Fear is often the most motivating inspiration that people need to push themselves out of their comfort zones and explore the unknown for the truth and their authentic emotions. That’s certainly the case for both co-writer-actress Lindsay LaVanchy’s protagonist of Ellery Scott in the new horror film, ‘Initiation,’ as well as her co-scribe and the feature’s director, John Berardo. Their shared obsession to uncover every detail of crime mysteries, as well as their belief that fear isn’t just personal, but also universal, drives the drama’s narrative, which challenges consistent horror themes of misogyny, family, sex and death.
Berardo originally came up with the idea for ‘Initiation’ during his second year of grad school at USC School of Cinematic Arts, while he was taking the class, Making Media for Social Change. The goal of the course was for students to make a movie with a topical message that reflects the current social climate, and compels the audience to face the darkest parts of themselves and discover the light for change. It was during the process of making the short, which was titled ‘Dembanger,’ that the writer-director-producer began working with LaVanchy on the project, which eventually led them to make the feature together.
‘Initiation’ was co-written by Berardo, LaVanchy and Brian Frager, who all also served as producers. In addition to LaVanchy, the thriller also stars Jon Huertas, Isabella Gomez, Froy Gutierrez, Gattlin Griffith, Patrick Walker, Bart Johnson, Shireen Lai, Kent Faulcon, Yancy Butler and Lochlyn Munro.
The crime film was originally scheduled to premiere at SXSW last year under the short’s name, ‘Dembanger,’ before the festival was cancelled due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. ‘Initiation’ later had its US premiere at the Screamfest Film Festival and its international premiere at the Sitges Film Festival. The mystery drama is now playing in theaters, as well as On Demand and Digital, courtesy of Saban Films.
Set during a university’s pledge week, ‘Initiation’ shows that 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, which sweeps 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.
LaVanchy generously took the time recently to talk about co-writing and starring in ‘Initiation’ during an exclusive interview over the phone. Among other things, the scribe-actress discussed that she worked with Berardo on penning several drafts of the feature since they made the short, during which time he encouraged her to once again also play one of the lead characters of the ensemble cast. The filmmaker also noted that during the beginning of the movie’s story, Ellery is confident in her place in the world, which is reflected in the fact that she doesn’t physical cower, although her entire demeanor changes once the killings start happening, and she begins to have more questions than answers.
The conversation began with LaVanchy explaining how she became involved in serving as a co-writer on ‘Initiation.’ She also noted what her experience of collaborating with Berardo as her fellow scribe and the feature’s director was like during the production.
“This film was originally titled ‘Dembanger.’ I became involved with the project in 2013, when I made a short named ‘Dembanger’ with the director, John Berardo,” the writer shared. “That was for a Media For Social Change class that he was in at USC. I was an actor in the short, which is really awesome.
“Since then, the feature has gone through so many drafts and ideas. Over several years, I went in for table readings, and John would ask for feedback. Eventually he was like, ‘Come on and write with us.’ So I came on board to the project as a two-and-a-half years before we began shooting,” LaVanchy revealed. “What you see today is what John and I collaborated on and really evolved. But he and Brian had done other versions beforehand.”
The scribe added that she has worked with Berardo “for over 10 years now, and it’s such a special relationship…To find someone who you connect with creatively and intuitively is amazing. We know what the other one’s thinking on set. We’re both also very dedicated, hard workers, and can stay up for 18 hours every day, talking about the project. When you find a special, creative partner like that, you don’t want to stop working with them,” she noted with a laugh. “I’m so glad that John also asked me to be his Ellery.
“Working with Brian has also been awesome. I love writing with him, and he really champions this film, and is also an excellent producer. Also having him on set, helping command the troops with John, was great,” LaVanchy also divulged. “Being a writer and also being in the cast all came together harmoniously, but not without a lot of hard work.”
Following up on the fact that besides co-penning the script, she also played Ellery, the filmmaker discussed why she also decided to also star in the thriller, and how working on the screenplay influenced the way she portrayed the protagonist. “Since working on the 2013 short, John wanted me to be this character, who was renamed Ellery for the feature. It was so wonderful to then come onto the project as a writer and experience that process for the first time,” she shared.
“As an actor, I love stepping onto a project that’s ready to go and going into the rehearsal room to work on the text. But I also love all the homework that goes with it, including building the backstory and the world building,” LaVanchy shared. “Getting to then be able to use all of that work, and also help develop all of the other characters’ storylines, was so great. As one of the writers, I was able to dig my heels into the project in a different way than if I’m just an actor. The work just expands.
“As I began playing Ellery, I did some of my own preparation, but a lot of the work was also done through the writing process. I knew who she was, so it really came down me separating myself from the individual storylines that I had co-wrote a couple of weeks before shooting began. I really focused on her,” the actress revealed. “So when I stepped onto the set, I really knew who she was.
“All of the other actors and I hung out before we began filming, so by the time we got to the set, we were prepared. We were also ready to be in this world together,” LaVanchy shared.
Following up on what the experience of collaborating with her co-stars was like, the performer further delved into what the experience of building their characters’ relationships was like during the production. “We were so blessed with all of the actors we got to star in the film…From the newbies to the titans we have in our film who have worked with everyone, all of the actors who signed on to star in this film strengthened the project,” she gushed about her co-stars.
“Everyone was so invested in coming to set and working on their character, and they would say, ‘What if we do this?’ We all collaborated together as co-star, and John and Brian were down for that,” LaVanchy divulged. “They’d say, ‘If the line we wrote doesn’t sit well in your moth, how would you say it?’ We were down for the collaboration because we knew that it would only expand who these characters were and take them off the page and make them feel real. All of the actors came so prepared and down to play, so it was really fun and gratifying to work with everyone.”
‘Initiation’ takes a slasher turn when the string of social media related murders start to happens on campus that all seem to relate to the incident that sparks Ellery’s main conflict. The filmmaker then delved into what the experience of creating the action sequences and physicality for her character was like throughout the production.
“Ellery’s someone who likes to be open and have a good time, yet is also confident in who she is in the world. So in terms of her physicality, she holds herself in a way that’s strong. She doesn’t cower, and her physicality doesn’t change, until she starts to have more questions than answers. She goes more inward on herself, and I think people naturally do that,” LaVanchy revealed.
“I also love stunt work and watching stunt actors. I think they’re so incredible. I also appreciated the fact that I was also allowed to do a lot of my own stunts, and also watch and learn from the actor who was my stunt double,” the actress continued.
“I think as an actor, being able to physically do those stunts really raised my level of fear, especially in the other scenes. Not only is it fun, I also think it helps an actor when they can work with the stunt team and do some of the stunts themselves,” LaVanchy added.
The drama is set entirely on the campus of the college that Ellery attends. Tthe filmmaker expressed her appreciation that ‘Initiation’ was shot on location “at my alma mater, UCLA. Places where we shot were routes that I took while I was going to class. There were also so many times that I would walk back by myself at night after a long rehearsal for a play or an evening class.
“The vastness of space of some of these campuses makes you think, Oh my gosh, I’m really out here by myself. Someone really could pop out and attack me. It happens all the time on university campuses,” LaVanchy pointed out.
“All of the decisions that we made about the locations, set designs, costumes and everything else overall needed to be grounded in reality. So getting to shoot on a massive campus that I loved being a student at was so fun for me,” the actress continued. “We’re so grateful that USC and UCLA let us shoot on their properties, because those locations were perfect for our story.”
With ‘Imitation’ now playing in theaters, as well as On Demand and Digital, LaVanchy expressed her happiness that the film received the dual distribution. “We were so excited that within a year of filming, we were accepted into SXSW. We love the festival, and were so grateful for their acceptance. But we then weren’t able to attend the festival, and have the premiere there, due to COVID,” she noted.
“With the pandemic, there were other festivals that we also got into and had to pull back from, because they had to move to digital. Just in terms of distributing a film, the whole process is very complicated of whether or not you should allow your film to play digitally at a festival,” the filmmaker revealed.
“So we were so grateful for Screamfest, which we love, for giving us a physical premiere that we weren’t able to have earlier last year. It was wonderful to get some of the cast and crew safely there to premiere at a drive-in theater during the festival,” LaVanchy shared.
“We’re now so grateful to Saban that the movie able to come out now. We would love for more people to join in and see the final pieces of the production, which is when people can watch it and start talking about it, and see something in it that we didn’t see,” the actress continued.
“Brian’s been an incredible producer; he’s been shepherding the project all these years after we filmed it He really guided it through its release, and so did John. I think we’re just all really excited about the release. Everyone who worked on the project is just excited to get it out there,” LaVanchy also noted with a laugh.
“We’re grateful that audiences have the option to not only be able to see the movie in theaters, but also online from the safety and comfort of their own home. It’s a film that can be enjoyed on multiple platforms, so we’re very blessed for this distribution,” the filmmaker concluded.