Jacob Johnston sat down with Courageous Nerd to discuss his new project Dreamcatcher, starring Niki Koss, Zachary Gordon and Travis Burns, which he also wrote and directed.
Welcome, and thank you for taking the time to do this.
Jacob Johnston (JJ): My pleasure, happy to be here.
We’ll be chatting all about your new project, Dreamcatcher. First of all though, who or what inspired you to pursue a career in filmmaking?
JJ: It’s kind of funny, very different, but Jurassic Park, in 1993. I was 5 years old and when I saw the movie for the first time, there was something transformative about it. And, not in just the “action excitement thing” when you’re a kid that you love. I was really teleported somewhere else. I wanted to be able to convey that same feeling to other people.
I didn’t really know what it meant at the time, but as I continued to grow as a storyteller and evolve as a human, I really realised that writing and directing are just creating stories, if you distil it down to just being a storyteller.
How would you describe the plot of Dreamcatcher, for anyone who is unfamiliar?
JJ: The film follows two estranged sisters (played by Niki Koss and Elizabeth Posey), who come together with a few of their friends to attend this underground music festival. Some terrible things go down at the festival and the rest of the movie is the aftermath of this tragedy. It’s part-slasher, part-character drama, part-90s thriller all smashed together into one hopefully rollercoaster-esque ride.
You both wrote and directed Dreamcatcher. How much does writing and directing intersect in your career?
JJ: I think it depends. Sometimes, in the indie world, I feel you’re much more apt to be able to do both. You can often times write and direct. Once you get to the studio setting, it becomes a little tougher. Sometimes, they only hire you for the writing side. I think it presents various challenges in exciting ways. It’s great to be able to tap into a story you didn’t write – find the meat and potatoes and stuff that’s there.
It’s really cool to know going in when you’re writing your own story. You get to translate that into something that’s alive and takes a new form. There’s something really exciting and fulfilling about that too. It’s two different challenges, but I think in the indie world, you really get to tap into things that you might not get to do in the bigger studio setting.
To what extent did classic slasher films such as Scream, Psycho or I Know What You Did Last Summer inspire your creative vision for Dreamcatcher?
JJ: Bajillions percent, yeah. I love that you said Psycho, because that to me is such a flagship genre film that straddles really incredible messaging and character development with so many subversive elements. That was kind of my goal for the set-up, to create a similar environment. Have the audience feel connected to certain characters, then subvert that in our first act. The third act is more about the fallout and aftermath of that.
Similarly with Scream, [it] took the slasher genre and tried to expand upon on it in so many different ways. Kevin Williamson’s script and Wes Craven’s directing really came together in this incredibly tight story. Every scene matters and we’re not cutting away to: “Oh, now we need to have another death scene.” Just cut away to a superfluous character who’s going to get axed. We’re seeing that, I think, more and more as the evolution of the slasher genre comes into its own. It’s not just about body count, but about the messaging, characters and stuff like that, which is a really exciting time to be in.
Were there any specific stylistic choices as a director that you made for this film, that might not apply in other projects?
JJ: Absolutely. I have a background in production design and I think visual storytelling is so impactful and exciting, where you can explore colour symbolism, motifs and things like that. Graciously, in a film that is set in a world of EDM, colour is a no-brainer. It doesn’t look like style for the sake of style. It’s a foundational element if you introduce colour, lights and play with contrast, it’s intrinsically tied to the soul of the narrative. I was able to really tap into that Italian horror style – Suspiria, Tenebrae, things like that. It still feeds into the narrative world we’re building.
The film features a talented young cast – Niki Koss, Zachary Gordon and Travis Burns, among others. Had you worked with any of them before, and what convinced you that they were right for these parts?
JJ: I’ve known Niki for a while, she actually auditioned for a short film I did in 2015 called Cadence. I knew she was talented and she went on to do some TV stuff. We had stayed tangentially connected. With all the roles in the film, we auditioned many, many people. Once we narrowed it down to people we were really excited about, we started doing mix-and-match, chemistry reads.
We really took the time to ensure there was chemistry from the onset and we could build upon that chemistry. To take the time to not just cast people without having them interact together. We could make sure there was a real connection, which made my job so much more fun and fulfilling when we got the set, extrapolating those relationships even more.
Do you typically identify with one character when writing a script, or are they all extensions of your own personality and experiences?
JJ: I would hope that Josephine’s (played by Adrienne Wilkinson) not an extension of me, based on her cruelty. It’s why we watch horror movies. There’s a level of darkness in ourselves that we want to exercise in certain ways without being actually cruel. So, to be able to have a character who is emotionally well-rounded but also kind of a ball of fire, is super fun to write.
I wouldn’t necessarily say they’re all extensions of me. They’re amalgamations of people I’ve met or interactions that I’ve had here in LA, because the movie is set in LA. Trying to take personality types that I know and find ways to make them more psychologically complex – using universal themes like identity, loss of innocence and baking those elements into the characters as well.
What advice would you give to anyone who wants to pursue writing, directing or filmmaking in general?
JJ: It’s probably soap boxy to say “keep writing”, when you see people asking about advice. It is important to never lose sight of actually why you want to be a storyteller. I think the thing is, in a town of rejection and where things like sometimes so much time to come together, you really have to have a drive that is unwavering. You have to find ways to be inspired at any point. Even when you’re in your lowest lows, find ways to use that to inspire you to do something with it.
It’s a tough town but at the same time, a very fulfilling place. Writing can be cathartic, you can exercise trying to do different genres and find your own voice in those different genres. Be aware of what’s going on, what trends are happening, what movies are being picked up, what genres are popular. Then, finding a way to tell those kinds of stories in your own voice.
Finally, what I would say is to be mindful about budgets when you’re writing. No one is going to greenlight your 60-million dollar budget film. Sure, it could happen, but it rarely happens. When you’re writing, if you keep that in mind. Don’t write in a box but be mindful of the fact that lower budget things in a smaller budget world are more likely to get picked up or gain traction. Find creative ways to tell those kinds of stories.
Where can people see Dreamcatcher when it’s released?
JJ: It comes out March 5th here in the US and Canada – it’s going to be on Amazon, iTunes and all the typical platforms. I think there might be some drive-ins here in the United States. And then as far as the UK, I think it opens in the summertime but I’m not 100% sure. I wish I had more information for you. As it comes out, I’m sure I will post about it in some capacity. We have sold to the UK, Germany, Switzerland… it’s just a matter of when it’s actually going to be released.
For anyone wanting to find out more about your work or you personally, where could they look?
JJ: I have all of the social media things, but really Twitter is probably the best place. I’m more active there in terms of what I’m doing. Anyone who’s curious about what I’m eating for breakfast…. I would say Twitter is the place to go.
What do you hope to accomplish with the rest of 2021?
JJ: To maintain sanity would be great. I’m trying to task myself to write something every month. I want to either knock out a pilot or feature every single month, not too dissimilar to how people are reading a book or three books a month. Also, I have a few things in the works. It looks like shooting another film… that’s the plan.