Interview: Clare Cooney Looks At Unspoken Gender Power Dynamics In ‘Runner’

Clare Cooney’s short film, Runner, is a tense and powerful thriller about the unspoken power dynamics between a man and woman. The film has been a huge success with multiple festival awards and over 25k views online.

Actor and director Cooney joins us on Close-up Culture to talk about the incredible response to the film, what inspired her to tell this story, appearing in Steve McQueen’s Widows, and much more.

Watch Runner: 

Q: What kind of emotions have you gone through seeing the film get out there and reach such a large audience?

A: It’s been really gratifying. The entire festival run was a joy, because I loved getting to talk to audience members after the film and get their responses. During Q&As, audience members actually started getting into little arguments with each other about what my character “should have done.” So many folks came up to me after to praise the film, or ask questions, or confront me about a choice I made, or share how much the film affected them.

When we released the film online, the first day was the craziest — in 24 hours the film had over 10K views on YouTube, and another 10K on Instagram and Facebook. It was overwhelming and very exciting. Now it’s had something like 40K views across the three platforms. I hope more people continue to watch it and its viewership continues to grow.

The film definitely seems to provoke a response from people, and I love hearing feedback, good and bad. It means people are passionate about it, and I think that’s always a good thing.

Q: This is a striking film about quiet trauma and silent power dynamics. What drove you to tell this story?

A: Initially the film was based on a feeling. I was jogging on a gorgeous fall day and was feeling very powerful and invincible, with a poppy song pumping in my headphones. Then I turned the corner and saw something unsettling happening down the alley. In an instant the warmth and confidence I had just been feeling evaporated and I felt vulnerable and exposed, but the same twee song was still playing in my headphones. I wanted to explore that sudden shift of emotion, and the way it is juxtaposed beside the same music.

The rest of the film organically grew around that moment and explored the power dynamics between men and women in today’s society.

After we made the film, so many very relevant movements began to emerge — the #MeToo hashtag went viral right around the time we made our world premiere — so I think a lot of people thought that I set out to make a film that specifically commented on the #MeToo movement and women being intimidated and silenced.

In a way I did, but I also didn’t. I didn’t fully realise the implications of what I was writing at the time — I was just writing from my experience as a woman, and that’s what came out. I think that’s an example of why we need more female voices as leaders on films, as writers, directors, and protagonists… we don’t even need to explicitly intend to make some big statement, we just need to bring our perspective and experiences, and the “statement” will come through naturally, in a deep and complex way.

Clare Cooney in ‘Runner’

Q: I was blown away by the powerfully acted scenes between Becca and the man. So much is said with few words needed to be spoken. How did yourself and Will Allan approach those scenes and set about capturing those silent dynamics?

A: Thank you! That really means a lot.

Will Allan is an incredible actor, I’ve always found him really dynamic and interesting to watch. There’s a lot going on behind his eyes. In terms of our approach — there wasn’t a ton of discussion, and there was no rehearsal. I didn’t hold auditions, I just sent the script along to people I trusted, and asked them to make the film with me. I had known Will’s work as an actor for a while and was glad that the script spoke to him. We didn’t have a ton of time to be precious while we were filming (this was made on a very tiny budget over just 2 days), so once we established the blocking, a lot of it was just locking eyes, dropping into the moment, and being present with each other.

That’s the joy of working with good actors — there isn’t too much discussion involved. Maybe a small adjustment, like “let’s do the next one with some aggression” or “I think he’s trying to calm her here, let’s start with a softness to this” but that’s about it.

Technically, we just had to make sure that both of our eye movements were captured by the camera in the right way— in the trivia scene in the bar in particular, so much is being said just through the eyes, so we needed to make sure the camera caught every single little eye movement. That allowed me to have a lot of options in the editing room so that I could really build tension.

Q: I’ve read many responses to this film from people who have related to Becca. Have you had any notable/standout reactions to the film so far?

A: Several stand out in my mind. One person had recently witnessed a murder and found the film really helpful and moving when dealing with the aftermath of that. One friend (who has now seen the film probably 5 times now) says she cries every time Becca cries in the film, because she finds that moment to be so true and so relatable. One woman told me that whenever she hears that song (the song that begins the film) she gets really creeped out and feels paranoid.

At one screening, a woman muttered, very loudly, “oh hell no” at a very suspenseful moment, and the entire theater burst out laughing — her response broke the tension and gave the audience some temporary relief. I love involuntary vocal responses like that. I love when I hear the audience gasp, whisper “no no no,” or when people jump. But it’s interesting — so many female audience members say they find the film deeply scary. They say it makes their heart race and their palms sweat.

While male audience members seem to be a little less scared by it, or are confused by parts of it, or take issue with the characters’ choices. I think that says a lot about what men and women are afraid of.

Q: You graduated from university with honours in Psychology and Theatre. Does (and if so how) that background in psychology help you when constructing characters (as a writer) and getting under their skin (as an actor)?

A: I don’t know that I consciously, directly apply things I learned in Psychology to my acting per say, but I think the two subjects are intensely related. They both deal with studying humans and understanding the patterns of behaviour, and they both are rooted in empathy.

I think in order to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and play a character, you have to be an empath (which I think I am naturally) but being a psych major certainly made me more of an empath, in addition to making me pretty self-aware, which is important. It opened my eyes up to so much— you study development, social behaviour, mental health issues, personality disorders… all the information I learned informed how I understand human beings and relate to human beings, and that definitely helps me as an actor.

Q: How did you find the challenge of balancing numbers roles (writing, directing, acting producing) on ‘Runner’?

It was definitely challenging at times! The writing end of it came pretty naturally — I’ve been a writer, in some way, for a long time. I was so inspired to write this story that it unfolded on the page very easily for me.

This was the first film I’ve ever directed, so the technical side of directing involved a learning curve for me. I’ve directed plays before, and as both an actor and a casting director I feel like I’m directing myself, or others, so I wasn’t too concerned about working with and directing actors. But there was so much I had to learn about directing for film specifically (making a shot list, working with the DP, communicating how I wanted to achieve a certain shot).

I worked really hard to be as thorough and prepared as I could be so that on the day I could focus on the dynamics of the scene and the acting. I think I achieved that pretty well. If, on the day, I had only been directing and acting, I think that would have been a lot easier. But, the biggest challenge is that I was also producing it. In a lot of ways, I was running the show. We didn’t have an AD on the second day of filming so I was a little stressed about staying on schedule. Our production designer was sick on the second day of filming, so I was running around organizing props. We were using my car. There were logistical issues that I knew would go forgotten if I didn’t stay on top of them.

Don’t get me wrong — I had an incredible team full of knowledgeable and talented people, and I had another producer who did a TON. But it was still a lot of pressure and a lot to handle all at once, and I was well aware that all these folks were doing this as a favour to me. Magically, I was able to handle it and nothing went wrong. There was no yelling or crying or stress, and it was a very smooth two days of shooting. But if I had my preference, next time I’d only be directing and acting, and I’d leave all the logistics, financing, and scheduling completely to somebody else!

Clare Cooney on the set of ‘Runner’

Q: You have also explored other creative endeavours such as casting, dancing, and singing. Where does your creative spark and passion come from?

I think they’re all really connected! I’ve always liked performing. The first play I was in was in 6th grade… I was a “specialty dancer” in my middle school’s production of Bugsy Malone. And I loved it. I felt really alive and happy on the stage.

But even before that, I was always performing for my family — singing songs or organising skits with my cousins. I started taking Irish dance classes and piano lessons when I was really young. My parents always had music playing in the house, we’d watch movie musicals growing up, and they’d occasionally take us to see live theater. Music and storytelling are so essential and so good for the soul, and my parents did a great job of bringing those things into our lives really early on. I just kept loving theater and music and taking part in it all through high school, and I never really stopped.

After college I wanted to learn more about acting on camera and I decided to take an internship at a casting office. Those women at the casting house became some of my absolute favourite people and mentors, so I started working in casting a little bit on the side. I think anything you do in this field, be it stage acting, film acting, casting, singing, dancing, directing, filmmaking, playing music… it all feeds the soul in a similar way and they all inform each other. I think doing a lot of different things in this field has helped me become a more fully-formed artist.

Q: I saw you spent a year in Dublin. What did you take away from your time in Ireland?

A: Such an amazing year. I miss it so much. I travelled to this new place, all alone, which made me grow up a lot. I grew up in a pretty suburban area, so this was my first time living in a city, so I had to confront and deal with a lot of fears and anxieties that I didn’t know I had. It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done, and the most worthwhile.

I learned how much I love to travel. I got to meet people from all over the world, with so many different backgrounds and perspectives, which is the best way to learn empathy. I went on adventures. It was great. I can’t wait to go back.

Q: Do you have any plans/ambitions to work in Europe sometime in the future?

I actually think about that quite often. I’m an Irish citizen and I have an Irish passport. No set plans right now, but I truly would love to do a film or TV show or something in Europe. I really hope a project can take me there one day, because I would love to live in Europe for a while. I need to do my homework about the industry there… hey, if anyone’s looking for an American actress for their next movie… I’m a plane ride away.

Q: You had a role in Steve McQueen’s thriller ‘Widows’. What was it like being on a McQueen set? Any stories to share?

A: It was thrilling. It was a much larger set than I’d previously been on. Everyone was lovely. I working and interacting with Elizabeth Debicki and Viola Davis, and they were both very friendly and kind to me. Steve McQueen is a sweetheart. He communicates with his actors in a really intimate, sensitive way.

In my role, I had to improvise a lot. I was nervous that I wasn’t doing a good job, because he hadn’t given me any notes, but when we were on lunch break he said with a chuckle “I love that your improv is getting more colourful as we go,” and I said “Oh, I can scale back—“ and he interrupted me and said “No, it’s brilliant, keep going, I love it.” He made me feel right at home.

But my favourite memory from set was actually on a pick-up day months after principal photography had already wrapped. It was the final day of filming, for everybody, and they were re-doing the very last moment of the film. If you haven’t seen it, I won’t give any plot away, but it ends with a shot that has a lot of movement and then a push in on Viola Davis. There was a lot of coordinating between the actors, the camera, movement, the emotion in Viola’s face, and the shadow of an el train passing by. It’s a gorgeous shot.

I was standing right behind video village just hanging out while they were trying to capture the perfect moment, and finally everything lined up. Steve was at the monitor, silently screaming and waving his hands with joy as he watched. When they yelled cut he was bouncing up and down and rushed outside to hug Viola. It was pretty cool to be there to watch that.

Q: Is ‘Runner’ a good indicator of the type of films you want to tell in the future?

A: I think it is, yes. Not necessarily in terms of genre (I don’t intend to only make thrillers) but I’m drawn to character-driven stories with grounded, realistic performances. I didn’t go to film school or anything… I was just following my instincts on Runner, and it served me really well. I plan to continue to follow my instincts, and I think my future films will have a similar aesthetic and feeling.

Q: What is next for you? Any ambitions or upcoming projects to share?

A: I’m always doing a little bit of everything all the time. I’ve acted in a few things recently — a comedic feature called Rendezvous In Chicago and a sci-fi horror short called ABI, both of which are on the festival circuit right now. I’ll be acting in another feature next summer, directed by the same filmmaker who made Rendezvous In Chicago.

I’m continuing to audition all the time, and it’s looking like I may be spending this fall and winter in LA. I’m really looking forward to exploring another market, since I’ve primarily been in Chicago up until now, so hopefully things go well for me there.

I recently directed a pilot for a series called Dad Man Walking that is just entering its festival run now. I’m working on writing two different scripts— I’d really like to direct my first feature next summer.

I’m the artistic director for a non-profit called Elevated Films Chicago, and we’re in the middle of a fantastic summer series of independent film that screens on the rooftop of the Ace Hotel Chicago. And I’m also an editor, so I’ve been keeping busy editing a series, a short, and some music videos.

I think that about wraps it up! If folks are interested in keeping up with what I’m doing or would like to reach out, I’m pretty good about updating my website, and I post quite frequently on my Instagram.

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