TIFF 2019 Short Takes: Filmmaker Karen Moore on her directorial debut, Volcano

by Andrew Parker

For her first outing as a director, Volcano (premiering at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival in Short Cuts Programme 5), veteran television writer Karen Moore wanted to keep things as personal and simple as possible every step of the way, from the actors she cast to setting her short in a location she knew very well.

Moore has most notably worked in the highly collaborative field of series television writing, perhaps most famously on highly acclaimed Canadian shows Workin’ Moms and Mary Kills People, but Volcano – which takes its name from a popular and potent tiki drink and turns it into subtext – is the first time she has ventured out to make something entirely on her own.

To keep the nerves of being a first time director at bay, Toronto-based Moore cast Jess Salgueiro and Hannah Cheesman – who’ve both worked with the writer-director previously – as two friends who meet up at a bar to catch up over drinks. Jess (Salgueiro) has grown frustrated and disillusioned by the dating scene, but instead of being able to express herself, Hannah (Cheesman) monopolizes their conversation and drones on endlessly and proudly about a recent vacation she took with her husband and her healthy sex life. Jess is about ready to walk away from Hannah, but something happens, and the course of the conversation changes, altering their friendship in an unexpected way.

Volcano pulls heavily from Moore’s personal experiences with relationships and female friendships, and being so open requires a certain degree of comfort and control on the part of the filmmaker.

We caught up with Moore prior to the festival to talk about her first film as a director, working closely with Hannah and Jess, and how important a good location can be for a self-financed, single setting story.

You wrote Volcano with Hannah and Jess in mind. What was it about them that helped to inspire the project?

Karen Moore: I wrote it with them in mind, but it’s also a pretty autobiographical story. Part of the impetus for choosing Jess and Hannah was that I had worked with them both, and I knew their performance styles. For me, as a first time director who was working on something this personal, it was nice to not be working with newbies while I was also myself a newbie. There was this desire to sort of stack the deck with other experienced people.

That experience level was part of it, and I knew them personally and professionally before this project, but I also knew that they were friends in real life, and they could bring some of that dynamic to the film. They really wanted to work together, and I just find that they both have this ability to both be funny and to also break my heart with their performance. They were the type of performers that weren’t intimidating for me doing something this personal because they’re really open people themselves. 

We had lots of discussions about the script, my personal experiences, their personal experiences, and it was effortless to do it with them. They’re so great at being able to make the jokes work while simultaneously conveying what’s happening underneath the jokes. You want that friendship to be believable, but also hint that there’s something brewing under the surface, and that this isn’t going to be a “business as usual” hangout. You want people to wonder what’s going on, but not to necessarily question why Jess and Heather would be friends in the first place. You don’t want it to be antagonistic al the time, but you have to build that conflict, and they were great to work with when it came to trying to find that balance.

Volcano has to convey everything the viewer needs to know about this friendship essentially across the course of a single conversation. When you’re dealing with material that’s this personal for you, how did you make sure you were getting everything across that you wanted to in a limited amount of time?

Karen Moore: There were a lot of drafts. (laughs) At first, I tried to write the story from different perspectives. I had to figure out a balance, and make it just as much Jess’ story as it is Hannah’s story. I wrote versions of this that were more Jess’ story and more Hannah’s story, and through that I played with what each of them might want to say in ten minutes. 

It was always my intention from the outset to make a ten minute two-hander, both for practical reasons, but also so I wouldn’t be terrified as a first time director. I really wanted to create a story that was about a past abusive relationship of mine, but I wanted to look at it from the perspective of a friendship instead of around the couple. To accomplish that, I really wanted to mislead the viewer about where the film is going. You think it’s building to a blow out between two friends, but really it’s about something else that’s really personal to me. I’ve been both of these women that are having this conversation. I’ve been the person who’s gone through the dating wringer and doesn’t want to hear about someone else’s happy marriage, and I’ve been the person who’s in a committed relationship that really needs to talk about what’s going on in their life.

But in terms of getting that relationship across as quickly as possible, I think that my TV-writer brain kicks in with that. You have to do so much work to introduce new characters in an episode of a television show, and you have to be economic with your storytelling. To an extent, I think that was really helpful.

And also, you have to give viewers some degree of credit that they can fill in what this dynamic is. A single close-up show where you can just read the actor’s face tells you so much, so quickly. I think that’s one of the biggest things that I learned by being a director and not just a writer.

I wanted to bring up that past experience as a television writer, because there’s a huge difference between writing something this personal and contained and working in a writer’s room with a bunch of other collaborators.Was it somewhat cathartic and freeing to do something like this as opposed to working with a team? I’m not trying to say that one is better than the other, but was it a change of pace to work on something on your own?

Karen Moore: Of course! I was feeling a little bit starved for that. Not to disparage the collaborative experience of television writing, but like you said, it’s a very different style of writing. I had been doing that rather consistently for the past five, six, seven years, and I have made other short films that I’ve written and collaborated closely with the directors of those films, but with Volcano, I wanted to do something that was fully representative of myself. I self-financed it. I hand picked pretty much everyone who was a part of the project. It’s LITERALLY about me. (laughs) And I’m trying to find that voice. I think that – at this point in my career – I would be able to listen to that voice a bit more intuitively as an artist. 

I think there’s something about writing on television shows where your currency is your ability to adapt. Obviously, you bring your individuality to those rooms, but at the end of the day, you’re emulating a showrunner’s voice. And I can be very good at that. (laughs) I think that’s fair to say, but this is the first time where I didn’t have a collaborative partner. There’s plenty of collaboration on Volcano – obviously with the actors, the editor, and the producer – but every single creative decision is mine and mine alone. That’s both terrifying, but also satisfying, and I think it’s indicative of my sensibilities and what I hope to be creating moving forward.

The film unfolds in a single location and only a couple of different rooms within that location, which is a great choice for anyone making their first film. What sort of preparation went into the making of Volcano, how long did you have to shoot it, and did you spend a lot of time rehearsing this to take away some of those first time jitters?

Karen Moore: It might be argued that I overprepared for some of this. (laughs) I might’ve gotten my partner, who’s also a filmmaker, to storyboard the entire film the night before we started shooting. Maybe, hypothetically that happened. (laughs) We shot at The Shameful Tiki Room, which I live down the street from. I had a bunch of meetings there about the film, where I would take people and just start feeding them these volcano drinks, and just so I could be in the space with them before we started.

Hannah, Jess, and I did one rehearsal for a few hours that was a proper rehearsal of the script, but prior to that we had lots of conversations and back-and-forths about the story and where it came from. I knew this was more of a performance driven piece for me than I had been used to previously. I actually used to be somewhat scared of actors, and a lot of writers are. I’m not the only one. (laughs) I wanted to get over that, and I wanted to be as vulnerable with Volcano as they were being.

As far as the look of the film, I knew that as soon as we got The Shameful Tiki Room on board that we were going to be okay. I knew it would look decent because this place looks like a film set. And I wanted to partner up with an up and coming female cinematographer, Gabriela Oslo Vanden, to take that on with me. She was pretty patient with how much I wanted to prepare for what seemed like a pretty simple project, which I was extremely grateful for.

Obviously, when you take people out for bowls of alcohol that have about ten shots in them each, they’re more inclined to be giving you their time and honesty. (laughs) That was my way of tricking everybody into giving me so much of it.

I’ve been to The Shameful Tiki Room before, and it’s definitely a great place to stage a scene, but I also know from having been on film sets before that sometimes shooting at a fully functional bar can create a lot of surprises and unforeseen challenges. What was the experience of shooting there like?

Karen Moore: One thing about that space is that there’s so much lighting in there. It’s almost an embarrassment of riches when it comes to lighting. I’m not used to going there during the day because they don’t even open until five, but I learned that they have house lights, which is a real game changer if you’re trying to make a film in a bar. If it was too dark in there, we could just play with the house lights. They’re also so much more set up at all times than a lot of bars would normally have. It’s designed to have its own very specific vibe, and everything there is in a very specific place. The lighting is also all on different circuits with individual dimmers, so it was basically walking onto a film set that someone had already wired and set up for us in advance. But in terms of filming there, they don’t want you to mess with it too much, and that was fine. That was never a problem because we didn’t want to move anything.

We basically owned the bar for a day and a half while we shot. We had full control of things. The effects that they use to make those volcano drinks is real, and we used what they had to make it happen. We enhanced some of the smoke effects for our needs, but that was really all we changed. I would never be able to recreate any of this on a self-financed movie, so it was definitely helpful that our production design and lighting were more or less in place months before we ever started shooting. 

On the last short film I made, we had to build a rotting deck on top of a new deck on the fourth floor of a loft, and that was such a nightmare. (laughs) We all hated everything about that, and we shot during the summer solstice overnight, so it was getting light out by four in the morning. That was a really fun movie called Must Kill Karl, and I love it so much, but I think I also learned something from some of those filmmaking disasters that I was really hoping to avoid on Volcano. I always wanted to alleviate that pressure. On Volcano, I wanted us to have a normal shooting day. It was going to go from 9am to 9 pm on one day, and I didn’t want to really pressure people who were giving their time and energy to the project to do more than they had to. I’m 34-years old now, so sometimes being asked to help out on a film set is a lot like friends who ask you to help them move. (laughs) You’ve already cashed in a lot of those favours over the years, so if you’re getting your pals to come out and help you on a film set, it had better not involved them lugging wood up four flights of stairs in forty degree weather. This was a much easier sell in every way.

Volcano screens as part of Short Cuts Programme 5 at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

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