Last year, Corey Deshon and Vivien Ngô were feeling trapped within the confines of the Hollywood film business.
Deshon, a screenwriter, felt that his value was often tied to an assumption that he’d write contemporary stories about his marginalization as a black man.
Ngô, a Vietnamese American actress raised in Fountain Valley, saw that most opportunities to play Vietnamese American characters in film and television were in stories tied to war trauma.
But what Deshon, a curious reader of philosophy, was interested in writing was a parable inspired by the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir’s 1947 book “Ethics of Ambiguity.”
The result, “Daughter,” is an experimental surrealist thriller about a young woman (Ngô), known only as Daughter, who is kidnapped and trapped inside a house with a strange family — Father (Casper Van Dien), Mother (Elyse Dinh) and Brother (“The OA’s” Ian Alexander) — because an unknown toxin outside is making everyone sick.
They finished shooting the film in fall of 2019, before the first cases of a then-unknown new virus started being reported in December.
Then they started watching the news unfold, as coronavirus started overwhelming the population of China in January and February; as it spread around the world; and as they joined all Californians who were ordered to stay at home, as the U.S. recently surpassed China and Italy for the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the world.
“We did not plan for this,” says producer Lacy Lew Nguyen Wright, who grew up in Aliso Viejo, through a group Zoom interview. “We were like, can we still do this?”
They had already been planning to launch their Seed & Spark crowdfunding campaign in early March to fund post-production.
“I called everybody to ask ‘Is this insensitive?’” says Ngô, who is also a producer on the film.
But the film, thematically similar to Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Dogtooth” and Dan Trachtenberg’s “10 Cloverfield Lane,” is strangely relevant.
Because it’s not just about a makeshift family trapped indoors, it’s about what it means to be free. The characters are based on Beauvoir’s different archetypes of human beings that represent a different thought on freedom.
Brother represents the child-like attitude of “seriousness,” as he avoids all responsibilities of freedom by assuming these values exists outside of himself because he was born into a system created by adults.
Mother represents the “sub-man,” who, in assessing the situation, assumes she is not free and accepts that she cannot change her situation.
Father represents the “serious man,” who is the architect of the oppressive system. He is now also bound to it and must live by the rules he created.
And Sister is the catalyst that forces change in the system in her attempt for “genuine freedom,” which includes a concern for other people’s freedoms, as well as her own.
“It plays with the larger idea of whether or not the ‘serious man’ or ‘child’ here, when presented with choice, would just double down and do what they’ve always done, but with more conviction this time,” says Deshon.
When they were shooting pre-COVID-19, Ngô immediately saw the story through the lens of racial inequality, especially when the roles were cast with a white male father oppressing his Vietnamese American family.
“For me, it felt like a metaphor for how different Asians exist in the Western world, the way we survive in a system but move differently than [other people of color],” says Ngô. “There’s a little bit more privilege, but you have the children born into the system, you have the immigrant parents who are like, ‘It’s racist, but what can you do?’ and you have some of us who are liberal and younger questioning it in the way my character is trying to poke at it, asking why, why, why?”
But now that we’re in the midst of a coronavirus crisis, Deshon says the film has unexpectedly gained a new layer.
“Beauvoir also describes other types of freedom people can try to achieve, like the ‘passionate man,’ who cares enthusiastically about a goal but shares a contempt for others,” he explains. “This is the person who steps over others to reach their own freedom.”
He points to certain billionaires that try to make it look like they’re helping others but are really doubling down on their own selfish pursuits.
Ngô points to comments and complaints she saw on Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Facebook when he ordered folks to stay home and non-essential businesses to close down to help prevent the spread of the virus.
“Someone posted ‘This is infringing on rights. We are free men. Dangerous freedom is greater than peaceful slavery,’ “ she reads from her phone, shaking her head.
She also references another complaint from a bartender with the hashtags #wewontalldie and #butweallmaybecomehomeless.
“That’s almost like the dictionary definition of what Beauvoir was describing,” says Deshon, before quoting: “Not intending his freedom for men, the passionate man does not recognize them as freedoms either. He will not hesitate to treat them as things.”
“But a lot of us get it,” says Ngô. “At the end of the day, it’s better for a lot of us to stay in if we can.”
Deshon jokes that as a stay-at-home writer and “starving artist for seven years who has had a lot of rice and beans,” this time of isolation is “business as usual for him.”
But this time, he is working on his directorial debut, which he shot mostly within an old-fashioned Santa Clarita house, with 16mm film and a camera package from the ‘90s, in order to set his story in the distant past.
He’s proud that his film features “a story and a type of cast that wouldn’t exist in a high-budget film. We would be told it was unmarketable and that we couldn’t get it funded.”
But because he and his team, buoyed by producers that are all of Southeast Asian descent, willed this tiny project into existence, Alexander, who’s become known as a trans activist, can play a character that’s not tied to his gender identity.
Dinh, who’s been in the industry for decades as a supporting actor and Vietnamese dialect coach, can play a complex leading role. And Ngô, who’s also never played the lead before, was able to act in bilingually in Vietnamese for the first time.
It just happens to be in a story that strangely mirrors the current unprecedented global health crisis.
“We keep joking that Corey can predict the future or that he has magical powers where he writes things and it becomes true,” says Ngô.
“Well, we shot in a house Santa Clarita in the hills when the fires started to break out so that was probably an omen for us,” jokes Wright.
Deshon isn’t quite sure what to make of their film’s timing either.
“It seems like it could go either way, asking for money when everyone is strapping down,” says Deshon. “But there is this realization that creatives and freelancers are going to be hit hard, and I’ve been seeing a lot of outreach specifically for creatives … so this is our way of saying ‘Hey, we’re still trying to get something made. We’re still trying to get our names out there. Here’s how you can support us.’ “
To learn more about “Daughter,” visit their crowdfunding page at www.seedandspark.com/fund/daughter.