Scranton-based writer/director speaks on new intimate drama film ‘Wild Fire’

Jennifer Cooney. (Photo: Tom Bonomo)

Nonbinary writer/director Jennifer Cooney’s “Wild Fire,” now available on Apple TV, Prime Video, Vudu, Google Play and other services, is an intimate drama about three married couples and a recent widow grappling with honesty in their lives and relationships. 

It is Elliana’s (Celestee Marcone) 50th birthday, and she is still grieving over the recent loss of her husband. At the end of a party that she hosts, Elliana and three couples — Del (Jillian Geurts) and her wife Avary (Madeleine Dee), Ronnie (Siena D’Addario) and her husband Tom (Sam Ball), and Maeve (Annie Gill) and her husband Noah (Todd Licea) — play a game of Truth or Dare.

The glossy-looking “Wild Fire” gets juicy as Del and Avary ask inappropriate questions that unsettle the uptight Maeve, among others. Several characters reveal affairs and desires that, in the end, may have been best kept secret. The impact of the unfiltered conversations plays out in the film’s poignant last act.

Cooney, who lives in Scranton, spoke with PGN about her auspicious feature film debut. 

The film is about communication and honesty. Can you talk about incorporating these themes?
That was the driving force behind this film. How much conflict and misunderstanding and separation occurs in our most intimate relationship because we’re not communicating openly and being vulnerable because we are afraid of rejection or being unlovable? If you are vulnerable and speak honestly about who you are, and that person rejects you — isn’t that a good thing? You don’t love me for who I am. What is the downfall? This ominous fear of rejection we are plagued with may be because we don’t deal well with rejection from being a kid. Being honest and open about how we feel can be the greatest gift we can give the person we love. 

The film is quite stylish. I appreciated the visual textures and tones. In addition, I found your use of silence effective. Can you talk about creating the look and feel and sound of the film?
I love getting lost in the subtext of the characters who say one thing but mean another. I used the silence as an extension of that subtext. It’s a moment that allows people to feel what they feel or think about what they want to say. That came into play when I was editing. I liked getting a moment to look at the actor’s face and processing their reactions. That is how people talk. When you have a lot of dialogue in a script, the editor doesn’t always take the pauses into consideration. I wanted to capture the verisimilitude of real-word conversion. I wanted that brooding going on beneath the surface or in the silence. Visually, it was important for me to use tones of fire — a lot of yellows and blues — around the fire pit scene; I wanted the background to fade into nothing, so it felt like this fire, which was symbolic of the truth, was all that was illuminating the characters at this moment. Everything else in the film is very bright and very well lit. 

I found I knew much about a character sometimes based on a single line of dialogue, as when Maeve is first introduced, or Ronnie whispers something to Avary. Can you talk about creating and defining the characters?
When you write fiction, you get to spell out all these things about the characters. That’s what makes filmmaking and scriptwriting so exciting for me — is that I can’t do that. How do I find a way of speaking that communicates all of that in the most efficient way possible? That is the most fun part of writing a script. It’s cramming a lifetime of backstory in one sentence. 

My favorite part of developing a story is delving headfirst into my characters’ motivations and fears. Once I solidify those pillars, the characters can start talking to me. People don’t speak until they are motivated. Are you motivated to impress somebody, to prove yourself, to belittle someone? When Tom’s talking about his job, you know who everyone is based on how they [respond] to that conversation. For Maeve, her motivation is that “You don’t think you’re a bitch, or annoying, even though people are reacting to you in that way. You are trying to connect to people and be respected.” For Del, it was important for her to be open and honest. That’s her way of being kind. She is not afraid to say the hard things. Calling people out where they are stuck, or not being honest, she thinks, “If I help them grow, that’s how I’m loving them.”

I thought it was interesting that the majority of the characters in “Wild Fire” are straight. What can you say about the inclusion and representation of queer characters? 

The characters tell me who they are. I put what feels right on the page and let those characters’ nuances speak to them. When a [male] character says, “We’re all gay for Del,” it’s because she’s androgynous in that way. Regarding representation, what is different about any script I write, is that while [queer] sexuality is front positioned in their character, it’s not about their sexuality. We don’t hear about Del and Avary’s marriage, or gay rights. I feel that’s next generation. 

Your film is also about different kind of love — love without conditions or expectations, self-love, the love of friends, adulterous love, polyamorous love, and love of someone you lost. How did you approach these themes? 

Del says it best, “Love is the most complex human experience there is.” I’m infinitely fascinated by the way in which we love. There are so many nuances and shades of grey within humanity’s capacity to love. If we have more authentic, open, curious conversations about our capacity to love and how it can feel different based on the person, place, or scenario, or time in our lives, we can see love is all around and we can break down the separation we’re bombarded with by our culture. 

How do you want viewers to process the lessons in “Wild Fire”?
I am absolutely not saying this is a one-step process. It’s not, “Be honest, and all is well in your life.” Most of the time when you have these tough vulnerable conversations, there is an explosion that follows. The person feels lied to. It is realizing that if you have not presented yourself authentically through the courage of vulnerability, what have you done with your life? 

It’s about tuning into the part of yourself that you are going to respect by being it, instead of hiding it. When you can do that for yourself, that is the key.

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