Blow Up My Life filmmakers Ryan Dickie and Abigail Horton initially imagined their first feature-length film being shot on a much larger scale: The film, a dark comedy about a ruthless pharmaceutical company, could have been a big-budget Mission Impossible-style thriller. Lead actor Jason Selvig even looks like a lanky Tom Cruise.
But the pandemic reframed the vision for the story. “For not being a movie about the pandemic, the pandemic was very, very much a part of why it got made and how it got made,” Dickie tells MovieMaker while sitting with Horton, his co-director, co-writer and co-producer.
With just five major characters, nine crew members, and a lot of close-ups, the pair managed to make a very entertaining thriller about a disgraced app developer who becomes the target of a greedy pharmaceutical company after accidentally uncovering a deadly opioid vape conspiracy. The action-comedy premiered at the Austin Film Festival in the fall of 2022 with a very lively reaction from the audience, including big laughs and big gasps, as Selvig skillfully straddles the line between leading man and deadpan comic.
The actor is becoming more recognizable as half of the comedy duo The Good Liars, who have made it their mission to troll conservative politicians and their followers. Their real-life, event-crashing gags have ended up on cable news and served as plot points in the hilarious mockumentaries Undecided (2016) and The Supporters (2021).
“We thought it was a really great fit for Jason’s ideology of trying to speak truth to power a little bit, and to get to the root of some of this hypocrisy and systematic kind of malpractice that goes on,” Dickie explains.
Selvig stars opposite his Good Liars partner Davram Stiefler, an excellent fit as the protagonist’s awful pharmaceutical supervisor, and Kara Young, who plays the protagonist’s handy hacker cousin. Reema Sampat and Ben Horner round out the small main cast.
After working on each other’s short films over the last decade, Dickie and Horton began collaborating on Blow Up My Life at the start of the pandemic. The pair relocated from New York City to the suburbs of Connecticut, where they began to reimagine what was initially conceived as an international caper as a suburban-set story, largely taking place in a van, in various homes, and on computer screens. It was shot under SAG/AFTRA’s Ultra Low Budget Project Agreement for films budgeted at $300,000 or less.
“So we wrote it to take place in that type of production atmosphere, which was a really interesting exercise,” Horton explains. “It was a very challenging, but ultimately satisfying way to write the script.”
Dickie adds, “To really look at what the story was trying to accomplish, and really try to distill it down to the essential elements of what actually makes this work—what actually tells the story, what actually gets these themes across — was just a good exercise that I hope to take into every project going forward.”
What makes it work is a strong cast, a slick production style, and a compelling story that, though fictional, is all too familiar and plausible: a company creates a seemingly revolutionary addiction treatment through a vape pen with dosage maintained by an app, but lo and behold, the company is secretly aware that their product is also addictive, ensuring huge profits. The plot overlaps with Alex Gibney’s HBO documentary The Crime of the Century and the Hulu drama series Dopesick.
For Dickie, the issue is personal, and not limited to just one pill or company.
“This subject matter of addiction and addiction treatment in the pharmaceutical industry is something I’ve been personally interested in, with loved ones in my life having struggles with it, and a lot of things that I’ve covered in older films that I’ve done,” he tells MovieMaker. “I think the greater theme speaks to the system of selling the disease, and then selling the cure, and then selling the disease again.”
Although COVID presented significant challenges to production, and life in general, Dickie and Horton saw their industry friends’ sudden availability as an opportunity. They gathered crew and actor friends to shoot the film in Middletown, Connecticut, over the course of 18 days in October of 2020, with generous assistance from the economic development office. City officials helped them scout outdoor locations that they could use for free, while relying on relationships within the community to find budget-friendly indoor locations.
Horton says the film was “100 percent planned around” the looming threat of COVID in a time when a vaccine was not yet available. Dickie describes the conditions as “so scary at that point,” because if just one person involved got sick, the whole production would have shut down. “And this would have been a short film,” he laughs.
The film moves so fluidly that you might not even notice all the COVID precautions: The directors set as many scenes as possible outdoors to keep their team safe, and the indoor scenes often involve only one actor, while the bulk of the interaction between characters occurs via devices. Dickie says the pandemic conditions and on-set safety requirements even affected how the dialogue was written and how the scenes played out.
Both filmmakers agreed the most challenging of those solutions played out in the post-production process. “There’s so many screenshots and that was just like, oh my God,” Horton recalls. “It was kind of this challenge that we didn’t know was coming until we were sitting in the edit room being like, ‘Okay, gotta make screens now.’”
“We both wore many, many hats on this,” Dickie adds, “but I would say the one hat that is my least favorite is graphic design. That is the one that I leave to the professionals.”
Our lives are increasingly unfolding on screens through email, social media, video calls, and many more digital platforms, so it’s no longer a stretch for viewers to follow a story unfolding on virtual channels. Dickie and Horton cite the 2018 thriller Searching as a source of inspiration for using screens to push a narrative, but they also turned to the classic cinema, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and North by Northwest, as well as Indiana Jones and Coen brothers films.
“It seemed like a really good balance of tone to have the laughs kind of contrast with the thriller stuff, and it ended up just making the peaks higher and the lows even lower,” Dickie says. “I find that dynamic to always be very satisfying.”
Based on the film’s reception at the Austin Film Festival, viewers find it satisfying, as well. More recently, the film received a positive reception at the Cucalorus Film Festival in Wilmington, North Carolina, and the filmmakers are waiting to hear back from more festivals for 2023.
“It was so fulfilling to go and watch the film with other people, so we definitely want that experience a few more times,” says Horton. They’re also hoping for a wide release in the spring of 2023, though they’re not sure which route they’ll take in the distribution chapter of the process.
In the meantime, both Dickie and Horton are already planning their next individual projects, and look forward to applying wisdom learned from Blow Up My Life to those ventures while continuing to enjoy the festival circuit. “This being our first feature,” says Dickie, “I think the more we can get those kinds of experiences out of this, that’s maybe what I’m really most interested in.”
Main image: Jason Selvig in Blow Up My Life, by Ryan Dickie and Abigail Horton.