SxSW 2020 Interview – DEMBANGER director John Berardo

“DEMBANGER is SCREAM for the social media generation. It’s a college campus murder mystery that will keep you guessing until the very end. I like to call it a gateway horror movie: a scary movie that will be a fun ride for all audiences yet still giving the true horror fans an 80s/90s slasher homage high.” Director John Berardo on DEMBANGER which screens at the 2020 edition of SxSW Film. 

Editor’s Note: While SxSW was officially cancelled on March 6th, 2020, the below interview was one of many that already took place prior to the festival. To respect the creators, all already performed interviews are presented in their unedited entirety below. All of the below works WILL make their way out into the world in one way or another, and we will update this article with updated information when we have it. — JW

I hear you are back at SxSW this year! Tell me about what you have had here in the past, and your favourite aspects of the city. 

Back in 2013 I was one of 9 students from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts who were selected to team up in pairs of 3 and produce three-episode web series’ for Subway sandwiches and My Damn Channel as part of the “Fresh Artist” program. I really loved the vibe and liveliness of the downtown area. I can’t remember the names of restaurants, but I just remember the BBQ. BBQ, BBQ, and more BBQ.

So let’s hear more about you and how you got started in the business and what you have worked on in the past?

I’m originally from Norman, Oklahoma and knew at a very young age I wanted to be a movie director. 15 years ago I moved to LA to follow my dreams and nothing has stopped me since. I studied theater directing at UCLA and then went on to get my masters at USC in cinema production. Since graduating I’ve been lucky enough to freelance as a director and producer for various non profit projects, commercials, short films, and even medical documentaries. Every job I’ve taken in the last 7 years, I took knowing that DEMBANGER was my ultimate career goal and just kept my focus and attention on getting the movie made.

How did DEMBANGER come together? 

Making DEMBANGER has been my life goal since graduating from USC in 2013. The feature is based on a short film I made in grad school. From that short, I knew I had an idea that could speak to audiences through the language of the horror genre. Every life decision I needed to make in the last 7 years, I made so that I could keep my focus sharply on this project. That meant writing draft after draft, creating a compelling pitch, and trying to find someone to pay for it. It wasn’t until 2018 that we met our first investor and closed our first investment offer by the end of the year. We were in production by May 2019 and filmed all of the movie in Los Angeles. We had a 100 page script to be shot in 16 days, without re-shoots. I had every single shot storyboarded and scheduled and had all scenes over-headed with the DP. There would have been no other way we were going to make our days if we didn’t do that. Once we wrapped the editor started right away and had the movie “picture locked” by August. It was then that Brian and I went out to Australia to work with the post team out there to finish the movie’s sound, VFX, and color. We had a first mixed/colored cut by October, made some changes since, and are just now finishing the movie. It’s been a wild journey. Without going too in depth into the details of how messy independent filmmaking can get, I will say the most important thing is your team. Two actors, the DP, the editor, and the composer we even OG crew members from the short. This movie was the greatest experience of my life because of our cast and crew. From investment, to casting, all the way to getting the movie finished, making a movie is a team sport and we are a team of all stars. 

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you?

I have always wondered what kept me inspired to make movies. Especially after years of trying to get one made, it’s easy to forget what made you love them in the first place. There are many things that inspire me to make a film, but ultimately it’s the people I get to make it with. There’s no feeling more rewarding than seeing a movie come together with every department in different stages of production. That moment you get to see it on the monitor, the meeting of the minds, It’s that vision that keeps me going. See people give their own art and creativity to create ideas that could have never been thought of by one person alone. Those are the best moments when making a movie.

What was your biggest challenge with this project, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?

I feel like everything was a challenge in some way and I like a good challenge. You could always use more money and time. In the world of independent filmmaking, you realize that overcoming those challenges is part of getting the movie made. I like to be 100% with a plan when I get to set, otherwise we wouldn’t be the well oiled machine our production was. What makes our movie different is, I didn’t have to sacrifice anything on account of a particular challenge. We made every day and got every shot and mode. I’m sure the producing team would have a totally different answer and some great production horror stories, but they were such amazing producers that I wasn’t exposed to any of the production drama. The most rewarding feeling I know hasn’t been experienced yet… and that’s definitely going to be watching it with a SXSW audience. But obviously wrapping production and submitting a DCP are both very rewarding moments. 

I am about to get technical, but I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie; what camera did you film with, your relationship to the director of photography and how the movie was achieved visually. 

I am the look book king. I will pre-viz the house down on a movie. The visual design was very specific for DEMBANGER. Director of photography Jonathan Pope and I have been working together for ten years since we were both at USC. He was the DP of the short and has been a dedicated partner in getting this movie executed the best way we knew we could. He and I work very closely together on all visual design aspects. It begins with a look book and my book for DEMBANGER was like 100 pages! In it, I give Pope a breakdown of lighting/tone, color, and visual design of each scene. I like to be very specific and detail oriented so the arc of the movie’s visuals match the arc of the characters and story. It’s also important to make sure we communicate all of these ideas and collaborate with all other departments. Then I usually shot -list with Pope while we work on overheads. Then after all that’s done, I storyboard the entire movie shot for shot. As time consuming as it is, it’s a labor of love. Once on set, I stay away from the cameras and lighting and give my full focus to the actors. We shot on the Red Epic Dragon with Cooke Mini S4/i lenses because they were a budget-friendly way to achieve a high-end look that both Pope and I were really drawn too. We both always liked the look of the Dragon sensor, and the ability to shoot in 6K and master in 4K meant that were not only able to future proof our project, but it proved invaluable to our many VFX needs throughout the film. As for lenses, we wanted something that felt very filmic, but not vintage; modern, but not overly sharp. So the Mini S4/I’s were a great choice in that they have a beautifully organic clarity to that doesn’t scream digital. They also bring out the warmth of skin tones and make the actors look great. 

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Austin?

I’m really looking forward to the audience’s reaction. I know every audience is different and the SXSW spirit and vibe is the perfect audience for a movie like this. Y’all are gonna have a bloody good time.

After the film screens at SxSW, where is the film going to show next? Theatrical, online, more festivals?

Yes to all three! We hope to have a theatrical release that is campaigned by a run of some other great festivals and we’d like it eventually online for the audiences who like to watch on their phones or at home. We are so excited and very lucky to be teaming up with XYZ Films and CAA as our sales team. They were both so enthusiastic about the project when they first watched it and I knew they would be the right team to sell the hell outta it.

If you could show your movie in any theatre outside of Austin, where would you screen it and why?

I’d want to show it at the local cinema in my hometown, Norman, OK. That would be an amazing full circle moment.

What would you say to someone who was being disruptive during a screening of DEMBANGER?

Please shut up.

We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?

The advice I would have for aspiring filmmakers would be: don’t give up. If you trust yourself enough to know you have a damn good idea and the drive to convince others it’s good, don’t give up. Surround yourself with people you are inspired by so you can inspire each other. I’ve spent the last seven years of my life trying to get this movie into production. I was told no by everyone, until someone said yes.

And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen?

SCREAM. 100%.

For more information on this film and to follow its progress into the festival world, point your browser to www.sxsw.com/film!

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