Discuss facing your wolf-faced demons in “Hypochondriac” with writer-director Addison Heimann

In Hypochondriac, Will (an electric Zach Villa), a young gay potter, apparently has it all: a great boyfriend, a life as an artist, everything a creative individual could want. When his bipolar mother comes back into his life, it brings back the dark legacy of Will’s past alongside some terrifying aspects of his inner life that he hadn’t yet faced. Will is faced with a terrible necessity: to tackle his emerging crisis before it’s too late, or face disastrous and tragic consequences.

Hypochondriac is a painful labor of love from writer-director Addison Heimann, who wrote the intense film from his own experiences and struggles. It is a personal film, poignant and ultimately full of hope. In an interview with Addison Heimann, we discussed his origins, his haunting wolf mask, the complex tone of the ending, and more.

How did you come to do the project and shape the story?

Addison Heiman: I was there at the beginning, because it’s based on a real breakdown and, spoiler alert, this breakdown is mine! I mean, I wrote and directed the movie…so basically what happened was, [in a] very short version, i lost full function of my arms for six months after the injury at work, where i couldn’t shave, i couldn’t pick up the phone, i couldn’t eat with a fork.

I convinced myself that I was dying of ALS, thanks to ‘Dr. Google, “And while that was happening, my mom, who is bipolar, was leaving voicemails telling me not to trust my friends. So this confluence of events cracked me up, and it was basically the impetus of the movie. But then of course I started writing it as therapy in the middle of physical therapy, I had pillows on the desk, ice packs on my arm trying to write the pages.

But of course, just because it happens doesn’t mean it’s interesting, and that’s what my friends told me when they read the first draft. I was just like, well, that’s offensive…but they were like ‘we don’t want it to be offensive, but ultimately the stories matter.’ So I removed all the boring parts. And ultimately what I was doing was I was basically trying to avoid the fact that this was really a story about the relationship between me and my mother. And once I was fully okay with that and decided that I was telling an emotional story of what it was like to crack, that storyline kind of came together and I was able to find producers and do this fucking thing.

How would you say Will’s past relates to his hypochondria in the film?

Oh: The most important thing for me is that I suffered in silence for so long because I didn’t want to be a burden and ultimately I think that’s why I wanted to tell the movie. All the while, he’s basically trying to acquiesce to the symptoms of his underlying illness, which doesn’t acknowledge the trauma he went through with his mother. Because of that, that’s how it manifests as hypochondria, initially.

[He experiences these] symptoms and he’s just like, ‘what is this? What are they? What are they?’ He’s like, ‘Okay, I’m going to solve it this way, I’m going to do some blood work, I need to know’, blah, blah, blah, but ultimately, about everything he had to do (and it’s a fucking terrifying thing to do) is ‘shit, I need help. Something is wrong with me, and I need other people to help me figure it out, whether it’s a therapist, a doctor who really listens, or your boyfriend.

The wolf mask was very disturbing. Where is the origin of this?

Donnie Darko! It’s obviously a great inspirational film for me. That’s exactly what I started with because it was like ‘we can have Patrick Swayze, and this substitute teacher, and Sparkle Motion!’ but we also have Donnie sitting on the bed and asking his mother “how does it feel to have a lunatic for a son” and she says “that’s wonderful” in the same movie.

But then when I couldn’t do a bunny costume, I was like, ‘Okay, if I’m going to do something in an animal costume, which makes the most sense’ and ‘I think that’ a wolf makes the most sense metaphorically, because what is a wolf if not an untamed dog? So you have this creepy wolf, but at the same time there are affectionate aspects. And there’s a ferocity that only really exists once he starts ignoring it and gets crazier and stronger, but ultimately it’s just a dog. It’s like a creature that just wants sympathy, but animal instincts take over when my character refuses to acknowledge it exists, or refuses to acknowledge the need to deal with the trauma.

I can see it 100%. The ending reminds me a bit The Babadookin that it’s not a carefree “oh, the problem is gone” story, but the tone is still hopeful.

Oh: […] It’s funny that you say “hopeful” because I think that’s very hopeful, because the biggest problem when he was dealing with that was, before he asked for l ‘assistance… [its] the idea that there is no panacea, that there is not something that makes everything disappear. Doing the work is such a hard thing to do, and it’s so brave, and he just gets to the point where he puts a yellow sticker instead of a red sticker on his calendar […] and he comes to terms with the fact that he’s still going to have to deal with it, making it a more positive ending than just “…and now I’m done”.

Hypochondriac is available for rent/purchase on VO