Rebecca Norris interviews Kimberly Rolfs and Alex Hughes, the creative team behind Life or Death, Basically--a web series based on Rolfs' real-life battle with Borderline Personality Disorder.
The old adage “write what you know” has long been solid advice for writers, particularly when penning those early scripts. One courageous New York writer, actor, and producer, Kimberly Rolfs, has done just that in a most personal way. After meeting as classmates at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Rolfs and director/producer Alex Hughes created Life or Death, Basically, a new web series that explores Rolfs’ own experience living with Borderline Personality Disorder. BPD is a mental illness that can cause intense mood swings, impulsive behavior, and problems in relationships.
I was honored to have the opportunity to discuss their process of creating a web series about such a personal subject, and to assist on their journey to bring awareness to the sensitive and often misunderstood subject of mental illness.
Rebecca Norris: The journey of your character, Maggie, in LIFE OR DEATH, BASICALLY is based on your own journey with Borderline Personality Disorder. What inspired you to share aspects of your real-life struggles in your series?
Kimberly Rolfs: I always want to answer this question by saying that I saw a lack of accurate representation of mental illness in the media, particularly mentally ill women, and I wanted to fill that gap, but that part of it came later. The idea came from me wanting to write a love story in which someone like me could take a central role, and my borderline personality disorder and my ideas about love are so interwoven that it was impossible to see it any other way. And then, as I wrote it and worked on coming to terms with my own disorder, the fact that I hadn’t ever really seen a character that I could relate to in that way became clear to me, and that started to inspire me as well.
RN: What was the development and writing process like for the series? Did you find it difficult to discuss some topics from your real life, or did you perhaps find it cathartic or helpful in any way?
KR: We had just the most lovely and seamless process working on this, honestly. Because Alex [Hughes – director/producer] was reading the episodes from when I first began writing them (not even as someone that would necessary be a part of the project, just as another set of eyes), I got over the initial hurdle of fear about it, and it was incredibly validating. We really assembled a team of people that all have an incredible amount of empathy, and they were so supportive.
Acting in scenes that very closely resembled or were inspired by moments in my real life was a challenge, absolutely, but mostly because I had to step back into the moment of them, rather than because I was afraid of sharing. I feel like it absolutely was cathartic in some way, because it really did help me embrace the fact of my BPD and sort of start to own it, and lead with that, rather than having it be something that I hide.
I’m a completely different person in terms of my own self-acceptance than I was when I started writing this project, and it really does have so much to do with the fact that now if anyone were to Google my name, they would know that I have borderline personality disorder. And I’m almost kind of proud of it, now. Like, I’m surviving this.
Alex Hughes: The process of translating the story from page to screen ended up being really seamless because of Kim’s generosity. She was willing to share the story with me right off the bat, which allowed me to feel like a collaborator early on in the journey.
Kim and I were in the same year in acting school, and had been friends since freshman year. I saw her growing frustration around not knowing where she fit into the acting world, so getting a first draft of LODB was so exciting! All of a sudden I saw her becoming the artist she truly was. Anything I provided to the project was just an attempt to be in service to her brilliance. There was a sense of trust and a unity of vision between Kim, myself, and Clara (our unbelievable cinematographer). Any development talks were really easy because we all had such a similar vision for the show.
RN: Tell us about your production process for the series. How long did you shoot for, what camera did you use, what was fundraising like, etc.? What was the budget range (if you feel comfortable sharing) that you were working in?
KR: One of the first things Alex and I decided when he came on as director was that we wanted to keep this thing as small as possible. We had both worked on projects before that had spent an absurd amount of money on unnecessary expenses, and we didn’t want that to be our philosophy at all. We ran a fundraising campaign on Indiegogo and set a really modest goal of raising $1,500, which we did, and that is for the most part what we used to shoot. Alex and his sister Clara (who was our director of photography) had invested in their own equipment, and we only had to pay for one location and some transportation costs, so it was easy enough for us to keep it small.
Because most of us were still in school while we were shooting, we shot primarily on weekends, so we stretched out filming from mid-October to the beginning of December. We tried to shoot chronologically as much as we could. It was such a luxurious shooting experience - our crew was literally just Alex, Clara, and whatever actors were needed that day.
A lot of the time, Alex was directing while holding a boom mic, laying on the floor, or standing in the shower, or wherever he needed to be. But because there were so few of us and basically no money on the line, we could really take our time and do whatever we needed to do to get the best possible version of the scene. Sometimes that was everyone sitting in the dark and listening to music beforehand, and sometimes that was us messing around and talking while Clara captured whatever was going on. It’s such a magical kind of way to work!
AH: Kim, Clara, and I really wanted to make the set as “actor-friendly” as possible. To create the intimacy that was seen on screen, we believed the actors really had to feel like they were alone. We took a cue from some of our favorite indie-love stories—Blue Valentine and Like Crazy, to name a few—and attempted to capture the small moments between two people. One of the things I loved most about the script is that Kim is really interested in two person scenes. Season One doesn’t have a single scene with more than two actors, so connection and chemistry were essential.
We always joke (but we aren’t joking at all) that the Life or Death, Basically set will be our all-time favorite set. It’s really a gift to get to craft the exact set of circumstances that you want, and to work with people you love.
RN: What lessons did you learn from the process of creating your web series? Was anything harder than you thought it would be, or easier?
KR: The biggest thing I learned was that you really do not need very much in order to create something amazing. We’re taught so much about the way that film sets are traditionally run, and how there are hundreds of jobs and so many people that it takes to make it all happen. This can make it seem so intimidating, like the ability to create for the screen is somehow contingent on membership in some kind of club, and if you don’t know absolutely everything, you can’t do anything. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Particularly for web series, since it’s such a new form and one that has no real rules or expectations, all you really need is a camera and a story.
The hardest thing about this entire process, honestly, has been the part I never thought about before: all of the business and marketing and networking that comes after the web series has been released. It’s not something I’ve ever done before, and it is absolutely challenging to try to get people who have no idea who you are to watch your series or write about it. There’s a lot of asking for favors and asking for blind faith that this is a worthwhile story, and you have to work not to lose your own confidence when it’s not happening as quickly as you’d like. But out of every fifty attempts, there are always a couple of responses, and then you build on those and keep pushing forward.
AH: The biggest thing I learned was that love, enthusiasm, and belief trickle down. What I mean by that is that Kim’s love for the project was infectious and it informed everything else. She had intention and specificity, so we couldn’t match with anything less than her love and energy.
The hardest part of the experience was dealing with the classic “imposter syndrome.” At the very beginning of the process, I was truly terrified! I had never directed before, and Kim had never written a show. It was easy to give over to the feelings of doubt about our place in the industry, and if we deserved to be making our own work. But once we started filming, the fulfillment from finishing each day and the hope that we were capturing something special between our actors cast off any fears.
RN: What advice would you give to prospective web series creators out there? Is there anything you recommend new web series creators do or not do, or anything you’d do differently if you had it to do all over again?
KR: Keep it simple. In terms of scale, in terms of budget, in terms of equipment and cast and crew and locations. You need less than you think you do. And don’t forget to budget for post-production costs! Editing and music cost a lot, and they can make or break a project, so you want to make sure you have enough to invest in working with the best people you can. We spent more on editing than we did on shooting the entire season, which sounds insane, but we don’t regret that decision for a second.
AH: “She who says she can, and she who says she cannot, are both usually right.”
If you have an undeniable belief in your story, you will be able to see it through. Let that love and excitement around your story out weigh everything you’re scared of. Starting the process is the secret. Sharing. Without Kim’s courage to send me the first draft of the pilot, we wouldn’t be here. It seems like the simplest part of the process, but it’s far and away the most difficult.
RN: Mental illness is a hot-button topic these days. What message or theme are you hoping to impart on your audience in your series? What might you want viewers to understand or learn about mental illness that they might not know?
KR: I think it’s less of a message and more just power in representation. There’s no particular statement I want to make about borderline personality disorder, except that it exists, and it can exist in a character who is charming and lovable in addition to being messy and complicated. My hope is that people can see presented a reality that they might not have seen on screen before –a mentally ill woman navigating her life.
And it’s not a tragedy, and it’s not sensationalized or shocking or gruesome. It’s simple and quiet and compassionate and true to my own experience. And I hope that maybe that truth will resonate with other people who have been a mentally ill person in love or who have loved someone with mental illness.