Our gay writer/director Addison Heimann makes an auspicious directorial debut with Hypochondriac, a queer horror film “based on a real-life breakdown” he experienced himself.
The film begins with Will (Ian Inigo as a child) almost being killed by his mother (Marlene Forte) when she has mental problems. 18 years later, Will (Zach Villa as an adult) gets his own problems when he receives messages from his mother, who may no longer be in a psychiatric facility. Will’s stress puts his own mental and physical health at risk, as well as his relationship with Luke (Devon Graye), his boyfriend of eight months.
Heimann stylishly conveys Will’s breakdown with images showing his hallucinations – some include seeing a wolf – as well as more vivid, physical damage Will inflicts on himself. Helping him in this is Villa’s remarkable performance as Will, a man unable to control his inner fears. The filmmaker spoke to Gay City News about the production of Hypochondriac.
What made you decide to make your story into a film?
I feel like people know so much about me now – things I probably wouldn’t tell other people in real life. But now it’s on screen! When I decided to write the screenplay, I was mentally drained. What’s the kind of thing I wanna do? Ultimately, I chose to tell stories that are queer, deal with mental health, and have a genre lens.
Given that this is a personal film, how did you work with Zach Villa to portray Sie/Will?
I think the biggest advantage was that we spent a year together. I cast him in July 2020 but we didn’t shoot until June 2021. When we arrived on set, I didn’t find his interpretation offensive or repugnant or aloof. It was very nuanced. He put in the work, and we made a shorthand, so I dialed up and down buttons, but very small ones. It was easy because the thing fit him like a glove. He had to be seriously waxed after that because my story is very rough and we put him to the test.
There are strong, visceral images, as well as voices and sharp sound effects (finger stretches) that add to the intensity and horror. Can you talk about portraying the trauma in a way that punches viewers in the stomach?
It was both a blessing and a curse that I had to do a story about the nervous breakdown. The real story is that I lost function in my arms for six months due to an injury at work. Google told me I was dying of ALS and my mom left me voice messages telling me not to trust my friends. A confluence of events broke me down. The best way around [depict] this is an emotional retelling. It doesn’t matter what is real or what is not real. What you experience is real to the person experiencing those things. That makes it terrifying, because what you’re fighting is your brain – and that’s terrifying.
We did a lot of basic photography work, using different camera lenses and [created] Distortion depending on how high the madness was. We had two “amazing meters”. One for the audience to see what is real and not real and one for what was actually real and not real. We used that in editing and sound design, so we knew how crazy it should feel and how it should be in real life. That helped everyone see my vision.
What choices did you make regarding Will’s episodes – what triggered them, how would they affect him, and how would you present them?
In real life, my mom used to send me these voicemails, and no matter what, I listened to them. I do not know why. I was afraid she would show up at my door. I cut her out of my life because she was a trigger. Will is haunted by this wolf who obviously represents childhood trauma. The wolf will always be around, but if you tame it, you can move forward and live a relatively healthy life. Before that, Will must overcome his own triggers – his arm injury and his mother leaving voicemails. The more he ignores it, the less reality he has to hold on to.
What are your observations on how LGBTQ people deal with mental health issues? Will’s sexuality isn’t necessarily the reason for his panic attacks, but he also has trouble sharing his truth with his partner. He tries to please Luke but sabotages himself. His self-destructive qualities were quite revealing.
I think there was a time and a place where it was important for people in the LGBT community to put identity first [issue]. But we’ve grown to the point that there’s so much more nuance as the identity grows. It’s not number one on my call list. I don’t lead with that. [Sexuality] is a part of my life, and if you look at the film through a queer lens, you can see the queer aspects – the way Will interacts with his mother and father. But I won’t tell [coming out/family] stories. I want to have queer portrayals in genre films regardless of sexuality.
You have this cute romantic sequence in a cabin where Will and Luke go for a relaxing getaway that’s really chaste, but then later you have this really intense sex scene when Luke helps Will, which has an episode. can you talk about it
That was the craziest scene in the movie. It starts out sweet and subtle and grounded, and then it turned into a nightmare. Sex is important to me and we need more frontal sex [nudity] In the cinema. The film called for it because it’s Will in his lowest phase. He’s so devastated and he needs someone to feel comfortable with and [wants] getting fucked, but that’s not what he needs; He’s chasing the wrong dragon. He must be in a hospital. But he thinks getting fucked is a distraction, and while it hasn’t worked yet, maybe this time it will. Then the walls start creeping in; this is his downfall. He doesn’t face things directly. He keeps turning.
“Hypochondriac” | Directed by Addison Heimann | Opening July 29th in theaters and August 4th on demand | Distributed by XYZ Films