Spotlight By: Michael Dance
Rosario Dawson is by now well-known to American audiences, having starred in films as varied as Sin City, Rent, 25th Hour, Clerks II, Men in Black 2, and Shattered Glass. She’s earned a reputation for being likable, hardworking, and multitalented, but now she’s getting the best reviews of her career for her performance in the unforgettable independent film Descent.
In the film, Dawson plays Maya, a college student who suffers a brutal rape and descends into a world of drugs, promiscuity, and ultimately revenge. A dark, hypnotic film, it debuted in New York at the Tribeca Film Festival, got its theatrical release after being picked up by City Lights Pictures, and will be available on DVD as of February 5th.
Descent is purposely a “discussion” film; it doesn’t beg for acceptance or condescend to the viewer, instead choosing to explore some decidedly dark realms of life that get everybody talking after every screening. But while reactions have been as varied as you can expect, praise for Dawson’s performance has been nearly universal. The film scored a rave from no less than the New York Times, which called it “hard to watch but essential to see” and singles out Dawson for her “intricate, imaginative performance equals those of Robert De Niro in ‘Taxi Driver’.”
We were able to sit down one-on-one with Rosario to talk about Descent; throughout the hour-long interview she talked about the difficulties of playing the role, the necessity of holding your creative ground (she also served as a producer), and some other projects she has in the pipeline.
Question: The choices that are made are what make it great but not what makes it accessible to the wide audience that wants everything spoon-fed. Can you talk about the decisions to be ballsy about making this film? You did not compromise, even though you could’ve to get
Rosario Dawson: When we had the original script, and doing all the meetings and stuff, we could’ve had much larger budgets to work with, if we had been willing to not shoot it to begin with and made, from the get, a different film. What’s wonderful now is how people are supporting the project now, and supporting specifically me with the project. [But at the time] people were really interested in making the movie with us and giving us money and making it happen if we were to make changes.
And a lot of what put us on this path to make it was to present Talia [Lugacy, the director] to the audiences out there, and who she is is someone very uncompromising. That’s something you actually learn quite quickly when talking to Talia, actually. She’s very stubborn. And I’m very stubborn. It definitely led to some interesting arguments, but we both kept steadfast to the ultimate goal. What we’re so often pushed to do is try to please everybody, and we didn’t want to have to dilute it to that. That was the basis of our production contract, that we had creative control over this. It got messy sometimes, dealing with the people who had monetary and business control. The majority of people who gave us money weren’t comfortable with the subject matter, and weren’t comfortable with the way we shot it, even though it was very clearly articulated what we were doing, and we were not going to cut things out; there was going to be male nudity, it was built into [co-star] Chad Faust’s contract, and it was all very upfront. We had these conversations over and over with everybody just to make sure. And when we got to editing there were a few people who just supposed we were going to take
Q: Was there ever anything in the story that ultimately became too taboo, and you did hold back on?
Eh, nothing in regards to that. We did lose certain scenes that were tangential, stuff that didn’t work out, either because of a mess-up with the negative, or whatever. It was an independent film, so stuff happened. A lot of interesting things happened with the editing process, actually. We needed to make it a little shorter, and we used to start off the movie in a college cafeteria, so you know right off that we’re in college, and there’s a scene I had with Vanessa Ferlito that we had done together, and I really loved the scene. And we couldn’t make it fit in there. So I was like, let’s just start with that thing, and scrap everything in the cafeteria. That was really difficult to say, because we spent a few days [shooting] there, and there was a lot of stuff with Rachel Leigh Cook in it, and also Tracie Thoms. But there was just something about starting it there, you knew it was a college film, and you automatically saw signs and you were reading too much into it, and then it doesn’t ever look like that ever again. It doesn’t ever play like an obvious college movie after that. Cutting it suddenly made a big, big difference; it cut out fifteen minutes of the film and just really worked. I was so excited.
There were so many versions of this movie, and it was really fascinating because we did many, many, many screenings. And any screening that we did, despite the cuts that we had, people really responded to it. Which was great, but also really confusing. Because somebody’d be like, “We should really cut that.” And then somebody
I love that there’s an actual response to it, it’s not like people walk out and go, “eh, it was all right, I guess.” There’s no boredom, there’s no middle ground, there’s no nothing, people either love it or they hate it. Everybody’s experience watching this movie is different because they bring a lot to it. These are a lot of personal issues that affect a lot of people.
Q: How your experience been with the press reaction?
Just listening to people has been great, what affected them and stuffâ€¦one of the first junkets we did, a press conference at Tribeca, there was this one guy who said, “Well, you know, the first [rape] was really easy, she kind of seemed like she was into it,” and he instead went on about how the end of the film was much more rough and brutalâ€¦he was really kind of pointing the finger at us women, and I was like, “I’m sorry did you say she was into the first rape? Is that what you just told me? ‘Cause that’s horrifying.” Some parts of me just wanted to lash out, and be like, well what did you do to some woman in college that you justified and that’s how you’re going to look at it now, that she was fine? What? But I said, “Well, I wouldn’t say she was into it as much as I think she gave in, but that’s an interesting point that you would see it that way.” Because it is really interesting.
Q: It’s also incredibly brave that, in the quick-cut MTV generation that we’re still in, that you really sit with these characters through long cuts,
That was a gimmick in Irreversible [another movie featuring a rape], like, okay, now we’re going to sit through this â€“ but that wasn’t used the whole rest of the movie, so it didn’t fit, it was so clearly manipulative. And our film you definitely sit through everythingâ€¦there are times when you’re sitting through it and you don’t get it, like, okay, this is a really great song, so I’m going to keep listening, and the tracking shot is really dope, so I’m following, but it’s a little like, what am I supposed to be watching here – but then you get a payoff. And then there are these other scenes like the end of the movie, where it just goes on and on and on, and you’re completely riveted, because it’s so intense, and [since] we’ve been doing long takes the entire movie, the audience accepts it.
It’s horrifying, that a victim really can stoop lower than her attacker. It’s really horrifying. But things are really like that, and that’s why we had the slow scenes, sometimes you are just sitting there, and then you’re doing horrible things to people. I’m always just drawn to moments like that. 25th Hour was like that: you have a choice. Every single moment you have a choice.
Q: How much sweeter is the victory of getting the film finished and distributed, since it’s such an uphill battle?
It is amazing. Because you’re high up at that point, you’ve been fighting and fighting, and the small victories are really wonderful. At this point it doesn’t matter â€“ like, if it does well, that’ll be phenomenal, but at this point, just the fact that we have our film and it’s what we want to be, and we’ve had a great
I followed this up [with Grindhouse] and working with Quentin [Tarantino], and this is a man who goes years without working, but when he does it’s something he truly loves and is 100% behind, and that is a lot of what I feel like I’m trying to lend to Talia. Some of the dumb things I’ve done, I’ve made my name off of, not all of them have been really stellar projects or anything, but it’ll help her when she puts her stamp up there, it’s a really spectacular thing that she’s really proud of. You know, hopefully she won’t have to make a Pluto Nash to make her mark. For me, I’d rather do the grunt work for this project rather than move on to several other things just because they’re easier. It’s not important for me to be able to say, well, I’ve done 35 movies in 13 years. It’s more important that those 35 movies were phenomenal and I’m 100% behind all of them, you know?
Q: This is you’re “I’m not to be screwed with” actor piece, especially in that last scene. How draining is that, and what do you draw on?
There was so much going on that day, literally, we had two days to shoot that scene, and it took three hours to get to Williamsburg every day because of the strike. So it was slow-going, and it was really difficult, and we had to put the whole set up together. It’s like two days before Christmas, and this is just really draining, and that last day, we were just getting pick-up shots while they’re striking the set. We had to do some of those
With Talia and I are gearing up for the next film, it’s a lot like that thing my mom told me, where you have your baby, and as you’re having it you’re like “Never again!” and then the baby pops out and you’re like, “Oh you’re so cuteâ€¦” and you can’t wait to do it again. You just completely forget, and you have to, because it’s pain. Directors, on average, die at like, 52. I’m going to have to force Talia to take many, many vacations, because she’s already getting gray hair from this, and she’s 27.
Q: There are a lot of little things in the movie I picked up the second time watching.
Yeah one thing we always look at is when he throws her the football, and she’s like, “They still make these?” it’s actually supposed to be a Nerf ball, you know, like a neon color or something, and I think it actually was. But when they read it, I guess they thought it was supposed to be a football, so then they spray-painted it to be brown.
Q: So basically when the time comes for a DVD commentary, you’ll be all set?
Oh my god, I’m going to be so talked-out of this movie. Yak yak yak yak. Apparently I’m going to be really hard-pressed to do that, because you know me, I’m really quiet. Wait until you have to transcribe this shit, you’re going to hate me later. [Transcriber's Note: Don't worry, it was much better than a root canal.] I’ve had people call me afterwards saying, do you realize we talked for five minutes and there’s seventeen pages? Do you realize that? I had someone be like, do you realize I asked you three questions, and we talked for twenty-five minutes? I was like wow, that’s amazing that you even got three in!
Q: So how do you follow this up?
I’m going to be fighting terrorists in the next movie. Seriously. I’m going to be fighting terrorists. I’ve got Kill Shot and then this movie called Eagle Eye, and it’s going to be really interesting. Ultimately it comes down to, I have a varied personality, a lot of different interests, so I’m really excited about promoting [the comic book I helped create] Occult Crimes Taskforce, and producing the film on that. And I’m really excited about Incense and Peppermints, which is going to
Q: And the comic book, the first book is available online free?
Yeah, you can go to www.12gaugecomics.com, and the first issue’s online, so you can read that, and then go to Amazon and look up Occult Crimes Taskforce and get the first trade paperback, which is a compilation of the first four issues. It also has extras in the manual that you can’t get from just the four issues, and there are a detailed couple of pages that show Tony Shasteen, the artist, his process. It’s really amazing, we got some really great reviews, so it’s been pretty awesome.
Q: And there will eventually be a movie?
Yes, well, we’re sort of finalizing out the contracts, because we’re actually setting some precedents, in the contract world, with likeness issues and stuff. No one’s ever been the face of a comic and then been the actor in a film before. So it’s kind of fascinating. We’re supposed to be doing it with Dimension, and Bob Weinstein, so we’re starting that now.