ST. AUGUSTINE – It’s to be quiet on set for this pivotal scene on the porch. But there’s a leaf blower buzzing somewhere in this quaint west St. Augustine neighborhood.
“I’m going to need someone to go tell him to go turn it off,” said director Kaili Torres on a brisk Saturday morning.
Producer Maria Lavelle and a crew member agree to take care of it. The message they relay back to Torres is it will 15 minutes for the leaf blower to cease.
Torres, who attended St. Johns Country Day School, played on the Ponte Vedra Storm club soccer team, the University of Virginia’s esteemed women’s soccer program and the U18 U.S. Women’s National Team. Now, she’s in her second year at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts graduate film program.
“I was ready for a new dream, so I applied to NYU. I wanted to tell people’s stories and give people a voice,” Torres said. “I still love soccer to this day. It’s a part of me and 20 years of my life. But I think this exhausts me more than anything I’ve ever done in my life. It just makes you use everything, your mind, your body.”
Torres returned to Northeast Florida to direct “Pancakes,” a short film about a young girl balancing her life and a mother with mental illness. For the porch scene, the girl’s mother is looking for a dog, but it’s a dead dog from childhood. The daughter is about to go to a job interview and tries to calm down the mom.
“This is the first time we see this relationship in front of our eyes,” Torres said. “This is the first time we’re really revealing the character of the mom. There’s dog food scattered around and she’s holding the dog’s leash.”
The film’s casting sessions were done in New York and the cast consisted of dozens of nationalities. Torres laughs and declines to go into how much the film will cost. Filming took place over five days at a cozy St. Augustine home shrouded by trees, mostly used as an AirBnB. Torres said the home fit the characters perfectly.
“To me this is the house they grew up in. This family is a little broken. This feels like a house I could have grown up in,” Torres said. “It smells the way I remember Florida smelling when I grew up, everything from the plants to the infrastructure reminds me of home and here. This is obviously a broken home, but there’s still a lot of compassion and love and people fighting.”
Torres watches a scene unfold on a monitor under a roomy black cloth in the backyard. Something is a bit off – the lighting on actress Izabel Mar’s arm. She consults makeup and the director of photography. Time for another take.
Torres said she wrote “Pancakes” for girls who had to grow up too fast.
“This is a story for girls whose circumstances are a result of not anything they’ve done, but they still wake up with that weight on their shoulder and they fight and try twice as hard as everyone else,” Torres said.
Lavelle, from Norway, also a director, is the producer for the film. She is a frequent collaborator of Torres’ and handles logistics, planning and finding locations for the shoot. The movie is their main project for the year at NYU.
“I give her what she needs to build this,” Lavelle said pointing to the set.
“Pancakes” will be submitted to the country’s prestigious film festivals such as Sundance, Tribeca and Toronto, and it will premiere at New York City’s Lincoln Center in May. A film titled “My Nephew Emmet,” by NYU student film Kevin Wilson Jr., was nominated for an Oscar in 2018.
Torres, who said she was best at expressing herself visually wants audiences to learn something new or leave feeling like a better person because of it. When you combine sound and image, it has a powerful effect on someone, she adds.
“My stories are about the underdogs or those people who get overlooked. I want to write about those people,” Torres said. “I want to give them a platform. I think that it’s this story.”