Sometimes themes emerge organically from cultural festivals. At this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, the bond between parents and children feels prominent, with films such as Jojo Rabbit, The World Is Bright, Nick Broomfield’s autobiographical My Father and Me and the documentary My Dads, My Moms and Me. Two of VIFF’s three galas focus on fathers and daughters: Atom Egoyan’s Guest of Honour, which opened the festival on Sept. 26, and the film chosen for the B.C. Spotlight gala on Oct. 5, Daughter.
Daughter is Vancouver director Anthony Shim’s debut feature and a star vehicle for his friend, veteran actor John Cassini. Cassini plays Jim, a wealthy man who spends a lot of time in bars, strip clubs and alone in his apartment. He no longer lives in the big, beautiful house he once shared with his now ex-wife, Anna (Jenn MacLean-Angus, Cassini’s real-life wife) and daughter, Tracy (Jordyn Ashley Olson). The catastrophe that preceded the marital breakup is slowly revealed through the course of the film, but it’s not hard to imagine what’s coming.
Shim, whose background is in theatre, initially wrote the script as a one-act play, which survives as a seminal scene in which Jim hosts a high-priced escort, Nikki (Teagan Vincze), in a swanky hotel suite. Shim began writing it while dealing with grief: When he was 18, his father was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis. He died a week after his son’s 24th birthday.
“I was just starting to become an adult, and my life just flipped upside down one day,” Shim, now 33, says during a recent interview at Vancity Theatre in Vancouver. “And I found myself looking around going: What happened?”
It got him thinking a lot about parenthood, the relationship between parents and children, what it means to be a parent, what it means to be a son or daughter. He thought about becoming a father one day.
“Those questions were circulating in my mind for a long time, and naturally I found myself drawn to others who had also experienced loss,” he says. “Because conversations with all those people became really comforting for me. And it was just a way for me to learn and grow and evolve from that time. And naturally, I think the things I was interested in exploring in my writing just happened to deal with those topics.”
He was planning to submit what he had written to a screenwriting lab and asked Cassini – a friend and artistic director and co-founder of Railtown Actors Studio, where Shim teaches, for his opinion.
“I went home and I read it and I was deeply moved by it pretty instantly,” Cassini says in the same interview. He says the script felt so mature, so nuanced, yet so devastating. “So I called him up and said, ‘We’ve got to make this movie.’ He said, ‘How?’ And I said, ‘We’ll get the money.’”
The money came from a Vancouver patron, a man who believed in Shim’s talents and gave him absolute creative freedom. You could call it a fatherly act. The man asked to remain anonymous and refused to be credited in the film.
“He said, ‘Just make a good movie – a movie you’re proud of,’” Cassini says.
Once they had the financing, the tiny creative team did months of prep – of a kind: a lot of getting together over bourbon and good food (prosciutto, antipasto), talking about parenthood, their relationships with their own parents, their own children.
“That’s preparation through osmosis. That is just such a gift, man, such a gift for an actor,” Cassini says. “That dialogue we had – I feel like we unlocked so many things.”
Cassini, who has two sons, connected to Jim in part by relating him with his own father, who died in 2005.
“My father was not very emotionally present. You know, old-school Italian father,” says Cassini, who lives in Vancouver but was born and raised in Toronto. “My father went to work every day, put food on the table, roof over our head, didn’t hit us, wasn’t an alcoholic, but he just wasn’t emotionally present. That’s the way I felt Jim was a bit. He was doing everything he could but he wasn’t really seeing what was going on in his family. And that was something … I could easily tap into, because I witnessed it my entire life growing up.”
The film was shot over 12½ days last December, often in very cramped quarters. Some takes in that hotel-room scene lasted as long as 15, even 20 minutes – which is unusual for a film set.
Cassini spent every morning of the production period the same way: At breakfast (two eggs over easy, toasted brioche bun, macchiato), instead of watching his usual CNN, he would watch segments of There Will Be Blood with Daniel Day-Lewis. “And for 20 minutes, while I ate breakfast, I watched an actor completely immersed in a role, just as inspiration.”
Taking a break from the news also helped – not only did it feel like a kind of cleanse, but it kept Cassini immersed in Jim’s world. On set in the condo that is Jim’s fancy penthouse hotel room, the forced intimacy of the space also supported immersion. Every room was occupied – with equipment, with the crew – and it was a long elevator ride for the actors to get off set. So they stayed.
The hometown world premiere on Oct. 5 sold out, and after VIFF, the film will travel to the Sao Paulo International Film Festival in Brazil. They’re hoping for more screenings after that.
“I’ll never not feel proud of it, regardless of how it does in the marketplace,” says Cassini, who is also one of the film’s producers. “This movie’s not going to be for everybody. The subject matter’s not going to be for everybody. But I wanted to make this movie, man. This is the movie. I feel like we did that.”
Daughter is at VIFF Oct. 5 and Oct. 8. Viff.org.