TORONTO - After working together on the film "3 Needles," Olympia Dukakis said she'd follow Halifax director Thom Fitzgerald anywhere.
And so for their third collaboration, he sent her on a wild career turn as a foul-mouthed lesbian on the lam for his road comedy "Cloudburst."
The Oscar-winning actress — arguably best known for playing the no-nonsense matriarch in "Moonstruck" — admits she was a bit surprised when she saw the film for the first time.
"I hadn't realized how far out there I'd gone," Dukakis says in a recent phone call from New York.
Of course, Dukakis knew her abrasive, tequila-swigging character was a tough old broad — "he was going for a very severe, strong look," she notes of Fitzgerald's vision — but it was another matter to see it up there on the big screen.
Still, she admits she enjoyed playing a character like the bull-headed Stella, which Fitzgerald crafted specifically for her.
"It gives you licence to go places, do things and say things and experience things not necessarily at the top of your personality, your character," says the 81-year-old Dukakis, who also worked with Fitzgerald on 2003's "The Event."
The sharp-tongued Stella hits the road when her partner Dot is sent to a nursing home in Bangor, Maine by a meddling granddaughter. Irish actress Brenda Fricker plays the blind Dot, whose sweet nature is in every way opposite to Stella.
Desperate to stay together, Stella breaks Dot out of the nursing home and they drive to Nova Scotia to be married. Along the way, they pick up a young hitchhiker named Prentice, played by Canadian actor Ryan Doucette, who is visiting Nova Scotia after a humiliating stint as a modern dancer in New York.
Fitzgerald says Dukakis was initially leery of the salty dialogue.
"She had a good talk with me before we started shooting about her concerns — whether she could say some of those words or whether people would embrace it. She's a performer with a lot of associations so (she wondered): Would people welcome that kind of language coming out of her mouth?" he says.
"(But) once those two were allowed to curse I couldn't stop them."
Fitzgerald says Dukakis likes to take credit for casting Fricker, whose lengthy credits include "Albert Nobbs" and "My Left Foot."
"Olympia had a long list of women she didn't want to work with and Brenda wasn't on it — cast by default in a way, but Brenda was my idea of Dottie in that she's just as strong a person," he says.
"Cloudburst" has slowly been making its way to theatres across the country after earning raves on the festival circuit. Fitzgerald estimates the feisty comedy hit about 150 festivals over the past year, many of them focused on gay and lesbian film.
"I didn't even know there were so many film festivals in the world," says Fitzgerald, who burst into the spotlight with his acclaimed 1997 feature "The Hanging Garden."
"From the moment it premiered it stated to pick up audience award after audience award and when that happens festival programmers around the world read about it and they take an interest. And it kept on going and the film's had 40-odd awards now at festivals."
Many of those were audience awards — a surprise for Fitzgerald, who is better known for weighty dramas.
"(It's) a little bit different for me to have accidentally made a crowd-pleasing film," he chuckles. "Usually I watch a film of mine with an audience and I know it's worked if they're sort of crying along the way and it turns out it's much more fun to see people laugh and howl."
Still, Dukakis says she felt a responsibility to handle the material with sensitivity. She sent the script to lesbian friends in long-term relationships to get their thoughts.
She notes older lesbians are rarely seen on the big screen, and when "Cloudburst" recently aired south of the border on Lifetime, it didn't seem to get much support.
"They only showed it twice and one time it was at 3 a.m., so you can see everybody's very cagey with the subject," she says.
"It's probably (because the characters are) old and lesbian. Old women and lesbian feels like you're not going to get any younger audience and that seems to be what everybody is after.... The other part of it is they probably feel there would be a lot of people who would not care to see it, be offended by it, who knows what. This is a strange time with all of that."
Fitzgerald says the film didn't get a U.S. theatrical release, but that "had nothing to do with the content and everything to do with fast cash."
"Television is very lucrative. Independent film releases lose money," he says, explaining that the rights holder rejected several distribution offers in favour of seeking a TV deal.
Fitzgerald says his other projects are bound for the small screen: the 12-episode "Forgive Me" is about a young priest navigating the confessional booth and all of its secrets. It's bound for Super Channel this September.
And in April, he will reunite with Dukakis in Halifax to shoot a six-episode drama called "Sex and Violence" for Outtv. That's about the trials of people working in social services who specialized in domestic abuse cases.
"For whatever reason, for a while now she has certainly inspired me as a filmmaker," he says of Dukakis.
"I love to spend the time with Olympia and get to absorb some of her craft and skills and her wisdom but also I think it's really good to be around people who have lived, who have experience. Not even necessarily in an artful way but as a person, to get to learn what it's like to not be afraid to speak your mind."
"Cloudburst" opens Friday in Toronto, Ottawa, Edmonton, Sudbury, and Yarmouth, N.S. It heads to Victoria on Sunday, to Vancouver on March 15 and to Peterborough, Ont., on March 18.