Hypochondriac Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival
July is a busy time for us here at Eye For Film as we bring you coverage of two major festivals, Fantasia and Outfest Los Angeles. Next month we’ll be covering Frightfest. Addison Heimann’s tale of family strife and emotional breakdown, Hypochondriac, is screening at all three. Based on a true story, it stars Zach Villa as Will, a young man with a loving relationship and a job he loves whose life abruptly starts to break down after he is contacted by his mentally ill mother, from whom he has been estranged for many years after a violent incident in his childhood. Experiencing panic attacks and hallucinations, Will is tormented by uncertainty over whether these are a result of stress, a manifestation of trauma or a sign that he is developing the same illness. I met Addison earlier this month to talk about it, and we began by discussing his festival success.
“The biggest surprise was SXSW for our première,” he says, “ and then from there we were asked a bunch, but Fantasia and Frightfest and Outfest, I’m an alumnus of all of them, so it was really cool. I played at Frightfest but it was in the pandemic, so now I get to go in person and actually hang out and meet the people in person for the first time. I'm super thrilled with because film festivals are all about community, right? And it was such a bummer. I mean, obviously, the world was on fire, it's still on fire. But I think what reminds me of my humanity or just filmmaking in general, and how hard it is, is to meet at these film festivals and celebrate the accomplishments that took two years in the making, you know?”
Is it about being around other filmmakers who understand how hard it is to pull that kind of thing together?
“Yes, yes. And it's nice because I've got a lot of friends who made their first features this year, and I'm travelling the circuit with them, so we're all like comparing notes, like ‘Which film festivals did you go to?’ or ‘How is your release going?’ or ‘How's your sales agent?’ You know, all this stuff that I didn't know before. It's all fun. It's a really great time.”
Getting onto Hypochondriac, there’s a note at the start which says ‘based on a real breakdown.’ Was that his own experience?
“Yes, that was my experience,” he says, not shying away from the subject. “I had a mental breakdown about three and a half years ago. The short version is basically I lost full functioning in my arms after a work injury, and I thought I was dying of ALS because I googled it. So my mother, who's bipolar, was leaving me voicemails telling me not to trust my friends. So the conflation of those three caused me to crack.
“I was in pretty extensive physical therapy so I saw a lot of doctors, who all told me it was in my head, and then finally I found a doctor who took me seriously and got all the tests done, because I thought I might have multiple sclerosis. And then I got all the tests back. They all came back negative and all my symptoms went away. And that was at the point where my arms were getting better because I went through physical therapy. So yeah.”
Something that that stood out to me about the film, I tell him, is the way that it depicts the difficulty of actually getting something diagnosed if one has an unusual illness.
He nods, but doesn’t want to put all the blame on doctors. “I was not wanting to admit to myself that something was wrong, probably mentally. And I had something physical too, but I would never tell them the full picture. And so basically they'd be like, ‘I don't know, stress, maybe,’ or ‘I don't know, maybe it's a sinus infection, here’s some steroids.’ Like it'd be all these different things, which was counterintuitive. But yeah, ultimately, in the US, it's very difficult to get psychiatrists and doctors to talk to each other. Hearing it was stress didn't really help. Hearing like ‘Exercise more,’ and you're like, ‘Cool,’ it’s not comprehensive, and, you know, you're supposed to exhaust all the medical options before you go into the head. But it was just back and forth. I never really got dealt with until I finally saw someone who was really ready to meet me where I was, rather than to meet me where they thought I could be.
“Ultimately, this is the story of how I asked for help. I don't really have the answer other than that I know I was hiding who I was, in immense pain but denying it because ultimately, I didn't want to be a burden. But the moment I asked for help, and was willing to get the help that I got, then I was really able to manage it. It doesn't go away. It's very insidious. I've been dealing with this for years. But you know, the whole point of the movie is you're watching this wolf, this physical manifestation of a childhood trauma, just being ‘Please acknowledge me, I need help, you need help, please, please, please.’ And the more we ignore that, the more monstrous the thing becomes.
“It’s not monstrous in and of itself, but it becomes monstrous from the way that it's treated. It's like No Face in Spirited Away. Once he enters the bathhouse, he becomes twisted and corrupt, but once he's outside of the bathhouse he’s alright. So at the end, it's like, the wolf is with them always, but he's not a bad guy, he just exists. Because what happens. Nothing goes away, but things can be managed, if you acknowledge the fact that you need help, and you're willing to put in the work, which is a very difficult thing to admit to yourself. And accept for yourself, because, the work is hard. It's not like, ‘Oh, cool, I need help, I need to go look for it.’ You have to do a lot of work. And it's hard. And I understand why people don't get to this point, because that’s why I resisted so much, because it takes a while. But if you can learn to go through your trauma and exist and still come out the other side and are able to leave with empathy, that's like a superpower. And I hope one day to be there.”
Why did he choose a wolf, specifically, to represent that trauma?
“I think there's something about the wolf that's like an untamed beast,” he says. “It’s close to a dog but it's not quite a dog, so there are ways to play with the metaphor there. I'm also a huge fan of Donnie Darko, obviously.”
His wolf markedly resembles the sinister rabbit in that film.
“That combination was how I came up with the man in the wolf costume. I think Donnie Darko deals with mental illness in a really fun tonal way, which is something I wanted to play with in my movie, because you have Patrick Swayze and the teacher and Sparklemotion, and then you also have Donnie sitting on his bed saying ‘How does it feel to have a wacko for a son?’ and his mom says, ‘It feels wonderful.’ And that's the same movie. And then coming up with a metaphor for what childhood trauma looks like, its idea of the feral dog that is wild. So, you know, wolves will never be fully tamed. They'll never be something that you can have as pets, but there are ways to navigate it so he's not constantly biting you or constantly attacking. And I think that combination of ideas ultimately created the man in the wolf costume.”
Speaking of Patrick Swayze, there's also a Ghost reference in there.
“Yes, of course.” He laughs. “That's like one of my favourite sequences. And it's funny, because every time at the beginning, when it screens, I go ‘Please laugh, even if you think you shouldn't,’ because that that to me is so fucking hilarious. In my eyes, you can't have a man working with pottery in a movie and not acknowledge it, in the end. He's making pottery so the wolf has to make pottery with him. We have to homage that because it's just too perfect.”
It seems to me that using humour in the film is really important because it's such a dark subject, and it helps the audience to go through that.
“Yes, I also think that like, when I decided to write the script, based on my own mental breakdown, I really had to get rid of the idea that just because it happened doesn't mean it's interesting. And so I ultimately settled on more of an emotional retelling of my mental breakdown. I really wanted you to go through things exactly like what this character is going through, I wanted to create what felt like mentally breaking down. And mental breakdowns aren't just horrific. It's not just a horror movie, you know? There are thriller aspects and psychological aspects and comedy aspects and drama aspects. Because ultimately, that's what a mental breakdown is. It's a whole confluence of events, and depending on where you are in your breakdown, and who you're talking to, you're seeing things through a different lens.
“It’s why I’m not interested in answering the question of what really happened or what didn’t happen, because he's fighting his brain. We’re in his brain the entirety of the movie. So it doesn't matter what's really happening because ultimately he can get hurt from his brain. At any moment, there can be a time where what is happening in his brain can bleed into reality and he can get really hurt.
We had this definition that I brought, this thing called the insanity meter. So it was basically like, there are two insanity meters. There's we play the movie, and I guide the audience into believing what's real and what's not real. And then there's actually what's real and what's not real. And those are constantly in flux the whole time.”
Some scenes depict unreal events but it’s important for the audience to believe at the time that they’re real, he explains. “So we'd make the camera really still, we’d remove all the effects. But because we had the insanity meter thing across all departments, we all had our different versions of how to depict those events. We had something called the Lensbaby, which is a very small camera that basically blurs everything around us, you'll see that when he starts feeling dizzy. Or we’ll paint the lens with Vaseline. And so there's certain moments where it's not full insanity, but things are starting to go crazy, and you start seeing that the outline is starting to blur. And then, you know, the camera is static versus, when we moved the camera, it's generating the idea that we're getting further and further into the horror because the stagnant camera, the static camera is ignoring reality.
“Then we move on to the effects and sound design, of course, and edits. And I think in terms of the sound design, we built a kind of horrific sound design and visual landscape with the score and the sound mixture to have a lot of high pitched, kind of swirling sound to create this idea of like, you can faint any second. And then with the effects, we made the injury of the arm look almost otherworldly at times.
“In the edit I used this thing called Jekyll and Hyde. I mean, that's just what schizophrenia or bipolar disorder is. It’s literally Jekyll and Hyde. When you're Jekyll, you're lovely. You're a person and you're ‘good’. And then when you're Hyde, you’re monstrous, you're hurting people. But when you're Jekyll, you don't remember the things you do when you're Hyde. And so every time, especially in those moments of fracturing, it's like Jekyll and Hyde fighting to exist in the reality of the situation versus hiding behind in the mind. And he's constantly struggling with the proxy battle in his brain. So those are the kinds of effects that we did that might give you an idea of how we recreated this idea of arm pain, dizziness, hallucination and insanity.”
So how did he assemble the team to bring all that together?
“Well, I yelled about it for three years,” he says. “I met my producers at a film festival. I was doing short films at the time, in 2019, and I just walked up to them and said ‘Hello.’ And that really changed my life, which is so funny. In the place where they shot Blue Velvet, at a film festival called Cucalorus in Wilmington, North Carolina. And then I gave them the script and they seemed to really like it. And then March 2020 hit and we shut down for a year and a half. And that's actually, you know, weirdly – I don't want to call the pandemic a blessing – but basically, it was like we were ready to go hardcore into pre production, and we had to wait. So we really got to take our time.
“One of the first people that joined us was Zach, our lead. We cast him about three months into the pandemic, and I met him, and then we got to spend a year together. And then as I was putting that year together, I was piecing together other characters that fit with him. When Devin joined as [Will’s boyfriend] Luke, we tested hanging out with each other, and their chemistry was so good that it was like, ‘Okay, this is going to work.’ And that ended up really elevating the movie, their relationship being spot on. And then from there, it was all about building the team.
“Film doesn't happen in a vacuum. I don't ascribe to the auteur theory, because the most beautiful thing about directing is like you're the head, and the people who are experts in the field are on your shoulders. If you have the right definitions and you're able to delegate appropriately, they do work almost without you having to vocalise it at all. And that's really what happened on the movie. It's all collaborative all the way through. And it happened really quick. We're releasing July 29, in America, 13 months after wrapping principal photography. So it's quite quick, which is really wild. But I think it's a testament to the team and my producers and my actors, and my editor and all the people because everybody really worked hard and cared. And that was the most cathartic thing about it, getting other people to believe in this and believe in me.”
Hypochondriac screens at Fantasia on 19 July.