INITIATION Exclusive Interview: John Berardo Talks How Being a Fan of Slashers Influenced His New Film
Michelle Swope talks with INITIATION director John Berardo about SCREAM’s impact on his work and more!
If you’re a fan of old school slashers like me, I hope you’re getting excited for the slasher resurgence we’re about to experience with movies like Candyman, Halloween Kills, and Scream. But first, you need to check out Initiation, which has an amazing 80s slasher vibe and is being released this week.
Directed by John Berardo (The Labyrinth) and written by Berardo, Brian Frager (A Persistent Illusion), and Lindsay LaVanchy (Scream: The TV Series), who also stars in the film as Ellery, Initiation combines an 80s slasher aesthetic with social media and timely social criticism. The film also stars Jon Huertas (This Is Us), Isabella Gomez (One Day at a Time), Froy Gutierrez (Teen Wolf), Gattlin Griffith (Green Lantern), Patrick Walker (The Resident), Bart Johnson (High School Musical 3: Senior Year), Shireen Lai, Kent Faulcon (Selma), Yancy Butler (Kick-Ass 2), and Lochlyn Munro (Riverdale).
Dread Central was excited to have the opportunity to talk with director John Berardo about how films like Scream have influenced his work, addressing sexual assault at universities, and a lot more. Read on to find out what we talked about!
Synopsis: During a university’s pledge week, the carefree partying turns deadly serious when a star athlete is found impaled in his dorm. The murder ignites a spree of sinister social-media messages, sweeping the students and police into a race against time to uncover the truth behind the school’s dark secrets and the horrifying meaning of a recurring symbol: a single exclamation mark.
Dread Central: You wrote Initiation with Brian Frager and Lindsay LaVanchy, who also plays Ellery in the film. This is basically a slasher film but also deals with some important social commentary, things like sexual assault at Universities. So I wondered how the three of you came up with the idea for the story?
John Berardo: The story originated when I was in graduate school. I was taking a class called Making Media for Social Change, and the goal of the class was to make a short film that was a call to action, that really imparted on the audience to do something that the film was talking about. I wanted to make the first scene of Scream but with a guy and Facebook, about the online dangers of social media. Scream is like my bible. I made the movie and the movie ended up doing really well.
Ninety percent of people ended up changing their privacy settings after watching the movie, so I knew I had a really good idea. Brian was at USC with me, so he and I started working on the script together. I tried to write it alone for a while and I wasn’t very successful in terms of getting interest in it. It went through so many stages over the years, of trying to pitch the movie, creating a pitch deck along with the script, and Lindsay and I went to UCLA together.
She was an acting major, and I was a directing major in the theater school, and I cast her in everything I could because she’s just a phenomenal actress. She and I clicked right away, and she would come to our script readings, and over time, Lindsay was adding so much to these characters that we couldn’t write alone, so we brought her on as a writer, probably around 2016 or 2017.
The three of us really started working together on the script, from there until production, and the issues of sexual assault sort of happened, I would say early on in the phase, when I was writing solo. I grew up in Norman, Oklahoma, a college town, and then I went to UCLA. I went to USC, and Brian, he was very active in his fraternity and undergrad, so we just knew that world really well. We knew that it was a world that the slasher film always made fun of; it was very satirical; it was very rare to see a serious slasher film.
Urban Legend obviously took the slasher film to the college level, but we wanted to add that social network element to it, and the truth is that both of us have had parts of these conversations with our friends, and sexual assaults at parties many times, and had not seen a movie that had really dealt with it in a realistic way. The slasher genre is such a misogynistic genre, inherently, that we thought it was the perfect genre to gender-flip everything and really doing that helped push the message that we were trying to go for even further.
DC: One of the things I think is really cool about Initiation is that it combines an 80s aesthetic with social media, as you said. So it feels like an 80s slasher, but with modern technology. How did you work with cinematographer Jonathan Pope to create that aesthetic for the film?
JB: Social media was very important to us from the very beginning in the script stage. You know, we’re not taught how to write about social media in film school, it was basically come up with your own language for it, so I did. John Pope, he was the DP on the short film as well, and so the short film didn’t have any social media graphics or anything. It was done very differently, but he and I knew, along with Brian Frager, while we were working on the script. He had a job working in VR, so he was really able to bring what he learned in the virtual reality space to social media, so we made sure in the script it was very accurate to the characters and how we all live our lives online every day.
Whenever we were on set, the actors were using real phones. And had accounts they created on Instagram and everything to get as authentic a performance as possible. And we screen recorded those phones, so they were kind of treated like B Cams and C Cams. The effects team took those and started creating the depth and the space, we had to really plan ahead, which shots were going to have movements and everything. It was a very, very intense pipeline that we really had to create ourselves because no movie had really done that, that we could take from, so it was a teamwork experience that paid off.
DC: I’m a huge fan of slashers. And we’re experiencing kind of a slasher resurgence with the release of Initiation, Candyman, Scream, and the Urban Legend reboot. I want to ask you; how does it feel to be a part of that resurgence?
JB: I’m going to start crying now; that’s what it feels like. As a kid I would have never dreamed that I would grow up and make my own horror movie. Actually, I did dream it, but it was still a dream. It’s amazing. I remember ten years ago when I saw Insidious in the theaters, I knew that the game had changed.
Insidious changed the game for horror. And for years I’ve been stalking every horror film that came out, to make sure that the idea I had for Initiation was not going to come out yet. And I’ll tell you what, we did it just in the nick of time. Horror goes in cycles, it repeats itself. It’s going to happen again in another twenty years. So I knew the cycle was coming. I could not be happier that our movie is coming out before the new Scream, the second Halloween, and Candyman. Because ultimately, we were inspired by all of the original ones. So it’s good for us to come out before these reboots do, you know?
DC: Initiation has such a great cast, and there are some really creative and nasty deaths. One of the characters is actually nailed to a wall! How did you go about creating those bloody effects and unique kills?
JB: I watched a lot of true crime, I wanted to make sure these kills were as realistic as possible. I’ll tell you; the drill was a weapon from the beginning. The weapon has a sort of metaphorical meaning to the theme of the film in toxic masculinity. And so I knew it was going to be a drill. The actors, they brought a lot to the movie and the stunts. They brought a lot of it and the makeup, they brought a lot.
But the actor who played the killer, we met with this actor and they said the power drill isn’t realistic, let me come up with a couple other ideas. I like the drill, but I want to add a knife, a hammer. And I let this person run with it because I think they brought an authentic performance. And thinking process the killer would go through to execute these murders in a realistic way.
Being creative with it was fun. I wanted to make sure for all of the deaths, people were in vulnerable positions. [They needed] to have meaning, and I wanted each one to be very different. I didn’t want them to be the same. We’ve seen that slasher movie before. The first death is exciting. The second death is kind of the same. And the third death is exactly the same. I wanted them each to be very, very different. Because that’s what keeps the slasher audience excited and invested in the characters.
A lot of these people that die, you might not be sad that they die. Or whatever feelings you have towards these characters. Being creative was fun. So much blood! We do the majority of the blood practically, and we just added some things here and there with special effects. Each day with a death scene, we had one day dedicated pretty much to each death scene. One day we had to do two, but that was an insane day. Also, I feel we see so many slasher movies where we see females in vulnerable positions. They’re showering or naked together doing something. Why not have that with some men; why not flip it? Let’s be real here, it’s 2021, we haven’t seen that.
Saban Films will be releasing Initiation in theaters, on demand, and on digital May 7th.