TIFF Q&A: Jasmin Mozafarri and Caitlin Grabham, creators of Firecrackers

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Jasmin Mozafarri and Caitlin Grabham. Photograph by Joseph Hammond.

[R]yerson Folio sat down with Jasmin Mozaffari and Caitlin Grabham , respectively the writer/director and producer of the short film Firecrackers. The pair took time out of their busy TIFF schedule to talk with us about being students, and their experience creating the film in their fourth and last year in the film studies program at Ryerson.

The fierce duo talked about the ups and downs of film making, and the excitement and overwhelming whirlwind of TIFF. Humble, excited, and surprised, the pair give us an in depth look at what it was like preparing, shooting, and marketing their short film, Firecrackers.

Ryerson Folio: What was the casting process like, especially because you were students when you created this film?

Caitlin: There’s a website Mandy.com, and school hooks us up with CastingWorkbook.com. It’s all on the internet, but it’s just us putting out our own kind of casting call. People come in, we audition a lot of people, [then] a lot of people don’t show up. We don’t really do callbacks or anything, because they don’t really like us doing them in school, so for the two main characters, all the girls read for both parts. They usually stated their preference for which character they’d like to play. We kind of picked the people we thought would best fit. The image of some of the girls changed, they weren’t originally supposed to look like they did in the film, but the actors we thought were really strong and did their roles really well. They weren’t necessarily what we had in mind going in, but it definitely worked out for the better.

Jasmin: We almost couldn’t find two of the characters. There’s a little boy in the film who blows up a condom at the beginning of the film, so it was very hard to find him.  No talent agency wanted their kid doing that, but we had kid actors read for our third year film, so we called one of them up and thankfully he jut did it. The other person we hard a hard time finding was the trucker guy, he makes out with the lead character in the truck, it was very hard to find him, but we only saw two guys for that.

RF: What was the inspiration for this story?

J: Basically [its] inspiration came from when I was going to do a thesis [and] I knew I wanted to do a film about the idea of freedom or lack of freedom in terms of women and girls. I had that theme in mind and then I also wanted to do a film on girls who act on their impulses and desires without regretting it and not being ashamed about it and going on adventures. You often see boys going on adventures and doing things unapologetically, but I wanted to see girls do that. I knew I had girl characters in mind sort of based on the girls I knew when I was a teenager, so I went back and I looked in my journals from when I was a teenager and I pulled out episodes from my experiences when I was a teenager. I didn’t grow up in a small town, but I grew up in a community me and my friends wanted to leave which was Barrie, and I was always fascinated by the idea of what happens when you’re in a very small isolated town. You can’t leave, but you want to escape. All those things played into my inspiration.

RF: How long did the shoot/process take place?

C: Shooting was technically six days. We started at the very end of October and shot into about mid to late November, and that was the actual shooting process. We were in pre-production and development I guess just before school started. We had a really short preproduction period I think compared to other people in our year, because we wanted to shoot before it (North Bay) got cold, so even in November it was becoming really, really cold. We were trying to avoid the snow, [it] just wasn’t what we were going for. We finished shooting at the end of November, but it still took us five months to edit and tweak everything. [It was] a very slow post production process [but] it was good we had that much time for post.

RF: What would you say was both the most exciting and difficult aspects of creating the film?

J: The most exciting part of it for me was actually shooting it. I don’t think I’ve had as much fun shooting any other film as I did this film. We had a good crew, everything was figured out, so I really enjoyed shooting it. The most difficult part was definitely location scouting, oh my god that took forever, because it’s shot in northern parts of Ontario. I travelled to North Bay at least four times before we actually shot. That’s a four-hour trip [there] and back, and then while we were there we had to drive around and find locations in a town that I had no experience with at all. Finding the truck stop that’s in the film was excruciating, very difficult, because we needed a certain kind of truck stop and there aren’t many of those anymore, so driving around all of Ontario trying to find this perfect truck stop, it was just so stressful.

C: I think you have more fun on set than I do. I’m too stressed about everything to make sure it goes okay. Obviously I think once it starts coming together it’s a lot easier for me to relax, just because I’m in charge of all of the logistics and everything, panicking if we’re running 20 minutes late. Again with the truck stop, the other thing is, certain truck stops don’t want us to film there because they’re afraid of their reputation. I think the truck stops were the harder part. There’s obviously other locations that are like that, but you kind of have to be cautious with everything, and then when you’re shooting and it’s somebody else’s property you’re trying to stay within their guidelines and when they want you to leave and everything. Logistically planning, it is challenging. It’s fun in a way, but not really a sigh [of] relief until you actually have everything shot and you can tell it’s starting to form into something.

RF: In terms of funding, did you have any sponsors or did a lot of the money come out of your own pockets?

C: Jasmin’s dad ended up donating quite a bit of money to the film. We did get a grant for William F. White, which is a lighting and grip company that provides all the lighting and grip equipment (laughs), so we were able to save a bit of money there.

J: There are the IMA awards every year, and they give out money. I got an award/grant for film, [it was] to help you shoot on film. A chunk of money came from that, the rest was our personal finances. It racked up the dollars for sure, but it definitely paid off.

RF: Alongside location scouting and funding, what were other obstacles you faced when creating this film?

J: The casting. Finding those two other characters was extremely hard, especially the little boy oh my god, and I’m like, we need him, we need him in the film. I think we almost had the threat of having to push the shoot a couple of times.

C: There’s just a whole process because we had to compete with everyone else’s in the class. Only 20 films got green-light. There [was] over 40 pitched at the beginning of the year, so we really had a month and a half of pre-production, so trying to plan probably one of the biggest shoots in the smallest amount of time, which luckily worked out. Both of us had it done where we didn’t have any other classes, we only had film production. We worked it out, or else you’d need to have another four courses on top of that. People who were doing that I think had a lot harder time. For us, all I was doing was film production, all Jasmine was doing was film production, we were just literally thinking about the film all the time.

RF: So since you guys graduated, what have you been up too? Marketing this film?

J: Mostly. We got in to a couple of festivals, [and] we were trying to get into more. TIFF has taken up time [because] you have to do things for TIFF in terms of [going to] events, networking and such. We got into Vancouver International Film Festival, enRoute film festival, and Yellowknife International Film Festival so far. That’s pretty much it so far.

C: I’m working as an intern here and there for the Canadian Film Centre, but also I think we are also right now trying to develop more projects. People have been giving us good feedback, so we are trying to ride that wave, and keep the momentum that we have right now, and see where that takes us.

RF: What has it been like being involved in TIFF? Is it as much of a surreal whirlwind as one would expect?

C: Definitely, I think it’s also we weren’t expecting to get into TIFF so much. Obviously you’re hoping your film gets in places, and TIFF is definitely one of the festivals you’re more involved with. They have a lot of industry events and different things that are going on. There’s always emails and stuff about things you could be doing, you’re constantly meeting people, it’s kind of overwhelming. This summer we didn’t really do much, we were applying to a lot of film festivals but TIFF I think was the first film festival, well it’s our premiere, so it’s the first film festival we were really at, and it’s just like, once you get notification of your acceptance you’re just kind of thrown into so many different things and so many different deadlines, different things you need to give them, different stuff you need to attend, different people who you’re supposed to talk to, it’s just overwhelming.

RF: Where were you guys when you first found out your film was accepted?

C: You tell the story.

J: Oh yeah, I’ve told this story a couple times. I was just in my apartment, and Magali [Simard who] is the short film programmer at TIFF phoned me. I thought it was going to be a rejection phone call, ‘cause I don’t know just the tone of her voice, and she said “you got in,” and I couldn’t believe it. Caitlin lives down the hall from me, so I ran down the hall and like I’ve said before in interviews, I wasn’t really wearing pants, just kind of like some underwear thing, she wasn’t wearing pants either surprisingly…

C: I was cleaning my washroom…

J: I was like, “I need to tell you something,” and she was like, “what?” Like her face was just [like] “what’s going on?” I had to pause for dramatic effect, and [then] was like, “We got into TIFF.” We were just screaming. It was a happy moment.

C: It was really out of nowhere

J: That was the surreal moment.

C: It was before deadline, they have a notification [date when] they let you know, when you’re supposed to be told, and it was a week or a bit before that, so we weren’t even expecting that phone call yet to get nervous about it.


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Lou and Chantal put their imaginations to use in their sleepy, isolated town.

RF: What has it been like experiencing this with your peers, with student filmmakers who got in who were also from Ryerson?

C: As I was saying earlier today, it’s kind of nice. Sometimes networking can be intimidating [and] exhausting, because you want to make a good impression. You’re very aware of how you’re presenting yourself, so sometimes to have a break, you can go talk to the people you know, regroup, then go back out and talk to the people you’re trying to meet.

J: We are all newbies, so you feel like you’re not alone, you’re with the people you’ve been with for four years. It’s also nice because it’s like, yay, we’re in this together, we all did this, we all went from Ryerson. It’s comforting to know we all made [this] next step together.

RF: What do you want to take away from this experience?

J: I think to learn what to do for next time and to become comfortable with the Canadian film scene more. Like I said, I’m very new to it, so it’s a community that when you break in to it, I feel like it’s hard to break into. We got an in, because we got into TIFF. It’s a great in, but you want to take away feeling a part of the community and remain.

C: With it too, it opens [you] up to different people you could work with. School is [a] very small community, 60 of us in our program really, and you’re working with the same people. Doing projects outside of school [is] very different than putting them in school. There are a lot of people willing to help, certain people you can ask questions and get answers [through] different connections. Staying in the film community would be the goal, and staying hopefully relevant, we have some relevance right now, [so] we’d like it to continue.

RF: Going back to the film, I thought the location was the best part, it was very different and I couldn’t believe it was even in Canada. What made you want to film in that location?

J: It’s Northern Ontario, it has its own atmosphere for sure that’s different from Toronto. It’s its own world. When I was young I lived for two years in a small community called Chapleau. I know what that atmosphere is like, that feeling of isolation, it’s a theme in the film, feeling isolated, and wanting to break free of that isolation. I felt like northern Ontario suited that really well. You can feel isolated anywhere, but that needed to be there, that’s why I picked that area. It’s also a gritty film, its dark and [has] truck stops, and it’s sort of dirty,

C: Nothing’s really polished, and everything’s kind of dated.

J: That’s another thing, some people ask, “when does this film take place.” The reason I think they get a sense it takes place in the past is because when you go into these small towns sometimes it feels like time has never gone forward, progress stops sometimes. I wanted that feeling [that] things never progress. Northern Ontario is perfect for that.

RF: I also got a vibe of that in terms of wardrobe.

J: The wardrobe girl, Bryn Yamada, she went to school with us in fourth year and she’s really good. We collaborated on every single outfit in there. We decided for every single scene what the girls were going to wear, and what it looked like. Each individual girl had a different sense of style. Chantal likes flash, she likes to be out there. If you see pictures of the film it’s of her in the pink cat ears, it’s almost like she likes this sort of, she doesn’t see it as cheesy or tacky, but it has that sense of flash. Lou is a little bit more tomboyish. It was me and Bryn. Bryn was running around sourcing all the wardrobe from second hand stores, H&M and stuff. It was quite a long process determining each outfit.

B: Why do you think this film will speak to people? You have created a dark yet hopeful piece.

C: When I read it, what appealed to me from the beginning is the female story. I like the female element. I don’t find there’s necessarily the same female representation in film. That’s something I’m passionate about and want to see that more and I think the story was really good. We had people come up to us too and comment on that.

J: On that note, our film has also screened at the student showcase and at RUFF. Women would come up to me and said “I really related to that,”“I know what that feels like.” I think it will speak to people on a universal level because it has to do with freedom and that’s such a broad theme that seems to resonate with people, feeling trapped and feeling lost.

RF: Any last words about the film, about TIFF? Reel people in.

J: More than a year ago I was sitting on my dads’ porch writing this script, just hoping to make a good film. I never could’ve expected from that moment to now this would have happened. Even today, I’m coming from a BravoFact brunch to have an interview. That’s insane to me. I never thought this would ever happen. I think with this film I wrote something true to how I felt, true to my experience, and it felt right in my gut and I think that always pays off. Always stay true to yourself when you create art.

C: I would expect to be working part time trying to figure out what I’m doing with my life. It’s been a very exciting experience.

Read our review of Firecrackers here.