Interview with Catherine Dao - Symphoria Intrigues
By: Hooman Razavi
Symphoria is the latest of Catherine Dao film, a psychological-romantic thriller which capture the audience viscerally and intellectually. The themes are subtle and interwoven and the aesthetic strong and hard to ignore. The opportunity to interview the director virtually during the COVID allowed a window into her thoughts and process of making the film. Dao's explanation shows how much her background (ethnic and professional) and personal interests precipitated in the fabric of the film and how she made it so that all elements and players work harmoniously. Dao has other future projects and a company with the same intriguing name as the film.
Hooman Razavi, Phoenix Journal (PJ): How did you come up with the film's main title "Symphoria"?
Catherine Dao (CD): I actually have a PhD in Chemistry from University of Southern California. Initially, I wanted to write films that glamorize science, especially for women. I’m an only child, so my very traditional Chinese father raised me like a son. I was fortunate in this sense. When I had my son and worked in his classroom starting in kindergarten, I noticed that girls did not feel encouraged to learn science or cared about it. That’s the long game plan. The straight answer is:
Symphoria. Sounds like a “happy”musical term, as in euphoria, only with music? Reasonable guess, but the word “symphoria”comes from the Greek symphoro, to bring together usefully (sym = together, phero = to bring). It is…are you ready? A chemical term! Symphoria is the art of stereochemistry where reactants are brought into the “perfect”three-dimensional spatial relationship in order to catalyze a desired reaction. English translation = If you shove some right stuff into the right place at the right time, you can make some good shi#!@ happen, or you can get very dark and twisted. Can you see where we’re headed, here?!
(PJ): How did the idea of film came about after your earlier works of Contact and The Trap. Any personal angle to the plot?
(CD): I was mostly the actor in my past projects. Now,I’m the crazy gal who thinks she can do it all. Believe it or not, my forte is comedy. I’ve written four feature-length screenplays prior to Symphoria, all of them comedies. But I was in the middle of the 3rd season of Dexter when I started writing this script. It was supposed to be a comedic variation of Pygmalion, by the brilliant George Bernard Shaw, only I am “Henry Higgins,”and “Liza”is the younger male student, and, of course, a different, modern day story. Well, you get the picture. Punny, I know. Anyway, not only did my story go darker and darker, it also just about wrote itself, which was new and exciting…and somewhat disturbing. Since I’m fortunate to be surrounded by people who love and support me, I was encouraged to go with it. So, now it’s a romantic-ish psychological thriller with its splatter of humor here and there (old habits die hard, after all).
(PJ): How did you decide to play in the role of Professor Dalton? How was Shawn's and other casting roles decided?
(CD): I actually wanted to just direct the film. But it was tough to find someone to play Professor Dalton, so my Executive Producer and dear friend Nancy Isaak convinced me to do it myself. I thought she was crazy, but her confidence in me pushed me to deliver. It’s amazing what one can do with positive reinforcements. I had contacts with A Martinez and Eileen Davidson, so I offered them the roles. I was thrilled that they accepted right away. We held auditions and callbacks for all the other roles. Interesting fact. A Martinez’s son looks a lot like Tyler Wolfe, the actor who played his son “Shawn Wittig”. I actually used one of A’s real father-son shots in the film for a “Carl and Shawn Wittig”picture.
(PJ): The presence of Chemistry and its metaphor for something more troubling are there, how did you integrate so much of it in the story?
(CD): It was interesting to me that the Chemistry meaning was something used to do good in the world. By using the same word, redirecting it to people and life events, it is used to do something very bad. Instead of using a catalyst to make the desired positive chemical reactions to occur that otherwise would not, I decided to put Professor JT Dalton, the human catalyst that gathered the people (Shawn who killed her loved-one, without spoiler alert) and generated events (the college program) to get to HER own end and possibly reform Shawn.
The story centers around many themes-love, family, memory, death; were your intentions from the beginning to have it all in the story?
I started with an outline. Once I was set on this 2 page outline, I started to write. Unlike my previous 4 screenplays, my characters knew where they wanted to go. I fought it for a while, and my husband talked me into “just go with it”! In the end, I realized that all of these elements you mentioned were in my own life on another level. The first four months of my son’s life, I went from being fearless, to constantly having nightmares of something happening to him. I thought I would go crazy. As a parent, this is always a super-fear. Family has always being a big part of my life. I lost my dad at 20 when I was more like 12 on the inside. My mother passed away the month before my son was conceived. I think we write what we know, and this film came out of me fast because it’s all part of me.
(PJ): A viewer wouldn't be surprised to see so many elements of Chinese culture in the film and mise-en-scene, how did you decide to mesh it with the rest of story elements and visually during film shooting?
(CD): Well, I am Chinese by ethnicity, but massively Americanized. My husband is Jewish because his mother was Jewish, but his dad was Scottish-Irish, so our son is a mix. As a true American, I feel that we’re a giant melting pot. I always love seeing other cultures in films. The best ones I personally like are ones that doesn’t shove it in your face. So my objective was to incorporate some Chinese culture into the story in a non-invasive manner. I also spend time with my wonderful crew, sharing what I had wanted was to have evidence and the feel of a first generation Chinese immigrant. Because I really love the Chinese art form of traditional ribbon dancing, I used that as part of the fatal seduction. Lucky for me, I knew a professional, Alice Lo, who is also Mrs. Yang in the film. The colors red, gold and black are all Chinese favorites. Most of the props from JT Dalton’s home I had inherited from my parents. The quicky shots of Dalton’s parents were my actual parents.
(PJ): Can you elaborate more on cinematography, specially choice of music and scene colorings? Are you satisfied with the overall work aesthetically?
(CD): We ended up with a great cinematographer, Hiroyuki Haga. He understood the feel of the story and culture, and shots I was aiming for. Also, we had to do them fast. It is a true indie film, we were scheduled tightly with no room to play. Principle photography was 21 days. Because our main character JT Dalton had Chinese roots, the theme is to incorporate a taste of various Chinese instrumental sounds in appropriate places. Our fabulously talented Composer David Lamont did amazing scoring that it is one of my favorite elements of Symphoria. The mix of Western Classical music, influences of Chinese music, jazz and popular music, along with some exotic and ethnic instruments were used to enhance the multi-ethnic nature of the film. In a couple of scenes, industrial sounds were used as instruments. Each location had their own “coloring,”but the big picture is dark, disturbing but lots of red, for blood and Chinese feel, keeping the audience slightly uneasy. Satisfied? That’s tough to answer. Is there ANY director that walks away completely satisfied ever? Given the ultra-low budget, time restraints, off-screen drama, etc., of an indie, YES, I’m blessed to have we got.It’s making a bit of a splash among the true indie festival circuit.
(PJ): The themes of love/death are present in an entangled way throughout the story? Could characters such as Vicky and their presence in the plot be explained in that lens?
(CD): As the writer, I had intended Vicky and JT Dalton to be life-long friends who will do anything for each other and everything together since they were babies. They have gone through dark times together in their younger days as the back story. On the set, the chemistry, wink, wink, between the very sexy Eileen Davidson and I took it to another level of sexual intrigue which can only be seen and felt through the lens. It IS a visual art, so I’m thrilled you noticed. Thank you for your sharp senses. I truly appreciate your efforts.
(PJ): Apart from cross-cultural references, eroticism is another aspect entwined? How did you plan to aesthetically develop that dimension?
(CD): This is not something I planned for specifically. However, I’ve always believed that humans, regardless of culture, skin color, body types, age, or gender preferences are all sensual. As a filmmaker, I’d like to quietly incorporate the humanity that we all share. Find and enjoy connections instead of jumping to negative interactions. The erotic elements you detected in Symphoria grew from my natural expression of sensuality as the writer watching my main character go down this very dark path and fell for her prey’s innocence, and her attempt to save him from ruin.
(PJ): What was your strategy to allow memory to plan a central role in the film, both in Dalton and Shawn's lives? How did you plan to depict it?
(CD): After my 2 page outline, I wrote detailed backstories for my main characters and main supporting characters. Something I do every time I acted since I got in SAG in 1989. Dalton’s character was the easiest to put on paper, but the most difficult to keep intact. After I started writing, it wasn’t long before I had to drastically rewrite all of my four main characters’backstory. They wanted to be in a “Dexter”-dark film. Once I figured out Dalton’s sob story, I think my natural parental fears kicked in. I find that the more detailed history of each character I write, the stronger the character will start to speak for themselves. At this point, instead of “planning depictions,”I close my eyes, then I see what the characters do.
(PJ): Any thought on a future project on a similar themes and notes? Can you give our audience some heads up?
(CD): My film company is called Symphoria Films, LLC. I had always planned to make more films under this name because making a film takes a lot of reagents, i.e., people, a catalyst, i.e. funding, physical placement of certain chemicals, i.e., the cast and crew on a set! In view of what’s happening in the world, I’m inspired to continue making films to heal people, one story at a time. When I was growing up, I was very responsive to great films. I went into chemistry at first because I watched the black and white film“Madam Curie.” My Executive Producer is working on a film that’s amazing. It’s another horror film. No definite plans yet, but there will be more films with opportunities for a diverse cast and crew. Thank you so much for your time!