Karen Moore debuts Volcano at TIFF with well-honed comedic chops
In Canadian Karen Moore's directorial debut short film Volcano, two longtime friends meet up for drinks at a tiki bar, only to find themselves in their own bidding war for attention.
Moore, who has built up a solid career working in television and film on shows like Workin' Moms and Mary Kills People, brought her comedic chops to her first directed short, which she describes as more serious than those properties.
"Workin' Moms does have certain hits of drama, but it can also be a broad sitcom at different times. It tries to straddle both," she says, while Mary is a "dark comedy."
In Volcano, Jess Salgueiro plays an undateable misanthrope looking for sympathy from her friend Hannah (Hannah Cheesman), whose wild tales of sex and romance in Mexico with her partner leave Jess feeling unheard.
The film's title refers to two things: the tropical flaming cocktail intended to be shared among friends, which is served ironically to the women following the film's climax and which they silently and comically slurp through oversized neon straws, plus the eruptive climax itself, which reunites the two friends.
No, the climax is not a literal volcano exploding, though it's best left unspoiled, as the incident interrupting the women's fight reveals fractures in Hannah's personal life and upends everyone's preconceptions about the nature of their frigid conversation; the twist will surprise viewers with its poignant dramatic heft.
"I wrote [Volcano] as a conversation with two different sides of myself," explains Moore, who says she's "been both of these women: the single friend who is struggling with that and doesn't want to hear about her friends' happy love stories, and the friend who needs to share something about the relationship."
With Volcano, Moore wants the viewer to experience the tone and narrative as a "ride where you're not sure of its direction."
"The impetus is that it's funny until it's not funny and you're left to wrestle with those feelings," she says.
Moore's personal life inspired the short, and it's partly a reflection of certain shifts in friendship dynamics she's experienced since entering her thirties – namely, changes in friends' lifestyles.
"We have made different choices, which means we're not all the same anymore," Moore says. "It can be so much easier to immediately connect with someone who has made the same choices as you. It's a bigger bridge to cross if you've had kids and I don't have kids, and I can pretend to care about your kids. Those shared-experience-type binds become a little fractured."
A graduate of Ryerson's Radio and Television Arts program and the National Screen Institute's Features First program, Moore has worked as a writer and a producer, including the 2018 comedy short film Must Kill Karl, which she describes by comparison with her own short as a more complex shoot. With Volcano, Moore wanted her initial foray into directing to be a more simple, safe space for herself and collaborators.
"With this story I'm putting myself out there in a more vulnerable way. I wanted the set to feel calm and fun, not stressful and chaotic. This was a much more curated experience of me approaching specific jewel people in my life," which Moore says made the shoot run much more smoothly. She hired a combination of crew, some seasoned, others wet behind the ears. "I wanted it to be sane – as sane as a film shoot could be."
While Moore already had experience working with actors—including working as the on-set writer for Workin' Moms—directing brought new challenges, though they're experiences that will aid Moore when she begins working on a feature.
"The power of a closeup, the power of feeling Jess shift in a tight shot, those allowed you to go back in the jokes a little bit," she explains about the editing process.
In addition to learning the importance of post-production in honing Volcano's comedic tone, Moore found sitting on the director's chair a lot less scary than she anticipated.
"There's only so much that you can prepare for. As everyone says, you eventually have to go do it," says Moore.
Volcano plays as part of TIFF's Short Cuts Programme 05 on Sunday, Sept. 8 and Saturday, Sept. 14.