By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
Pure O opens like a horror film. In the pitch black of night, a young man sits by himself in his car listening to a tape with a voice saying he will lose his mind and murder his girlfriend. This brief opening scene is unnerving to say the least and may get an audience to question the man’s sanity or stability, but this is not an issue of sanity or losing one’s mental faculties. This is a story of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD.
Premiering at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival, Pure O is a new feature film from writer/director Dillon Tucker about a man’s journey after being diagnosed with a debilitating form of OCD. The HoloFiles recently had the chance to speak with Tucker about his new film, how he drew upon his own life experiences to craft the film, how he managed to tell a story that both captivates and informs about OCD, and more.
OCD is a misunderstood condition, as the film touches on with the main character’s initial dismissal of his OCD diagnosis given he isn’t someone who obsessively washes his hands. Tucker aimed to raise awareness for OCD with a film that portrays the mental health condition more accurately. “I wanted it to be a true-to-life experience,” Tucker said. “I was looking around and did my research…and I wasn’t able to find something that was a true, accurate depiction of what [OCD] looks like. Everything was ‘As Good As It Gets’ or ‘Monk.’ OCD is always depicted as the quirky side character or something…I wanted to show a lot more than that.”
In aiming for a more accurate depiction of OCD, Tucker prioritized authenticity and naturalism in crafting his film by casting a mixture of actors and non-actors, some of whom were real life OCD sufferers and rehabilitation counselors. Tucker stated regarding this approach, “Naturalism was the name of the game with this project. And I wanted to lean into that and embrace it as much as possible. I love filmmakers like Lynne Ramsay and the Safdie Brothers and just this sense of using actors and non-actors, if you’re going for naturalism [and] if it fits in the story you’re telling. For this particular story, it was two-fold. I wanted an extreme sense of actualism so that when you have actors and mix them in with non-actors, hopefully the aesthetic you get watching it is you don’t know when the acting is starting and the real-life is [starting], and it creates a kind of inviting experience that is hopefully not something you’re aware of, something invisible. And it just feels like real life.”
Having genuine people associated with OCD as actors in the film also fostered a sense of authenticity in the film. “I knew that the condition being so misunderstood, it would be nice to have people on set for all of my actors who don’t suffer from OCD or mental health to have them there as a resource in real time as we were shooting the scene,” Tucker remarked. “I consulted therapists about [the film]. I had them read scripts.”
The gold-standard evidence-based treatment for OCD is Exposure and Response Prevention, in which a patient progressively approaches situations that cause distress while abstaining from performing compulsions. As seen in the film’s first scene, Tucker wanted to capture the true terror that sufferers with OCD experience when going through exposures. “It was [intentional]…I wanted to play with audiences’ expectations. Making a horror film out of these themes and thought processes is probably the easy way that people would lean into the subject matter. So, I just wanted to start it with that tone to get people looking at it a certain way and then flip it…I wanted to use the stigmas we have to my advantage as a filmmaker.”
Pure O takes place in sunny Los Angeles, an idyllic backdrop that contrasts some of the film’s heavier themes. Tucker spoke about why the film was made in L.A. and his love for L.A. movies. “I’ve been in L.A. my whole life. So, write what you know. Also, the film is pretty autobiographical and I’m in L.A. Also, it was a COVID movie and I was looking for something to make in my backyard. And I love L.A. movies. I love films like ‘Shampoo’ and films like ‘The Long Goodbye’ and these films that have the main character going to different parts of L.A. and it’s not just in one neighborhood the whole time…I really wanted to do something like that…I don’t know if I had a conscious decision to juxtapose [the idyllic California setting with the heavy themes of the film]…It’s obviously dealing with heavy themes, but I hope the story itself is also self-aware and that I as a filmmaker am self-aware. I didn’t want it to bleak. I didn’t want the tone to be that. I wanted it to be bittersweet and say, you know, this is life. It’s not just the bleak, there’s moments of touching human connection and little pieces of comedic relief sprinkled in. I tried to stay self-aware as a craftsman as I wrote it and directed and edited it.”
Highlighting the power of cinema, Pure O has the potential to help sufferers with OCD who may not realize they have OCD yet, something Tucker hopes viewers get from watching the film. “This is an autobiographical story. I went through it. And, not to be too pretentious or something about it, this was my form of activism…I’m an artist. So how can I figure out how to give back to this community? I’m not seeing anything that’s represented. I also think there is enough here to make a universal story that can appeal to everyone.”
Tucker continued, ”I wanted someone who is suffering for 5-8 years to be able to watch a film like this and to maybe have that ‘Ah-ha’ moment and have it touch a nerve. And not to diagnose them or something, but to have them go to their therapist and say, ‘Hey, I saw this movie. It’s hitting kind of close to home. Do you think maybe this could be me?’ So, to help people was the number one [reason] why I wanted to tell this particular story…The biggest thing for me would be if someone could unlock that and save themselves years of suffering.”
Watch our full interview with Pure O director and writer Dillon Tucker below.
Pure O premieres at South By Southwest Film Festival on March 13 and is screened again on March 15 and March 16 at the festival.
Those who want to learn more about OCD can click here.