Writer-Director John Berardo, Initiation (2020)

Writer-Director John Berardo on creating a social media slasher movie

Scream (1996) horror movie franchise fan John Berardo addresses the unnerving realms of the social media world through his latest horror Initiation (2020).

Developed from his hit short Dembanger (2013), the writer-director has held a passion for movie making from a young age, keen to experiment with genre and stereotype conventions in the eyes of horror.

INITIATION is in US theaters, on demand and on digital NOW!

In this interview, indie filmmaker John Berardo outlines the reality of working on a feature film and making a thriller that relies on social media to drive the narrative. Berardo also explains how he got into filmmaking as well as providing offering some top filmmaking tips he’s picked up whilst honing his craft.

FF: How did you get into filmmaking originally? Did you go to film school?

JB: I’m one of those lucky kids who had the best parents. They discovered at a young age that I could draw and had an artistic flare and encouraged me to pursue that growing up. I became obsessed with horror movies in junior high, so in the summer of 2001 I took my parents Hi8 camera and started making my first movie, my own version of Scream 4 (2011).

Actors Lindsay LaVanchy and Shireen Lai
Actors Lindsay LaVanchy and Shireen Lai in Initiation (2020). Image Courtesy of Saban Films.

My mom worked at OU and managed the budget for the TV department; they wanted to convert their editing systems from tape to digital, but they needed to pay students to learn the editing softwares. We’re talking Movie 100, the first digital AVID, Final Cut 1.0.

My mom is such a badass, she agreed to the costs if they trained the students on the software cutting my movie. So, weekly, 15 years old, I’d go into an AVID booth on campus and watch someone cut my first movie for a semester. It was an incredible learning experience for me and I soaked it all up. And every year since I would rally up my friends to make a movie.

I became obsessed with horror movies in junior high

Even in college I was studying theater with the goal of going to grad school for film; I would make my own movies with students in the film school. I studied theater to learn how to work with actors, because I knew by then that directing was what I was best at.

I was accepted into USC’s School of Cinematic Arts in 2010 and completed my masters in Film and TV production. The networks that I gained from college and grad school are 100% the reason Initiation (2020) got made.

A social media-driven slasher movie

FF: Where did the idea for Initiation come from and what is it about?

JB: This movie took 7 years to make. There have been so many inspiring events over time that shaped the idea into what it became. But the initial spark of inspiration started in 2012. I was 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 reinvent 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.

Actor Lindsay LaVanchy
Actor Lindsay LaVanchy in Initiation (2020). Image Courtesy of Saban Films.

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 realising 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 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 and applied it to a story with characters who are forced to face the insidious side of college culture.

I studied theater to learn how to work with actors

Tackling horror and character tropes

FF: What do you hope audiences will take away from your film?

JB: The experience I’m trying to communicate with Initiation (2020) is an enjoyable and relatable ride that pays homage to the movies I was inspired by but 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 everyday; true horrors of the world. I want audiences to see how movies like Initiation (2020) can bend genre barriers and stereotypes to convey important themes on the real-life issues in the story we’re telling. We only get to tell this story once, so I want it to be an internal and external ride.

Ultimately, I hope Initiation (2020) encourages viewers to investigate their own lives and ways of thinking while enjoying the ride. There’s something magical about changing someone’s mind with a slasher movie.

Lindsay LaVanchy and Jon Huertas Actors
Lindsay LaVanchy and Jon Huertas in Initiation (2020). Photo Courtesy of Saban Films.

FF: What was it like being a co-writer and director for the film and did the final version come close to your original vision?

JB: The process of co-writing evolved through the different stages of pitching the movie over the years. Brian Frager and Lindsay LaVanchy both believed in me and my vision for the movie, no matter how many passes I got on the script, and they saw what could be a really impactful story.

Brian and I went to USC together and he started co-writing with me in 2014 after we had graduated and I had a couple 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.

Movies like Initiation (2020) can bend genre barriers and stereotypes

We would have script readings, and Lindsay came to every single one of them. She added so much, I eventually realised 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.

As a director, the movie is better than my original vision. Making a movie is a team effort and the final product and an example of minds coming together.

Social media treated like another character

FF: I thought the use of social media/technology was a clever way of storytelling on screen and intensified the horror element in the film. Are you able to talk a bit about the ideas behind this?

JB: Hell yeah! Thank you. From the beginning we knew that social media was not only important to the story and the mystery, but also the themes we were trying to tackle. Approaching the script, social media and texting was 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 co-coordinator on set. Someone whose job it was to distribute phones to actors, making sure the right accounts/numbers were ready for the scene, organised 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.

Gattlin Griffith and James Berardo
Gattlin Griffith and James Berardo. Image courtesy of Saban Films.

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.

Moulding the man behind the mask

Initiation 2020, directed by John Berardo
Initiation (2020) directed by John Berardo. Photo courtesy of Saban Films.

FF: The masked killer in the film seemed very authentic compared to many horrors I have seen… How much of an influence was the Scream movie franchise?

JB: I love reading the response to the trailer, everyone referenced it as “lil Scream” or a 90s slasher. We constructed every detail of the killer’s mask to fit in the realm of genre-referencing with a new twist. 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 story of the first night I saw Scream. The movie defined youth culture of the nineties and revitalised and elevated the slasher genre. It was such a fun and inventive movie unlike any I had never seen before.

Sidney Prescott (the antagonist in Scream (1996)) was my superman. It was also disturbingly violent, and I was eleven years old, and it scared the hell out of me. Nightmares for weeks.

As a director, the movie is better than my original vision. Making a movie is a team effort and the final product and an example of minds coming together.

But I eventually faced my fears and turned them into a teenage obsession with the franchise that inspired me to make movies myself. Making the killer a realistic character was something that we paid careful attention to in the script from the beginning.

Lindsay LaVanchy and Isabella Gomez
Lindsay LaVanchy and Isabella Gomez. Image courtesy of Saban Films.

To make the killer’s reason for killing, their actions, how they do it, all of that is like writing subtext. It’s the beauty of writing a whodunit: you are writing three movies, the actual script, the killer’s script, and who you want the audience to think the killer is.

Casting is also very important for your killer. The actor really took the role seriously and made sure they were under the mask even during the kill scenes. I believe this brought a level of realism to the killer that makes them a real person, and the reveal much more impactful.

Know your strengths

FF: What one piece of advice would you give to an aspiring screenwriter and director?

JB: Getting a movie made AND sold is like climbing a mountain with insane obstacles. There are times you’re gonna get close to the top and right before you think you’d made it, you’ll get pushed back down to the bottom and have to do it all again. Many times.

But if you’re honest with yourself and you know you’re good at something, or have a good idea, or voice that needs to be heard, hold onto that confidence and apply it to every opportunity you get to achieve your goal of making it to the top of the mountain. It’s that confidence that will inspire other people with similar goals, and then you can work together to get to the top.

We would also screen record each phone that was used in a scene, almost like another camera

FF: Are there any directors or other filmmakers that influence your filmmaking now?

JB: Orson Welles has been a major influence. He had an impact as a stage director before making movies and actors loved working with him. He directed plays that challenged the societal norms of what was accepted during that time in ways that stories still do to this day. He deconstructed classic theatre with a commitment to themes of equality and social justice that carried into his films.

Welles was a director who used his craft to give voices to issues that were important for him to see change in.

I’ve also been heavily influenced by Stanley Kubrick and Wes Craven. Because the two movies that had the biggest impact on me as a kid were Scream (1996) and A Clockwork Orange (1971).

Actor Lochlyn Munro
Actor Lochlyn Munro in Initiation (2020). Photo courtesy of Saban Films.

I saw both of them far too young and was deeply disturbed by both for different reasons, but also intrigued and inspired. These are weird feelings we have as kids when we’re exposed to media like that. It’s hard to articulate when you’re younger, but after finishing my first feature, their inspiration is undeniable.

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

I don’t relate with Kubrick’s approach to working with his cast and crew, but his attention to the details of his vision is what made his movies so compelling. Wes Craven knew how to work with writers and actors and revitalised the slasher genre twice. He perfected the moving master and let actors play in a space with an orbiting camera to get the most authentic performance. He died too soon. I think the world missed out on another comeback from him and he isn’t able to see how inspiring he was for young minds of the 90s like me.


Editor: Millie Hayward
Second Editor & Artwork: Richard Williams
Special thanks to Saban Films / Katrina Wan PR