Oxy Morons writer-director returns with a drug-addled North Shore gore fest
It’s New Year’s Day, and I am spiraling up North Shore roads that hug a coastline guarded by satanic trees that seem like they may animate and crush me as I round the twists. Through creepy and historic Salem then due north toward Gloucester, I gas into oblivion, the Atlantic sky a bile grey giving the bleak aura of dusk in the mid afternoon. I don’t see many people on the road, and even fewer appear to be working; most storefronts are closed, either shuttered for the holiday or due to the economy. As I pull into my destination, a condo several hundred feet up in the haze above the spookiest waterfront cemetery imaginable, I think to myself, Did I screw up? Or are they really shooting a movie right now?
On a holiday?
I step in from the chilly graveside desolation to discover that the tape is indeed rolling. There’s a crew testing a rack of lights, as well as another couple of guys messing with cameras. Aside from the equipment, the place feels like a ski lodge. A few producers and friends of the cast members play leather couches watching the Pats game; at the kitchen counter, one of the actresses chugs water in hopes of recovering from New Year’s Eve.
It’s less than halfway through a long day on the set of Habit, a new psychological thriller from Charlestown native and Oxy Morons director Johnny Hickey. Immediately after this, the crew will proceed to a rave scene in the basement of a nearby nightclub—and stamina has been the name of the game since they began shooting three weeks ago.
“We’ve shot five kill scenes so far,” says the relentless Hickey. “We have two more to go. We didn’t cheat anything. This is brutal, over-the-top gore.” The independent writer and director spills about the pangs of underground movie-making, retracing how his team was holed up in a pair of old insane asylums for the coldest week of the season to date. “With the energy in some of those places, we lost our minds at times. No running water, no electricity. But all of my actors and crew were willing to stick it out.”
Hickey frames a shot by the back door.
“Nah nah nah nah—move that over here, put this over there. Say this instead…”
A maestro waving on a minor symphony, Hickey communicates with all his actors, sound, and camera people smoothly and is ready to start rolling after just a few minutes of setup. Perfection on a shoestring.
OLD HABITS DIE HARD
I first met Johnny Hickey a little more than a decade ago. I had just begun writing for DigBoston, and my editor told me that someone from the projects in Charlestown called about a movie he was making. Apparently the guy was some kind of reformed drug dealer and pharmacy burglar who faced a near-death experience and was repenting through a screenplay he had written as a student at Bunker Hill Community College.
I went to check things out, and the events that ensued stuck forever. After that initial meeting and some follow-up interviews, I wrote the first of several articles about the movie that eventually morphed into Oxy Morons and about the opiate-strewn minefield that Hickey traversed to get his autobiographical film made. In the time since, Hickey has become a friend and even colleague, as we are now working together on a project to help people in recovery find hope in the media and filmmaking. Eight years after dropping Oxy Morons against major odds—for one, unlike most of his director peers, Hickey grew up less than privileged—Habit is the second film he’s tackled from the writing to direction.
“[A viewer-turned-investor who saw Oxy Morons] asked why I hadn’t made another film,” Hickey says. “I was like, ‘It all comes down to money.’ I told him I could do a one-month horror movie and get it out on the market.”
If there’s one thing that I’ve learned covering Hickey all these years, it’s that he’s capable of finding niche and arcane entry points into the movie biz. Hence this thriller about “a drug deal gone bad that leads a group of young adults to their ultimate demise.” Hickey continues, “[Horror] is a movie genre you don’t need celebrities in to sell. Johnny Depp was in Nightmare on Elm Street before he did anything else; Jennifer Aniston was in Leprechaun before she was in anything else. If anything, horror films launch careers. And I love horrors. It was my favorite since I was a kid.”
Though not out-and-out crusading against drugs this time, Habit is intended to deliver on the same prevention front that Oxy Morons is now famous for. “This is a horror movie, but it stems from drugs,” Hickey says. “It’s not a heroin movie—it’s a club drug movie, it’s an MDMA movie, it’s about other drugs that affect lives. People know about how OxyContin affected me, but before that I was a hardcore raver. This movie ties into the drug culture and the rave scene and the EDM world … My strongest opinion is that all drugs are bad except for weed, because I don’t even consider weed a drug. Any substance abuse, from coke to speed to MDMA to cat tranquilizer to acid, you shouldn’t be doing it, and to put a dark message behind that is great.”
As for the medium this time around: “With Oxy Morons, I had a lot of horror with the dream sequences,” Hickey says. “But to tell a story tied to true events, I had to cut a lot of that. On this project it’s the opposite. It’s 10 percent reality.”
WHEN PEOPLE START REAL ACTING
In addition to having an eye for cinematography, Hickey is something of a marketing wiz, albeit one who searches for unlikely niches. For his first film, a lack of funding to attach major actors—many indie flicks will blow their budgets on a single cameo by a Tinsel Town hotshot—moved the hopeful Oxy Morons maker to tap other types of bigshots, namely MMA stars like Maine-bred heavyweight Tim Sylvia. Also along for the ride was David Burns, a boyhood friend of Hickey’s who was on the Real World: Seattle. All together, the exposure, buzz, and contacts stemming from his unique guest stars helped his debut find viewers outside of the obvious New England and drug flick demographics.
“Horror is a huge market, so a horror movie alone should sell if you know what you’re doing,” Hickey says. “Then there’s EDM music. It’s a global market and it’s huge … The biggest thing is to get people you know you are going to jibe with in your cast. My cast are no-name actors—they’ve never done acting before, but we have four MTV personalities.”
“It started off a little rocky, but it’s progressed into something amazing,” says first-time actress Emilee Fitzpatrick. A Massachusetts native, Fitzpatrick says that her supporting role in Habit is a welcome change from working on the Real World: Cancun. “For me, the camera [on reality TV] amplifies your personality. I’m all for the dramatic, though, so the acting comes naturally.”
Hickey has been plotting to get at least one particular reality tube vet in a film for some time. Chris “C.T.” Tamburello, an MTV fan favorite from the Real World: Paris, goes all the way back to Bunker Hill with the director.
“Me and C.T. have been friends since we were six years old in the projects, just like David Burns,” Hickey says. “He’s one of my best friends, and now we’re making a movie together, which is amazing … I didn’t want him to be the handsome star. I wanted him to be a killer.”
“It’s a pretty gruesome character—something no one’s seen from me before,” says Tamburello, who recalls a different kind of acting Hickey used to do in Charlestown. “We used to shovel driveways together for money, and Johnny would go house to house to house, get his deposits, and then leave everyone hanging. He’d be sledding down Suicide Hill while the rest of us were still shoveling.”
This time Hickey’s finishing the job. Besides his killing off a slate of Real World personalities—also on the Habit chopping block is recent cast member Sabrina Kennedy, a Boston-based musician, as well as Brittany Baldi from Are You The One—the director-writer reached out to the Chelsea hip-hop artist Stanley Bruno, better known to rap fans as Stiz Grimey.
“I remember watching Oxy Morons seven or eight years ago,” Bruno says. “I thought to myself, ‘Wow, look at this local kid, he’s making movies.’ The thought never even came into my mind of acting in one.”
“I knew Stanley from videos, and I knew he could take this character and make it his own,” Hickey says. “He’s been able to jump from a supporting role to a lead role. If I were to make an Oxy Morons 2, he would be one of my brothers or cousins.”
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Bruno says. “I had never been on a movie set. And I come, and there are heated trailers and catered food, and I’m getting paid to act. It just blew my mind. To see Hickey pulling this shit off, where we have fucking cameras on rigs, it’s been incredible.”
You’d never know that Oxy Morons was done on a meager budget. From the high-end sports cars that they wasted in the filming to authentic Massachusetts prisons, housing projects, courts, and churches that were used, the effects and backdrops are as vivid as they’re fitting. For Habit he went all-out once again, securing the old Westborough Insane Hospital, as well as other spots like the Gloucester apartment we’re in. As an indie operation there are extra sacrifices, like filming on holidays and for excruciating stretches, but Hickey’s utilized his stomping grounds in all their glory.
“There were a few days that were like 18 degrees, and we were out in Westboro with no heat, and we’re shooting 12 hour days, 14 hour days,” says Hickey, who came of age in Charlestown as well as in Gloucester, where his mother teaches at the high school. He continues, “We were also able to gain access to the old Tewksbury State Hospital, which is where they kept the criminally insane. The place still has the fingernail marks on the walls from the patients who were locked up there. It’s borderline haunted, whether you believe in that stuff or not. The walls are peeling. The greens are these colors that they used in institutions to drive people crazy.”
“The Tewksbury [hospital] is haunted as fuck,” says Baldi, the MTV reality celeb who plays the female lead. “It would be totally cold over here, then totally warm over there … It got you more in the mindset.” Jaylee Hickey, Johnny’s daughter who stars in the movie, agrees: “We were going upstairs, and the energy just straight dropped into cold air.”
All of which, as far as I can tell, is according to plan.
“Gloucester is very close to Salem, and Salem is a haunting place that is known worldwide,” Hickey says. “The surrealness of being able to come to my second home and shoot here is like a dream come true. I did my Oxy Morons thing, I did my Charlestown thing, I told my story, and now I’m in a place where my mother is a high school teacher. I used to wash dishes and work in the kitchen for the guy whose condo we’re in right now.”
“It took some time, but you’re only as good as the next project you’re doing. I’m getting another chance to put that Johnny Hickey brand on something.”
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.