In an exclusive interview with Screen Rant, director Jacob Johnston breaks down his Kickstarter-funded horror short, Kadence. Beginning his Hollywood career in set production and design for short films, Johnston's work as a visual development producer and coordinator has helped bring the fantastical worlds of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to life, including Thor: Ragnarok, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Netflix's Daredevil series. Johnston went on to make his directorial debut in 2016 with two short films, Ticket Like a Man and Kadence.
Johnston's horror short, Kadence, tells the story of Kadin Kaul (Max Lloyd-Jones) who is grieving the loss of his mother. Kadin meets his mysterious new neighbor, Marissa Clemment (Alyson Stoner) who is also dealing with the loss of a loved one. Marissa gives Kadin a voodoo doll as a means to heal from his emotional trauma and tragedy inevitably ensues. In this exclusive interview, Johnston opened up about love, loss, and the joys of writing layered and complex characters.
The film enjoys an overall focus on character development and emotional trauma as opposed to the traditional blood and gore often found in horror films. Though that was an intentional choice, it didn't come to Johnston right away.
He shared his process with us:
The initial idea came when I was commuting home from work one night: what if someone was given a voodoo doll and used it on the wrong person. From there, I started to unpack what that really meant and how I could write it without rehashing the typified, supernatural spin we've seen so many times before. I went through a number of drafts where the needle of supernatural went from 0 - 100, but it never felt quite right. As I began to strip away the superfluous, fantastical elements, the characters and story really seemed to come to life in a poignantly provocative and disturbing, albeit fascinating way. Love and loss are universal themes that any viewer can identify with, allowing the story, subtext and implications to resonate with them in different ways.
Johnston took inspiration from many outstanding genre directors for his horror debut, which shows in his use of quiet moments and unspoken fear:
For Kadence, it was about capturing the human condition and subsequently the unraveling of those characters. At the onset, I had some beautiful artwork done from these incredible artists I worked with at Marvel Studios, Jackson Sze, Anthony Francisco and Andy Park. They helped to establish the color story and temperature, the tone and style I aimed to achieve with my DP, Derek Rittenhouse. Directors like Denis Villeneuve, Tomas Alfredson, David Fincher, Park Chan-Wook were major inspirations in the way they set up their characters and proceed to bring them together, or tear them apart - sometimes quite literally. The cinematography is like a powerful dance, sometimes stoic, sometimes fluid - but it never distracts you from the emotional journey of the characters on screen. They aren't afraid to let the camera linger a little longer to capture that subtextual eyebrow twitch, or to see the gears moving behind the character's eyes. Moments like this are beautiful and something that I'm passionate about conveying in my own films. It allows the audience to step into the, often times fucked up, worlds of these characters and fully immerse themselves in the story.
But the director Johnston can't stop gushing about these days is Jordan Peele, whose Get Out Oscar win is downright innovative in Johnston's mind:
I LOVED Get Out. Jordan's Oscar win was momentous for a number of reasons and I couldn't be more excited to see what comes next for him. The thing is: horror is an ever-adaptive genre. When done well [ala, GET OUT], it can seamlessly blend introspective societal observations without getting too heavy-handed. Horror is, and should always be, bold and fearless - whether it's a satirical slasher or a high-brow psychological film like Get Out or Silence of the Lambs. Art is all about looking at the world through a different lens - giving the world a chance to experience perspective they may not have considered otherwise.
Love and loss were definitely a big theme with the interview and with Johnston's writing of Kadence in particular. The writer/director promises these themes were "definitely intentional." Individual perspective was a huge focus in Johnston's narrative, who believes a person's viewpoint changes how humans deal with grief, as well as with how his own characters are perceived by the audience:
Definitely intentional. I think to truly understand layered themes like love and loss, perspective is key. As humans, we're all destined to react to our lives based on previous experience - that's what makes telling a character story like Kadence so fascinating to me. We can make assumptions on unspoken backstory based on how Marissa or Kadin react to physical situations, key phrases, or even the silence between their words. Kadin and Marissa are emotionally juxtaposed from their first interaction - Kadin is meek where Marissa is strong, Marissa is seemingly open and vulnerable where Kadin is closed off. Pairing these varying perspectives creates an instant, visceral chemistry where the aforementioned themes can be explored in an entertaining, yet still authentic, way.
While the themes of love and loss were certainly intended to be present in the film, not all of Kadence's biting social commentary was planned from the start. Some of the film's allegory presented itself over the course of writing and shooting, like the clear theme of young kids living up to unrealistic expectations in a high-pressure world. Johnston explained how the theme was both intentional and a happy accident:
I think it's a bit of both. It's that old adage - you write one movie, direct another, and the final result after the edit is a completely different one. The script was riddled with subtext - which I endeavored to achieve during production. Every one of the actors brought something truly unique and amazing to the role, which elevated the words, enhanced the emotional beats, and brought new life to the characters as they were originally conceived. The intention was to tell a haunting, or rather, unsettling - psychological character story and it evolved as we moved through the various stages of production. Thematically, it definitely carries a societal statement or two - namely pressure vs. expectation, abuse, and mental health issues.
Other, more triggering themes were present in the film, without ever becoming explicit. The director explained the film's exploration of sexual abuse through implications and dialogue alone:
Yes. Kadin's character subconsciously hints at it in almost everything that he says. For instance, abusees often blame themselves, not their abusers - so the beat where Marissa spouts "I'm sorry" - and Kadin retorts "I'm not. My father gave up his entire world for me..." This entire exchange is seemingly about Kadin's mother's death, but the subtext is all about the abuse that Marissa spots. We all know the horrors of abuse in its many forms, so I didn't think it was necessary to spell it out or physically show it outside of small hints here and there.
It's Kadin's pain and trauma that drew Marissa to him, but not necessarily in a predatory way. After all, Marissa also suffers from her father's death in the film:
That was part of it, for sure. We often times feel more open to divulging parts of ourselves if we feel a common connection with someone. That being said, it's hard to say whether or not what Marissa says to Kadin is all 100% factual - or rather tiny plants to see what gets him to open up more. Sometimes when you've lied about something so often, we can convince ourself it's true - and there are definitely elements of Marissa's story that could fall into that notion.
But that doesn't make Marissa a total innocent or a victim herself, Johnston had a feeling this had all happened before:
I wouldn't say he's the first, no. After all, one of the first things she mentions is how fast she and her mother had to split from the last town they were in. Could be interpreted in a number of different ways.
Johnston showed a lot of interest in Marissa's unspoken backstory, being drawn to the mystery of the character and getting wrapped up in the various fan theories he's encountered online:
I've been pleasantly surprised at the different theories various audience members have had about Marissa - it has been super fascinating to hear & read. When I wrote the script, I saw Marissa's convictions and motivation rooted in grief, but also in hope. We're rarely one thing all the time; Marissa is no exception. Sure, she's manipulative, but adversely, she's equally compassionate and intuitive - at least in her own mind.
While he didn't confirm or deny whether or not Marissa was human or supernatural, or even if she was good or evil, Johnston was intrigued with the idea of a secretly demonic Marissa:
I never really considered this - but I absolutely love it. It has some partial truths - some of which I mentioned earlier. One of the reasons I love her character so much is how undeniably enigmatic she is. Whether or not she's truly a "villain", it's hard to say - because to every villain, they are the hero of the story.
Despite originally planning for Kadence to remain the short horror film that it is, Marissa's fascinating mystery has caused the director to consider a potential full-length follow-up film focusing on Stoner's enigmatic girl next door:
Originally, no. It was what it was - as I didn't want to dilute the narrative of the short with it feeling like 'a fraction of a bigger story'. However, after taking some time away from it, I came up with a pretty cool angle that I've almost fully fleshed out as a feature length film. It focuses more on Marissa's character and sets up an expandable world that's as alluring as it is dangerous.
Johnston shows a keen awareness of the human condition and what it means for different people to go through the same devastating motions of life. His eye for simple yet compelling stories promises a bright directorial career in the film industry.