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Daughter: An Interview With Writer/Director Corey Deshon

Photo courtesy of Dark Star Pictures.

Daughter is a fascinating new film from Corey Deshon. As it’s about a kidnapped young woman, it’s easy to assume the content will be familiar, but it doesn’t turn out that way at all, so I just knew an interview with the writer/director would be an interesting one…and it certainly was, despite a silly mistake on my part right at the start.

I opened by asking Corey what it had been like to move from the production of a TV show (Hulu’s A Million Little Things) to directing a full-length film of his own. “It was actually the other way around,” Corey said. “This film was shot in the fall of 2019, and then the pandemic arrived in 2020. I started working in TV to fill the void and figure out how I was going to pay for the rest of the movie and of course pay rent because you don’t exactly make a living from indie film. It’s been nice to be able to do both though: steady employment and work on other people’s projects, and still be able to express myself with little films like this at the same time.”

From looking at all the names in the credits, it seemed that the team was just as much Vietnamese as American. “Yeah,” said Corey. “It started out with just a group of friends—Vivien [Vivien Ngô, who plays Daughter] and I, Jes [Jes Vu, producer], another of our good friends, Ian [Ian Alexander, who played Brother], Elyse [Elyse Dinh, who played Mother]—these are all people that were already in our circle. So it was just us getting together and saying we wanted to do this thing together; we wanted to make it on our own. I hadn’t directed a film at that time, Vivien hadn’t starred in a feature at that time, Jes hadn’t produced something yet; we thought it was a great opportunity to really challenge ourselves in our careers and do something in a way that meant supporting each other.”

I was curious to know whether the blend of cultures had contributed to the end result. “I think so,” Corey said. “As someone who’s obviously not coming from a Vietnamese culture, I was able to give actors space to express those elements; even early on in the script, before we started filming, when there were things we thought could be enhanced by leaning more into a cultural element. I was more than willing to do so because I agree: a project does get enriched like that when you include other cultures and other perspectives. It makes things feel a little more real and lived in, and that’s a really interesting space to play in as a filmmaker.” Indeed Daughter came with a particularly interesting cultural slant: the white man was the minority in this film.

(L-R) Elyse Dinh as Mother, Casper Van Dien as Father, Vivien Ngô as Sister, and Ian Alexander as Brother in the thriller film, DAUGHTER, a Dark Star Pictures release.
Photo courtesy of Dark Star Pictures.

I have asked other directors what it had been like to cast actors to play a family; but in Daughter, the family was a distinctly artificial one. I asked Corey how he arrived at the right dynamic. “I think it helped that most of us knew each other first,” he said. “Elyse and Vivien had actually played a mother and daughter before too, so they had a little bit of familiarity. Because Father was the one who was going to be a little bit isolated from them all, it was interesting that he [Casper Van Dien] was the one who had not met the others beforehand. So we leaned into the natural relationships in order to start building from there, and I think it worked out pretty well, especially as there wasn’t too much time to rehearse.”

I had read that Daughter is inspired by the work of Simone de Beauvoir, so I asked Corey what is it about her writing that resonates with him. “Oh, in the case of the film, it was specifically that conflict between just being your own subjectivity in the world and being an object within the subjectivity of others, and the tension and duality that can cause. I thought that was a really interesting push on how characters relate to each other, and what if we took that to an extreme? Each character in the film is their own subjectivity in the world, living in their own reality; and what’s true for them is not necessarily true for any other character in the film, who might be in their own subjectivity, living in their own reality. Stick all these characters in a room, add a catalyst, and see what happens. It really started as a fun thought experiment about how people relate to each other within their scene.”

Clearly, there are many ways of interpreting the film (I too am in my own subjectivity, after all), and I offered Corey something else that I’d read about Daughter—that it is about “The ethics of freedom under an authoritarian system”—and him I asked if that is how he sees it too. “Absolutely,” he said. “Some of Simone’s writing looked at the idea of whether violence might be justifiable when you’re attempting to build freedom for yourself of others from under oppression; and we see, as things get a little more tense in the film, that there might not be a safe way for everybody to get out of this scenario. What happens? Is there going to be a moral cost that someone has to pay, or an ethical cost, in order to free everyone from this situation?”

(L-R) Vivien Ngô as Sister, director Corey Deshon and Casper Van Dien as Father behind the scenes of the thriller film, DAUGHTER, a Dark Star Pictures release.
Photo courtesy of Dark Star Pictures.

Daughter raises an awful lot of “what next?” questions, as well as philosophical; such as how Brother might save the world, and what might happen with the art he produces. There are certainly some intriguing glances at directions the plot might go, given the chance. I asked Corey whether he had answers in his mind to these questions, or whether those little clues lead to dead ends. “It’s a little bit of both,” he said. “The ambiguous nature in that respect wasn’t inspired by the book, but rather I felt it would be an interesting place to leave the story; where you don’t necessarily know all the meanings behind everything. I thought that would be an interesting way to ground viewers into Daughter’s perspective: she gets taken into this scenario, and doesn’t exactly know why; and even by the end, she’s not necessarily found the answer to that, which is something she has to live with. Tying back a little to the philosophical roots of the story, there’s the idea that we have these dualities that will cause tension, different states of existence; and you’re kind of stuck with that. You won’t necessarily know one way or another whether you are an individual or a member of a group, and you have to be both, in a sense. I wanted to play with that idea and see if I could leave that impression on the viewers through the events of the film, leave them with the thought that ‘I have to live with the fact that I don’t know exactly why that happened’ if that makes any sense.”

Corey had already acknowledged my praise of David Strother’s score on Twitter. I asked Corey how he went about selecting Strother, or his unusual, sparse style for the film. “He was actually the first crew member I knew I wanted,” said Corey. “I’d been fortunate to hear his music before, and even that was a random, planets-aligning moment. I was visiting a gallery in LA to view the work of an artist (a concept artist I was working with on an animation project), and as I walk into the gallery, I see David setting up with his violin, and I think ‘cool, we’re going to have some live music for the night.’ And as I’m walking around the gallery, I realise that I hadn’t registered the beginning of the music—it was just there, resonating around the room—and I hadn’t even put it together that it was the violin guy I’d just passed. I finally go out again and see him there, one guy with a violin and an array of pedals: he was using these pedals to loop the sound, modulate it, change it, turn it all into an orchestra made up of instruments that don’t exist. I thought ‘I don’t know where, but that has to be in the film somewhere!’ I got his information right there, and it was about a year later when Daughter was on the table that I said to him ‘your sound is exactly what we want to go for here.’ And he has this very improvisational style, which became the style of even scoring the film: we would put a scene up, talk about it, develop different sounds for different characters; and he’d go off and work on it, come back (‘that’s really good, can we add another layer on, another bass?’) and it became a living, breathing organism of creating part of the film.”

So my usual final question: what is Corey doing next? “Hopefully, this will help to get the second feature made,” he said. “I’ve got something I wrote before Daughter, actually; a thriller dealing with some more contemporary issues, race politics in America, and things like that. In the meantime, I’ve been having fun writing for TV; writing for the show Power Book II: Ghost now, which is a lot of fun, a very different style from something like Daughter. I wrote for a show called The Night Agent, which will be on Netflix next month; again, a completely different style. So I’m really just having fun getting to express different styles.”

Dark Star Pictures will release the Daughter in select theaters, on Digital and On Demand on February 10, 2023. It will be released on DVD on May 9, 2023 and you can read Sean’s recent review if this interview has caught your interest.

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Written by Alix Turner

Alix discovered both David Lynch and Hardware in 1990, and has been seeking out weird and nasty films ever since (though their tastes have become broader and more cosmopolitan). A few years ago, Alix discovered a fondness for genre festivals and a knack for writing about films, and now cannot seem to stop. They especially appreciate wit and representation on screen, and introducing old favourites to their teenage daughter.

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