People can often immerse themselves in situations that initially appear to be edgy and exciting, in an effort to not only have a fun time, but also rebel against social conformity. Even though they’re trying to amuse themselves while also building their identity, they may not realize the lasting adverse effects their choices will have until it’s too late. That’s certainly the case for the characters in the new horror movie, ‘Habitual.’
The drama is now playing in theaters and on VOD, which includes National Amusements screening the movie through Showcase Cinemas’ ShowcaseNow. ‘Habitual’ is the second feature film from writer-director-actor-executive producer Johnny Hickey. The filmmaker was influenced to pen the script, which explores how drug use can cause long-lasting physical and psychological effects on even the healthiest young adults, after he survived his own journey of growing up in a neighborhood in Boston that was ridden with drug abuse.
‘Habitual’ follows a group of drug-popping ravers who take a heavy dose of something new and unusual that leads to a hellish trip to an underground party at an abandoned asylum in Salem, Massachusetts. Plans to dance and get wasted all night drastically morph into chaotic hallucination. As the night unfolds, the friends fall deeper into a metaphorical mind-bending hole and eventually spiral into horrifying paradoxes, which blur the line between nightmares and reality.
Hickey general took the time last week to talk about writing, directing, starring in and executive producing ‘Habitual’ during an exclusive interview over Zoom. Among other things, the scribe discussed that he was driven in part to pen the screenplay because he wanted to highlight the collateral damage that drug abuse has on society, as well as turn the negativity he experienced while growing up into a meaningful project that audiences can learn from. The performer-helmer-executive producer also expressed his appreciation that his fellow cast and crew members were willing to work with him to bring his vision for the movie to the screen.
ShockYa (SY): You wrote the script for the upcoming horror film, ‘Habitual.’ What was your inspiration in penning the screenplay, and what was the process like of scribing the script?
Johnny Hickey (JH): ‘Habitual’ is a psychological horror film, so the horror element is a big aspect of it, obviously. There’s also a psychological message in the film, which I built for two years. It spins off of my first film (the 2010 thriller, ‘Oxy-Morons’), which is a true-to-life crime drama. But ‘Habitual’ is more of a psychological nightmare that focuses on the collateral damage on society from drug abuse.
SY: Speaking of the drug abuse, why was it important to you to showcase how addiction negatively impacts people’s lives in the drama?
JH: Well, I lived that life for a long time. I grew up in a very rough neighborhood in Boston; it was low-income in the projects, so I grew up with drugs, and they directly affected me. I lost family members to drug abuse. I also had my own ties to the drug world, including drug dealing and doing time, as well as having a near-death experience, during which I fell 80 feet and was in a coma for seven days.
So I really wanted to take all of the negative aspects from that world I lived in and apply it to my dream of filmmaking. As a child, I always loved acting and films, and horror was always an escape for me.
So being able to take all of that negativity, and turn it into something positive, was an amazing experience. It was a meaningful experience for not only myself, but also all the people who watch my films and connect with them on a different level, because they, too, have been affected by drugs.
Drug use is so rampant not only in this country, but also all over the world. We’ve reached a point in society where almost everyone has been affected by it, in one way or another. So to have people be able to connect with the movie on different levels, depending on how they’ve been affected by it, is an amazing experience. Also, to have people be able to enjoy the story, outside of the dark side of drug abuse, is a great experience.
SY: In addition to writing the screenplay, you also directed ‘Habitual.’ How did working on the script influence your helming style on the set? How would describe your overall directorial style?
JH: Well, I always say that there’s the story you write, the story you shoot, the story you edit and the story everyone sees on whatever screen they watch the film on. There’s an element with independent, guerilla filmmaking where you end up on a location, especially in the abandoned lunatic asylums all over New England where I was directing this film, that made me realize as a writer and creator, I couldn’t stay married to the screenplay that I wrote. There were ideas that were going to come to life when we got to these locations.
So much of this movie was built on set, more so than even my first film. Also, we improved more so than any film I’ve ever worked on. I had a really cool cast and crew that was down for that kind of spur-of-the-moment decision-making. We’d be like, “Look at this thing that’s been left behind that we didn’t write into the screenplay. How can we not use this as a prop? We can’t let it go to waste.” So it was fun, and even more of a learning experience than my first film.
SY: Speaking of the cast, the film also stars Chris ‘CT’ Tamburello, Stanley Bruno, Ally Doody, Anthony Hoang, Jaylee Hickey, Dottie Daigle, Emilee Fitzpatrick,Sabrina Kennedy, Katie Berner and John ‘Doomsday’ Howard, and you also play one of the main characters, Simon. What was the casting process like for ‘Habitual?’
JH: The cast was mostly local to where we filmed; I mainly cast everyone from Boston and New England. The person who plays the malevolent spirit monster is my childhood best friend, Chris ‘CT’ Tamburello, who a lot of people know from MTV’s ‘The Challenge.’
Chris and I always wanted to do a film together, but the pieces never connected; he was doing his thing, and I was doing my thing. So we kind of created this character for him to play, because even though he’s a big guy, he can really move. He was able to do a lot of the stunts in the film, and really jump around.
Overall, the actors in the film aren’t the stereotypical cast; they’re these party kids. Not everyone knew each other before the production began, but some of them did through connections from different things. But when they were cast, I brought them all together so that they could have fun, and they could become the group that you see in the film.
SY: Speaking of the stunts, what was the process like of creating the action sequences and physicality for the movie?
JH: I really enjoyed doing the fight scenes. Like I mentioned earlier, I grew up in a rough neighborhood, so I know violence. So whenever I watch a movie and a punch looks fake, it bothers me, especially on big budget films.
One of the characters in the film is played by a stunt person, and he’s really good. So we utilized him in a lot of the stunt settings.
Overall, I worked with a lot of first-time actors who have a lot of great acting abilities, and really show that in this film. I approached everybody and let them know what we were going to do, and asked them if they were down to do it, like be dragged down a hall in the asylum, or through the ice in the cold. I had a really solid cast and crew that was down with all of my ideas to make the film raw and organic.
SY: Like you mentioned earlier, ‘Habitual’ was shot on location throughout Massachusetts and New England, including the abandoned Westborough State Hospital and Tewksbury State Hospital. What was the experience like of deciding where to film the drama, and shooting the movie on location?
JH: The movie takes place in these abandoned lunatic asylums. The backdrop of the story is that there’s a rave going on in one of these asylums. The only reason why that idea exists is because I used to be involved in the rave culture when I was younger, and we threw a rave on Halloween in an abandoned lunatic asylum that was hidden in the woods. They later tore the asylum down and turned it into condominiums, so I didn’t have access to it anymore.
So I hunted down state hospitals in New England that still existed, but are no longer functioning. I gained access to Westborough State Hospital and Tewksbury State Hospital, and they gave us permission to go in and shoot. Right after we filmed in Westborough, they actually tore it down, as well, to also turn them into condominiums.
I think the reason why I was able to gain access to all of these places was because they respected who I am and where I come from, and that I turned my life around. My community in New England is very supportive of what I’m doing as an independent filmmaker. Even more than that, they respect the message in the film, in that it may psychologically deter the younger generations from wanting to follow a path of drug abuse.
SY: In addition to writing, directing and starring in the film, you also served as one of the executive producers. Why did you decide to also produce the independent drama, and how did you balance your producing, helming and acting duties on the set?
JH: The experience was a lot, but I kind of didn’t realize that until the experience was over. To me, there are directors and filmmakers. I view filmmakers as being in the whole process of making a film from the beginning to the end, from when you write the screenplay to direct the film to if you’re also playing a role and producing. That includes the job of if someone hasn’t ordered food for the cast and crew, jumping off set for a second and ordering everybody food.
I’ll always be willing to do that stuff, no matter what level of a filmmaker I become, and what kind of budget I have. I want to be involved in the whole process. If I’m hired to do one thing, that’s different. But for me as a filmmaker with my films, I’m there from beginning to end, and I love that experience…You learn to respect all these roles, from writing to acting, directing and producing, because you learn what it means to do each one. So doing all of these jobs only makes me sharper and better as a filmmaker.
SY: ‘Habitual’ is (now playing) in theaters and on VOD. How did you decide how to release the movie? Why do you feel the dual distribution is beneficial for this type of film?
JH: It’s exciting to have this type of release. We’re very lucky as an independent film to have been recognized by film festivals, and then secure this theatrical and digital release in the world we’re living in during this pandemic.
It’s very surreal, but also very nerve-racking, because while we’re excited that the film’s coming out, we don’t have this massive studio backing, especially in terms of advertising. We’re pumping stuff out on social media, and CT has a bunch of followers on his social media.
So it’s nerve-racking to see how people are going to receive it. We’re wondering if they’re seeing all of the movie’s layers, and if they’re connecting with it. But it’s exciting overall, and I feel accomplished that we got ‘Habitual’ to where it is now.