Hypochondriac director, star explore mental illness & horror

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 , Heimann and Villa discuss the balance between horror and comedy in Hypochondriacthe emergence of genre elements in queer cinema, and how we’re all still trying to understand and accept the scope of mental illness.

Zach Villa leaning over a bear in a scene from Hypochondriac.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

: 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