"Dawn is a quiet young teenager who longs for something or someone to free her from her sheltered life."
The log line for actress Rose McGowan's directorial debut "Dawn" is light on the descriptors, but don't be fooled: the 17-minute short is overflowing with cinematic language, biting themes, and mixed-temperature performances that ground its heightened reality. Taking place against a dream-like 1950s backdrop, the film depicts a moment of rebellious maturation for its teenage title character. As Dawn learns, she's not the only high schooler in town whose behavior has been warped by the conservative nature of her hometown.
McGowan, whose acting credits include "Planet Terror," "The Black Dahlia," "Ready to Rumble," "Conan the Barbarian," and two Pauley Shore comedies, may not be the most obvious actress-turned-director to orchestrate a spine-tingling drama the evokes the work of everyone from Park Chan-wook to Douglas Sirk. Except that she is. Speaking to McGowan, it's clear she's hungry to let a lifetime of film consumption spill out from her imagination and on to the screen. If her debut is any indication, she'll be one to watch as she fights to get her planned features off the ground.
Here, I talk to McGowan about being weened on visionary moviemaking, translating her passions to film, and how her acting career did and didn't benefit "Rose McGowan, director":
FILM.COM: Your Sundance bio describes you as a huge European film buff. What are we talking about here?
ROSE McGOWAN: I was watching Jodorowsky and Buñuel by age five. I'm not saying it was a normal childhood [laughs]. I definitely had some nightmares. At the same time was reading Edgar Allen Poe.
How did you get these films?
My Dad was a cinephile and I grew up in Italy. He was an artist and [his friends] would just screen them against a wall. They'd get weird copies of things and project them against the wall for like 30 hippies. And me.
Are these the films in which you filter your own ideas? How do they inform you?
I don't know if I think about them specifically, but I think they're ingrained in my psyche. I love atmospheric things. I also love American cinema and its strength of story. Historically, we have a stronger sense of story and they've got it with imagery and atmosphere and emotion. I suppose I want to marry the two.
Is there a film that comes to mind when you consider American film's potential?
"A Face in the Crowd," "Paths of Glory," there are so many, jesus. My weakness is '70s film. I specialize in 1963 and earlier.
1963 is specific.
I'm thinking studio system disintegration.
In your bio you also reference a 70mm print of "Lawrence of Arabia" blowing your mind. This may be obvious, but why was that screening so momentous?
I saw it a dome, which was amazing. I'm one of eight kids and we never went to regular movies — that cost too much money. We went to revival theaters. For $10, you can get popcorn and take six kids and go to a movie. So that's how we saw "Lawrence of Arabia." Ironically, later, I did a movie with Peter O'Toole [1998's "Phantoms"], not a very good one, but we became very close friends and were close up until he died.
He seemed like an amazing person.
He was everything and more. There's more to him than anyone could ever know.
How did the script for "Dawn" arrive on your radar?
Joshua John Miller and Mark Fortin are writing partners, and I knew Joshua when he was an actor. I was skipping school to be an extra in a movie he was doing in Seattle [1989's "Meet the Hollowheads"]. I was 14. I was skipping school so that I could make enough money to dance in a gay nightclub on the weekends, money to get in.
We've all been there.
I did not, honestly, fall in love with being in front of the camera, but I completely fell in love with the machinery of it. The sounds and the smell of the set, the hustle and bustle. It was a terrible film, but Joshua and I became life long films from that. He went to Oberlin, he's doing Paul Feig's next movie. They're so talented. Mark and Josh believed in me — I have a strong sense of style and strong point of view. They said, 'It's time.'
You strike me as a lens-obsessive. A "bring me the 60mm" type.
I am, but not like that. I shot with '60s lenses. So I shot on an Alexa [digital film camera] but with lenses made in the '60s to give it more of a filmic quality. There's a curvature of the lens that I think missing if you shoot straight high def.
"Dawn" certainly has a distinct visual style — the accessibility of digital cinematography has pushed short filmmaking towards homogeny, but your film is unique from the first shot. The production design is part of that too.
I had a production designer, he did all the exterior stuff, like the gas station. I did all the interiors. I've restored three houses from different periods, mostly '20s and '30s. I love architecture, design, and furnishing. I think everything down to the ash tray lends to a cinematic feeling. Especially in a period piece. I think it's important because you would have seen something cinematic if you were going to the movies.
How did the period visuals lend themselves to this story?
For me, I wanted it to look like a beautiful, pastel, Jordan Almond. You crack and there's a hard nut inside. It's got a beautiful opacity to it.
How did you know it was time for you to make a movie?
I probably could have done it ten years ago. It just hadn't come about. I was in Hong Kong meeting with this amazing producer Coleen Haynes, who works at RSA, Ridley Scott's company. We were talking and she said, 'I'd love to produce this.' And so it all fell in line rather quickly after that. Honestly, as much as those Woman in Film organizations would hope, women don't help women in this town. I was incredibly lucky that I met someone who was not like that. That said, women aren't willing to help women, and men aren't willing to help women. It's a fact, not crying and saying 'woe is me.' It's like saying the sky is blue in Los Angeles. It just is. This is a rare exception.
"Dawn" deals with feminine issues in its own twisted fashion, but do you think it would be different if a man had directed it?
In a weird way it's female-focused and gender-neutral. I think of myself as gender-neutral inside. I am feminine looking, but my brain is quite masculine. My emotional makeup tends to be a bit more masculine in relationships. That helped me see both sides of it, the lead man side as well as the lead girl side. The subtext, I don't know if a man would be particularly interested in how young girls in that era are subjected to this picture perfect idea of femininity. I don't think there will be a male study of it anytime soon.
When you're on set acting, do you feel out of control? The director side of you pining to make the movie more cinematic?
My answer to that is 'duh.' I've grown my hair long so that when I'm frustrated and have to bite my cheek, I can hide it. I've bitten my cheeks a lot.
You've worked with an eclectic group of filmmakers during your acting career. Have they influenced you or taught you anything about filmmaking?
That's surprising. When you're acting, do you feel creatively separate from the job? How do you do that?
Ego. Going back, it's not knocking the directors I've worked with — I've worked with cool people — but there's a certain amount of ego that I don't feel is necessarily conducive to make a good film. It can stand in the way of making a good film and a good set experience. It's not necessary to be like that. For me as an actor, you have to swallow it a lot. And I'm tired of swallowing it.
Do you have plans to piggyback your experience on "Dawn" into directing a feature?
There's a feature that two feminist writers wrote and I don't know if I want it to be my first feature out of the gate. It's called "Malibu Dreams" and it's a very dark comedy. They're vying for a part on a reality show. It's highly stylized. This wouldn't look like the Kardashian house, it would look like a Richard Myers house. It's like "War of the Roses."
Why would you not want that to be your first film?
This is where it sucks to be a girl. If I do a movie with two women leads, which would be great, I would get stuck in 'She can only do girl pictures.' I don't want to stick myself in box that I can't get out of. If I want to be like Billy Wilder, I would like to be able to do it all. Female leads, male leads, tragedies, comedies. It sucks to have to be strategic things, but ultimately, I ideally have three things in development and my plan is to shoot a feature in the next six months.
Well I hope we see you return to Sundance, guns a'blazin.
Guns a'blazin, man! It's an amazing feat and it's the high point of my career. And it's the beginning of my career.