In the world of cinema, sometimes filmgoers don’t know what they are missing until they see it. Director Jen McGowan’s Rust Creek is an escape thriller that centers on college student Sawyer Scott (Hermione Corfield) who gets lost in the back roads of Kentucky only to be attacked and hunted deep into the forest by two local men. Rust Creek reframes the genre by placing focus on a smart, capable everywoman, instead of the oft-seen trope of a hysterical, fragile victim who turns into a superhuman bent on revenge. Leslie Combemale spoke to McGowan, who is also the founder of FilmPowered, a networking and skill-sharing community for professional women in the film industry, about the film, collaborations with her female department heads, and why we need films that believably represent ordinary women in extraordinary circumstances.
Leslie Combemale: One of the best aspects of Rust Creek is the heroine’s wits—how she tries to problem solve, and there isn’t the usual victimhood vibe, or the series of mistakes that makes the audience groan. She’s really quite a badass, but just an everyday badass. How much of that came to you ready-made and how much was nuanced?
Jen McGowan: That’s a really hard question for me to answer, and what I’ve realized over the years is when I read a script, I see and imagine what I would do with it. Sometimes I think it’s there, and then I realize it’s actually what I’m doing with it. What you see in Rust Creek is very much my voice, so I believe I saw it in this piece from the start. I have no doubt that I highlighted it, but it was definitely present and it was also something that very much attracted me and excited me about doing it. Showing a real woman who is not perfect, not a superhero, but not an idiot either. That’s one of the things that drives me crazy, when you see a woman that’s not admitting they are as smart or as strong as they are, or laughing at jokes that aren’t funny. I don’t get the performative aspect of what’s going on there.
LC: I saw something that said because the lead character is resourceful and capable, it takes all the tension out of the film. To me, that thinking is part of the problem, as far as female representation on film goes. I’m fascinated by the belief that a woman has to be fragile and easily broken to be believable. it’s almost like victim blaming, as if if a woman is powerful and strong, she’s not at risk.
JMcG: We were talking about that just a while ago, my producer and I. It is amazing to me that people seem to be watching two entirely different films. The feedback is coming along in two very clear lines to me, and I’m fascinated by that. One is that they see it as more nuanced, very different, and about a real woman. I think they are getting more from the moments, and the details, seeing her as relatable. The other is kind of a disregard of the whole concept, as if a smart woman couldn’t find herself in that situation. It’s such a shame. There’s this quote that says “bravery or courage is not lack of fear, it’s overcoming fear.” The thing is, women are not one thing or another. For example, last year there was a rat that went through my back yard. I screamed so loud and so high-pitched, it was like a 50s cartoon. I had never heard that sound come out of my body in my life. It was so much what some would call “feminine”. My neighbor even called thinking I was being broken into. That’s one side of me. At the same time, I’m a boxer. I get hit in the face repeatedly on the regular. Those two aspects exist in the same person.
LC: One of the moments in the film that really resonated with me was when the guys Sawyer meets start getting scary. I have had that, and I know many if not most women have at some point. It goes from dicey to dangerous in a split second, and you never know when or if it’s going to turn. What were some of the moments you thought were important to highlight that you hadn’t really seen done before in this kind of genre movie?
JMcG: Very much that scene, I think the moments that take you from everything being fine to everything being very much not fine. What those specific micro beats look like. That was very interesting to me. I can tell you one thing that came up a lot was the discussion of the wardrobe. This is not a film where we are going to have a beautiful college chick running through the freezing cold woods in hot pants and a wet t-shirt. She’s going on a road trip. She’s wearing sweats because that’s what normal people do.
LC: Do you think this is a feminine take or offers a female gaze, on an escape thriller, or should there even be such a thing?
JMcG: That question is so complicated. First of all, I hate the word feminine, because all women are not feminine. I know a lot of women who are pretty self-hating. Do I want to see their perspective? Not necessarily. I’ll take a feminist man over a misogynist woman any day. The problem is, because in our industry we have excluded women for so long we look at female gaze as a monolith, and it shouldn’t be.
LC: Maybe the female gaze is just about cutting out or changing the elements of nonsense we have repeatedly seen when a film is written and directed by men but features women…
JMcG: You have to keep in mind whoever is making a film, whether it’s Lars Von Trier or Ang Lee or Alphonso Cuaron, you are still working in the culture you exist in. You can be as feminist as you want, but if nobody understands the images you’re putting onscreen, you’ve kind of missed the mark. I found it really interesting a review on a more conservative site that said “This is how feminist films can be made without the preaching”. I loved that, because I don’t want to be preaching to the choir, I want to reach larger audiences and make larger films that get to a broader audience. I’m not interested in making films that only a certain segment of the population or people with a very specific perspective will watch. To do that, you have to be mindful of the world in which you’re making the film. What is the language? Are people going to understand what I’m putting down as reactionary and revolutionary, and absorb it as even slightly acceptable, but a little bit uncomfortable? That’s why to me one of the greatest movies of last year was Wonder Woman, because there are 7-year-olds, both girls and boys, that were taking in the lessons of that film. Maybe it’s not the most feminist or intersectional, but that’s a lot for the amount of people that saw that film. I think that’s important.
LC: How did you come to the Rust Creek project?
JMcG: I interviewed for this job. I had been introduced to the producer, Stu Pollard, as a potential financier for another project I was trying to get made. He didn’t respond to that, but he responded to me, and we hit it off. He was looking for a director for this project and my name had been presented to him a couple of times. He called me, and asked if i’d be interested in reading the script. When we were making it, it’s very important to me to be able to hire my crew, so I put into my contract to have mutual approval of heads of departments and cast. If i’m going to be responsible for it, I’ve got to be able to believe in the people that I’m bringing on. One of the things that’s important to me is women working. There are lots of incredibly skilled, talented professional women who are overlooked, so I made that a priority in my hiring. My producer supported that.
LC: It’s not common to have the right to choose your crew, is it? Because there are so many female directors who wind up with an all male crew. That doesn’t pass it on, but I’m not sure they have a choice.
JMcG: I don’t think it is that common. There are a few reasons, and one is often women aren’t able to fight for their team. Every time I have a disagreement with the people who hired me, I lose a bit of power. You spend your creative capital in that way. I feel strongly that I had an incredible team, and there was nothing anyone needed to be scared of in hiring these women. I also know if something goes wrong, it’s my responsibility. A lot of women directors and producers, they themselves getting hired is the perceived risk for the company, so they’re not going to push that even further. Also, the thing is, sometimes tokenism benefits a couple of people, but my opinion is tokenism is a tool of the patriarchy.
LC: You have a female music supervisor, Tiffany Anders, among many other women on your crew. Can you talk about some of your collaborations?
JMcG: Yes, I worked with her on Kelly and Cal. I will say that you tend to work with the people you worked with before. I very much like to be highly collaborative, and then say “Awesome. Go do your job. I’m going to go do my job.” Production designer Candi Guterres and Cinematographer Michelle Lawler are both amazing. I adored working with them, and they are both collaborative and hard-working. To be quite honest, I’m not the easiest person to work for. Once I’m committed, I’m 100% committed, and I expect everyone else around me to be the same. If you’re not used to that, it can be shocking. Fortunately, they were both used to that, and took great pleasure and pride in their work, and making everything as perfect as we could make it. I feel like the relationship with the DP is the most intimate that happens during shooting, particularly if you’re a director that doesn’t shoot. So you work really hard to create that shorthand language between the two of you, and prepare, so that when you’re on set and everything is burning down, you are both 100% on the same page. You’re making the same movie, you know everything that’s happening. We worked really hard in prep, and we scouted everything together, and did the shot list together. It was a really wonderful working relationship. With Candi, she and her art director Priyanka Guterres tended to be working separately from me, but all of our prep in the scouting, the choosing of all the items and coordinating of colors between them and the wardrobe designer, they were a part of and integral to. To me a film is made in prep. It’s incredibly important to me that a crew member, man or woman, is absolutely committed during prep.
LC: Why would you say you’re not the easiest person to work for just because you require commitment and hard work? I’d imagine every director would want and expect that.
JMcG: I think I mention that because this is a sort of stereotype that I buck against, that women are somehow more friendly or nurturing. I had someone say to me on my first shoot that they thought i’d be more nurturing to the crew. That’s not my job. I actually have a pretty big job to do, and that is not on the list!
LC: What is Michelle’s aesthetic as a cinematographer, and what can we look for as to her contribution to the finished look or feel of the film?
JMcG: I think that first of all she operates as well. So the operation is very much her aesthetic, her language, which I was really drawn to as part of her work when I was looking through reels and meeting with DPs. I love her delicate lighting and the attention to the performances through the lens. It’s not as detached style. She’s really listening and in there and I think that comes from her being an operator as well.
LC: What do you see as the biggest challenges for you as a female filmmaker?
JMcG: Here’s the thing about both being a director and coming from my perspective. I always try to do the best I can with the tools I have, but the tools I have are sometimes not determined by me. Yes, I work hard to change the situation, but there comes a point where I can’t waste emotional energy worrying about it. In terms of who is getting hired, should I be in those rooms? I happen to think so. I’m going to do the best I can, and I’m going to make myself vulnerable by telling people what I need. There’s actually both good and bad about the career taking as long as it has. Honestly mine has gone pretty fast compared to a lot of women, so I’m very grateful for that. I still don’t think it’s sufficient compared to a lot of men and their trajectories. The good side of it is I’m a much more mature, developed, experienced filmmaker. That will benefit everyone when I do my next one. Should that be required? No.
JMcG: How has FilmPowered helped in promoting the film or in getting you to where you are now?
JMcG: I don’t think it’s helped in promoting the movie, although I’ll say probably a lot more people know me, and it helps put the film in context. Not to sound mushy, but the way FilmPowered helps me, is it helps me feel good. It’s the thing I’m doing that I really believe in. I don’t need anybody’s permission to do it. Unfortunately, when you make big movies, you need permission from a lot of people.
LC: It’s something you have control over, in an environment where you have very little control.
JMcG: Exactly. As a director, I’m quite fond of control!
LC: Lastly, what about Rust Creek do you think is universal, and is particularly relevant to what’s going on around us these days?
JMcG: To me what the movie is about, on the plot level, is this young woman gets a job interview and bad stuff goes down. What is interesting to me, why it resonated with me, and why I think it’s relevant now, especially, is it’s about a young woman who thinks all she needs to do to be a grownup, is to get a job and an apartment. Actually, she realizes she has to dismantle the whole system. I think that’s pretty spot on to what’s happening today.