She’s in a foreboding forest shrouded in tall pine trees and thick branches, illuminated only by the moon’s pale blue light. She’s alone — at least from anything human. Her eyes scan the scene in a frenzied panic while her hair is covered in snow. She frantically checks her watch and then looks in front of her, meeting the glowing yellow eyes of what she’s searching for. The monster has no facial expression, but it’s clear they have a past.
Why? That question will be answered when “Summer’s Monster” premieres through Telus’ Storyhive program this summer and like the pilot episode, it can be viewed on YouTube and Optik TV’s on-demand service. Producer, project lead and actor Siobhan Cooney won $50,000 to produce the web series — a show made for online mediums — earlier this year, competing against over 200 entries and later, 30 finalists.
Since 2013, Storyhive has supported more than 285 projects in Western Canada, assisting both emerging filmmakers and lifelong creators realize their creative vision. In the grand scheme of the industry, making films is an expensive endeavour, but the lean independent scene is thriving in Alberta with the funding that’s available and the determination of DIY production companies, like the one Cooney started earlier this year.
Cooney, 23, started Virescent Cinema shortly after she won with the goal of sustainable and diverse filmmaking — problems that stem from Hollywood and drip down to a local level.
“I look at my friend groups and I have people from all ethnic groups in my friend groups, so I want to reflect that in my filmmaking,” she said.
In addition to Summer’s Monster, she’s also planning to release a short film called For You, June, later this year while balancing university and several jobs. Cooney takes on a lot of responsibilities at the same time, but she’s determined to see things through to the end and forge her own path in Alberta’s film scene.
Cooney has strong opinions on the film industry and she’s determined to change it for the better through diverse casting and sustainable sets.
“I just have this feeling it’s going to work out. I’m not scared at all to go down this road and I know it will be hard,” she said. “It might not work out in the way I think it will or the way I hope it will, but I think it will work out.”
Storyhive offers filmmakers a variety of different categories from short films to music videos. Once trailers are submitted, the community and local professionals vote for projects they would like to see advance to the next round.
With her Storyhive web series, she plays a leading role as Summer — a young woman trying to find her childhood monster and solve her grandfather’s disappearance, which is seemingly interconnected with its existence.
Like a blend of “Twin Peaks,” Where the Wild Things Are, and “Dark,” the show is not only visually stunning, but it also strikes a delicate balance between surrealism and relatability.
“When it was coming out I was like this is so weird,” Cooney said, adding that she wasn’t sure how people would respond.
As it turns out, the community response was overwhelmingly positive, which helped her project beat 28 other finalists to win the grand prize.
“Snowshoe and Monster, [the original title,] was perfect for this edition as it exposes viewers to interesting characters and an engaging other world,” said Kim Guise, director of content at Telus, in an email statement. “This project was also very rich in story and well shot. Snowshoe and Monster also taps into a fresh trend, and approach, of youth solving mysteries, which resonate with both current and younger audiences.”
Assuming she wouldn’t win, she forgot to check the Storyhive website on Feb. 22, 2018, the day the winners were announced.
“That was a really busy day. I was running late, as usual, so I was going to a photo shoot and I was doing my makeup,” Siobhan recalled. “I get in the car and somebody on Instagram sent me a message like, ‘Congrats on getting the funding!’”
She screamed in excitement before hiding her phone to avoid being distracted. She missed the turn to the photo shoot several times because she was so stunned. To keep focused during her modelling gig, she left her phone in her jacket and didn’t check it for four hours.
Her mother, Janine Samuelson, team lead for advertising at ENMAX, found out while she was working and let out an excited gasp. Her coworkers instantly knew Siobhan had won the competition.
“It’s like the Grinch with your heart growing like three times and you have your burst of happiness,” said Samuelson.
“As a parent, you participate in your kid’s success vicariously. It’s like you experience the success yourself,” added Anthony Cooney, Siobhan’s father and clothing designer for the bookstore at the University of Calgary.
Made for the stage
In Calgary, spring likes to tease the city with above zero temperatures before winter swings back in full force, creating a feeling no different than being on the wrong end of a punch line.
March 14 was one of those days, with an impromptu snowstorm and slick roads resulting in an influx of accidents in the morning. In Kensington, however, the snow amplifies the beauty of one of the city’s most unique and architecturally diverse communities.
Siobhan is only 15 minutes later for an interview at Oolong Tea House on 10th Street N.W. She walks in, smiling brightly while simultaneously apologizing for being late.
Although the sky is overcast, sunglasses rest comfortably on her sun-kissed red hair, matching with her red lipstick. The ground outside is quickly accumulating centimetres of snow, but she’s wearing open-toed shoes instead of boots and a long black skirt in spite of below zero temperatures.
Her eyes are striking and warm. One is blue and the other is green, but her heterochromia is subtle while the expressive nature of her eyes is apparent whenever they light up or get lost in a thought.
Earl grey tea is her first drink of choice as she prepares to answer questions about her past and how she became the successful young woman she is today.
“Being an actor or being on stage and performing is all I’ve ever wanted to do; even as a really little kid,” she said. “My mom said that when I was like four, somebody asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I said, ‘On the stage!’”
Creativity runs deep in her family on both her mother and father’s side. Over the phone, her parents said that encouraging Siobhan and her younger brother’s artistic endeavours was important ever since they were young.
“My aunt to this day still teaches ballroom dancing even though she’s well into her late 70s. Our family is musically and artistically inclined,” Anthony said. “Philosophically too, I believe everybody is a creative finger in the universe, so if you’re to find happiness in life, I think you have to explore your creative side.”
“We’ve actively been supportive, but also actively promoting the creative arts in our family for as long as I can remember,” Samuelson added.
Her parents met at the Glenbow Museum and both have found ways to integrate their creative sides with professional careers; Samuelson working for ENMAX’s advertising team; Anthony working for the University of Calgary designing clothing at the bookstore.
They decided to enrol their children at the now-defunct St. John Fine Arts School in northwest Calgary when Siobhan was in Grade 4. The school closed because of high transportation costs and an effort to fill out other catholic schools.
“It was incredible. I met a lot of my best friends there that are still my best friends today,” Siobhan said. “I realized I wanted to be an actor when I was there.”
In a hypothetical Oscar winning speech scenario, she said she would thank her instructors at St. John along with her parents and friends.
From there, she went to St. Jean Brebeuf for junior high, an experience she said was largely forgettable, and then she moved on to St. Francis High School. Unlike junior high, her high school drama experience solidified her desire to pursue it after she graduated.
She originally wanted to go to Mount Royal University’s theatre program in 2013, intensively preparing her application for months, but things did not go as planned.
“It was this huge application process and I spent six months getting ready for it. I did the audition and we practiced every day after school with [my drama teacher at St. Francis] Nicole Duma-Lorincz,” she said. “I did the audition and then there were call backs and it was like this whole process. Then I got in and then they cut the program in April of that year … The way they did it was very inconsiderate.”
She didn’t know what she was going to do after her post-secondary plans fell apart, so she decided to travel.
“[MRU] was the only place I had planned on going so I was kind of like, ‘Oh shit, I don’t know what to do.’ And then I moved to England. I guess that’s how I dealt with it. “
While she still lived on her own in London, she had lots of family on her dad’s side to help with the moving process. One of the most noticeable creative in her family is her grandfather’s cousin, Ray Cooney, who is an officer of the Order of the British Empire for his work in England’s drama industry as a playwright.
Ray’s play, Run for Your Wife, is the longest running comedy in London’s West End, the city’s equivalent to New York’s Broadway.
Among other jobs like working at a coffee shop and at a museum, Siobhan also worked as a production assistant and understudy on one of Ray’s plays.
“Ray really took her under his wing and really gave her the benefit of a wonderful opportunity working on the play and sharing his experiences,” Samuelson said. “He left school at age 14 to be an actor because he felt so strongly about it.”
While she learned a lot from working on the play, Siobhan realized she needed to return to school and continue her studies.
She got accepted into the University of Calgary’s bachelor of fine arts program and returned to her hometown a week before classes started as a new person in the fall of 2014.
“When she went to London for her year off, she really gained a lot of self-confidence and it really shows whenever she auditions for films or does her own films,” said Logan Teske, one of her close friends that she met in high school.
While her mother said Siobhan’s always been a great child, she noticed how her experience abroad changed her: “Especially after she came back from England, she was very respectful of the opportunities she had been given and the support that we provided.”
Returning home from England
Back in Calgary, she worked on a variety of theatre productions while also starring in numerous short projects by SAIT film projects. A few summers ago, she also tried out an office job as a customer service representative for an insurance company. The office setting did not suit her.
“I don’t belong in an office. It was just the fact I had to sit in one place all day — and then I don’t like rules — there was a lot of rules about what I can say and how I can say things and when I was allowed to go to the bathroom,” she said. “Everybody just gets mad at the first person they speak to, which was usually me. Oh God, it was just not my scene it all!”
Currently, she works at an escape room called SmartyPantz, playing a variety of roles from ‘Robyn Graves,’ a ghost hunter, to ‘Beetle,’ the minion of a serial killer. She also works at Patagonia, an outdoors store, but she still takes on a number of odd jobs, ranging from dressing up as a Disney princess to lugging equipment around as a film ‘grip’ putting her five foot seven inches frame to the test.
“I love having freedom, so doing one job all summer would be hard for me,” she said. “I’m glad I have the freedom to take days off and go to the mountains.”
Siobhan loves to audition for a variety of roles, taking on as much as she can, but sometimes it’s too much, especially when combined with being a full-time student.
“I think I’m organized in a way that’s not conventional. I can have a million things going on and I have them in my head … and I don’t forget things, but like yeah I need to get better at — like I say yes to things too much and then my schedule is like, ‘Oh God!’”
“I have a process, but I think it’s more like committing to that process. I find myself going to auditions and being like, ‘Awe, I wish I could have prepared for this more,’” she said. “Hopefully when I leave [school] I’ll have a little more time to work on the specifics of the characters and really dive deep into them but that’s something I’m struggling to find the time sometimes.”
While she may feel overwhelmed at times, she transforms when she is on set as an actor or overseeing productions as a manager.
“There’s a definite difference when she’s in her production mode to when she’s just being Siobhan. Production mode Siobhan definitely has an attitude — not a bad attitude, just a serious overarching way of going about business,” her friend Teske said. “She likes to get things done. When she’s just Siobhan, she’s much more playful and doesn’t seem like she’s stressed.”
In 2017, she co-founded a production company called Prairie Kitten Productions with a few friends at U of C, but she decided to step away, on good terms, and follow her own path, founding Virescent Cinema in 2018.
“I went off and did my own thing. I couldn’t commit to the meetings and stuff. There were things I wanted to do that I guess the company, they were a little overloaded with all the other stuff they had to send. We produced three films in the summer.”
Siobhan started Virescent Cinema shortly after she won the grant to produce Summer’s Monster, which was originally titled “Snowshoe & Monster” because it was set in the winter. The spring shooting schedule was at the heart of the name change since the snow is starting to melt.
After the initial excitement of winning, Siobhan started to become nervous due to her already hectic schedule. She is currently finishing her BFA and is enrolled in seven classes. However, the nervousness dissipated and the confidence reappeared once she found out she had until August to submit the other four episodes.
Still, Siobhan isn’t afraid to pursue other endeavours while creating the other episodes of the show. She submitted For You, June, to Storyhive’s short film competition, which will award 40 teams $10,000 on May 3.
Written by Siobhan, For You, June is a story about two young women falling in love in the summer, exploring the depths, struggles and joys of their relationship.
“I’m brave and I do everything I say I’m going to do,” she said. “I don’t let things hold me back logistically. I know some people who are like, ‘I should not do that yet, I’m not ready yet.’ Me, I’m like, ‘I’m just going to do it!’”
As for Summer’s Monster, the show was praised for its cinematography and atmosphere, relying on practical effects to create its furry monster. Siobhan contracted local puppeteers to create the monster, which costs approximately $3,000.
The full six-episode series is due to be released in the fall, requiring 15 days to shoot and they are renting a $4,500 anamorphic lens and other equipment from the U.S. as opposed to just using a filter like they did in the first episode.
Summer’s Monster is also produced with sustainability in mind, one of the core philosophies of Siobhan’s production company.
“I have been on so many film sets where there’s just so many plastic water bottles because you’re moving around and the easiest way to get water is there’s just so many plastic water bottles,” she said. “Everyone forgets which one is there’s and they just grab a new one. There’s just so much garbage and I hate it.”
All of her actors and production assistants sign a contract outlining how they are required to bring their own reusable water bottles.
“I say if you don’t bring it, you’re kind of out of luck! I made a guy drink out of a bowl once,” she laughed.
When it comes to feeding her workers, she does not buy anything that comes from packaging, making snacks herself or buying them from local bakeries.
She also tries to utilize local talent through the casting process to sound design. While she believes Alberta’s film scene is growing with larger scale productions setting up shop in the province, she said that they aren’t providing enough opportunities to local talent.
“Since the film centre opened in Calgary, it’s been kind of cool that they’ve had more outside productions come in, which is neat, but I think it’s tough because it’s stuff for actors because they don’t want to hire Canadian actors as often,” she said. “Sometimes they have to hire a certain amount of Canadian talent but usually they’re pulling from Vancouver, which is frustrating.”
Stacie Harrison, a veteran in Alberta’s film scene and primary instructor at Company of Rogues, shares Siobhan’s frustration, but she’s also noticing a change.
“I think it’s changing exponentially in the last couple of years,” Harrison said. “Some of the tricky elements of being a woman in film in Calgary specifically is that we shoot a lot of Westerns here. There doesn’t tend to be a lot of women in westerns. I’ve auditioned for more prostitutes than I can possibly tell you.”
As an actor on “Damnation” and “Wynonna Earp,” Harrison believes that more opportunities for strong female roles are appearing in Alberta, but more roles are handed out to actors from Vancouver and Toronto because they are a safe bet with longer resumes than local talent.
She says that some productions, like the two television shows, make an effort to cast locally, but Alberta actors still have a lot of untapped potential.
“Part of what’s helping that is the number of independent productions we have going on now — there’s so many being shot here and that’s really giving people the opportunity to work, to be seen, to put things on the resume,” she said.
Harrison also applied for Storyhive’s web series contest, but her project was not selected as a finalist. Regardless, she is happy Siobhan won and appreciates the work she’s doing as an independent film producer.
“I look at Siobhan and she’s doing so many amazing things and she’s so young, but she’s really got a beautiful depth to her work and I think that’s fabulous.”
Another philosophy of Virescent Cinema is to provide opportunities for female creatives and roles for mixed ethnicities.
In Hollywood, Variety reports that male characters outnumber female characters by 2.3 to 1 while approximately 71 per cent of speaking roles were white out of the top 100 films in 2016. Out of 900 films analyzed between 2007 and 2016, only 34 had unique female directors behind the helm.
The representation problem extends to Canada as well. According to a 2015 CBC article on female representation in Canadian film, only 17 per cent of directors and 22 per cent of writers are women.
However, the Canadian film industry is improving dramatically each year. Telefilm Canada, a federal Crown Corporation that funds projects across the country, set a goal for gender parity by 2020. In 2017, Telefilm announced 44 per cent of its projects have a female director and 51 per cent have a female producer.
With higher budget productions of $2.5 million or greater, only 14 per cent of submissions came from female directors, so there is still work that needs to be done at a larger level.
Virescent Cinema is playing a part at a smaller level, but it’s proving to be more challenging than it seems when it comes to ethnic diversity.
“It’s a tricky subject. It’s hard in Alberta — there’s a lot of white people. I can say that there are many more white actors than there are ethnic ones. I put out a casting call for a mixed ethnicity role, a leading role [in For You, June] — I’ve had three people reply and I know two of them,” Siobhan said. “I want to write stories for people and I want to cast people.”
For me, I don’t really care what you look like necessarily, but I think it’s important to have that representation because I hate watching shows where everybody’s just white — I don’t think that’s a realistic representation of our culture right now.”
Despite the challenges, Siobhan is determined to see her goals through. She is planning to move to Vancouver in the fall to pursue other acting opportunities, but she wants to continue promoting diversity and sustainability in any place she calls home.
While she wants to make enough money to support herself through art, she never wants to lose her connection to the independent film scene and being her own boss.
When she first started acting and producing, she had to learn how to be confident:
“This business is all about faking it until you make it honestly.”
Well, she’s only 23 and she’s not faking it anymore.
To follow Cooney’s current and upcoming projects, visit Virescent Cinema’s Facebook page.
- By Paul McAleer