Canadian rising stars Jasmin Mozaffari and star Michaela Kurimsky discuss Mozaffari’s evocative, energetic debut, Firecrackers. This is an excerpt from the ebook The Canadian Cinema Yearbook which is available for purchase here.
Firecrackers follows the template of many a coming-of-age tale before it: a restless teen long to escape their oppressive small town home. Big fish in a small pond, or a small Fish Tank, to cite the 2009 Andrea Arnold film with which Firecrackers shares so much DNA. It’s not hard to spot Arnold as an influence on first-time director Jasmin Mozaffari, whether it be the shared plot with Fish Tank or the striking aesthetic similarities with American Honey (blindingly bright colours, a hyperactive handheld camera). That’s all to say, Firecrackers isn’t anything you haven’t seen before.
It’s all the more impressive, then, that this old story feels fresh and immediate in Mozaffari’s hands. Best friends Lou (Michaela Kurimsky) and Chantal (Karena Evans) are lived in characters due to their director’s attention to detail — she spent a year before shooting working with her actors and developing their backstory. Kurimsky, in particular, is an electric screen presence, embodying Lou’s boisterous energy while revealing to us the sensitivity and fear that she rarely shows in public.
Mozaffari’s camera is constantly moving, but never carelessly. There’s real craft going on here: her use of colour and framing is genuinely emotive, viscerally drawing you into Lou’s mood swings as she tries desperately to scrounge together the money and the support to leave her small, impoverished Canadian town. Often, Mozaffari will smartly linger on a moment to allow us to process and to stew in the film’s intense emotions. It’s a welcome breather in a film that otherwise moves at a full throttle pace.
I interviewed director Mozaffari and star Kurimsky about their detailed prep process for the film and the influences they drew on to bring Firecrackers to life.
Seventh Row (7R): What was the genesis of the project?
Jasmin Mozaffari (JM): Firecrackers first started out as a short film that I did in film school as my thesis film. I made that with my producing partner, Caitlin [Grabham], who also produced the feature. That short film played at TIFF in 2013.
Three years later, we applied for the Telefilm Canada Talent to Watch program with the idea to expand the short into a feature. We got the money, and I wrote the script over the course of a year.
I wanted to further explore some of the initial themes that I lightly touched upon in the short — mainly, escaping patriarchal pressure and finding freedom within that structure.
7R: The film is centred on the close friendship between these two girls who have been friends for years. There’s so much history there. What work did you do before shooting to build up that relationship and explore its history?
Michaela Kurimsky (MK): Jasmin made a breakdown of our characters first, on a character sheet. Then, she allowed us space to improv with each other. Karena [Evans] and I were given these situations that happened to our characters prior to what happens in the script. So that bond kind of came naturally, mostly through that improv, because we were allowed to explore what we were feeling and where we wanted to go. We started off with something scripted, but then it just turned into something more improv-based.
JM: I cast Michaela and Karena a year before we shot, and their audition was even improvised. They kind of knew the concept of the film, and then they had to come into the audition and improvise with me. It was a 40-minute audition.
Then they read a draft of the script, and they did work off the script for months. What Michaela is speaking about was these character bonding sessions I would have. We’d go to somebody’s apartment, and we would talk about their character. I would slowly give little pieces of information, over the course of months, to build their character’s history, and also to build their friendship. Their friendship was more real and flawed and complex by the time they got to the point in their story where we pick up from in Firecrackers.
7R: When we meet Lou, she’s very brash and extroverted, fighting with another girl in a parking lot. But there’s a flipside to her, which we see particularly in scenes where she’s alone, during which she’s far more open, sensitive, and introspective. We see how the brashness is a construct and a defence mechanism. How did you approach showing Lou’s duality?
MK: I’m not particularly aggressive as a person like the character is, but I am quite easily open. I cry a lot, and I’m very vulnerable, so that was a bit easier for me to bring into the moment.
The physicality of the fights was constructed with the stunt coordinator. The aggression, though, that fire that you see inside her, came from building a back history for the character. I gave myself motivations for why my character would be that angry. I would create these memories, and I’d visualise them in my head so that when we were on set, it just slipped on like a shoe.
7R: Jasmin, how did you collaborate with your DP to develop the film’s aesthetic? It’s very striking, with the bright colours and handheld camera.
JM: The cinematographer Catherine Lutes, [who also shot the exquisite Mouthpiece], and I were collaborating for months, longer than you would typically — especially with somebody as busy as Catherine is.
The first thing that Catherine likes to do, and I think it’s very valuable, is sit down with the director and go through the script scene by scene to determine the emotional centre for each scene. Rather than talk about lenses, rather than talk about colour palettes, we just talk about what is the emotional core of this scene? What are we trying to say here? What are we trying to explore?
It was always meant to be an immersive experience instead of a film where there’s locked off shots and an audience is deciding where to look and how to feel. I love those films, too, but this film needed to be immersive. It needed to feel like the energy of Lou, especially. I wanted Chantal and Lou to be felt in the camerawork. We let the emotion of the actors and the characters dictate how the camera moved.
We started working together in rehearsal. Catherine would come and shoot a lot of these improvised character building exercises, and she would start to feel where she needed to put the camera.
Also, Catherine operates. She has a good instinct about where to put the camera and when. It’s not always what you expect, but I felt like she and I had this synchronicity of knowing where the camera should go, who it should be on, and when. She learned that through working with the actors in the rehearsal period.
We wanted the initial shots of the film to be bright, harsh… the sun is oppressive, but also, there’s this heightened optimism and almost delusion in this future that’s not really there. As those hopes start to fade, the colour palette changes from bright orange and yellow and white to muted, blue, purple, black. It was mirroring the emotional state of the girls, especially Lou. We always let the camera be dictated by the emotional core and mood.
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7R: The costumes in the film are also so evocative of the characters. How did you find those clothes and decide how to use them?
JM: Mara Zigler is the costume designer for the film, and she’s actually nominated for the Canadian Screen Awards for her work on this film. She deserves that, because she does this all by herself.
I worked with pretty much every key creative in the same way: we always approached everything from the emotional core, from the inside out. Mara’s very good at being like, “Why would a character wear this, this, and this?” We thought specifically of Lou: why is she dressing in androgynous clothes? We decided the reason why is that she has trauma from her younger years, and she also doesn’t like to be sexualised by men. She almost wears her clothes as a suit of armour to keep people from looking at her physicality. At the same time, she’s not afraid to be naked in the bathroom with Chantal.
We used clothing to talk about a character’s inner motivations or inner fears. Chantal’s a lot more confident. We decided that that’s her boyfriend Kyle’s sweater that she’s wearing in a lot of scenes; that would change the way that Karena approached the character. She wears that sweatshirt when she goes to confront him at the bar. The audience doesn’t know that, but there are all these little details. We thought about every piece of clothing and why a character would pick that, from Lou’s shoes to her hair to her backpack.
We also wanted the girls to look like they liked certain trends. They have access to social media, but they’re not in a place where they have access to Forever 21. It was kind of like a thrift shop mixed with social media influence. Even though they’re from a small town, these girls deliberately want to look different and stand out.
7R: I really loved the moment when the girls think they’re leaving the motel they work at for the last time. They run out of the room and look through the window, but Lou lingers for a second longer than you’d expect, giving this scene of exhilarating excitement a tinge of melancholy. There are examples of this kind of lingering throughout the film. What goes into a choice like that in the edit?
JM: I really like that moment, too. It was definitely scripted, but I think we did that a bunch of times, and then I think I told Michaela, at one point, to linger. There were different takes where she’d do different things at the end.
We’d have the script, but then we’d try something different. There’d be times where she’d just walked away, or times where she’d stand at the window with defiance, but there was once where… I don’t know if you intended this, Michaela, but I think you lingered there with a feeling that you might not actually be leaving. I think that was the case with that shot that we ended up using: you’re looking [back through the window, into the hotel room]at it because you have some sort of bad feeling.
MK: Yeah, I’m taking in the situation.
JM: It was almost like a tiny little moment of foreshadowing. You could read it many different ways, but I think the note I gave you was, “You’re just not 100% sure that you’re actually going to leave.”
7R: The sound design is very important in the film. The girls’ environment is often very loud and immediate, almost overwhelming.
JM: Obviously, we had a great sound recordist, but a lot of it was rebuilt in the sound design in post. We had a really good sound team who really understood realism. We’re very specific about, like, “Those birds are only in these areas, not these birds, or these crickets.” We always wanted to take into account that there was a highway close by, no matter where we were. Everywhere we shot was close to an airport or a highway. There were always these markers of industry close by that created this constant state of discomfort.
We also knew when to hold back, like in the scene where Lou and Johnny are in the house alone: we’re just hearing a tap or something. We’re trying to be very deliberate about the atmosphere because the atmosphere is so important for this film.
7R: What influences did you two look at, cinematic or otherwise, for your direction and performance, respectively?
MK: Jasmin actually gave me the idea to ask myself what kind of an animal Lou would be. So I went to a man who had snakes, and I just touched them to find out what they felt like. I tried to involve myself in a very tactile way.
Jasmin also gave me this really good idea of watching YouTube videos of people fighting. Since then, I’ve found that just watching documentaries, watching actual people in these situations, is the best way to be authentic and pay tribute to these moments.
JM: Yeah, I was really fascinated by your approach to the snake. Michaela did a lot of really great work in the prep. You really immersed yourself in the prep. On set, you kind of threw it all away, so to speak. It was so ingrained in you.
None of us are teenagers anymore. There’s a lot of YouTube videos of teenagers getting into school fights, and I thought it would help to see what that energy felt like.
With the character of Johnny, I asked David [Kingston] to go and watch a VICE documentary on men with an addiction to opioids in Calgary. It felt like the character profile they created in that doc might help him understand his character a bit more and where he’s come from.
With Lou, too, I think I told Michaela not to go and watch a bunch of movies, because I didn’t want her to think, “Oh, this is the performance she’s trying to get out of me.” It’s better to try and access a character from real life, like Michaela did. She created her own memories. You’d have journals.
MK: Yeah, I wrote an entire back history of the character.
JM: Even the little brother, Jesse, wrote some journals about his character, which I didn’t tell him to do; he just did it. I think there was a sense on set that we needed to feel like we were watching real people as much as possible, not actors filling in for real people. None of these actors had done a lot before, so they didn’t have their own process. They were finding their process through making this film.