A mysterious music festival leads to murderous events for a group of friends and a DJ on the rise in Dreamcatcher, and with the new horror film now available on Digital and On Demand from Samuel Goldwyn Films, we caught up with writer/director Jacob Johnston in our new Q&A feature to discuss the making of his new movie, including the ambitious script writing process, the film's eclectic EDM tracks, and how he was influenced by ’90s ensemble films.
Thanks for taking the time to catch up with us, Jacob, and congratulations on your new movie, Dreamcatcher! How and when did you first come up with the idea for this film?
Jacob Johnston: Absolutely, thanks for taking the time to chat with me! The inception of Dreamcatcher began in the fall of 2018. Producers Brandon and Krystal Vayda, whom I’ve known for about six years now, called me and said [I’m paraphrasing], "Hey, we’ve got financing in place—and we want to make a movie!" When we first met back in 2015 at a backyard BBQ, we spent about two hours discussing our adoration for ’90s ensemble horror/thriller films, so I knew going into this process, our sensibilities would be fairly aligned.
At our first meeting regarding Dreamcatcher, they said, "So we want to do a bit of a love letter to the ’90s, utilize an ensemble, and somehow bring in an element of music to the world we’re creating." Those were the basic parameters I had, and the rest was wherever I wanted to take the story. Honestly, it REALLY never happens this way. In the indie world, you usually you have a script and spend a copious amount of time attempting to find financing—or attaching talent to attract financing—which ends up being a nauseating chicken/egg situation…
I came up with the basic premise while on a walk to Trader Joe’s. I was debating the direction I wanted to go when a random EDM track came on. It suddenly became so clear. I pictured this DJ—godlike amongst his fans—spinning music with reckless abandon. It also answered a major question of, "What will our iconic character be? How can we avoid spending oodles of time establishing a design mythos?" Deadmaus, Marshmello, Daft Punk—they wear masks and no one bats an eye. It’s part of the mystique. If anyone were to wear Deadmaus’ iconic facade, some could believe it was actually him. It’s repeatable—and logically sound. Once that element was figured out, it was really about discovering who the ensemble would be. I wanted to understand them from the inside out before I started piecing together the plot elements of the story. It was a very organic and exciting process of narrative trial and error.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the screenplay, and how many drafts did you go through before it was time to film?
Jacob Johnston: The first draft was actually done in about nine days. Once I started writing, it was a real journey of discovery. I’d spend hours reworking scenes before moving on to the next. I can’t do a “vomit draft.” It was emotionally exhausting, but also exhilarating. One of the best things about writing an ensemble is living vicariously through these fictional personas. Once that groove set in, I let myself get lost in it. Not to mention, we were on a bit of a timeline. I started the script in September, and the plan was principal photography would begin in January. After the initial draft, we went back and forth with revisions and polish drafts until November when we began casting. I’d say PERSONALLY, I went through 10+ drafts. With the producers, we went through about two, with a third being more of a tighten and polish draft.
Dreamcatcher features some very ambitious scenes, including several with large crowds of people. Where did filming take place, and how many days did you have in your shooting schedule?
Jacob Johnston: We shot the entire movie in Los Angeles; in January/February of 2019—long before the pandemic, thankfully. There was something extremely fulfilling about shooting in Los Angeles. I think this town is beguiling in so many ways. You can visually romanticize it like we saw in La La Land or adversely unpack its underbelly like we saw in Nightcrawler. With Dreamcatcher, it was a blend of both. You need to see the aspirational side of it juxtaposed with the unpleasantries and broken dreams. This is a town where people can lose their sense of identity—real quick. (A major theme of the film.) We shot the movie in 17 days, which, looking back seems absolutely crazy to me. It is truly a testament to the unshakeable fortitude and talent of the cast and crew. I got really lucky with this one.
Music is a vital part of any movie, but with the Cataclysm music festival setting, it’s like another character in this film. Did you give composer Alexander Taylor any creative guidelines or input for creating the music in Dreamcatcher?
Jacob Johnston: I’ve known Alexander for a few years now, and the opportunity to collaborate with him was a real dream. His extensive knowledge of genre—as well as music theory—is staggering. From the onset, we were on the same page with how the instrumentation should be: less brass, less orchestral, more dissonance, synth, and strings. He found really innovative ways to introduce new sounds and took a bold, out-of-the-box approach from day one. He didn’t actually do the EDM tracks, though. While every song in the film, outside of two licensed tracks from Ben Schuller, are all original, we worked with EDM artists like Eva Shaw, Johnny Gleeson, and Jack Vath to drum up those bits. Their expertise of the genre was instrumental (no pun intended) in generating a specific authenticity for the world we were creating. These were DJs with extremely different backgrounds from all over the world—which meant their sound would be a little different—so there was some variety in the arrangements.
The DJ Dreamcatcher mask is a haunting and striking visual. How did you come up with that killer look for this film?
Jacob Johnston: I will fully give credit to the artist, Josh Herman, for the design of the mask. He was a friend and former colleague from Marvel Studios, who has a distinct understanding of creating memorable design work in a three-dimensional space. In the beginning, we started with rudimentary 2D sketches—something to establish the general shape/structure. He presented about ten of these, and while many of them were cool, I felt that there was one that was more striking than the others. I mean, this is a mask that has to work not only for a killer, but also a renowned DJ, so it couldn’t be TOO jarring or scary. It needed to be modern and sleek, without becoming distracting or comedic. Also, making a distinction on whether it would be conceptualized as a mask or a helmet, the decision was to go more mask than helmet for practicality purposes. (I.E. helmets would potentially bob around and be harder to hear out of, etc.)
The actual design itself is an exaggerated human silhouette with owl-like qualities baked into the shape. I wanted a level of vacancy in the eyes as well. We added the design lines to evoke the weaving of an actual dreamcatcher and made the eye the center. After we settled on the design, Josh modeled it in 3D so we could see how it would react in various lighting setups, which further informed the material we’d want to have it made with. We worked with SCPS Unlimited, a company I had worked with extensively in the Marvel days, who did the 3D print of the mask and the painting/finishing. Pretty much took a small village to get to the final product, but I loved seeing the process evolve and working alongside such masters of the craft.
Were you influenced by any other movies while making Dreamcatcher?
Jacob Johnston: There were influences for sure. For instance, in the writing process, looking at how Kevin Williamson masterfully crafted Scream, how each scene meaningfully fed into the overall story, and that it wasn’t just a string of death scenes. That it was okay to have reprieves where the characters weren’t being chased or at risk of mutilation. Visually, films like In the Mood for Love, Neon Demon, Let the Right One In, and Seven were extremely important for me. I loved how color and contrast were used as characters in these films and many more, but I’m trying to not be long-winded here! From the onset, I knew I wanted Dreamcatcher to have a decided sense of style, but I wanted the stylization to make sense. Setting the film in the world of EDM naturally allowed for this bastardized, neon-clad, Wonderland-like approach.
You’ve directed short films before and worked in different departments on really big movies, but Dreamcatcher marks your feature film directorial debut. What did you learn from this experience that you’ll apply to future projects?
Jacob Johnston: Every project you do, big budget or otherwise, presents a new set of challenges and from that a different learning curve. On this one, I learned that sometimes jokes or a scene-long, running gag works well on the page—and even on the day—but in post, it can kill the pacing. Same with heavy emotional moments. With a film like Dreamcatcher, there’s a real balancing act you have to do. You want to lean into the satire and social commentary aspect, while also sticking the landing on the thrills and chills. That all comes down to pacing. I know some will say the pacing lags because we introduce some heavy and quiet moments in the second act, but I didn’t want to sacrifice character development for the sake of another hack-and-slash moment. It’s why I love writing ensembles—we get to see an array of perspectives, and hopefully from that, find a way to really connect with one or more of the characters in a meaningful way. Also, shooting seven people in one (fairly tiny) room with no movable walls is not the easiest thing to do… maybe in the next one I’ll cut it to four or five.
Ultimately, what do you hope viewers take away from Dreamcatcher?
Jacob Johnston: I want them to be surprised. I believe the film has a lot of layers, which may not all come through on first viewing. I hope the messaging we baked into the story—about identity, about family, about the price of unruly, misplaced ambition—I hope that resonates in some way. I want the audience to laugh and maybe jump a couple times, feeling that nostalgia of ’90s-era ensembles where maybe the suspension of disbelief is a little ridiculous at times, sure, but you’re strapped in and enjoying the journey regardless.
What has it been like to partner with Samuel Goldwyn Films to release Dreamcatcher?
Jacob Johnston: Before we even started sending to domestic buyers, we discussed our top picks—that pie-in-the-sky conversation where everything is hypothetical and dreamy. Samuel Goldwyn was on that list. Their track record is impressive, and their taste level is impeccable and varied. From the first conversation we had with them, they really got the movie. Hearing them talk about it—and what they took away from it—really inspired me. I mean, this is a company that doesn’t typically dabble in the world of genre, so that made it all the more special. I haven’t interacted with them (Samuel Goldwyn) as much during the marketing/rollout, but I know our producers, Brandon and Krystal, have only said positive things at every turn.
With Dreamcatcher now in theaters and on Digital and VOD, what other projects do you have coming up that you’re excited about, and where can our readers follow your work online?
Jacob Johnston: I’ve got another film that is tentatively shooting later this year. Can’t say much about it at this point, but should be really exciting! I spent a lot of last year throwing irons in every fire I could, so I’m seeing how it all shakes out, you know, without ever stopping the constant hustle game. You can find me on Twitter at @Jake_squared and on Instagram at @officialjakesquared.
Dreamcatcher is now on Digital and On Demand.