“Do Something That Doesn’t Bore the Crap Out Of You”: How Rust Creek Dir. Jen McGowan Avoided a Cookie Cutter Career

“I make material that I find interesting,” says director Jen McGowan. “I’m a feminist, so those themes are present, but I like to make things that are first and foremost entertaining.”

An industry veteran with a feature already under her belt (the Juliette Lewis-led comedy Kelly & Cal), McGowan takes an assured turn into new territory with her new thriller, Rust Creek. Featuring a largely-female crew and a taut lead performance by Hermione Corfield, the film is a salient take on the survival genre and proof that McGowan is indeed an up-and-coming moviemaker to watch.

On Working In Different Genres

Jen McGowan (JM): What I loved about making this particular movie is that it gave me the opportunity to do something that I hadn’t done before. I thought I could highlight a perspective that was in the material that I could get excited about. And that’s the big litmus test for me: Is there a concept that I can get excited about for two years, and can I do it well? 

Jen McGowan alongside the cast and crew of Rust Creek. Photograph courtesy of IFC Midnight

It’s a hard thing, because the industry wants you to continue doing the thing that you are successful doing, but I find that incredibly boring as a filmmaker. The thing that’s fun about making movies is being challenged. So there’s a constant push and pull between those two needs: the industry needing you to do something that they know you can pull off, and you wanting to do something that doesn’t bore the crap out of you. If you look at my work over time you can see slight growth from thing to thing, so I think a steady approach is best in that way. And of course another way to get to work in different genres is to not ask for too much money! 

The funny thing I learned making this film is that the action stuff is actually the most boring to do. That’s when the stunt supervisor comes in, and the safety guy comes in, and the pyro guy comes in, and I kind of have to step back a little bit. It’s just a little more technical, which is fine, but it’s not as hard as people make it sound. We like to convey a magic about movies, which is great, but sometimes we use that magic as a way to exclude others. And I think that that’s stupid, because it’s not that hard if you practice. 

On Making the Leap From Acting To Directing

I came from the stage. I studied theatre at the Atlantic Theatre Company through the program at NYU, so I was there for three years. This was before they had moved into their new space, so the classes were in the green room of their theater and we got to study with all of their mainstage actors. But then I got out and I was like, “oh my god, the life of an actor sucks!” I was poor as shit and so I started working in production. And as I started working up the ladder, I became more interested in directing. So that’s when I applied to film school and got into the MFA program at USC. That’s when it came together for me. I have this weird background of understanding actors and performance as well as budgets and cranes and all those things. And I’m really grateful for both of those backgrounds.

On Working With Actors

I’m not really a big fan of rehearsal. I know different directors do this differently, and I don’t think one delivers stronger performances than the other. It just depends on what the director’s preference is. I like to do a reading, just so everybody knows what movie they’re making, and I like to sit down with each actor individually. And because we had stunts we would do rehearsals with the stunt supervisor. But we didn’t do rehearsals for performance, per se, because I like to capture them creating in real time. If I have the one-on-one meetings with the actors and get a sense that two actors in a scene are on radically different pages, then I might call them in to rehearse that little bit to get them closer. I like to get things in a certain range, but I won’t fix it entirely because I like that work to be done in front of the camera. 

On Filming in Kentucky

It was wonderful! I was so happy with the crew. I was nervous about shooting between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and was like, “oh god, this doesn’t give us any leeway.” But it’s a great time to shoot, especially if you’re shooting in an area that doesn’t have tons of deep crew. Not a lot of people shoot then, so you can get your first choice of crew and the crews can get one more job in before the end of the year. And all the gear is available. The downside is that you’re contending with really tricky weather if you’re not in LA. We had hurricane-force winds, a tornado shut us down one day, we had snow…so it was a little bananas. But we couldn’t have gotten those looks if we had tried to do it in LA. 

On Cinematic Themes

There are always two sides: what’s the movie about in terms of plot, and what’s it about in terms of theme? Hopefully everybody can agree on the plot, but everyone has their own take on the themes and that’s where it gets interesting for me. For me, what this movie is about is a young woman who thinks that, to be a grownup, all she has to do is get a job and an apartment but actually what she has to do is take down the whole frickin’ patriarchy. But I don’t know what audiences will see, and I suspect that some of them will see that and some of them will not. MM

Rust Creek is now available on VOD courtesy of IFC Midnight. All images courtesy of IFC Midnight.

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