Duy Huynh and Andrew Kelly: Lessons in How to Thrive

September 29, 2022
The producers of documentary How to Thrive celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month with a true feel-good story.

Melbourne production company Beyondedge has been creating meaningful content for 20 years, but it’s only now that the general public is catching on.

“We started Beyondedge in 2001, and at the time we were primarily looking at helping organizations to shift culture and teach skills to their people,” says Duy Huynh. “At some point we realised that we’d spent most of our lives doing work for clients, and it would be nice to do something that made a personal contribution to the world.”

Their first foray was award winning web series Sexy Herpes, which touched on mental health and acceptance of difference through a short and sharp comedic lens.

“In looking at the science of what makes us well, I realised there’s really brilliant work around what makes us happy,” says Huynh. “Modern, mainstream psychiatry and psychology, only looks at one lens, which is the disorder and dysfunction. There’s actually a whole school of research around what makes us thrive and it’s fair to say that it’s not well implemented.

“I met Marie at a positive psych conference, and she said, ‘well, if you’re interested in thinking about application for science, then come and see what I’m doing at Headspace’.” Huynh [above, left] tells us about his meeting with Positive Psychotherapist Marie McLeod [below], who would become his leading lady in Beyondedge’s next project, feature documentary How to Thrive. I took her up on the offer, and I knew immediately that that was the story. You can do a film about the science, but no one cares about the data, or the results of scientific research, but when people can see the application of that science, that’s what shifts hearts and minds towards the change that we want to see.”

How to Thrive follows Marie as she implements her strategies with numerous participants in her program, a cross-section of Australia’s diverse society, from a grieving widow to a burnt-out exec to an ex-con, amongst others, with the only commonality being their ill mental health, albeit of varying severity.

“I think we did start out thinking of it as a series,” Huynh tells us when we ask why a feature length film. “But we thought about this as a film because we really want people to have a focused experience of sitting down with a group of close friends or loved ones, and actually having this film be a catalyst for conversation that maybe people wouldn’t have had.

“We’d love for it to inspire more interest and research. What we understand about mental health is that a lot of issues are started at adolescence. By then, you’re locked in your ideas around what works and doesn’t work about the world. These science-based approaches act as a protective inoculation from adversity and it’s done as psycho-education rather than as therapy. Many of our participants have told us if they had had this education earlier it would’ve changed the trajectory of their lives.”

“I definitely think there’s room in the future to do other versions of this,” adds producer Andrew Kelly. “Whether it’s for kids or farmers, or people living in rural areas, the indigenous community… there are a lot of applications for a broader audience.”

This ambitious business thinking cultivated through their corporate work, and understanding of mental health, stood Huynh and Kelly in good stead when making How to Thrive.

“Straight off the bat, trying to get government funding is an instant no, because we don’t have credits,” says Kelly. “Even though we’ve got this 20-year history of film and TV work in the corporate world, that doesn’t translate to this world. So many barriers and walls kept being put up in front of us. I think we were just resilient enough to say, ‘we’re not going to take no for an answer’.”

“We always ask ourselves whenever we hit a brick wall: ‘What do we want, what do they want, and how do we work with what they are asking for?’,” chimes in Huynh. “We’ve got this attitude of really listening to feedback. Maybe our concept hadn’t been properly developed, and so the process of that was then just to unpack, sit down and ask for feedback, and say, ‘Okay, what didn’t work well, what did work well, what are some of the strengths that you’re seeing, what could we be focusing on?’ And then coming back and re-pitching it.

“That’s been the process with Screen Australia, Documentary Australia Foundation and VicScreen. Chasing a $1million budget for a doco is a pretty big ask, and you need to keep at it. You need to stay persistent.”

Having worked in the corporate space for so many years, another real eye-opener for the filmmakers was the haphazard nature of the film industry.

“The way of doing things just felt illogical, and just didn’t make sense to my corporate mind about how things could be run,” says Kelly [above].

“We apply a business lens to the decision-making,” adds Huynh. “We thought about distribution, we thought about the stage that we should be offering up all of our rights. We were thinking about that earlier on, and even in the application process, trying to understand how much we need to give away at the funding stage. There’s a business side that we were considering, in terms of being sustainable, right through to working out a budget which meant that we’re not eating baked beans.

“It’s knowing your worth,” says Kelly. “That was the biggest thing for me to get my head around. I just think it’s wrong that filmmakers are expected just to live off two-minute noodles. That’s just not right to me. I’ve seen been to many Q&A sessions for documentaries, and that’s the filmmaker’s life. And I was just like, ‘that’s not right, that’s not what we’re going to do. When we plan our budgets, we’re actually going to put in a proper living wage so we can actually do a good job.

“I think our side goal is actually improving the standard for other filmmakers that come after us, that they know their worth and see the incredible contribution they make to the world. It’s okay to pay yourself in the process and don’t short-change yourself.”

How to Thrive is screening in cinemas across Australia from 6 October.