Nineteen years after effectively launching her acting career at Sundance with Gregg Araki’s “The Doom Generation,” Rose McGowan is back in Park City to launch her directing one with her accomplished directorial debut, the short film “Dawn.”
Since becoming an icon to the hipster generation via Araki’s lurid thriller, McGowan has made a career out of playing deadpan, glamor pusses, most notably in the first “Scream,” TV’s “Charmed,” Robert Rodriguez’s bloody Grindhouse homage “Planet Terror” and the teen cult comedy “Jawbreaker.” She doesn’t’ star in “Dawn,” but her fingerprints are all over the material from its satiric edge to its dark heart. The period pic concerns a closeted teenage girl (played by “God Bless America” breakout Tara Lynne Barr) who decides to walk on the wild side when she encounters a hunky gas station attendant. What unfolds over the course of their courtship is shocking, and best left a surprise.
Indiewire caught up with McGowan before Sundance to discuss her debut, why she feels like a natural born filmmaker, and her future feature film.
Has directing always been an interest of yours from the outset of your acting career?
I think directing was in the cards for me. I love organizing, directing and bossing everyone around. My brothers and sisters, I used to direct them in plays and put marks on the floors even though I didn’t understand what blocking was or what marks were. I had a set of porcelain dolls when I was little that I would make into marionettes with strings. So essentially, I didn’t realize I fell into acting very very accidentally. I didn’t move to Los Angeles because I was in mad love with it, but because I’ve been such a cinephile from such a young age I assumed that that was what I was meant to be doing and it didn’t occur to me until a bit later in the game that actually no, that wasn’t really the role I was meant to inhabit. It’s not a bad thing, it’s actually really freeing.
It must be wild for you then to look back at the success you’ve had as an actress given how you fell into it.
I never felt particularly successful at it. I suppose making a living I’m successful, so that’s good because I didn’t come here with that ‘goddammit I need to be famous’ or something. It never felt like I had achieved much of anything. But for me, it was more about— I love the smells and the sounds of being on the set and everything about it and just immersing myself in set life. On days that I wasn’t filming as an actor, I would go down and work in the art department, I would go and work with the camera crew, I would go and work with the gaffers and go and work in every other area. Frankly, it was a lot more gratifying because I love jobs. I would rather be the conductor, it just makes me happier.
I used to think if anything I wanted to be a producer and I realized my talents are not in organizing and my talents are not in going out and trying to get people to give me money, so scratch that off the list. With directing, I kept waiting honestly for a massive amount of nerves to hit me and it just didn’t, it felt hands and gloves. I feel more nervous honestly every time before they say action. Before I deliver lines, my hearts start racing. My heart literally races out of my chest and I have nightmares that I’m not going to remember my lines, like really stupid things, and it’s like really after all this time, still?
There is not a minute of that when I’m directing, or doing production design or doing anything like that. It just feel like it’s what I’m meant to be doing. Which is an amazing thing to find out. I wish, you know, I found that out 10 years ago.
So why make this leap to filmmaking only now? It sounds like it’s been a long time coming for you.
Because I was working so much I never had time to kind of poke my head up and look around and question whether or not I actually like it. And the answer is really no, and that’s hugely freeing. Terrifying, but hugely freeing.
I read that although you didn’t write the screenplay for “Dawn,” you’re behind the shocking ending of M.A Fortin and Joshua John Miller’s script. What were you trying to explore in making “Dawn”?
Well for me I wanted to kind of explore the subtext of how girls get molded into something that becomes so homogenized that you forget your internal signals like danger. I was fascinated by that. But the thing also is that I’m also inspired by European cinema. I think that Americans are generally stronger in stories. And Europeans, maybe, are better visually. And I wanted to try to marry those two together and I was really really lucky with the screenplay. I didn’t set out to make a short, I set out to make a movie, it just happened to be 17 minutes long. It would be a luxury to do one in 90 minutes.
You have one coming up if I’m not mistaken.
Yeah! Gearing up.
What can you tell me about your feature debut?
It’s about these two girls. One of them is dressed kind of like a Brooklyn hipster girl and the other ones going to be kind of like a California Coachella girl. These two girls are in the final night of a reality show competition to see who gets a walk on role as an actor on a TV show. And of course they both think they are going to be Oscar winners from it.
I’d like to find something that’s gender neutral because I feel like I’m very feminine looking but my brain is fairly masculine. And even though “Dawn” is about a girl and what happens to girls, I’d like to think it’s from neutral directorial perspective.
How far along is the feature?
I have half the financing. I want to do it in the next five months….
Are you going to hit up your fans via crowdfunding?
an actor with a lot of money I feel like you should fund your own
stuff. I feel like—not that I’m financially in
the same position as those who crowd funded their own movies — I feel
like that’s a little shocking to me, frankly. I feel like it kind of
ruined it for people who could really use the money.
Back to why you’re directing now — was there a film that marked a turning point for you? A film you worked on that turned you off of acting?
No. Actually the power went out in my house seven months ago. It went out for ten hours. I couldn’t get out of my house, the garage door was locked…I started actually thinking about my life and I had the realization that I’ve been in the wrong job this whole time and I never liked it. It doesn’t mean I’m not good at it and it doesn’t mean there aren’t aspects of it I enjoy, but it’s not what I’m meant to do. It doesn’t mean I’m not going to continue doing it because it’s also fun, but so is gardening, so whatever. A little less gardening.
Do you ever see yourself directing yourself in the foreseeable future?
No. I have respect for people who write things for themselves to star in and direct themselves in. Much respect. I just personally don’t have any desire to do that. That’s not what interests me. Because I can interpret lots of things and I have interpreted lots of things and I have interpreted almost every emotion that one is meant to interpret at one point or another. So that part doesn’t interest me entirely.
How excited are you to be bringing “Dawn” to Sundance?
My second job was at a movie theater when I was 14 and my first job was at a funeral home moving bodies. So my second one was at a movie theater and they had me stand outside the theater. Looking back on it, I was the lure for people looking to buy tickets. So that’s not unlike what it feels like to be like an actor anywhere, trying to drum up interest for someone to see a movie you are in. You feel like a lure. But to be there not as a lure, to be there in a solid capacity, as a creator is a hugely different experience.
Are you nervous at all?
Yes, of course. But not as nervous as I would be if i was going as an actor. Scratch that. I’m not nervous. I’m excited, I have nervous energy out of being excited. But to be honest, if I was going as an actress I would be.
Actors turned filmmakers face an especially tough time when trying to make a break for it in a new role. Do you worry about what preconceptions people have of you?
It doesn’t really weigh on my mind. It definitely has occurred to me, but it’s not my issue. Stereotypes are in place often times for a reason. And there’s exceptions to every rule. And hopefully, I’m an exception.