KAILUA-KONA — Kilauea may be quiet for now, but the volcano is about to make its presence known at Hawaii’s largest film festival.
“Stoke,” a new film from Pahoa-based filmmakers Zoe Eisenberg and Phillips Payson, will make its world premiere Saturday at the Hawaii International Film Festival in Honolulu. Filmed throughout Hawaii Island, in places such as Pahoa, Alii Drive in Kailua-Kona, and the lava fields near the former town of Kalapana, the film is in the running for the festival’s Best Made in Hawaii Feature award.
“Stoke” tells the story of Jane (Caitlin Holcombe), an attorney from Los Angeles who buys a one-way ticket to Hawaii Island to see Kilauea. With the help of Po (Randall Galius Jr.) and Dusty (Ka’uhane Lopes), two locals masquerading as tour guides, Jane travels the island in search of adventure and healing with the volcano’s lava flows.
While “Stoke” was filmed in February 2017, prior to this year’s May eruption, Eisenberg said the film is still relevant to Hawaii Island and Kilauea’s current state.
“We have a scene in the film where our characters walk through the lava fields out in Kalapana, that was once a thriving neighborhood, and by doing so they explore the idea of community resilience,” Eisenberg said. “So it was ironic for that to be a strong component of ‘Stoke,’ and then to have lava from the very same volcano take out a large neighborhood only 15 months later, and many of the places we shot ‘Stoke’ are now covered in 40 feet of lava.”
Eisenberg, who co-directed the film with Payson and wrote the screenplay, said the idea for “Stoke” came to the pair while they were filming their documentary “Aloha From Lavaland,” which chronicles Pahoa’s reaction to the 2014 lava flow. Eisenberg and Payson interviewed residents and tourists for the documentary and found many people were visiting the island just to see Kilauea in action.
“It’s very interesting to see who hears about an active volcano and is called to visit it. Some people go in the opposite direction, and some people head right here,” Eisenberg said. “We wanted to tell a story that addressed lava tourism from both sides — the perspective of people that come here, and the perspective of the people that were born here and what they think of all the tourists coming to see the volcano.”
Keeping up with Kilauea’s constant changes was a difficult aspect of filming “Stoke,” but Eisenberg said the crew was lucky with the timing.
“It’s hard to plan a production when the critical element could stop or change any time, and we just had to figure out how to be safe and respectful while also getting what we need to tell the story,” Eisenberg said. “So, in a way, our production was kind of a mini representation of our story we were trying to tell, of adapting to change.”
New York-based actress Holcombe had previously worked with Eisenberg and Payson for their film “Throuple,” and Eisenberg said it was important to the filmmakers that the rest of the cast be actors that identify with their Hawaiian heritage. Galius is a veteran of the Oahu theater scene who “blew away” Eisenberg with his audition.
“The funny thing was a found a lot of similarities with being on stage in this particular role,” Galius said. “The way (Payson) wanted me to play the character, and how I kind of interpreted it, is he was very energetic. So it wasn’t exactly the same as on stage but it felt very similar as if I were more excited than most people in a realistic world.”
Galius hopes the audience feels the same energy as well.
“Whenever I go out to see movies, I just want to be entertained,” Galius said. “And I hope the film brings the audience some sort of joy, just by being entertained by the wacky adventures these characters go on.”
After its Honolulu premiere this weekend, “Stoke” will make its way around Hawaii. Its first stop on the island will be Dec. 2 at the Palace Theater in Hilo as part of Hawaii International Film Festival’s selected Hawaii Island screenings. “Stoke” will also be played Jan. 4 at Aloha Theatre in Kainaliu.
“Stoke” will also see a mainland audience this weekend, as it plays Sunday at the Austin Indie Fest in Austin, Texas. Eisenberg said the film has been submitted for consideration at several mainland film festivals.
“It’s still a love letter to Hawaii, and the people in Hawaii are always going to be our prime, target audience,” Eisenberg said. “But I do think a lot of people from the mainland can take a lot away from this film as well.
“I think the film is weird, quirky and full of surprises, which is kind of like Hawaii Island itself.”