist histories in Canada, and certainly homosexuality was still on the list of communicable diseases in Canada until the 1980s.
Same sex marriage also happen province by province in Canada. Nova Scotia was fairly early in the game. Once the majority of provinces had declared it constitutionally required, then the federal government shrugged and passed it nationwide. I believe that how the story will go in the U.S.
Making Stella more vulgar
EDGE: Are you married to your partner?
Thom Fitzgerald: No. (laughs) I made the movie instead. We have thought about it but have not made the decision.
EDGE: How do you define your relationship?
Thom Fitzgerald: I think we get to define our relationship as beautifully dysfunctional in its own way, like every couple.
EDGE: Let’s talk about the cast. How did you get these two Oscar winners, Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker, to star as a lesbian couple in ’Cloudburst?’
Thom Fitzgerald: I wrote to Olympia a couple of times. I love her. I would say that she is as much as an inspiration for the film to exist as any personal inspiration. I really wanted to write her a part that would challenge her in many ways because Stella is very different from Olympia where Stella is very impulsive and often illogical, Olympia is very measured and thoughtful and she is also very maternal, but she has this rage and anger that I admire. The fortitude to speak her wisdom, she’s 81 now, that I really aspire to, I hope I become more wise and more brave before I am 81. She never seemed to think twice about it, no hesitation.
EDGE: Were there any tweaks while filming Olympia’s character, Stella?
Thom Fitzgerald: She added a lot of curses while we were shooting. At first, they were both concerned about saying some of the vulgar dialogue, but the script was their bible. Once they were allowed to say, "Fuck you!" I really couldn’t stop them! (laughs) Both of them! That’s what she added to the script. She made Stella more vulgar!
EDGE: Did you have to direct her much?
Thom Fitzgerald: I did a Q&A with her recently where she said that I directed her a lot, so I guess she felt that. I have worked with her a few times. Every actor has a fall back palette of gestures and sounds they make, facial expressions that fall into and I specifically wrote Stella to have Olympia move away from that. That is the challenge of it. I had a very clear idea of how Stella was.
EDGE: So you wanted to show a side of Olympia that few has seen before.
Thom Fitzgerald: Yes, I wanted her to be able to channel certain parts of her that I have glimpsed but also I have a lot of other inspirations for Stella I had in mind. I know a lot of foul mouthed bull dykes that are full of piss and vinegar. They are a lot of fun to be around, for me, not for everybody. I never get to see many of these women on screen. I thought that was a real shame, so I wanted to make sure she really was a foul mouth bull dyke that I was inspired by. I also wanted to see if an angry, loud, rude, butch lesbian could be a movie hero.
EDGE: How was her research process like?
Thom Fitzgerald: She brought the script to a lot of lesbian friends. Olympia was initially concerned about playing a butch, butch. It was her lesbian friend of her own generation who advised her it was very credible in the writing, that back in the 1950s and 1960s, that was how women courted and that was the role that they generally fell into. She felt very good about it after talking to some women. I like to write characters that maybe reflect a certain stereotype, but also by spending time with that character, you see the depth and the dimensionality that accompanies the stereotype and the whole person. There is usually one woman in a plaid shirt or a business suit that questions that after screenings of the film. (laughs)
They are not caricatures. I do not think anyone could honestly say these women do not show growth and change, and a spectrum of human feelings in the film. Stella may be a little loud. Dot may be a little reticent. But over the course of their drive, Dot does start to stand up for herself a little bit and Stella does learn to pause before speaking sometimes.
A fun process
EDGE: How about the process of working with Brenda Fricker?
Thom Fitzgerald: Well, Brenda is an incredibly gifted and intuitive performer, whereas Olympia would show up with a binder full of notes. Brenda’s big challenge is that she is playing blind. She did bring to the table a lot of nuances, things you do not even notice, like in the beginning of the film, she is plucking her chin hairs without a mirror, for example. Or she always makes sure to look at the person talking because often actors playing blind do not do that, but Brenda, in her research, found that blind people do look at you when you talk to them because they are having a conversation like everybody else. She is so funny. She is Irish. What was so happy for me is that she sounded just like my grandmother (laughs) and has that mastery of passive-aggressive that the Irish have. Well, my large Irish family certainly has that as well.
EDGE: Was the script written that way or that was what Brenda brought to the table?
Thom Fitzgerald: I think that she finds the double meaning in everything. Somehow say the sweetest thing and make it sound a little mean, and sometimes say something very mean and make it sound very sweet. She is a poet, that is how I think of Brenda. She does write poetry. When you listen to the way she says anything, there is a poetic rhythm to it, and so I really love how soft that made Dot.
EDGE: It sounds like a fun process to shoot this movie.
Thom Fitzgerald: It was a really great way to spend summer. It was hot as balls, as the saying goes, which is odd because balls are outside and they stay cooler, right? But they were in the little truck for two months out on those roads. They were so hot. We did not anticipate that because that is Canada. We did not anticipate that giant heat wave. It never rained the whole time until that one day when it rained, it poured. We had fake rain going but it was really raining the entire time, so it has a feeling of a southern dusty road trip. There is always dust rising, which is very unusual for Nova Scotia, which is a very wet, Scottish kind of place.
EDGE: What were other challenges you faced in the making this movie?
Thom Fitzgerald: There were some huge challenges in making a road movie that I learned about. The director is so far away from the actors in their moving vehicle. I was in another moving vehicle riding in front of them, sitting on a box in the back of a pick-up truck. My only way of communicating with them was to yell over walkie-talkies, and I couldn’t even see them except on the monitor because there were giant lights and cameras were fastened to the rig that was towing them along. To do something so intimate, the three of them had such chemistry, there really was not much to worry about. The chemistry among them is what would make the film.
EDGE: What is the scene that means the most to you?
Thom Fitzgerald: The scene that I love the most is when Prentice was dancing on the side of the road and Dotty wakes up to watch him. It is very rare, as a filmmaker, that any scene I create looks just like it did in my mind just like a wrote it. There are a thousand steps in between that change things a little bit, but that particular moment when she is watching him dance and Stella is asleep next to her, that is exactly what was in my mind when I imagined it at the moment of inception. I have made whole movies where that never happens. I had originally written the part of Dot for Joan Orenstein who was blind, but she passed away before we got to make it, so that also makes me think of Joan.
I also love the great big scene in the movie where the women are allowed to be romantic, which is, kissing in the rain, and even that, they are bickering. Olympia is having her fiftieth anniversary to Louis Zorich and Brenda is a long term widow. They both completely understood the innate hostility that comes along with a thirty year relationship. They never allowed the film to be sentimental. No matter how sentimental a scene might be, there is always friction between them, even in something as gentle as a bath, Stella is chewing gum and Dot flinches from her touch. Nothing is ever romantic in this romance, but there is that one moment when they kiss. That is the longest shot in the movie. I like that.
Finding Ryan Doucette
EDGE: How did you find Ryan Doucette to play the young hustler who travels with the couple?
Thom Fitzgerald: It was his debut. He did the play. He auditioned for the play I did six months before making the movie. I did not think I could cast him because he had a thick French accent, but I decided that I could have him in the play, but then he showed up with no French accent, he lost it. He watched a lot of Jerry Springer and taught himself how to do it without his natural French accent.
EDGE: Did he have to overcome the pressure of working with these two great actresses?
Thom Fitzgerald: A little bit, but they both took to him just like Stella and Dot take to Prentice. They were just instantly mothering him, constantly coaching him. If anything, he had to struggle to learn that having crafted a really great stage performance which he did, he had to learn that he could not offer that same performance on screen, that they are two completely different mediums. He did a marvelous job to hold his own between those two.
EDGE: We are also seeing the relationship between Stella and Dot through the eyes of Prentice.
Thom Fitzgerald: I assume that there are people who are struggling to relate to Stella as a protagonist. There is only one scene in the movie that is without Stella. I was wrong about that. Ultimately, I think people do relate to Stella, her point of view and her quest is so simple. She is just trying to keep her family together. What I glean is that everybody alive understand that dilemma at some point. We all had to make some heroic efforts to keep our family from falling apart. That is the nature of life. I did not realize how universal this was until I have had the extreme pleasure of going to fifty film festivals. The film has gone to a hundred, I have been doing nothing but going to festival since last September. It does not matter where I am, people do relate to Stella, whether it is mainstream audience or gay film festivals.
Stella is really trying to keep her family from changing but that is not possible either. Prentice represents how families change. He has got his own family troubles and he also changes Stella’s family.
Fantasy vs. reality
EDGE: There was this scene where Prentice announces in a bar how cool it is to be with this lesbian couple who has been together for so long.
Thom Fitzgerald: I hear a lot in the States about the audience feeling that it is a fantasy of a scene, but I did not write it that way. In my mind, that is what would happen if someone stood up to toast an elderly lesbian couple who will be getting married the next day be met with cheers, but in America, people find it to be more of a dream sequence. I think that is just how it would be just in any bar in Nova Scotia. When you have ten years of same sex marriage, no one questions it anymore.
EDGE: For a film which has lesbian as the main characters, you see quite a bit of male nudity, some of them rather in your face. What is behind this decision?
Thom Fitzgerald: I think the nudity in the film is mostly very funny. There is no sex nudity in the film. It is all in the name of comedy. I was happy and impressed that Brenda was so brave, Randy Boliver as well. (In the movie, Randy Boliver, who plays Prentice’s father, has his genitals right on the face of Brenda Fricker) There is also a fair bit of Ryan’s flesh on screen, but that is very natural for that character.
EDGE: There are quite a few scenes which are quite physical for Olympia Dukakis involving chasing the truck a couple of times in the movie.
Thom Fitzgerald: Olympia was 80 when we shot the film. The whole movie, when you think about what Stella does, she is jumping on people, punching them, shouting at them, kicking them, driving like a maniac. She is in good shape. I promise her before we shot that we would not work more than 12 hours a day. It is amazing. She does yoga. I think she is so vital because she is so interested. She loves to learn and be challenged. I do not even think I am going to live that long. I do not even have her energy. I could not believe how strong she is, not just as a performer, but as a person to be able to do that.
Brenda had a much tougher time going through all those, being in a truck, bouncing around. She had a shoulder replaced. At 65, it was much more challenging for her to get through the movie than it was for Olympia. (jokes) It was more challenging for me to get through the shoot.
EDGE: What do you hope the audience will take away from this movie?
Thom Fitzgerald: It really is just an entertaining romance. Maybe they will feel romantic when they leave the cinema. I always think it must be very strange to watch this movie along, partly because it is a comedy. With a comedy, that shared experience of watching it with other people laughing is part of the point of a comedies.
"Cloudburst" will be seen on Friday, July 13 and Sunday, July 15 at QFest in Philadelphia; on Saturday, July 21 at Outfest in Los Angeles; and on Friday, July 27 at NewFest in New York City. For more on the film and to find out more about its upcoming DVD release this fall, visit the Cloudburst Facebook page and/or the film’s official website.
Watch this clip from "Cloudburst":