Conversations with Director Rory Kennedy: On shooting “The Volcano: Rescue From Whakaari.”

In the tense and gripping Netflix documentary feature The Volcano: Rescue From Whakaari, Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Rory Kennedy tracks the minute-by-minute unfolding of the tragic volcanic eruption off the coast of New Zealand in December of 2019, ultimately claiming 22 lives. During a routine sightseeing day-trip to a remote volcanic island, 47 tourists and guides were trapped in the epicenter of a boiling pyroclastic surge of toxic dust and ash. Both terrifying and inspiring, the film uses first-hand accounts to convey the experience of living through such a lethal eruption.

Offering more than a startling and brutal portrait of mother nature’s profound indifference The Volcano also serves as testimony to human nature’s innate generosity. Guided by survivors — men and women who were tested in ways they never imagined — as well as the courageous and quick-thinking ordinary citizens who sprang to action that day, the viewer comes to understand the value of our human connection.

Stark and dramatic storytelling, The Volcano paints a raw and honest portrait of humanity at its best, even as it faces nature at her worst.

The Volcano’s director, Rory Kennedy, discussed the film with SCINQ.

How did you first get involved with this project and what were your initial impressions going into it?

I was approached by Appian Way which is Leonardo DiCaprio’s company’s executive producer on the project as well as Imagine Films, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s production company. Appian had the rights to an article that was in Outside Magazine by Alex Perry that documented what happened at the Whakaari-White Island volcano in 2019. I read the article and they were wanting me to look at it to see if I might be interested in directing a documentary on the subject,

I read the article with great interest. I was shocked that I hadn’t heard about this story in the first place. I was deeply moved by the personal stories of the people who were on this remote island 48 kilometers off the coast of New Zealand and the harrowing events that they lived through. 

Unfortunately, not everybody survived and then heroic stories of the pilots, the captains of the boats and other everyday people who really turned into heroes that day, doing what they could to save others and I found the story even in the face of this great tragedy quite inspiring and was interested in it immediately and turning it into a documentary.

There is a little gap between pre-production and principal shooting. During that time, how did you want to represent the volcano and the people involved in the narrative in general? How did you see the relationship between them?

I always felt like the volcano was going to be a character in the film, of sorts. I felt reading about the personal stories and what happened that day, that my intention was to try to help people who weren’t there understand that journey.

The best way to do that in this particular story was to take a ticking time bomb approach and really be on the journey with the people on the front line. There’s no narrator in the film. There’s no outside experts in the film. It’s all firsthand accounts. It’s told in a minute-by-minute breakdown of what happened that day. 

What I’ve heard from people who’ve seen the film is that you’re really at the edge of your seats, what’s going to happen next, who’s going to survive and who’s not. I felt that that approach to telling the story was the most powerful way of helping people understand the journey that folks went on who were actually there.

The Volano: Rescue from Whakaari. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022
The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari. (L to R) Matt Urey and Lauren Urey in The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022

The title of the film is “The Volcano” and it plays an important role. It’s one of the characters in the film but it’s by no means sort of the main character. The film struck me as a very human story about people and choices and after a while, their humanity. It really struck me how much they cared for each other. Even when everyone was strangers. Was it an emotionally difficult film to make?

Regarding the title, I thought “Volcano” was important for people to understand that this was about a volcanic eruption. “Rescue from Whakaari” was also important because I wanted to convey that this was a human story, ultimately. I would just add that in terms of the title. 

In terms of the difficulty in making this film, I’ve been making documentaries now for 25 plus years, on a range of subject matter Abu Ghraib, human rights abuses, torture, poverty, AIDS. I have to say that some of the interviews I did for this film were some of the hardest I’ve ever done and most powerful. 

There’s a shot in the film where there’s a helicopter pad and the helicopter has been knocked off the helicopter pad, and it’s kind of sideways as a result of the force of the eruption. That’s an indicator of what folks lived through. The heart of this eruption was two or three minutes, but as one of our characters says in the film, the eruption was two or three minutes, but the results of it are going to impact them for a lifetime.

There were more than 20 people at the crater’s edge but only a few of them survived. Jesse was one of them. To hear what he endured, the loss of both of his parents and sister is so heartbreaking. And yet he’s so fierce and brave. He had over 73% of his body burned. Very few people can survive that. He was told that he was going to be in the hospital for more than a year, but he left after two months. 

He was 19 years old when this happened. He’s 22 now. I just saw him last week in New Zealand. He’s such a source of inspiration for me and such a beautiful soul. There’s something really heartening and powerful about his story. It’s both enormously heartbreaking and enormously inspiring.

The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari. Jesse Langford in The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022
The Volano: Rescue from Whakaari. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022

Going into the project. Do you know that there was footage of the actual event?

I did know that there was some footage that was documented on iPhone cameras, but I didn’t know the extent of it. That was a priority for me making the film. As we began reaching out to various people whom we were interested in interviewing, we were also asking, from the get go about what kind of footage there was. We were able to gather a lot of footage and media that’s never been seen before.

During the process of making this film and were there any surprises for you?

I lived through the Woolsey fires here in Los Angeles and we had to evacuate. My house came very close to being burned down. It was saved by the neighbors who stayed behind. I think all of us are opening the newspaper or turning on the news every day, and there are these weather events that are getting increasingly powerful and increasingly frequent. There’s a sense I think, in the world today of feeling things being out of control. That’s a real feeling. There’s something about making this film, where I saw firsthand how people responded in the face of that. It was a reminder to me about the importance of humanity and having each other and that that was really the thing that saved people more than anything else. I didn’t go in with that idea in mind, but certainly after having done the many interviews that I conducted, that was clearly the theme and the thing that this film rises to.

IMAGE CREDIT: Netflix.

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