Jacob Johnston, film director, Dreamcatcher (2021)

Climbing up the filmmaking ladder: Jacob Johnston, director of Dreamcatcher (2021)

Filmmaker Jacob Johnston has quite the repertoire of films on his IMDb page. Hired by Marvel Studios after completing an internship there, he’s worked on one or two films you may just have heard of, including The Avengers (2012),Thor: The Dark World (2013),Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). He has unquestionably gained fantastic experience that most in the film industry would look upon with intense jealously. He would, indeed, be forgiven for looking no further than the comic-book dream factory and staying forever more.

Jacob is a visionary, however. Quite literally – as he worked in visual development at Marvel. He therefore decided to enter a new phase in his film career by fulfilling his dream of directing.

Dreamcatcher (2021) is available now on VOD and Digital (US only. Worldwide release throughout 2021).

In this interview director and writer Jacob Johnston tells us how attending a barbecue would change the direction of his career, how he managed to fast-track his way through film school, and how you should ‘learn to embrace failure as much as you embrace success.’

FF: Could you tell us a little bit about your filmmaking journey and what led to your current project? Did you attend film school?

I moved out to California from Kentucky in the spring of 2008 to attend Chapman University, specifically the Dodge College of Film and Media Arts. I was pretty focused on graduating as quickly as possible, as – while I loved film school, I felt like I was in the dugout: so close to the ball field, but still on the sidelines.

Through doubling my course load, as well as summer courses, I was able to graduate in 2 years, completing my coursework in 2010. In my final semester at Chapman, I was interning at Marvel Studios. Through the help of my internship supervisor at Marvel, and a number of interviews among the executives there, I landed a job with the studios.

Create your own opportunities if nobody is taking that chance on you and find ways to keep yourself inspired along the way. Everyone’s journey is different.

I began the day after graduation and spent the next few years learning the ins-and-outs of large-scale studio films from the development phase all the way through post production. It was a beautiful position to be in, watching some of the most brilliant minds in Hollywood come together to craft something bigger than any one person. I am forever grateful for those years, as it expanded my perception and understanding of filmmaking on both a micro and macro scale. In what very little free time I had while at Marvel, I was directing shorts and music videos on the side, attempting to exercise my love for storytelling outside of the studio system.

Zachary Gordon in Dreamcatcher (2021)
Actor Zachary Gordon in Dreamcatcher (2021). Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

When I left Marvel Studios, I ran development at a startup production company called Crypt TV for about a year and a half. And after that, I was given the opportunity to write and direct Dreamcatcher (2021). This opportunity came to be, as I had a longstanding relationship with the producers, Brandon Vayda and Krystal Vayda whom I met at a backyard BBQ back in 2015. We shared a mutual love for genre film as well as a passion for complex, layered characters – and when the time came – I was their first call to bring Dreamcatcher (2021) to life. All in all, I’ve been working professionally in the industry 11 years.

FF: Can you tell us some more detail about Dreamcatcher (2021) and where it will be available to watch?

The plot centres around two estranged sisters who, along with their friends, attend an underground music festival called Cataclysm. While at the festival, they’re stricken by tragedy – and the rest of the film follows the aftermath and fallout of that. The character structure is less conventional than the usual 2 couples and 1 odd-man (or woman) out. The ensemble of Dreamcatcher (2021) is two sisters and their two best friends – and then one of the sister’s ex-boyfriends and his new girlfriend. This dynamic really allowed me to explore less conventional tropes, while still capitalising on things that feel familiar – and then subverting those expectations when possible.

In some ways it’s a love letter to 90s ensemble horror as well as classic Giallo films. It stars Niki Koss, Zachary Gordon, Travis Burns, Olivia Sui, Elizabeth Posey and Adrienne Wilkinson – among others. It’s out in the US now on all major VOD platforms iTunes, Amazon, Fandango, etc. The international release dates are staggered throughout 2021.

Through doubling my course load, as well as summer courses, I was able to graduate in 2 years, completing my coursework in 2010.

FF: Let’s talk a little about genre. What genres do you prefer to write/shoot and what led you to those?

I don’t have a specific preference on what I prefer to write and shoot. As a storyteller I’m drawn to rich characters who perhaps live in a moral grey area. Something that presents innate tragic flaws, even if at first they don’t seem all that apparent. I think the horror genre is a great place to explore heady, dense subject matter with impactful themes – without the propensity of getting too ham-fisted or preachy.

The horror genre can make bold, sweeping statements on society and our shortcomings – while still finding ways to entertain and thrill you. I love that. A good story is a good story – and however that manifests, whether as a comedy, a thriller, or staunch character drama – I’m going to gravitate towards it. I’m inspired by the unconventional – as long as it still has a level of relatability – as I don’t want to alienate the audience if at all possible.

Actors Adrienne Wilkinson and Lou Ferrigno Jnr in Dreamcatcher (2021)
Actors Adrienne Wilkinson and Lou Ferrigno Jnr in Dreamcatcher (2021). Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

FF: How, as a director, did you approach creating the atmosphere in Dreamcatcher (2021)? What methods/strategies/techniques did you use and why?

The atmosphere of the film is an undulation between frenzy and stillness; between neon-clad Wonderland and sodium-vapour warm tones, between reality and subconscious fiction. That idea is echoed in the composition and camera work throughout the film. I wanted the vibe to feel spontaneous – a world where anything could happen. That came in playing with colour and contrast – asserting to make everything look as distinctly cinematic as possible.

If we could visually create a heightened version of reality, the audience will feel safe enough – but their slivers of uncertainty make for subversive windows of opportunity. This was all done to enhance the filmgoer’s experience.

FF: Where do you get your inspiration from? Writing is often revealing something of ourselves, isn’t it? What inspires your desire to tell such stories?

My inspiration comes from a variety of things. It can be a song, a news article, a random visual I see – you never know where inspiration will strike. Sometimes I don’t even know what that inspiration means at first – but that’s where the narrative adventure begins.

I’m drawn to complex characters. People who have a soul. Maybe their soul is corrupted in some way, maybe it isn’t. But people who have stories to tell – history to unpack – that presents a real sandbox of opportunity when conceptualising the overall story.

I try not to let myself get too bogged down with plot-related semantics from the start because I find that impedes on discovering who the story is really about. I love to research things, too. It expands my own narrative horizons – allowing me to dabble in things, or understand things, from a perspective I may not have considered prior.

It’s true, writing does reveal a lot about ourselves which, to me, means you need to be as open as possible to taking risks and trying new things whenever possible. Write what fascinates you. Write what drives you to learn more about yourself or someone or something else. I’m not a huge advocate for only writing what you know. It stifles the imagination, jails your curiosity and can really confine your ability to empathise.

The horror genre can make bold, sweeping statements on society and our shortcomings – while still finding ways to entertain and thrill you.

FF: When writing a treatment, how do you suggest fellow filmmakers go about the process? Do you have any advice? How do you tend to do it?

I actually don’t write formal treatments unless it’s asked for. I have the broad strokes of the story in my head – or, if the story is more complex and layered – I will occasionally jot things down on note cards. My advice would be to follow whatever works best for your process. If it adds an extra layer of stress, avoid it. If you start to bog yourself down in seeing the writing process as overly taxing – you’re going to psyche yourself out and find ways to avoid actually doing it. That being said, if a treatment helps you understand the story/characters more, do it. There’s no ‘right’ way to do it.

Travis Burns, former Neighbours actor
Actor Travis Burns. Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

FF: What funding methods did you use or how did you connect with the right producers to get Dreamcatcher (2021) made? How long did the process take to get all the finance you needed, in order to make a film that would have the production value worthy of the distribution it has now found?

Dreamcatcher (2021) actually isn’t a great example for a question like this. I’ve known the producers for about 5 years now – and they actually had the financing in place when they called me saying they wanted to make a movie. They didn’t have a script, but they had a few parameters for me to work within. As I said earlier, I met Brandon and Krystal, the producers, at a BBQ back in 2015. We stayed in contact through our various creative endeavours through the years – always talking about how we were eventually going to work together. Well, that time did come and here we are!

I’ve been on other projects where the financing is contingent upon cast, which then leads to the chicken/egg conversation; talent usually want financing in place before they commit. It doesn’t always have to be so black and white, but many financiers care notably about who in the film they can use as a selling point. It all starts with a great script, though. It’s very important to keep budget in mind when you’re writing, too – especially if you’re hoping to garner financing at some point.

I’m drawn to complex characters. People who have a soul.

Partner with producers who have a similar vision – that believe in YOU as a storyteller as well as the script. It can really take time to bring a film to life, so the more in tune with the creative team you are, the more likely it will come to fruition.

FF: Is there any equipment you would recommend for low budget horror filmmakers and why?

Not really. With the improvement of cell phone technology, we’re really walking around with film-capable cameras in our pocket. Obviously as of the time of this interview, the pandemic has stifled our ability to go out and shoot wherever we want, whenever we want – but find ways to use this forced time inside to write or craft something within your means.

FF: I understand you waited to make your directorial debut and first wrote screenplays instead… What inspired that decision? Why didn’t you choose to direct those initial stories as well? Would you recommend other writers/aspiring directors consider doing the same and why?

I wasn’t really waiting, it was more so I wasn’t presented the opportunity to direct a feature before this. I was directing music videos and shorts as a way to build more of a narrative reel, while simultaneously writing in my free time. I was also working a full-time studio job at Marvel Studios.

I had a few different features that looked like they were going to happen then, for one reason or another, things didn’t come to fruition. That’s the nature of the business. Until contracts are in place and cameras are rolling, everything is still tentative. I recommend exercising your storytelling muscle as often as possible – in whatever way that manifests. I recommend straying away from creative complacency and never having the mindset of: ‘someone is randomly going to see my talent and give me an opportunity!’ Create your own opportunities if nobody is taking that chance on you and find ways to keep yourself inspired along the way. Everyone’s journey is different.

FF: Have you ever attended Film Finance Markets and, if so, what was your experience and was it helpful? Have you pitched any of your film ideas as a result of any?

I have attended a couple, but I didn’t personally find it helpful. They’re useful if you’ve partnered with a large sales agency or production company – typically with cast attached in some way. It’s a great way to network with people as well.

Actors Elizabeth Posey and Emrhys Cooper
Actors Elizabeth Posey and Emrhys Cooper. Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

FF: Can we talk a little now about film festivals… Do you have any experience with those? If so, what do you feel filmmakers can gain from submitting and/or attending film festivals? What did your film(s) gain?

I think film festivals can be helpful for sure; especially when you’re first starting out. I did year-long festival circuits with my shorts, Kadence (2016) and Ticket Like A Man (2016). We ended up winning quite a few accolades along the way – which is great ammunition when you’re looking for representation. The more people who can see your work, the better. Sometimes all it takes is the right person to see a short you’ve done and say: ‘I really want to take a chance on this person.’ That could lead to many opportunities down the line.

I didn’t personally attend all of the festivals, but the ones I did resulted in some great connections as well. In fact, the composer on Dreamcatcher (2021), Alexander Taylor, was someone I met back in 2016 at a screening of my short, Kadence. I don’t have much experience on the feature side when comes to festivals.

I recommend exercising your storytelling muscle as often as possible – in whatever way that manifests. I recommend straying away from creative complacency…

FF: What was your single biggest error in your filmmaking journey and how would you suggest other can avoid making the same misjudgement?

Personally, I think my eagerness and ambition got in the way at various points. I had a hard time understanding or appreciating the various forms of ‘success’ and, because of that, I never allowed myself a moment of respite. On the surface, this may not sound like a hindrance, but it can quickly become one.

If you’re constantly reaching for what’s next you can begin to take certain things in the present for granted. You can alienate the people supporting you – in that mutual respect begins to atrophy. You can misstep and ruin something great because you don’t see it as a learning opportunity but rather an obstacle.

I would say learn to embrace failure as much as you embrace success. Stop putting so much pressure on yourself. Enjoy the journey and the process. Some things take time, others happen on a whim. Never reach a state of complacency. Everyone is capable of doing something great – you just have to stay the path with a sense of innovation and integrity.

Credits

Introductory words, artwork, and edited by: Richard Williams
Images courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films
Thanks to Jacob Johnston and Katrina Wan PR