After jobbing it in the local film and television scene, filmmaker Luke Eve dropped everything to give LA a shot. Going down the crowdfunding route for his web series Low Life, the result opened doors he could never have imagined. He’s now produced a virtual companion piece with High Life, but this time a $500k+ budgeted Australian story funded through overseas streaming services and Screen Australia, which is now available to view on 9Now.
We spoke with the filmmaker-on-the-rise during his brief return to Sydney to launch the show.
What inspired you to move to the States?
I won a green card! I was working solidly here and I was getting a lot of documentary television work and making commercials and music videos. I was enjoying my time here but I was finding it tough to break in a little bit further so I thought maybe it was time for a change of scenery. I felt a bit stale. I thought I’ll move to the States and give it a crack but it was hard. People in the industry were like ‘So you’ve been working for twelve years, show us your stuff’; then they would say, ‘Wow, we’ve never heard of it’. Unless you go over there with something really hot or you are doing something great in festival circuits or just won awards for TV shows and stuff like that, you are pretty unknown. I had a body of work but nothing that was really setting the world on fire at that point in time so it was difficult and it has taken me a couple of years to get a manager and open doors and get a project happening over there.
How did High Life happen?
In LA I met with a bunch of managers and agents and everyone was saying to go and make an online series or a web series as it’s a great way to be seen and keep your work up to date. I then made a small online series called Low Life and it was the most successful thing I had done! I travelled around to web festivals and it opened new doors for me working in the digital space. We ended up winning a reasonably sized award at a festival in France and the person awarding that was Canal Play which is a digital arm of Canal+. They came to me and asked ‘do you have another project?’ and I said that I’d like to do a follow up or a companion series to Low Life called High Life and that this one would be about a teenage girl experiencing bipolar. I got some money out of Canal Play and I was able to get Stephen Fry on board as an executive producer and then I went to Screen Australia, the multiplatform fund, and they were able to give me the rest of the money.
Both series touch on mental health, can you talk about your relationship to that?
Low Life was semi-autobiographical, a black comedy about depression so it was very personal in many ways but fictionalised and made into a tale about a guy in his mid-30s struggling with the realisation that he may have depression. For me, depression was something I had my whole life but I didn’t really understand that until my late 30s. I wanted to explore it but I didn’t want to do it in an earnest, kind of wanky way. I thought that I’d love to do a companion series and I thought about working with teenagers, who I hadn’t really worked with before. I thought instantly that might be a bit more marketable as well so thinking with a business head but also from a story perspective. I had known lots of people with bipolar and usually their first episode occurs when they are a teenager or it goes undiagnosed or misdiagnosed or just not diagnosed at all, and falls between the cracks and so I thought that was a really rich area for exploring something with bipolar and mental illness more widely.
Was High Life always meant to be an Australian story?
Well, because of Screen Australia investment, it needed to be filmed here with an Australian story but it was always intended as that. Low Life was filmed in the US and I decided to film that in LA with a mixture of Australian and American actors but with American accents. High Life was always a project I intended to film back in Australia so it was easy enough for us, it was already scripted as that. Screen Australia was really happy that it was set in Australia and about an Australian teenaged girl and essentially my production company, More Sauce were the IP owners. The budget overall was about $530,000 so we were able to get the offset money as well so we made it both as a one hour on TV and an online series. 9Go! screened it as a one-hour piece and 9Now screens it episodically.
Had you always wanted Odessa Young to play the lead role?
I wasn’t even thinking of cast at all during the script stage but once we were done, we went ‘The whole series is going to live or die based on whoever we get to play that role’ because she is in every scene. I spoke with a couple of casting directors here in Sydney and everybody said Odessa and so I was like alright, I’ve got to check out her work and track down her short films and features Looking For Grace and The Daughter and she was just amazing. She’s young but incredibly wise and she asked all the right questions and came at me with all the right ideas and I was just blown away by someone who in many ways acted like this adult but at the same time, I was also very aware that was sitting there with a 17-year-old girl. She still had that fun and innocence of being a teenager and she brought that to the role. We worked really closely together to try and get the right tone and know where we were sitting with the story and she’s really collaborative and just a joy to have on set so we were very lucky.
How did you approach using the web series form?
It’s interesting for me because I think Low Life opened up new doors for me but also new horizons, different platforms and different financing that was available that I think wasn’t really happening in Australia. I think people back here just kind of went ’Oh, there’s this cute little thing called web series but what they aren’t realising is that what’s coming along now are web series that have really huge budgets and big platforms. There’s a whole new world out there in terms of streaming.
When we came up with High Life, it was always conceived as six ten-minute episodes that would also work joined seamlessly as a one-hour piece. It has cliffhanger moments so it feels episodic in nature, like chapters, so when you screen it as an episode, you can experience each little cliffhanger moment, then you break, then you jump to the next one. It’s a different way of thinking about form and thinking about delivery to an audience. There are many platforms in the US and Europe now that are like mini Netflixes and they exist primarily for mobile and digital content. They are subscription services so they charge like six bucks a month and they are always looking for content. They are looking for short form stories that are ten, fifteen minutes in length. I think traditionally, that has been a really big market for teenagers particularly. People think of mobile technology relating to teenagers but now we’re considering that adults also sit on buses and trains and commutes so now there’s a real push for premium content and digital services.
The understanding of web series was initially to make something cheap with your mates and tell a simple story but I think that is gone now. There’s a number of platforms in Europe and in the States that are sophisticated and have really cinematic, short form content.
What are you doing next?
“I just got back from the States yesterday and I was filming another online series this time with a company called New Form who fully funded a pilot for me. How it works with them is that they will give you a certain amount of money to do the pilot and then they will shop it around as a TV show or an online series. We shot an eighteen-minute pilot. It’s a comedy called Mourner’s Inc. It’s about a company that provides professional mourners for people’s funerals so if you are too busy to turn up and grieve, you pay somebody else to do it for you so we shot that.
High Life is available to view on 9Now