Dillon Tucker is an actor, musician, and filmmaker who directed the movie Pure O. The semi-autobiographical film tells the story of a rehab counselor named Cooper (played by 20th Century Century Women‘s Daniel Dorr) who is diagnosed with a particular form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, referred to as Pure O, that involves obsession over specific thoughts.
As Cooper begins to question his own sanity, he attempts to keep his personal and professional relationships together, including with his fiancé (The Republic of Sarah‘s Hope Lauren). The inspiring impact he makes through his work as a counselor, particularly with Rachel (Landry Bender from Fuller House) helps Cooper get through his darkest times
Ahead of its premiere at this year’s South by Southwest Film & TV Festival we had the opportunity to speak with Dillon on the inspiration for the film, some of the prevailing misconceptions regarding mental health disorders, and how art can be a form of healing.
You can watch or read our interview below. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Matt Davis: To start out, in your own words, tell us what your film Pure O is all about.
Dillon Tucker: It is about an aspiring screenwriter and musician who is grappling with a Pure O diagnosis. And Pure O is a lesser known form of OCD that has strictly mental manifestations without physical compulsions. So he's trying to understand it and doesn't really understand what he's going through while he's sort of juggling a recent engagement, and he's working in drug and alcohol rehab, and he's working with clients. And so it's a universal story that's kind of showing mental health, but also showing the perspective of how it affects all the loved ones and everyone around him on his journey.
I know this film is semi-autobiographical. So in what ways did your own journey with OCD influence this film? And what was it like to channel something so personal into your art?
Well it obviously affected everything. It affected the entire story because it's based on my own life. It wasn't as difficult as you think because I waited. I didn't want to do it when I was going through everything. So it's a period of my life, but it's a period of my life, maybe, you know, close to a decade ago now.
And I outlined everything when I was going through it, but I didn't want to touch it, because I knew that it would just be shrouded in bias. And I wouldn't be able to see through the trees. And I wasn't really interested in making this film as a vehicle of catharsis for myself, I thought that this was a really unique opportunity to share what Pure O really is because I didn't even know what it was when I was going through it.
So it started with that. But then I always write from a place of universal themes. So it wasn't just the fact that I was going through this one experience, but it was sort of all these other things that were happening in my life around that time. And in so many ways, it's really a film about somebody who's in their 20s going into their 30s, and sort of not “coming-of-age” from the traditional perspective of like a teenager into an adult, but it's more that journey of being in your 20s. And then really becoming an adult into your 30s.
But it's more about really entering adulthood in a real way. And going through that sea change of hitting 30 and really having your worldview get set and deciding who you want to be. And it's somebody who's really dealing with that more than anything, he's sort of deciding, who do I want to be as a man, who do I want to be going forward?
Obviously this thing comes and he has to deal with it but it just pivots his life in this other direction. And he has to really just make a decision- how do I want to be? And who do I want to be? And so the film is really I think about somebody, a man, who's trying to come to grips with that.
What are some of the misperceptions that you think people have of OCD and how do you think this film can help maybe influence the conversation around it?
Well I think there's a lot of misconceptions about it. Like I said, I had my own misconceptions about it. I mean, there's still people within the therapeutic community that have their misconceptions about what OCD really is. And the thing to understand is that Pure O versus traditional OCD is exactly the same.
I mean, OCD is OCD period. It's just that one manifests itself in, you know, maybe washing your hands 10 times and then a mental form of that is that you're just having the same thought over and over.
So it's the same thing. But the thing that I would really hope people walk away with is that there's no such thing as “OCD thoughts.” I mean these thoughts are just human thoughts. So I think the best example I've seen is like you're standing on a subway platform and a train is coming. And you have as a human a random thought that enters your head- that is, oh, what if I push this person? This person standing next to me in front of the train and they get hit? A normal brain is just gonna not even register that thought. It was like, “oh, that was a weird thought.” And you'll just go about your day.
Whereas with OCD it's a flaw in the brain that will actually recirculate that thought into your brain. And you'll have a spike of anxiety because it's against your own sense of self identity. And you'll say, “why would I have that thought? I'm not that person. But I must be that person.”
So it's thought-action fusion. It's like, as you're having that thought, you're also instantly saying, I am that thought. So it's a weird thing. Also one part of yourself is fully aware of it. And you're watching it. And you realize that that's not really true. But you can't help it on a visceral level, you are connected to your thoughts.
It's a cognitive distortion that somebody with an OCD brain has. And you have to combat that you have that thought, and so it's against your sense of self, you're like, “I'm a horrible person” I can't believe I have that thought. And by having that thought, it creates this vicious cycle, where you then try and you push the thought away like, “well, I don't want to think that because that's uncomfortable, and that's not who I am.”
And the more you do that, the more that thought circles back to you. So I hope that people realize that it's not really about the thoughts, these are just human thoughts, that it's just OCD is an anxiety disorder. And it's just basically you're feeling that spike of anxiety, and then you're getting caught into a cycle of anxiety.
So I would encourage people as they're doing more research into OCD to not be hung up about the content or about what it is because it's not really about the thoughts themselves. It's about our reaction, our relationship to those thoughts and how we interpret them that's flawed.
There's a lot of education in the film. But again, it's incredibly universal. And it's dealing with much more than than just that.
Some of your own music appears in this film. What impact do you think that art, and specifically music, plays in the mental health process? And just in the process of healing?
I'm an artist in general, and specifically with music, I think it's so therapeutic. My mother was art therapy teacher. And my mother is a painter. And she would work with at-risk youth and do therapeutic art. And so from a young age, I was super around it. I've seen firsthand how art has affected other people who engage with it.
So I'm a huge proponent in the power of art, that it can have in our lives. Obviously, you know, we're not splitting the atom here, curing cancer. But I heard somebody say one time, it's really great that some people save lives and then other people make those lives worth living.
So I think that art is truly that for me, and it feeds my soul. And it's so therapeutic on so many levels. It can be entertainment and there's nothing wrong with that. But it can also touch you in a different way. And it can connect with you and be a form of catharsis. It could bring things up for you, it can just create conversations.
That's what I hope for my film, I hope that people are walking away, feeling a little closer to themselves, maybe feeling a little closer to their loved ones. Maybe you're walking out of the theater and you're sort of like, you know, really wondering with the people you meet, you never really know what somebody's going through. And all that sort of human stuff. I think that art really brings that out in us and is an incredibly important aspect to our humanity.
In directing a film that's based on your real life experiences, was it ever a challenge to let it flow into its own thing versus channeling something in the way that you remembered it?
No, not at all. Because, obviously, it's my life. And I put it all on the page. And that's my story. But once I got into the process of making the film, I had a very different approach that I wanted to do. And I wanted to strive for naturalism in a way. So I cast a real life couple to play the leads in the film. And the lead actress' parents are a real life couple.
I cast some real life OCD patients in the therapy scenes and in the drug and alcohol scenes there's real counselors. And so I wanted to create a world where you didn't know where the real life started and where the acting started. I wanted it to all kind of rub up against each other but I really wanted to provide agency to my actors to come in and to bring themselves as much as possible.
So as much as they were comfortable doing, they kind of played around with boundaries of where they stopped and the character began. And even they were all rubbing together in the film, in a way that hopefully creates a sense of just naturalism and true-to-life. And obviously, I'm not creating a documentary, I'm creating a narrative film, but I wanted it to feel like real life. I wanted these to feel like people that you could be having these conversations with.
The process of creating a film is inherently kind of manipulative with what you're doing. But I wanted to just provide a sandbox for my actors to just play in, to kind of bring as much of themselves to the story as possible.
There's a line that I really liked in the script, where the character said vulnerability is the greatest form of courage. I think it took a lot of courage to make this film and I commend you for telling this story.
Thank you, Matt. Yeah, it's all very meta. And it was obviously very vulnerable on my part to do it. All of my actors were incredibly vulnerable. And, I mean, I'm just ecstatic with the performances that I received from my actors across the board and how willing they were to be vulnerable within their own process and what they brought to the film.
So it's been really special. It definitely hasn't just felt like another film that I've made. It's definitely felt like something special. And I hope that the other people involved feel that way as well.
Pure O premieres premieres on Monday, March 13, 2023 at the Alamo Drafthouse theater at 1120 S Lamar Blvd as part of Austin’s South by Southwest Film & TV Festival. Additional screenings occur on March 15, 2023 at 2:15PM and March 16th at 8:00PM. Check out more info here.