Recently, Seun Olowo-Ake (SO) got the chance to interview filmmakers of The Flying Sailor, Amanda Forbis (AF) and Wendy Tilby (WT) to talk about their film, the fragility of life and the role of art in making sense of it. Interview is edited for clarity.
SO: First of all, congratulations on your film. I saw it on the big screen and found it very immersive. There were times when I felt overwhelmed by what the sailor was going through, so it was a really nice watch.
AF & WT: Thank you! That’s really nice to hear.
SO: Yeah. And I found out that it’s based on a real story of an actual sailor who was involved in an explosion that sent him flying 2km, and that he landed unharmed, which is an insane story in itself.
AF: It is.
SO: When did you hear about this story and when was the moment you decided you wanted to make it into a film?
AF: We were visiting Halifax a long time ago- over 20 years ago as a matter of fact- and we went to the Maritime Museum, and they had a display about the Halifax explosion. There was maybe a paragraph on the wall about this one guy and his trip and I think Wendy said, “that would make a good film, just that trip.” So it was instantly an inspiring notion: ‘What would you do inside of that, being launched and landing?’
WT: We put it on the back burner for all these years because we did another film, but we never quite forgot it and we thought that would be a good thing to do. So we dusted it off, and we started to think about the ideas and near-death experiences- that was very inspiring; about how time slows down, what would that have been like visually and sound wise, and just this arc going from trauma into bliss and then the decision to go back into real life. Live or die, the sailor sort of hangs in the balance. So that was the structure, and then we like the fact that with animation we could make up stuff, we could just do what we wanted within that.
SO: A summary that was sent to us said that the film is an ‘exhilarating contemplation of wonder and the fragility of existence’. How do you incorporate those elements into the film as directors and animators?
AF: One of the things about it was that the actual sailor was probably about 22, but we very quickly decided that we wanted him to be middle aged because there’s just an inherent vulnerability in it. You know, he’s not a beautiful young guy flying through the air at all.
WT: We thought it would also be more fun.
AF: It’s funny. So, the entire film was a balance of beauty and horror, and funny and sad- you laugh, and you feel this poignancy at the same time. So, the vulnerability is kind of inherent in the idea in the sense that you think there’s a very good chance he’s going to die. As a matter of fact, if you don’t know anything about the film, you’d be sure he was going to die. I think some people are not even sure he lives at the end, when he wakes up on the ground. So, we had a pretty strong card there already.
WT: To the fragility question, in our minds we imagined the pinkness of his body in all of the smoke and debris, and there’s a frying pan and a chair and things going by- like a tsunami. People who are in tsunamis try to not get clobbered by junk, which is the biggest threat almost, even more so than drowning. So, there’s a fragility to this pink body and the nakedness. It’s almost like going back into the womb and being reborn. We loved that image, and that his movements when slowed down are balletic and kind of beautiful. And there’s that moment when he goes through the white light and he’s a little spec and it’s gone. Tere’s a beauty in that, it is like life is in the balance, but when he decides that he’s going to live, the plummet down then becomes very harsh again. We wanted that to be part of the trip because the decision to live is a much harder decision at that moment. To die in this beautiful moment is sort of the easier choice, but I think humans mostly have a will to live and that’s what he does. When he’s in this aftermath of an explosion it’s not going to be a very easy life after that.
SO: Out of curiosity, how long did it take you to make the film?
AF: Three years.
SO: Sometimes when people think of the fragility of life, they can get really inspired, ‘I need to do great things before my time is up,’ or they get overwhelmed and sad or they just resign themselves to it, ‘if it happens, it happens’. Where do you think you fall within those three categories?
AF: One thing that’s very interesting to us in this film is that most people who have met some kind of personal disaster have this moment of recognition of life before and after, and they meet right up in this intersection of where you find out that all your plans mean nothing, and life is this incredibly delicate thing. I’ve always felt that it makes me feel more alive. It’s not comfortable but you feel very very alive, and there’s something I treasure about that. I’m not anxious to go through horrible experiences but it’s very clarifying, and I think it can be all those things at once. You can be inspired by it and completely overwhelmed by it- I mean that’s sort of the hallmark of that kind of thing, is that it’s completely discombobulating. You are upended and you have to find a way to keep moving forward. So, I would say you feel all those things at once.
WT: Neither of us have ever been in a true near-death experience, but I think most people have little moments like that where suddenly, you’re reminded that life is precious and, for a short while anyway, you think, “I’ve got to make the most of it.” That often dissipates [laughs] and you forget and start to complain about things again, but I think it’s good to be reminded that it’s precious and to try to make the most of it, because we’re not here for very long.
AF: Apparently, people who go through those real near-death experiences afterwards mostly do not fear death at all. They think it’ll be a nice thing, which is interesting, and I think again, it’s very clarifying for them. It gives them an ease passing through life that they haven’t had before.
SO: Mm. On the sense of wonder, in my opinion, there seems to be a decrease of wonder in our society with all the access to information. Do you find that and how do you think we can preserve wonder?
WT: Talking about the digital world and information and amount of information that comes, sometimes you just want to unplug. I suppose one obvious thing is trying to get as much nature in your life as possible. That’s something that’s important to both of us, getting out into the woods or the mountains, definitely recharges our batteries. And then you appreciate the natural world. It’s funny and this isn’t quite what you’re asking, but we talked a lot about how to get a sense of wonder into the film and with the digital world in animation, where you can produce with computer graphics something that looks like a real human now, our instincts as filmmakers is to go back and do something really low tech because that takes us back to a sense of wonder. If you’re in a real theatre with live performers and somebody’s flying, you know that there are going to be ropes or something like that. In the world of CG animation, anything can happen, and it becomes less wonderous. It’s less exciting and interesting, so we’re always trying to go back to something old fashioned because I think that’s what captures that sense of amazement.
AF: I think your question taps into something that’s bothering me a lot lately in the sense that we seem to be getting more prosaic in our outlook. We’re a very concrete, money based, practical culture and there’s less and less room for humanities, for literature, for art, and that’s where the magic happens. Somebody makes something and it takes you someplace you didn’t expect, but you recognise it. There’s just this ineffable thing that we’re sharing and it’s hard to describe. That’s why you make art, because it’s hard to describe. We live in a culture that’s very impatient with things that it can’t describe, and I find it very disturbing because-
WT: Well, we’re uncomfortable with mystery.
AF: We’re very uncomfortable with mystery, and mystery’s fun, if you’re willing to give yourself over to it but if you’re not willing to give yourself over to it, where does it go? It just disappears. And I feel like we need to make a strong case for arts, for humanities, for just talking about what it is to be a human being, and that it’s a pretty mysterious business. We need to elevate these things as important in our culture.
SO: That’s my next question, actually. What do you think the place of art is in preserving wonder, but also in helping people make sense of the realities of life?
AF: I think it’s everything. It’s not the only way to make sense of the realities of life, but there’s a reason we’ve been doing it for as long as we’ve been homo sapiens. It helps us make meaning in life, which is an increasingly difficult challenge, I think.
WT: Yeah, I think a lot of people feel that art is a frill, or extraneous to our lives, that we should only put money into it if we’ve paid for everything else [laughs]
AF: [laughs] Yeah
WT: Because it’s just “entertainment”, whereas our view is it’s integral. The impulse to make art will always be there, but it’s hard for artists to make a living doing it because it’s not regarded as necessary in society so we’re always on the fringes. I mean, we’re lucky, we have the National Film Board, but I’m speaking much larger than that. It’s always quantified as numbers and audiences and ‘is it going to make its money back?’ and those are the wrong questions.
SO: Yeah, I can sense that too, because I’m a writer and I’m from Nigeria, and being in Nigeria saying, “I want to be a writer,” everyone was like, “what are you talking about? It’s not a real job, you can’t make money from that.” Now, being older, I can see that art helps our history and helps us learn where we come from so we can move forward and I’m glad to see it start to pick up where people are now supporting the arts more.
WT: I totally agree, and I think it comes down to what are considered priorities in education. I do feel sorry for the 18-year-olds who are trying to figure out what kind of post-secondary to do because I think they’re being encouraged to go into something that’s secure,
WT/AF: Go into business,
WT: Go into the trades, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but an education in the humanities and history and all those things will eventually enrich their lives and the world, but because it doesn’t have an immediate payoff, they’re not encouraged to do that and I find that worrisome
AF: I saw a quote from somebody famous, unfortunately I can’t remember who, but it was, “I feel sorry for people who don’t read because they’ve only lived one life, whereas a reader has lived thousands.” Ultimately the purpose of art is to connect us. We’re a culture that’s very fixated on our differences and they’re really not that great when you look at the big picture. Historically, art has helped us recognise commonalities and we really need that.
SO: What is one thing you hope audiences take away from the film when they see it?
WT: I think I want them to be moved. I would hope that there’s an emotion. Laughs are good, but we also want them to feel some poignancy for the sailor and to then take that outside of the film and relate to it in some way. But I hope that there’s emotion, that they’re not just dissecting it technically as the first response.
AF: Yeah. I agree with Wendy, that’s the main aim. But I would add too that I’ve been struck lately listening to interviews with artists, and the interviewer will cite some difficulty in their life and say, “how did you get through that?” And you think, “what are they supposed to do with that question?” I hope that by the end of the film, you think, “wow. What is that guy going to do now?” And that your first thought will be, “he’s got to find a pair of pants. That’s the first thing he’s going to do.” That’s the answer to that question, “how did you get through that?” You just got up the next morning. You just had some breakfast- or you didn’t- and you just trudged through the days until your life made sense again. I hope that somehow that is inferred and comes through the film.
WT: I hope ‘hope’ is in there. We know the film is benefitted by repeated viewings. One viewing is not enough because it’s fully packed, so we hope people will have an opportunity to see it again because I think it’s better that way.
SO: Thank you so much for talking to me today.
The Flying Sailor is currently playing at TIFF ’22 as part of their Short Cuts Programme.