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Interview with RUNNER actor/writer/director Clare Cooney

May 2, 2018

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The first time I saw “Runner” was last fall, when it was included in the Shorts Program, “Women in Danger” as part of the 4th Annual Pop-Up Film Festival, curated by local Chicago filmmaker and film professor, Michael Glover Smith. I couldn’t get the 12-minute short – which was written and directed, as well as edited by Clare Cooney (who also plays the lead) – out of my mind. Beyond the fact that it had featured deliberate and concise storytelling with superb acting, I was struck by how I wound up replaying the emotions involved in the story over and over, for weeks and months. Then I saw it again recently, in preparation for its inclusion in the first of two Short Film Blocks at the 6th annual Chicago Critics Film Festival (this coming Sunday, May 6th) and my stance on the short being a stunning achievement was confirmed, just as I gleaned new observations of it.

The less I say about “Runner” the better off you are. I could tell you it’s a modern-day look at trauma and entrapment in Chicago and hopefully that would pique your curiosity. I could be a little more specific and say that it follows a young woman, Becca (played by Cooney) out on a run one day who encounters a couple arguing in an alley – and honestly. that’s all I’d rather say. What happens to this young woman (and/or that couple, actually) could happen to anyone, but like anything else that happens to us in life, it’s how we respond or react that impacts us and has a long-lasting effect on us. “Runner” is an impressive short, in that it packs a lot into such a short amount of time. There’s no fluff in the twelve minutes that we follow Becca, nor is there too much being crammed into such a short amount of time. As a writer/director, Cooney is deliberate and intuitive, but it’s her presence as the lead which will reverberate long after viewing. The range she shows here is impressive, but it’s in what she conveys without uttering a line that captivates the most.

 

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In between the two times I viewed “Runner”, I became aware it had won awards at film festivals and I had met Cooney in person. Along with the myriad of artistic talents she brings to “Runner”, her directorial debut, she also works as a casting director here in Chicago, which is how we met.

A couple of months ago, I was moderating a Q&A at the Gene Siskel Film Center premiere for Smith’s sophomore film, “Mercury in Retrograde”  – of which Cooney’s boyfriend, Shane Simmons, is a member of the fine ensemble cast (who also served as one of the producers) – and Cooney happened to be there. That’s when I learned that Cooney had served as casting director for the film. Before and during the screening that night, I sat down with Cooney and Simmons, along with the film’s producers and Smith, all of whom were excited about the film’s coverage and its packed house at the theater.

When I mentioned to Cooney I had seen “Runner”, she became really curious, asking me where and how I saw it. After all, when we put art out into the world, yet we never really know who our audience will be. Out conversation carries into her approach to casting, but I went back to “Runner”, asking her how more people can see it. Cooney mentioned that she is still submitting it to festivals and I asked her to keep me updated, hoping to interview her about the short once something local is scheduled. That time is now.

“Runner” being included in the lineup at the Chicago Critics Film Festival is a perfect opportunity to circle back and chat with Cooney about her film. It’s an enjoyable and lively conversation (if I do say so myself) and one that touches on various aspects of the filmmaking process, along with the frustration of being considered a “type” as an actor simply based on your looks. The interview below took place online, while I was at home and she was on set, shooting yet another short.

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DAVID J. FOWLIE: So, your work day has ending or you’re taking a break?

CLARE COONEY: It has officially ended, but I’m still here on set. They wrapped my scenes around 6:30pm. But, we’re wrapping the film tonight, so I’m sticking around for the next couple of hours. I don’t feel right leaving before the movie is over!
DJF: Alright! thanks for fitting me in!
CC: Of course. Thanks for doing this. Plus, it’s just fun to watch in video village.
DJF: Ooo, Video Village! Do tell…
CC: Haha, just the area where the director and some crew watch the scenes on monitors. This short has INSANE production value. It has pretty much the entire crew from Chicago PD here, SO much gear, monitors, etc. Pretty much the opposite of RUNNER. we did not have a Video Village.
DJF: I figured. I just wasn’t sure if that’s what it was still called.
CC: Haha, yeah – as far as I know.
DJF: So, this is a short that’s finishing up tonight?
CC: Yeah. It’s a short film called ABI. I play the role of Abi. We had a 4-day shoot. It’s a sci-fi horror short.
DJF: All shot in Chicago? What are the plans for it?
CC: Yep, all shot in Chicago. Not sure exactly, I know they plan to submit it to festivals. The director is a gentleman named Tim Troy and it was produced by P3 Media works.
DJF: I’ll keep it on my radar! I’m curious to know your perspective on a question that’s on my mind whenever I watch a handful of shorts: what makes a great short?

CC: Oh man. That’s a good question. I think it depends on what the filmmakers are intending to do with it. Like, if you’re trying to tell a full narrative arc or if you’re hoping to evoke an emotion or if you’re trying to experiment with images.

DJF: I have a loose litmus test (I guess it can be called that). To me, a great short film is one that hooks us pretty quickly – a character (or characters) are instantly intriguing, as is there situation and enough happens by the time it ends that you’re either satisfied and/or left wanting more. I felt both with RUNNER.
CC: Right. You need to be hooked. That’s for sure. If you’re not able to care about the characters/situation quickly enough, then there’s no point in watching the story, because there isn’t a ton of time to slowly get to know these people, or environment. So, you have to work a bit quicker to get an audience invested in the story. Yeah, certain people have left RUNNER being like “WHAT HAPPENED?!” and I’m like, “I don’t know.” I never intended it to go further than where I took it. 
DJF: I agree, it depends on what the filmmaker has in mind, but because of the length, the viewer needs to be on board immediately. What challenges do you feel that presents as an actor or a writer/director?
CC: Well, for my film, I found that we just couldn’t waste any time. I think this is true to some extent for features, but definitely for shorts, every look means something. There can’t be anything wasted, because, as I’ve been told and have observed, quite often it’s the tightest shorts that do the best. So, that can be tough to cut out moments you thought were special, or really try to think about what communicates necessary information/evokes emotion in the most efficient way.
DJF: I’m in agreement on that. I’m of the “less is more” or “leave them wanting more” school of thought.

CC: Right. Absolutely. It sounds very cold to think about it that way, but it honestly makes for a better film. People waste a lot of time with what they have become attached to or think is important. when it really isn’t. It’s all about what best and most efficiently (and clearly) communicates the story you’re trying to tell. I also just think people over-explain things — the best scripts are the ones in which the audience has to work out a couple things for themselves, and characters aren’t monologuing emotions.

DJF: …and it becomes clear to me right away whether or not a filmmaker trusts the audience to figure things out.
CC: Right. If you’re telling the story right, the audience should be able to feel what someone is thinking or feeling without having to state it. leave the subtext subtext.
It doesn’t feel good when it seems like a filmmaker thinks their audience needs plot to be spoonfed to them
DJF: So, how/when did you know you were “telling the story right” with RUNNER?
CC: Mmmmmmm, probably after it went back in and did a re-edit. We tightened it up from 17 mins to 12:40.
DJF: Ah, okay. So, it was in the editing process where you found on approach?

CC: Well no, but that was when it clicked. I cut a couple of things, and had to kind of re-work how the story was told. The story has always been the same and we shot very quickly, so I had it all pretty intensely mapped out. But, a couple key moments just weren’t being communicated the way I needed them to be, and I didn’t know how to fix it. Then when I did the re-edit, it was like, “Ah. That’s what it is.” I included flashbacks, which was something that was not in the initial script.

But, in terms of trusting the audience/less is more/the general arc of the story, that was always there. There is *very* little dialogue in RUNNER. I didn’t realize it until we had finished shooting. But, I just didn’t feel it needed it. Becca doesn’t need to talk about what she experienced. It would have killed the tension.
DJF: Interesting. You say the story was always there, but it was during the editing process when you arrived at the best way to tell it. Like an artist who’s painting – you have the end result in mind – put it’s in wrestling with the process that you eventually arrive upon the right way to communicate intent.

CC: Right! Like – it’s all working, but then suddenly one brushstroke, or one color just feels wrong. And you have to figure out why what you had planned isn’t showing up on the page the way you imagined it. For me, it was a little bit of trial and error. Then I shifted one thing and the entire story all of a sudden worked the way I needed it to.

But that’s the thing — it’s scary to re-edit something – because the order in which I planned to tell the story worked. It worked on the page. It worked while shooting. But, it wasn’t totally sitting right once it was all edited together. So, I had to go back in and challenge myself to tell the story, but in a slightly new way.
Which was scary because my first edit was really good. So, it was tempting to just keep it. but I felt this creeping feeling that it wasn’t quite right. and i wanted to cut time. so I took a couple weeks, let it float around in my head for a bit, kept it on the back burner. Then i went back in and re-cut and it felt fresh and I made changes and within 24 hours I lost 4 minutes and it felt completely new, but the same.
DJF: Your description of the editing process brings to mind certain words that I associate with the process: daunting, exciting, nerve-wracking and illuminating (to name a few).
CC: Yes. Very much so. The night before we were going to shoot, I wanted to call it off. I had never directed a film before. and I was acting in it. I had planned it so thoroughly. I had such a clear vision for what I wanted. I was so prepared. and then the night before I was like, “what am I doing? This is too scary.” I was like, “How do I start? How do I direct?” I knew I was a good director. I was a good director in college, and I’m a good casting director, and I’m a good acting coach. But I was so freaked. but then you just do it.
DJF: Just. Do. It. Three words that are easy to write and say – something else entirely to put into action!
CC: Right — but you just start working.
DJF: I can imagine – it’s scary! So, what keeps your head and heart in it, especially when it’s a project that all rides on you?

CC: Well, the heart was definitely in it. Probably too much so, which is why I had so much anxiety over it! But as for the head, keeping focused on the details, the task at hand — that helps. focusing on legit steps to keep myself from being overwhelmed. You make sure you have an incredible team surrounding you. You do the work. You make sure you’re prepared. and then you do it. Step 1 first, step 2 second, deal with this issues that come up. Great, on to step 3. If you try to think about all 400 steps at once, that’s when it’s scary. 

DJF: So, the head modulated the heart?
CC: Something like that. They modulated each other a bit. 

DJF: I like what you said about “stepping away from it”, it’s what every artist needs at times – hard to do on a short though, no?

CC: Right. Yes. On the day, you can’t really step away – on any film set, you can’t really because time is tight. As a director, if you need to rethink something or rework something, you can maybe step away for a matter of minutes. But you can’t just take a half day off and rethink things. There are too many moving parts and people depending on you. But during the post production process, depending on what your timing is, you have a chance to let things marinate and step away.
DJF: It’s funny that we haven’t really touched on what happens during the short. I’ve had a hard time talking about RUNNER to others. I want them to see it, but with very little knowledge going in. I feel like I want to dance around what happens to the character you’re playing here, since it’s integral to shocking tone and feel of the story. Do you find that it’s a bit of a challenge to describe the short to others?

CC: It is to some extent. sometimes I give more details away then I do at other times. Like, to some I say “It’s about a woman who goes for a jog and witnesses an accidental murder, and about the repercussions of that.” To others, I say “it’s a tense psychological thriller about a woman who witnesses a violent incident.”

DJF: I told someone it’s a modern-day tale of trauma and entrapment.
CC: Ooh, I like yours. This is what I say to festivals:

RUNNER is about a woman who witnesses an accidental murder and must decide between intervention and her own safety. At once both a quiet thriller and an intimate psychological portrait of a woman’s experience of trauma, I think this beautifully-shot film would be a wonderful fit for your festival. 

DJF: Ha! There’s more words in that synopsis than there is dialogue in the film!
CC: Hahahah yep! To some people I’m just like – it’ll make your palms sweaty and will keep your attention. See it. At one festival, a guy was like “I don’t like shorts. They’re never about anything. Nothing happens in them. It’s just dramatic shots of people looking out windows saying nothing. there’s never a plot.” And I was like, “Buddy, come see my short.”
My entire shorts block at Atlanta Film Festival was similar to mine. And it was the best shorts block I’ve ever been part of. It was much more plot focused than most shorts blocks, and really grabbed the viewer and never let them go. and they were all largely thrillers/tense dramas/mysteries.
DJF: Since seeing it for the first time last fall and then recently, I’ve had a lot of thoughts about RUNNER, one of them is: why running? What I mean is, what happens to Becca could happen to anyone, but not everyone can run. There’s something about what she is doing and her ability to do it, that is important to her character and the story.
CC: That’s interesting that you say that! Why running? Because I was running when the idea for the story came to me. Simple as that. It just started when I was jogging – I was remarking about what a beautiful fall day it was, I was cutting corners, running down alleys, earbuds in, feeling invincible – and then the idea came to me.
DJF: Ah, makes sense. I kept thinking, Becca could’ve been an old woman with a cane, throwing out her trash in an alley…
CC: But you’re right — she was able to escape this person, because she is a RUNNER. From that moment, all these other little meanings came from it — she didn’t stay and confront this man, she ran. She doesn’t confront the situation, she runs from it and she continues to run from it, even later. It all just sort of fell into place, and I followed my instincts on that.
DJF: I get it – because I know that when I am running, I do my best thinking…about what I’m gonna do later on, what my week looks like, how that guy can possibly walk three dogs and rollerblade…
CC: Right! Exactly, hahah. When I’m running, when I’m taking a shower, and the moment before I fall asleep. I think because those are the only times we allow our minds to be at rest. We’re always working, on a device, talking to people, listening to a podcast, etc.
DJF: Running is for thinking, showering is for crying and sleeping is for suckers, Wait…
CC: Hahah! Showering is SO for crying!!
DJF: Oh, that’s a whole different thread. I tried crying while walking my dog today, it didn’t turn out well.

CC: Oh yeah. Crying on the EL is the worst of them all. 

DJF: True! Let’s go back to “every look means something” and I’ll share my favorite shot…
CC: Ooh, yay!
DJF: …it’s when you’re in the bar, sitting down after joining your friends for trivia night. A certain individual joins later on that makes your character quite uncomfortable. My favorite scene is that side-eye you give. You’re positioned at a seat against a wall and you glance to the left. It speaks volumes.
CC: That’s probably my favorite too. we use that moment as a still for film festivals. It’s like, I can’t look, but I gotta look.
DJF: I’m thinking internally, SHE’S RUNNING!

CC: Right!!!! She wants to. So badly. But there are so many forces working against it. I toyed with the idea that she would go to the rest room and we’d see her having a mini panic attack in the restroom. But, that would kill the tension and it would be so suspicious. And she can’t use her phone. And everybody is friends with this guy. she is dying to run away, pretty much the whole time. She doesn’t let herself until she ever so casually pulls away, to “go to the store”.

DJF: Is that a shot, an image, you always had in mind, or something you worked out with your cinematographer Jason Chui?
CC: I had it in mind, it was something I wanted to make sure we grabbed. That being said, we didn’t have a specific set up for that shot. we just needed to make sure we got it. Once we got all the extras to set, prepped the set, and were ready to roll, we only had about an hour to 90 mins to shoot the entire trivia scene.
DJF: Oh, I like her right there, nowhere else. No phone. Besides, we already saw a momentous panic attack from her – we don’t need another. Plus, it would break the tension.
CC: Right. So, I would say – great let’s start here. then we’ll go here. then we’ll finish there. But I had to be in the scene. and we didn’t have time for playback. So, I was floating right next to him, seeing what he was getting, and when he rotated around to get my side of the table,  I dropped into my seat. We had one take that was coverage of one side of the table, one for the other side of the table, one for Will (Pete), one for the trivia guys, and one that was just me. And I gave Jason a ton of flexibility to float around and feel the shot. I really trust his eye.
DJF: Not to mention, the lighting had to be just right!

CC: Hah, yes! And we got very very lucky. we scouted about 20 different bars before we found a bar that 1) would let us do it for a couple hours 2) would let us do it for FREE. 3)had the right vibe 4) had good lighting. We didn’t have a gaffer. So, any lighting changes had to be minimal. Changing out a bulb here, adding a little light there. The majority of that lighting already existed in the space, exactly. A lot of this was left up to chance, following our instincts, and feeling it. not complicating something that could be simple.

DJF: Was it the same bar as you show on that exterior shot, off Addison Ave?
CC: Yep, Guthries.
DJF: I like that – “not complicating something that could be simple” – because too many times, it becomes apparent to a viewer that a scene or shot didn’t work out because a filmmaker and crew was trying to do too much or trying to hard.
CC: And sometimes a shot can look perfect (almost too perfect) but it feels sterile and commercial. I wanted it to feel raw, and to have texture. no fuss.
DJF: Hmmm, good point. even out of context that favorite shot of mine conveys a palpable curiosity.
CC: Right. And just because something looks perfect, and has insanely high production value–doesn’t mean it’s good. sometime it looks beautiful but does nothing for the audience.
DJF: True. It’s a tough balance, because at the same time, you want to make what’s right and true for you – not the audience. Yet, you want to also consider yourself a viewer too.
CC: Right – but you’re trying to tell a story, too.
DJF: That’s where others eyes and ears come in…
CC: Sometimes it’s more important for the audience to cry than for the character to cry. Which takes us back to, “less is more”.
DJF: Oh, good point. Like in A QUIET PLACE!
CC: Right!! Ugh. Loved it. The audience should be barely breathing in that movie. which means the filmmakers did their job right. and they did!
DJF: Me too. We’ll talk about that film in person some other time.
CC: Haha, for sure
DJF: Did you feel you HAD to be Becca? It’s something I always wonder when an artist is handling so many roles in a film.
CC: Oh, interesting question. I didn’t really consider not being Becca. I didn’t do any casting at all.
DJF: Well geez, you can’t do everything on the first short you’re directing!
CC: I would never get cast in this role if I wasn’t in charge. Never in the script is it important that Becca be tall or beautiful. So, most people would think i’m not allowed to play the role. She’s just a woman, and something happened to her – or rather, she observed something happen, and it affected her life. Her looks don’t matter, it could have been literally anyone. So, obviously, I always want to act in more things, so I knew I was going to play it — but it was never even something I thought about. I was going to play the role, and I was going to direct it. It was my story.
DJF: Interesting to hear you say that. Is that how you’ve been labeled and categorized – “tall and beautiful”?
CC: Oh definitely. I rarely really get auditions for complex female characters It’s extremely rare that I go in for a character that isn’t supposed to be GORGEOUS (ALL CAPS ALL CAPS, MUST BE BEAUTIFUL). If someone’s looks aren’t mentioned, or the person is supposed to be plain, I definitely wouldn’t be considered for it.
DJF: Well, just give them RUNNER as your audition tape. You run the gamut of emotions here!
CC: Right! I wanted to play a role where I got to complex and vulnerable. Flawed and brave. Nothing to do with looks. because everyone goes through the same shit, no matter what they look like.
DJF: Agreed. Well, you portray a fully-realized, complex character here.

CC: Thats great to hear. 

DJF: I mentioned how her ability to “run” was something I kept coming back to – here’s another thing: what would the story be like if if the genders of the three characters in the alley were reversed.

CC: Haha! Oh man, that’d be an entirely different story. For me, the genders and gender dynamics are super important.
DJF: As I entertained that idea, I thought how the story could’ve wound up the same or dramatically different. needless to say, I like the way it is, but my mind did wonder.

CC: It’s funny – some people can’t understand how these situation might be different for a woman than a man. 

DJF: Oh, it’s extremely different!
CC: When I mentioned I felt this was a woman’s story, some people fought me on it – not saying a man can’t have a similar experience. But, there are different dynamics and societal pressures involved
DJF: Hmmm – fought you on it? like, before or after you were don with it?
CC: Like, at Q&As. There are some men that say “Why’d you run? Why didn’t you confront the guy?” and I’m like, “No woman has asked me that question.”
DJF: Certainly – and a man and a woman will handle situations in different ways. for example, the chase could’ve reversed too!
CC: Right.
DJF: Okay, last thought. That scene at the end, Becca’s response…the first time I saw it, I felt like she was endangering herself. the second time, I felt like the line had a sense of empowerment to it.
CC: Which line? “Yeah, we’re good.”
DJF: Yes, that line.
CC: you felt she was putting herself in danger? But, then felt she was standing up for herself in some way.
DJF: Mmmhmm, like he has her in his crosshairs and she is now a target in a way, she’s trapped.
CC: man that line is complicated. we did 5 or 6 different takes. i wanted the line to be a cocktail of emotions. and even still, each take had a different mix of each emotion i was aiming for.  I wanted sad, angry, defiant, resigned, understanding, empathetic, disgusted, all in one.
DJF: But then, when I saw it again, I caught on to the way you say the line and you’re body language…and there’s a sense of “I got your number”
CC: Right. She’s in control, but she’s not. It’s both. I’m accepting your terms. but i’m not.
DJF: Whoa, yeah that’s all there. It’s funny, if that line wasn’t there and the short ended, I’d be ticked off.
CC: For sure. I wanted people to speculate on what she was going to do next.

DJF: It’s funny. I don’t care what she’s doing next, but I feel okay for her. I’m good that she’s good.

CC: Right. I believe her when she says “we’re good“. Whatever that means…and it means many things.

DJF: Clare, this was great. Thanks so much!

CC: Also – just so you know – right now we’re shooting the martini shot on this short film. so i’m just behind the monitors, waiting for people to start clapping 

DJF: Perfect timing!

CC: Thank you!! I can’t wait for the screening at Music Box, and I’m thrilled that you’re writing about the film.

DJF: Ah, great. I hope to be there for the Q&A next Sunday.

CC: Wonderful. Thank you so much! The film just wrapped! Huzzah!

DJF: I’m sure there will be some great discussions afterward. You’re welcome!
CC: Have a good night.
DJF: Take care.

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