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Ann Marie Fleming on 'Window Horses,' diversity in animation

Ann Marie Fleming on 'Window Horses,' diversity in animation

The annual New York International Children’s Film Festival is one of the premiere events to highlight “alternative” animation and family programming. Not only have they regularly highlighted Academy Award contenders in animation, but discovered new talents in independent cinema.

Ann Marie Fleming was one of those filmmakers a few years ago when she premiered a short at the festival. This weekend, returns with her premiere feature, Window Horses: a warm, funny, heartfelt story (and all too timely) about a young poet named Rosie Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh) who travels to Iran for a poetry festival. Fleming, a Canadian filmmaker who also wrote the graphic novel, not only created a film which utilizes a diverse style of artistic styles to tell her story, but found a diverse cast including Oh, Don McKellar, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Ellen Page, Nancy Kwan, Eddy Ko, Panta Mosleh, Omid Abtahi, Navid Negahba, and Peyman Moaadi. A breath of fresh air, Fleming’s Window Horses is one to watch for in 2017.

Lesley Coffin: Considering the film is screening at a Children’s film festival, I’m curious about how kids are reacting to the film. Watching it as an adult, I was charmed and moved, but it deals with some challenging ideas for kids. How have kids responded to the film?

Ann Marie Fleming: I don’t feel that I’ve made a movie for children. I wanted this to be a film for human beings, a film anyone could see and get something out of. As far as I’m aware, the youngest person who’s seen the film is three, and she loved it. She cosplays as Rosie Ming now. My experiences are just anecdotal, but a woman contacted me from Armenia who asked, “Is it appropriate for her seven-year-old to take it for his birthday?” and he liked it so much he wanted to see it immediately. I was in Portland, and someone wanted to bring her five-year-old son, but said, “He didn’t last through Moana, so we might have to leave early.” Which I understand, but I always ask that festivals run my credits because we have so many supporters who donated money. And she messaged me on Facebook that he sat through the whole movie, including the credits, and gave it a standing ovation. So, I’ve been surprised that the film speaks on so many levels. I think the film is demonstrating that when we’re younger, we’re just more open to things. I feared it would be too slow or talky, being about poetry, and it might not be for all little kids. But I’m so gratified that little dudes like it too.

Lesley Coffin: The character of Rosie is your character Stick Girl, and you’ve featured her in projects before. But this is the first time you’ve been specific about her nationality and given her a name. Do you feel her nondescript physicality help audiences personalize and identify with her more than if she were based on a recognizable person?

Ann Marie Fleming: I only started to think about these issues after working on a couple projects. She was a way for me to enter the stories, she’s been my avatar for 30 years, back in art school when just starting out. She came out of a car accident, when I was hit and run over by a couple of cars. And she represented all the strength I had in my body at that time. And now, we’ve been on countless adventures together. I always called her just Stick Girl. If she had a voice in a film, it was my voice. But this is the first time she’s been in a feature film, been voiced by someone else, had a name, and been part Persian. So this is a big deal, but you’re so right. First, because she looks so simple, people don’t judge her so she can say anything, do anything, and go anywhere. Second, she’s not a reference that will remind you of someone, so there’s no baggage. And therefore, people can enter the story through her, because it’s her point of view.

Lesley Coffin: I wanted to ask about bringing Sandra Oh on board to voice Rosie. I know you met earlier in your career, but how did she get involved in this project?

Ann Marie Fleming: Sandra was going to be the lead in a feature film I was going to make 20 years ago. But that film didn’t happen, and at the time she was just starting her brilliant career in Double Happiness and played lead in The Diary of Evelyn Lau. She was becoming this bright light in Canadian film, before she became famous in the states for Grey’s Anatomy. We met and liked each other and stayed loosely in touch, but never had a chance to work together. She was extremely busy and I went to an artist residency in Germany, which is where I developed Window Horses. So when starting this, I asked her if she had a few hours to voice the character, and didn’t know she’d just left Grey’s Anatomy. And when she read the graphic novel and saw the storyboards she was so moved she offered to get more involved. She became the spokesperson for the film, worked on the crowd funding. And because she’d just left her show, we benefited from the media’s interest in hearing what she had to say. And she wanted to talk about this film and the themes at the center of it like diversity, girl power, poetry, tolerance.

Lesley Coffin: Because the film is about diversity and tolerance, the cast is very diverse and it seems you made an effort to cast actors of the ethnicity of their characters, at least in most cases. Did you write characters and then have to find the right actors or write characters to fit the voice actors who were available at the time?

Ann Marie Fleming: The script existed long before the casting. I wrote it with Shohred Aghdashloo’s voice in mind and approached her years before but we were nowhere close to ready. But when Sandra came on board, that opened the doors to many actors that have so much respect for her. They considered it because of her, but they came to really love the story. Getting Nancy Kwan’s on board was incredible. It was hard because the voices in my head of these characters were so specific, and the character of Gloria is loosely based on my grandmother. And we thought of Nancy Kwan, but Sandra didn’t know her at all. I thought my aunt, in Honolulu, knew her. So I called and my aunt said “She’s coming to dinner tonight. I’ll ask her.” My aunt is an art philanthropist and was hosting a dinner for her as part of the Hawaiian Film Festival, which had invited Nancy to come. And Nancy called to say she’d be happy to do a voice. I was so excited I called my mom in England, and she said, “You know, your grandmother looked after her during the war.” I didn’t, so I emailed Nancy, and she sent me a picture of herself as a little girl with her little brother sitting with my grandmother.

It turned out, her mother had abandoned the family and her father was a spy and left his children with my grandmother. It was just amazing, because she’s playing a character based on my grandmother, and I had no idea how we were connected. The journey I was on to make those discoveries are so similar to Rosie’s journey. The only times we couldn’t be close to the character's ethnicity were Sandra and Don. Sandra is Korean, not Chinese. And Don is Canadian, not German. But they are very close friends and played off each other so well, you can feel it on screen in their interactions. And Don’s wonderful with accents and had the perfect voice and tone for the character.

Lesley Coffin: I haven’t talked to a female animation director for these interviews before, because there are simply fewer women directing feature animations. So, I have to ask a big dumb technical question. How involved are you in the day-to-day animation of the film. Did you do any of the drawing and CGI design on the film?

Ann Marie Fleming: Well, I don’t have experience with big studio animation and the size and budget really changes how directors work. Some directors do most of the character design or storyboard everything. Because we had the graphic novel and Stick Girl had appeared in other projects, the animators had a lot to go on. But I didn’t animate anything myself on this film. Kevin Langdale is an animator I’ve been collaborating with for years, and he was lead animator. For the main characters I was influenced by Edo paintings. There was a time when Chinese art was making a run around the world and you see its influence everywhere, and it lends itself really well to animation.

Even the Disney horses have a Tang Dynasty flavor. So the film has Kevin’s flavor, but that is where the world of the film started from. And then we brought on board about 20 animators. And each one took a story or poem, and animated in their unique style. Because the film’s all about learning about others points of views and looking at things in different ways. Being an animator myself, this was not an industrial process. Animators are just very slow actors. And working with professional actors was such a pleasure too. Sandra insisted on acting out the film with other actors, so we traveled to record with them. Which made a tremendous difference. It was such a privilege to work that way.

Lesley Coffin: You mentioned being an artist in residency, and that’s a very different path to take when thinking about the film industry. And there is this animation side of the industry which is such a machine and instead of 20 credits, they have hundreds of animators working on a film. Did that path impact how you see yourself within the profession or your goals?

Ann Marie Fleming: My next step probably won’t be directing a Pixar movie. But I don’t just consider myself a filmmaker or animator. I’m a storyteller and pick different mediums for the stories I want to tell. So when deciding to go back to school, I went to art school, not film school. I made that choice. I’m of a generation that grew up on School House Rock, and I only wanted to make those little interstitial animated things in that or Sesame Street. I wanted to make things for kids, I wanted them to be educational, and I wanted them to be short. And I wanted to have room for family, and thought, how would I balance work and family? Nothing really worked out the way I thought it would, but I kept working that way. I haven’t been part of that larger industry so I just kept doing my own thing. Although now that I’ve made this, I know I want a bigger canvas and would like to have an opportunity to make something more people can see.

Lesley Coffin: You call Rosie you avatar, yet you are of Chinese and Australian, not Persian. Was it challenging to give such a personal character a name and changed her ethnicity? Why was it important to use Stick Girl in this film?

Ann Marie Fleming: When I first started, I knew the story should take place in Iran. And people couldn’t understand why. And to embed myself in that part of the story, I made Rosie half Persian so going to Iran would mean more to her. It seemed to help the audience understand her immediate connection. The way I think is, you can care about other cultures without being from there. But it was a shortcut for audiences. She had a family connection, even if we really don’t need that to care about other people. It’s essential that we don’t need that, for our collective survival. But I’ll be curious how naming Stick Girl Rosie changes how I can use her in other projects. Now that I’ve named her and given her this background, will people only see her as Rosie Ming?

Read more on Window Horses: https://www.nfb.ca/film/window_horses/

© Lesley Coffin (02/24/17) FF2 Media

Photos: Window Horses

Photo Credit: © 2017 National Film Board of Canada