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.
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Seventh Row (7R): What was the genesis of Firecrackers?
Jasmin Mozaffari: 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: 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.
Jasmin Mozaffari: 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.
Watch our directing masterclass with Jasmin Mozaffari and Darya Zhuk
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?
Michaela Kurimsky: 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.
Jasmin Mozaffari: 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.
To read the rest of the article, purchase a copy of The 2019 Canadian Cinema Yearbook here.