Interview: Rory Alexander Stewart, director of Wild Horses

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Wild Horses is a thought-provoking short film about Joan, a teenage girl dealing with M.E. The story portrays the misconceptions of this condition and the experiences that come with it. We talked with the director Rory Alexander Stewart and had a chance to learn more about what drove him to tell that story.

This condition affects more than 200,000 people in the UK. What was the inspiration for the story and what were you hoping to achieve by telling it?

The inspiration for Wild Horses came from a very close friend who has M.E. and seeing her fight with this illness. When she was first in recovery as a teenager – unfortunately she relapsed later on – she had to be careful not to overexert herself. However, when you’re a teenager you want to do teenage things that are all about exerting energy irresponsibly. I think that pull between what you want to do and what you need to do is very relatable. All I hoped to achieve, was for the viewers to see the world through Joan’s eyes and perhaps have a better sense of how M.E. can affect someone’s life.

This is an inspiring story of a young girl pushing herself to experience life even though she is restricted by her condition. Would you say that your aim was to empower the audience to push their boundaries to experience life?

I wasn’t hoping to inspire anyone with M.E. to push dangerously beyond their physical boundaries. By the end of the film Joan is in worse physical shape than she was at the beginning, but her relationship to her Mother is a little clearer. Having “an experience” is often very overrated anyway; learning to see the world from other people’s perspectives is much more valuable.

Joan’s tutor Ian is a quite ambiguous character – although his approach and motives are perhaps quite questionable, he seems to be the catalyst for her to evolve and overcome her obstacles. Can you talk about that ambiguity and where the idea for that character came from?

The tutor’s character comes from a few different places, from my own experiences with teachers, from my friend’s experiences with people who don’t understand the illness and also from conversations with Ainslie Henderson who was cast as Ian. During a discussion, Ainslie came up with the line “paradox is character”, which I think sums up the tutor. He is almost like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, only he doesn’t understand the texts he is speaking about. He believes he is revealing the world to this ignorant, housebound young woman but in reality, he has no idea about Joan’s illness or the depth of Joan’s experiences or emotions. He doesn’t realise the danger of his romanticism. Even though he genuinely wants to inspire Joan, his ego gets in the way of doing it responsibly. Much like in the case of Joan’s mother and Joan herself, Ian is trapped by his own narrow perspective. I think that’s where the ambiguity comes from, he acts in a way we generally think an inspiring teacher would act, but realistically he’s selling a bad idea. 

In the film you incorporate creative elements of CGI, a technology which is constantly evolving. What were the challenges you faced while using CGI?

I faced very few challenges with CGI because Kelvin Chim, the film’s special effects artist, is extremely talented and creative. I basically told him I wanted a small horse that looked like a Sylvanian Families toy and moved like a dog/ hummingbird and he managed to nail it, first try. You always want all elements of the film to blend into the world as well as possible and with the time and budget we had, Kelvin did a very impressive job. I think the fact that we were creating a dream-animal made it a little easier to swallow for audiences. It’s harder when you are trying to show reality with special effects. For example, CGI blood is almost always terrible, but then there are films like Blade, where someone gets cut in half and the blood sort of coagulates mid-air to stitch them back together. Despite it looking very dated it’s so extreme and bizarrely executed it comes back around to being sort of charming and great. 

Even though Joan is restricted by her condition, she seems to be quite connected to horses, an animal which often symbolizes freedom. What were you hoping to achieve with this narrative juxtaposition? 

Honestly, I find the trope of horses as a symbol of freedom quite groundless. They are one of the most subservient, fearful animals around so I wanted to knock them down a peg or two. I liked the idea of taking the “horse + girl = freedom” structure and applying it to reality, where the equation gets a bit more complicated and doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending. One of the most painful things about M.E. is that it forces the sufferer to wait for an unpredictable recovery that might never come. Therefore, in the story, the horse is not what Joan needs in order to deal with this struggle, but the way in which she discovers what she really needs.

Wild Horses screens in International Competition 5: Treading Water.

Interview by Errika Zacharopoulou