Hypochondriac director, star explore mental illness & horror | Digital Trends
During the middle of Addison Heimann’s mental breakdown, he thought that his experience would be funny to see as a movie. Heimann wrote a 10 to 15-page draft, which eventually turned into his feature-length directorial debut, Hypochondriac. The queer horror-comedy stars Zach Villa (Good Mourning) as Will, a potter with a tragic history of mental illness and violence. When his bipolar mother reaches out for the first time in over a decade, Will suffers a mental breakdown, and his downward spiral causes him to face his dark past, which includes the terrifying “wolf.”
Hypochondriac is a traumatic and eye-opening look into mental illness told through the scope of a psychological thriller. In an interview with Digital Trends, Heimann and Villa discuss the balance between horror and comedy in Hypochondriac, the emergence of genre elements in queer cinema, and how we’re all still trying to understand and accept the scope of mental illness.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Digital Trends: This story is based on your own mental breakdown. Addison, when did you decide to turn your experience into a film, and how did that process come about?
Addison Heimann Oh, that’s a good question. How do I tell you? Well, I had the breakdown and basically, I lost full function in my arms for six months. I thought I was dying of ALS as my bipolar mother was leaving me voicemails, telling me not to trust my friends. So it was a combination where everything just like melded together.
In the middle of my experience, I thought, “Wouldn’t this be funny if this were a movie?” And then I was like, “Oh, well, maybe it should be a movie.” My physical therapist told me that “You’re a writer. You should write it.” I wrote with pillows and ice packs on both my arms at the end on my desk, and wrote the first 10-15 pages of this draft that ultimately now is what it is. So that was like the impetus, but it took a long time.
Zach, when you first read the script, what was your initial reaction?
Zach Villa: Oh, man. I get this question a lot. This script is really, really unique. I thought a lot of things. I thought this is very universal. This is a very unique horror story that the monster isn’t exactly your atypical monster. It’s not physical. It’s not even really psychological or viral. It’s a sickness. And I was reading it in the height of COVID so I was expecting more of that content, and that’s not what happened.
There’s a thing that happens when people talk about mental health. It’s not fully understood. We don’t know what to do with it. We just got a national number to call for a mental health crisis. As I was thinking about that, would a general person even know what a mental health crisis is versus a regular 911 call? Do we even know what that looks like? From a personal side of things, sometimes you know someone can be having trouble because mental health is a huge catch-all term. I feel like the majority of people in L.A. are mentally ill in some way. Even the ones that are doing fine.
We all have stuff in our dark closets that we deal with quietly. And if we don’t deal with it personally, I think there are things that are adjacent or in our family or in our friend group. I just don’t think we have like a common way to approach it. Addison’s script was one of the first times that I was like, “Oh, that’s real. That’s actually kind of what it’s like.” And still, dissected in a very poetic way. There are these moments where like I’m watching a horror story, and then there are other moments where you’re like, “Oh, no. This is what it’s like.” So that was cool.
At the center of this story is Zach, and he’s got a tough job because he has to go through this breakdown while trying to keep his sense of humor and sanity. How did you choose Zach for this role, and how was it directing him?
Heimann: We were ready to go in March 2020, but COVID happened. He [Zach] auditioned, and he was the last person who auditioned. My casting director was like one more, and he came in and was perfect. And we met, and he just really got the script. We bonded over our mental illnesses, which is not necessarily fun, but the benefit of spending a year and a half, just kind of waiting, is we got to spend a year together once I finally cast him.
By the time he got on set, he had the same haircut as me, the same facial hair. He was doing my “me-isms,” but not in an offensive way. Like he truly did study me without me knowing. So by the time he got there, it’s like “Oh, you get this.” I just get to let you fly in the moments. I can just tweak [it] now. I’m just dialing it up or down. I’m not completely transforming anything because he really did his work.
That made my job a lot easier because we could just exist within the parameters of going from good to great rather than poor to great, which would take longer. Especially with a 20-day shooting schedule, which is a pretty good length for an indie. You know, some movies get 60 days. We need to really be on it in order for that stuff to work, and it did. He was wonderful.
One of the main takeaways that I took from the film is that there really are no right answers on how to deal with a mental illness. Addison, what do you want people to take away from this film in regards to mental illness?
Heimann: So I think ultimately, the movie is about acceptance. Every time the wolf enters his life again, he gets a little scarier. I never thought that the wolf was like this villain. It was just the idea of your inner child, your trauma, being like you have to acknowledge me. You have to acknowledge me, or else this isn’t going to work. So he just gets so poisoned, kind of like No-Face in Spirited Away. He enters the bathhouse, and the bad guy just gets corrupted.
So by the end, as he’s left, I don’t want to say too many spoilers, but ultimately, it’s the idea of the wolf is always with you, but that’s okay. I still live with my wolf. Everybody still lives with their wolf. But the point is that if you acknowledge your wolf and keep it with you and accept it will always be there, and then acknowledge that you need help, then ultimately it’s manageable. And so that’s what I was going for in the film.
Zach, your character is experiencing a mental breakdown, but he also has a sense of humor. He’s trying to stay sane. As an actor, how were you able to balance the mental gymnastics of a man losing his mind?
Villa: Oh, that’s a good question. Well, I would love to take all the credit for being a wonderful actor, and maybe in some ways, I am. But that’s only because I think the process of “losing someone’s mind,” as I mentioned earlier, it comes back to specificity. Mental health is such a huge category, and one of my first questions was what is Will actually dealing with. Is he developing a bipolar psychosis with a side of schizoaffective, or is there something else going on? Is it something we’ve never heard of, and it’s just like serving the poetry of a film? There are just so many ways to go about it, and so I really challenged myself to figure out what it was that Will was experiencing and then backtrack.
I think the film’s humor, drama, and the fearfulness of “losing someone’s mind,” which is already kind of a general term, is truthful. When we’re going through a hard time, depression is the most accessible feeling, I think, for a lot of people. You’re not sad all the time because you’re depressed. You can still laugh at your friend’s jokes. You can be having a great time on the outside of the party and be one of the most charming people there. But inside, you’re done. You know what I mean? You ain’t got nothing left.
So that’s why it’s so difficult, as I said earlier, to even really know what a mental health crisis is like. Someone can appear to be “fine,” and I think that’s what Will does. I can’t say that I didn’t pull from some of my own personal experience, but I think life is like that. You can have one of the worst arguments of your life with your partner and then be laughing about it 10 minutes later. And that’s both the horror of life and also the spice of it, that things can be over so quickly.
You’ve taken inspiration from other films in Hypochondriac, but it also feels unique in that it’s a horror-comedy from a queer perspective. Addison, how important was it to this story from a queer perspective?
Heimann: Well, it’s funny. I am gay, or queer, so it was my life. That’s ultimately why I did it. Listen, we’re at a very cool crossroads in genre and queer cinema because they’re starting to blend a lot especially now. Within the past year, I can name like 6 to 10 films running the film festival circuit that are happening. I know there’s a huge audience for that because I’m one of those audience members. I spent my whole pandemic searching for them. And it’s just nice that I made a movie that I would want to see if I was going through this, right? I mean, ultimately that’s what it is.
I think we get to have movies in which being gay is number one on the tentpole, but also movies like mine, which maybe it’s like seven or eight. It’s still gay. But also, we get to start pulling other things into the narrative, not just like a queer love story, but like a queer love story about a guy who’s being haunted by a wolf and has a mentally ill mother. He starts losing the function of his body. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.
Zach, I spoke with Paget Brewster, who plays Dr. Sampson. Besides praising your talent, she wanted me to let you know that you’re the first actor from Juilliard who didn’t tell her that you went to Juilliard within the first 5 minutes. So she thanks you for that.
Villa: Oh man, that’s hilarious. [laughing] Yeah, well, you’re welcome, Paget. I love her. She is truly an amazing talent. At this point, every time somebody says that she said something about me, they’re like, “Oh, she said how great you were,” I’m like, “Oh, God, stop.” I can’t. She’s frickin legendary so I’m just a fan, and the fact that she did this, we had this wonderful intimate scene together, was really a highlight of my career.
I will make it a note to not tell people that I’m from Juilliard. I started to do that more in recent times. I actually did it in a callback recently as a joke. At the end of the day, Juilliard doesn’t make the actor. They give you a lot of tools that come in handy, and like anything, sometimes it can be overhyped. And I actually had a really hard time. That’s not to disparage them. Again, had I not gone, I wouldn’t be the actor that I am today and wouldn’t have the tools under the hood to really dig into the parts when I need them. So it’s a yin and yang. But I know those actors too, man. I know the ones that come on set. They’re like “Yo dude. I’m from Juilliard. Where did you go to school?” I’m like, “Bro. That was 30 years ago. That wasn’t even the school that it is now.”
Paget grouped Juilliard and Harvard together as the two where people mention it all the time.
Villa: Yeah, we’re usually the worst. But, you know, I’m a pop-punk boy so I think I’m exempt. I’m not in the club.
Hypochondriac is in theaters now, and on demand and digital on August 4.