By WILLIAM J. WRIGHT
With his debut feature, Corey Deshon establishes himself as a filmmaker with a vision. Tautly paced and visually arresting, DAUGHTER is a distinctly 21st-century thriller with an aesthetic rooted in classic horror cinema. Atmospheric, claustrophobic and above all, unnerving, the film places its audience at the heart of an intimate mystery over which paranoia and the threat of sudden violence loom like a shadow.
In what may be the best performance of his career, Casper Van Dien stars as Father, a man whose desire to keep his young son (Ian Alexander) safe from what he perceives to be a hostile world drives him to kidnapping and murder to maintain their everchanging “family.” However, when his resourceful new “daughter’ (Vivien Ngô) forms an emotional bond with his son in a bid to escape, his patriarchal control is threatened with deadly consequences.
Recently, Corey Deshon took some time to speak with RUE MORGUE about the making of DAUGHTER, how real-life horrors influenced the film and the old-school filmmaking techniques he used to give the film its unique look.
I wish that I had a month to rewatch DAUGHTER and think about it before I spoke with you. This is a very intricate and complicated film. If you had to shoehorn this film into a genre, what would it be? Do you think of it as a horror film?
Yeah, I think that would be the best shoehorn description of it. I would have to describe it as [horror]. And only because horror can be such a broad category.
DAUGHTER begins with a title card stating that it’s based on “more fact than fiction.” It echoes tragedies like the cases of Ariel Castro and perhaps even the Patty Hearst kidnapping. Can you tell me a little bit more about what influenced the film?
So the title card was referencing things like that, and even a family in the news, maybe about a year before we made the film, where we found out this guy was chaining his family up in his own house and things like that. At the time, when I was conceiving of the concept, it was surprising how many of these examples here were out there that I didn’t really have to make up or invent for the film. And that directly inspired that title. This is based on more fact than fiction in a way because I’m barely making up anything here. This is stuff that people are doing to each other.
Tell me a little bit about the process of developing the story.
It began with just considering the economics of a micro-budget film, where we’re not going to have a huge budget. We can’t have a long shoot; We have to pretty much stay in one location, and not move around too much. And I just needed a creative and interesting and hopefully unique way to put a story like that together. So when you don’t have a lot of resources, you kind of rely on your cast and your performances. What can you do to keep an audience interested and engaged in the twists and turns in the story? And it was really built out of how much fun can we have. And how much can we push the boundaries of what the genre is? Because that’s the thing that we can sort of modulate without necessarily increasing the budget.
Taking all those factors into consideration, there were a lot of stories that you could tell under those constraints. Why was DAUGHTER the story that you wanted to do for your first feature?
I think it was an opportunity to find something that could be as unique as possible and allow me to experiment as a filmmaker. I believe in film as an experimental medium. And I think when you have something that is a genre picture on a small budget, that’s your best chance to really push what that could be because you will find the horror audience is so broad and has so many different intricate little interests. You can find an audience for your film like this, no matter how weird you get with it or how left of center it might be. So for me, I wanted to find something that could be defined as uniquely my own and that would not necessarily put me in, let’s say, direct competition with films that would have 20 or 30 times my budget. Like if I wanted to make a slasher film or something like that, or a home invasion movie, you see those types of films made a lot and made really well without a whole lot of resources.
I didn’t want to necessarily make a direct one-to-one comp, where mine would end up being seen as the lesser of the two because of how little resources we had. I wanted to find a way to make our limitations become our strength and even become our creative aesthetic. Even the mistakes in how I made the film could become part of the visual language of it.
DAUGHTER is beautifully shot and edited. The way you use long unnerving takes and the symmetry in the frame remind me quite a bit of Stanley Kubrick. Tell how you use those visual elements to build tension. Was Kubrick in the back of your mind when you were making this film?
A little bit. Yeah. [In] his style of filmmaking, and really [in] that era, the camera moves in very different ways. When I set out to make this, I did go in with the intention to make something that looked like it would have been a product of a past period of time – how the camera moved, how the actors were blocked in the film. Rather than something that looked like it was nostalgic for another era, I wanted it to look like a product of another era. And so looking at these classic examples of masterful filmmakers who did that during that time was very present in how I approached putting this together creatively.
And then that as well was sort of embracing the idea that on such a limited shoot schedule, you can’t shoot a lot of takes anyway; You can’t sit there and just roll and roll and roll and improv and try stuff. You just don’t have time in the day to do that. No matter how you shoot the film, you only have time for about three or four takes here or there, and then you got to move on. I thought an interesting way to approach that would be to go back to that old kind of classic master framing and staging within the frame and tell the story that way, letting the camera movements enhance the relationships between the characters in the film and how they relate to each other. And in some cases, provide a little insight into what some of those relationships might be because that’s something that we can do once or twice, and if you get it, move on and do another setup in a different scene. It just made sense creatively and practically in how we had to construct the production.
In terms of the story, you chose to keep much of the characters’ backstories out of the narrative. Was this always your intent? Did you develop histories for each of the characters just for your use and for the use of your actors?
For the use of the actors? Yes, I gave them a little bit more information, particularly Mother (Elyse Dinh) and Father (Casper Van Dien), about where they might have been coming from just to inform their performances. In the case of Daughter (Vivien Ngô), there was somewhat of an origin scripted for her that we had fully intended to shoot and include in the film. We ended up shooting a partial version of it that didn’t really work and decided not to use it. But at that point, and that decision of we’re not going to necessarily see exactly where she came from, I decided it would be interesting to just kind of double down on that lack of a backstory for her in a way to put the audience in a similar position that she was in – being abducted into this house, and not knowing why or how, and not knowing how anybody else ended up here or what their relationships were. So I was trying to use that lack of information on her part to mirror that lack of information for the audience …to keep them in a similar emotional space.
Tell me about your cast and what they each bring to their roles.
They were incredible to work with. It began with just Vivien Ngô and I having conversations about something that we wanted to do together. She introduced the idea of working with Ian Alexander and Elyse Dinh as a family unit, originally talking about a completely different project. A few months later, that idea was still in my head. The three of them would play a family … So when we finally set out to make what would become DAUGHTER, I was writing it for those three actors and trying to lean into things that I found interesting about those actors and put them in positions where it could challenge what they were used to doing and give them an opportunity to do something that they hadn’t done yet in their careers and just see how much fun we could have really pushing them to the extremes. And then, let’s say for Casper Van Dien, it was just the fun of having him play something that’s really against type for somebody like him.
Casper Van Dien is so charismatic. Was difficult to rein him in at times? What insight did he have into his character, Father?
He came from a very curious place of wanting to dig into this guy’s head and understand him, and I think he appreciated, especially as we got deeper into the film and the script, how much more he was able to kind of understand why Father was doing what he did. Father does have this very real, sincere, genuine desire to protect his family at a very basic instinct level. He wants to keep everybody in this house safe. His methods of going about that are questionable, but at the end of the day, he just wants everybody to be safe and happy. And I think Casper enjoyed getting into the psychology of a character like that and bringing his little nuances to it.
The contrast of Casper being so waspy and Caucasian with these actors of Asian descent is striking both visually and thematically. It forces the audience to ask so many questions.
Yeah, that was another piece of being able to use a little bit of what position the audience would be in to, hopefully, enhance their experience of seeing the film. When you do see a racial dynamic like that, and you see a power dynamic like that, we as an audience are going to come into that with our understanding of the world and what implications that might carry. For me, it kind of takes the burden off of having to explain it in the film, because I can rely on the fact that the audience is going to have some type of preconceived notion about what this might mean, just based on what those dynamics are.
It would be really easy to go heavy-handed with the violence in a film like this. That implied threat of violence is what makes it so much more frightening for me. So when those moments do happen, they hit hard. Was there ever a temptation to lean further into the more graphic aspects of the story to make it perhaps an easier sell to a genre audience?
I think, on my part, not really, in part because I think to do extreme violence well in a believable and grounded way is a little bit more expensive than what we’ve been able to do. I think sometimes when you try to go a little bit too extreme with the violence on a low budget, it can sort of cheapen the look of the film a little bit, but sometimes it can work really well if you’re in a more lighthearted tone or comedic tone or something like that, you can enjoy the fun of it. But for something like this, it felt like the violent element of it, even though there’s some other otherworldly stuff … going on in this film, the violence, to really have an impact, needed to feel as real and as visceral as possible. That meant, in this case, to be as grounded as possible. And so the idea of the threat of violence being more significant than the violence itself [is] why those moments that we do see on screen are either from a very far distance or just a little bit off camera, still playing with the idea of what’s happening there in your mind. You’re filling in the blanks, and the focus, rather than on the violence itself, is on the person who’s committing it and what is going on in their mind and their expressions and trying to create some kind of connection there.
You mentioned the “otherworldly elements.” There are moments in DAUGHTER that seem to take place in kind of a liminal space of the imagination. There are little physical artifacts in the frame that seem meaningful.
Oh, absolutely. So for me, talking about making something that felt like it was actually made in a different decade. Yeah, that extended to the equipment as well. Even to be shot on. on film, we did not even use modern film cameras and technology. W used an older generation of 16-millimeter cameras. And those were finicky and not very well maintained. So there’s not a lot of VFX in the film, but we did spend a significant portion of our VFX budget correcting the frame wobbling back and forth from magazines that were not well maintained. A magazine has one job, just feed the film [into the camera]. But when it’s not well maintained, it’ll wobble a little bit. So you start watching the film, and you start seeing the image [shaking], and now we’re using VFX just to get it to stay still. That’s just what came with the territory of using that old equipment. But all of those little imperfections, the scratches, the light leaks – none of that was added in post. That was just what was there. So those moments, the light leak flash, or the big scratch, those were moments where we ran out of film. We shot till the end of the roll, and that was it. That became the cut of the take, and that ended up in the film.
Amazing. I would have never guessed you shot on 16 millimeter. You did not want to make it easy for yourself did you?
I really didn’t. I liked the challenge, and I liked the idea of experimenting. And I liked the idea of trusting instinct. That’s something that you have to do. We didn’t even use high-def monitoring on set because that wasn’t available on those cameras. I think the modern ones, you can get an HD feed out of them, but on those, all you’re getting is a little grainy, standard definition image on this tiny little box. So for me, it was also like, don’t worry so much about that. Put your faith in the actors and in the performances and put your time into them rather than sitting behind a monitor somewhere. Be with them in the space, feel it out and trust what they’re doing. Trust what your crew is doing and empower them to do their best work because they see that confidence. And our crew was incredible on this one. Our camera team was the best I’ve ever worked with.
We’ve barely scratched the surface of this film. I can’t wait to see what you do next. Last question: Would you ever be interested in writing and directing, for lack of a better term, a more “traditional” horror film? Perhaps a slasher or maybe a ghost story or a monster movie? Would you like to continue working in the genre?
Yeah, absolutely. The next feature that I am setting up, and, hopefully, one that I’ll be making this year is a more contemporary contained thriller. DAUGHTER is, in a lot of ways, a creative experiment and part of a creative experiment in visual language. And so the next film, the next attempt will be, can I do something that is more of a traditional, contemporary, quicker-paced American thriller film with the visual style of DAUGHTER? And let’s see how that works.
DAUGHTER from Dark Star Pictures and Yellow Veil Pictures is available now on VOD.
“ I wanted to find a way to make our limitations become our strength and even become our creative aesthetic. Even the mistakes in how I made the film could become part of the visual language…“