Between Spiral: From the Book of Saw, A Quiet Place Part II, Army of the Dead, Separation and The Djinn, May is packed with new horror titles. Another new slasher worth paying attention to is Saban Films’ Initiation. This masked killer tale is in the same realm as Scream and Urban Legend, but with an updated twist set in the social media centered world in which we live. The official description follows: During a university’s pledge week, the carefree partying turns deadly serious when a star athlete is found impaled in his dorm. The murder ignites a spree of sinister social-media messages, sweeping the students and police into a race against time to uncover the truth behind the school’s dark secrets… and the horrifying meaning of a recurring symbol: a single exclamation mark. To learn more about how Initiation was made, we spoke with the film’s director, writer and producer John Berardo and discussed everything from his love of Scream to how he is changing the stereotypical gender roles in horror. Initiation is now available on all digital sites.
Wicked Horror: Initiation is based on a short film, Dembanger, you wrote and directed in 2013. Was it always the plan to be turned into a feature? Or how did that come about?
John Berardo: Yes! In film school they obviously encourage you to think of features to get your career started after you graduate, but they don’t encourage making a short film as a plan for a prewritten feature length script. 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 the short film “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 and my Scream inspiration was undeniable, I knew that I had a path for my first feature.
Wicked Horror: Where did you come up with the idea for this film?
John Berardo: The short obviously sparked the idea to make a feature film that encompassed a method of storytelling by using the dangers of social media as part of the plot. The very first draft was done in my final semester at USC. The themes of sexual assault and social media, the drill as a weapon, were a part of it from the beginning. But the first draft took place in high school, which gave the story a lot of limitations believe it or not. The maturity level of themes I wanted to tackle just seemed a little exploitative with students under 18, personally. That’s an example of something we’ve seen change over the years since the rise of mass shootings in high schools. I just didn’t feel comfortable as I thought about that more. There’s also something about being in college, being free from your parents for the first time, that’s dangerous and scary… and very real. So by draft two, it was changed to college. I also 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. Our first influences always came from real world cases or personal experiences. We’ve all heard the stories about sexual assault, toxic culture, so to be able to tackle the issues we wanted to incorporate into the script the right way, we paid very close attention to any headlines that reported on sexual assault or college scandals. Unfortunately, being an Alum from USC, UCLA, and from Norman, OK, all three colleges have been in the news due to some scandal that broke on social media. It was these stories that really inspired our ideas the most.
Wicked Horror: Were there any scenes in the film that were supposed to be completely different, but during shooting you had to change and it turned out even better than the original?
John Berardo: We had everything extremely prepared before going into production because we had such a tight and short schedule. We needed to know everything we wanted to be able to do it all, so there weren’t any drastic changes… but I’d say that every single scene came out better than we all had originally planned. That’s what happens when a team comes together with the same goal. One of my favorite scenes was the scenes where this happened is when Kylie and Shayleen are discussing 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 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.
Wicked Horror: The masked killer in Initiation uses a drill to off his victims. Why did you decide on a drill?
John Berardo: Yes, the drill was part of the movie since it’s conception. We all know how inherently misogynistic the slasher genre has been since it’s infancy. Large man with a phallic object, chasing a vulnerable woman, it’s all so inherently sexual and old school. I wanted to do something different with a hint of familiarity. A drill symbolizes one of our main themes, toxic masculinity. “Being drilled” is also one thing a lot of these sexual assault perps are most terrified of, so obviously given the motive of our killer, the drill made even more sense, especially for the performance of the actor behind the mask. It’s the perfect weapon for an 80s throwback homage to the slasher genre.
Wicked Horror: A lot of slasher films open with a gruesome death right out of the gate. Without giving too much away, why did you decide to go down another route for Initiation?
John Berardo: Because of the reasons you just said, “A LOT of slasher films…”. We wanted to be different. Trust, we tried the whole Casey Becker death very early on, but it wasn’t fresh enough. Even with social media… the audience would have still been ahead of the movie. I think after the MeToo movement happened, we really went back to the drawing board on the script to make sure we did everything we could to nail every talking point and option for survivors of sexual assault. So instead of a brutal opening death, we decided to show a different kind of real-life horror that not many horror movies have the balls to use as an inciting incident. We interviewed and spoke with a lot of college sexual assault survivors, and almost all of them said they would have rather chose death during the incident that happened to them. This just broke my heart, but it also encouraged us to make sure and stick to our guns on how the horror of this movie unfolds. It also allows the audience to engage with the characters and the mystery as much as possible before the typical carnage we’re used to seeing happens. Trust, it was an uphill battle trying to make a horror movie this unconventional, and still, some people might not jive with it. And that’s totally cool. But no matter what, if you’re going to make a movie like ours, I think we did everything the right way for the real survivors in the audience.
Wicked Horror: Initiation plays with the stereotypical gender roles in horror films. Was this on purpose?
John Berardo: It absolutely was. I already touched on the reasons for the drill, which goes hand in hand with how we approach who dies, etc. First and foremost, to do this effectively, it was all about the killer’s motive. One of the main rules in Scream. So once we had the “killer script” written, that directed us and fit with our themes perfectly. I also believe the drill emphasized our goals of bending 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 genre 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 and issues of the story we’re telling.
Wicked Horror: Can you also talk about the killer’s mask? Was that specific look your idea or the costume designers, Jessica Flaherty?
John Berardo: 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 prototype I made and designed a really iconic slasher mask. It came out better than I ever imagined.
Wicked Horror: Are you personally a fan of the horror genre? What horror films made a lasting impact on you growing up?
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 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 Initiation.
Wicked Horror: In a sentence or two, why should people go see this film?
John Berardo: People should watch Initiation because it’s a horror movie that shows REAL horror and encourages viewers to investigate their own lives and ways of thinking with a story, themes, and characters that pay homage to the 80s/90s slasher movies I was inspired by, but with a modern take for today’s generation. We made Initiation with a socially resonant message to deliver an emotionally terrifying ride that’s unafraid of pushing for conversations of change.