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John Berardo on his student film becoming the feature horror 'Initiation'

May 7, 2021
5 min read time

John Berardo grew up in Oklahoma knowing he wanted to get into filmmaking. So he packed his bags for California and got a Theatre Directing BA from UCLA, before heading to USC for a Cinema Production MFA.

"I was ready, I’ve been ready to make Initiation. If I’d made the movie two years earlier, I’d still have been ready, but maybe not to the degree of getting the movie to this phase and continue to convince people it was happening," Berardo says.

He's one of those filmmakers who uses his theatre experience to visually design what he wants his films to look like and credits his Cinema Production degree with furthering his writing. But a large part is also due to Berardo's passion for telling stories simply from his imagination.

Initiation was originally the draft for a student film in his final semester at USC, back in 2013. Social media, sexual assault, and the drill as a weapon were the basis of the original concept, which took place in high school. But ultimately Berardo didn't feel comfortable setting the story in that age bracket. He changed the characters to college-aged, taking their first steps into adulthood without the steady hands of parents, which intensified how dangerous and scary that time period can be to a young adult. While all of the characters evolved, the one who went through the most changes was Tyler (Maxwell Hamilton), Ellery's boyfriend, to make the audience question who is he really: The murderer, victim, or innocent bystander.

Berardo assembled Brian Frager from his USC days and Initiation actress Lindsay LaVanchy to round out his writing team on the feature. While working on the script, Berardo envisioned the cast — as well as the rest of the film's team, like the editor, DP and producer — based on previous collaborations and his classmates from USC and UCLA. By the end, it felt like the entire Initiation team had been on an eight-year journey together, culminating with the film's VOD release.

I was thrilled to speak with Berardo about Initiation, a twisty horror film that is in homage to one of my personal favorites, Scream. And if you're a fan of the slasher genre, then you know it's important to have a great villain. Berardo says that when he was writing his final script for the film, that he came at it from the villain's point of view, who had to have a solid reason for what he was doing as well as be a compelling character. 

It was crucial for Berardo, Frager and LaVanchy to know from the get-go who the killer was and they wanted to kill. Any fan of the horror slasher genre knows that the killer has to not only be compelling as themselves, but also compelling to the audience who is ready (and expecting) to be scared. I don't know about any of you, but I will always be Team Michael from Halloween for exactly that reason. Thus it was important to the Initiation writing team that the twist ending reveal of who the killer is made sense in the context of the film. Since social media (tech) was so important to the plot, they made sure it was integrated into the script and not an afterthought.

For instance, the script would state the character was texting, and on the set, each actor had their own phone with the character's social media accounts all set up, so that they were actually reading and texting during filming as that character. One of the things that Berardo has always found distracting when watching TV or movies, is how you can often tell the actors are faking it. To make sure that it looked natural, they had a Social Media Coordinator who logged on and created messages to the cast while they filmed the scenes. In post, the text messages were changed to add suspicion and change the audience's impression of the characters. It's their hope that this will ensure Initiation’s social media won’t look dated. 

Despite Berardo's desire to make Initiation—coming close in 2017 with an ultra-low budget and slightly different script—he also wanted to make sure it was made right and looking back, the team realizes it was lucky that it fell through the first time. Berardo admits that in the excitement of making a first film, it can blind you to the budget. After passing on that first funding opportunity, it took another seven years for them to get the capital to make the film look good with a new budget. The film was greenlit because they were thorough and prepared this time around.

In the end, Berardo is happy with what they've accomplished through some 'movie magic'. His producers took over the budget, playing Tetris with numbers, and dealt with casting, wardrobe, and securing some great sets while the special effects team worked their magic on the rest to make what they had work for them in terms of location shooting. . 

Berardo's wish to keep the setting a "small-town college" feel was achieved through thoughtful choices that were mindful of the budget, as well. The fraternity house location was in Glendale, some of the on-campus locations were shot at UCLA, and drone shots were taken at Florida University (FU)—which of course got us chatting about our favorite serial killers, and that FU inspired Scream because of the co-ed murders that happened there in real life.

To allow movement and create urgency, Berardo used almost 90% bodycam camera work. For the rest, he used his theatre background and shot the film like a play with two cameras. The final college campus location in which the killer and students face off, thanks to one of his investors, was staged at an old postal building under construction in Pomona that the FX team worked their magic on. As a director, Berardo is grateful to his team, who made sure that everything was done by the book: from budgets and permits to location, to set design—so he could focus on directing. 

Berardo and his team were inspired by "every slasher movie and especially the camera work and light. My DP is a huge Scream fan and it was his ‘bible’." He mentions Friday the 13th, Slumber, and Halloween as additional inspirations, especially for their Hitchcockian feel. "We had a cameo from the star of Party Massacre! Fans of '90s slasher films will find Initiation speaks to them," says Berardo. While Scream and the rest are probably all-time favorites on every horror lover's list, Berardo's goal was to make something different in the slasher movie genre that encapsulates today’s audience. A lot of attention was paid to ensuring Initiation wouldn't look dated, and so the film's aesthetic is stark and simple to be timeless. 

Berardo's takeaway from the process is budget is king (or queen), and one of the key things he learned at USC was to know your budget before you start filming—those numbers include the production team, cast, catering, permits, equipment rental, set location and so many other things that you might not think of when shooting shorts for a class. 

"I learned how to do anything you can think of in terms of making a movie. If you think of making a movie is like making a sandwich. Film school doesn’t teach you the bread—so how to get it funded or distributed. I was the captain for seven years to get this film made," says Berardo. "The big takeaway there is, I would not have been able to do this by myself. I did a lot to steer the ship, but the ship can’t sail with just the captain. You have to continue to inspire the team that this dream is real. The tenacity and drive to get the film done because you go in full force with the eye on the prize. Those who succeed are confident in their vision and trust in their team to execute all over the place."

Initiation releases on VOD and Digital May 7th.

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