Chicago writer/director Richard Burgin’s debut feature film Fang is a stark look at mental illness through the lens of a young man spiraling into madness.
“It was an incredible learning experience for me with so many things I could have only learned from experience,” says Burgin, who dedicated the movie to his father who died in 2020. “I’ll always be grateful for the wonderful cast and crew I worked with on Fang.”
Read the Malevolent Dark review of Fang here.
The main character, Billy Cochran, is a man teetering on the edge of sanity whose life is further complicated by living with his mother Gina, a woman suffering from Parkinson’s dementia. Gina is played by veteran horror actress Lynn Lowry, whose five-decade career features roles in George A. Romero’s 1973 film The Crazies and David Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975).
Richard Burgin’s Deep Connection to Fang
Fang’s authenticity stems from the director’s awareness of his own mental health problems. Burgin’s willingness to tap into his personal struggles fuels the creation of Billy Cochran, a three-dimensional character battling a host of conditions like autism, paranoia, depression, schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. In an exclusive interview with MalevolentDark.com, Burgin discusses Fang, which was filmed in early 2020 just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
MD: Is it important to you that characters with mental health conditions are represented in your films?
I never thought it was important to me to represent mentally ill characters in my movies. It’s just familiar to me. More than anything else, I want my characters to seem like real people. I have to keep my ego in check, so I don’t end up glamorizing these characters too much when I identify with them. Mental illness can be terrifying. It can destroy your life just like physical illness. All the fear and anxiety I’ve felt inspires me to make horror and to show characters who are living with mental illness.
MD: A rat bite accelerates Billy Cochran’s decline. In your research, does it take a traumatic event for someone to snap like that or was Billy eventually going to snap with or without the rat bite?
I’ve thought about that before. What if things had gone differently? I don’t really know for sure. Random things happen. You never know when a rat bite is coming, or when you might get sick. Billy was never really in control of his life, and he didn’t do much to get better. It would have been hard for Billy to get better with the circumstances of his family. He still had to take responsibility for his life, even though he had really shitty circumstances. The way Billy tried to deal with his trauma and take back control made things a lot worse for him.
MD: Billy struggles with simple tasks like cashing his paycheck. Why show that aspect of his life?
The simple things aren’t so simple. I’ve gotten really frustrated dealing with things like that, technology going wrong when it seems like something so easy that should work. It wasn’t really intentional, but I thought while I was writing Fang that the characters don’t want to talk about their serious problems. Billy and Gina fight over things like changing the TV channel and emptying the dishwasher. They don’t actually have a dishwasher, since the house we were filming in didn’t have one. That made it so much better than how I had written it in the script. I was happy, too, that we ended up filming the check-cashing scenes in a convenience store instead of in a real bank. Billy had to deal with these little frustrating things on top of everything else.
MD: Billy is a talented artist who has created an entire imaginary world in his head. In fact, the only time he seems excited about life is when he discusses it with his mother’s caregiver. Does that kind of escape from reality help or hurt someone in Billy’s mental state?
I’ve never been asked this before, but it’s something I thought about a lot while I was working on Fang. I think creativity is related to ego. Billy created a world in his drawings where he was in control. He made his aliens, the Graixians, bigger and more powerful than humans. Billy’s fantasy world is very violent. He gets excited talking about his story of futuristic wars, plagues, and extinction. Billy maybe doesn’t realize how much he wants sex, power, and revenge, but it comes through in his drawings, wanting to rule the world. It helped Billy to do this in his fantasy world instead of lashing out in real life. His fantasy world and real life blurred together after the rat bite. Fang is the fantasy world I came up with, and I don’t know what that says about me, that I felt a very strong urge to make this particular movie.
MD: What’s the most important lesson you hope people learn about the mentally ill from your film Fang?
I didn’t start out wanting Fang to have a message. I guess if there is a message, it’s that mentally ill people are people. There are a lot of challenges that sane healthy people don’t have, but mental illness doesn’t give you an excuse to go on a killing spree. Most people in Billy’s situation, who are schizophrenic, poor, living with sick parents, would never kill anyone. Gina stays in denial about having Parkinson’s. She makes things worse by the way she treats the people around her. It’s not just having mental illness; it’s the way they deal with it that leads to a bigger tragedy for them. I don’t feel too sorry for Billy after I lived through a similar situation to him. I used to have severe depression, and in those years, I was at home while my dad was slowly dying from Parkinson’s. I think about Elliot Rodger, who had rich healthy parents, and Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who were bullied and unpopular, like millions of other teenagers. Anyone can create the justification in their minds that it’s okay to kill random people. I want people to lose sympathy for Billy after he crosses the line.
MD: What’s your next filmmaking project?
I hope to make my next feature film very soon. I don’t want to give too much away about my new projects, now that it’s getting closer to time. 2023 has been a tough year for me with three weeks I spent at the Chicago-Read Mental Hospital in June and July. If anything good came out of this mess, it’s that I realized I have to keep being creative, no matter what. There’s a lot of uncertainty that goes into making a feature film, but I can always paint. I can always write, record. I can take pictures and make random videos on my cell phone. This is a golden age for being creative with barely any resources. The major Hollywood studios aren’t as powerful as they used to be thanks to the Internet, and I’m happy about that. There’s more competition for attention now because of the Internet, but it’s pretty wild to be able to reach people anywhere in the world and work together. I feel inspired by my beautiful, amazing girlfriend, Isabela Rangel. I’m excited that she’s going to be on set with me for the next movie I make.