Interview: Ann Marie Fleming and Sandra Oh and their “Window Horses”

Ann Marie Fleming, Sandra Oh, Esme Finley - Big World Sound, Vancouver Photo: © Lever Rukhin
Ann Marie Fleming, Sandra Oh, Esme Finley – Big World Sound, Vancouver Photo: © Lever Rukhin

‘Window Horses’ subtly written and directed by Ann Marie Fleming explores the story of a mixed-race Canadian poet who travels to a poetry festival in Iran, where she discovers her new self, a unique voice and a life, she was not aware of. As you can imagine, a poetry told in animated film can be much more delightful than you can imagine. To learn that, you will have to catch it in the theater near you, which opens this Friday, March 10th in Toronto and Vancouver only.

To celebrate a special occasion and help you to get ready for your trip to Iran through the silver screen, an interview with the director Ann Marie Fleming and Sandra Oh, who gave her voice to Rosie Ming, is an interesting read to learn from the background of ‘Window Horses’, the reason it was made and its importance.

MOVIEMOVESME: Where did the inspiration to make this movie and the poetry come from?

Ann Marie Fleming: The long story is that I was invited to an artist residency in Germany twenty years ago, where I was surrounded with people all over the world who are telling the stories of their own diasporas and I was learning about the German stories of their diaspora after the WWII, how complicated that was. I’m mixed race myself, I’m Chinese, Australian, born in Japan, immigrant to Canada and I’m really interested in these stories. I was introduced to the poetry of Rumi when I was in Germany and heard about Iranian cinema and found out that Wilke brought Rumi to Germany back in the day. I was learning German and I got to know that German was a language of poetry and philosophy in a completely different context. Then I came to Vancouver years later and I was involved with the Iranian diaspora and listening to those stories. Then I was learning about different poets, I started to learn Farsi, and then I learned that Farsi is also a language of poetry. It was the same with Mandarin. It was so deep! It showed that not only we had connections across cultures but through millennia. Because there were so many instances of East meeting West in Persia, I knew I was going to set it there. I thought Iran was the perfect place to set this.

MOVIEMOVESME: Voicing Rosie and experiencing her journey through not just giving your face but voice. What was it like?

Sandra Oh: I have done a fair bit of animation and I love it. I really like kind of compressing all the characters into here because the intimacy is with the microphone. When we were recording it, we did something that was not as usual in the animation world, which is, we had three sessions, one in LA, the other in Toronto and third in Vancouver and because Rosie’s character is interreacting with all the others, we did it live. So I acted with each one of the actors which was really really important for us. If you watch “Behind the scenes” which Emery posted, you can see how animated we were while speaking. A lot of times actors are animated because they have to stuff a lot of it in there.

MOVIEMOVESME: How was it collaborating with the voice artists?

Ann Marie Fleming: For me as a writer and director, it was such a pleasure to work in the voice room with that where there’s not cameras, there’s not other considerations. it’s about the page, the words, the story. Everything else goes away. Sandra did so much preparation work for this character. She just really went into Rosie. Some people just show up and read the page.

Sandra Oh: Well, some people do, but not for this. Her character change is very subtle. She’s courageously naive in some ways and then to kind of open up to her own broken heart of her feeling of being abandoned by her father and to come to some sort of understanding with that is you just can’t do that.

Ann Marie Fleming: Rosie’s complicated because she’s a very simple character, a stick to look at, she’s very simple visually and also seems very naive but she has so much depth and has been my voice thirty years, like it’s my character. I handed her to Sandra, who I think did an “Okay” job! Honestly, she just totally inhabited her and made everybody cry.

MOVIEMOVESME: Now that you have a voice for stick girl, does that inspire the idea of doing more animation?

Ann Marie Fleming: Yes and no. I was incredibly lucky to have caught Sandra at a time where she was open and had time for this.

Sandra Oh: This character has been alive and animated and had Emery’s voice for many years. This is the first time she’s moved this character and has a written name because it’s always been stick girl.

MOVIEMOVESME: Do you see stick girl having a thriving career?

Ann Marie Fleming: Oh yeah! She’s done some documentaries, she’s had little stints. There was one where she had no breasts, then another one where she had big breasts! Then there was one where she said yes to a role and she didn’t know what the role was but it was about adolescence. But she’s branching out, she’s got her own app, it’s free. It’s called Oracle poetry app. She’s done a philosophy book online, she’s narrated a graphic novel and she’s really busy! She’s also interested in astrophysics and has a film coming out in astrophysics and adolescence!

MOVIEMOVESME: Have you kind of imbued her in yourself?

Ann Marie Fleming: Oh totally, but that’s kind of like what art is, film is. Sure she’s my braver self, she’s more open, curious and more accessible because people have judgments about me but it’s so freeing to be this little stick character because nobody judges her. It’s so freeing.

MOVIEMOVESME: How did this film attract so much attention and when did Sandra come in?

Ann Marie Fleming: This film had been in development for several years and I thought I’m just going too try and make it, do the Indigogo campaign and get Sandra involved. She was the campaign; we got so much international press to talk about the idea of the film, diversity, gender equality, multicultural understanding. It was absolutely amazing and people started paying attention. I had applied for telefilm and it came through, the NFP came on as co-producers because of our campaign.

MOVIEMOVESME: How did you two meet and how did you get attracted to this project?

Ann Marie Fleming: We met over twenty years ago in Vancouver. We were supposed to make a film together which didn’t work out. I went to Germany, this whole thing started like twenty years ago, called Sandra up a couple years ago, and she happened to be at this festival, and she goes, “Okay”. I went,”What?”

 Sandra Oh: That’s what can happen in Canada, if you have relationships which you can keep, if you stay in the game, it makes you feel like a part of the cummunity. She called me up and asked if I can read the script, the graphic novel, and I was extremely moved by it. That’s why I said I’ll voice it and do whatever I can to help you make it.

Ann Marie Fleming: I didn’t expect anything but a couple of hours of your time and then here Sandra was, leading the charge for this film.

Sandra Oh: Oh my God, I had to brave the world of social media! But the thing we got most out of our campaigns was people from the online community saying this is their story. It blew people’s minds.

MOVIEMOVESME: How did you end up having Sandra Oh involved in ‘Window Horses’?

Ann Marie Fleming: I had met her eight years before and we had a lovely conversation, I was talking about this project and years later it was Sandra asking her. She of course has huge respect for Sandra’s work and that’s why she opened the page. She loved the story and is also very committed to presenting Iranian culture and Persian poetry in particular.

Sandra Oh: We were here in Toronto and Emery was struggling to find the perfect voice for Dimar, which was something quite specific in her head. One day we needed a swing male voice and I was like, “Dawn, can you come hang out with me?” He had just come back from a film festival in Shanghai and was angling out with a German director speaking in a German accent and he sounded so good! In our heads, we went like, “Oh my God, that’s him, that’s Dimar!” We asked him if he wanted to do this with us and he was like, “I don’t know, I’m supposed to have breakfast with boy scouts.” There was something he had to move and then voila!

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