Jazmin Mozafarri breathed a sigh of relief when the truck wouldn’t start. Typically, a director would completely lose it upon learning the battery had died in the pickup that was set to carry off the two lead actresses to their rightful ending for the final scene of the film. But a literal dark cloud had been hanging over the last day of production on “Firecrackers” and after everything the two stars Michaela Kurimsky and Carena Evans has given her, not to mention her crew during an intense 18-day shoot, it wouldn’t have been fair to send them off into anything less than ideal conditions. And after upending convention at every other story turn, Mozaffari also knew it wouldn’t be fair to audiences who would come to expect more.
“The [assistant director] was like, ‘We’ve got to get this truck up and running!’” recalls Mozaffari, who might’ve been the calmest person on set upon receiving the bad news. “And I’m like, ‘Do we? Because I’m pretty sure I’m not ending the film like this.’”
The cast and crew would reconvene two weeks later for a pick-up day under better conditions and Mozaffari got the ending she wanted both onscreen and off as she gives Lou (Kurimsky) and Chantal (Evans) a goodbye that is at once satisfying and as complex as everything that’s come before in her arresting debut feature. Set in her native Ontario, Canada in a world that previously hasn’t been captured cinematically quite this way, the writer/director reminds it’s where we all live now as she follows the two young women on the cusp of their twenties attempt to push their way into the big city from the suburbs and knowing they’ve got less than 24 hours left in the dead end town, don’t care what bridges they burn on their way out. The only issue is being dependent on a ride from Chantal’s suddenly surly ex-boyfriend Kyle (Dylan Mask), which grows uncertain to materialize and becomes indicative of an entire environment in which men seem to hold all the power but take on none of the responsibility.
Mozaffari makes visible what often is unseen, showing Lou and Chantal run up against resistance in far more insidious forms than anyone outright telling them they can’t leave. With the empty streets and wide open skies suggesting physically they can run as far as they want at any time, the two are constrained mentally by the failure of imagination that surrounds them as they live in a community that’s been running in place for the better part of a century, with the unknown of the outside world often weaponized as way to keep the status quo and generation after generation passing this fear down, knowing of no alternative. However, if anyone were to break the cycle, it would be these two, with Kurimsky and Evans both giving spirited turns that give kindling for the writer/director to make a film that feels truly explosive by its end.
Following its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last fall, “Firecrackers” took its home country by storm where Mozaffari was honored with a Canadian Screen Award for Best Direction and now looks to make just as much of an impression in America where it opens this week. On the eve of its release, Mozaffari spoke about unexpectedly getting ahead of the #metoo movement with a film questioning the role gender has played in how society is currently set up and finding creative ways to channel the passion and energy of her young protagonists into the fabric of the film.
How did this come about?
It was a short that I made in my last year of film school as my thesis film. I went to a school called Ryerson in Toronto and years later after making a few other shorts, I revisited this idea and in that time, I kind of thought less about teenage girls escaping their small town and their friendship and more about this idea of patriarchal oppression and how it harms us all and keeps us from feeling free. I wanted to use the framework of the story in the short to explore these deeper themes that I couldn’t [before] in 15 minutes.
That idea is impressively conveyed in the film of how the men are absent but still hold the power, but when it’s intangible and often invisible, is it difficult to figure out how to show it?
Yeah, they’re definitely a presence, but the film’s not about them, and when I approached the male characters in this film, I always knew that not all of them are villains – there’s really only one who’s truly awful, but the rest have this duality in the sense that they’re just as vulnerable as the women, but it comes out in different ways. I was really interested in looking at patriarchal ways of thinking affects all of us, not just the girls and how internalized misogyny can be taken on by the women in the film, namely [Lou’s] mother and by Lou. So I wasn’t trying to look at it as a strict binary, like the men are strictly bad and holding the women back, which some of them were, but also some of them were not allowed to be vulnerable. Johnny [played by David Kingston], for instance, is the only man who’s truly self-aware, but it’s so painful for him to come into that self-awareness.
How did you find your wonderful lead actresses?
The entire cast is non-union, and Karena Evans and Michaela Kurimsky were [found] through a very vast search through non-union casting websites, but also on social media through Facebook ads and Instagram ads. We had 250 submissions for both parts and eventually, we narrowed it down to see about five people in person. I cast [Karena and Michaela] a year before we shot the film and they had never really done any film before, but over the course of the year, I worked with them, doing a lot of improv to build their characters and through that time that we had, we structured the characters together. Our days were very tight and challenging, so I wanted them to feel ready and I wanted there to be a trust between themselves and myself as the director.
With that time, were there qualities you might not have seen in the characters you wrote that the actors brought to it?
Yeah, that happened with all the characters really. Usually how I cast most characters in film is [by asking], “Are they able to be vulnerable in front of the camera?” And I think that looked different for each actor, how they displayed vulnerability, but as long as that was there and that was truthful, that was the starting point.
In the instance of Lou, Michaela’s so different than that character in real life. She was extremely mild-mannered as a person and not aggressive at all. She wasn’t Lou – she wasn’t swearing, she wasn’t aggressive – but Michaela could be very vulnerable in front of the camera and in front of me, so I knew as long as I had that, the aggression could come later. To build vulnerability in someone is harder, so I always try and start there. Then with [the actors] for her and with Chantal, we tried to dissect their family lives, what was happening before the film started. Why is Lou so angry? How have men treated them in their lives historically from the time they were young to the time we see them in the film? It was mostly us creating it together, but the vulnerability really came from the actors.
And [Michaela and Karena] each had their own process. Not every actor uses the same tools, obviously, so they both had their own ways of going about things. Michaela wrote extensive diaries for her character that stemmed back to childhood and she also used animals as an inspiration. She really used the idea of a snake and would go down to the pet shop and hold a snake in her hand – she had all these very visceral processes. Karena, I think, was more about working from the script. And they both [developed Instagram accounts for their characters] and then they would communicate as the characters and they added all of the crew as friends.
The camera seems quite connected to the energy of the characters – is that something that can be planned out or are you feeding off what the actors are giving you on the day?
Yeah, we were very deliberate about the camerawork, even though it was supposed to feel free. There was a choreography that we had developed a lot during the rehearsal period, so Catherine Lutes, the cinematographer would come into our rehearsals and film, so for something like the beach scene, it had to be filmed in a very specific [way], close to the character, otherwise it felt like a stage play with all of them standing on the beach and communicating. So the actor blocking was very choreographed and Catherine developed this kind of dance, as she likes to call it, with the actors that they were so comfortable with her being so close to them. Then on the day, we just followed the actors in the space as much as possible.
There’s a lot of heightened moments in the film – the night montage with the shopping cart [where Lou and Chantal are fooling around with a shopping cart in an empty parking lot], was very stylized. We used a lot of steadicam in that moment, which we didn’t use at other points in the film, so it felt like there was this free-flowing, floating type of feeling. I wanted that to feel like a release from the rest of the film, which is pretty dark, and you could feel that complete freedom. The girls were feeling elated, so I wanted the audience to feel elated, and it was the same within the mall, which we like to call the codeine trip on set – that was also using a steadicam and making it feel very dreamlike. It was this mix where we didn’t want it to feel strictly documentary style and reality could feel heightened at certain points, depending on the state of mind of the characters, especially of Lou.
You have these nice moments throughout the film where you can get lost in these purplish pink skies at dusk – what was it like to let the environment into the film that way?
We spent many, many months location scouting and I was very particular about where I wanted to shoot, so that atmosphere came from our tireless search to find the right location, but part of it also felt like we were touched by an angel in a weird way because we were shooting in a part of Southwestern Ontario [where] during that period of time, there’s a lot of rain and those skies were really quite remarkable, especially the end shots where Jesse is standing – the sky was just on fire. We were so lucky. It had just this weird quality to it, so any time we’d follow those cloud formations, we’d be like “Get it, get it, get it. Go, go, go,” because it fit so well already with what I wanted the film to be.
Was making a feature any different than a short?
I prefer it, to be honest. A short confines you to a limited amount of scenes and how much you can explore, but also I made that short seven years ago, so I was so much more confident as a director and in my voice, coming into this than I was on that thesis film. I shot that on 16mm film with relatively inexperienced classmates – we were all inexperienced. But with a feature, I was working with people that were more experienced than me, like the cinematographer Catherine, who’d done so much and really brought something to it. Everybody on set had done so much more than I had, but also I was coming in with a certain amount of confidence I never had before, so I knew I was taking some risks and I was excited about that. When I was doing the short, I just didn’t have that mindset at that point. I was younger and hadn’t done enough and hadn’t made enough mistakes, so this was way more exciting for me.
Since you mention the seven years, is it interesting to come back to a story where the characters were around the same age you were then and see it with some perspective?
Yeah, because there were things that I had gone through as a woman in my twenties that weren’t a part of the original script and just as you get older, you have more hindsight. You’re able to dissect situations with a little bit more maturity. But this was about something much bigger than a personal story in any way. This was about a system that we live under. This is obviously before the #MeToo movement, but it was dealing with the same themes, so it took on a different meaning in the sense that it wasn’t autobiographical, but it just connected to the world at large, especially women, and then because I shot it in 2016, by the time it came out, the #MeToo movement was this global phenomenon. When I did the short in 2012, that wasn’t even a part of the global consciousness. Now I think people are able to look at a film like “Firecrackers” and see the themes a lot more clearly and it can become a part of that conversation.
“Firecrackers” opens in limited release on July 12th, including in New York at the IFC Center, and on demand on July 12th. A full list of cities and dates is here.