Exclusive: ‘The Quiet Room’ Director Discusses Mental Illness, Working with Alaska and Katya
We’ve been covering “The Quiet Room,” the short horror film from writer-director Sam Wineman — starring Brian McCook (aka Katya Zamolodchikova) and Alaska from RuPaul’s Drag Race — since the moment we first heard about it. We got our hands on a copy and asked Wineman about his experience working on the first-ever horror film about queer mental illness and with his Drag Race stars.
What is “The Quiet Room” about?
Troubled by depression, Michael (Jamal Douglas) swallows a literal fistful of pills. But when he wakes up in the Alameda County Hospital, he finds himself in unfamiliar new territory. There’s David (McCook) the joyless orderly who closely monitors his shower time, patients who tell stories of Hopeless Hattie (“your run-of-the-mill psych ward demon”) … oh, and the screams Michael keeps hearing from the Quiet Room down the hall.
Sam Wineman says he based The Quiet Room‘s psych ward on his own personal experiences rather than romanticizing the psych ward as other films do.
“Every hospital is different, and individual experiences within a hospital can vary greatly,” Wineman says. “But the hospital in my film was modeled after places I’ve seen, and the characters behave in a way that is true to my own story.”
The camerawork of “The Quiet Room” has a claustrophobic quality to it, with close-ups, tight group shots and images of patients constantly surrounded by concrete walls, as if to convey a feeling of being constantly watched.
When David makes Michael hand over his disposable razor and supervises his shower time so he doesn’t try and hurt himself, it mirrors the reality that suicidal psych ward patients face. As the film continues, we face even harder realities: Psychological treatment sometimes opens old wounds and patients often struggle with their illness, even after they’ve left the facility.
Indeed, as “The Quiet Room” progresses, Michael begins struggling with his own personal demons as he recalls the tragic events that first spurred his suicidal feelings. Thankfully, some friendly patients offer to play Egyptian Ratscrew (a card game) and take supervised smoke breaks with him.
Among them is Hunter (Kit Williamson), a flirty recovering addict who seems eager to befriend Michael. But when Hunter starts sharing stories about Hopeless Hattie, it’s unclear whether he’s offering help or just trying to frighten Michael into his arms.
“She’s sure into suicide attempts,” Hunter tells him. “It’s just how she picks them. She takes care of them at first. Shows them what they wanna see.…” But then, Hunter says, she eventually kills them.
“We don’t see a lot of LGBTQ+ representation in the horror genre,” Sam Wineman says, and he’s right. Queer people of color are hardly represented in the genre and other LGBTQ characters are often encoded as queer rather than explicitly depicted as such, leaving LGBTQ viewers to puzzle over who’s queer and who’s not via context clues.
In addition to its gay characters, the film also features gay actor Chris Salvatore. It also stars McCook and Alaska from Drag Race, as you’ve never seen them before.
“Alaska and Brian both play very serious roles in The Quiet Room so when were rolling, it was all darkness and scares,” Sam Wineman says. “But between scenes, it was a different story. Brian’s sense of humor and joy permeated the set. On his last day, he asked if he could have a picture with the bloody floor, so I got my phone out and waited for the pose. He sat right in it and posted the pic to Instagram with the caption, ‘Oops.’”
Wineman continues, “Alaska had her own fun, too. After calling cut on our most challenging special effect, Alaska broke character to dance … in full monster makeup. She had the entire crew cheering.”
Wineman also increased the representation of marginalized people through his key film crew, which was comprised mostly of gay men and women. A number queer people worked in different departments, he says, from the camera team to a handful of production assistants. The film also had gay extras and a largely Asian sound and foley team lead by Xiang Li.
“I feel lucky to have been a part of what is most definitely the most LGBT-inclusive set I’ve ever been on,” Wineman says.
“The Quiet Room” also breaks new ground by presenting a view of mental illness that’s more nuanced than in other fright flicks.
Horror films that depict mental illness tend to make one of two mistakes: They either present the person struggling with mental illness as a psychopathic killer, something which stigmatizes people living with mental illness, or they present people with mental issues as troubled victims who can’t escape their own inner hell, a trope which actually reinforces the idea of suicide as a solution.
“A familiar mental-health horror trope is that the afflicted character has to destroy his or herself in order to destroy the monster,” Sam Wineman says. “There isn’t any hope there, especially for viewers fighting their own battles.”
He continues, “In ‘The Quiet Room,’ we pivot away from that trapping by following a lead who has to face his personal demons in order to overcome the very real one who haunts the hospital halls. Michael models the beginning of a journey out of darkness.”
But that doesn’t mean “The Quiet Room” presents easy solutions. In fact, Hopeless Hattie, who may be an actual demon or just a personification of mental illness, is both devious and truly frightening. Played by Alaska, Hattie’s greasy, decaying skin; stringy, bedraggled hair; and rotting teeth make it seem as if the creature been hiding in a cesspool for years.
Makeup artist, Laney Chantal, created a head-to-toe look for the Drag Race champion that was so detailed, Wineman says, that it took two people working simultaneously for several hours to get the actor into it.
“From the slippage in her skin to her painted decay, Laney’s approach involved a mix of techniques to achieve it,” Wineman says. “Some scenes involved prosthetics that had to be sculpted weeks in advance.”
When audience members finally get a full-on view of Hattie, the character is truly revolting, and it works to the film’s advantage. So often, horror producers try to cut down on costs by never showing their monsters or they come off as comic and amateurish by presenting a creature unworthy of fear. Hopeless Hattie makes a great embodiment of mental illness incarnate, an image that’ll likely stay with viewers long after the film ends.
“In my teens, I really struggled with depression,” the director says. “Mental health was something I had to work at over time, and it wasn’t something I could do alone. In my film, Michael is comfortable in his solitude, but there is a moment when his caseworker Amy says, ‘If you want something different, do something different.’”
Sam Wineman continues, “Help is important. I am a big proponent of professional help and I have known some really great counselors and therapists. That being said, so many of our psychiatric facilities are simply holding cells for people in crisis rather than being stepping stones to a better life.”
“When writing ‘The Quiet Room,’ I wanted to show both sides; not just the callousness of staff jaded by the machine, but also caseworkers like Amy who want to make a difference but find themselves fighting an uphill battle.”
“The Quiet Room” is showing on June 9 at FilmOut San Diego, California; June 21 to 28 at Out Here Now in Kansas City, Missouri; and July 29 at Midsummer Scream in Long Beach, California.