Rose McGowan's directorial debut is a 1960's period piece and art thriller, hybridized into a cautionary tale for young women the world over. Dawn, the 17-minute short released for general audiences on YouTube today, inaugurated the former actress's career as a director to critical acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival, closely followed by public praise and hints to an Oscar nomination. The film takes place during the final days of the sheltered life of McGowan’s protagonist Dawn, played by Tara Barr. As the director tells The Creators Project, “It’s about a young girl in 1961 living under societal constraints and parental control; what we do, even in tiny, accidental ways, when we raise girls; how we raise them to not have their instincts of self-preservation when they most need it, because the fear of being impolite is really deeply engrained and it can have tragic consequences.” Consequences exemplified by the naïve Dawn when, from the back window of her protective parents' car, she falls in lust with the alluring Charlie (played by Reiley McClendon) — a lower-class boy who works at the local gas pump and shares the name and perversions of the infamous 1950s teenaged killer, Charles Starkweather.
The filmmaker focalizes on the economic inequality and cultural contradictions of the 1960’s through highly stylized paradoxes. "The production design was huge: every piece of furniture, everything in the house. What I wanted to say through the furniture was, 'class disparity.' You can say so much with furnishings and clothing, without actually having to say it. Even the couch tells a story — when [Charlie] is sitting on it and he’s uncomfortable because his clothes are probably a little dirty. Everything plays." Of her inspirations for these elements, which include Night of the Hunter and Edward Hopper’s isolated portrait series, the most visibly present is the original Parent Trap. “In 1961, it was the biggest hit for that year,” she explains, “and as a film, its so well crafted. [Dawn’s bedroom] is a knockoff, a homage, to the original Parent Trap. And, my color palette also comes from that movie and that time. It’s beautiful, almost on the line of sickly sweet and then there is the 'real' underneath. And that 'real' can be a very haunting place and its such a fine line going between the candy-coated world and the world of terror."
The final scene elicited physical sickness from audience members at Sundance McGowan told i-D.
Dawn walks a fine line between sweetness and horror in two important scenes. The first is one of the most striking moments in the film: a highly erotic composite shot of Dawn savoring a piece of dusty red gum that Charlie gifted to her through her bedroom window. The scene represents “her budding sensuality that never gets to fully blossom,” says McGowan. “It is a replacement for sex and that [gum] is about the level of sex that she knows, or can even conceive of because she’s so sheltered. The upper classes kept their daughters very young, mentally. And that experience would be very titillating. That gum in her mouth is a titillation [and I] think every girl — and even a guy — can relate to the feeling when you’re really into somebody and you want to just unzip your chest and have them crawl in. In this case, the piece of gum is replacing that. You can have a piece of gum that means so much to your inner life because it's a piece of him.”
In the second scene, Dawn’s experience of her own sexuality becomes unapologetically modified by an unexpected male aggressor. As Dawn prepares for her date with Charlie, she reads an authentic Tab Hunter interview in an edition of Tatler Magazine. "And, he was like the Leonardo DiCaprio of Titanic era of fame at that point," says McGowan. "It was an article like, 'What I’m Looking for on a Date' and she’s learning how to be on a date and [Hunter] says, 'I like girls who ask questions but not too many questions.' […] The other man she mentions is Rock Hudson, when she’s talking about the movie. He’s another man I wanted to put in there as an example of male archetypes in society: these two men that were actually gay and trying so hard to prove their masculinity and massaging girls brains by telling them what they want.”
While Dawn's story seems distant, set comfortably 50 years in the past, the reaction to McGowan's film from many in the industry impresses the legacy of these archetypes and societal messages into the present day. "The slew of press that came out initially was all very favorable but it was mainly like, 'We were so shocked that she could do this.' Oh really? Were you? Why exactly were you? It’s rude, and really condescending, and frankly they probably wouldn’t do it to a male actor. Thing, after thing, after thing said that, 'We really weren’t expecting this.' Well no, stupid, of course you weren’t. I hadn’t done it." And, although direction may seem to some like new territory to McGowan, in truth she has been more or less preparing for this role her entire professional life. “That I’m a ‘new’ director is true and not true,” she says. “I’ve spent over 50,000 hours on set so I have a film education from the inside out that almost nobody will ever get to have." As she moves forward in her filmmaking, McGowan hopes to tackle larger projects — the first of which will be The Pines, a full-length feature currently in pre-production. "I wanted to tell a different story and this story lends itself to be an hour and a half film. It’s set in 1971 and its a girl who was taking care of her mother, who has mental illness, and then the mother killed herself. The girl, the protagonist, hears musical notes everywhere she goes — discordant symphonies in her head, So we’re doing a lot with sound design, which is amazing [...] There’s a lot of James Turrell influenced lighting. I wanted to couch it as an art thriller."
Keep your eyes open for more from Rose McGowan, in theaters and at the Oscars, and click here to watch her first directed film, Dawn.