THE WILD DOGS written and directed by Thom Fitzgerald, produced by Ann Bernier, with Fitzgerald, Alberta Watson, Nelu Dinu, David Hayman and Mihai Calota. 97 minutes. A Mongrel Media release. Opens Friday (June 7). For review, venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 92. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
When the time comes for Thom Fitzgerald and me to talk, he's busy drowning off the coast of South Africa."I was hundreds of yards offshore, with five young men trying to get me out of the riptide," he explains.
This may sound like a convenient fantasy, but it happened.
"It was really scary," Fitzgerald says, disarmingly deadpan. "I'm gonna buy those guys a boat."
Fitzgerald is in tiny Port St. Johns, South Africa, directing Sandra Oh and Olympia Dukakis in a movie called Three Needles. It's the latest stop on his filmmaking world tour. Last year was Romania.
He'd returned to Bucharest to make The Wild Dogs, an intense, personal exorcism of his first experience as a director-for-hire.
In the film, he plays a Canadian pornographer who travels to Romania to scout new talent. He falls in with a group of whoring expats, nightlife mercenaries and disabled outcasts. One man's legs are bent backwards, giving him a gait like a broken stork. One boy has no legs at all.
He'd met some of these Romanians when he first went to Bucharest, to direct a TV movie called Wolf Girl for the USA Network.
"I had gone to make a film about some special and freaky people, but what I was actually hired to do was a teen slasher film," he says. "I never thought I'd be filming beautiful 18-year-olds getting hacked to death. The pressure was constantly on to raise the death toll and show more cleavage."
In its gritty, wistful way, The Wild Dogs takes on the moral dilemmas of filmmaking, of sex and of travel from a rich place to a poor one.
"I don't think I ever left my hotel at night without being offered sex for money," he recalls, "and all kinds, and the most vile kinds."
In The Wild Dogs, Fitzgerald offers that temptation to his own pornographer character and to Victor (David Hayman), a Canadian diplomat wildly spending his seed before he goes under the knife for testicular cancer.
"It served my essential metaphor in the film, that the line between humans and canines is much finer than we'd like to define it," Fitzgerald explains. "Victor is about to be neutered, so he's going around like a hound dog, trying to use his testicles as much as possible before he loses them. And, to be honest, I think I judged him much less harshly for that than audiences seem to. Frankly, if I were going to lose my testicles, I would probably use them."
It's Fitzgerald's understanding of both predator and prey that makes The Wild Dogs so watchable. The film's centrepiece is a powerful bath scene between Alberta Watson, as the diplomat's wife, and the street begging boy with no legs (Nelu Dinu).
What connects this film with the queer fantasias that made his name (The Hanging Garden, Beefcake) is how effortlessly it draws outcasts to the centre.
"It's not like I see myself in that role in the world, of being the outsider," Fitzgerald demurs. "But my empathy levels have always been very high for people who are a little bit different.
"Humans are cruel," he continues, "and people who are different need a greater strength of character.
"Of course, I have lived life with that essential, invisible difference. Maybe over time I've grown to view that difference as a special gift. For society to have at times asked me to sit on the outside and just watch was obviously very defining.
"And I do, I watch.
"But it's just one thing, right? There's nothing terribly special about being queer. There are so many things that make people different."