Clare Cooney on “Runner”

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A year before the Harvey Weinstein scandal upended Hollywood by placing a glaring spotlight on its culture of sexual harassment, the career of a similarly revered-yet-notorious figure in the Chicago theatre community was pulverized by long-unspoken truths. In a blistering exposé written by Aimee Levitt and Christopher Piatt in the Chicago Reader, various actors and crew members broke their silence about decades of abuse committed by Darrell Cox, co-artistic director of the critically acclaimed Profiles Theatre. Like Weinstein, Cox was a predator who used his position of power to take advantage of young women. Less than a week after the article was published, Profiles closed permanently.

The forces in society that cause women to avoid reporting on such crimes are explored in the remarkable new short film, “Runner.” It marks the directorial debut of one of the Windy City’s brightest artistic talents, Clare Cooney. She plays Becca, a jogger who spots a sudden act of violence committed by a man presumably against his girlfriend in an alley. Becca locks eyes with the man before running away, only to encounter him weeks later at a bar.

Apart from starring in various theatre productions, Cooney has served as the casting director for Michael Glover Smith’s “Mercury in Retrograde,” which was produced by her boyfriend, Shane Simmons. With its provocative portrayal of gender power dynamics wrapped in agonizing suspense, “Runner” solidifies Cooney’s status as a filmmaker of immense promise. She recently won the Best USA Short Film prize at the Fairhope Film Festival in Alabama, and will be screening the short next month at Oakton Community College’s Pop-Up Film Festival in Des Plaines, Illinois. This past September, I spoke with Cooney about her experiences on male-dominated productions, the urgent relevance of her film and how she managed to make it on a $900 budget. “As soon as I came up with the idea, I ran with it,” she told me.

I’d like to start by asking about your background in psychology and how it may have enhanced your approach to filmmaking.

I took a psych class in high school and loved it, but when I got to college, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I knew that I liked acting and storytelling, but honestly, as the daughter of a lawyer, I didn’t think a career in acting would be viable. I needed to have a real back-up, and since I was good at math and science, I went to Notre Dame. But I very quickly learned that just because I am good at those subjects doesn’t mean I should dedicate my life to them. The things that I love are theatre and people in general, so I started pursuing an acting career. Psychology is a perfect place to begin because an actor’s job is to study other people. If we are only playing ourselves, there’s only so much that we can play. Good actors are able to watch someone and pick up on their mannerisms, their habits, their fears and whatever else. Studying why we feel the things we feel and do the things we do was healthy for me in my life—enabling me to have more control over my emotions—and it helped me tap into characters more easily. For someone who wants to make films, the ability to understand and forgive others is essential.

Was your year abroad at Trinity College in Dublin a big transition for you?

My family is from Ireland and I’ve been there twice before, so I knew that it would be relatively easy. I grew up so much during that time because I was able to just be on my own. I could be afraid and lonely and then go explore and discover so many amazing things. I had a friend in college who was very conservative in his political views, but after he went abroad for a year, he came back as a liberal. The experience changes you.

What led you to become a part of the Chicago theatre community?

I was a little too afraid to go to L.A., so I decided to move here and give acting a shot. If I failed at it, then I would go back to school and become a clinical social worker. My sister is a lawyer, and she told me, “Pursue what you want to do right now. You’re young, you can always start over and you will always regret it if you don’t try it.” Early on, an agency helped get me into commercials. That’s when I began my relationship with PR Casting, where I now do freelance casting work. I began by interning for them, and they have such wonderful, warm people there. The three things that I would recommend to any actor in Chicago is to intern at PR Casting, enroll at The School at Steppenwolf and take Stephen Cone’s Cinema Lab.

His class is usually comprised of ten people, and it starts on the first day with a long-form improvisation. You improvise for 40 minutes, and the point isn’t to be funny. A lot of times in the film world, you’ll be given certain story points that you’ll need to hit, but it’s up to you to come up with the dialogue. One of Stephen’s films, “This Afternoon,” was based off one of the shorts developed in that class. He taught us how a story could be built from a given location and the relationships between characters. You can create so many films and stories just by accessing those skills. Through our improvisations, we ended up creating three short films. Stephen is a genius, and I think that one day, when he is rich and famous and people have recognized him for what he is, his short films for the class will be released in some kind of collection.

Last year, you starred in Marion Hill’s short film “Bird of Prey,” where so much of the feelings between characters are left unspoken, allowing the actors to convey a great deal nonverbally.

It’s a very quiet movie. Occasionally schools will reach out to my agency, Gray Talent Group, and they’ll ask for headshots to consider for student films. That’s what happened in this case. I drove to Evanston for the audition, and the pay was only going to be $100 a day. It was a student film, but I wanted to do it because I liked the script a lot. In the past, I had done a couple of student films that were painful. The footage was either unusable for my reel or I didn’t get it back at all. But in the case of “Bird of Prey,” I needed the money and was really excited about the project. It was part of a senior year program, and Marion ended up being torn between me and another actress.

I was reading a scene as Charlie, the young woman, and then Marion asked if I could switch roles and play Julia, the fortysomething friend of Charlie’s mother. At first, I thought this meant that Marion wasn’t considering me anymore, but after I read for Julia, I was cast as Charlie. The fact that I could play two extremely different characters right in a row without any preparation is what convinced Marion to cast me. She was a dream to work with, and mature beyond her years. The film screened at the Sidewalk Film Festival in Alabama last year, and I won an award for my performance. That may have been partially why the festival invited me back this year to screen my directional debut.

“Runner” is not only a great film, but an important and exceedingly timely one. What sparked the initial concept for it?

I often come up with stories after the fact. The initial idea is more about a feeling or a place that I want to capture. I was taking a jog on a beautiful fall day. My favorite music was playing in my earbuds, and I felt exhilarated. Then I turned down an alley, and there was a man at the other end of it who made me feel unsettled. So I obeyed my instincts and ran in a different direction. It wasn’t a dramatic moment or anything, but it’s interesting how the tone of a beautiful day—with the sun streaming through the trees and the music playing—can suddenly shift just because of one guy. Shortly after that, I saw a video on YouTube of a hit and run. A guy on a moped was stupidly driving on the sidewalk when an older woman in her 70s was walking out of a store. She stepped out right as he was turning the corner, and he hit her. He got out, took her pulse and looked around to see if anyone saw him. She was clearly—if not dead, very messed up, but he got back on his bike and drove away. It’s one of those moments that makes you ask yourself, “What would you do?” I would hope I would be the kind of person who would immediately call for help.

The guy was obviously horrified by the repercussions of his accident. If you are poor or if you’ve had any prior brush-up with the law, the trouble you would get into for accidentally murdering someone is astronomical. It’s the end of your life as well as the victim’s life. I had also just listened to the podcast “Serial,” which is about a guy who’s been in prison for years despite the fact that it remains unclear whether he committed murder. Justice is not always served in this country. People’s lives are taken away from them, so it’s hard to trust the court system or the cops. If I had personally hurt or killed someone, I would lose my mind if I tried to keep it a secret. But with “Runner,” I wanted to explore the idea of an accidental murder and how much empathy I could extend toward a guy who has caught himself in this kind of situation, as well as study what one would do as a witness. Some people who’ve seen the film have said, “He’s not violent enough for us to believe that he would commit murder,” and I’m like, “You’re missing the point. The murder is unintentional.”

The abusiveness in the relationship is still really creepy and threatening, but it’s important that he doesn’t come off as a serial murderer. He’s an ordinary guy who got stuck in a bad situation by being a jerk. A guy came up to me after a screening and was like, “Why didn’t your character approach him and fight back?” I asked the guy if he had a background in fighting, and he said that he does Taekwondo. So I was like, “As a woman who doesn’t do Taekwondo, my best option is to run in the other direction.” The film hasn’t affected men in the same way that it has affected women. Many of my girlfriends who’ve seen the film have said, “I know that guy.” Most women have had an encounter at some point in their lives that was either physically or sexually or verbally abusive. All of my female friends are shaken by Becca’s encounter, while many of my guy friends are like, “He didn’t mean to hurt the girl…” A guy doesn’t have to be physically abusive in order to pull on your mental state, cause you fear and be an intimidating factor in your life. The subtle ways that men wield power was more interesting to me than a killer with a shotgun. That’s not as scary to me.

I couldn’t help being reminded of all the recent abuse—both on a local and national level—that has gone unreported and is often silenced by the male offender asking, “Are we okay?”

This guy knows where Becca lives, and when he corners her, she has no idea what he will do. Maybe he’ll just ask her not to tell anyone or maybe he’ll resort to other methods to silence her. Regardless, the ways in which he asserts his dominance and authority over the situation is so typical of the power dynamics in society. It was all very familiar to me. Everyone spoke in whispers about what was happening at Profiles Theatre because no one—particularly no woman—wants to cause a problem. Women have been taught not to do that. I’ve been on films where the majority of the people on the crew are men, leaving women without an advocate onset. When there is a problem, they don’t have a safe way to speak up. As actors, we are pretty powerless, and as a female actor—who is being paid only so much a day and is lucky to have work—causing a stir and creating a blockade in a predominantly male production is avoided at all costs. That’s why we need more female directors and a much stronger female presence on film sets.

You should always feel that you have agency. If enough people refer to a guy as “a great director,” and in the back of your head, you’re like, “He touched me in this weird way at rehearsal,” for social reasons, for politeness’ sake, for your career’s sake, you just kind of go, “Let’s move on.” This happens in many industries, but the film and theatre industries are complex because they require you to share so much of yourself in your work, whereas other jobs would tell you to leave all that at home. To some extent, you have to be present and bring your fears and insecurities along with you. Otherwise, you are creating soulless art. I can’t tell you how many times a guy at an event has asked my boyfriend, “Are you the director?” After my boyfriend corrects him, the guy goes, “Okay,” and just keeps talking to him without acknowledging me. I’m not hating on all men, but those are things that you notice after experiencing them for years and years. Right now, we’re all being a little braver in speaking out against sexism and racism because they have been given a much louder voice in the country.

A friend of mine who saw the film said, “Ugh, I hated when she is silenced by him at the end, and just goes along with what he wants.” In my mind, Becca’s playing it really smart. She could be dead right now if she had chosen to fight him. Strong female characters don’t necessarily fight with their fists or are super-outspoken and cause a lot of trouble. They don’t have to be Wonder Woman. The term “complex” is too often associated solely with a confident, feminist badass. People who are imperfect, intelligent and choose to play the long game are really interesting to me. I think I’m a strong woman, and I wanted Becca to react how I would if I was cornered in an alley. I also wanted to leave what happens afterward open-ended. We don’t know whether she immediately goes inside and call the cops, or if she remains haunted by this moment for years. Many women don’t report rapes or sexual assaults because they need to move on. Calling the cops or making a lawsuit out of it could actually worsen their health and slow their progress in terms of recovery. You can think of that as weak and selfish, or you can think of that as strong and taking care of yourself.

I remember hearing about a young woman who was raped and had a lot of people at her school basically telling her that it didn’t happen. She ended up killed herself. When a woman opts not to talk about the things she saw or the abuse she endured, that is her choice. All the hoopla that goes with speaking out—the court cases, the lawyers, the unbelievers, the shame directed at your gender—is an awful lot to take. If Becca had taken her case to court, a guy could potentially ask her, “Why didn’t you leave the bar immediately after you saw him there and call the cops? Why did you stay to play the trivia game? Are you hiding something?” At every turn, there is a danger of the narrative quickly getting spun.

Your film has the visual sophistication of a well-financed feature as opposed to a micro budget indie, and that is in part due to the cinematography by Jason Chiu.

The film takes place over the span of a month and a half. I knew I couldn’t afford more than two days of filming, so I had one day of shooting in the fall and one day of shooting in the winter. The full cost of the production was $900. No one got paid. I paid for insurance for the camera and gear and I paid for food for everyone. We didn’t pay for a single location, and even our sound guy worked for free. The first day of the shoot was on Halloween, and the second day was pushed to January 4th. When people are working for you for free because they care about you and your project, that means you have to wait for them to be available. The bar scene was filmed in an hour and a half. When we were shopping around for locations, Shane and I hung out at the bar for a few nights and the bartender befriended us. He saw that we were cool and that we wouldn’t trash the place. My production designer and AD were both sick on the day we shot there, so I had to serve as my own AD, while promoting my set dresser to production designer.

We were flying by the seat of our pants, and I’ll never take on that many duties onset again. If I am ever going to act in and direct something in the future, that’s all I’m going to do. The fact we finished on time was thanks to Jason Chiu. I told him what I wanted and trusted him to just go with it. For the running shots, we used a Ronin camera stabilizer, and also shot some footage from the trunk of my car. When the film screened at Sidewalk, people in my same block of shorts were complimenting me on how good the film looked. I asked them how much their budget was, and one person responded, “12.” I was like, “1,200?” No, they spent $12,000 on their short film. I’m sure they got a nicer camera and were able to pay everyone, which is the key. In the future, I want to pay everyone, and if I had, the budget would’ve been closer to $3,000. Because I did so much of the film myself, it was a quick operation.

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How did you go about casting Will Allan as the man Becca encounters? He has such a haunted look in his eyes. 

After seeing Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s “Ellie Lumme,” one of my all-time favorite films, I wanted to cast Stephen Cone as the guy in the alley. I wanted someone who was seemingly nonthreatening—not too tall, not too big and imposing. I wanted it to be clear that this wasn’t about a physical fear so much as a psychological power dynamic at play. Will Allen is someone I’ve admired for a long time in the Chicago theatre scene. He had the right look and I felt that I could trust him with any script—in fact, I just cast him in our next season at Theatre Wit. I also wanted to capture the kind of spooky feeling that existed in “Ellie Lumme,” with its threatening “he knows where you live” vibe. I wanted the atmosphere to creep up the audience’s spine. Something is always going on behind Will’s eyes. There’s a stillness about him that makes it seem as if he’s not moving. Neither he nor Travis Knight, who plays my boyfriend and was the younger preacher in “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party,” had to audition for the film.

What was your collaboration like with Shane in terms of the editing process?

Shane is credited as assistant editor because there was one moment that he helped with, and also, I’m using his software. I wouldn’t be able to do this without him. He was very busy at the time with postproduction on “Mercury,” so he wasn’t available to edit. He volunteered to do it, and he may have started it, but every two seconds, I wanted to get in there and cut it myself. Shane had taught me how to use the software a while back, and I edited a couple engagement videos for my family, as well as some actor reels. He taught me the very basics, and if I was ever like, “Help me with this,” he’d show me. It was great to have a teacher literally on the couch right behind me.

However, there were times I wished I had hired someone to be the editor because I was so close to the footage. My first cut was 16 and a half minutes long, and I thought, “There’s nothing I can cut from this.” I sent it to Stephen Cone and Spencer Parsons, and Stephen came back and said, “You can lose almost five minutes.” He suggested that I play with the idea of there being a flashback. Then Spencer told me that I had to get the film under 13 minutes. If your film is shorter, it’s more programmable. Ideally, festivals want to program shorts that are around seven minutes long, with a maximum running time of 15 minutes. My final cut runs 12 minutes and 45 seconds.

The longest scene I can think of in the film is the trivia night, which needs to be excruciatingly drawn-out. 

Yes! That is, in my opinion, the strongest scene in the whole film. I spent two weeks ruminating about what to cut. I was dreading even going towards the software. Finally, on a day I had free time, I went back in and made myself cut out an entire scene where Becca calls the cops right after she comes in from the run. I trimmed some other things down, and then I turned the whole beginning sequence into a flashback. After Becca sees the moment of violence, we flash forward, and then only see glimpses of what happened afterward as she’s screaming and having PTSD. Originally, all of this played out in sequential order, and I wasn’t sure if it would work otherwise. Stephen was sitting right next to me during the film’s premiere at Sidewalk. He hadn’t seen the film since I sent him the early cut, and when the flashback happened, he grabbed my arm and said, “That’s perfect!” The worst thing a filmmaker can do is ask their friends for notes, receive feedback that is difficult to hear and then ignore it.

The people at the Sidewalk Film Festival have been cheerleaders of mine, and have made me feel at home there. You could hear a pin drop throughout most of “Runner” when it screened at the festival. The audience laughed in all the right places. There is so much tension in the bar scene that the viewer is yearning for a little release. When the trivia question came up about “Serial,” I was worried the audience would think that it would be too on the nose, but they loved it. There was a lot of gasping in the final scene, and my favorite reaction occurred at the very end. As soon as it cut to black and the credit went up saying my name, everyone in the theater exhaled and broke into applause. It was such a gratifying response.

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“Runner” will screen as part of the Short Films Program, “Women in Danger,” at Oakton Community College’s 4th Annual Pop-Up Film Festival. The program begins at 12:30pm on Friday, December 1st, at Footlik Theater, 1600 E. Golf Road, in Des Plaines, Illinois, with Clare Cooney in attendance. For the full line-up as detailed by festival programmer Michael Glover Smith, click here.

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