High Life: A Web Series With A Message At Melbourne WebFest

Published in Movies + TV  
Being a teenager is hard work.

It's even harder when you're battling with seemingly uncontrollable emotions.

Genevieve Barrett is struggling with this in 'High Life', a show that addresses the highs and lows of bipolar disorder in the form of a comic drama. Co-Creator Luke Eve talks about the show and what it means to be a part of this year's Melbourne WebFest.

'High Life' is a companion to another web-series called 'Low Life'… How do they tie into each other?
'Low Life' was a web series that I co-created and directed when I first relocated to Los Angeles a few years ago. Everyone over there was telling me to create a web series and at the time I was going through a bit of a personal shake-up as a result of moving countries. I guess it was a period of introspection. I started confronting my own personal, mental health issues I guess you would say. I’d always had mild depression for as long as I could remember but I had never acknowledged it. Simply because I never understood it. I didn’t really know what it was or how to deal with it. But I did think that it made for interesting material! I felt like mental illness could be both funny and tragic and as a storyteller that intersection has always interested me. So I pitched the idea to a writer friend of mine, Adam Grossetti and together we came up with 'Low Life': a black comedy about depression. After the success of that series we got interest to turn it into either a show or a second series but I guess we lost momentum or I lost a bit of interest. Again, there was a whole lot of personal turmoil during that period. I knew I wanted to do a similar project but not necessarily a second series as such. So I came up with the idea of doing another mental health project but on the other side of the spectrum as it were. Instead of depression we look at mania. And instead of it being a 35-year-old man it’s a teenage girl. The contrast interested me. So I pitched it to a collaborator of mine, Glen Dolman, and together we came up with the world of 'High Life'.

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What kinds of people might this show appeal to?
To be honest, I’m hoping it’s a pretty broad audience. In 'Low Life', the word 'depression' is never uttered. And in 'High Life', the word 'bipolar' is also absent. They are both universal coming-of-age stories in many ways but the protagonist’s life is made more complicated by the difficulties of grappling with mental illness. I think that’s really rich material. We wanted to create a story that was entertaining and moving and thought provoking. Striking up that balance was important to us so I think the story will appeal to both teenagers and an older audience. If anything, the material is pitched a little older too as most kids prefer to watch stuff that doesn’t speak down to them. So it helps that we could try and grab an older audience with a teenage story.

The show follows teenage girl Genevieve who is beginning to struggle with bipolar disorder. Why do you think a show with this kind of plot at the forefront is important?
During 'Low Life' I started to realise just how many people were touched by mental illness. Either directly themselves or indirectly through friends or family members. It surprised even me. I think one of the nicest things that came from that project was a level of discourse that was established either in person or through social media and I consequently began to notice it on a bigger scale completely independent of 'Low Life'. I noticed that there was a lot more public discussion going on about mental illness and the need to address it as a serious problem. It’s something that I have become really passionate about.

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'High Life' is a part of Melbourne WebFest. What do you like about this event?
I have a real soft spot for Melbourne WebFest. It was the first web festival I ever attended and 'Low Life' was lucky enough to win The Grand Jury Prize there in 2014. It’s also my 'home' festival as such so it feels extra special. Having been to a number of festivals around the world it is also clear just how great the festival is. It’s brilliantly run and curated and the filmmakers are really looked after. Steinar and the team do a terrific job.

How does it feel to have this show be part of the festival?
When a project of mine gets accepted into any festival I always feel a tremendous sense of honour and pride. That then shifts to excitement and then nervousness! But, as I mentioned, this festival is particularly special to me, so I’m really thrilled to be a part of it this year. A lot of these projects were also designed to be watched online which often means watching it alone. So moving the work into a more public space is really gratifying. It allows the filmmakers to have their work be seen with an audience and to meet one another and network. The WebFests really are a great community. I’ve met some wonderful friends and collaborators by attending them.

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The show has been nominated for a few awards, and you've been nominated for best directing! Congratulations! What does this nomination mean to you?
Thanks so much! It means I sit there nervously during the entire awards show! Seriously, having your work chosen is one thing but then to be nominated is another. It’s a really special feeling to know that your peers think so highly of your work. As a director though, it’s really a reflection of everyone else’s work. I was lucky enough to be surrounded by some amazing cast and crew so really it’s their work that has been recognised which I couldn’t be happier about.

What are you hoping both kids and adults alike get out of 'High Life'?
First and foremost I hope that people are entertained and moved. Secondly, I hope that a discourse is created and perhaps a further sense of awareness about mental health and mental health issues. After 'Low Life', I got lots of emails from people saying they had managed to talk to people when they couldn’t before. Either they themselves were suffering or they knew someone who was. That’s incredible feedback to receive. If 'High Life' has the same sort of effect I’ll be thrilled. It’s important to me that people with mental illness don’t feel alone. I say that because it’s that feeling, more than any other, that terrifies me the most personally about mental illness. So I’m hoping that 'High Life' lets people know that this is a common thing. That they are not alone. That there is always going to be someone in their life that cares about them and can be there for them. I think 'High Life' also shows that if you aren’t careful these things can easily slip through the cracks or be swept under the carpet and that’s dangerous. Communication and being there for one another is really important.

In your opinion, does the show paint a realistic picture of teenage life?
Considering it was created by a couple of dudes in their 40s, yeah I do. In fact, one of the common pieces of feedback we seem to receive is that the depiction of teenage life is painted truthfully. We were lucky, we obviously had lots of strong and opinionated teenage actors as part of the cast who told me if something wasn’t ringing true. I completely welcomed that. They are going to know better than us. But most of their feedback was that Glen had managed to really capture what it feels like to be a teenager. He is a wonderful writer. He does a lot of research but most importantly he draws on a lot of personal experiences throughout his life.

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Did lots of research need to be done when creating the show to make sure you were being accurate with the portrayals of bipolar?
Making sure that we created a story that was truthful and authentic was something that we took very seriously. Glen is a very experienced writer who has great empathy for the mental health community and a lot of experience in portraying characters that are rich and unique. Both Glen and I have had very personal experiences with friends that have bipolar so we had a lot of funny and tragic material to draw on. We also spoke to a number of people who have bipolar or who have had experiences with it through family or personal relationships. And we also read a number of books and did our research. Being truthful was something that was very important to us. We felt like we owed it to people who had trusted us with their own stories. While we wanted 'High Life' to be entertaining we also wanted it to be truthful and real and honest.

Melbourne WebFest takes place from 29 June-2 July.


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