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Director John Berardo Talks About His Inspirations & Aspirations For “Initiation”

Thursday, May 6, 2021 | Exclusives


Hitting theaters and streaming services this week, INITIATION is a modern slasher centered around a vengeful killer who seems to be targeting misogynistic cyberbullies. Based on his successful short, INITIATION is writer/director John Berardo’s debut feature. Rue Morgue caught up with Berardo to discuss his love of Scream, his directorial process, and how he hopes the film will challenge ideas and serve as a call to action.

What inspired you, Brian Frager and Lindsay LaVanchy to write INITIATION?

Well, INITIATION actually began as a short film. I was in grad school at USC and I was taking a class called making media for social change, And the goal of the class was to make a short film with a call to action on a particular issue that we cared about. Mine was online privacy and the dangers of social media. I made a short film called Dembanger about a kid who is stalked and harassed based on what he puts online. [It’s] essentially the opening scene of Scream, but with the guy on Facebook.

From there, I knew I had an idea that could create a [real] call to action, and over the next seven years, the script evolved. Ryan and I went to USC together and he started co-writing with me after my first draft, and then, down the line, Lindsay LaVanchy – she’s an actress that I went to UCLA with and she came to a lot of our script meetings – she really helped write these characters, you know, with realistic dialogue during these readings. So, we brought her on as a co-writer in 2016. It went through so many stages of evolving over time and got into production in 2019. The rest is history.

Did any of your college experiences help shape the script, and if so, how?

Absolutely. I grew up in Norman, Oklahoma, which is the college town. I grew up going to so many home football games, you know, growing up on a college campus, you are just sort of engulfed in the environment of college politics, especially athletics in Oklahoma, and then going to UCLA and then USC.And you know, [while] actually being in college myself, you have these conversations that these kids have in this movie all the time with so many of your friends and it was important to be able to portray these types of conversations and scenarios in a really realistic way, and make sure that the characters were able to [reflect] what it is like to go through in those moments.

[I want] people who watch the movie who are survivors or who have been in theses scenarios to identify with those characters and their experiences.

This is your feature directorial debut. What challenges arose during the process that you didn’t anticipate?

I would say, honestly, that it was the smoothest, it could’ve gone. I was so lucky, but I also knew exactly what I wanted. I storyboarded every shot, because, really, the biggest challenge we had was shooting the movie in 16 days. We had no time to shoot the movie, and that was a challenge in itself. I would say the most challenging thing on set was definitely my first day of stunts. I had not done stunts before like this, so it was very important for me to listen to the stunt coordinator and the stunt doubles and really just make sure not to rush it.

But really man, it was just amazing. There weren’t many challenges. I would say most of the challenge came [from] getting money from investors.

What did your learn while filming that you plan to apply to future projects?

The entire experience is a learning experience. It’s kind of hard to articulate, but when I approach a project now, I feel like I have a full fleshed-out sort of mental process that just happens without me thinking about it. Working with actors and being confident in knowing what you want from [them] in front of your crew is something that I made sure of from the very beginning. You have to bring that [confident energy]. The last day on set, everybody was crying. Being able to take the spirit of what I learned on the making of INITIATION and the collaborative efforts of working with a team and inspiring people and getting them excited – that’s something that I’m going to take to every single project moving forward.

What are some of your favorite horror films, and how did they influence your approach to writing and directing INITIATION?

My favorite movie of all time is Scream. I think that people can watch this movie and see that somebody who loves Scream made it, and I love hearing that. When I was a kid, I saw it way too young and it scared the living hell out of me. It was fun, but it scared me. I’d never seen anything so violent, and I identified with the characters, you know, they were young kids, like I was the ’90s. They’re older than me obviously, but you know, I was pre-puberty, [and] it really had a major impact on me. I became obsessed with Scream for years. To this day, I’m still obsessed.

And then another movie I would say that really affected me was A Clockwork Orange. That movie deals with rape and sexual assault in some of the most disturbing, but also visually poignant, kinds of ways. I never really like thought, “Oh, okay. I’m inspired by, A Clockwork Orange while making INITIATION,” except, at the very, very beginning of INITIATION is a red screen. I took that from A Clockwork Orange because the very beginning of A Clockwork Orange is a red screen. And a lot of the themes of A Clockwork Orange are integrated into the characters of INITIATION.

The film has a pretty open stance against both cyberbullying and slut-shaming. How do your propose solving these problems, if they can be solved at all?

I don’t think that it’s about solving the problem. I think it’s about educating [people]. You’re never, ever going to be able to stop online hate unless you educate people over time. Hopefully people who watch this movie will think twice before they try to anonymously bully somebody online. You don’t know who this person’s parents are. Now I’m not sitting here saying, “Oh, you know, [the violence of INITIATION] is going to happen to you,” but I am saying that  it’s easy to make a decision when you don’t think about those things.

Which was more difficult, writing or directing the film, and why?

Writing it. Definitely. You know, every filmmaker goes to film school and they’re told to figure out what they want to do. But when you graduate, everybody goes, “Where’s your script? Where’s your script?” But I wasn’t a writer, I was a director. So, I went to USC, putting all my cards in the director basket, thinking that I’m going to be able to work with writers and have them give me a script. There are definitely some writers that I do work with, and I find myself to be a better writer when I’m co-writing. It’s easier for me when I work with somebody, but over time, I had to decide to write the way that I wanted to. I had to think like a director, and that’s sort of how I learned to write.

Directing is something that I feel I’ve naturally been able to do since I was a kid, just being able to create a big picture of small details and inspire people to do the same. That, I feel, comes naturally [to me], and I [took] what I thought I was confident in as a director and applied it as a writer.

What message do you want audiences to leave with? (Without spoiling the twist ending, of course.)

I want people to walk away from this movie thinking about what their beliefs are on whatever issues in this movie struck a chord with them. You mention  the big twist.  I want the audience to be smacked across the face and [be in] this sort of whirlpool of chaos and unanswered questions.

I ultimately want the audience to have the feeling of what it would be like to go through these things – college politics and trying to report sexual assault or anything like that. Just allowing the audience to put themselves in the character’s minds and say, “How do I feel about this issue?” or “Where do I stand on these scenarios?” If [I’m] able to do that, then it means that the audience is in for a ride that forces them to think about something and creates a call to action.

INITIATION will be available in theaters and on VOD and Digital May 7th, 2021. 

Dakota Dahl
Dakota Dahl has no idea what he is doing, but people seem fine with paying him to do it.