Clare Cooney spoke with Solzy at the Movies about short film Runner now that the award-winning short is being released online.
Runner is making its way to the internet after a lengthy film festival run. What was the genesis of the project?
Clare Cooney: I actually had the idea when I was, fittingly, on a run. It was a gorgeous day and I had music pumping in my headphones and I was feeling free, powerful, strong. Then I turned a corner and saw something shady happening at the end of the alleyway. In an instant, the spirit of my jog completely changed and felt eerie and dangerous, and I felt weak and anxious—but the same poppy song was bumping in my headphones. That stark shift in tone and the juxtaposition of the internal music and external events was really inspiring to me, and I wanted to explore that feeling. I also wanted to explore that quick reversal from feeling powerful and in control to feeling weak and exposed. I feel like, as a woman, that intense shift of emotion is unfortunately a really common experience. So, that was the spark for the film. The story sort of developed and morphed from there. It turned into something a lot bigger than that…I’d been listening to some true-crime podcasts and watching a lot of true-crime/thrillers too, at the time, so some of that helped to form the story. I started thinking about what *could* have happened in the alleyway, and I drew from past experiences in my life, where I felt threatened, trapped, or intimidated.
This was your first film as a director. What was the most challenging aspect of the film?
Clare Cooney: Yes, this was my first! I’d directed a couple plays in college, and I have experience as a casting director, so I felt confident in my ability to work with actors well and navigate the scene work, but I was incredibly nervous about the more technical aspects of directing. I was literally just googling “what does a film director do in pre-production” and “how to create a shotlist” so that I could try to figure out the gaps in my knowledge. I was lucky to be working with a producer I trusted and a DP that I trusted, so I could ask them any questions that I had. So the act of learning on the job was challenging — exhilarating too — but certainly challenging and nerve wracking. It was also tricky because I was playing the lead character in the film, and due to our modest budget we didn’t have the time or the tools to be able to easily watch playback. I only watched playback once. That ended up being a gift, because I didn’t overthink anything. I had planned, planned, planned in pre-production and knew what I wanted. Feeling confident in your vision allows you to just show up and the day and GO, and never look back.
How excited were you to screen Runner last year during the Chicago Critics Film Festival at the Music Box Theatre?
Clare Cooney: I was so thrilled. I believe my film was the only film shot in Chicago & directed by a Chicagoan to play at the festival last year, so that made it even more special. Having the support of Chicago critics (a couple of whom really lobbied for my film to play at the festival) was such an honor. The Music Box is a Chicago gem and one of my favorite places to see a movie. And the organist was playing before my shorts block. That was the icing on the cake!
In turning to Seed & Spark to ready the film for online distribution, the campaign went above and beyond. How honored were you to see so many people supporting the film?
Clare Cooney: It was INSANE! Absolutely insane. We had a few final costs that we needed assistance with (music licensing, final sound, final score, etc) but it was still a very modest indie budget, so I was confident and hopeful we’d meet our goal in the 30 days of the campaign. We hit our goal in 2.5 hours. We’d nearly doubled our goal within 36 hours. Right now we’re sitting at 350% of our goal, with about 8 days left. I almost cried with relief and appreciation when I saw that response. This film has been really fulfilling for me in so many ways, but it’s also been a real financial strain for me. I paid for it all out of pocket (and as an artist, my pockets are NOT deep at all) and I’ve put a crazy amount of hours into the film over the last 2 years, since I was the writer, director, editor, actor, and basically our publicist too. So being able to fully cover the costs of our distribution needs, pay my fabulous cast and crew for their time, and pay back some debts I owed from production — it’s a dream. I’m so thankful and happy that people are excited about the film.
What do you love the most about being in the Chicago filmmaking community and seeing how supportive people are of local projects?
Clare Cooney: Chicago is a place where people are both positive and excited about making work, AND are talented and good at making that work. I don’t think it’s all that common to have both. I think sometimes you have a lot of talented people who who are jaded, and not all that thrilled to be working on a given project. And then sometimes you have a ton of fantastic, sincere, passionate people who don’t necessarily have the chops to back it up, so the work ends up falling flat. But Chicago has the best of both worlds. Chicago deserves to have a ton more production than it has currently. It’s growing everyday, but there should be even more. Everyone here is rooting for Chicago, so the more we help each other out, the more opportunities there will be for all of us. I’m so thankful to everyone who pitched in to help on RUNNER — the cast, the crew, people who gave us locations for free, people who attended a screening and recommended the film to others, and those who donated to our campaign….all the support has made a huge difference in the life of this film.
Even though we only hear your voice and see the back of your head in Widows, what were some of the important things you learned from working on the studio film?
Clare Cooney: Ha! It was a really valuable experience…and surreal. At first it felt like any other film set — but then when I walked into hair and makeup I was seated in the chair between Viola Davis and Elizabeth Debicki. It didn’t feel like a standard film set anymore! They couldn’t have been kinder, and I eased into it pretty quickly, but the first few moments just casually talking to those women I’d only seen on screen before felt like a strange dream. The entire crew was working like a well-oiled machine. There were so many people, more than I’d ever seen on a set before, working together seamlessly…and quietly! It was one of the most chill, quiet, productive sets I’d been on. They’d been working on the film for a couple months by the time I shot my scene, so everyone knew everyone else very well and knew their role in the machine of the film. Steve McQueen was a sweetheart. He was very protective with his actors. When he had a note for Elizabeth or Viola, and even for me, he would step away from everyone else and sit or stand right next to the actor, speaking in a really quiet, thoughtful, tender way. He had a very intimate way of giving direction. I think that sort of thing is really helpful for an actor—when you’re on a set that is moving a million miles a minute and everything is clicking, it can feel like business, and as an actor its easy to feel overwhelmed or out of the loop. So I think it’s really helpful for a director to slow things down for a second, be still and quiet, and connect human to human with your actor. That allows actors to do their best work. It was really beautiful to watch, and I’m so thankful for the entire experience.
With directing a short film now under your belt, have you given much thought to possibly directing a feature film?
Clare Cooney: I have! There are two ideas I have for a feature. One I’ve been developing on and off in my spare time (I haven’t had much of that lately, though!) for almost two years now, and I’m ready to refocus on that one. And the other is an idea that has been on the back burner for about 5 years—it’s a story I want to tell, but I’m not sure when I want to tell it. And then actually two folks have approached me with feature scripts that they might want me to direct, so that’s been really gratifying! Hopefully I’ll be moving towards pre-production on a feature in the next year! I’m really excited for what’s to come.