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Home / Film / Interviews / Interview: Ann Marie Fleming, Writer and Director of Window Horses (2016)

Interview: Ann Marie Fleming, Writer and Director of Window Horses (2016)

Currently looking for distribution in the states, Window Horses is the story of a young woman named Rosie Ming who gets invited to participate in a poetry festival. While Rosie’s poems center around her love of Paris, a city she’s never been to, the festival is in Iran. Away from home for the first time, Rosie finds out more about herself than she bargained for, along with the rich history of a country known as the land of poets.

Recently back from attending a screening of the film in Morocco, writer and director, Ann Marie Fleming, was able to speak to us about the creative choices that went into making this beautiful, animated feature.

On the screening in Morocco…

Fleming: It was pretty amazing in Morocco because that was the first time that I’d screened the film to pretty much an Islamic audience. I was really kind of nervous and it was just the most amazing response. It was so warm and it even got a standing ovation.  It was one of those situations, I guess; it’s a culture where people talk at the screen, so that there’s kind of this interaction. You know, I’ve shown it all over the world but that was really, really different.

Diabolique: Were you able to understand what they were saying, or did they speak English?

Fleming: It’s a Francophone festival, so it was with French subtitles. So, it’s pretty interesting because, obviously, it’s primarily for a North American audience but, when I travel with it, it’s always shown with subtitles. Sometimes a lot of kids come to the screenings, too, who are too young to read that fast. Everybody still sees the same film.

Diabolique: Now when it’s with subtitles, do they have subtitles during the poems? Because when you watch it in English they are deliberately left out.

Fleming: Right, no.

Diabolique: Was it always planned to be that way, or was there any argument over whether they should be added?

Fleming: Oh yeah, my Canadian distributor thought there should be subtitles, but the idea is that it’s Rosie’s point of view. So she doesn’t understand, then we don’t understand, unless of course we have an entry into that language.

Diabolique: When did you first get the idea for this project?

Fleming: It’s a long story but it really happened 26 ago. I was an artist in residence at this castle in Germany for international artists. Actually, Didi, the exiled Chinese poet is completely based on this guy that was my neighbor

Being in Germany, I was surrounded by artists from all over the world talking about their own particular diasporas, especially the Second World War, which had a particular relevance and resonance because of where we were. I was really taken by all these fractured stories of families that came from so many different countries, spoke different languages, and often didn’t talk about their past. So you had this doubling of a generation gap, because of the history that wasn’t told.

I am from a pretty diverse family, myself, so I am always interested in these kinds of stories. I was born in Japan. My mum is mostly Chinese, from Hong Kong. My dad is Australian, I am an immigrant to Canada.

Also, I was introduced to Iranian cinema and the poetry of Rumi when I was in Germany.  Iran and Germany have long artistic ties, it seems. Rilke brought Rumi to Germany, and there have always been ties since then.

When I came back to Vancouver, many years later, and became involved with the Iranian community (all my films have something to do with the people I am surrounded by and are part of my life) I was struck by a) how I knew so little about Persian culture, history etc., b) how similar these crazy stories were to the stories I’d heard from all over the world, c) how negative a view we have of this incredible, complex culture, and d) how similar the roots of Persian civilization (poetry, art, etc.) were to China… and the cross-pollination around the time of Rumi/Tang dynasty.

I thought I would transpose my story of the German diaspora after the Second World War, to the Persian diaspora after the Islamic revolution, to make it more current, and obviously relevant.  And I would make it animated, and it would star Stickgirl, my avatar, and she would be half Persian, so I would be implicated in this story.

A lot of people think that Rosie Ming is a real person. She IS real, but she isn’t human.

Diabolique: What made you decide to cast Stickgirl as Rosie Ming?

Fleming: Stickgirl… yes, why did she continue to be a stick?

Diabolique: Because it was especially interesting since none of the other characters are stick people.

Fleming: I created Stickgirl when I was back in art school and had been run over by a couple of cars (I made a film about this). She represented all the strength I had in my body at that time, and we’ve been on many filmic adventures together. We even have a Stickgirl poetry oracle app [Ed. Note: available for free on iTunes]. I have to say that I never considered “non-stick-girl-ing” her.  I was just concerned that she would “fit” into the more fully realized world I was dropping her into.

She is the most fully drawn character. A lot of people ask me that question, and then answer it for me. She is still forming, and you don’t judge her. She is so simple – a tabula rasa, really, so you can put yourself in her place.

Diabolique: Structurally, I thought it was interesting too, because I don’t think you mention she’s half Persian until she’s in Iran, so you don’t realize how personal this story is going to be…

Fleming: Yes! I went back and forth, and back and forth, about whether I would reveal that before she goes. As it is now we just think that her grandparents are a little racist, not that they have much more personal fears for their granddaughter. There are hints. The Iranian map behind the Eiffel Tower… I wanted to show how Rosie was conflicted. She does, and she doesn’t, want to go to Iran.

Diabolique: It goes back to what you said about people misunderstanding cultures, too. For better or worse, you don’t question why her grandparents are nervous that’s she’s going away by herself for the first time to a poetry festival in Iran, but then later you realize their concerns are with what she might find out about her dad.

Fleming: Yes! I thought it was better to wait to find out!

I made a graphic novel out of the storyboard originally, because I couldn’t get funding for the film. In THAT version, she has a chat with her friend, Kelly, about how she is afraid to tell her grandparents and conflicted about meeting her father. But then it’s less of a mystery (not like it’s the biggest mystery).

Diabolique: It’s a big trip for anyone but it cracks open all of these family secrets and you don’t see them coming…

Fleming: I’m glad it is a surprise. The thing is this: life is really like that.  You start looking for something and everywhere you will find it, just like one of the characters says. You just feel you have to do something, and then the world opens up and you are changed, and you are more vulnerable and open when you are in a place that you are unfamiliar with. That’s why Rosie forgets her iPhone on the plane. She doesn’t have her security blanket of music or friends on the other end.

Diabolique: That was actually my favorite line! About how you pull one thread and it all comes tumbling out…

Fleming: It’s so true! Let me tell you a crazy story…

Diabolique: The crazier the better…

When [the voice of Rosie] Sandra Oh came on, she attracted a bunch of actors that I wouldn’t normally have access to, but she didn’t know Nancy Kwan.  I thought Nancy had the perfect voice for the film, and I liked her pedigree of being the first Asian (even though she is Eurasian) actor to break the race barrier for a leading role in Hollywood in the World of Suzy Wong. Of course, there was all that controversy because she played a prostitute, but I digress…

Anyway, I had a very particular voice for the characters in my head and I thought that Nancy would represent my family. She was of a certain age, brought up in Hong Kong… blah blah blah… but how to find her?

I remembered that my aunt had some connection. She lives in Honolulu, so I e-mailed her. Turns out Nancy was coming for dinner that night. She was invited by the Hawaii Film Festival. She said she would be happy to be in the film.

I called my mum up (she lives in England) and told her the exciting news. She tells me that a) Nancy used to date a friend of the family, and b) that my grandmother looked after her during the war in Hong Kong. Nancy sends me a picture of herself and her brother, as babies, on the lawn of my grandparent’s house with my mum, her sister, and brother.

And the person who played Didi was actually AT Tiananmen Square, I found out afterwards. Navid Negahban, who plays Amir and Mehran, went through the Iran-Iraq war and had his stories to add. Anyway, it was all kind of like that.

Diabolique: That’s what amazing about the film. I mean, movies themselves are a collaborative medium but you make a point of showcasing all these different styles of animation, too.

Fleming: Yes.  This is a point of view film.

Diabolique: Did you have people in mind, while writing, for who you’d like to write, or animate, the poems at the fest?

Fleming: I always wanted the style to become more elaborate as Rosie’s world expands, and I always wanted to have different styles for the poems and history because it is about different imaginations, possibilities, and points of view.

I have worked with different artists in the past, so I had some ideas of who I’d like to work with, but I also had a very small budget, so I reached out to friends of mine —people I knew— who I thought might be up for a collaboration, all across Canada.

Kevin Langdale, the lead designer and animator, is someone I’ve collaborated with many times. We worked for years on building this piece, off and on. I would send him references from Tang dynasty, Edo period in Japan, Persian calligraphy, miniatures, current fashion…

Neither he nor I had ever been to Iran, and Kevin had no familiarity with Iranian culture, so I tried to introduce him to as much stuff as I could. It’s all a bit weird, really, but I think we did a pretty good job.

We had a lot of consults on every level, for this film: the poems, the translation of the dialogue, the music, the art, the characters, the clothes, the way of drinking tea…

Diabolique: You wouldn’t even think about tea.

Fleming: Well, the sugar cube thing. Window Horses took about nine years from start to finish. but only about a year and a half from when I started the Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. So, pretty fast production. Rosie is still open like a little kid, in a way that most of us aren’t once we hit “adulthood.” We are afraid to try things, afraid to say we don’t know.

Diabolique: One of the things I admire most about Rosie is that she’s never afraid to admit she doesn’t know something, even as simple as when Dietmar starts naming all these poets she “should know” since she’s a poet. She doesn’t smudge the truth.

Fleming: Yes, she’s very brave. Some people find her annoying, because she doesn’t know much, but I know a lot of people who are really isolated in their own worlds.

Diabolique: Because by admitting that she gets to hear all these great stories…

Fleming: Yes! People are very kind, and patient, and open to her. They want to share. I met this woman in Korea who saw the film. She was mixed race (African-French?) and was an artist herself. She was really frustrated by Rosie, but then was really moved by how tender and generous people were to her.

I said that we are living in some pretty dark times and that a lot of artists are responding to that with dark work (the horror genre is certainly part of that!) and I wanted to make something that was light, and optimistic.  And not cynical. And she said that she was one of those “dark” artists, and that she wanted to try another way, after watching the film, which is kind of cool.

My last feature was a horror film.  It won best feature at the Boston Underground Film Festival in, gosh, 2006? It was called The French Guy and it was a reaction to a very violent event that I was part of (an aural witness to a murder). It was also about what we don’t understand about other people, cultures, and languages, and if we knew more, we’d be more useful. It was a hard place to be in. I’ve made a lot of short films in between. Tonally, all very different, but this film is about being open, staying curious, and listening to others.

Diabolique: I think, like Rosie, that’s what makes your films stand out and feel so fresh, because there is this hesitation to talk about other cultures, because you don’t want to offend anybody, but if you don’t ask you can’t find out and lose this amazing history.

Fleming: Yes, cultural appropriation is a phrase that has cut down on a lot of exploration, artistically. So many families do not want to talk about their past. You can understand when it is so difficult, but some people just are not storytellers, also. I have had a lot of Iranians come up to me and talk about the film (which I get a thumbs up on). They love it that someone from outside their culture has taken the time and care to represent it.

When I was making it, people were confused about why I was doing it, and nervous that I was uninformed about western co-option of imagery, like the chador. It is hard to say anything about Iran without it being political, and this is not a political film. It tries to walk the line of listening to different people tell stories. History. Truths. from different angles.

That’s another thing about her [Rosie] being a Stickgirl. She is NEVER going to fit in. She is always the outsider but, at the same time, she has the basic things that we can recognize as human. She’s without all the layers we put on.

Diabolique: That is a great way of putting it. This is a kind of a spoiler-y question but was the plan always to wait to show Rosie’s father until the last scene?

Fleming: Yes. And I didn’t want a big hug at the end, or to know what happens next.

I had to write that because people gave me a hard time about it, and I had kind of a birds-eye view meeting, which I cut, and the actors (Sandra and Navid) played it out very emotionally, and I did kind of a father/daughter love montage at the end… cut it. We can fill it all in in our own heads, and it’s going to be a difficult reunion.

Diabolique: That scene is very set in the now, while anything else would’ve been about regretting the past or anger.

Fleming: Yes! It’s like the final scene in The Graduate (1967). Because that’s real life. We can have this tenderness and forgiveness most consistently in art.

Diabolique: Are there any new projects you’re working on or that you could tell us about?

Fleming: I am coming up with a graphic novel for Window Horses that I am putting together with Bedside Press in Canada.  We are going to crowd-fund for that one, too.

I made a documentary film [Ed. Note: available for free on NFB] and graphic novel about looking for the story of my great grandfather called The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam. He was a world-famous Chinese vaudevillian acrobat and magician and he toured the world with his mixed-race children (including my grandmother) and his Austrian wife. Pretty crazy stories! Anyway, I have been working on a feature about my great-grandfather’s life in the ’30s in L.A.-Vancouver and I am going to put my head back into that after finishing touring with Window Horses.

Diabolique: Would that be animation?

Fleming: I can’t decide if it should be animated or not. On the one hand, it would make it so possible… but is magic and acrobatics magical and death-defying in a world where everything is possible? I am trying to figure out how to do it.

Diabolique: Was there anything I haven’t asked that you would like to mention?

Fleming: I am always happy to talk about Window Horses!  It’s a very important film for me! It’s got a message we need to hear right now!  And I just want people to know that we can all make a difference, every day, if we can just stay open… peace through poetry!  Art shows us who we are to each other. Things will always change!

About Rachel Bellwoar

Rachel Bellwoar is the Comics Editor at That's Not Current and a contributing writer for Flickering Myth. Her first Alfred Hitchcock movie was Rear Window and she questions the value of the binge model for watching television — much better to avoid endings. Having found out who killed Laura Palmer, she compensates by watching as many David Lynch films as possible.

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