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Elston Gunn Interviews Director Talia Lugacy About DESCENT, Starring And Produced By Rosario Dawson!!

Hello. Elston Gunn here... Talia Lugacy has directed DESCENT, a psychological thriller about Maya, a college student who is brutally attacked and sent on a dark journey that finds her transforming into an avenging enchantress. Maya is played by Rosario Dawson, who is making her producing debut with the picture via her new production company, Trybe Films, of which Lugacy and Brian Priest are also principals. Lugacy and Priest co-wrote the screenplay. Having viewed some key scenes from the film, I think I can confidently say it's probably not what you might expect given the logline I've provided. It's not a loud fast-cut assault on the senses. The story is more about the actual internal downward spiral than points A and B themselves - hence, the title. However, said points are ferociously present and will stick with you far longer than your Milk Duds. It will be interesting to see the reaction to the film, which will nonetheless establish Lugacy as a filmmaker to watch and serve as an intriguing new entry into Dawson's filmography - particularly following DEATH PROOF, RENT and CLERKS 2 - showcasing the range of one of the most compelling actresses working today. DESCENT will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on Thursday, April 26, at 6:30 pm. City Lights Pictures will distribute the film in the U.S. Lugacy took time to answer some questions for AICN.

[Elston Gunn]: How did you first get involved with film? Did you go to film school? [Talia Lugacy]: I did. After jonesing for NYU film school since I was thirteen, I got in early and graduated before I was twenty. I was absurdly serious about it.
[EG]: Tell me about your short films. [TL]: There were six that I did at NYU. My favorite was my last one, though it didn't go over very well at all. It was an INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS type of B-movie sci-fi riff. It made fun of technology, computers in particular, kind of taking over the lives and personalities, the individuality, of this quaint small town. Most people who saw it, I think, loved technology about as one-sidedly as I loathed it. The short I did just before DESCENT was a charitable endeavor - Glamour Magazine, Moxie Pictures and Film Aid International. Rosario and I did those two together. She was also in a few of my black-and-whites - some mad silent films.
[EG]: What inspired DESCENT? What was your goal with the script? [TL]: I've seen rape and revenge portrayed so many ways, but never in light of two things that particularly interested me: 1) Revenge in movies is nine times out of ten heralded as a triumph, good guy beats bad guy, whereas, in life I don't believe it truly feels that way. 2) Rape in movies, TV - in the past just as well as today - it's either victimization, or the physical brutality, or the societal response. The deeper and darker dimension of the act is found I believe in its ambiguity. Sixty percent of women raped don't report it, and one reason for that is the mental trauma they experience, the humiliation, the loss of identity. Extremely difficult things to put words around. What happens to the individuals involved, how they become what unmade them, and that cycle of violence. I don't think you can get to the bottom of that by playing with words, or courtrooms and cops, or angry boyfriends with fire extinguishers.
[EG]: How did Rosario Dawson get involved? [TL]: Rosario and I go a ways back. Before film school I went to Strasberg in NY - get to know what the actors do, that sort of thing. We met there, and been close ever since. That was summer '94. We always wanted to produce films together and just kept at it. Brian, my cousin, and I conceived of DESCENT specifically for Rosario. We told her the story, she said she was game, and we wrote it for her.
[EG]: How did you shoot it? [TL]: By any means necessary. It took an eon to finance. We refused multiple opportunities to change the ending in exchange for funding. Then I refused to shoot anything other than 35mm. That DESCENT exists at all strikes me as miraculous now. We shot all around NY, where Rosario and I are from. We had a very small budget relative to all that we tried to do. Twenty-six locations in a twenty-four day shoot, something ridiculous like that. Club scenes, college, extras, steadicam, overlapping dialogue, rape. I really wanted to drive myself crazy the first time out.
[EG]: I thought the pacing was deliberate and a nice change considering the subject matter. Was that important to you? And was that the plan going into it or was it a post-production decision? [TL]: Because there is essentially no plot other than who is this girl and how & why does she become what she becomes, your whole path of attention in the story is behavior. If you're going to experience a story that way, it's natural that the pace is more methodical and patient than your normal thriller, where all characters are subservient to suspense and surprise. I did make a point to maintain that idea throughout. A lot of long steadicam shots, a lot of static long takes. But it's first and foremost a scripted idea.
[EG]: How difficult was the rape scene to shoot? [TL]: It was harrowing. You try to prepare yourself for something you know is going to be harrowing, but how can you? None of us really knew what this was going to feel like. We had four days to rehearse the whole movie. Rosario, Chad [Faust] and Marcus [Patrick] are brave, to their guts. They were vulnerable, they were crazed. You know, you don't understand fully the risk you're taking until on the day you do something of this nature and the question stares each of you in the face: how far out of your body will your honesty go, right now? It wasn't nudity strictly, it was endurance. That was the point. Rosario, Chad, Marcus - they did not hold back. We were all scared. Chris [LaVasseur], my DP, and I, and our AC were crouched beside the bed a foot from the actors faces, frightened, fascinated, trying to stay balanced. Everyone was feeling the intensity differently in their own ways. It's difficult to describe.
[EG]: The music seemed to be an important element of the scene as well. [TL]: The music came later. There was a vision of it written into the script, but the shoot turned the vibe from surreal to raw. Then the actual music brought it back around to the surreal. Indespensible collaborators turned out to be my music supervisor, Stephanie Diaz-Matos, and composer, Alex Moulton. But, as the film is yet to be finalized, I shouldn't talk about specific tracks. They're both insanely talented. I learned the significance of collaborators with instincts and passion.
[EG]: Was the set somber throughout the film? How do you operate your set? [TL]: Well, I think I was somber. Cast and crew have since told me otherwise and I'm grateful. I suppose I made a point not to be too gloomy, except where appropriate. I don't find that I or anyone else work well under a cloud. After all, there's always something to be down about. The question is do you know how to focus on what matters and let your periphery handle most other things. I didn't do that as well as I'd like to have. The general tone on set was due largely to Rosario's good cheer. She was astonishingly high-spirited for someone having to perform all these demented things. My head was so heavy, no doubt, but I couldn't let it become contagious. Thankfully, Chris and Tristam [Steinberg, the production designer] energized the whole experience, they truly lit up the bleak black abyss of thoughts in my head.
[EG]: This was your feature directorial debut and Dawson's producing debut. What was the level of anxiety or self-doubt during the process, if any? Did you feel you had each other's back? [TL]: Not enough time for anxiety, no time for self-doubt. Which is perfect, because that's just what consumes me when I have free time - doubt to the minutia of my existence. Skip a crack in the sidewalk and I wonder have I fucked up fatally. Sure, we had each other's back; we did all that we could do for the film and for each other, I know that much. All I can do now is question what more I could have or should have done, but that's just because I'm not on the clock now.
[EG]: While watching Dawson's scenes you can't keep your eyes off her. What was it like directing one of your producers? [TL]: What's more challenging is... what was it like directing one of your closest friends? I have no sane answer to that. I didn't even see that challenge coming, but there it was. How do you ask someone you care for to endure something painful? Plus, familiarity changes roles, people are watching your friendship as well as your roles. There are definitely easier things in this world. But I guess the fact that we're closer than we were is the real answer to that.
[EG]: Torture films appear to be a rather popular trend now of the horror genre. DESCENT could've fallen easily into that mold but it's steered more toward a psychological study than a popcorn rollercoaster ride. What's your take on that trend and how you approached the script and film? [TL]: I didn't perceive DESCENT as a torture film at the time we wrote it. I also wasn't aware of the trend, or it hadn't started yet. Something that motivated both of us was the awareness that dark indie films weren't really so scathing afterall, because of that mental dimension so lacking. A movie isn't dark or probing just because someone gets mutilated in some creative or clever way. My take on the torture trend now? I think we're subconsciously purging some kind of guilt. Somewhere in our minds... perhaps we're aware that in this war of worlds going on, we're not one of the good guys. Look at any period of entertainment in history. There's always a reflection of the times in the tastes of the audience. Right now our obsessions are super-heroes in fantasy lands and punishingly gruesome physical torment. We want to save everybody, possibly, but we're creating suffering. I also feel there might be something else to it, something more to do with our modern lifestyles. Life is comfortable and easy for a lot of Americans, especially people who seek entertainment. There may be something intensely tactile, physical, that's missing from our experiences; maybe some part within us resents that the body is becoming a tool of less and less necessity? I'm referring to a life of TV watching and internet surfing. A lot of sitting and staring. Naturally, we want to radically or even violently move our bodies around, or at least see what would it feel like if we did. Or maybe I'm reaching. In any case, what interested us with DESCENT was the state of mind behind the violence. Most torture or violence films you can name, characters have their reasons and obvious motivations - money, kicks, competition - and they usually have an awareness of it. To rape, to torture, and to possess the absolute conviction that nothing bad happened, that is truly disturbing, and true for many people who do it. It's something physical that overcomes them, like sleeping or eating. There's also, in the film, the question of whether racist impulses act in the same way. It's all so unexplainable. That's where the real horror is.
[EG]: Were there any other rape/revenge movies that influenced you? [TL]: I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I was possessed by A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. I mean I watched it for a year, nearly every day. Not last year, mind you, but back when I was thirteen; it was the one that set me off on this path in life. It's also the best one I can think of. People mention I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE but I still haven't seen it. Other films that did influence me were ones that I thought did not do the subject a lick of justice.
[EG]: What advice, if any, do you have for aspiring filmmakers? [TL]: Advice. I hear a lot of people say "just go out and shoot, just do it, whatever it is." I get the rationale of that kind of persistence and enthusiasm. But it's my belief that you shouldn't waste your time or your resources until you truly have something to say, something you have to say. Having something to say is rare enough, but the need, the absolute need, to express it is the only thing, I think, that will get you through it, and to a place worth getting to. Really aspire to know your shit, and love what you do. [EG]: What are you working on next? What are some of the things you would like to do? [TL]: I'm working on finishing DESCENT before my head explodes, or goes numb. I'm working on another script with my cousin, and a few others besides. What I'd like to do is keep making movies. This sounds like one of those questions that comes back to haunt you. I guess what I'd most like to do is live out a lifetime in film without a scratch of bitterness on me.
Elston Gunn

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