TIFF ’19 Interview: Karen Moore on Building Up the Steam to Make “Volcano”

With the lights emanating from stuffed blowfish, the purple cocktails and the occasional roar of the tiki god at the Hawaiian-themed watering hole where “Volcano” is set, it’s easy to understand why Hannah (Hannah Cheesman) feels compelled to implore her friend Jess (Jess Salgueiro) to pay attention as she describes a recent trip to Mexico with her boyfriend. In Karen Moore’s directorial debut, Jess is listening alright, but clearly distracted as she parses out what her friend is actually saying and wondering whether Hannah is actually hearing anything that is coming out of her mouth in between describing the fun times of surviving a tropical windstorm and snacking on huevos and papayas.

Although there may be a communication gap between the longtime besties who haven’t seen each other for a while, Moore shrewdly takes the cryptic conversation as an opportunity to tell the story of the stories we can tell ourselves with only a friend able to pull us out of the abyss as Hannah looks for validation from Jess that everything is hunky-dory, being a bit overeager in sharing how happy she is, when the devil lies in the details. Moore, a filmmaker whose found a home in television in recent years as a writer for shows such as “Mary Kills People” and “Workin’ Moms,” shows her versatility in authoring one wicked one-liner after another that mask truly painful punchlines and with Cheesman and Salgueiro trading barbs, she has the right actors to get underneath the surface. With the film premiering just a few days away at the Toronto Film Festival — and just a few blocks away from her home, the writer/director spoke about making the leap to directing, the value in letting the conversation unfold in long, unbroken takes and turning around the quickest production she’s ever been a part of. [Update: The film is now available to watch below.]

How did this come about?

I’ve been writing short films and for television primarily for the past number of years and really wanted to take the leap into directing, and wanted to [do so] with a personal project, so I was the architect of everything about this as far as financing it and handpicking everyone who was a part of the team, including the actors, to create the safest environment for myself as possible to explore a very vulnerable subject matter. I have more personal stories that I’ve logged away as being stuff to write about in the future because they’re scarier. And I don’t think I would’ve ever chosen to do something like this with another director, so I needed to come to a place deciding that I was ready — or ready enough to direct.

Did the setting of the Tiki Bar come to mind immediately with the subject matter?

On a practical side, I knew that I wanted this to be a very performance-driven piece [with] single day, single location kind of constraints. I’ve written and produced shorts that are more outside of that, but for my first time directing, I knew the type of story I wanted to do and then I spent some time going through some of the best two-hander shorts that I could find in one location on Short of the Week or Staff Picks on Vimeo, just to try and inspire me a little. I made a huge lift of [asking myself], “What might be an interesting place to do this?” [Could they be] mini-golfing or they’re on a boat or they’re doing all these different kind of scenarios?”

I live down the street from that tiki bar [in the film] and my partner Joe [Kicak], who is also a director, and I would talk about how we need to shoot something in there every time we went in there, so it just finally clicked, [especially] thematically of having this kind of eruption and [also] the fact that tiki bars are so escapist, especially in a city like Toronto where it’s summer time right now, but everybody has this weird anxiety because they know it’s about to go away and it’s about to be awful again. This tiki bar is blacked out and it doesn’t have any signs, so all these things in addition to it being filled with neon lights and frankly, it looks cool, so the tiki bar really thematically started to work for me and that helped bring the short together.

It definitely helped in building towards specific moments. My sensibility is always drawn towards things that are funny and then it turns towards heartbreaking and then maybe it can make you even laugh again while you’re still shellshocked — that “Fleabag”-esque dance of comedy and tragedy. So these ridiculous signature drinks that have all the lights and sound effects and everything that happens [in the bar], those are perfect things for cutting tension.

You’ve said you met your leads on the set of “Workin’ Moms.” Did you develop it with them in mind?

Yeah, Jess and Hannah were people that I felt comfortable bringing the story to, so I did write to their voices and I know them personally as well and things that they’ve both been in and I knew they wanted to work together. Doing a short is a favor in some ways — and they’re very busy — but from the first e-mail when I’m like, “Oh, do you want to do my thing? I don’t have much money,” they were so kind and excited and really were a part of the process as far as honing that friendship, balancing the comedy with the believability. [There were] lots of conversations with Hannah about what it means to be playing the way that she is seeking Jess’ approval, wanting her to reassure her that her relationship is amazing and that Jess just isn’t giving that to her. [Initially] I had an image of Jess being quite bratty and that this dynamic is traditionally, Hannah is the listener and Jess is the talker and this is the night where that’s being turned on its head and we want to know why, so there’s an amount [that] Jess and Hannah felt we really needed to believe their friendship before and that [they’re] these two are really great, close friends and that they aren’t antagonistic with each other all the time [to show] this night is much different than the norm, so we did one rehearsal day probably a week or two before the shoot and lots of conversations, e-mails, and drafts of the script back and forth with them.

And for me directing for the first time, I certainly was helped by having actors that weren’t new. [laughs] I thought, “If I can get these two actors, it’s still going to be okay. I can’t screw it up that much.” But they’re both the kind of actors and the kind of women that I felt very confident could see the humor and see the turns behind all of those jokes.

It’s broken up by a bathroom break, but because this has the flow and momentum of a conversation – could you shoot this in long takes rather than dividing it into sides?

We did pretty long takes. Like you mention, the film is essentially a whole section before Jess gets up and storms off to the bathroom and then when she comes back, we swap the actors and the world’s all different. So we did coverage where it really was the first six minutes of the film straight before [Jess] goes to the bathroom and we didn’t really break that up. We did lots of coverage, but with running full takes a lot of the time and then were doing little pickups. I’ve been the on-set writer on TV shows for the past few years and when I see the director doing that, I’m like, “Oh God, we’re going to run this whole six-page scene over and over?” Obviously, it’s not the crew’s favorite thing in the world, but from the actors’ perspective, there is a flow and a build to those sections that when you try to do pickups within them, they often didn’t work. I would go back and do pickups of certain things and I don’t think any of them are in the cut and we really would choose whole takes to essentially pull from, so it did feel like it was easier to treat things of a piece and let Jess and Hannah get into it each time. You’re already set, you’re already there, we’re there for the day, so what’s the harm in getting the whole piece?

It has a lovely end credits song. How did that come about?

Karen Moore: Yeah, Antonio Naranjo, a composer friend of mine who’s composed for a couple projects that I’ve been a part of, did all the music and he’s very multifaceted. He’s a composer as much as he’s a songwriter, so I had a temp song in there for a long time that was a very whimsical, romantic island song, but that’s also about heartbreak that Antonio built his song off of it and it was exactly what I wanted, keeping in that island-y vein but also juxtaposing what we just learned with the sort of romantic ideals that tend to get us into these positions. The rest of the film builds from being your more classic Hawaiian music to being a bit weirder exotica music and this brings it home with this quite poppy love song, and I think I gave him a ridiculously short period of time to do the score for this, like a week, because we shot the film on Mother’s Day, which is May 12th and we wanted to apply to TIFF which was June 14th, so we actually shot and did post and had the film within a month, which is definitely the shortest amount of time I’ve taken to do pretty much anything.

Now that you’ve gotten in, are you excited for the hometown premiere?

Super excited. I’ve been living in Toronto for the past 16 years, being a patron of the festival and seeing peers’ films there sometimes, so it was a pretty unbelievable experience when we got the notice that we were going to be screening there. The odds are not high you are going to get into TIFF.

You make them a little lower when you make a film this good. Was directing what you thought it would be?

I do this great thing where I build things up so much they can’t help but be less scary than I thought they were going to be, so I don’t know if that’s good. [laughs] Afterwards, I think okay, that’s good, but the lead-up, maybe not. But I have wanted to direct for quite a while and have been waiting for feeling like I was ready. But you’re probably more ready for things that you think you are. I have spent quite a lot of time on set at least in the last 10 years [as a writer] it just wasn’t that different as I had built it up to be, to go from all the roles that I’ve played. Being in the director’s chair is different, but it’s not this wildly terrifying difference. It was for all intents and purposes, an incredibly positive experience.

“Volcano” will screen at the Toronto Film Festival as part of Short Cuts Programme 5 at the Scotiabank at 6:30 pm on September 8th and September 14th.