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john hein’s ‘leech’ is a dystopian take on young creatives in nyc

Jack Sunnucks

The model-turned-directors constructs a dark reality where the unproductive are eliminated.

John Hein, the model-turned-writer, is known for being funny, so it’s surprising that his new short film, LEECH, isn’t very amusing at all. “It ended up being a dystopian, sci-fi short. It’s about a government agency that tracks and kills unproductive members of society, in order to make a more efficient world,” he says of the film, which he directed. “Originally I wrote it as a dark comedy, more about my friends and I — models, or DJs, or performance artists. And then afterwards I thought, “This could be really dark and realistic if I took out the jokes.”

Hein seems to have found his voice even without the humor, and the result is something like if 1984 was inhabited by New York’s freelance creatives. “In addition to LEECH being about my views on society and our place in it, it is also about power and control between individuals,” which makes sense of the horrifying promotional images that show people being suffocated. “It’s about one person holding power and another retaliating, making a big statement to try to get it for themselves.” This film, perhaps, is Hein’s big statement.

He’s showing the film tomorrow, June 15th, at 6pm at Anthology Film Archives in the East Village, which seems like the best use of time for your summer Friday. Hein sat down with i-D to talk about The Matrix, friends without jobs, and whether smoke-wreathed men in back rooms really do control everything.

Was it painful taking the jokes out? You’ve become known for off-kilter comedy, whether on your series or just your Instagram.
The stuff I’ve done in the past has entirely been comedy, although it’s fairly dark. It wasn’t too difficult. Right now, it’s a very timely feel, like “Oh yeah, I could see that happening.” It came out better and more representative of the way I feel about things at the moment.

I have a lot of friends here where most people would say, “They’re not contributing to the workforce,” or something like that. And I don’t really think that’s necessary in any way, I think people can take value from a lot of things. In the film, one of the characters is supposed to have been going to graduate school but has been putting it off. And they’re persecuted for that.

Is this drawn from your own experiences?
The “creatively employed’ is literally all of my friends [laughs]. I think having been in the fashion world for as long as I have been, it’s inevitable that I have friends who don’t have to go to work every day. I’ve been modeling for seven years, at this point. In the beginning, I was running around, working in Tokyo, and in Europe doing the shows. And about three years ago there was a point I didn’t want to do that anymore, I was missing New York. So I decided to stay here, but one of the by-products was that I had all this free time, and I was going insane. That’s when I started writing seriously, and did a web series around that time. I think there’s a lot of people in the circle I run in who have gone through that, the time where even if you value what you’re doing, there’s a time where you question your place in the world a bit. I think that’s a relatable question for people in their 20s and 30s.

Well, it’s relatable within New York and the microcosm of fashion.
When I go back to Michigan there’s a discord between what I do and what everyone else does. The only time they see what I do is when I’ve done a job for Macy’s and everyone got an ad for it on Black Friday in the newspaper. People have to come up with their own idea of how I live. There’s the perception, and then there’s the reality.

Speaking of which, dystopian dramas are really having their moment — did any of them inspire LEECH ?
The Matrix, for sure. We referenced that a bit with an interrogation room. Not so much the subject matter, but look wise we wanted a similar feel. I reference Gangs of New York a little bit, in some of the action that we do. It’s more about the big brother aspect of it, so there’s a voiceless supervisor throughout the short. And faceless men in back rooms smoking cigarettes — they’re the ones who are really in charge. Like in the X-Files.

Tell me about your cast.
I’m so happy with them. You might know Ali Michael, she’s in it. I felt like she could play this cold, emotionless government agent very well [laughs]. This guy Alan who I met on a commercial plays a supervisor. The cast did a great job. There’s more emotional and warm characters too, who have to go through something. It ends very intensely, which is surprising, and it’s open ended so people can decide what it means to them.

Where can we see LEECH ?
I’m screening it on Friday at Anthology Film Archives in the East Village. I’ve shown at festivals and things like that before, but to me, this is six minutes long, and very intense and uncomfortable. I wanted that six minutes of tension and uncomfortability to be with other people. So I rented the theatre and we’re doing the screening! We’ve also done a campaign — Sunshine cinema on Houston shut down, but the poster boxes are still there, so we filled them. If you walk down Houston Street, you’ll see that right now.