Veteran Canadian animator, writer, and filmmaker Ann Marie Fleming is no stranger to using her personal journeys through life as inspiration for her work, but her latest feature Window Horses (now playing in Toronto and Vancouver before expanding to additional cities) might be her most poignant and widely embraced effort to date.
Debuting to great acclaim at TIFF last year and getting named to Canada’s Top Ten, Window Horses (The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming) tells the story of its titular protagonist, a young Vancouver woman invited to Shiraz, Iran to take place in a showcase of poets based on the strength of a self-published volume of works centring on visiting Paris, a place she has never visited. A budding poet who takes any noticing of her work very seriously, Rosie (voiced by Sandra Oh, who also serves as a producer), jumps at the chance to visit Shiraz, much to the chagrin and consternation of her grandparents. Rosie not only sees the trip as a chance to forward her budding career as a writer – at an event that she doesn’t realize is actually a poetry slam competition and not a genteel reading of works – but as a chance to get in touch with her roots. Rosie’s Chinese mother passed away not long after her Iranian father seemingly abandoned his family to return to Iran. On one hand, Window Horses is a simple, unpretentious look at the creative process and where writers draw inspiration from. On the other, it’s a lovely story about a search for identity and answers about cultural heritages that seem to be at odds with one another.
It’s a delicate, lovely animated film, and we were able to catch up to Fleming last week while she was in Toronto to introduce a screening of the film to talk about her own creative process, the look of the animation, why simply constructed films are often best to bring larger issues to light, and how she convinced Don McKellar to do a German accent.
Window Horses is now playing in Toronto and Vancouver. It opens in Montreal on March 17, in Ottawa on March 31, and expands to theatres across the country throughout the winter and spring.
Window Horses starts out telling a story about a writer who writes not because they make a living at it, but because they love doing it, and that’s a place that I wish more films about writers would start at instead of telling a story about an old veteran having a crisis of conscience and talent. Rosie is self-published, relatively talented, and she’s still finding her voice as an artist. Was that fresh perspective of a relatively novice poet something that was on your mind while putting this film together?
Ann Marie Fleming: You know, I think you totally nailed it. I think all of us are creative in some way, and as children and younger people, we dabble with whatever excites us. For myself, it was writing, and I think that a lot of young girls have journals, poems, or short stories that are so meaningful to them, but they never share it with friends because they’re so self-conscious about it. Eventually that self-consciousness takes over and judgement takes over, and most people stop to go on and do more “sensible” things with their lives.
It’s interesting, because in my life most of my friends are artists of one sort or another, but when we talk we often talk about what we love, what we don’t love, what excites us, but I don’t think that too many people talk about the artistic process because it is so personal. For the beginning of the film, I wondered if I would be able to talk about that because it starts so simply and develops so quickly. We start in the space of almost nothing, both visually and with Rosie just noodling and trying to come up with these words to a poem. I’m really glad that was of interest to you because I am always hoping that people just wait a minute to get to know this mindset before we get onto the story. (laughs)
As a writer, I always find it so much more interesting to talk to other writers who are just trying to figure stuff out, or to see stories about these kinds of creative types just starting out, and here Rosie is a character at a point in her creative maturation where they feel like writing about something she knows is no longer good enough. You’re always taught to primarily work with what you know, but there will always come a point either due to peer pressure or circumstance where people will often try to force a perspective that they don’t have. Like Rosie is going to Shiraz because of volume of poems she wrote about Paris, despite never having been to Paris. That’s another important part of maturing as a writer, and the film is about Rosie eventually realizing that this journey of discovering her identity will be way more influential on her writing that pulling ideas out of thin air.
Ann Marie Fleming: Yeah! That’s really well said. One of the people who was working on the film said to me that it was exciting for them to see all the different stages in the development of an artist, and it’s absolutely true what you said. There’s an important point in every artist’s career where you start to mimic, either consciously or unconsciously. You start to take in influences and play around with them, but they never quite fit because you don’t own those influences yourself yet. You’re still experimenting.
The story came out of a lot of biographical, autobiographical, and researched detail. I think, as you must know since you’re a writer yourself and not just a journalist, that you just don’t know what you’re going to get from something like this when you begin. You, for lack of a better term, just follow your nose, and then everything will hopefully make some sort of sense to you in hindsight, right? In some ways, the process of writing this story – which took about twenty years because it morphed in so many ways – in some ways paralleled Rosie’s journey. Once you start on a journey, you just get all of these amazing, serendipitous events that start happening. You just start seeing themes everywhere and everything starts making sense in this world you have created for yourself. Maybe the things you find meaning in won’t have the same meaning that they would to someone else, but you’re the one on this artistic journey and not that other person. When it’s forming, you can’t really talk about it because it would only make sense to you and not to someone else, and that’s a step in the process that Rosie is learning about here. In the end, you just realize that the whole process is just inside its own bubble.
I’ve made a lot of films, and they all start from a lot of different places. This one started because I had something that I wanted to say. I wanted to say something about cultures and generations that were dispersed and how they were separated by things that weren’t shared openly. I wanted this rapprochement from one generation to the next over these things they didn’t understand or that they felt compassion or empathy towards, and I wanted to have that take place via poetry and prose. Those sound like some pretty heady ideas. (laughs) I spent so much time thinking about stuff. How do you tell this story? How do you portray these characters? How do you talk about the Iranian Diaspora, in particular? How do you talk about poetry?
At times it felt like there were almost too many crazy ideas to put together, but finally I decided that I would make this an animated film, and that I would put my avatar – Stickgirl – at the heart of the film. She came very late into this process; about fifteen years into the development of this story before I put her in it. I made her half Chinese and half Persian here, but really I have been working with her for the better part of thirty years. We’ve done all these little adventures together, and she has always been from my point of view. I decided she would be the perfect main character and that Sandra would be the perfect voice for her. She also had to be half Persian for the narrative to make sense because this idea that I wanted to do wouldn’t make sense coming from anybody else. (laughs) It became more and more a personal story borne from my thoughts about the world, and they all boiled down to Rosie Ming, this young artists who’s just starting to find out about anything. We follow her voyage of discovery, and as it’s depicted in Window Horses, it’s just a few days, but her total voyage might be an encapsulation of my own voyage over decades.
I’m sure as someone who has travelled around the world with your work you can relate to Rosie’s journey. For Rosie, it’s serendipitous getting invited to this poetry slam in Iran, but it’s also logically the kind of event that a writer of Rosie’s calibre would be invited to. Throughout your career, have you had similar moments where you looked inside yourself and felt out of place when you were invited to the kinds of events that Rosie gets invited to here?
Ann Marie Fleming: For sure! The poetry festival is completely based on my experiences travelling the world with my films, and what a special world that is. You’re not a tourist because you’re invited to be there, but it’s this really strange place it takes you to in your head. You have this culture and country that has invited you, and there’s a presentation of all the best that a particular place has to offer, but also everyone comes in with different points of view and everybody’s talking. Everyone is doing their own dissection of what they’re seeing and what they’re presenting. There’s this conversation where all these diverging points of view are coming together in a respectful setting, and it’s something that we don’t get to do very often once we leave school. There are very few professions where we can get together as adults and talk about what it is to be human and what it is we’re looking at in our daily lives with people who know might not share our points of view and still be open and interested about different perspectives.
Through the visuals and the work put in by the voice actors, every character in Window Horses feels very different from one another, and there’s nothing overly homogenous about the style of animation being used here. Even the poems that come to life before the viewer’s eyes take on a different appearance from the person telling the story because we have suddenly entered into a part of that character’s subconscious, which I think is a really clever touch. Was this kind of design something that you spent a lot of time thinking about?
Ann Marie Fleming: Well, I mean, they’re characters and human beings that I just drew down on paper, and artists made them come alive, and by that I mean the animators and the actors. They created those characters together based on my script. But yeah, I don’t think this could have been made in this way if it wasn’t animated. Animation allowed me to take all of these flights of fancy with all these different styles and imaginations. I just approached it like a story, and all these characters are very real for me because I have been living with them all for a very long time. They all come and we all see them from Rosie’s point of view, so they all end up serving her, really. They all have a presence and a message to give her. But isn’t that why you see films? You see them partially because you want to be taken places, but you also want to see interesting characters. There are a lot of characters here, so it was a big challenge to make them all into human beings.
As for making these poems come to life, I think there are a bunch of answers to that. I first worked closely with Kevin Langdale, who’s the lead designer and animator of the movie. We storyboarded everything out rigorously, and then we started bringing in other animators to being the poems to life. I did choose people who I knew based on their work. I gave them some choices. They could choose to stick to the storyboards we created if they wanted to, or they could use them as a jumping off point. They had complete carte blanche as long as they understood the character they were writing for.
I talked to the animators exactly as I would to actors. Different animators need different things to work, just like actors. Some people wanted very in-depth analysis of the poem, the film, the story, and everything that was going on in this character’s world that isn’t on the page. They wanted all of the backstory. Some people didn’t need much. Some people didn’t need anything. Some people just stuck to the storyboard. It was really their process, too. I was just so excited to be working with all of these different artists because they were all bringing something different. As a director, that’s the challenge: how do you take all of these different visions of all of these different people, and then put them together and have them fit together.
One of the things that’s great about Window Horses is that it’s a simple story that lets the viewer talk about larger issues told from the perspective of the character who is experiencing a lot of things that she has never experienced before. Was that in your mind when finally made the decision to use Stickgirl as Rosie? I think it would have been very easy to make Rosie into an almost overly complicated person whose own neuroses would have run afoul of the themes that the film wants to bring to light, but with your avatar as the main character, I think it brings out a lot of thoughtfulness.
Ann Marie Fleming: Oh, yeah. In the film and as an artist, Rosie is rather simple, so she has so much freedom. No one judges her. The characters in the film don’t judge her. The fact that she just looks like a simple gesture allows you to either put yourself and your own feelings onto her or not. She’s so free, and her simplicity and the simplicity of the story allows me to hang all of these crazy threads that you can either pick up or not pick up. I wanted this to be a film that you could take from it whatever you wanted to take from it. There are a lot of levels that come from this, I think, and a big part of that was using this avatar so people can bring their own experiences and thoughts to the material just as I have.
The last thing that I wanted to talk to you about here was something kind of silly. I didn’t realize until well after I watched the film that Don McKellar did the voice of Dietmar, the German poet that Rosie befriends in Iran. He’s such a fascinating and kind of silly character. How did you convince Don to do a German accent like that, though?
Ann Marie Fleming: (laughs) Oh, man, this is a crazy story. (laughs) I had a very specific voice in mind for that character, and I couldn’t find it. It was a character based on a friend of mine, and of course, all of these voices are based in part on friends of mine and voices in my head. (laughs) It’s just such a lovely character. Dietmar is such a dick, but he’s not an irredeemable or unlikable dick. He’s harder on himself than he is the people around him, and he’s not really conscious of how little credit he gives himself. He also develops and realizes that there are other people in the world and that he still has a lot to learn about himself.
So, we came to Toronto to record Shohreh Aghdashloo because she was shooting here. Sandra, incredibly generous throughout, suggested and insisted that where we could, we would do the entire film like it was scene-work, so it wasn’t just a voice in a box responding to nothing or to a recording. We acted out scenes, and there’s a lot with Shohreh and her character Mehrnaz with Rosie and Dietmar together, and I still hadn’t at that point found the right voice for Dietmar.
Sandra was really good friends with Don, and she asked him to come and just be the voice. Don’s an interesting actor who has a very specific kind of personality that’s all his own, so he’s sitting there and putting on this German accent, and Sandra and I are looking at each other just amazed by what we were seeing and hearing! (laughs) He was perfect! I think it also helps that Sandra and Don are dear friends and you can still hear that relationship through the characters’ voices. I really liked that.
It turned out that Don had just returned from this film festival in Shanghai, and while he was there he hung out with this German director, and he was just completely channeling this guy. Don doesn’t speak a single word of German! I had to make a few adjustments for him, but I was willing to do it because he was so good. And when I asked him if he would do it, he thought we were kidding. (laughs) He really didn’t want to do it, and we really had to convince him. Accents are usually pretty precise because you would hopefully want to cast someone with that background to play that character, but Don was just too good and just fit the personality of the character. My casting all around was so specific otherwise, with the exception of the German guy. (laughs)
I think he did a great job, but if you are German, you’ll hear something, I’m sure. (laughs) The film hasn’t played in Germany just yet, but it has screened in German Switzerland, and the audience there got a huge kick out of Dietmar. (laughs)