Addison Heimann on the true story behind ‘Hypochondriac’

Zach Villa as Will in the horror/LGBTQ+ film, HYPOCHONDRIAC, an XYZ Films release. Photo courtesy of XYZ Films.
Photo courtesy of XYZ Films.

Addison Heimann, writer and director of the LGBTQ+ horror film, Hypochondriac, gets real about the story behind the film. 

Synopsis: Will, a young Hispanic gay potter, is one gregarious guy. His boss is terrible, but he’s got a great boyfriend and a great job. Unfortunately, behind that veneer is a dark past of violence and mental illness that he is desperate to keep hidden. When his bipolar mother comes out of the woodwork after ten years of silence, he begins exhibiting unexplainable symptoms and spirals into an obsession, determined to solve this mystery of his own.

Hypochondriac stars Zach Villa, Devon Graye, Paget Brewster, Marlene Forte, Madeline Zima, Yumarie Morales, and Chris Doubek.

Check out our interview with Addison! 

What inspired this story and then inspired you to tell it?

Addison: Yeah, it’s based on a mental breakdown, well a real breakdown, and, spoiler alert, that mental breakdown is mine. And basically what happened was I injured myself at work, to the point where I lost full functioning of my arms. I couldn’t text, I couldn’t shave, I couldn’t work. And so Dr. Google told me that I was dying of ALS and while that was happening, my mother, who was bipolar, was leaving me voicemails telling me not to trust my friends. So that kind of confluence of events caused me to crack open. That’s basically the real inspiration, and then ultimately, the reason I decided to tell the story was because I needed something to do while I was in pain and in recovery. I was in physical therapy for a pretty long time and once I was finally able to write, I wrote a very bad version of the first 15 minutes of this movie, under pillows, ice packs, and my computer against the wall. But ultimately, once I got past kind of my therapeutic draft and learned that just because it happened, doesn’t mean it’s interesting, I was able to fully form something that was kind of telling a story about honestly of the relationship  of me and my mom, which I’ve been trying to talk about for a decade. It just took a mental breakdown to finally give me the courage to do it.

What was it like for you to finally be able to talk about your relationship with your mother in this way?

Addison: Yeah, you know, it’s funny because, I mean, I no longer talk to her. It’s been like, about a year of that now because ultimately, while I miss her, she really caused me to revert, but I think, I mean, obviously, everybody’s like, ‘was it cathartic for you?’ And I’m like, ‘sure,’  but it was also painful in ways because art isn’t just one thing. It’s the moments of catharsis and moments of pain. It’s a moment of moments of pushing through like all these little moments and I think the real big reason I was able to push through it, and push through it is the wrong wording because I want to be like, I was just like grinding through it, but I think the reason I was able to go through it and still exist with a level of lucidity was because of my cast and crew. The fact that people were willing to work on a project like this and be there for me, even during the hard moments, you know, even during like- I think I had only one panic attack because of a specific scene of violence between the mother and son but I went out and collected myself. I came back and everybody was like, ‘no, we got you. Take a deep breath,’ and then we continued on with filming. It’s those moments, right, where you’re like- or like the third day, we were filming and I was like, oh shit, everybody’s here and they’re working and I’m just crying to my boyfriend being like, ‘I don’t deserve this,’ and he’s just like, ‘Addison, this has been three years of your fucking life..’ and I’m like, ‘Ok,maybe I do deserve this.’

Director Addison Heimann and 1st AD Lizzy Walkeron set of the horror/LGBTQ+ film, HYPOCHONDRIAC, an XYZ Films release. Photo courtesy of XYZ Films.
So with all of that said and all of the emotions behind this project, how do you feel now that it’s done?

Addison: Fucking relieved. You know, it’s been such a surreal experience because everything’s been happening so quickly. Like we filmed the movie a year ago. It will be in theaters 13 months after we filmed it and that’s kind of unheard of for an indie. I really want to thank XYZ for believing in us and obviously all the cast and crew and, you know, people who worked on it, but I feel good… 

Hypochondriac was basically my exploration of like, ‘okay, I’m going to tell the story of how I asked for help and how I got there,’ right? And now I’m like, ‘okay, now I’m interested in telling you the story of what it’s like to go through your trauma and get through to the other side and what it’s like still being able to lead with empathy.’ And so that’s kind of what I am interested in exploring next. But I wouldn’t have been able to get to the next version of my mental exploration if it wasn’t for this movie. So, I’m relieved and ready to keep going forward and hopefully, you know, get to exist in a life that makes me somewhat happy. 

So I was watching the movie and it dawned on me that I was watching Richard Ramirez from “American Horror Story.” What was it like working with Zach?

Addison: Oh, Zach’s great. He went to this unknown school in New York called Juilliard. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it (laughs). So, he is a very intense actor. But the coolest part of, I think, the whole process is that I cast him in July 2020, but we didn’t shoot until June 2021. For pandemic reasons, obviously. I sometimes make the joke about pretending that I don’t know what the pandemic is, but I think it’s not funny anymore, because we’re going to be in this hell forever. But anyway, we got to speak and hang out for like a year. And so like, obviously, it’s based on my mental breakdown and my real life so, you know, by the time we got on set, it was annoying, like we had the same haircut and the same beard. Everybody was like, ‘Hey, you guys are twins!’ And I was just like, ‘this makes me uncomfortable.’ But he was doing such a nuanced portrayal of both his interpretation of the character and me that melded so well, that it was just like, ‘oh wow.’ And he learned pottery for the role! Literally, for the week before, he was just at the pottery studio and then we watched him make those pots. It got to the point where the pottery studio [owner] was like, ‘these are incredible. You need to take classes.’ And I was like, ‘wow. Only Zach would actually learn it,’ because we were like, ‘what are we going to do? Are we going to get like a pottery stunt double?’ But we didn’t need to because he was really really invested.

One thing I absolutely have to ask you about is the winking dog poster. Where did you find it and why include it in the film as much as you did?

Addison: Yeah. So when I was, I don’t know who gave it to me. I feel like my sister gave it to me as like a dummy joke, before my mental breakdown, and it’s a calendar. It’s a calendar of Pomeranians doing ridiculous things. But because I lost the full functioning of my arms, I couldn’t change the date, so it was always stuck on January. So, for the entire time that I was in my mental breakdown, I was just staring at this poster that said “Be bright, like glitter and bubbly like champagne.” So when I was seeing, obviously, all these doctors I was seeing are very much based on the real doctors that I saw, you know, who were all basically saying the same thing… and it was like, ‘Oh, cool. This is just the same thing over and over again…’ And I was also writing on the desk and looking at that poster over and over again. So, I wrote that into the script. And then when my production designer was like, ‘do you still have this?’ I’m like, ‘bro, I’ve been saving this for ever,’ and we got to use it. So yeah, that’s the inspiration.

Zach Villa as Will in the horror/LGBTQ+ film, HYPOCHONDRIAC, an XYZ Films release. Photo courtesy of XYZ Films.
How did you settle on Hypochondriac as the title?

Addison: Oh, sure. It’s funny because it’s kind of like a bait and switch in a way because it’s like about my mental breakdown and there’s so many things that started it, [Hypochondriac] made the most sense, especially because that’s where it started. It started by me obsessing over something that was inevitably mental, you know, I couldn’t get out of my head. It was like the doctor Google. It was like I was dying of ALS and I would check my symptoms every day, as I was slowly losing functioning in my arms. And because I was obsessed with this injury, I kept injuring my arms even further and further. I think there was a point where I had visited a holistic massage therapist, and I was doing like acupuncture and all this kind of stuff, but the holistic massage therapist is a real reason I injured my arm to the point where I couldn’t text and shave or do any of that stuff because I was just searching for answers and not getting any of them. And that, I think, is like the initial impetus to be like, ‘I need to solve my health problems.’ 

Hypochondria is a mental illness, right? It starts with that but that is ultimately a manifestation of something deeper And so while it starts with this level of like, ‘I’m unhealthy, something’s wrong with me,’ what’s actually happening is, behind the scenes, he’s basically not acknowledging his inner child, his traumatic childhood, his wolf. And so it’s almost like a blanket on the topic, like, ‘if I can solve my health problems, then I’ll be okay,’ but what he’s not doing and solving his psychological problems. And unfortunately, the doctors are correct, though it’s annoying to hear, you would be shocked at how their mind can affect the body. And though he hears it, he doesn’t really fully understand it. And also the doctors and the psychiatrists aren’t speaking to each other, so it’s hard to find kind of like a dual healing process in the film and ultimately, with what happens if they crack.

You’re right, that is like a bait and switch kind of title, but it totally works.

Addison: Yeah. Because it’s all on the surface. But yeah, I think that’s the thing. There’s so many things that manifest themselves as symptoms, and we’re trying to and I think, the biggest thing that I was doing and also what I think Will is doing is he’s trying to address the symptoms, not the underlying problem. And I think, ultimately, that was my issue. I was like, ‘okay, if I just can solve my dizziness or if I could just solve my arm injury, or if I could just solve this then everything else would take care of itself.’ But it really was like my inner child being like, ‘deal with your mother! Deal with your mother!’ And it was manifesting in this kind of obsession with my health.

Before I let you go, is there anything else that you want to add about Hypochondriac?

Addison: I mean, other than the generic Indie stuff like, ‘this was a labor of love, please go see it,’ honestly, it’ll be in theaters for a week. If you’re in the city, I would really appreciate people coming out. I mean, it’s worth it but I understand the times we’re in, but hopefully you can catch it either way. Please check it out! And if you don’t like it, please don’t tell me (laughs). I like to live in this bubble where I think I made a good movie. I think I did, but, you know. (Addison’s being modest, the film is amazing! Go check it out!)

Zach Villa as Will in the horror/LGBTQ+ film, HYPOCHONDRIAC, an XYZ Films release. Photo courtesy of XYZ Films.
Hypochondriac hits theaters July 29, and will be available On Demand and Digital August 4