Rose McGowan On Directing Her First Film, 1960s Girl Culture, and Feminism

Rose McGowan made her name with roles in The Doom Generation, Scream, Jawbreaker, and the WB’s soapy witchcraft series Charmed. She played a stripper named Cherry Darling who replaces her wooden leg with a machine gun so she can obliterate zombies in Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, and then there was the Marilyn Manson era (they called off their engagement in 2001), but McGowan says she’s finally found her true calling behind the camera, as a director. “I felt like a product. I didn’t know any better,” she says of the early days of her acting career.

Her directorial debut, Dawn , is a 17-minute short that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. It’s about a love-struck teenager named Dawn who loses her sense of self when she falls for the boy. The film looks at 1960s girl culture, sexual politics, and outdated notions of masculinity and femininity that unfortunately still seem to stick around today.

Dawn is getting an Oscar qualifying run at a downtown Los Angeles theater this month, alongside several movies chosen by McGowan that feature “women that are either repressed, suppressed, or women that fight back.” Rosemary’s Baby, Harold and Maude, Thelma & Louise, and Sixteen Candles are a few of her eclectic picks. McGowan says she decided to get behind the camera because, “I knew I could, and I knew it was time.” She set the story in the 1960s because she’s long been fascinated by her mother’s generation. “On the one hand the early '60s is this suppressed Camelot era, and later on in the '60s you have the sexual revolution,” she says. “Meanwhile women generally had been trying to be pleasing to men and live their life essentially for men and their family. That has its place, but when you’re taught that that’s your worth and then all the sudden the sexual revolution happens and you’re told you’re not cool unless you’re sleeping with people, you’re already programmed. I was fascinated by that.”

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In the film, Dawn (played by Tara Lynne Barr) falls for a dreamy gas station attendant despite (or maybe because of) the warnings from her uptight, pillbox-hat wearing mother — because we all know that teen romance is so much more fun when a parent forbids it. There’s a darkly comic scene where Dawn reads a magazine interview with 1960s teen heartthrob Tab Hunter about what he looks for in a girl and what advice he’d give girls who want boys to like them. “Ask questions, but not too many questions,” Dawn reads aloud, as if reciting scripture. It becomes her mantra, and contributes to her fatal mistake later on in the film.

“It’s a real article and it’s terrifying,” McGowan says.

Dawn might take place during a time when teen girls were wearing prim cardigans and saddle oxfords (and more than a decade before women were allowed to get a credit card in their own name) but it still resonates. McGowan says she’s had women approach her after screenings to talk about the film. "We know the world we live in," she says. "It’s not that different; it’s just subtler and it’s a deeper ingrained programming that we’re collectively rebelling against. It’s evidenced by Republicans voting against equal pay for women. We still have a long way to go."

McGowan says she’s experienced her share of sexism as an actor, and directing gives her a chance to be a voice, instead of a vessel. "There’s an incredible amount of sexism in media, and in what we’re told we’re supposed to be. I get really tired of being part of that system."

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Just as I ask McGowan what the term feminism means to her, she takes a second to say goodbye to her husband before work. "I’m kissing my husband goodbye as I define feminism," she laughs. "It’s not a complicated concept, that’s what kills me. I met somebody the other night that was like, ‘Yeah, I’m feminist-y.’ We’ve been conditioned not to talk about it because we’re afraid we sound strident but I’m a complete and total feminist; I believe in it. Ultimately we’re humans before we’re sexes, and that’s what I would love culturally for us to get to."

While Dawn gets its Oscar push, McGowan is raising the funds to direct a feature film about a female arsonist, and she’s helming a video for NYC band Semi Precious Weapons. She hopes audiences will see the parallels between Dawn's 1960s and the state of things in 2014. Women in the U.S. can get credit cards, but there are still plenty of magazines and websites that dole out advice that’s not too different from Tab Hunter’s “ask questions, but not too many questions” gem.

"It’s time to shake off the shackles of our old-timey way of thinking — it’s time to move on," McGowan says. "That’s the worst part about people who are sexist and misogynistic — it’s just so boring. I’m tired of being bored by people."

Images: Getty Images

Dawn image: Starr Whitesides