Rosario Dawson was sleeping when I arrived on the set of Descent at Brooklyn’s Galapagos bar/gallery on a slushy morning in December. I had come to interview Dawson and her Trybe production company partner and longtime friend, Talia Lugacy. But Lugacy was busy directing the film’s “club scene,” and thus also unavailable, so I waited in the cavernous extras quarters next door. More than an hour had passed, and I was beginning to get antsy, when suddenly the space was crawling with 20-somethings in nightclub attire; the scene had wrapped and Lugacy, all long hair and low-key, stood out amongst her actors. She and I were led into the same makeshift dressing room where Dawson was supposed to be sleeping—”I think she’s gone for lunch now,” said the publicist. At first, Lugacy, 25, answered my questions with a low voice and bent head, but she loosened up as she began to talk about Descent, a rape revenge story with a savage twist near the end, which she co-wrote with Brian Priest and which stars Dawson, 26, (Sin City, Rent, The 25th Hour). This is exactly the kind of collaborative project (Lugacy writing and directing, Dawson acting and producing) that the two women have been wanting to do since they met nearly ten years ago at The Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in New York. They were a mere 15 and 16 respectively. After my interview, and during her photo shoot, Lugacy’s shyness returned; she fidgeted with her hands and wasn’t sure whether to look into the lens or to ignore it. Just as I was wondering whether Dawson would show at all, she blew in—”Rosario’s on the floor!” someone shouted. Dawson grabbed Lugacy by the hand, pulled her into her lap, and began mugging for the camera. Her effect on Lugacy
was marked—Lugacy’s anxiety dissolved and her smile came naturally. Dawson, as outgoing and excited as Lugacy is quite and contemplative, seemed to have the same calming affect on everyone, making it impossible to stay annoyed with her, even when she keeps you waiting for hours.
Katherine Dykstra: Tell me about your relationship with Talia. I know you’ve known each other for years.
Rosario Dawson: Well, my first film was Kids, and after I did the movie, we ended up moving to Texas for a year and then I got a call to come back. I was 16. I got an agent, and it was like, ‘Ok, I’m going to pursue acting.’ Even though it wasn’t anything I was doing before. And my grandmother was like, ‘If you’re going
to take it seriously, you have to go to acting class.’ So she signed me up to go to Strasberg, and I walk in and there’s all these young people there, all trying to, you know, they have their reels and stuff like that. I didn’t understand any acting or movie-speak because I hadn’t been an actor before. I walk in and there’s Talia with that hair and like this big Kubrick t-shirt. She was extremely focused and very driven as she’s always been. And we were great friends after that for a very long time, and we always talked about the fact that she was going to write and direct and that I was going to act and produce. That’s just something that’s always been our goal.
KD: Are you two in sync?
RD: I think I’ve been able to be more hands on and get experience in a way that she hasn’t been able to have. I constantly work all the time, but it actually goes by in a blur, and she’s a very patient person and can’t imagine making a film without it taking a year at least.
KD: What have you worked on together?
RD: We just did a short film this summer for Glamour magazine, for Film Aid, which they screen in refugee camps in Africa. They approached me to direct it. I said I want her [Talia] to direct it to kind of establish us as Trybe. I want to really put our company out there. It’s been really hard for the past couple years; we were pushing a different script called Incense and Peppermints. When we were doing the meetings on it with different producers they were like, ‘It’s a great script, but it’s a period piece. It’s going to cost a lot of money. And Rosario, maybe if you were in it, we could kind of raise the money that way.’ [Descent] took us a couple years of doing different meetings with different people, people who loved it but were like ‘the material itself is just really heavy for people.’ It’s just kind of interesting because I was like, ‘You made a film that stars me and
KD: What’s it like working with Talia?
RD: It’s amazing seeing a director be able to handle the crew, being able to handle the actors, the story, maintaining all the different things and still hitting walls because we’re making an independent movie, and a lot of the time you have to make changes specifically just for the budget, and they effect creative things, and you have to juggle that, and you have to juggle it quickly to keep going.
KD: You’ve worked on quite a bit of Hollywood stuff as well.
RD: What’s great about doing big-budget stuff is when you use it well, and you’re still a director and a storyteller, and you’re able to put those stories out, and then have the budget to support how you want to express it. But a lot of times it doesn’t happen, so you end up having to go to the independent films that don’t necessarily look like they want it to look but it’s a great story. I have worked on so many different films and gone, ‘I want to do something. I want to be accountable for something. I want to know that there’s a movie in the theater that I’m one hundred percent accountable for.’ I don’t want to walk away going, ‘Hey man, I didn’t like that movie either.’ This is our first film; we’re definitely hitting a lot of walls. always been. And we were great friends after that for a very long time, and we always talked about the fact that she was going to write and direct and that I was going to act and produce. That’s just something that’s always been our goal.
KD: Talk about that, what walls?
RD: At the end of the day, it was great, we got all our money by independent financing, we were able to have final cut, we get to maintain the negative, which is really brilliant, especially for our first film. But it also doesn’t necessarily guarantee us distribution. We changed DPs in the middle of shooting, we’ve had huge location issues, and we’re not getting anything for free which really hurts. It’s the winter, and this movie is supposed to take place in September.
KD: Do you think about your femaleness as you work?
RD: I do think about it because most of the time, if you look at a lot of films I’ve done over the last 10 years, I’m not usually with other females, which is really interesting. I’ve only worked with a handful of female directors.
KD: And do you see that changing?
RD: It’s interesting. Where we don’t have a lot of female directors to look up to—it is something that’s breaking. I think women storytellers have a way of telling stories and understanding things that I think need to be appreciated. And you see a lot of female directors taking on male stories and doing beautiful things with them, because that’s kind of what they’re left doing. There are so many changes happening with people downloading things and money not being made the way they expect it to be. I think it’s an opportunity for people to jump in and make changes and be proactive. Like when independent film really started coming up, people were like, ‘Holy shit, we don’t have to [work] with the studios? We can do this ourselves? We can call the shots? Right on.’ I think it really comes in waves, and that’s what I’m hoping happens with women storytellers and women directors. I think that’s really the next wave that really hasn’t been explored as well as it could be.
Katherine Dykstra: Where did Descent come from?
Talia Lugacy: The writing happened fast. The concept took a little while to come up with. Brian and I wrote a script previous to this and everyone was saying, ‘Oh, it’s too sweet. It’s too this. It’s too that.’ So we put our heads together and decided that if we were going to make a film, we really wanted to shake things up.
KD: And how did you get it made?
TL: Everyone who read it was like, ‘Oh, my God, the graphic violence of it, the sensitive racial aspects to it.’ There were so many different things in there that people were offended by on so many different levels. Every step of the way we were told, ‘Just change the ending. Modify this. Lighten this up.’ But we finally found a fellow by the name of Morris Levy [of Mega Films] who read the script. At first he was a bit aghast, but he read it again and got behind it.
KD: So it’s worth it to stick to your guns?
TL: Oh yeah, absolutely. One of the themes of the film is that there are things that happen that cannot be articulated. This manipulation of words continues throughout the film in that her sense of herself is based on what other people say about her. So the ‘descent’ starts even before the rape happens because she has self doubt. No, she doesn’t go to a counselor, but that’s real. I’ve never really seen that.
KD: Tell me about Trybe.
TL: This is something Rosa and I have been dreaming about forever. Brian and I had this other script that didn’t include her as an actress, so it was hard to get that off the ground. We were totally committed to it until we realized, well, that’s not going to be financially feasible. So we tackled this one. So this will be our debut—the birth of Trybe so to speak. And in the future we’ll stay together and continue making films we think we can’t live without making.
KD: This film has a strong female lead. Is that important to you?
TL: That was not intentional, not purposeful at all. I’m not on some sort of tirade for women’s rights. This is a humanistic thing and the films that we want to make are the ones that pay attention to people: how they really are, and how they really behave and interact, and what they go through, and what it means to be a person.
KD: And is that how you see Trybe being different from another company?
TL: Absolutely. We’ve come to a point where people are very familiar with the language, so you can fuck with them a little more by using their expectations to thwart them. That’s the kind of thing that we want to keep doing.
KD: And what about the difference between an independent film and a Hollywood film?
TL: I’m starting to not see a difference anymore.
KD: So if you were to define independent film…
TL: Independent film is really, from start to finish, pooling your own resources and getting all the way to the end without having a major player tell you how to do things. But then that line’s quite blurry because there are different stages when you need help and you need things and you can only get to a certain point on your own. The way that I could do it, is to define it in terms of its spirit, its energy, its purpose, like no one who got on board for this were like, ‘I’m going to do this because I’m going to rake in the dough.’ None of us were thinking that, so maybe that’s what separates it.
KD: How did you get interested in film?
TL: I just was watching movies all the time when I was a kid. It was really the only thing I ever wanted to do. I actually tried to get into NYU when I was like 14, I went there, and I was like, ‘Please just let me take a class or something.’ And they were like, ‘Come back.’ So I ended up taking acting classes at Strasberg in New York.
KD: What kind of advice do you have for someone who’s just starting out?
TL: Advice? I’m far too young to be giving any advice.
KD: Well, what have you learned?
TL: If you’re imitating, you’re going to find yourself quite stunned.
KD: What’s your most important resource on set?
TL: My brain. Every single day we’re shooting is quite different, because, like I said, the story keeps changing so every location we go to is like it’s own little world, so we get into a different mindset, ‘Where is she at this stage of her evolution,’ kind of, so every couple of days has it’s own energy.
KD: Did you scout locations for Descent?
TL: Absolutely. I did as much as I could before we even got the money. You have like a nickel to make an entire thing come into being, and it’s really hard but you do it. I find producing to be a lot of fun. To my mind you can’t really separate directing from producing: What are my resources exactly? What can I do when? How can I set up my schedule? It’s inseparable. If I don’t have a strong handle on how the production is running, I can’t really assert as much as I need to creatively in a directing capacity, not at this level anyway.