A college campus becomes the hunting ground for a masked murderer in John Berardo's Initiation, and with the new murder mystery now playing in theaters and available On Demand and Digital, we caught up with Berardo in a new Q&A feature to discuss taking a unique approach to the slasher subgenre, working with a talented cast (including Yancy Butler and Lochlyn Munro), and the self-reflective nature of the killer's mask in Initiation.
Thanks for taking the time to answer questions for us, John, and congratulations on your new movie, Initiation! What sparked the idea for Initiation, and how long did it take you, Brian Frager, and Lindsay LaVanchy to write the script?
John Berardo: Thank you for promoting the movie! We're all so excited, it’s been a long time coming. The evolution of the idea and script happened in many different stages throughout the years. 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 that created a call to action on a particular issue we wanted to create an awareness for. Over the semester, I made a short film called "Dembanger," which is a code term for an exclamation point, a digital scream. 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 we had a path for a feature. I grew up in Norman, OK, 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, applied it to a story with characters who are forced to face the insidious side of college culture. Brian and Lindsay both believed in me and the short, no matter how many passes I got on the script, they saw what could be a really impactful movie. They also knew the college world from the inside out from their own experiences. Brian and I went to USC together and he started co-writing the project with me in 2014. Lindsay and I went to UCLA together, we were both getting our BAs in theatre. She was an acting major and I was directing. She's a magnetic actress and inspired the hell outta me every time I saw her perform. So, as Brian and I wrote, we would have script readings, and Lindsay came to every single one of them. She added so much during these readings to try and come up with the most realistic type of dialogue and characters we could. So it was just an organic next step to bring her on as a co-writer around 2016. We all learned from each other and became better writers during the process. By 2019 we had each added our own unique perspectives to the script together, which made it a 10x better script than I could have ever tried to write alone.
Where did filming take place, and how many days were in your shooting schedule?
John Berardo: We shot this movie in 16 days. Long 12-hour days, but it was a fun race. We filmed all over Los Angeles. One week at the frat house which was a historic house in Glendale, then a few days at UCLA and USC. Then the other half of the shoot was in Pomona at an old US postal campus. We couldn't get the approval to do the violence in the script on a college campus, so we saw this old USPS campus as an opportunity that worked in our favor for the majority of the scenes. It was a wild experience, and it had the perfect setting for our final act. It was rundown and dangerous, due to being an active construction site, and not in the safest area, but those challenges made it all so much fun. And being on location for all-nighters was a trip, it definitely added a level of creepiness. Many cast and crew were convinced the property was haunted.
How important was it for you to take a unique approach to the slasher and murder mystery subgenres?
John Berardo: Important as ever. Above all, I'm a huge true crime and murder mystery fan. I've seen every Forensic Files episode more times than I'm willing to admit. But watching shows like that over time really instills the reality of a horror film with real-life cases and people. There's obviously a difference between a serial killer mystery and a slasher, yet there are so many elements that go hand in hand when developing a solid "killer" character for both. I also believe if you can get an actor to deliver a realistic performance in a horror/slasher, it automatically elevates it in comparison to what we're used to seeing. Performance is everything when it comes to horror.
We also didn't want to make a movie, story, or characters we've seen before. We all know how inherently misogynistic the slasher genre has been since its infancy. Large man with a phallic object, chasing a vulnerable woman, it's all so inherently sexual and old school. So we wanted to bend these genre barriers, do a little gender swapping, but yet still give the older horror queens a run for their fandom. Because if we can reinvent these stereotypes and how they translate to today's world, and still have all the elements of a classic slasher, we can use the genre to convey certain themes that could hopefully give a bigger impact on the subject matter of the story we're telling.
I love the look of the killer’s mask in this movie. Did you give costume designer Jessica Flaherty any specific details on the visual style that you wanted for the killer?
John Berardo: Hell yeah! The mask was so important to us from the beginning. We constructed every detail of the killer’s mask to fit in the realm of genre-referencing—seeing yourself in the killer’s mask, facing your own demons, etc. Way earlier on in the process, the killer had a dome-like reflective mask, and that was the plan until a few months before production. We did a camera test in 2017 and found the dome did pose some challenges with camera and crew reflections. So we pushed the idea to give it a geometric, fragmented, more masculine design, something that would symbolize the EDM music concert culture and the themes of our story, too. We brought Jessica on to design the wardrobe right after we were greenlit, and there was some debate on whether it was a costume piece or a prop, because we do have the mask as more of a prop in the first act, showing the audiences the origins of it (something else we don't usually see in a typical slasher). We also knew we wanted it to look manufactured, like something purchased, not crafted. Jessica had 20+ cast members to worry about and not much time to do it all. So once we were all on the same page with the design, she let us take over the execution of it.
Luckily, Brian Frager's uncle, Stan Dufek, a retired designer at Disney, took a protocol I made and designed a really iconic slasher mask. It came out better than I ever imagined.
You worked with a talented cast on this film, including Yancy Butler and Lochlyn Munro. What was it like collaborating with all of them to bring this story to life?
John Berardo: It was a dream, honestly. Our casting director Ricki Maslar brought them to the project and I was mind blown they joined. Mostly because these were actors I grew up watching, so to be able to now direct them was everything I could have ever hoped for. Lochlyn and Yancy not only brought what they do best to this movie, but they were so fun to work with on set. In between every take, Jon Huertas, Kent Faulcon, Lochlyn, and Yancy would banter and shoot the shit like old friends. They had all worked together at one point over the years, and it was kind of like a reunion for them. Their entire time on set we were all inspiring each other with ideas and executing every scene flawlessly. It was also cool working with actors from different performance techniques and backgrounds. Being able to bring them together for our movie was all so perfect.
Looking back at your time on set, is there a favorite or memorable moment that stands out?
John Berardo: There isn't ONE time, the entire experience with the cast and crew is a memory I'm going to cherish for the rest of my life. But, there were a couple scenes that 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. The unfortunate truth is 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 that made me wanna root for her even more. 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 as 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.
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.
While making Initiation, were you inspired by any other horror films or TV series that are set at colleges?
John Berardo: 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 youth culture of the ’90s and revitalized and elevated the slasher genre. It was such a fun and inventive movie unlike any I had never seen before. I knew at an early age that I wanted to make movies and started making my own in middle school—because I have the most awesome parents who encouraged me to follow that dream. In terms of college setting, we didn't look at any previous college slasher movies for inspiration because we wanted to try and do something different.
Obviously, we homage a lot of them in the first five minutes, but our movie needed to get serious after that. One movie that really affected Brian and I when we went to USC was The Social Network. It came out our first semester in grad school and was huge amongst our film school peers. It was one of those movies everyone was trying to copy with their shorts, us included. We are both big Fincher fans and the movie's inciting incident really shows how social media (as we know it today) began. The Social Network unveiled the beginning stages of the cyberbullying issues our movie deals with. Let's not forget, Facebook started as Facesmash. Kinda effed up if you think about how it all began and how it became the media giant it is today. What does that say about our society? It’s on younger filmmakers like us to answer some of these questions, or at least pose them differently.
Ultimately, what do you hope viewers take away from Initiation?
John Berardo: Ultimately, at the very end of the movie, I want the audiences to feel what it's REALLY like to be in Kylie or Ellery’s situation. I don't want them to feel satisfied or have closure, because most real-life cases that our movie models DO NOT have personal closure and there are so many unanswered questions. But, I also want the movie to be an enjoyable and relatable ride that pays homage to the movies I was inspired by, with a modern take for today’s generation. We made this movie to be a conversation starter on extremely important issues that people are facing every day, true horrors of the world. I want audiences to see how movies like Initiation can bend genre barriers and stereotypes to convey important themes on the real-life issues in the story we're telling. I hope Initiation encourages viewers to investigate their own lives and ways of thinking about the dense issues the movie tackles.
What has it been like to team up with Saban Films to release Initiation?
John Berardo: Saban Films has been wonderful. We really lucked out with them, especially with the pandemic. We were originally scheduled to premiere at SXSW in 2020, so after the world shut down, there was so much unknown. Luckily, we had an amazing sales team with CAA and XYZ Films. They believed in our movie and scrambled to still get it in front of buyers even though everything was shut down. Saban came on last summer and after our initial chat with them, I knew we got the best distributor we could have, even if we had premiered at SXSW. They saw everything our movie was going for. The business of watching and selling movies is changing, and Saban has been one step ahead of a lot of other distributors during the pandemic. The journey with them has been collaborative and inspiring, despite the obstacles the pandemic has been posing—and the trailer and poster they made, both blew my mind. They're a company that cares about the filmmaker, and this was my first rodeo, so I couldn't be more grateful to have that team of support. Also, before my teenage obsession with Scream, I was a Power Rangers kid. Love how things come full circle in life.
With Initiation now in theaters, On Demand, and Digital, what other projects do you have coming up that you’re excited about?
John Berardo: Of course! I obviously 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. I'm working on two projects now, both suspense-crime-thrillers, but one is my next passion project, Westlake. I think we all needed to reflect during the pandemic, and I wanted to use the time to take what I had learned and write a movie that is a bit more personal to my life and the man I've become. In a way, turning a crisis into an opportunity. I'm very excited about it!