The Invoking: An interview with director Jeremy Berg

Brandon Anthony prepares to get busy in The Invoking.
Brandon Anthony prepares to get busy in The Invoking.

Director Jeremy Berg’s first feature film is The Invoking, a rural, spectral tale of possession and bad blood coming home to roost amidst today’s twentysomethings. If you were fortunate enough to attend the Seattle True Independent Film Festival last year, you might have seen it in a version called Sader Ridge. The Invoking, however, is greatly expanded and much creepier still. The film has a pre-release screening and cast/crew party, free and open to the public, this coming Monday, February 17th, at Scarecrow Video, at 7 pm. Director Berg took some questions, and furnish some laughs, over email.

Seattle Star: Please describe your childhood and adolescence.   If not, where did you grow up? What are your most prominent memories from these early years?

Jeremy Berg: I grew up in Northern California, a smaller town called Red Bluff. I grew up in a very open minded house. My mother was and is very spiritual and curious about the universe. I’d definitely say she passed on that curiosity about the unknown to me and my brother. Her father, my grandfather, actually kept journals filled with his own notes and findings about all sorts of paranormal phenomena, from aliens to ESP.

So that kind of thing was pretty common in my household and I remember going to sleep at night listening to my Mom and her friends talk about all sorts of interesting and varied topics.

Seattle Star: When did you start to become interested in movies?  Which films
grabbed your attention first, and why?

Jeremy Berg: I’ve always been pretty obsessed with movies. I grew up in a time when kids weren’t as regulated and watched whatever they wanted. So I remember being eight years old and watching Terminator fifteen or twenty times. I watched The Road Warrior every day for a month at one point. I devoured so many different action and horror movies. My brother Jason is seven years older than me, and he would bring home all kinds of horror films to watch. I was terrified of them but I couldn’t pull myself away from the tv. I was drawn to them.

But oddly enough I never considered making movies. I’d watch Star Wars or Indiana Jones and the concept of a “director” didn’t enter into my brain. I never thought that a single person could make Star Wars. But I always wanted to create. I wanted to write stories.

When I did finally decide to make movies it felt like a revelation. I couldn’t understand how it took me so long to realize that’s what I should be doing. My close friends were much less surprised though. They were all like, “Yeah, of course. You were always reading behind-the-scenes stuff about films and saying we should make a movie about this or that.” I guess I’m just a slow learner. (laughs)

Seattle Star: Which films and directors are your favorites, and why?

Jeremy Berg: There are too many to list. My favorite over-all director is Akira Kurosawa. His films were really the gateway for me to start moving forward with filmmaking. He’s really my guide post in terms of his grasp of the cinematic and his intelligence at realizing a scene. But there’s also Stanley Kubrick, Ingmar Bergman, Francis Ford Coppola, Terrence Malick, Val Lewton…like I said, too many to name.

As far as favorite films, if I had to put together a top 10 list, it might look something like this: The Seven Samurai, Alien, Two-Lane Blacktop, Paris, Texas, Yojimbo, Blade Runner, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, The 400 Blows, Apocalypse Now, and City of God. Though that list might look a little different if you ask me tomorrow. (laughs)

Seattle Star: What are your favorite places to watch films?

Jeremy Berg: I still love the theater experience, I have to admit, though sometimes the twenty minutes of trailers really start to wear on my nerves. And I love trailers, but most of them these days are really uninspired and not very interesting.

Seattle Star: How did the idea for The Invoking come about?

Jeremy Berg: Talking with my friend Matt Medisch, who is also the producer of The Invoking, I got the idea to use his childhood home as the setting for a film. Over a decade ago I had wanted to make an anthology film that took place in several areas around Red Bluff, including one that happened at the house, but we never did anything with it. We were all talk back then. (laughs) Since then though I had gone to film school and gotten a lot more experience making short films and I felt the time was right to move into features.

Matt was very excited about the idea of using his house. So we started brainstorming story ideas that would work well in that setting.

Seattle Star: You co-wrote the film’s original story with Matt Medisch, and co-wrote the screenplay itself with John Portanova.  How are those men and processes the same and how do they differ?

Jeremy Berg: Matt and I got the story idea to a certain point and then I wanted to bring John into the process. John is a guy I met in Seattle on the set of another film where we were both crew members. We clicked right away. We don’t always agree with each other but he’s a super smart and hardworking guy that I really respect and I knew he could help us push the project to completion.

Together we decided to create The October People so we could continue making movies. The partnership has been a good one from the very beginning. We all really get along personally but also bring different things to the table to make our partnership a successful one.
Matt really didn’t have any film experience but he was always interested in the things I was doing through film school and beyond. And I knew he had the right head for business. So despite the experience I knew he would pick things up quickly and be a valuable asset to the company and he’s really exceeded expectations. I don’t think we could have a better producer and manager of the company than Matt and he really gets laser-focused on the task in front of him, which is great because I’m a serial multi-tasker. (laughs)

Seattle Star: What were the specific challenges of story writing and scriptwriting?

Jeremy Berg: Well, writing the story is always the hardest part of the whole experience. There’s a saying that really describes me accurately which is “I hate writing but I love having written.” Writing is something I’ve always done and can never go long without doing. Even if I didn’t have a project in front of me I always felt a nagging if I didn’t write. That being said, it really can be a difficult and painful process, but it’s also highly rewarding once you’re on the other side.

And despite the difficulty of it, it’s super important to just put the time in and really craft that story. If you put all your energy and effort into that story and outline then the rest of the process becomes so much easier. The script almost writes itself if you have the story already fleshed out. And the better the story, the better the script, the better the caliber of actors and crew you can get, the more passionate people are to help out, etc. You can see where this is going. (laughs)

Seattle Star: Did the story undergo any major changes?  If so, which?

Jeremy Berg: Well the original kernel of an idea is much different than the finished film. We brainstormed a ton of different ideas and just kept throwing out whatever didn’t work. The first thought was that when they left the house for the hike, they’d come back and not be able to find the house, even though they go back to the exact spot where the house was. And that begins a long night of terror in the woods. And thank God we scrapped that because making a whole film at night in the woods with no budget is a terrible idea. (laughs)

Seattle Star: Please briefly describe each of the leading actors and his/her part. How did you discover each one?  What sort of acting work had each done before?

D'Angelo Midili and Trin Miller share coffee and secrets.
D’Angelo Midili and Trin Miller share coffee and secrets.
Jeremy Berg: Trin Miller played our Sam and she was just perfect. She has such a strong ability to tap into her emotions and give 100%. She’s very likeable on-screen and I think an audience can really latch onto her quickly and believe that this group of friends would rally around her and care deeply about what’s happening to her. That’s all Trin and what she brings naturally to the screen. I had never worked with her before but I had met her at an audition for a short I was producing and I liked her look and she was clearly very talented. I had a gut instinct that she was our Sam.

D’Angelo Midili played Eric and he was somebody I had in line for the role immediately. He’s an immensely talented actor that is really nuanced and magnetic on-screen. I’ve worked with him many times before and will continue to work with him in the future.

Josh Truax is a local Seattle actor that I’d heard of but never met. D’Angelo knew him and recommended him for the role. When he auditioned for the part I was very intrigued by him and his potential. He has a huge range and is a really expressive actor. I love what he brought to the character of Roman and how far he extended himself for the role. He took a character that was interesting but maybe a little flat on the page and made him really heartbreaking on-screen.

Andi Norris is an actor that I’ve worked with before and actually have tapped for another feature that’s currently in pre-production called Mudpuppy. She’s a force of nature, with boundless exuberance and energy. I saw her audition for a short and she did something I’ve never seen before. They had her read for two different parts and she nailed both of them, even though they were so different. That’s talent. But I also thought she was a natural fit for Caitlin and she really nailed what made that character special in the film.

Brandon Anthony, I worked with before on a short. He’s a good friend of D’Angelo’s and I knew he could bring the intensity that was needed for Mark. He’s got a certain swagger about him that I felt translated well to the character. He did a good job of walking that line where audiences aren’t sure if they should be scared of him or worried for him.

Seattle Star: Where was the film shot, and how did you go about scouting and obtaining locations?

Jeremy Berg: We did end up shooting on Matt’s old childhood property. Almost the entirety of the movie takes place in that house and on the property. The exceptions being the driving scenes and the early scene that takes place in the park, which was right down the street from Matt’s house.

I knew the property pretty well since I’d spent a lot of time there as a teenager but we did go back there before the shoot to scout it out. I needed to refamiliarize myself with the place and the amount of space we had to work with. Matt, John, and I all went and stayed there for a weekend and we watched a lot of films and were generally unproductive (laughs). But the trip was helpful in the end.

Seattle Star: How was the film funded?

Jeremy Berg: We just kind of pooled the money together ourselves and borrowed from family and friends. Our budget wasn’t that big so we were able to get away with doing that. Though we didn’t end up having enough for some of the post work that was needed so we did launch a Kickstarter campaign to help us finish the film.

Seattle Star: What is your specific relationship to the October People?

The October People is the production company founded by myself, Matt Medisch, and John Portanova. We founded The October People in order to make The Invoking and it’s been a fantastic partnership ever since. We definitely view the company as the perfect platform for us to continue to grow and create as filmmakers. I consider The October People an extension of myself.

Seattle Star: Were you involved with the editing of the film?  If so, how? And either way, what are your thoughts on the final edit?

Jeremy Berg: The film was edited by Autumn Lisa Mason, who’s definitely one of my most invaluable collaborators. I love her work and I really admired her dedication to The Invoking.  We actually had the privilege of having her on-set for the shoot and she was instrumental to the film. We were constantly shooting and then transferring the footage to her computer while we continued to shoot. So a few hours after we had a scene in the can I could look at a rough cut. She would tell me if she thought something wasn’t working and why it wasn’t working and I trust her completely.

I’m very happy with the work she did on the film. The footage she had to work with wasn’t always perfect, a unfortunate consequence of having to shoot the entire film at such a quick pace, but she was always able to craft a scene from what we had and I don’t think anyone could’ve done a better job than she did.

Seattle Star: Had you ever directed before?  How did you prepare yourself and the cast for filming?

Jeremy Berg: Yes, I’d had experience directing but only on shorts. John and I created a webseries back in 2007 or so called Adler & Zenith and we worked on that for about a year and a half. We had no money and set ourselves a ridiculous work schedule. We were writing, directing, and editing 10 to 12 minute shorts every three weeks. It was far from perfect but we used the series as a way to experiment with different genres and styles and it also got us acclimated to shooting things quickly. I also directed a 40-minute film called A Measure of Comfort that never really went anywhere but was a great learning experience.

Preparation for me always consists of precise planning and rehearsals with the actors. When it comes to a film I don’t think you can over prepare. We try to have everything planned so we leave nothing to chance. And doing that will actually free you up on set to play around a little. Even though we only had seven days to shoot The Invoking we were actually able to grab pick up shots, or shots that were never planned, despite the schedule, because we planned so well and stuck to it.

Seattle Star: What were the major challenges of filming, and how did you meet them?

Jeremy Berg: The major challenge was definitely the 7-day shooting schedule. It’s just not a feasible schedule by anyone’s standards. I know there were people on set that had the thought in the back of their minds that we might not be able to do it. But we all just got to work, kept putting one foot in front of the other, and had fun shooting a movie. When everyone on set is passionate about reaching the end goal and having a good time, it’s amazing what you can achieve. We actually wrapped early on the last day, which I never expected to happen.

Seattle Star: What’s next for the film, October People, and you?

Jeremy Berg: We have a lot of things going on at once. First up we’re working on my next film, which is about a pair of sisters who have to deal with alien abduction. Like The Invoking, it’s heavily character-based and I think the story we crafted is a very intriguing one. We’re going to be shooting that in the next few months.

We’re also still working on getting a script that John wrote and will direct called Valley of the Sasquatch off the ground. We’re still working on it but we’re more than likely going to be filming that a few months after we wrap on the other one.

We also have a few other surprises in store that we’ll hopefully be revealing to our fans sooner than later. So keep an eye on our Facebook page and Twitter account for news and updates.

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