Director Johnny Hickey drops new psychological drug thriller despite pandemic hurdles.
There aren’t many newspapers or magazines remaining that have followed the same story for more than a decade. In a modern media consumed by empty calorie reporting with no recollection of the past, it’s no wonder that artists who have been toiling on various rungs for years are often labeled the “best new” fascination by an unworthy establishment eager to assert its superior status.
Johnny Hickey doesn’t give a damn about any of that. Though his face and work have recently been splattered across the gore and horror fanscape in the wake of his new movie winning Best Horror Feature at this year’s virtual Philadelphia Film Fest, with the likes of Fears Mag and Dread Central helping mount international anticipation for the psychological drug thriller Habitual, which drops Friday, Nov 13, we’ve watched everything that has led up to this. Believe it or not, Hickey’s backstory is even less glamorous than making films about murder and mayhem.
Hickey first landed on the Dig’s radar back in 2005. At the time, he was filming on a handheld camera in his native Bunker Hill projects, dreaming about bringing his personal coming of age tales to the big screen. Following a whirlwind of negotiations with some big Hollywood names who wanted to help make Hickey’s script for what became Oxy Morons (2011) into a real Tinsel Town extravaganza, in 2010 he scrapped those high-budget hopes and secured enough financing to head home and film it his way, right in Charlestown, with a dedicated team, limited permits, and professional equipment.
In the time since, Hickey has advanced the anti-opioid message in his debut film with virtual and in-person appearances, and through documentary work with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, where I collaborate with him on the Film Intervening Getting High Team (F.I.G.H.T.). Together, we explore underreported topics related to substance abuse, and work with people in recovery and their family members. Through that project I have seen the impact of his work, with countless fans of his films reaching out to say his message reached them and in many cases saved their lives.
Most impressive is how he built up his independent movie company from nothing to the point of securing distribution for a sophomore film in the midst of a pandemic. Especially if you consider that his co-star in this latest endeavor is Chris “C.T.” Tamburello, another Townie who has also reached impressive heights in entertainment. A staple of MTV reality shows for more than a decade since being cast for the Real World: Paris in 2003, C.T. plays the lead monster in Habitual and by any measure handled the job like a beast.
With C.T. off filming another MTV competition show, I spoke with Hickey about this latest lunge, the dark and dirty details of the digital distribution game, and being an independent movie maker in pandemic times.
I saw on social media that there was big news this week. You already had a relationship with Showcase Cinemas—you previewed an earlier version of this film at Showcase Cinema de Lux theaters in Lowell, Revere, and Foxboro a year ago—but what’s this latest development?
A publicist I am working with out of New York City called Required Viewing said that it is still important to have a New York release [for awards and certification purposes]. So we’re releasing Habitual [on demand in New York] the same day [that it would have been in theaters there], Nov 13, so it’s a big deal. It’s through [their streaming service] ShowcaseNOW.
Everyone is going through something, especially in the creative professions, but for a minute you really had your parade rained on. You had all sorts of film festivals lined up, plus you were going to have Habitual in theaters. Talking to you now, though, it seems like things have shaped up somehow …
I’m able to maneuver through this crazy shit that’s going on, because content is a big deal. I knew it would be a big deal before this became serious, because I started thinking that film productions would have to stop. But it’s not just about how many film productions are stopped; even for the films that were done, were they done in post-production? I have Sugar Studios that I use [in Los Angeles], which has everything in one place. But post work for most films is scattered. And you want to be there as a filmmaker for editing. That’s almost impossible right now. So for the studios, they’re holding their films until 2021 or whenever. What do they care—they have enough money in the bank. Everyone else is straggling, but I realized that I had a film done in post.
What does it mean to have an official premiere in the pandemic era?
Anywhere that you can rent a movie on a fucking screen in this country—whether it’s your television, your iPhone, your Android, your desktop, anywhere you can rent a movie—Cox, Chowder, Vudu, all those platforms, Google Play, Fandango. That’s all ready, and we’re also in some theaters—the Lumiere Cinema in Los Angeles, the Tampa Theatre in Florida, and then there are a couple of others that are prospects. But the whole thing is that we needed a New York premiere. So I reached out to see if we could screen with Showcase somewhere there, and the person got back to us and told us about ShowcaseNOW.
Sounds good, but this was not the plan …
We were supposed to be a part of six independent film festivals. I was ready to go to one and I pulled the plug. It was back in March—me and C.T. were about to get on a plane. It’s bittersweet; the path of everything that’s happened since has had me looking up everyone—Who is in charge of acquisitions at this company? Who is buying films at that company? I was just blindly calling everyone and sending emails out like, This is my movie, I’m trying to get it out there, you have a platform, there’s a pandemic going on, what’s up?
The original strategy was to put it out for Halloween, and I was pitching it with some [other distributors] and I didn’t like what they were doing with [independent filmmakers]. There were also a ton of other horror films coming out that day.
You were filming what became Habitual in 2017, so that’s four years. Is that a long time in your mind? It sure seems like it.
If you look at the new cut, and what we went in and did with the visual effects since the first screening [in 2018], then no, it’s not a long time. Not for an independent filmmaker. I could have had this out two years ago, but we didn’t finish the actual reshoots—the crazy stuff with all the makeup and everything—until early 2019.
Why not just push it out and make money on a cheap horror film? Do you consider yourself a perfectionist?
For me it’s more like I could make a quick dollar, but as an artist this is my second feature. If I don’t feel that it’s 100% yet, then why the fuck am I going to let it go? It just wasn’t there yet. The same thing with Oxy Morons; I learned that you can get all this attention, but there’s a long way between that and actually putting out a movie.
It’s not like there’s a manual for how to distribute during the pandemic. Or is there? How do you reach America? As opposed to just people in Massachusetts?
Typically what they’ll do with movies, first they’ll launch TVOD, which stands for transitional video-on-demand. That’s what we’re doing right now, where you can rent the movie. You need a distributor who has access to these outlets, but by the time you see any money on that kind of stuff, you’re going to owe money before you earn money. People don’t pay attention to these big recoupment fees.
The movie also has to pass all sorts of format things for aggregators—you’d better have at least ten grand aside to pass these kinds of things if you’re just an independent filmmaker.
From where I’m sitting, the world is all Netflix and Amazon.
And that’s a whole other world—SVOD (subscription video-on-demand). So now, after it goes on TVOD for a few months, it will go on SVOD. When it moves to SVOD, ultimately you’re only going to be able to do one of the big platforms at a time—like Hulu, or Netflix.
When we started off covering you, you were writing about horrible things, but not necessarily horror. Has there been a shift?
There is actually a director’s cut of Oxy Morons that I haven’t released yet that has more of the nightmare sequences, but on the cutting room floor everyone thought it was wise to take the movie down from over two hours and to trim out a lot of that horror stuff. We kept some of it, it’s creative, but what a lot of people weren’t paying attention to is that while it was supposed to be a true-to-life movie, for people living that lifestyle—drugs, and crime, and killings, and all that horrible shit that was going on—in that chapter of my life, those nightmare sequences were true life, and there are people affected by that world who to them those moments could really happen to anybody. Because they’ve been there.
With Habitual, I wanted to take all of that stuff that could happen to anybody and make something that people experiencing it in real life will feel. I’m also a fan of horror and gore and violence, but I stay healed and away from the world of violence and crime by taking all this sick shit in my mind and making it creative. That’s my fucking high now, I feel a rush like I just ate a bunch of [MDMA] and I’m listening to my favorite house DJ when something successful happens.
For casting, you have a whole bunch of people who have been on reality shows, as well as others including your daughter, MMA fighters, and Chelsea hip-hop artist Stiz Grimey (real name: Stanley Bruno). Are you going for the kitchen sink approach or what?
Sometimes I would look at it and think people would think I was trying to be gimmicky, like I’m just looking for reality stars. But me and C.T. grew up together, and so did me and David Burns, who was on the Real World: Seattle. We grew up together in the projects. Why those two ended up on reality television and I ended up making movies coming out of that situation—I don’t fucking know. But it just makes sense that we started doing stuff together. He’s my best friend and we wrote the character for him. He crushes it. Then there was Brittany Baldi, who I knew from always being at the clubs, and Sabrina Kennedy, she came with a bunch of other people and I didn’t even know that she had been on the Real World. And Emilee Fitzpatrick [from Real World: Cancun] was a friend of mine.
What’s your directing style?
I don’t shame or bully. I’m tough, but I tell people when they’re doing something good. I don’t bullshit, so when I tell you it’s great, it’s great.
What’s your vision for what comes after Habitual?
With my first film, Oxy Morons, it was like the one I did everything on, and it was based on true-life events. It’s one thing to connect with people that way, but then it’s another to come out with a psychological movie—also about the drug epidemic and the collateral damage it causes—that begins to create a niche market in which I’m the dude who is making these dark drug movies. Anyone who’s from that world can understand them at a certain level, but they’re made to scare the hell out of everyone else too. The next installment is more psychological drug horror, just about a whole different situation. It’s called Devil’s Detox, and it’s really far out there.