Before Indiewire sat down with Rose McGowan to discuss her first short film “Dawn,” we were told to meet her at Miu Miu in SoHo, where she was busy shopping. “You have to see this Jon Snow coat!” she exclaimed the moment we got there, displaying a huge sleeveless coat lined with black feathers. After noting her resemblance to a “true crow,” she whipped her head around. “Yes! Call the Night’s Watch,” she said. This short encounter just about sums up the aura of McGowan, a spontaneous force who refuses to march to any beat but her own.
Currently in New York City making the press rounds for her directorial debut “Dawn,” a short film about youth and sexuality in the 1960s, McGowan sat down with Indiewire for the first time since the 2014 Sundance Film Festival to talk her evolution from actor to director. As you’ll find below, the career move has invigorated the newly-minted filmmaker, allowing her to combine her passion for actors and film history into a synthesis of creative expression.
Stream “Dawn” in its entirety via YouTube above and continue reading for Indiewire’s lively discussion with McGowan:
“Dawn” marks your transition from actor to filmmaker. At what point in your career did it hit you that you wanted to make this big career move?
It wasn’t really ever a thought out plan honestly. I think I kind of have just been doing it in my head for so long. I’d be on sets in the past directing other people’s movies while I was starring in them.
Any particular examples?
Literally all of them! I’d be standing there on set thinking, “Oh, well I would’ve actually done this.” But on days when I didn’t have to be acting on set I would work with the lighting department and the art department. I would learn film from the inside out and not the outside in. And it was also just time. My friends, who are great writers and wrote “Dawn,” actually came to me and said, “It’s time.” Within two months I was shooting.
How did reality meet expectations when you finally stepped into the director’s chair?
I kept waiting for a moment of panic. I have that as an actor. My heart races before they say, “Action!” But it never happened while directing. There are stresses of course — unexpected things that pop up and happen on set — but overall no panic attacks. If you have a strong pre-production process you kind of have it. I also always play the sort of de facto leader of crews because they usually say the things people are thinking but won’t say. If you treat people with respect, and if you know what you’re doing and the crew has a leader to follow, they’ll do anything for you.
So are you done with acting for good?
I don’t really want to do it anymore. If something amazing came my way I might. But I have a lot of other businesses besides the entertainment industry, so I don’t really have much time. And also, I don’t have two months to be somebody else. When you’re somebody else for 12-15 hour days your own brain is on the brink, you know what I mean? You’re putting yourself on ice. I’m no longer willing to take time off from my own mind. So in that regard I don’t think I’ll miss it.
Would you act in a movie that you’re directing?
I don’t want to say never, but it’s not my intent. If I did it would be because it’s the only easy way to cast it and it would be hard to see somebody else in that role. But there’s literally no urge to get in front of the camera.
And that’s the thing — I would go to movies and I wouldn’t say to myself, “God I wish I had that part.” Instead I’d say, “God, I wish I could’ve directed that!” or “God, I wish I had that script!” That reaction happens with every movie, even the ones that aren’t good. And, trust me, I’ve been in some of those films! When I would act I would do my job and leave and the rest would be up to “them.” That I don’t want anymore. Now it’s up to me.
Before you committed to “Dawn,” were you looking at other projects?
I was originally trying to get together a Flannery O’Connor piece, but I lost the rights at the very last second. Then with this short I had the four locations, and I had RSA producing it, but then I had no script and I almost passed out. That was really horrifying. The writers saved me though. I put them in a hotel for two days, and I told them the last line that I needed and the basic setup of the story and they came back to me with “Dawn.”
What was your reaction when they brought back the finished script?
I was like, “Yes!” I’ve always been fascinated by women who got really screwed over in the 1960s. In the early 60s you had all these post-war mothers who were obsessed with perfection and keeping everything in order. But if you go into the later 60s, the sexual revolution happens and it’s free love and it’s throw your bra away and all this stuff. What a schizophrenic time for women! You have free love but you’ve been programmed to be sheltered from men. “Dawn” didn’t fully make it until the end of the 60s, but for me it was largely based on how my mother was raised by her mother. It was kind of a study of that. I think it’s a real issue. I mean this stuff happens now, and tt damages girls and guys on a very easy, daily basis. Information comes through on all these different levels. Like the magazine Dawn is reading in the film, that was a real magazine from the era and that’s a real interview.
I think that’s part of what makes the film so effective. The production design is so specific and meticulous to the era.
I did the production design! I’m a freak for production designing. I hired someone to get me into the prop houses and then the rest was on me. I have seven storage facilities of collections of furniture from different periods. That’s what my family was into — design, art and architecture. So I’m so heavily influenced by that. “Dawn” is more influenced by painting and painters than it is by other filmmakers.
With that said, my color pallette is from the original “The Parent Trap” — it’s a flawless film. The inspiration for “Dawn” is all from the past. My only film influence was “The Night of the Hunter,” and that was only for the tension, not the look out of it. My only inspiration for the look of it was the original “The Parent Trap” — the bedroom in particular. There’s also an orange chair that figures into “Dawn,” and that was me tipping my hat to Kubrick just because he loved orange. It’s all layered in there. It’s also the color of Douglas Sirk films and “Magnificant Obsession” with Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson. It’s these amazing color palettes and these movies that were insane. I love film and I am stooped in it, and I want people to think deeper and go deeper, especially with film. You always have to know who came before you.
You also worked with a cast made up entirely of teen actors.
My actors were amazing. Casting for me is hugely important. I’ve been miscast in things before and I’ve had people miscast against me, and you just sink your film that way. You really, really do. These actors all played on a high wire. Tara Lynne Barr just breaks my heart in this film. But what I have that other directors don’t is that if I want to show what I want an expression to be, I don’t give someone a line reading, I can just make the expression on my face or with my body language. I’ve been an actor so I have that, and I can talk to them in a way that maybe other directors wouldn’t know how to.
I also would ask Tara — she had a crying scene for instance — so I would ask her if she wanted coverage to be on her first. That’s something a lot of directors don’t do. Some people can just cry, cry, cry and other people can’t. She told me she wanted coverage on her first so that’s what we did. Other times it was the opposite. You just have to be considerate of actors, which a lot of people aren’t. They don’t consider how hard it is.
In that way it sounds like acting for so many years was vital to this career move.
Oh, for sure. I’ve spent over 57,000 hours on sets. People can’t touch me. You can’t go to film school for four years and study my world that I’ve lived in and grown up in since I was 17 years old. That was better than any film school. I’ve worked with some of the greats, and I’ve learned what not to do from them and I’ve learned what to do from them. I’ve been involved in filmmaking from the “getting-the-money” part of it to the “being-on-the-cover-of-Rolling-Stone” part of it. I have a film education that so few people ever, ever get.
Films live and die by their director’s vision. and I grew up studying that. Listen, it is painstaking, but I love detail-oriented work. I’m a detail freak. Whenever I’ve been on a set where the director isn’t detail-oriented I am shocked! Everything is a detail for me. Even the trees in “Dawn” say something, they are a character. Every single thing you put on screen should have value.
In your acting days, did you find that directors had all their details down?
No! I was really disappointed a lot. I was doing this show with several young women and on the coffee table in one scene were just props, but they had nothing of value. One of the magainzes was The Power of Pittsburgh. Like, what? It was so clear they had just bought these from some prop shop and put them on the table. As an actor, that doesn’t help you feel like the character. What 26-year-old girl has The Power of Pittsburgh on their coffee table? It’s not lived in. It makes no sense. It’s not helping the world. It’s a lazy way to approach work I think. You have to create the world you want to see, and it’s not just for the actors. It’s for the audience as well. I want the audience to be in the world I create, otherwise what’s the point?
There’s been a lot of attention recently towards how violence against women is portrayed in the media. What’s so great about “Dawn” is how there isn’t a violent act shown, and yet the emotions of the act — vulnerability, terror — are so clearly defined and related to the audience. What are your thoughts on this issue and how did that provide the basis for how you approached such scenes in the film?
I think you have to trust that your audience has a mind. I think that people who make movies often assume they don’t, and that’s a big mistake. It’s like how people refer to middle America as the “fly over states.” I can’t tell you how condescending and classist that is. It’s embarrassing when I hear people say that — there are thinking people everywhere! And if they aren’t considered thinking people by you, than make them think! Thats your job — make them think.
So to me the violence against women thing in the media is just played out. It’s just boring already. What my mind can do is so much scarier than what anybody can ever show me. Look at “Rosemary’s Baby.” They say, “Oh look, he has his father’s eyes,” but do they show the eyes? How horrifying is that baby in your head? That’s masterful filmmaking. Showing it — doing CGI — that’s easy and that’s lazy I think a lot of the times.
Can you walk me through the filming of that climactic scene. Watching it feels so vulnerable.
That night was the last night of the shoot, which was most important. I try to schedule things according to the arc of the story. The last film I acted in I shot the climactic finale sequence, which was incredibly emotional, on the second day of shooting. And in my head I was like, “OK, I am done with this. I am over it. What left is there to explore?” That’s just stupid, stupid scheduling. Think of your actors even in scheduling! People don’t do that. Track the emotional journey of your characters when your scheduling, or at least just consider that.
The film is now streaming for free on YouTube. How did you come to that distribution decision?
Why do I need to put it anywhere else? I didn’t need to make money from this. I want to promote art and thought, so have it for free! I just put it on my channel, YouTube hasn’t really promoted it.
Well we’re promoting it now.
Yes! And I love that. Hell yeah, thank you! Art is for the people, you know? I’ve had a lot of people say, “I want to watch this with my daughter,” and guess what? Now they can. Why limit the amount of people who are going to see it? I funded it myself, I don’t need to make money back from it, so here you go.
Is the self-financing part the reason you started your directorial career with a short film? Did you have plans to jump right into a feature?
Well we’re actually getting the feature together now, but with “Dawn” I was really just inspired by Hemingway’s six word short story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” He challenged himself to see if he could write an entire story in just six words. That’s a whole story if you think about it. It’s really resonant. With “Dawn,” I wanted to see if I could do a full story in 19 minutes. It didn’t need to be longer, I wasn’t auditioning to do a bigger feature. I’m starting my first feature in October, and that’s just because that’s where I’m turning my eye to next.
How’s the jump been from the short to a feature?
It’s just a longer production. My arsenal is fully stocked. It’s called “The Pines,” and it’s set in 1971. I’m calling it an “art thriller” because I’m layering in a lot of James Turrell, who is an artist that works with light, into these hallucination scenes. I’m getting people that do art lighting, not people that do film lighting necessarily. They’ll do part of it, but I pull a lot of my crew from the non-film world. No one that worked on “Dawn” had ever done a narrative before, but they’re all progressing people from the commercial/music video world. I’ve learned to pluck from there because I’ve already got narrative on lock.
What are the advantages of hiring a crew that way?
You surround yourself with people who aren’t going to be old school and jock your ego. They’re a lot more used to being with women too. It’s just not even a thought. It’s not “Oh, I’m working with a woman” but “Oh hey, you’re my co-worker.” It’s not this stodgy, old-school way of thinking. They work with a lot more progressive people, and they do it fast and they do a visually outstanding job. I don’t really intend to take from the movie world for my crew.
Any other future projects coming up?
I’ve developed a docu-series with Relativity called “The Coach.” It’s behind the scenes of an acting class. It’s basically “Inside the Actors Studio” circa Paul Newman. All we ever see is actors behind asked stupid questions, but what about actually seeing the blood, sweat and tears that go into it? Everyone always says about acting, “I could do that,” and maybe you could or maybe you couldn’t, but either way appreciate that it’s an art form, and people don’t unfortunately. People shit on it a lot. I’m also developing this crazy story with Jerry Stahl that’s kind of based on my life but in a blender. I’m writing that screenplay now, and I did a top-to-bottom rewrite on “The Pines.”
So do you ever slow down?
No. I work all the time. Even at night, I write. That’s the only time I can write because it’s silent. I love it.
You also launched “Dawn” Festival last fall in Los Angeles and not only screened the short but played some of your favorite films. Is that something you plan on continuing?
I really want to. Every year, let’s do it! I love getting voices out there — any interesting voice. Lets get layered, considered pieces out there. It could’ve already been out there too. People need to re-release more movies. They re-release songs, why not movies? Ones that were hits, surely, but anything. It’s inspiring for anyone to see a film they didn’t know about for the first time — good or bad. For me, the “Dawn” Festival, I just wanted to see those movies on the big screen. I hadn’t gotten to see them on the big screen, so I partially did it just to have the chance to see them where they were meant to be seen. And then I realized if I was going to have fun than I’m sure other people would also.