No matter the recent progress made by #MeToo and #TimesUp, it’s still hard in Hollywood for female directors, who—according to a new report from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University—helmed only 8 percent of the 250 highest-grossing films of 2018, down from 11 percent in 2017. One artist aiming to reverse that trend is Jen McGowan, who this weekend returns to theaters for the first time in five years with Rust Creek. A long-awaited follow-up to her 2014 feature debut Kelly & Cal (which won the Gamechanger Director Award at SXSW), it tells the tale of a young college student named Sawyer (Hermione Corfield) who runs into deadly trouble when she’s accosted by two hillbilly Kentucky brothers named Hollister (Micah Hauptman) and Buck (Daniel R. Hill) while driving to a job interview. A slow-burn thriller that eschews exploitation by sincerely humanizing its protagonist, as well as presents a multifaceted portrait of rural America, it delivers the genre goods while exhibiting a measure of formal skill and storytelling shrewdness often missing from such stock scenarios.
Moreover, it’s reconfirmation that female directors are wholly capable of operating in cinematic fields—such as suspense and survival-horror—typically dominated by men. Having started her career in commercial filmmaking, McGowan once again proves herself a dexterous and canny filmmaker, layering her straightforward story with nuances that help elevate it above its backwoods brethren. In doing so, she firmly lays to rest any notion (such as those recently raised, and then apologized for, by Jason Blum) that the grindhouse arena is strictly a boys’ club. On the eve of Rust Creek’s debut, the energetic McGowan spoke to us about why she was drawn to her latest, the ongoing struggle for greater female representation in the industry, the reasons she created FilmPowered.com—an online networking and skill-sharing site for female moviemakers—and the enduring appeal of lost-in-the-woods sagas.
It’s been five years since Kelly & Cal…
Oh my God, that’s horrible! (Laughs)
Did you always want to make a thriller?
I always want to make movies I think are going to be fun for people to watch, and are going to keep me interested for the amount of time that it’s going to take to make them. Seriously, that’s pretty much what I look for in a movie. I’m totally genre-agnostic. I love good stories, I love good characters, and I love the ability to create a cool visual design for a new film. I find it boring to do the same thing over and over. So when I read the script, I was like, fuck yeah, this is awesome, let’s do this. I wasn’t looking specifically for this, but when it was presented, I was like, I get it, I can do something cool with that, I agree with the concept behind it, and I love the opportunity to do something new and different.
Rust Creek is a Deliverance-style survival-horror thriller. Is that a particularly tough genre for female directors to get opportunities in?
Honestly, they’re all kind of hard for us to get into! (Laughs) Is it more so? I don’t know. It could be that the material is not attractive. A lot of the material that tends to occur in that genre is super victim-y, which women maybe don’t respond to. Also, the films that we are permitted to make at the beginning of our careers don’t necessarily set us up for those. And on the producorial side of things, lots of people want you to do what you’ve done before, so there’s certainly that pressure.
I ask because Jason Blum made comments late last year about how he hadn’t hired female directors because there weren’t any, and even fewer who wanted to work in horror.
That’s not true. And I will credit him—he educated himself and apologized in a grown-up, not I’m-sorry-I-hurt-your-feelings, manner. Here’s what happens. A lot of the people that are doing the hiring don’t seem to know where to find us. So from that perspective, he believes what he said. Is it correct? I would disagree.
But to your point, there are lots of amazing women who are making really cool stuff, but may not be making exactly the thing that you want to make next. I always look at it like, one of my favorite movies is Mad Max: Fury Road. And when the director [George Miller] spoke about his editor having never cut an action film before, my thought wasn’t, ‘Oh my god, that’s risky.’ My thought was, ‘Oh my god, that’s genius, and that’s why this stands out.’
It gives it a unique vibe you might not have been expecting.
A new spin, a new perspective. But sometimes too much new is scary to people.
You’ve created FilmPowered.com to help women network and locate jobs. Is that part of the answer to getting greater female representation in the industry?
I very much hope so. I think that, for many, many reasons, we need to see more women behind and in front of the camera. I think it’s good—for women, men, boys, girls and everyone in-between—when we are creating stories that represent a wide swath of perspectives. I think it’s more entertaining, and I think it leads to more originality. I mean, how many biopics do we need about the same white guy? Sometimes two movies about the same white guy will come out in the same year! And then I read these amazing stories and I’m like, I’ve never even heard of this woman before. We are neglecting gems, and it’s to our own detriment.
Was creating FilmPowered.com a product of necessity? I assume your first aim was to make movies, not to simply create an infrastructure for female artists.
It’s both. I started it because I was attending a lot of women-in-film events, and I wanted something that didn’t exist yet, both for myself and for other women. For me, tokenism is not only not helpful; it’s destructive. When we have one woman to point out and say, “Well, she’s working all the time, so it must be fine,” it allows us to delude ourselves from creating actual solutions to a more systemic problem. Second, quite frankly, when there’s only one woman on set, that woman’s not safe. Not because guys are inherently bad, but just because it creates a culture of her being “other.” And that does not help support a vision.
One thing I want to really credit my producer with on this film is, once I pitched my take and he hired me, he supported that take all the way through. That is a lot different than just saying, “Let’s hire a woman because it’s trendy right now,” or, “Let’s hire one of the five women who are the biggest gets right now.” That was him saying, “I’m going to jump off the cliff with this woman and I’m going to let her steer, and I’m going to be OK with that.”
Is that part of the reason it took five years to make another feature—finding someone who would support your vision?
I don’t know—that’s a hard question to answer. I was attached to a project that I loved that unfortunately didn’t get made, so that cost me about a year. There were a couple of other projects that I originated that I tried to get made that the market didn’t respond to, for whatever reason. Unfortunately, we don’t get feedback reports, so I have no idea! (Laughs) Until you make something—then you get a plethora of feedback reports.
What was it about Rust Creek that specifically spoke to you?
I loved the themes I could pull out of the script. The themes I could highlight that were in the script, absolutely, but maybe weren’t the sole focus. That’s what I think is really exciting, by the way, about directing someone else’s material. You’re adding, you’re layering, you’re highlighting—that is super-fun to me. So when I read the script, I thought, OK, it’s about this chick that goes on this ride and she gets lost and shit goes down. But for me, what I was really drawn to was that it was so relevant to today. This is about a young woman at the height of hope—all she thinks she has to do is get a job and an apartment—and she discovers that she has to take the whole fucking system down. Isn’t that just the way! (Laughs) I responded to that. I get that. I get that character. And I thought that would be something I’d be really happy putting my name on and putting out into the world.
And I got to blow shit up. Who doesn’t love that? (Laughs)
One of the things that differentiates Rust Creek from a lot of like-minded movies is that Sawyer is never presented as weak—there’s a genuine portrait here of female resolve, resourcefulness and strength. Was that in the original script, or did you specifically focus on that once you came aboard?
I think both. For example, in the first fight, I talked to my stunt coordinator, and I was like, she is a young, capable, athletic woman. We know that from the first scene. She’s smart, she’s independent. But she’s not a superhero. I thought about when I went off to college when I was seventeen, and took a self-defense class. So we looked at those kinds of hits, and that was the language we wanted to speak. It’s messy, it’s sloppy, but she probably learned one or two things that muscle memory kicks in with. That was very much what we were aiming for.
Similarly, you don’t present Sawyer’s suffering in an exploitative way; you humanize her, so her pain and misery feels real. Was that a big focus for you, given that there can be a fine line between realism and exploitation?
It absolutely was. And I think it came down to two things. First, it was my intention with this piece of material. Not that I would ever have a Quentin Tarantino script on my hands, but if I did, that would obviously be much more whiz-bang-sexy violence. This was about realism, and practicality, and also about my tastes and my instincts at the moment. I feel like a film is a snapshot of a moment in time, not just about what’s happening in the world, but about the filmmaker. And that’s what I responded to, and that’s what I wanted to say.
For example, when I’ve seen this with people at festivals, every woman in the room has the hair on the back of her neck stand up at the same time, during that first interaction between Sawyer and Buck and Hollister. Everyone recognizes that; we’ve all had that experience at a bar, where you’re like, I don’t feel good, but nothing specifically has happened yet, and I don’t want to be the one who causes it to happen, but this is not cool. And how do you navigate that.
How did you settle on Hermione Corfield for Sawyer?
We did traditional casting fort this role, and I narrowed it down to three really wonderful women. I just thought she was fantastic. I auditioned her with the fight scene with Buck and Hollister in the beginning, because I wanted to see if I could draw the nuances out of her. That’s not a scene that’s decided the moment it starts, and I wanted to make sure she could do it—and I just think she’s fantastic. She’s a lovely, lovely person.
There’s often a cautionary-tale aspect to narratives like this—don’t treat the big bad world as your playground. Rust Creek plays into that while also complicating it, through the character of Lowell (Jay Paulson). Was that part of what made him so important to the story?
I love characters like that. Somebody asked me a similar question but in a different way. They said, nobody is 100 percent good in this. I was like, that’s OK! I like that! (Laughs) It’s super-interesting to me, because I think that’s the case with people. I knew how people were going to read Lowell when they met him, so it was important in test screenings to track when people clue onto what, and when does she clue onto what. For me, Lowell—not to give things away—is saying yes, these people exist in the world. They’re not stereotypes; they exist there. But they’re not all like that, and let’s kind of look a little deeper. Doing that in a genre film is, I think, a cool opportunity.
Cell phones often get in the way of a set-up like this, but in Rust Creek, Sawyer gets into trouble because of her phone’s GPS. Was it a challenge to integrate technology into this classic scenario, without just succumbing to the standard “there’s no service!” cliché?
Yes, and I also wanted to see it going out, so it wasn’t just conveniently going out of service. It gets her into trouble, but it also could have been a means for her to get help too, if she had seen her mom—and that’s a question of leaving the coop, and the risks that you take. I didn’t want it to be a movie about punishing a young woman for trying to be independent. It’s not easy.
If I remember correctly, this was in the script. I read a lot of scripts, and this is definitely something that writers have to wrestle with now. How many ways can you lose a signal? I mean, it was much easier to tell a story before technology connected us all the time! (Laughs)
It’s true that we’re always connected—I was just in the Moroccan desert, and I had cell service there. So you can only get so lost.
Yes! But what’s also interesting, and what has inspired me, is that there are people in Los Angeles who go hiking in the Santa Monica mountains, and have gotten lost and abandoned and have not been able to get themselves out—all while having visuals on downtown L.A. Once you go into the wilderness, it gets quite dangerous quite quickly. It escalates. And obviously, I think that’s why these films exist—someone gets lost in the woods and shit goes down.
What’s on the horizon after this—any particular genres you’re looking to tackle?
I want to do everything! (Laughs) Anything that keeps me engaged and challenged is interesting to me. I have a TV series I’m selling right now, and I have a 1960s biopic that I’m attached to. I never have any idea what’s going to go first, but I’m pushing rocks up a hill, and we’ll see. Hopefully, we’ll have something to talk about sooner than five years!