Interview with “Eve and the Fire Horse” Director Julia Kwan

Julia Kwan’s beautiful, nostalgic and quite humorous film, “Eve and the Fire Horse,” played this past summer in New York at the Asian American International Film Festival, where she won the Emerging Director Award. It has also played at a number of other festivals, most recently winning the Best Narrative Feature at the San Diego Asian Film Festival and screening at the Hawaii International Film Festival.

Shortly after the AAIFF, I spoke to Ms. Kwan by phone from her home in Vancouver. We had a wide-ranging conversation about her influences, experiences and inspirations, as well as her future projects. I began by asking her how she became interested in making films.

Julia Kwan: I got interested in writing at a young age, and I guess I discovered a love for film. I was quite a visual writer, so I thought I would marry these two loves and be a screenwriter. I went to university to study film, and there I discovered I also loved working with actors, and I loved working with actors, and I loved directing as well, so that’s how I came about as a writer-director.

Christopher Bourne: Were there any formative film experiences that you had when you were young that stood out for you?

Not really. I think I came into filmmaking really late. I didn’t touch my first film camera until I was 23, when I was in film school.

You studied psychology in school. Has that been helpful to you as a filmmaker?

Yeah, just understanding the human condition and human behavior, and just dealing with negotiating things on set with cast and crew, so I guess in regular life it’s quite helpful.

What are some of your artistic influences outside of film?

I used to be quite a big reader, but now I find I have less time. I’m a huge fan of Raymond Carver’s short stories, and I love Margaret Atwood. I read a lot as a child, so I’m very influenced by books. And also music.

Your mentor on this project was Léa Pool. I’ve seen a couple of her films, for example, “Emporte-moi,” that I really like —

One of my favorite films.

Yes, it’s really great. So I’m wondering, how did you get to meet her?

I did a short in 2001 called “Three Sisters of Moon Lake,” and I was traveling with it, and it ended up at a great festival – the International Women’s Film Festival in Créteil, in France – and that’s when I met her. She was promoting “Emporte-moi,” and she had just adopted a little girl named Julia! She was missing her, and so she asked me out to lunch, and that’s how we first met each other. She’s such an incredible woman, very inspirational. She’s such a strong and caring person as well. And so when it came time to choose a mentor, there was no question. So I got in contact with her, and she remembered me, and she came on the set for about three days. I had sent her the script and she gave me some notes. It was like a warm blanket on me, because she made me feel so much more comfortable and at ease, and when she was gone, I tried to remember how she made me feel on set. And it was wonderful guidance from her, listening to her opinions.

It’s really great when you can meet someone like that, who’s been there, who can help you.

Yes. And so open and so talented, and willing to share her time and energy with someone who’s up and coming right now. I’m a huge believer in mentorship, you know. So I felt very privileged to have her on set.

Your cinematographer was Québecois, and you’ve talked in interviews about how much you admire filmmakers from Québec, Robert Lepage, and people like that. So what is it that inspires you about this Québec connection? What is it about these films that intrigue you?

It’s the new wave of Québec films. There seems to be a water motif, and I seem to have that too! But it’s just their visual sensibility and their style. There’s such a lyricism in their films, and they’re so visually striking and poetic, and have such emotional resonance. I really relate to that visual sensibility; it’s what I aspire to. Léa Pool has it, Robert Lepage, Manon Briand, [cinematographer] André Turpin. [Jean-Claude Lauzon’s] “Léolo” is one of my favorites.

What are your general impressions of Canadian filmmaking today?

You know, I think Canadian indie filmmakers struggle just as much. It’s hard for all filmmakers, especially first-time directors, to put together the finances to make their first feature. So I think my struggles are the same as in America. But at the same time I feel very privileged, because I do live in a country that does have public funding for the arts. Having said that, there have been a lot of cutbacks. It’s a small pool of money, so if you get it, you’re very lucky. Our film was about 75 to 80 percent publicly funded, which is amazing for a little film like mine that’s considered not that commercially viable. So I feel very lucky that way, that I was able to tap into those funds. Sometimes I wonder how American first-time filmmakers actually get together to finance their films since it’s so hard.

I understand that after you went to college, you were in San Francisco for awhile.

I was there for six months.

You made a film there, didn’t you?

I co-wrote a one-hour narrative called “Caught in the Crossfire,” directed by Alice Ray. It was a really great program, because we worked with 20 inner-city kids who were themselves at risk for delinquency. We co-created this drama on youth violence, and we workshopped with the kids. Alice Ray is an educator, and she taught the kids empathy training, so it was a really wonderful program.

What did you come away with from that experience, and how do you think it helped you in doing later projects?

Well, growing up in Vancouver, it was my first time being exposed to that world, because it was such a different reality for me. I was meeting kids from the Tenderloin, from the toughest neighborhoods, and so just to be able to speak to those kids, and to interact with them, was something I wouldn’t have been able to do in my own life. So the best experience was just having time to share with these kids, and talking to these kids, and bonding with them, for sure.

Many of your films deal with young kids, and you’ve talked about other films that have influenced you, like François Truffaut’s “Small Change” and Lynne Ramsay’s “Ratcatcher.” What is it that gravitates you toward the subject of children’s experiences?

I just like films that are filtered through the eyes of children because there’s such a purity of gaze through children, and I really wanted to explore that. And especially with “Eve and the Fire Horse,” I’ve never seen a film about religion through the eyes of a child, so I really wanted to explore that as well.

So how has traveling to different festivals with this film and others affected you?

Well, I get to see the world! I was just joking with my producers: We were saying, ‘Where in the world do you want to go?,’ and then we’ll apply to that film festival. (laughs) It definitely creates a sense of community of filmmakers and artists. That’s what I’m really getting out of it, people of like minds and kindred spirits that get together and show each other their art and their culture. I love it because there’s a really strong sense of community, especially with the Asian film festivals, because I’m seeing the same filmmakers over and over, and we’re all really supportive of each other. Some I’ve watched come to my screenings two or three times, and it’s really great to have that support and that friendship.

What would be the differences in being at an Asian or Asian-American festival, as opposed to say, Toronto or Sundance?

I guess it’s just on a smaller scale for the Asian festivals. And also, for example, in San Francisco my audience was, like, 98 percent Asian. And that’s the big difference, that the audience members are mostly Asian when you go to these Asian festivals.

One of the elements of your film that made it really resonant for me was just how specific you were in the time and place. It was very refreshing for me to see a Canadian film in which Vancouver plays itself, as opposed to being a stand-in for a U.S. city. So how important is this very specific time and place for you?

It’s very important because it’s loosely based on my childhood, so I really wanted to create that sense of time and place. And to the credit of my production designer and their crew, they were able to get the tiny details right. In fact, one of the art people actually found a couple of Sears catalogs from 1974, which was so helpful, and we were able to recreate the living room and all the little details. My costume designer was amazing too, because she went to these little communities in [British Columbia] and to these thrift stores and found all this really great ‘70s clothing for the cast. So it was very detailed, and I made sure that we were very attentive to the details, and really play with the colors of the time – like the browns, reds, and the oranges – and really create this sort of nostalgic look.

Would you want to make films in the U.S.?

Oh, for sure! I’m talking to some production companies now in New York. What’s important to me is the story, and if it appeals to me – if it has emotional resonance to me, and I feel great passion to make it – I don’t care where I make it, as long as my heart is in it and I can really relate to the material. I think it would be great fun to shoot in New York.

Would you have to write the scripts yourself, or would you be interested in doing someone else’s script?

For sure, I’ve gotten a few scripts sent to me in the last couple of weeks to consider as a director for hire, so I’m definitely open to that, Like I said, if the story speaks to me, and I feel an emotional connection to the material, I wouldn’t hesitate.

What future projects are you working on?

I’m working on writing another Asian-themed feature that I got some Canadian Council money to do. And I’m also considering a couple of director for hire projects.

What would be your advice to aspiring filmmakers?

Just persistence, passion, and as I said, it is very important to find a mentor.

What do you wish to accomplish with your films?

It would be nice if people could walk away feeling an emotional connection to the material, and to be moved, engaged, and inspired. That’s all I can hope for.