For the last five or six years, Rosario Dawson has been an actress to watch, having stolen many a movie with her beauty and talent, movies like Rent and Kevin Smith’s Clerks II and Quentin Tarantino’s segment from Grindhouse.
For her new movie Descent, she has taken a new role, that of producer, teaming with Talia Lugacy, a young New York filmmaker with lots of ideas and attitude, to tell a hard-edged story about betrayal and revenge. In the movie, Dawson plays Maya, a smart and pretty college co-ed who is raped on a date with a football player, and after dropping out of school and getting into a world of drugs before finding a way to get revenge and closure for what happened. It’s probably Dawson’s toughest and edgiest roles to date, allowing her to show a wide range of emotions as a character who goes through an amazing transformation.
ComingSoon.net recently sat down with Dawson, writer/director Talia Lugacy and a bunch of other journalists to grill them on the mindset that went into making this far-too-real drama.
ComingSoon.net: Where did you two first meet?
Talia Lugacy: In an acting class actually, this place called “Lee Strasburg.” I was there because I was dying to be a director and I couldn’t get into film school ’cause I was too young, so I just went in there to check out what the actors were up to, so I could gather from that, and she was in class, and I wasn’t talking to anybody and she just kind of walked up and introduced herself to me and we’ve sort of been best friends ever since. I still don’t know why you do that.
Rosario Dawson: She had this great T-shirt that came down to her knees, this Stanley Kubrick T-shirt, “A Clockwork Orange,” an image of the actual poster of it, but it looked like a full-size poster on her body while she was walking around. It was interesting because people in my neighborhood do a lot of advertising for free. (laughter) In this particular instance, I was like “Kubrick? Nice! How old are you?” I liked her immediately. She was just sitting there grumbling and I put my hand out and said “Hi!” and she looked at it for a while, like “Really?” I’m like, “Wow, I like you already! How does that work?”
Lugacy: I didn’t know what to do in that moment.
CS: As the producer, how involved were you in making the movie?
Dawson: Very. It was fun. I got to be there for the very first conversation where Talia approached me about whether or not they should even write it, down to being on the phone within the past few days to finalize one of the last songs we got the music rights for the release.
CS: What was the first conversation you two had about the movie?
Lugacy: My cousin (Brian Priest) and I came up with the idea and we decided that we weren’t even going to start to write it until we told it to Rosario and she was like “Yeah, I want to do it” or “you guys are insane.” Basically, I sat down with her and laid out what the movie was and what she was going to have to go through and that was a hard thing to do in of itself. Just to spell it out whether both of us wanted to be going down this road and we were on the same page about it.
CS: How aware were you of other revenge films like “Irreversible” and “Ms. 45” when you were planning this?
Lugacy: It’s interesting. I can see why you ask that obviously. I did see “Irreversible” after Brian and I wrote it, and “Ms. 45” is something people tell me about that I still haven’t seen and there’s also a Farrah Fawcett movie. “Hard Candy” came out even after we shot the film. It’s really more of a coincidence of style. I wouldn’t even categorize it in that genre either, especially when we came up with the idea. It was not supposed to be and I don’t believe it is now. I don’t think it’s one of those very genre-driven horrific films. I don’t consider it to be that, and I just don’t consider it a “revenge” film, because it’s only about revenge in the last ten minutes, if you even want to call it that. It’s not as if we’re spending half an hour or forty minutes and she’s figuring out how she’s going to get her revenge. It’s not about that. You could very easily have gone through the entire film with her having made a different decision of where it was going to go and what she was going to do. It happens that this is a choice she decided to make, but she made that choice 20 minutes before the film was over. It’s really much more about how far down is she going to go into this state of mind that she’s been put in because she was gripped by a violent act and that’s what we’re following and that’s where it takes her.
CS: Where did you have to go inside yourself to get to a place to portray this character?
Dawson: I had to just be someplace willing to be vulnerable and open and also had to think not like myself in a lot of ways because this was a woman who went into that situation with some naivety that I don’t have and some insecurities that I don’t have and made choices thereafter that weren’t mine, and I had to just be really honest to that because that’s the story we were telling. I think it’s unfortunately a very common story, so in a lot of ways, I say that I felt like I was wading through water and there was a lot of resistance to everything that I was doing. I was having to be very methodical about every single moment including the long passage of time where I wasn’t speaking, which was difficult. I wanted her to be stronger and smarter in her decisions and wanting all those different things and to scream and shake her and reach out to do something more positive with this, and be frustrated with the fact that it wasn’t because she was uneducated. It wasn’t the fact that she didn’t have a good life. Those weren’t the obvious issues that were holding her back. They were much different and much more internal and about the make-up of her character in a lot of ways. They’re human flaws, and those are hard, because we want to resist those. That was a lot of I think what we were trying to do with this story in general, was look sometimes at the ugly, not just at the world around us but within ourselves, that we can allow ourselves to get to these ugly places, that we can do things to each other, that we can perpetuate violence cyclically because we refuse to look at those issues. It was really particular, and it was great to have that challenge and be a part of the greater challenge of producing a film and making it happen and being behind the story and being honest with it. We weren’t doing it with anything easy about it. We didn’t have a big budget. We didn’t have a huge crew or a bunch of supporters. We had enough to keep us through but we had to fight the entire way and definitely through that, I was finding that performance.
CS: Was there any point where you were so affected by what was going on that you had to leave the room ’cause you were so angry and did having to go through this go home with you while making the movie?
Dawson: Yeah, in a lot of ways, there were so many different experiences that I was going through on this, so after we would finish shooting this and then we’d go home and be giddy because we are making our movie and we’d shot really beautiful stuff that day. We were excited about what we were shooting the next day even if it was horrifying. We were twelve years into our dream and that was phenomenal. It was very drastic, emotional changes. Afterwards, I did need to shut down. My body was exhausted and I needed a break and I went home with my boyfriend and we talked and chilled out and it was like I just needed a complete nothing ’cause it was really difficult having such high highs and low lows and maintaining such a strong vibration the entire time. It was interesting. Because I was wearing the producer’s hat, I was sometimes able to step out of it and not indulge certain emotions for too long because when it was “cut” then we were thinking about something else and I had a different hat on. In some ways, that saved me sometimes from some psychological damage on that.
Lugacy: There were even times when having to do producible things was intervening. Like the last two days of the shoot, we were filming the last scene and we were running out of film. I’m watching the footage counter and losing my mind and we’re having issues with locations and staying there and one of us has to be talking to the producers about it and we’re both trying to get into the emotionality of that scene. Then there’s all these real pressures producing-wise that’s on our minds and right in front of our face that you can’t just not deal with it.
Dawson: Moments before that last shot, we were literally arguing going, “Why are you now telling me that you have an extra roll of film in your trunk when we’d been screaming about the ticker going off and these are the last shots of the movie?” We can’t run all this way and stop just before the finish line. What’s wrong with people?
CS: There’s a pretty gap in the movie between the second and third acts. Did you work out what was going on in Maya’s life and mind during that period?
Lugacy: I suppose so in as much as we made purposeful decisions about knowing what she did, but we also more consciously decided the audience doesn’t need to know that. They can gather it if they want to, but the fact that she doesn’t report (the rape). This is that story and that’s very intentional. One of the things we discovered in telling a story like this is that there’s some statistic of 65 70% of women who are raped never not only don’t report it but never tell anyone in their lives. That’s what surprises me now as I’m reading people’s reactions to this movie and they’re very upset like, “Why didn’t she go and do something about it?” Why don’t the majority of people do it? Well, that’s what this story is. The story is that she is so traumatized that she can’t talk about it, and the going through and talking about it and putting it into words and putting your voice on it is that traumatizing and humiliating. It’s something you don’t want to go through it again, and that’s the choice that she makes and that’s the journey that we’re following and that was intentional. There is that space open and that’s on purpose.
CS: Who would you say is the audience for the movie? Do you think it’s a midnight “grindhouse” type film?
Lugacy: It’s hard to know. I’ve seen so many different people from different areas and demographics love the film or hate the film and it’s all so personal, so it’s hard to at different times, we thought we had the sense of who the audience definitely is or where it’s best to release the film but we’ll find out. There’s no definitive answer to that.
Dawson: We have some experience through Tribeca (the Film Festival). We screened it on several different days at varying times, midnight screenings, four o’clock screening, and every time, it was packed and every time, we had a multitude of people of different races, different ages and sexes, and the effect was consistent, that it was impactful, so that’s pretty amazing. We’d definitely had times where we did early screenings and people were like, “It’s a little harrowing to see this and then walk out into broad daylight.” (laughter) It’s amazing because people watch it late at night and no matter, this movie is hard to watch.
Lugacy: And watching it in the theater as opposed to watching it on DVD by yourself is totally different.
Dawson: And also the size of the audience. The larger audiences to the smaller audiences make a very different experience for everybody in there.
CS: What were the Q ‘n’ A sessions like after people watched the movie at the Tribeca Film Festival? Were people too shake up to talk at all?
Lugacy: They were shaken up and they were ready to ask questions, which was really cool. I attributed that to being a very New York centric audience. People were not afraid to say what they thought. They were very disturbed by it and at the same time very curious, so the dialogue was fun and the reactions were very varied. For the most part, the people who chose to ask questions were very enthusiastic and interested, like “Where on earth did this come from?” and “How did you manage to get money to do something like this?” All this stuff which I would be thinking if I saw this movie from somebody else for sure.
Dawson: And thanking us. There was a lot of statements. People who would just raise their hand to make a statement about why it affected them or making revealing remarks about themselves as complete strangers to a huge audience, just feeling compelled to do that. But we always started off talking first, made a couple mentions of the actual creation of the movie, how long and I have known each other, how this is not the first project we’ve done, what it kind of took to get there, which was always kind of a lead-in for everyone to ask questions. It does take a second because it is very shocking and it ends on a high note that it takes a minute for people to catch their breath. It takes a minute every time for me to catch my breath. I always feel like my heart is racing whenever I start the Q ‘n’ A, not because I’m going to apologize or make excuses, but just because it’s hard to watch. It really is. It works on me as well. If with that kind of thing where you set it off, they’re still not necessarily willing to raise their hand. It’s a vulnerable position to be in for any movie you watch, but every time, once we started that initial conversation, five hands would jump up like “Now I’m ready to ask.” It was awesome.
CS: Are there any other films the two of you are in production with and do you have a vision statement for Tribe?
Lugacy: To make goddamn good films. We haven’t actually written one out yet completely. It’s been something that Rosario and myself and my cousin have been into and have been talking about and developing for the longest time. We’ve sort of got an interesting house of films that are quite different than “Descent.”
Dawson: And ultimately our motto is basically in our name and it being “Tribe” and so far, it’s just about making films that the three of us unto ourselves are 100% behind and feeling comfortable that we have the talent and the motivation and the discipline to actually create it in a way that can be delivered to audiences and that it is viable out there. We have tested it out and done several shorts together and this film is yet another. We really want to do this and we can be bad at it and telling stories that people don’t want to hear or we can be wrong about, but this film was an opportunity to put ourselves out there and it worked really well. I think it made an impact and I think it’s going to set the temperature where the next couple of things that we do, even if they vary a lot in genre and tone, I think people are going to get that we’re going to always be very respectful and 100% behind that story. It’s not going to be diluted and not be done by committee. It’s going to be done by us and we want to be able to brand that in a way where when we say, “Hey, come check out our film” that it’s going to be an experience, whether you love it or hate it. The response we’ve had has been fascinating even from people who don’t like the film, don’t like it for personal issues and they really respect the movie as itself. It’s not going against her for being a first-time director or going against me for being an actor-producer who’s just doing a glamor project.
CS: Can you talk about what you’re doing next? I understand that it’s a comedy?
Dawson: “Incense and Peppermints.”
Lugacy: This is something we produced together that’s not a performance-vehicle but it’s another thing I wrote with my cousin, and it’s sort of inspired by a true story that was passed down by my family. It’s a very simple tale. It takes place in the 1960s and it’s about this family that’s coming apart at the seams. A mother who is wildly liberated in a kind of a sadly tragic but funny way and a son who is trying to keep control of his little world and survive without the presence of his father and how the two of them get by. It’s kind of like “Little Miss Sunshine”-y but ten times more insane and surreal and kind of crazy, fun, sweet. Very, very different from “Descent” in a lot of ways, which is quite nice.
Descent opens in New York and Los Angeles today, August 10.