Originally Posted on: February 4th, 2014
Charlie JJ Kruger sits down with Jeremy Berg & John Portanova, creators of the film 'The Invoking'.
H-P: First off, I cannot say enough good things about this movie. I really fell in love with it and a couple of the characters; I have to ask... where did you get the basic idea for the film?
BERG: Thanks so much! I'm super excited you enjoyed the film and I'm happy that an audience is finding our movie and connecting with it. The basic idea evolved gradually over a series months. It started with the property that we filmed on. That house actually belongs to our Producer Matt Medisch. We were friends in High School and I spent a lot of time at that place and can personally attest to its creepiness. (laughs) At some point the idea occurred to me that we could use that property to make a horror film since it has so much inherent production value. I think I actually had an idea over a decade ago to film a short there but that was back before the influx of affordable video equipment so the idea got shelved. I couldn't afford a 16mm camera with film and wouldn't have known how to use it at that time anyway. Fast forward to a few years ago: I'd gone to film school, had a lot of connections and friendships in the Seattle film community, and digital cameras were easy to get a hold of. So the idea to film there occurred to me again and seemed much more realistic. When Matt responded enthusiastically we started brainstorming about the kinds of stories we could tell using the property and the idea of Sam and her repressed past started to form.
JOHN: Once Matt and Jeremy had the initial idea, they brought me on-board as a writer, producer, and assistant director. I really liked the idea that they had and the prospect of making a feature for no money really excited me. I had been a vocal supporter of making a no-budget film for years. Ever since I saw the first Seattle screening of Paranormal Activity, I knew that the way for us to break into feature filmmaking was to just do something ourselves, with whatever meager resources we have, and prove to the world that we could do it. The only problem was I couldn't come up with a story that we could accomplish in Paranormal Activity dollars (the budget for that original film was $15,000 and it was shot in 7 days in the director's home). Now that Matt and Jeremy had cracked that code, my mind was racing with ways we could tell this story. The three of us hashed out a complete outline and a few months later Jeremy and I were burning through script pages.
H-P: And the characters, they all felt very real. Truly fleshed out and honest in their portrayals and structure. For the two of you to have gotten them onto paper so well, there must be parts of yourselves within the characters... if I may ask, which of them correlate most to the two of your own personalities?
JOHN: I don't know if you realized this, but I am a bit of a socially awkward nerd. (laughs) So for me the most important character in the script was Roman. When we were hammering out the outline, it was important to me that we give the supporting cast a reason to be there. Sam and Eric are obviously the focal points of the plot, but I didn't want the film to end up the way you see so many horror films, with decently developed main characters and then a supporting cast made up of stereotypes that die after 2 scenes. So I really got excited about this idea that Roman had this big plan for this trip. He was going to tell Caitlin, the unrequited love of his life, how he felt and everything would be hunky dory. Then, when Mark breaks up with his girlfriend at the start of the trip and starts advancing on Caitlin, Roman feels dejected and angry. So the way Roman romanticizes his friendship with Caitlin and how he reacts to rejection are very relatable feelings for me. I've been through it, many times. Also, the way he obsesses over his "sound". I may not spend all of my time recording audio for future use in music or what have you, but I feel the same way about movies that Roman does about audio recording. There's not a second that goes by that I'm not thinking about a movie, or watching a movie, or writing a movie, and so on. So that aspect of Roman definitely speaks to me as well. And luckily for us, Josh (Truax) gave an outstanding performance and made the character real in ways the thinly veiled version of myself written on the page wasn't.
BERG: It's good to work with John and Matt because we're all on the same page about characters and the role they serve in a film. I think it's important to always write the characters as realistically as possible, give them life, and make the audience believe these people exist. There are writers that are great at writing larger than life characters and some of my favorite films have those kinds of characters. But for me personally, I don't know any other way than to try to craft 3-dimensional characters to the best of my ability.
H-P: I know this film was crowdfunded, what gave you that idea? And how did you promote that to make the campaign such a success?
BERG: We decided to look into crowdfunding for the same reason that most do, we didn’t have money and didn’t know any investors. (laughs)
JOHN: We had made the movie with a little bit of startup cash and a lot of credit card charges. But when it came time for post-production, we realized that we needed some real money to pay for things such as sound mixing and color correction. We also realized that maybe we could pay down our credit cards by putting together a Kickstarter campaign. So during August of 2012 we ran a campaign for finishing funds and were successful thanks to the efforts of our cast & crew in getting the word out and our family & friends in backing the project. This was before the days when people like Zach Braff and Spike Lee were bringing their projects onto Kickstarter and asking for millions of dollars, so we lucked out. Now it seems like if you don’t already have a built-in fan base, you’re going to struggle to make your crowdfunding goals.
BERG: It was definitely a good experience that helped us get Invoking finished, but for our next couple of projects we are not going the crowdfunding route.
H-P: What other films/novels helped influence this story?
BERG: My favorite horror films are the ones that have atmosphere to spare. If you can convincingly create atmosphere then you don't need a lot because the threat of something happening is scary enough. The Shining is one of my all-time favorite films. Every time I watch that movie, it could be the hottest day of the year and it doesn't matter, for the duration of the film I feel stranded at The Overlook Hotel surrounded by hundreds of miles of snow. It's so powerful to be able to transport an audience like that and put them in the environment they're watching and it's an inspiration to me on many levels, especially as the film also has layers and different people can interpret the story differently. I always want a film to be emotionally engaging but also mentally engaging. Another big inspiration for me for The Invoking is an Australian film from a few years ago that I love called Animal Kingdom. It's a crime thriller that utilized some horror conventions very effectively; namely a slow burn atmosphere and the ability to keep you on edge by wondering what might happen next.
JOHN: The most important thing for me with any script I work on are the characters. If the characters aren’t interesting or don’t feel real, then there’s no reason for the audience to care when they start dying off. My favorite horror films are favorites because I end up caring so much about the characters. This means that they can’t all be abrasive assholes who spend the entire film at each other’s throats. If the characters aren’t having fun being with each other, why should the audience want to spend time with them either? Because of this I always try to give the characters some time at the beginning of a story to just have fun or give them some drama which I can relate to that an audience member hopefully will as well. A few examples of films that I feel pull this off well are An American Werewolf in London, Black Christmas (1974), and The Descent.
H-P: How the hell did you find such an amazing and skilled cast? Not only the two main leads, but the entirety of the main cast was brilliant. To what god did you have to sacrifice something?
JOHN: I can’t remember who we sacrificed to, but he held up his end of the bargain. (laughs) We knew that since our film didn’t have the budget for a ton of action or a lot of gore gags that the most important thing for us to do was make sure to cast well. A few of the cast members, D’Angelo Midili who plays Eric and Brandon Anthony who plays Mark, we had worked with previously on some shorts and webseries. We had enjoyed working with them in the past and knew that they’d be perfect for their parts. Seattle has a great filmmaking community full of extremely talented actors. In our years working on our own short projects and with other filmmakers, we had come in contact with the rest of the cast in one way or another. Jeremy knew that there were people he wanted to reach out to about each role and Trin Miller who plays Sam, Josh Truax who plays Roman, and Andi Norris who plays Caitlin were at the top of his list for those parts. Once we had them in a room reading lines from the script, it was obvious that we had to use them.
BERG: Like John said, the Seattle community is full of talented actors. It's really important when working with very little money to still be selective and not to settle. We believed in the project and knew the script could make a very effective horror thriller and so it was easy to speak with the actors about what we wanted to achieve and have them believe us. I think our conviction came across. And once they read the script I think they were even more intrigued by the characters on the page and the way their relationships fluctuated. It gave them a lot to play with but also challenged them.
H-P: One of my absolute favorite dynamics within the film is this bleak broken trust. Roman's broken feelings towards Caitlin, Sam's for Mark, Mark's for Sam, Eric's towards Sam, in turn Sam's towards everyone, Roman's towards Mark... so on and so forth. How important was keeping these intricate personal problems and trust/love issues in the film? Their presence adds so much depth and truth to the film, but it couldn’t have been easy to balance them, so how important was it to the two of you to have that there, as well as the plot/other development?
JOHN: The breakdown of personal relationships always seemed like the backbone of the film to me. The entire plot is set into motion because of the breakdown of Sam’s family, the most important relationship in anyone’s development. I liked the idea that this vacation to explore Sam’s inheritance turned out to be the exact opposite of the relaxing fun loving trip that the characters expected. And it wasn’t because of demons or zombies or any outside force, it was because of what was pent up within them. Feelings of doubt and neglect are at the hearts of all of the characters and instead of facing those feelings, they bottle them up and they explode. This manifests itself via physical outbursts such as those that Roman has or in Sam’s case a possible mental breakdown. Making sure that the character’s feelings were always being tracked was extremely important because you never want the plot to dictate where the film goes if it means making anyone act out of character. I knew Jeremy had this intricate plot in mind and knew exactly how he wanted it to unfold, so when I was writing I was usually paying closer attention to how the characters were tracking emotionally than anything else.
BERG: We all believed it was very important to have that emotional journey make sense. It really goes back to what I was saying earlier about trying to write 3-dimensional characters. Writing them that way means not giving them short shrift. At some point in the process I always start attaching myself to the characters and really wanting to respect them and give them their moment. It's also important to pull from emotional experience while you're writing. The Roman situation seems very specific, but in reality, I think most people growing up have had a similar experience, have had their hearts broken or felt slighted. As hard as it can be at the time it seems to be a rite of passage when you're coming of age. I tried to just tap into that and utilize the side of myself that relates to Roman because I think we've all been there before, to some extent or another.
H-P: For those of us who have seen the film at any one of the many festivals it has played at, or got a copy through the crowdsourcing perks, what new things can we expect on this new and official DVD?
JOHN: I am a giant home video enthusiast. It started with VHS, but my collecting habit really exploded when DVD came out. I can’t get enough of behind-the-scenes documentaries (ones that go beyond the studio puff piece designed only to sell the film) and audio commentaries. I remember in high school having weekends where instead of spending the whole time watching movies, I would just listen to John Carpenter or Kevin Smith audio commentaries for two days straight. So it was really important for me to make sure we had a nice collection of supplements to help entice people who have never heard of the film to take it home after picking it up off the shelf.
BERG: When we originally finished the film and showed it at festivals it was under a different title, Sader Ridge. Since being picked up for distribution the title was changed to The Invoking. So first and foremost, if you're already a fan of the film, make sure you look for us under our next title. Nothing about the film has changed outside of some text in the opening credits.
As for the special features, since we didn't have time or money to pay attention to bonus materials while we were shooting the movie we worked very hard to put together some quality material after the fact. We were able to record two commentaries. The first features cast members Trin Miller, D’Angelo Midili, and Andi Norris. That one is a lot of fun and I'm sure will be the highlight of the disc. The other commentary is with myself, John, and Producer Matt Medisch. That one’s not as good, but you should still listen to it. (laughs) We also got most everyone from the cast & crew together and interviewed them about the entire process of making the film. When we cut that together to try and tell the story of the movie it ended up being an hour-plus long documentary. I think fans of the film will really appreciate learning how everything came together under such time and money constraints.
H-P: How will your time working on this film influence your next films/projects? Do you feel like you have learned some tricks/techniques that will come in handy for your next idea?
JOHN: The accelerated timeframe of our shoot made it so I learned more on this film than anything else we had done previously. As the assistant director I was in charge of scheduling a feature film shoot in only 7 days and making sure that the set ran smoothly and that we got everything needed by the end of each day. I feel like making it through that timeline has prepared me for just about anything that a future film schedule could throw at me. At least I hope it has or it’ll be really embarrassing. (laughs)
BERG: Exactly. I think this experience will help us not to take anything for granted. Even a 2 week shoot can be too fast for some people, but for us that will be like a vacation! Having done The Invoking the way we did, I think it does help to show you that anything is possible. It's important to just keep moving forward and working with what you have. Even if something seems impossible, there's always a way that maybe you just haven't considered yet.
H-P: Freddy Vs Jason, who should really win here?
JOHN: Did you see that movie? Who was the guy coming out of the lake at the end and who was the severed head? I think I’ve made my point. (laughs)
BERG: I'm probably in the minority here since John and Matt are both Jason super fans but I've always been partial to Freddy. Even though the Nightmare films are way more hit-and-miss than the Friday films, the concept is just too good. It has to be the best high concept horror idea of all time. You can't go to sleep or you die? It's perfect! That being said, in "reality" (laughs) Jason would probably win because Freddy can't play mind games with him and that's his forte.
H-P: What can we expect from you guys next? And is there anything you want to plug/talk about before we wrap up?
BERG: Right now we're currently working with Ruthless Pictures (the sales agents for The Invoking) again to make another horror film. It's another character-driven, psychological horror film, but it's also more intense and high concept because it deals with alien abduction. That being said, the idea is based somewhat on true accounts, including one that happened to my mother. I was always fascinated with the subject and it always felt a little close to home because of this. I'm really excited about the story we came up with to frame the concept and I think it's going to be unlike any other film in this subgenre.
JOHN: I am very excited about this alien abduction film which Jeremy will direct as his follow-up to The Invoking, we just have to agree on a title. (laughs) I think Jeremy and I were able to put together another script that focuses on the characters just as much as the scares, but this time we get to play within one of my favorite subgenres. I grew up on The X-Files and still consider the abduction sequence from Fire in the Sky to be one of the best examples of filmed horror that I can think of, so being able to put my spin on the idea of alien abduction was really rewarding.
After we film that, the next film on the docket for our company The October People in 2014 is Valley of the Sasquatch. As much as I love alien abduction stories, I love stories about Bigfoot even more. I’ll be making my directorial debut with the film, which is based on a script I’ve had in my back pocket for many years. Once again Matt will be producing it and Jeremy will be the cinematographer. There are a few other irons in the fire as well; these projects won't be the last you hear from The October People.
H-P: Thank you so much for your time, I can’t wait to add this new edition of 'The Invoking' to my shelf, and I can’t wait for your next works as well!
JOHN: Thank you for taking the time! We hope everyone is able to check out the film when it comes out on DVD & VOD on February 18th. And for those of you in the Seattle area, both Jeremy and I will be at a pre-release party at Scarecrow Video, which is my absolute favorite place in the world, on Monday, February 17th. It’ll be the first place anywhere where people can buy the film and we’ll be celebrating along with some of the cast and everyone in the area is welcome to come and join us. You can find information on the event at www.scarecrow.com
BERG: It should be a great time and we can’t wait for the world at large to let us know what they think of the film. And thank you for your enthusiasm for the film. We hope you like the next one as much as you liked Invoking! (laughs)
Get 'The Invoking' on Amazon: amazon.com/gp/product/B00HYTGZCM