By Alyssa Suarez (Loyola Student)
Comedy and horror. Two different genres that were once thought impossible to combine. Not to Loyola University Chicago alum Jose Nateras, an L.A.-based filmmaker, producer, actor, and writer. With credits such as NBC’s Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D., and Fox’s Proven Innocent, Nateras is ready to take the horror industry by storm with his new feature, Departing Seniors; a film he created and wrote. With the help of Clare Cooney, another reputable actor and filmmaker, making her directorial debut with this film, and a star-studded cast: Ignacio Diaz-Silverio (Amazon’s Primo), Yani Gellman (Pretty Little Liars), Ireon Roach (Candyman), Cameron Scott Roberts (The Walking Dead), and Lorena Diaz (Chicago Med), the story will be nothing short of amazing.
As the film continues to make waves in the independent film industry — premiering at the Fantastic Pavilion at the Cannes Film Festival in May, premiering worldwide at Fright Fest UK in London, and most recently, premiering at the 59th Chicago International Film Festival. I sat down to talk to Nateras about his journey to success.
Note: This interview was conducted prior to the SAG-AFTRA Strike.
What inspired you to make Departing Seniors?
The very first versions of the script were written in 2015. I took a screenwriting class at Second City, and the way that their program works is they kind of split it into halves; so you take “Screen Writing One” and they teach you how to write the first half of the screenplay, and then you pay for another class and they teach you how to write the second-half of the screenplay. I didn’t like that, so I took the first half and then I was like, I’m gonna finish it on my own but in terms of the ideas that kind of inspired it, I love the horror genre.
… I knew that I wanted a Mexican American, queer lead character. I liked a lot of high school set movies like “Scream,” but also movies like “Heathers,” these sort of teen comedies. So, I knew that I wanted to be able to infuse those different elements of the things that I like to create, view, or act in.
You mentioned before that you wanted to turn this story originally into a TV show, but you decided to turn it into a movie? Do have more experiences with that?
I knew that the class that I initially started writing this script for was for features, so I knew that “Departing Seniors” was going to be a feature in terms of some like-series work. “Departing Seniors” was always going to be a feature. The question of when, how, and where that would happen, I left to the universe and then everything kind of came into place over the course of the past six or seven years now… it plays with a lot of the DNA and inspiration from pre-existing features too like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” or “Gilmore Girls.”
Can you tell me a little bit more about what the process is like? The differences with producing, creating, writing for like this feature film?
I’ve been on a lot of sets and a lot of productions, but primarily in front of the camera. But for as long as I’ve been an actor, I’ve also been writing. When I was in school, I made my first short film in high school. I was always making movies and I had some experience of making films, but nothing on a professional scale up until now as the behind-the-camera sort of person. After the script had been written in 2015 or so, I used it as part of my portfolio to get into grad school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and I got my MFA in writing there, and during my first year there in 2016, I was put in touch with Dashawna Wright, [“Departing Seniors’” producer] who was getting her masters at Columbia College Chicago in production. We ended up getting put in touch and she liked the script, so she initially optioned it … It didn’t get picked up and then the option expired.
As that was happening, I finished school. I had written some other screenplays. I’d written my novel, and then I graduated from grad school in 2018 … Around the time that was happening, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA), which I’m a part of, was doing a table reading series, so I submitted “Departing Seniors” and it was selected … When that happened, Dashawna finished her masters and was back in Chicago working as a producer, and she was like, “Hey, I heard about this. Congrats. I’m still really interested in getting this made. I would like to option the materials again and really work towards making it happen,” and at that point, I was in LA and said, “yeah, you can option it. But I want to be involved as a producer as well. I don’t want to just be the writer because most of the time, processes like a writer will write something. It gets optioned and then the writer’s out of it.”.
I know that I can bring something that will help in that effort … Six months after that, Clare Cooney, who is from Chicago, had worked in casting, and we had been friends in Chicago, but at one point I was like, “hey, I’m signed on as a co-producer for this feature that I wrote. It’s optioned, and we’re trying to get it made, can we have lunch?”
… So Clare read the script and she liked it, even though it was something she hadn’t really done before genre-wise. We had some mutual friends who had produced some stuff, and one of these people with whom we had a meeting was like, “Have you heard about this one company? It’s a Chicago-based studio, they’re starting to produce their own work. They might be a good fit.” So I ended up reaching out to them … and between April and May of 2022, we officially secured financing …
Judy Febles, who was our line producer since the early days, … we confirmed her as her line producer and we started reaching out about casting and locations and design and department heads. Those pieces started to fall into place and we were all set to head into pre-production. We filmed the whole feature. In 16 days of the filming, which is crazy like that doesn’t happen; to say that’s ambitious is a huge understatement. I tried to do research into similar projects that were made in that amount of time, and there aren’t. “Halloween” was made for a similar budget, in the 70s, mind you, in 20 days. So the fact that we did ours in 16 is kind of bonkers.
You mentioned earlier that when you sat down to talk with Clare in L.A., you said that you guys were talking about what it means to be a producer. What do you think that means?
Well, the answer that I found for that from those conversations and now over the course of my experience is that it’s a title that can mean a lot of different things. There’s a producer, and then there’s also an executive producer … An executive producer is somebody that either gives you money, secures financing for a feature film, or they give something of that much value to the process. They’re the people that like you can’t really get the movie made without. But very often, executive producers will do that and just be very hands-off, they’ll also have a lot of opinions, and thoughts, and need approval for things over the course of it.
It’s an interesting role. For me as the writer and the producer, I was the one that was sending out the emails that found our financing that found our executive producers. I was the one that was expanding the team from the sort of behind-the-scenes standpoint.
Ignacio Diaz-Silverio was cast as a lead, with many of the other supporting cast being up-and-coming Chicago actors, with Yani Gellman, being one of the most notable cast members. When you wrote this script originally, did you have the images of the characters in mind? Were you involved in the casting?
Yeah, I was involved with casting. My priority was that this project should not feel like a vanity project … part of my mission as a Latino actor is to create opportunities for Latine performers and artists across the board, and part of that, is to know that I want to create the sort of roles that I would want to act, but I didn’t want it to be me writing these roles just for me. … I did not have a specific actor in mind for these roles when I was writing them.
I wanted to tell stories that featured people like me, you know, gay, Mexican-American people without them being trauma dramas about coming out and how hard it is to be a gay Mexican or immigration or drug stories like, that’s not what I’m interested in. I have auditioned and played enough undocumented immigrants in my time as a professional actor, that, I don’t want to create more of that … This made things difficult because in terms of casting and figuring things out, finding the right actors for those roles is hard because in terms of making your executive producers happy, their priority is creating a project that can be sold to as many people as possible, because that’s how they ensure that they get a return on their investment. So that means they need name recognition, that means they need somebody who’s got buzz in the media that … that people are excited about and finding a Latine actor of this age who was also queer was a priority.
But in terms of our timeline and our budget, that became harder and harder to do … I had to make decisions that I was like, “To what extent am I willing to make a compromise without feeling like I’m compromising the things that are important to me, as an artist and as a storyteller” … part of that, I would say is being open to changing things, to serve my ultimate goals, which is a hard and difficult place, where I feel like in reality, a lot of straight white filmmakers don’t have to make these decisions. It’s a hardship that as a queer storyteller, as a person of color, and as a Latino person, we are held to higher scrutiny. We are faced with making more difficult decisions. I knew that the decisions I was making were helping the project get made … and I’m really proud to say that our department heads, the people behind the camera, and the people actually making the movie with their hands and their hearts, and their efforts, we had a lot of Latines, and a lot of clear artists working on this project. Those were the people that, as much as representation on screen matters, it matters just as much behind the camera, so that is to say in terms of casting, when we found Yani [Gellman], we were very excited because we knew him from “The Lizzie McGuire Movie” and “47 Meters Down.” We were excited and Yani was great about being very upfront about the fact that as an actor, he has played a lot of Latino roles. He’s played a lot of Hispanic roles, but he does not specifically identify as Latino … his family has some Spanish-Jewish culture, so theoretically you could describe them as as Hispanic, but it’s not true to who he was playing the role of … the teacher character was specifically written as Latino in the earlier versions, so I changed the description, I changed the character name to specifically be a Jewish surname … I made it specifically more fit for him. And in terms of what the story is — that character’s role, Mr. Arda’s role, his experience never was specifically about being Hispanic, Latino, or anything like that.
When it came to finding Ignacio, very often you have these breakdowns and the way casting works is, you’d say what the character is, right? Like “audition for Javier:” high school senior gay, Mexican-American. That’s what you put out into the world, and then you get a lot of submissions back and some aren’t the right fit. Knowing that this is the lead and knowing that there was a lot of pressure to find somebody who had that buzz name recognition? … Name popular named Latine queer actors off the top of your head… I can’t. So, part of the journey is to create that like to create opportunities for that, especially for that age.
And then we were lucky to find Ignacio. Ignacio is Hispanic. His family is from Spain, he speaks fluent Spanish. He was just coming off of the Amazon Prime series, “Primo,” but he does not identify as queer and he’s not Mexican-American, so this was a discussion and a conversation that I had to think about and had.
Since my first acting gig in 2008, knowing how many good actors are in Chicago and then [producers] bring projects in, and then all the talent is from out of town … how frustrating that is. We always knew that we wanted to work with Chicago talent for this project.
Casting is a big part of making any movie, especially any movie that’s good. You know, there are a lot of movies out there, and even if the script is good or even if the direction is good, if you don’t have the right alchemy of cast, you know there are just so many different variables that go into making a project.
So besides being the producer and the writer, did you have any other involvement in this film?
Yeah, yeah, there were a couple of moments. So Yani, was coming in from out of town unfortunately got COVID right around the time we were about to start production, so making a movie during the time of Corona is hard. Luckily, we had a really great COVID compliance officer, CCO Joy and she was on set every day. She was handing out hand sanitizer, masks, and making sure everybody was six feet apart, it’s a hard job. And Joy was great about it.
And at this point in production, my hair was really long hair and it just became apparent that we were able to make it work, would test Yani every day. He would stay isolated, get the medicine that he needed … so I cut my hair and from certain angles I was Yani’s double from like the back and side … I wanted to cut my hair anyway and I’m going to be keeping it short from now.
Given your experience with making this feature film, would you like to create another one soon or is that something you want to keep that like away for now?
Yeah. I have another feature. It’s called “0 Feet Away.” There’s this thing in Hollywood, it’s called “The Blacklist,” and it’s a list of the best-unproduced screenplays floating around Hollywood on any given year. And then they also have “The Blood List,” which is the same but specifically for the horror genre … my feature-length screenplay was included on the blood list and so of those scripts, two ended up getting optioned, so that’s in development at Village Roadshow with Kaylee Brillstein from No Kailey Marsh from Brillstein Entertainment Partners … we’ve done rewrites and a polished on that.
I do plan on continuing to write. I’ve written a number of other screenplays for other people … and making this movie was — it’s hard, maybe the hardest thing I’ve ever done … I was the most stressed I’ve ever been, but it was also one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done … I think moving forward, I am ready to be a little bit more selfish and ready to write something that I could act in as well because I’ve proven that I can make a movie, so there’s less need to prove that and convince people.
What is something that you hope the audience can take away from this film?
My biggest goal, I think, is to have an appreciation for friendships, for platonic love … those friendships that get you through the hard times, you know, the best friend that is there for you. In a lot of movies, you find the most important relationship being a romantic one, and it was important for that to not be the saving grace in this story.
For me, the saving grace of the story and the characters is the friendship and the love that these two best friends at the heart of the story have for each other, because that is true to my experience, especially as a queer individual, there’s a lot of talk about chosen family.
… that comes up a lot in my work … and just under that, diversity of what the queer and Latine, and by POC experience can be. I think we’re in a place where we’re starting to see that happen more and more, which I’m really excited about … a movie like “Prey,” which is a predator movie, but it features a female indigenous lead character. That’s what I want.
What are some advice that you can give to queer Latines who are aspiring actors, writers, producers, directors, or anyone who wants to be in the film or entertainment industry?
My biggest piece of advice, kind of like springs into the smaller, important pieces of advice, but it’s to figure out who you are because it’s all of the weird, specific subsections of your identity; the inside jokes that you have with your friends and the people you care about. That’s the sort of stuff that makes you, you and a writer and actor, the more that you can funnel that specificity and uniqueness in, that’s the X factor and the sparkle and the X factor is a big part of what leads to success, right?
… it’s about being genuine. It’s about authenticity … and in terms of networking and finding success, the real network, and successful connections that you can make in this industry come from human connections and interactions. People liking who you are … if I have a bad experience with you on set, I’m not going to work with you again … Just be a good person that they like and can respect … later down the line, you might still be here, but this person’s up here [in terms of fame and opportunities]. They’ll be like, “I need somebody,” and then you get those opportunities … being grounded; find those windows and doors to go through.
Why did you decide to film and produce this movie in Chicago? Why not L.A. or why not Georgia, where a lot of movies are made in?
I’m from Chicago, and although I was in many Chicago series — and I was very grateful, those were my first acting gigs, but as an actor, that’s repetitive. There’s a lot of Chicago actors and talent on screen, but they’re the day players, the one-liners that guest stars. All the big-name series regulars that you see are from outside of Chicago or based in L.A. So then what about the Chicago actors? What about the Chicago talent? We want to be able to do that stuff. And I always knew that I wanted to be able to do the sort of work that I want to watch … it’s nice to always have that home base … the company that we’re working with is a Chicago-based company like our finances.
I went to high school in Elmhurst. [One of my] scripts was inspired by my experience as a queer Mexican kid in the suburbs of Chicago. Elmhurst became Springhurst, my high school was the “York Dukes.” The “York Dukes” became the “Springhurst Barons,” there were all of these ties. It was all based off of the little specific unique things about my experience that I wanted to reflect on screen.
I was very influenced by John Hughes movies, “16 Candles,” “Ferris Bueller,” and “The Breakfast Club,” that’s all in Chicago. “Mean Girls” was set in Evanston … even though I’m in L.A., Chicago will always be home … I miss the people and I love the city, and the city has a place in my heart, so I want to always be able to, like, throw it back to Chicago when I can … I remember seeing movies that were set in New York or even movies that were set in L.A., and they would always make me go, “Oh, I want to live in New York,” I want that for Chicago too.
What is some advice you can give to full-time students who want experience in acting?
Do theater, and Chicago is a great city for theater because the theater actor can figure out how to be a good actor on screen. A screen-only actor really can’t do theater.
When I was younger I said well, by the time I’m 25 I want to live in L.A. or New York, and of course that ship sailed, but that’s because I was working. I was a working actor in Chicago. I was in the theaters … I miss these days. I was always booked. I was always doing a play. I was never not in a show. I was never not acting, you know? And while I was doing that, I was also able to. do TV shows and commercials I was able to find in Chicago. Then I went to grad school … when the time was right, I was around 30 — it wasn’t 25, but it was 30 — I moved to L.A. I did all the things that I wanted to do in Chicago. That was the right time. 25 [years] wouldn’t have been the right time for me. I was definitely a better actor at 30 than I was at 25, and not to mention, I had the credits I had done, because it might sound like there’re more opportunities in L.A. — and hypothetically there are — but if everybody’s fishing for those opportunities and you don’t have the credits, the reps, or the confidence to have gone on a million auditions, book somewhere safe.
But while you’re in school, prioritize [school] because you’re paying for that too, prioritize the opportunities that the school can provide if and when you can. Play one of the plays at the DFPA or the Loyola Theater program.
Don’t work unless you’re getting paid, sometimes people are going to ask you to work for no pay. If you wouldn’t do an unpaid internship, why would you do an unpaid play? When you’re a student, that makes sense because I got a meal plan, a CTA pass, but theatre is where you learn how to act, and then you can figure it out. And a good director on film will help you figure out the rest.
What are some memorable moments when shooting Departing Seniors?
The night we were doing the exterior shots with the ambulance, everybody was very tired and there was just a moment — because the lights were going on and off and we had our art, our production designer, our line producer, and our makeup artist. At one point, I think they did a TikTok or something.
Because the lights were flashing, it was just this moment of dancing and joy. We also had an overnight shoot for a pool scene, and that made us happy but it was also one of the most stressful nights in terms of our schedule because we were filming at a Community Center in Lamont and we were able to film at night, but we couldn’t get into the pool until 9 p.m. and then we had to be out at 5 a.m. because they had like an aquatic aerobics class, so we had to finish filming early to take everything down and get out of there.
As a producer, I knew that we didn’t have much time and I said, “Ok, we need to be done filming at 4 p.m.” 4 p.m. came and we’re not done. So we extend it to 4:15 p.m., and by then, I said, “Ok, 4:15 p.m., everybody out of the pool,” and people were like “No! We still need this! We still need that!” so that became 4:30 p.m. and by that point, everyone was tearing things down as we were filming these last shots and I say, “Ok, that’s it, everybody out of the pool” and we got what we needed and by the miracle of miracles, we got out of that building by 4:59 p.m, with the janitor shutting the door behind us.
Do you have any further comments or things we didn’t touch on that you want to add for the community or for Loyola Students?
I think the one thing I’ll say is for Loyola students. For Chicago people, never forget where you come from. Never forget the connections and the peers that you make along the way; keep them in mind as you move forward and find ways to give back in whatever way feels true to you … in terms of what you must give to me are my stories, and the opportunities that come along with telling my stories. I would say, like the most humbling thing. And this was the thing that made me emotional a couple of times, more than the stress and everything else … We’re just seeing how much everybody else was putting into making departing seniors like the work, labor, hours, stress, blood, tears, and frustration, everybody was giving so much of them for this and to know that it was something that came from me. It was very personal. It’s one of the most connected and seen things, like experiences of my life … it never felt like it was just me. It just felt like something that came from me, and that’s what made it. That’s what allows it to exist. Remember where you come from, decenter yourself as much as you can in your work, and just trust that it’ll pay off in the end.
Another thing I want to add is that I would like this movie to premiere at a movie theater, my dream would be to have a premiere at the Music Box [Theatre], just like a Chicago premiere.
“Departing Seniors” had its North American Premiere at the 59th Chicago International Film Festival on October 11th, at 10 p.m. at the Music Box Theatre, located at 3733 N Southport Ave, Chicago, IL.