Jacob Johnston’s ‘Dreamcatcher’ is more than just a slasher film

Photo credit: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Jacob Johnston is the brains behind DJ Dreamcatcher and Cataclysm with his new film Dreamcatcher.

Jacob wrote and directed the film which stars Niki Koss, Zachary Gordon, Travis Burns, Adrienne Wilkinson, Blaine Kern III, Olivia Sui, Emrhys Cooper, Elizabeth Posey, Nazanin Mandi, and Lou Ferrigno Jr.

Film synopsis: Dylan, known to his fans as DJ Dreamcatcher, is on the brink of global stardom. Everything changes the night of Cataclysm, an underground music festival, where two estranged sisters and their friends meet Dylan. After a drug fueled gruesome event, things begin to spiral into a 48-hour whirlwind of violence and mayhem.

Spoilers ahead!
Travis Burns as Dylan in ‘Dreamcatcher’ Photo credit: Samuel Goldwyn Films
What inspired this story?

Jacob: There were a lot of things. I have a love for 80s and 90s genre fare and being able to dabble into elements of that, specifically where we get to take the time to kind of get to know the characters before it becomes this kind of like hack ‘n slash ride. I really like the ability to be able to understand who these people are, understand their perspective, maybe plant some great subtext, but also allow the artist to have a good time. I don’t want to create something so boxy or heavy handed, so allowing them to enjoy the ride of the characters, enjoy the thrills, but still feel like there’s a meaningful message or meaningful theme that is subtextually buried into the story as well. And secondarily, it was finding a way to create an iconic character who was easy to explain, where he didn’t have to create some extensive mythos in why the iconography of the mask or the look of the character was what it was. So, setting it in the world of EDM really opened that door because we have so many medium artists like Marshmello and Deadmau5 and these characters who have created a persona that the audience buys. This masked person goes up on a stage, who we don’t really know, and plays for thousands of people and we just accept it. So, being able to create a character that felt stylized, that felt interesting, that felt different, but also felt grounded in a reality that didn’t need to be told through an experience backstory. Marrying those two ideas together was kind of the foundation for the film for me.

This isn’t just a slasher film though-

Jacob: When I set out to make this film, I really am grateful that Brandon and Crystal, the producers, let me make it a character piece first and foremost. I love these dense character stories like Closer, not to the same degree as Closer because obviously that’s a very, very dense film. But where the movie hinges, not on the plot, like the story mechanics, but rather who these people are and what’s driving them to do what they’re doing. And in genre film, I think it’s even more important and more impactful, you really want to relate to the audience. I love watching kind of mindless, fun, chase scenes. But I really want to dive kind of underneath the surface of that, which is why the kill scenes outside, really the first one, are not really, they’re not super graphic, but hopefully feel paid off. They feel deserved because the audience has gotten a chance to know this person and maybe, hopefully, relate to them in some capacity. Because, the film really is about identity. That was really what I wanted to explore.

What’s the significance of dreamcatchers in this film? 

Jacob: It’s two things for me, one of them was kind of the hyperbole of self obsession. This is a guy who really likes himself on the surface. It’s one of my favorite moments at the end when he’s by himself and it’s like ‘well you have all this stuff and you got nothing.’ And, to me, the significance of almost over using them- even when he was in the bathroom, they’re hanging on the shower, he’s at this new level of self obsession. That, to me, is the level of commentary we’re making on kind of his self made fame, where it’s like, once you create a brand, you just become it. And to me, Dylan was no longer Dylan, he was Dreamcatcher. His brand had kind of overtaken him which is why we see it everywhere and it kind of all ties together at the end of the film. Secondarily, there’s what we associate dreamcatchers with and subverting that expectation. I know there was another movie that came out, a horror movie, that came out about a year ago called DreamKatcher (with a K) that dealt more with actual dreamcatchers, and I just liked this idea that the crux of it was not really about what we associate them with, although in the film he does mention what they are because I do think it’s important, but also someone has appropriated someone else’s culture, like that is 2021, where it’s like, ‘it’s convenient for me, so I’m going to appropriate this piece of culture, because it kind of speaks to me.’ And I thought that was a really interesting thing to explore this idea of this is a person who has not only made a brand out of something, but they’ve made a brand out of something that hasn’t really been connected to them, but they’re going to try to justify it. It’s like borderline white privilege, 100%, and a lot of different ways.

DJ Dreamcatcher’s mask is incredibly creepy. What went into picking that mask?
Photo credit: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Jacob: When I was writing the movie, I didn’t have a real concept of what I wanted it to be. It had to be something real. It couldn’t be so scary or weird that if this was an actual DJ, why would he wear that? He’d terrify people. But in the right lighting and the wrong context, it could be terrifying. I started working with an old colleague from Marvel Studios that I knew and was friends with, Josh Herman, who is an incredible artist and he started doing some design work. We both stumbled on this idea that owls are so powerful and they’re so scary. Owls have been used so many different times but taking that idea as kind of a foundation and going, well, it’s also kind of an exaggeration of a human face.- just the pointed, elongated, big bulbous forehead and then bleeding the design lines from a dreamcatcher into the mask itself and letting the eyepiece be kind of the center. Everybody says eyes are the window to the soul, but they’re black. So, it’s like this dreamcatcher leading to this hole that is just a void. That’s kind of where it came from. Once we had the design roughly sketched out, he modeled it in 3D and then we had it 3D printed. It originally had eyepieces, but we couldn’t see out of them at all, so it became a safety hazard. 

Because there are some stunts and action in this movie, did you get lucky and get to print only one mask or did you print a few?

Jacob: There are two [masks]. Something that I learned in the Marvel days was that you always want to have a contingency plan because things break. And it’s worth investing in. It’s an expensive part of the production but the whole movie hinges on the fact that this works. And if it doesn’t, then you’re stuck and what are you going to put in? You can’t CG the mask on top of him. So we had two. One was more of a stunt one for whenever he’s getting kind of beat up or punched or thrown into walls. And then there was the one that would be for the performance, when he’s DJing. 

Nikki Koss as Pierce in ‘Dreamcatcher’ Photo credit: Samuel Goldwyn Films
I was totally not expecting that ending! What inspired this twist?

Jacob: This 100% came from my love of just all classic literature. There is a Lady Macbeth plant early on in the story, this is spoilers obviously, but the minute that Ivy brings up that Pierce wanted Lady Macbeth, but she didn’t get it, and then when she shows up at the end and she’s kind of this empowered ‘out damn spot’ maniac. It’s like, oh she got it. She got what she wanted, she found who she was. Going in, I knew that I wanted to have a character who felt like the first kill in Psycho, where we really get to know this person and then 30 minutes in we rip the rug out and we say, ‘this is not going to be who you’re following,’ but then bringing it back full circle at the end to say, ‘no, you were getting this person’s story just through other people’s perspectives.’ So when she shows back up, there is still a level of deservedness, because we still were talking about her even though she wasn’t there and how the fallout of her death, brought all of these people together, or broke them apart. So, I knew going in that I wanted to have this moment of her coming back at the end and everybody being like ‘what?’ but not feeling egregious or like, ‘why’d they do that, except for the sake of a twist.’ I think the best twists are the ones where you actually feel like, ‘man, that was satisfying.’ And I think the idea of two killers has been done so well so many times before and I was kind of thinking that wouldn’t it be fun to explore a corporeal killer and also in an ethereal one, and partner them together. And there’s a romance there, it’s actually really the only real romance in the film, because I didn’t want to get bogged down in the typified, ‘oh it’s two couples and their best friend who just tags along with them everywhere.’ I think it was kind of fun to make the romance hinging on who ends up being our antagonist.

In one word, how would you describe this movie?

Jacob: It’s tough… I would say surprising. I believe the trailer paints it to be a lot more violent and slasher heavy than I believe the final product is. And I am interested to see the feedback ends up being because I do believe the movie is so much deeper and surprising than what maybe has been presented, both by the poster and the trailer. I think that the film has a lot more depth to it, and character development to it than people might expect, and a lot more messaging and hopefully some surprises with the twists and turns as well.

Dreamcatcher is streaming now On-Demand and Digital.