Clare Cooney is an actor and filmmaker who rose through the ranks of the Chicago arts community. She’s appeared in NBC’s Chicago Med, Steve McQueen’s Chicago thriller Widows, and the indie feature Runner, among other shows and films. We’re thrilled to host the North American premiere of her directorial feature debut, the sarcastic, whip-smart horror-comedy Departing Seniors – shot right here in Chicago.
We chatted with Clare about filming during COVID, refreshing the teen slasher genre, what it’s like to screen her film at the Music Box Theatre, and more.
What was it like collaborating with writer and fellow Chicagoan Jose Nateras? How do you think your shared hometown influenced your partnership?
It was a really fun and natural fit to work with Jose. We’d known each other socially for years in the Chicago theater and film scene, so it was great to finally get a chance to collaborate together. The Chicago artists community is pretty tight knit, so everyone sort of knows everyone, even if they’ve never directly worked together. I’m not from Chicago originally but I lived and worked in Chicago for eight years and definitely consider it my artistic home. Chicagoans have a strong bond, even when they aren’t living in Chicago anymore. There’s immediately a common language.
Departing Seniors was shot in just 16 days amid ongoing COVID-19 restrictions– were there any moments on set that you consider a particular triumph?
The fact that we successfully completed a film of this size and ambition in 16 days is certainly a triumph in and of itself! In particular I’m proud of how we handled COVID on set. One of our actors (who had thankfully not yet been on set) unfortunately got COVID, so we had to rearrange our entire schedule on the fly in order to save the production. We were shooting a complex scene with a dozen extras when I got the news, so between takes my producers and I came up with a plan. Adrenaline was definitely running high that day. I was proud of the way our team rolled with the punches and pulled off a mini-miracle. Necessity is the mother of invention, and I really love the creative solutions we came up with to adapt to that enormous challenge.
In what ways did you draw on your own high school experience while making this film? Was there anything that surprised you about revisiting that part of your past?
I certainly felt like I was “different” in high school, and in that way I related to several of the characters in the film. I was super tall and had a stutter (both those things are still true, though I’ve learned to lessen the severity of the second one), so despite having a solid group of friends, I definitely struggled with my confidence and worried about “fitting in.” I found myself relating to Javier and Bianca in their otherness, to Brad in his struggle with his identity, and to Ginny in her fierce ambition. The film’s focus on the power of friendship made me reminisce about my high school friends — at that age your friendships are everything and there’s an intensity and closeness in those years that can be hard to replicate as you get older.
It’s so exciting to see a spin on a teen slasher film with a queer protagonist and characters of color front and center. What led you to make that decision, and what tropes of teen slasher films did you want to honor versus refresh?
I have to give full credit to all of that to Jose. When I got my hands on the script it was fully formed — we just had to make small tweaks. But I know how important it was to him to center queer characters and characters of color in what has previously been a rather white, straight genre. I loved the way the script didn’t use Javier’s queerness to dominate the story as some sort of tragedy the character is struggling through. The story addresses his queerness with the same attitude Javier himself does — he embraces and owns it, but it’s just a part of what makes him who he is. There’s a way more to the story, and to him.
There are little Easter eggs and references to slashers all over the script, both in the way we chose to shoot the film and in the words and themes themselves. But the story and the characters are really fresh, darkly funny, and unique. I think Jose did a really nice job of referencing horror film tropes while simultaneously subverting them in the same breath. And in that same way, my director of photography (Jason Chiu) and I followed our instincts and chose the angles and set-ups that excited us most without feeling the pressure to intentionally pay too much homage to past films in the genre — a lot of that just happened naturally.
Your film is making its North American premiere on Opening Night at Chicago’s historic Music Box Theatre. What does that mean to you and do you have any core memories of seeing movies there?
I’ve been attending the Chicago International Film Festival for almost a decade, and seeing movies at the Music Box for about that long as well. I’ve always wanted to screen at Chicago Intl, and to be invited to do so on Opening Night, at my favorite Chicago theater, is a bit of a dream come true. My friends have been excitedly emailing me, “Your name is in my Music Box newsletter this week!!” It’s definitely an honor and I’m counting down the days. I couldn’t have asked for a better North American (and hometown) premiere for my debut feature.
From Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to Michael Mann’s Thief, Chicago is known for some signature portrayals on the big screen. Do you have any favorite Chicago movies?
My favorite movie of all time (not just my favorite Chicago movie!) is High Fidelity. My family and I watch it once a year, if not more. From its iconic soundtrack to its hilarious one-liners to its frank depiction of romantic relationships, it never gets old. When I first moved to Chicago I was downright giddy to check out all the filming locations …the Green Mill (I’ve enjoyed many a night there, and I took the cast of Departing Seniors there to celebrate after a long day of filming); the corner where Championship vinyl set up shop; the Double Door (I miss it so!); and of course, the Music Box Theatre itself! It’s a joy to be a part of the legacy of Chicago film.
Get tickets for Departing Seniors on Oct. 11 at the Music Box Theatre – Clare will join in-person for a Q&A following the film.