Directors Zoe Eisenberg and Phillips Payson (Throuple, Aloha From Lavaland) are back with another feature film set in the lush jungle of the Big Island of Hawaii. Stoke follows Jane, an entitled mainland tourist who hires two wannabe guides to take her to the Kilauea volcano. Shot on Hawaii island, the road-trip style drama was partially filmed in front of Kilauea volcano’s famous 2017 “lava hose,” and features many iconic Hawaii island landscapes that were covered in lava during the summer of 2018.
The film explores themes of grief and impermanence as its lead character, Jane (Caitlin Holcombe), struggles to cope with a devastating loss that shattered her world. Along with Dusty (Ka’uhane Lopes) and Po (Randall Galius Junior), the trio travels across the island en route to the volcano, as an untimely detour spins the group in unexpected directions.
Stoke is dark and grievous, but it’s also funny and poignant; it highlights the beauty of rebirth and discovery while showing viewers that it’s the journey that matters, not the destination.
Written by Eisenberg, Stoke (now available to rent or purchase through Amazon and Vimeo) has been heralded as “somber visual poetry” by the Maui Time Weekly and “downright surreal” by the Hawai’i Film Critics Society. TLW recently talked to both directors about the film’s thematic darkness, the healing powers of the island, and why the lava flow was the perfect destination for Jane.
TLW: What made you want to write a story surrounding grief?
ZE: The idea to centralize Jane’s journey around her grief actually came when Phillips and I were working on an earlier film, our documentary called Aloha From Lavaland, which chronicled our community’s experience with a lava flow threatening our only access road back in 2014. We were out on the street asking community members how living so close to an active volcano has shaped their life, and folks who moved here continuously discussed coming to lava zone one to heal from grief or trauma. It just kept coming up, interview after interview, and so that’s how Jane first developed. On the other end, many of the people born here, kanaka specifically, brought up lava tourism and their feelings about it. This is how we approached the mindset of characters Dusty, Po and Kaila – they feel conflicted about the tourism industry surrounding such a sacred element in their culture, but because of where they live, the local economy is dependent on it.
TLW: Tell me about the healing powers of the Big Island. Why is Jane drawn to it and are those characteristics of the island true to life?
PP: Hawaii Island has a bit of a reputation for being a healing ground. As Zoe mentioned, many people who moved to Big Island to heal felt called here. Jane is beckoned by the call of the lava and follows the urge to see fire create instead of destroy, as many people before her have done.
TLW: What does Stoke say to those who might be going through the grieving process themselves?
ZE: What the film says to me might be different than what it says to someone else, but for me, it says, be open to change. That’s often one of the foundations of grief–struggle over a loss, yes, but also a loss of control, the inability to go back in time and change something. But even the saddest turn of events can turn into something positive, even if only by offering you a chance to deepen and grow. That’s also how I feel volcanic activity fits into the film’s theme. Lava creates as it destroys. Our community recently lost over 800 homes and countless points of natural beauty, but we gained acres and acres of fresh land that future generations will get to enjoy. Perspective.
TLW: Why is Jane’s Hawaii trip so important for her grieving process? What did she learn from her time on the island?
PP: I think Jane’s trip to Hawaii shook her, and her behavior as she journeys across the island exemplifies how what you put out comes back around. I don’t think Jane is a likeable person, and she was never meant to be. She steals, she doesn’t respect her surroundings, and she is continuously irritated by the kindness the two boys display along their journey. Jane is humbled on her trip because the disrespect she exhumed hits her back.
TLW: How did you know that Caitlin Holcombe was right for the lead role?
ZE: We met Caitlin in 2013 when casting for our first feature, Throuple. We cast her as a supporting role in that film, and while she nailed that role, we always felt she’d been underutilized there and we wanted to see what she would do as a lead. I had Caitlin in mind as I wrote Jane, but we did open up our casting call and see dozens of potential Janes before making our final decision. Although ultimately Caitlin got the role because she is an excellent actor, we also already knew that we liked working with her, which is huge on a small set with limited resources.
TLW: Tell me a bit about the casting process. How did you find your Dusty and Po characters? Your Kaila character?
PP: Going into the casting process, it was important for the Hawaiian characters to be played by actors who connect with their Hawaiian heritage. It’s all too common for larger profile Hawaii-based projects to whitewash roles with Hollywood talent, which diminishes opportunities for Hawaiian talent and provides an un-authentic representation of Hawaii’s population. With that in mind, we were incredibly lucky to have Randall Galius Jr. (Po), Ka’uhane Lopes (Dusty), and Danielle Zalopany (Kaila) come on board the project. Each of these performers brought so much insight to the characters, grounding them as believable people.
During our casting process for Dusty and Po, we were nervous about finding two boys that could carry the majority of the film. Not only did they need to be captivating performers individually, but the chemistry between the two boys needed to read as life-long best friends. After an initial casting sweep, we brought our final few choices in to read with each other in separate pairs. When Randall and Ka’uhane were paired together, their chemistry was immediate.
TLW: Zoe, I read elsewhere that you chopped a romantic subplot from the final cut. What originally happened and why did you ultimately make that call?
ZE: My original version of Stoke had no romantic subplot. It was Jane on a journey to get over a huge, unexpected loss in her personal life. But as I sent the script around for feedback, literally every set of notes that came back wanted to see some sparks between Jane and Dusty. Dusty’s character is a bit of a “woke lothario” – he’s not an asshole, but he’s sexually driven and pretty upfront about it. In the original script, Jane wasn’t interested and we got to watch Dusty try and fail, which was new for him. He had to learn to see Jane as something other than a potential love interest. But as I received the same ubiquitous note from every reader, I ended up adding a sexual element between the two of them because ultimately I wanted the film to succeed. We shot that script, and then in the edit, Phillips and I felt that twist in the Dusty/Jane dynamic felt cheap. It didn’t add anything to Jane’s story arch and it actually detracted from Dusty’s because he remained exactly the same the entire time.
It also angered me when I realized how commonplace it’s become to be shown, and for me with Stoke’s earlier feedback to be directly told, that a woman’s story is only a story if it centers around romance—usually with a man. So we returned to our original idea of Jane and Dusty during the edit, which was complicated to pull off logistically but ultimately paid off. The irony is that when screening Stoke we continue to receive commentary from women on how refreshing it is to see a woman’s story not centered around romance.
TLW: What’s the story behind the lava flow on the Big Island? When did it start and why did you decide to wrap up the film there?
PP: Hawaii Island is home to Kilauea volcano, the most active volcano in the world. There has been constant volcanic activity and lava flows in the Puna area, where the ending of the film takes place, continuously since the 1980s. The community in Lava Zone One is so special to us. It’s where we live, and it is a community that holds the will of the land above the needs of modern commercial society. Our documentary Aloha From Lavaland directly inspired many of the themes we explore in Stoke: resiliency, gratitude and impermanence in the face of nature. It was clear to us from the beginning that Stoke had to end at the lava to fully illustrate the power of this island and the humility that the raw elemental force inspires in those who are lucky enough to be in its presence.
TLW: There are tons of gorgeous shots in this film. What is your number one favorite and why?
ZE: Our DP Taylor Powell did a wonderful job capturing the majority of our cinematography, and we also had a talented drone operator on board, Jeremiah Lofgreen. My favorite shot is the drone shot near the end when the group is laying on the lava. It shows both the expanse of the lava’s destruction all around them and the challenge of the journey to come, and is a really incredible moment for me.
TLW: What was it like shooting near the volcano?
PP: Humbling. Spiritual. Shooting at the ‘fire hose’ ocean entry point is an experience I will never forget. Experiencing the moment fresh lava meets the ocean waves will be an inspiration for years to come.
TLW: Are any new ideas brewing for your next movie or are you taking a breather now that Stoke is out?
ZE: I’m a bit too addicted to work for a breather unfortunately, ha—working on that issue. But in the meantime, I am working on a delayed coming-of-age dramedy set in Hilo, and currently taking that project through the Creative Lab Hawaii Producers Immersive. I plan to shoot it in late 2020 or early 2021. Phillips and I also founded the Made in Hawai’i Film Festival in an effort to provide a platform for our community of filmmakers, so that keeps us busy, in addition to our day jobs.
PP: I’m excited to play with some short-form projects and experimental pieces before diving into another feature-length story. My focus is now turning to the Made In Hawaii Film Festival and enriching the film community on Big Island.