To deem a filmmaker as scrappy is the highest compliment. Clare Cooney continues to evolve in her many abilities as a filmmaker and artist, and has always has embodied the essence of the term “scrappy.” Her evolution over the past years is making her more in demand as a filmmaker. Her friend Jose Nateras came to Clare to direct his feature script “Departing Seniors” because he knew she could take an ambitious project with a Latino queer lead, a tight budget and timeline, and make it sing. Clare Cooney has just wrapped production for this film and it will be her directorial feature debut.
For our January 2019 “Black Panther” issue, Clare Cooney, then based in Chicago, was the second filmmaker I ever interviewed for Cinema Femme magazine about her short thriller “Runner” that she starred in and directed. This short was her first directorial effort. Now talking to her again, it comes full circle as she directs her first feature, and her first horror film. Directing a horror film excited her: “I knew I could handle tension well, and I knew how to keep people at the edge of their seats and make their palms sweaty. So I had the confidence to do this. I also know I can take an ambitious script and make it happen in a short amount of time and so it’s just about constantly adapting and evolving as I go.”
Since January 2019, Clare has gone on to direct 3 more short films (1 co-directed with Abby Pierce), a webseries, and now resides in Los Angeles. She also has developed quite the acting career, along with her recent starring role in Michael Smith’s “Relative”, now showing in select theaters, and soon to be On Demand. Speaking with Clare, she admits she did not move to LA because she thought she was too big for Chicago, she actually left Chicago because LA has shown her more of what she can be as an artist in the industry: “There are a million different things you can do in the business. If one club doesn’t want you, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a million more that you can pursue. It was good for me mentally to move to LA, it actually helped me set my ambitions even higher, and that served me really well. Because when I come back to Chicago, I feel like I have so much more agency and confidence with the way I approach my work there.” Now she comes back to Chicago with a different mindset. It’s more than what’s out there for her, it’s more what she has to give.
How did you meet Jose Nateras, and what drew you to this project?
Jose and I have been friends for awhile. I don’t even remember when I first met him. We were both in the Chicago theater sphere. He is an actor and playwright in Chicago, then he started doing some screenwriting and he’s also written a book. He’s been growing a lot as a writer, and also as an actor. That’s how I knew him. We have shared friends, and we are in the same circles. I feel like our Chicago filmmaking community in Los Angeles is such a tight knit circle, because LA can be a really alienating place, so it’s good to hold on to those people from Chicago.
We kept seeing each other within the same groups, and we had a million friends in common. Jose came to me and asked if we could go out to lunch. He said he was working on this project. He wanted to get my thoughts. He had known that I had directed and produced quite a few short films, and help produce some features. At that lunch, Jose told me that he didn’t want to be just a writer on this project, but also a producer.
So I just thought I’d be a friend providing advice for him, and then when they got to the point where they looking for a director, he came to me and said, “Wait, what about you?” To him, I was the person he knew who had done the most filmmaking in the Chicago sphere, and also he knew that I knew how to work with a low budget, and a tight timeline. He knew that this kind of project was my bread and butter. We also both knew that having connections with friends you trust would be key. So that was the Jose part of it.
I read the script and I thought it had a beautiful, interesting twist on a genre we’re all familiar with. I love that it showcases a variety of different voices and people who don’t often get the lead roles in films. It centers around a queer Latino kid and his best friend who is a Black woman and also queer. But their characters are not about their race or sexual orientation, it’s just them existing as human beings in the world with their hearts, their friendship and their wants. That was really exciting to me.
And also, it’s just a really fun and well-written thriller/comedy/horror kind of thing that was so similar to aspects of film that I love, and it was an ambitious script. I just was like, ‘This is going to be a wild first feature for me.’ I was really intrigued by the challenge and really drawn in by the characters. It’s about best friends in a lot of ways. It’s really fun. It’s like a nice spin on the classic John Hughes high school genre as well.
How did you find Ignacio Diaz-Silverio to play your lead character, Javier?
We were looking high and low for the lead role of Javier. We had some good options, but we hadn’t found our person yet. Then Ignacio submitted his tape to us on Breakdowns. We were so lucky because he had just come off of his show and he had a break in his schedule. I had a call with him and we were chatting about the project, and I was like, “Are you in?” And he said, “Yeah, I think I’m in.” And that was that, we had found our Javier.
Could you talk more about your casting process, and the importance of having an inclusive cast?
The first person we cast was Yani Gellmen who plays Mr. Arda. We were initially sending out scripts to a couple key roles in LA. We were very open to casting. We knew we were open to casting two people from out of state, but we knew we’d be casting the majority of the lead roles in Chicago. So then we just started sending around ideas for casting. We were looking for options for Ginny, and for Bianca, and for Javier, and Mr. Arda – to see who we felt stood out, and then Yani Gellman got our attention. We just felt he’d be perfect for Mr. Arda, so we were really excited about that.
PR (Paskal Rudnicke) Casting took care of the Chicago casting, and they did an amazing job. The woman that plays Ginny is Maisie Merlock. We got her tape and we just knew she was the one. It’s hard to talk too much about the casting without giving too much away about the characters, but it was truly like, “You are Ginny, you were made to be this character.” It was like that with a lot of people, you know? Ryan Foreman, who is playing our William, did an incredible job. He was just immediately the person we wanted. Sasha Kuznetsov, who’s playing Brad, was amazing. Ireon Roach is a great actor. I had a recurring role on The CW’s 4400 where I had a scene with her, and she was wonderful in it. She was the perfect Bianca. We were having a harder time finding Javier though. We were like, “We know who he is, but we haven’t found him yet.” Then we met Ignacio, and when we did, we were like, “Oh my god, he’s Javier.” Besides Yani and Ignacio, the entirety of all the cast was all Chicago, so that was great.
You said there are familiar genre tropes within the film, but what do you feel makes the film unique within its genre?
The film could be comparable to “Scream” and “Jennifer’s Body”, and “Happy Death Day”, but also there’s aspects of “Mean Girls” and “Clueless”, the classic high school films. That’s the whole world of it. But what makes it unique I think is a couple things: one, the dialogue style of the film is very quippy and fast. It is reminiscent of something like “Mean Girls” and even “Gilmore Girls”. It’s very fun and rapid fire and darkly, darkly, darkly comedic.
One thing that struck me is that all of the characters are really grounded and are really fleshed out. As someone who has their roots in theater and drama and character work, I love that because sometimes with those classic movies, some of the characters can feel a little superficial, and honestly no one in this film feels superficial or one-note or fulfilling a trope. That’s really what felt fresh about the film to me and also because it’s darkly funny. The film also deals with serious topics and it doesn’t shy away from the danger. So it’s not tongue-in-cheek, and it’s not too campy, it’s an interesting combination of a bunch of different genres.
But one of the biggest things that stands out to me is that quite often there is usually a heavy romantic component in these classic films, either the boyfriend is the killer, or the boyfriend saves the girl, or something like that. The nice thing about this film is that our lead character is not some white woman, it’s a queer Latino man, and it’s not so much about the romance as it’s about friendship. And Bianca and Javier are the root of our story, and I think that’s really great.
I really can’t pigeonhole you at all. You’re an actor, a writer, a producer, a director, and now you’re directing your first feature that is a horror film. In the past you’ve done drama and comedies. I feel your career is similar to the scrappiness of a Chicago filmmaker, you work with what you’ve got. Can you talk about that?
I never have had a traditional job, like an office job, or being a server. I did try serving for a month, and realized it wasn’t for me. I eventually did have a day job to some extent, like at Theater Wit. I was first a House Manager, and then a bartender, and a social media person, and then I became their casting director. And that’s not a traditional route for someone to grow into this industry. But I was also interning at Paskal Rudnicke Casting, and sometimes subbing as an assistant or an associate there. So I had this casting background, and initially I had no intention of going into casting. I took the internship to learn more about what happens behind the camera. As an actor working in casting, it really opens your eyes because you learn about why people book and why others don’t and all of that kind of stuff.
I never had a job outside of the business, ever. I think the double edged sword is that I’ve never had insurance through a place of work. I’ve never had a stable salary. For the most part I live a humble life. I work really hard and I try to save my money. I’m also operating from a place of privilege, because I don’t have any debt from undergrad. That means that I was available in my work to learn new skills. Like I was able to absorb the casting world. Then I started cutting my own short films, like “Runner”, and then I started to cut actor reels and trailers. I became really confident as an editor who cuts my own work, and so my ways of making money to support myself as an actor were little skills that were contributing towards my larger path. Everything kind of flows into each other. Like I wanted to direct and act, and I had to learn how to cut and produce. Then on the next one I directed and produced, I also cut the film, and then I cast it. Ultimately every skill you gain can make you a better director, or a better actor, or whatever. It all comes together for me.
There are certain things I prefer doing, like I really love to cut, but do I want to do that full-time? No, probably not. My two things I’d love to do full-time are directing and acting. I like producing, it feeds that boss part of my brain, but do I want to do that, and not be directing the work? Probably not.
That’s kind of how I started to do a million things, and having them all interacting. In terms of relating my path to Chicago filmmaking, for better or worse, Chicagoans are scrappy, and I am very, very scrappy. I think that my mentality or mindset was also rooted in scrappy indie filmmakers like Stephen Cone. His directing career is incredible, and he was my mentor and the person I admired as I was learning to be an on camera actor and director. I admired his abilities and filmmaking path. This is true of a lot of Chicago filmmakers I admire, like Michael Smith. A lot of up-and-coming Chicago filmmakers are like, “I’m going to make it, come hell or high water. How can I use my community and my skills and my range to make that happen?”
I think that same mentality is true for my work in “Departing Seniors”. I’ve never done horror before, but I’ve done a thriller with “Runner”. I knew I knew I could handle tension well, and I knew how to keep people at the edge of their seats and make their palms sweaty. So I had the confidence to do this. I also know I can take an ambitious script and make it happen in a short amount of time and so it’s just about constantly adapting and evolving as I go.
Has working in LA opened up your perspective into the industry?
Yeah. It has.
Did you feel like a big fish in a small pond?
I wish I felt like that. I knew there was more to tap into in Chicago, but because Chicago is smaller, it sometimes means there is less opportunity when it comes to positions being filled or roles being cast. Like every theater has their ensemble and they have their darlings that would be cast as the lead role that I would be right for. I often didn’t feel like I had a chance of acting on the larger Chicago stage theaters, or being called in for the roles I wanted to play in the Chicago TV and film offices. It felt like they had their 10 or 15 people they loved and were established. I was kind of on the fringes, and maybe would get seen sometimes in those roles. But I think if I felt like I was really the top dog in Chicago, and I was getting whatever roles I wanted to play, I might have not left.
I wasn’t fully satisfied with how my career was going in Chicago, and that made me want to leave. I think that has been great for me because it helped me to care a little less about the Chicago politics of everything, and look at the overall. I mean there are so many opportunities available in this business. LA as a business makes Chicago seem really small. It has been good for me to see how big the business is, whether for better or worse, and see how little some things matter that I was stressing about before, you know?
I’m not saying those things don’t matter to the people involved, but for me, if I didn’t get called in for this audition for this show at Steppenwolf, my life seemed over, and the reality is, it’s just an “eh.” There are a million different things you can do in the business. If one club doesn’t want you, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a million more that you can pursue. It was good for me mentally to move to LA, it actually helped me set my ambitions even higher. And that served me really well, because when I come back to Chicago, I feel like I have so much more agency and confidence with the way I approach my work there. I’m not asking for things from people, I’m just like, “this is what I’m going to do.” It worked out really well for me. I’ve been booking larger roles in Chicago. I think part of that is a shift in my mindset in my approach to Chicago.
Also, one thing that you’ll learn in LA is that it is a business. Sometimes in Chicago, we pursue it because we love it, but it is wild the amount of shrewd business people that are involved out here. So that can be a shift in perspective too. You have to constantly remind yourself I’m also doing this because I love it, not just because of the money or the business of it. It’s a balance.
Anything you’d like to add about “Departing Seniors”?
I want to call out Jason Chiu. He was my DP on this project and he was somebody that I collaborated with before on my shorts “Runner” and on “After”. He was really my partner in this film. It was great to make my first feature with someone I collaborated with before, and who has such a great trust in me, and I trusted him. It was really nice, and his work is just stunning. In Chicago, we should use him for everything.
The producing team was great too. It was crazy that we shot this in 16 days. It was absolutely insane for the budget we had, along with it being a 105-page script with a lot of characters, a lot of locations, and also some special effects. It was such a challenge and the whole team really rose to the occasion. We got so many challenges thrown our way, like filming during COVID. Our team was REALLY scrappy, literally the definition of the word “scrappy” that necessity is the mother of invention, and learning to adapt and roll with things.
And finally, talk to me about your latest short film, “After: A Love Story”?
I’m really proud of this film. It is killing it on the film festival circuit right now. And I’m really proud of the writer and star Alyssa Thordarson. The film will hopefully be online in the coming months because we’ve played at like 16 or 17 film festivals.
Thank you for making “After.” You really elevated a hard story to tell, and gave it a fresh perspective.
Thank you. It is a script that could so easily lean into melodramatic anchors and cliché. And therapist scenes are really hard to do. At first I was like, “Oooh I don’t know.” I don’t want it to feel like it was a Lifetime kind of thing. My aesthetic is that I really love grounded and naturalistic stuff. For me, if it doesn’t make me feel a little uncomfortable in how real it feels, I check out. So I was really lucky that Alyssa, Glenn Stanton and Susaan Jamshidi are strong actors who listened to me and trusted me, and were patient with me.
Glenn did an amazing job on this one part of the script and I went up to him and was like, “That was perfect, but for ‘Chicago PD,’ but we’re not filming ‘Chicago PD.’ I want the raw version of it. I want the HBO version of this, not the NBC version.” He knew exactly what I meant. I told him, “Take your time, if you think you’re lying to yourself even a little bit, and you feel yourself kind of ‘acting’, start over.” Because I wanted to see it. And he trusted me enough and he didn’t get offended, because I wasn’t calling out his performance, it was incredible, I was just trying to shape things how I wanted. So it was great to get to work on that with them.