The 2020 crime-mystery-horror movie, Initiation pays homage to the 1996 classic, Scream. Set during university's pledge week, a star athlete is murdered, and a hunt to find the identity of the masked attacker begins. As the unknown killer continues to terrorize the school, each character's phone activity can be seen by us, the viewing audience.
In a recent Q&A with Borrowing Tape, we talked to Initiation filmmaker John Berardo about his experience directing and co-writing the movie with screenwriters Brian Frager and Lindsay LaVanchy. Initiation is now available to watch in theaters, VOD and Digital (Amazon), and Apple TV.
What was the inspiration for the film, Initiation?
This movie took seven years to get made, so there have been so many inspiring events over time that shaped the story into what it became. But the initial spark of inspiration started in 2012. I was getting my MFA at USC and took a new class called "Making Media for Social Change." The goal of the class was to make a short film with a call to action on a particular issue we wanted to create an awareness for. I knew I wanted to make a horror movie about social media, and I'm one of the biggest "Scream" fans you'll ever meet, so I decided to re-invent the opening scene for today's audience. Over the semester, I made a short film called "Dembanger", which is a code term for an exclamation point, a digital scream. I originally just wanted the movie to be titled "!", but was told it needed a real name. It's about a teenager who's stalked and eventually murdered because of the personal info he posts on Facebook. The reception I got from test audiences was amazing. 90% of people who watched ended up going on Facebook and changing their privacy settings after the movie. After realizing how this movie actually created a call to action, I knew that I had a path for my first feature. I grew up in Norman, Oklahoma — home of the OU Sooners — went to UCLA and USC, so if I knew any world really well, it was college. I took what I learned from the short film and the dangers of social media, and applied it to a story with characters who are forced to face the insidious side of college culture.
How did you find the co-writing process for Initiation, collaborating with Screenwriters Brian Frager and Lindsay LaVanchy?
The process of writing our script evolved through the different stages of pitching the movie over the years. Brian and Lindsay both believed in me, no matter how many passes I got on the script, and they saw what could be a really impactful movie. Brian and I went to USC and we began collaborating on each other's projects during grad school. He started co-writing with me in 2014 after I had a couple of years of unsuccessfully trying to get interest in the movie. Lindsay and I went to UCLA together, we were both getting our BAs in theatre. She was an acting major and I was directing. The moment we met, we clicked. I cast her in my first directing scene, "A Streetcar Named Desire" — she's a magnetic actress and inspired the hell out of me every time I saw her perform. We would have script readings, and Lindsay came to every single one of them. She added so much, I eventually realized I was directing these readings to try and come up with the most realistic type of dialogue and characters we could. So, we asked her to come on as a co-writer because she brought so much to the script. We all learned from each other and became better writers during the process. We each added our own unique perspectives, which made it a 10x better script than I could have ever tried to write alone.
A refreshing element of the movie is that the characters reacted in emotionally realistic ways to traumatic events, such as sadness, shock, denial, anger. How did you approach directing, Initiation?
Thank you! I always kept a question in the back of my mind on set, "What is the most realistic way this could happen?", and you always find the answer to that with your actor. Because they connect the audience to the story and the reality of the world. We see it all the time, people screaming at the TV watching a horror movie, shouting the logical moves they would make if they were being chased by someone with a weapon. Horror does that to us, it is one of the unique genres that sets audiences up to ask the question, "What would I do in that situation?" If you add a relatable performance to the mix, it only encourages the audience to then emotionally invest with the characters who are experiencing that horrifying situation. I love working with actors. It's my favorite part of directing. Every time I approach a scene that requires an actor to make themselves vulnerable, it's important to understand how that actor likes to perform and cater to them. Every actor is different too, which makes the job so much more fun! You say yes to everything, and together, we come up with many ideas and try them all. The final step of shaping the performance the audiences actually see is done by my editor, Kristina Lyons. I also met her at USC and we jived from the start, and she was the editor of the short film. The relationship between a director and an editor is sacred — just as important as a director and an actor. Before I direct, I break down the script and emotional arcs of each character with Kristina. This gives me a sense of what she wants because she's the one who's re-writing the movie with the performances we're able to get.
What was it like collaborating with Cinematographer Jonathan Pope? How did you achieve the final aesthetic for Initiation?
Pope (we call him Pope) is not only a visual genius — he invests in the story and the characters to inspire his aesthetic for the movie. He's another USC grad, and he was the DP of the short film. It was the first project he and I had worked on together at USC, and after that, I knew I had a DP I was always on the same page with and could communicate seamlessly. And like everyone else, Pope was so involved with the project since 2012 and was a monumental force in getting Initiation made. He always believed in the movie and we created the vision of it together. Our process is collaborative, and we both love thinking of ways to be creative with moving masters, playing with color in ways that reflect the themes of the story, etc. So before we begin shot listing, I create a detailed lookbook that breaks down the visual design of each scene, from palettes to textures. I like to do this because it gives every crew member a visual starting place to create their own unique vision for the movie. We knew we wanted the movie's visual arc to begin with a warmer vibrant feel, and slowly desaturate and cool throughout the movie, reflecting the character and story's arcs. After I finished the lookbook, Pope and I spent a few nights shot listing, page by page, creating each shot of the movie together. While we did this, he would draw the overheads on his iPad. I then took those overheads and sketched out each shot into storyboards. Not everyone needs to storyboard or overhead, but we like to. It makes us feel more prepared and allows us to see the movie visually on micro and macro levels before we begin production. Every day, we would show up on set with boards of each shot and overheads, they not only give the rest of the cast and crew confidence that we have a plan, [but] they [also] inspire new ideas for everyone.
Seeing everyone’s phone activity when they’re on-screen added a whole new dimension to the world they live in. Can you tell us more about this creative choice, and the role VFX played in the movie?
I'm so thrilled it resonated! From the beginning, we knew that social media was not only important to the story but also the themes we are trying to tackle. Approaching the script, social media and texting were treated like another character. Before shooting the movie, I knew that I wanted the design to be stark and simple. An interface that would be timeless. Before production, the actors made their own character's social accounts, thinking and engaging with their characters and the script in a way that not many actors do for roles. From a performance standpoint, I wanted to make sure they had working phones while shooting, and were actually texting and posting on the accounts they created. We had a designated social media/phone coordinator on set — someone whose job it was to distribute phones to actors, making sure the right accounts/numbers were ready for the scene, organized every digital aspect. They would also perch next to the script supervisor during scenes that required live message exchanges. This not only allowed the cast to perform online live, but we would also screen record each phone that was used in a scene, almost like another camera. Those screen recordings were then dumped with the dailies, so our post team could start lining up the messages that needed to be designed for visual effects before they even received a cut from the editor. This pipeline made things seamless for us from pre-production, all the way to delivery. It also gave us a huge amount of media that was captured by the cast on set. Visual Effects played a major part in making our movie's messages resonate. We co-partnered with a post team in Australia, Artisan Post group — a small team of creators and innovators in Adelaide. They not only did the VFX, but they also did the sound design and mix. I got to go to Australia and work with the team for a while, which was a total dream. I'll be honest, probably about 50% of the messages that were in the script or recorded on set stayed the same in the final cut. We learned we could add a message or change something from what was originally written to make a character seem more suspicious, or steer the audience's direction. It was a lot of work and coordinating, but we knew it had to be done that way to make the message and themes of the movie as authentic and relatable as possible.
Which scenes from Initiation are your favorite - from shooting and the final edit?
I loved all of them but three stick out. The scene where Kylie and Shayleen are discussing what happened at the party the morning after, and Ellery comes into the bedroom after her fight with Wes. We all knew many people who watch this movie have been a part of these conversations and it was important for all of us to do this scene right. It's also the first scene where we're introduced to our main characters without the drunken party facade, and we see how they respond to the first major crisis. I loved how Isabella approached Kylie. Right away she brought an honest performance. She was so unapologetic with the way she handled the situation and I only had to encourage that. Isabella brought Kylie to a level that breaks the stereotypes of what we're used to commonly seeing survivors portrayed in movies and TV. We were also in a tiny bedroom shooting the scene, it was hot and uncomfortable. I think that added to the subtext and dynamic of the three of them. Believe it or not, there was a lot more dialogue in the scene that we cut out because we just didn't need it. Kristina was able to shape the different performances we captured into a really powerful and engaging scene.
As difficult a scene as it was to shoot, I loved directing Lindsay in the scene where Ellery discovers her brother was murdered. This scene was a testament to her ability to deliver a killer performance. I gave her a lot of space and time... it was sort of like slowly pushing her off a cliff, convincing her she's gonna fly. It was tense and emotional, but she brought it like no other. I watch so many documentaries and I find myself in tears during interviews of people retelling the moments they were informed a loved one has tragically died. It's a haunting moment that you will relive in your mind for the rest of your life. It's real horror. Lindsay built that moment take by take, and I think will touch anyone who watches it. Jon Huertas and Kent Faulcon's playing off of Lindsay in the scene was also done very specifically to make sure and help bring the moment to life. It was a prime example of a team of actors working together at their finest.
My favorite scene to shoot was with my brother, James Berardo. He played Dylan and had a very challenging scene, emotionally and physically. And we had half a day to shoot it. After his final take, he got a round of applause from the entire set. I loved seeing him so confident and proud of what we just made together.
How were stunts and gore executed in Initiation?
We had an amazing stunt coordinator, Anthony Nanakornpanom, who brought an enthusiastic team of stunt doubles. This was my first rodeo with stunts, so I really just listened and let them tell me what needed to be done to achieve the scenes in the safest way possible. We definitely scheduled days with stunts a lot of room because they couldn't be rushed. Especially since most of the actors did their own stunts, even the killer. Our make-up artist, Gaby Castellanos, did the gore on camera. There were blood tubes, prosthetics, the works. We had one death scene in someone's home, so we had to be very careful with blood splatter, covering everything in plastic sheets. I thought it was excessive at first, but I was dead wrong. It was covered in blood by the end of the night. Both stunts and gore require so much more time than you think you'll need, the resets, resting, it was a constant race against the clock. But shooting these scenes gave our set adrenaline. Executing them successfully is a team effort and ours were all a blast to shoot!
Which films/directors have influenced you as a filmmaker, including Initiation? What are some of your favorite movies from the past decade?
Scream. I'm a hardcore fanboy. Every college entrance essay asked, "Describe the most emotionally intense moment of your life" in some form of a question, and my essay was always the same detailed prose of the first night I saw Scream. The movie defined the youth culture of the nineties and revitalized and elevated the slasher genre. It was such a fun and inventive movie unlike any I had never seen before. Sidney Prescott was my superman. It was also disturbingly violent, and I was eleven years old, and it scared the hell out of me. We're talking nightmares, for weeks. But I eventually faced my fears and turned them into a teenage obsession with the franchise that inspired me to make movies myself.
One of my favorite movies from the past decade is Nocturnal Animals. It’s cinematic poetry that conveys some of the most horrific scenes and scenarios in an emotionally poignant and beautiful way. The performances were so dense and the non-linear storytelling blended with art/fiction vs. real life/relationships just spoke to me. It was a postwar melodrama thriller. It's a movie I could watch again and again and discover a new unique detail every viewing.
Which themes and subject matters interest you as a filmmaker?
I like exploring the darker side of life, the anti-establishment suspense crime thrillers with relatable characters who are products of the cruel world they live in, facing and overcoming their fears to survive. It’s fun to bend genre barriers and stereotypes, thinking of different ways to convey certain themes that could hopefully give a bigger impact on the subject matter of the story we're telling. It's currently a time of monumental change. We're seeing an inclusion of perspectives in media that we've never seen before. I'm interested in giving voices to those perspectives with stories that encourage people to investigate their own lives and ways of thinking. It’s pure magic to change someone's mind with a movie they enjoyed watching.