The gay film-maker Thom Fitzgerald (below) had to fight for eight years to make 'The Hanging Garden', His second film, about US muscle mags, should be a piece of cake. David Benedict met him
Most people have a pretty hazy idea about what they'll be doing the weekend after next. The writer/director Thom Fitzgerald is booked for the next five years. That's not unheard of in the film business, but Fitzgerald's action-packed diary is the result of just one film, The Hanging Garden, which happens to be his feature debut.

"I don't know how to gauge it," he beams, helplessly. "It's certainly a little different." A typical understatement. It took eight years to make, including four years full-time when he finally gave up his day job in 1993.

His conviction paid off. First screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, The Hanging Garden walked away with the audience award and also picked up the prize for best Canadian film. For anyone out there who still thinks the last decent thing to come out of Canada was the Mountie, he shared the prize with Atom Egoyan for The Sweet Hereafter. Canada has a nationwide addiction to American film, but it has done record-breaking business and was nominated for 11 Genies, Canada's Oscars. MGM snapped up the distribution rights, and it opens here and in the US today.

Despite flying under Canadian colours, Fitzgerald was born in the late Sixties in New York's suburban New Rochelle. He went to art school in Manhattan, to work in film and performance, but moved north to study in Halifax, Nova Scotia, 10 years ago. Until The Hanging Garden took over his life, he was dividing his time between making shorts, working in a theatre collective and scraping a living.

A swift glance at movie history will tell you that there is nothing like a wedding. It is the quintessential family ritual, the private made public. Fitzgerald's film joins some illustrious company, albeit from a refreshingly oblique angle - and not just because he put himself through art school by photographing weddings in Nova Scotia.

The film centres on Sweet William (Chris Leavins), who returns to his parents' country home after years of silent absence to celebrate the marriage of his boisterous, larky sister, played by a feisty, foul-mouthed and very funny Kerry Fox. She was startled to discover that there were only 12 days to shoot her entire role - but then the whole movie cost around pounds 600,000 (it looks far more expensive) and was in the can after just 25 days.

Its emotional intelligence is striking, as is its multi-layered texture. Directors rarely explore beyond the literal nature of film, but Fitzgerald deliberately courts ambiguity with a clear narrative of fraught family relations that yields more than one interpretation. Has William really come back (and from where?) or are we watching a fantasy?

None of the standard descriptions which spring to mind do it justice. "Dysfunctional family drama" makes it sound unwatchable; "a coming-of- age story" sounds prescriptive; "a ghost story" sounds implausible; and the fact that the protagonist is gay might lead one to assume (wrongly) that it is "a gay film". It certainly wasn't labelled gay in Canada; however, after showing at the London Film Festival it was picked as the gala opening film of the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, where it went down a storm.

"I have no idea what a gay film is," says Fitzgerald, disarmingly. It is a slightly combative position. He has a habit of making stark statements (or maybe they're questions?), with a completely open expression which is positively unnerving.

"The term keeps evolving. Whatever it is, my film has none of the generally accepted gay film prerequisites: the gay character does not get to have sex; there are no long lingering shots of anyone's butt ... that's not what it's about."

In fact, it is a question of perspective. We see a story of past and present through the eyes of a gay protagonist. And, equally importantly, from the position of an out gay film-maker.

Take the eloquent evening scene between William and his mother in the kitchen after the wedding. There is a low shot of her stepping up on to a chair, and we watch her feet wobbling in their smart wedding shoes. Then it cuts to her looking round the room and remarking that it's a very different perspective from high up.

Nothing in this shot suggests the straight male gaze. It is absolutely not about how attractive she is or how good her legs are. While setting up the shot as a pre-echo of a climactic sequence at the heart of the film's punning title, Fitzgerald focuses on the intimacy and sensuousness of family relations.

"It's partly to show that she's wearing purple shoes," he adds.

This is not a frivolous remark. All of the characters are named after flowers from the father's lush, bloom-filled garden which William grows up tending, and rooms and clothes are colour-coded.

None the less, the evening scene is one his co-producers wanted him to cut. "They said it wasn't relevant to the plot."

Fitzgerald had to prove himself every step of the way. "Everything was up for debate: every moment, every line of dialogue, every performance. Their point of view was, 'We know better'." He pauses. "In some cases they did."

He is already up to his ears on his next movie, Beefcake. This is living proof that a hit buys you insurance. It makes you more than roadworthy, even if you are making a film about the man behind the American muscle mags of the Fifties, who at the age of 13 began photographing his friends in the nude and never stopped.

Fitzgerald is probably one of the few people who has ever optioned a picture book to make a movie. The more research he has turned up - from memories of the real-life models, some of whom are now in their nineties, to an LA County Court trial about a Fifties male prostitution ring - the richer and stranger his movie becomes.

Meantime, he is in negotiations with producers in Montreal over a film he is writing called The Eye of the Beholder, and balancing projects with Diane Keaton and Nick Nolte.

He still finds the publicity circus bewildering and exhausting, and like all film-makers is happier talking about what he is doing now rather than reflecting on a film long since completed. But maybe that is also because shooting Beefcake has turned out to be a completely new experience. A broad grin bounces across his face. "No one has challenged anything I've said."

'The Hanging Garden' is on selected release.