A Conversation with Jacob Johnston

Rarely does a film blow me away like DREAMCATCHER did. I had the honor of speaking with the film’s writer and director, Jacob Johnston. We discuss how a walk to Trader Joe’s led him to developing one of the most original concepts in the history of thrillers.

DREAMCATCHER is available On Demand and Digital March 5th

Yanis: How did you come up with this story? How did a walk to Trader Joe’s lead you to writing this story?

Jacob: When producers Brandon and Krystal Vayda approached me about collaborating on this film, they came with a with few stipulations. It needed to be an ensemble — something based around music — and it needed to evoke the tonal elements of 90s era genre pieces. I’ve known them for many years — and it’s easy to creatively mind-meld with them, so even knowing a snippet of what they were looking for gave me a strong foundation — and a hell of a playground.

Many of the things I write begin with a song. A spurring melody or maybe inspirational lyrics, something that hooks me and ignites that flurry of passion that comes from telling a story. I had culled together a playlist of inspiring New Wave Synth [some of my favorite] — and went for a walk to try and crack the narrative nut. I also needed some food for dinner — hence Trader Joe’s.

Halfway there, I had this vision of a DJ — soaring above a crowd, praised like a God; decked out with a character-specific mask that could be anything I wanted it to be. That solved a major issue : WHAT and WHY does our killer wear a mask — and what does it represent. Designing the iconography of your killer is as important as the story itself. While it may sound silly, solving this part of the equation unlocked the rest of the story.

It allowed me to focus on the characters, the world building, and mythos — while worrying less about “well, does the antagonist’s design impede or distract from the story?” The mask is repeatable, too. So, anyone — anywhere — can wear it. This opens up franchise potential — and expands on the whodunit aspect — no different than anyone being able to wear a Marshmello or Deadmau5 mask.

The story itself was born from a love of classic literature — and how those stories utilized impactful themes and messaging, while simultaneously crafting an entertaining story. I was also inspired by Giallo films like Black Sunday, Suspiria, and Twitch of the Death Nerve. Blending decided style with thrills, psychologically complex characters with a tense score, these intentions were the backbone of Dreamcatcher.

Y: You were inspired by Faust and Macbeth. Are there specific characters in Dreamcatcher that are derivative archetypes from these works?

J: What a great question. Yes, absolutely. There’s slivers of them throughout. To me, Dreamcatcher is a bit like slasher-Shakespeare-lite. [For the record, I’m not trying to say my writing ability is in any way/shape/ form comparable to his. Last thing I need is a headline proclaiming I’m the new Shakespeare!] From Faust, I imbued Pierce with elements of Margarete, a woman who falls in love and for that love, is pulled through Hell.

Margarete’s actions lead to the death of her mother — and her brother. She is haunted by a her loss of innocence. Obviously there are many subversions with where Pierce goes as opposed to where Margarete goes in the story, but that’s where the fun comes in.

I also layered Pierce with elements of Lady Macbeth, too. Specifically in her ability to manipulate others and in a lot of ways, tries to find her identity through a quest for power — even if she doesn’t realize it at first. Without giving much away, there are traces of MacDuff and Wagner in Jake, Mephistopheles and Macbeth in Dylan, Malcom and Helen of Troy in Ivy.

These classic texts offer a very specific archetypal lens, which means combining elements of opposing character traits can create a really unique, modern take. A bit like a narrative Mr. Potato Head.

Y: You said the cast and crew bonded like family. This is sadly a rare occurrence on a set. What’s the secret to achieving this?

J: It’s so true, huh? It’s easy to lose sight of the vision and camaraderie when there are millions of dollars at stake, 14 producers trying to reshape the story on any given day, and a cast/crew that are treated like they are simply an extension of their experience — and not real people.

I don’t know if there’s a insta-fix secret, but I believe it all boils down to mutual respect and ego-free collaboration. That means fostering an environment where people feel passionate about coming to work each day. Everyone knows making a movie isn’t easy: it’s grueling, physically and emotionally — but it’s a shared experience.

It’s a bit like a relationship — you have to be willing to put your trust in someone else’s [or in the case of a film, many, many] hands. Sure, it could lead to heartbreak or disappointment, but if you don’t go all in — it’s doomed from the start. If you do it right, even on the bad days, you’ll find a way to grown, to learn, and ideally bypass repeat mistakes.

Reality is, every movie is different. In a low-budget indie, we’re all in it together. It’s all or nothing — all day, every day. There’s no time [literally] for much more than turning your cast and crew into a tribe.

Be kind. Be prepared. And keep reminding yourself that we’re peddling fantasy stories — we live to create worlds that aren’t — and that is a gift.

Y: EDM has always had an unsettling element to it. Paul Simon famously rewrote the lyrics to his 1990 song “Can’t Run But” in 2018 to reference this eerie quality. “The sub-bass feels like an earthquake. The top end cuts like knives.” Saturday Night Live did a sketch where a hack DJ goes to hilarious lengths to tease a bass drop. When he finally pushes a giant red button with “BASS” written on it, Lil Jon emerges and shouts “GET TURNED UP TO DEATH!” and everybody in the audience dies. The music is entrancing, but almost in a ceremoniously occultist way. Is this something you latched onto?

J: Firstly, great references here. EDM has created a cultural movement in the last few years. We see it in the packed, global festivals, merchandise and mainstream collaborations. There’s a community to it, absolutely. Although more common in the rave community, their mantra is PLUR — peace, love, unity, respect.

Which is an absolutely beautiful and empowering sentiment for any community to stand on. But what happens when that ideology is corrupted? Identity and corruption of power have long been fascinating themes to me — and ones that play heavily throughout the film. If we lose ourselves — to ourselves— it’s very much inline with losing yourself in the entrancing beat of a song.

The parallels between EDM music and the human experience are strikingly similar. It’s a roller coaster. You hear setups where you think the beat will drop, but then it doesn’t.

No different than when you build something up in your mind, overthinking or otherwise, and it doesn’t play out as expected. This level of spontaneity, emotional or otherwise, is a really interesting place to explore, narratively.

Y: How did you avoid writing cannon fodder characters?

J: In genre film, it’s easy to write fluff. One dimensional characters who live to die. Sure, sometimes that has to happen. Not everything or everyone in a film needs to be intellectualized.

That being said, the deeper a connection we can create between a character and the audience — the more they feel fully invested in their journey. The high highs and the low-lows. For me, I like to focus on WHO they are before I focus on WHY they are. That’s to say, for my process, fleshing them out as a person before fleshing them out solely as a story mechanic.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH THE TRAILER FOR DREAMCATCHER

Y: How did you explore trauma and the various effects it can take?

J: Trauma manifests in many, many different ways. For some it cripples, for others it drives — and understanding that no one person is going to deal with something tragic in the same way was important for me to capture. As the film unfolds, there’s some intensely tragic things we see — but prior to those we see, are many we don’t.

By alluding to these struggles, the audience can [hopefully] feel a deeper connection to the characters. Tapping into fundamental and universal emotions like love and loss conveys a more grounded and relatable narrative — one that if/when a character meets their grisly end; we feel it.

This meant giving breaths between the “genre” set pieces where the characters can have a respite — or a conversation about what’s going on internally. Whether it’s an explosion of emotion or an internalized, quiet reflection — I found it imperative to portray both sides of the coin.

Trauma is a grey area, and the reality of it is rarely black and white.

Y: I was quite impressed with some of the twists and turns this movie takes. Did you write the film backwards from the ending or did the screenplay write itself?

J: I knew the finale from the start — but the path to get there took a few different turns during the writing process. Notably in balancing the genre set pieces with meaningful character development — so that when we get to the finale, it feels deserved.

I find the most effective twists and turns in a movie come from gently pulling the rug out from the audience — where they don’t quite realize it until you yank it all the way.

If the audience feels like your twists betray the narrative or are a simple GOTCHA! moment, you can really alienate them.

My hope is that the baseline journey of the story is as fulfilling as the twists and turns along the way.

Y: You talk about the lengths people are willing to go to retain self-made fame. I am particularly disturbed by the logical conclusion of twitch culture and onlyfans culture.

I think of these as modern substitutions for gambling and drugs. There’s a reason the Eminem song “Stan,” which was once looked upon as a work of horror, is now a badge of honor for fans or “Stans” of today’s celebs. Thoughts?

J: There’s a price to everything we do in life, whether that’s a physical or emotional cost, it depends on the situation. Some people have infallible conviction and a strong moral compass, while others…don’t.

We’re told from a young age to find purpose — embrace what we’re passionate about — DO THAT THING! But what happens when that thought corrupts us? What happens when that drive becomes insatiable? That’s the toxic side for me. The inability to stop and appreciate the journey of success.

“Fame culture” in a time of rampant social media is terrifying to me. People willing to do just about anything to slip into the limelight — and subsequently stir the pot to keep the public eye.

Then, we’re forced to watch some of these people fall from grace — and spiral — exacerbated by toxic fandom — to a really, really dark place.

Y: Is there a scene that you are particularly proud of on a technical level. A shot, or series of shots, you think you did exceptionally well?

J: I have to say everything we were able to accomplish at Cataclysm was a feat. Our DP, Matt Plaxco and his camera and electrical team were absolute maniacs in their ability to execute and reconfigure the complex setups in a timely manner.

It was such an incredible experience working alongside them. We also had a change in the production schedule — wherein the Cataclysm stuff was supposed to be the last week of shooting — and 3 weeks out of principal photography, it got pushed to the first week. Surprisingly it wasn’t chaotic in the slightest. Challenging, sure. But, everyone adapted. I have to give props to our production designer, Austin Johnson as well. He and his art director, Chris, were always thinking two steps ahead.

While we were shooting in one room, they were [literally] building a bathroom on the floor below us. Austin, Matt and I had a syncopated way of thinking about color and how it should intrinsically be tied to each character in any given scene. I really love how it all came together during the scenes at Cataclysm. I also love the staging of the finale by the pool. To me, the entirety of that sequence encompasses the absolute beauty and unspoken terror of LA — the rise-and-the fall.

It’s a real Jekyll-and-Hyde place. One day you’re on top of the world, the next day you’re wondering how you ended up so jaded and alone. Here we are in this mega-mansion in the hills, city lights as far as the eyes can see, steam rising off an infinity pool — but there’s a crippling sense of isolation to it all. I love how that imagery ties into the thematic subtext, the dialogue, the action — all of it.

Y: What’s next for you. Where can people follow you on social media?

J: I have a few things cooking! I used last year to really focus on getting an absorbent amount of irons into the fire and now seeing how things shake out. I’m on Twitter as @Jake_squared and on Instagram as @officialjakesquared.

DREAMCATCHER is available On Demand and Digital March 5th