You’ve probably known her most of your life as that sexy badass in movies like Scream, Jawbreakers and Planet Terror, but now Rose McGowan is switching gears and transitioning to a role she was meant to play her whole life: director. When the short film Dawn premieres on the opening night of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, it’ll mark McGowan’s debut as a filmmaker, and introduce the independent film world to a new voice that’s fresh, exciting, unique and, yeah, also kind of badass, just like Rose herself.
Set in the postwar 1950s, Dawn follows a teen dreamer as she longs for an escape from her strict, regimented, upper-middle-class life. That escape comes in the form of a dreamy new guy who works at the local gas station, except Dawn is about to learn that appearances —and expectations — are almost always deceiving.
We spoke with Rose prior to her big coming-out party as a director at the Sundance Film Festival about her short film and her long career in front of the camera, including those random movies that have posters even though they were never made (like Red Sonja). Additionally, stick around till the end of our chat for a great story about how Rose’s acting career began completely by accident.
Movies.com: Your commentary track on Conan the Barbarian is ridiculously funny.
Rose McGowan: [Laughs] I didn’t even know I did it.
Movies.com: Oh, you did it. You and Jason Momoa were great, and it sounds like Bulgaria was pretty nutty. Was that the craziest place you’ve ever shot a movie?
McGowan: Yeah, I think it might be. I also did one movie in a town of 170 people and half the 170 people were blind, and that was an interesting place too. So that and Bulgaria.
Movies.com: Wait, where was this town full of blind people? That must have been an experience.
McGowan: Yeah it was really interesting. They had a blind school there, and there was only 170 people. It was fascinating, and probably my favorite I’ve ever shot. It was in New Mexico, in this tiny little town.
Movies.com: Watching your short film Dawn, we should assume you’re not a fan of love at first sight…
McGowan: [Laughs] You know what — it’s not so much that I’m not a fan of love at first sight, as long as you know your own strengths and you keep your own internal voice that lets you know if there’s any danger coming. If societal forces or your mom are telling you that basically everything is about pleasing a man— or anybody — it can lead you down a dark road.
Movies.com: The short is very pretty on the outside and yet dark and sinister on the inside, much like a lot of the roles you’ve taken on throughout your career. Is that what attracted you to it?
McGowan: Well, I like that juxtaposition between light and dark, and that fascinates me in everything. In fascinates me in literature, in architecture, in cinema, and I find that that’s just life. The last line in the movie… that same exact situation happened like six months ago with these guys and a cheerleader. It happens. It’s real. It’s not so much about loving darkness; it just comes from a place that’s real.
Movies.com: You didn’t write the script for this, and there aren’t a lot of short scripts just hanging around waiting for directors. How did you find this material?
McGowan: I’m friends with the two writers, Joshua Miller and Mark Thornton, who are brilliant screenwriters. I’ve been friends with Josh since I was 13 years old; I used to skip school to be an extra in a movie he was acting in as a child. And I was doing it to earn enough money to go dancing at a gay nightclub on the weekends. We’ve been friends ever since.
Movies.com: And all these years later, you’ve decided that now is the time to direct? Why?
McGowan: I’ve worked so long as an actor and have that Irish worth ethic — you know, keep your nose to the grindstone, boots to the ground. Keep marching forward. When my dad got sick, I pulled back from the industry, but I finally had time to think about what I loved and what I loved was cinema, and what I loved was story. I’ve always had very strong opinions and very strong ideas of what I want to show on-screen, but as an actor I wasn’t ever able to execute them because they weren’t part of the director’s vision. My friend Josh knew this, and he said, “Okay Rose, it’s time.” I was actually meant to direct a Flannery O’Connell short, an adaptation, and then I lost the rights at the last minute. Then Joshua and Mark came in [with their script] and saved the day. I said this is the last line— let’s go!
Movies.com: So did you start with that last line and then move backward?
McGowan: Yeah, I said I want this to be the last line and this to be the last scene, and they put it all together.
Movies.com: As a fan of the ’40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, it must have been really fun for you to color the film’s surroundings with that era, specifically the pre-Kennedy days.
McGowan: Yes, very much. I hired a production designer for all the exteriors, like the gas station, but then I did all the interiors and for me, yeah, it was incredibly exciting. I made the girl upper middle class so I could have certain design freedoms that I wanted to have— to just express this kind of world; this false utopia. That period especially, postwar, it was really a false utopia in America. That’s one of the things that lead to the girl’s downfall.
Movies.com: That learning to trust everyone around you and everything you’re told.
McGowan: Exactly, Because they’re programmed to be good and pretty, and you’re meant to be kind and sweet regardless of the evidence in front of you.
Movies.com: The film ends very abruptly, as if there’s meant to be more. Do you want to turn this into a feature?
McGowan: I didn’t make it with the intentions to turn it into a feature, but in thinking about it I would love to explore what happens to the guy after that. I think if anything I’d turn it into a road movie, like going into a Badlands sort of thing.
Movies.com: Is this where you want to take your career now? Are you planning to direct more?
McGowan: Absolutely. I have a feature I’m going to direct in about five months; I’ve got about half the funding right now and I’m getting the other half together. It’s called Malibu Dreams, and it’s about two girls who are the finalists in a reality-show competition. It’s their final night in a house and the cameras are done rolling, and it’s about what women do to women. Oh, these girls go all War of the Roses on each other. They really go at it. Like one tries to kill the other one with Christmas lights in a hot tub. The one girl is complaining about how fat she is, so the other girl beats her up while shoving ice cream down her throat, It’s very sardonic and very smartly written. Also it’s very dark and very funny, but also tragic.
Movies.com: What’s tragic is never getting that Red Sonja movie. I love how there’s an awesome poster floating around for it, though. Does that poster haunt you?
McGowan: Yeah, the casting process is so crazy — it’s amazing when movies actually come together, and there’s a myriad of reasons why they don’t. Who knows, a giant crane could’ve fallen on my head if that movie went through. It’s totally fine… but it’s a cool poster. In a way it’s kinda cool having a great poster and not having to do the movie!
Movies.com: It is a pretty awesome poster.
McGowan: We should do more of that. Creating awesome movie posters for movies that don’t exist.
Movies.com: Based on what’s floating around online, something tells me people make pretty good livings doing that already.
McGowan: [Laughs] Exactly!
Movies.com: You’ve been around for a pretty long time now, so is there a role of yours that you’ve found resonates with people the most? Or is it all dudes running up asking you to play the girl with the machine-gun leg?
McGowan: What’s interesting is that there are roles I’d think would resonate the most, and they don’t. Then there are obscure movies I’ve done that people are really into. So I’ve learned to not discount any of it. Even if a movie wasn’t that good or didn’t turn out that great, there are still people who were moved by it in some way. So who am I to say, “Yuck, that movie.” I mean, obviously Charmed is a big one for people, and Planet Terror or Jawbreaker. It really varies. But what’s been really cool about stepping back from working on a series or working every day is getting to that realization that I’m meant to do other things as well.
Movies.com: What are you most looking forward to when it comes to experiencing the Sundance Film Festival?
McGowan: Well it’s interesting because the first movie I ever did as an actor — and I was never trying to be an actor; it was completely accidental — but the first movie I did went to Sundance. They were like, “You’re going to Sundance!” and I didn’t even know what Sundance was, nor did I want to go. But they made me go, and so the first film I did as an actor was in Sundance and now the first film I did as a director is in Sundance, and that’s pretty cool.
Movies.com: That is pretty cool, but now you have to tell the story about how your acting career happened totally by accident.
McGowan: I had just started living in Los Angeles and going to school there when I lost the lease on my apartment. Oh, and I was staying with the guy who cowrote Dawn, my friend Josh. This woman, who was the director Gregg Araki’s best friend, came up to me in the gym. She saw me standing there with a very cross look on my face because I was mad I was at a gym and that it was so L.A., and she asked if I had ever been in a movie before. That I’d be perfect for this role. Did I ever want to be an actress. So of course I was like no, but she knew my friend Josh, the writer, and she kept approaching him to the point where I was finally like, “Fine, I’ll go.” But the only reason I did go was because I had just lost the lease on my apartment, and I needed a new apartment. But I had never acted before and I didn’t know what I was doing, but I had been a copies reader since age four, acting out everything I read. So I just tried to do that. To pretend I was acting out a book, and I’ve been pretending ever since. Now I get to basically write my own book.
Movies.com: With your friend Josh, all these years later. Isn’t it crazy how life always comes full circle?
McGowan: It is. It’s such a trip.
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