Departing Seniors' director Clare Cooney talks revamping the teen slasher

Departing Seniors - Courtesy Brigade Marketing
Departing Seniors - Courtesy Brigade Marketing /

With the rebirth of major franchises like Scream, Chucky, and Halloween, it’s fair to say that we’re in a full-blown slasher revival. Departing Seniors, directed by Clare Cooney, is unique in that it’s not part of an established franchise, and it contains a well-drawn queer narrative. The film follows witty high school senior Javier (Ignacio Diaz-Silverio), who faces constant bullying because of his sexuality. After his tormentors knock him down the stairs, he suddenly develops psychic abilities, allowing him to see who’s about to die next by the masked killer, thus giving him a chance to stop it. The film boasts some stylish kills, a confident final boy, and a strong storyline, while revamping and even rewriting teen slasher tropes.

Just prior to the film’s release, we spoke with Cooney about the film’s queer storyline, her horror movie inspirations, and her favorite scene. This interview was edited slightly for clarity.

1428 Elm: This is one of the few slashers that focuses on a queer narrative and queer protagonist in Javier. Can you talk about that?

Clare Cooney: The first thing I thought is that being gay and queer is more accepted today even in high school. When I was in high school, I had maybe one gay friend. Now, more people are open about it. In some ways, I was a little concerned. I wondered if it was a little outdated. [Writer] Jose [Nateras] and I are operating from our high school experience and what things were like. At the same time, there aren't many queer high school films or queer horror films, so clearly, it's not talked about enough. Even though in some cities and some high schools, it's more common, it's not in others. I still think it's very much something to wrestle with and talk about, but I did like that, with this film, it's not the main topic of conversation. Javier is who he is. He accepts himself. He's very comfortable with who he is. There are characters who do struggle with their identity. It's the best of both worlds. It's a modern take on a teen coming into himself and owning himself and showing the opposite of that as well.

1428 Elm: This teen slasher is also unique because there's a supernatural element. Javier has psychic abilities and can foresee the deaths before they happen and try to stop them. Can you talk about filming some of those scenes and his premonitions?

Clare Cooney: I was inspired by a few films, including Final Destination and Minority Report. I watched a lot of things that dealt with visions, seeing the future or the past to get a sense of which visual style I liked. I liked the focus on the eyes, how the eyes are the window to the soul and the psyche. We got some shots of the different eyes and brains that Javier goes into. Then, I liked the idea of zooming into their brains and zooming out. In terms of practicality, we used a very quick DALI motion to zoom in on Javier's face. Then, we had lots of b roll of the actual content of what you see in the visions and then b roll of the eyes and really intense close-ups. We also wanted to incorporate that whatever the character might be experiencing in the vision, Javier is going to experience that feeling or emotion, or even the physical symptoms as well. It was a combination and collaboration between the cutting room, color, the camera movement, and the performances to bring together the style of the flash forwards, flashbacks, whatever you want to call them. We had a lot of different subtle tones.

1428 Elm: There's a violence in this film beyond the slasher kills, especially dealing with bullying, including the opening pool scene. Can you talk about filming those bullying scenes and how the characters treat Javier?

Clare Cooney: I was really inspired by the film Let the Right One In. The bullies of that film are the villains in so many ways. There's so much terror in high school besides horror film terror. I wanted that to feel extremely clear. The pool scene was tough. It was the toughest one. Again, taking homage from Let the Right One In in terms of how we filmed the pool scene, I wanted it to feel really dark. This is a horror film. Then, it slams right back into being in the hallways, the kids not really caring about it, and the reality of life goes on, a dark humor they're living in. Filming that pool scene was tough. We had stunts, and we had a minor on set. I wanted to make sure people felt safe, but overall, our cast was so kind. It was a good, safe space. They were able to step back. After a chase scene like that, people's adrenaline is really high. We made sure the kids were okay. The stunt team was always there to keep people safe.

Departing Seniors 3
Departing Seniors - Courtesy Brigade Marketing /

1428 Elm: You already mentioned Let the Right One In and Minority Report as influences on this project, but can you talk about some of the other films that inspired your direction?

Clare Clooney: Scream is the number one, obviously, for this. The Dead Zone in terms of the visions. We also really wanted to have a kickass soundtrack. We kind of stole from Jennifer's Body in terms of that rock n' roll, alt aesthetic and that high school, kind of grunge era, which i think is back in some ways. It also has a lot of echoes of high school films, like Clueless and Mean Girls. There are some direct references to Clueless. Heathers was also a major inference on the script. it was a lot of seeing what references were in the script, allowing them to stay, while also making this our own.

1428 Elm: Departing Seniors balances horror, comedy, and drama, which isn't necessarily an easy task. How did you manage to successfully balance those varying tones?

Clare Cooney: That was one of the hardest challenges for me at points. In the cutting room, I kept wondering if it was working. The best way to accomplish that was through feedback screenings. We wanted to see if they knew who the killer was, if it bothered them if they knew early on. People schooled in the horror canon knew pretty early on, while everyone else was surprised. It was a nice balance. In terms of the comedy versus the horror, we had actors who could handle the comedic chops in a very dry and understated way, so it still felt grounded and real. That witty repertoire came easy to our two leads. So, we leaned on that. We allowed certain takes to be bigger, but still had that same grounded, resting place that allowed us to go to drama. It certainly was a challenge.

Clare Cooney
2023 Chicago International Film Festival Opening Night Block Party / Barry Brecheisen/GettyImages

1428 Elm: Without spoiling anything, can you share your favorite scene?

Clare Cooney: I won't spoil anything, but there's an ambulance scene at one point and lots of extras. It's a very climatic moment. The visuals are there. There's trauma, but also humor. It becomes really intimate with the two main characters. I really loved getting to have all the bells and whistles and people around. It was one of our more expensive days. It was fun having the ambulance, all the people, and the teams really working together. Our leads got to have some really iconic horror movie moments together and connect.

1428 Elm: What's next for you, Clare? Can we expect to see you tackle more horror projects?

Clare Cooney: I'm trying to ensure I stay varied. I'm set to direct a horror comedy that's reminiscent of a murder mystery, like Clue, but much more horrific. I'm also attached to direct a movie that's a thriller with a horror element. I think I naturally gravitate towards the psychological, so psychological thrillers/horror could be, for sure, where I go. That's my brand, but I also love a good drama. I want to have variety in my career.

1428 Elm: Clare, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us.

Departing Seniors is playing in limited theaters and available on VOD.

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