Documentaries are all the rage right now. People love watching real life events play out on the big screen. Adam Shell has taken to this rage and made a name for himself. His new documentary “Pursuing Happiness” shows the journey across America as Shell tries to find what makes people truly happy. I talked with Shell about his project, what made him pick this topic, and where we might be able to check it out. See what he had to say.
KRISTIN: Before we jump into this great documentary you worked on, can you please tell us how you got into documentary work and film?
ADAM: I actually got into documentary film making by accident. Growing a small group of friends and I made a ton of movies. For years those movies lived on VHS tapes that were scattered about between our parents houses. When we were young adults in our 20’s my friend Darren and I began an effort to cultivate the movies and transfer them to “new” media in order to preserve them. That began a much bigger task of taking those movies and cutting them together with interviews of us as adults reminiscing about the films we made as kids. I literally thought of it as a keepsake for us but it turned into a feature documentary that is a window into a children’s world. That film “Put The Camera On Me” can be found on Netflix.
KRISTIN: You made the documentary “Pursuing Happiness”. Tell us about this film.
ADAM: Pursuing Happiness chronicles my quest to meet the Happiest People in America. For nearly two years my producer and I travelled the country in search of these people. The film is a combination of their real life stories, their journey’s to happiness mixed with interviews of many of the leading researchers into the science of happiness. The mix of technical data and emotional stories provide a great source of inspiration and information.
KRISTIN: What made you want to tackle this subject?
ADAM: There is a line in the film when I was talking with a guy we met on the street, he asked me the same question “Why do a film on happiness?” My response was to turn the question back on him and he gave the perfect answer. He said, “Well it’s pretty much what everything is about, if you ain’t got that what have you got?” For some reason we seem to be struggling with happiness in this country. We don’t rank very high on the UN’s list of happiest countries in the world, we talk a lot about our biggest failures, we are constantly bombarded with stories of crime and hatred. If you ask most people they would agree that American’s are not very happy. The solution to me was to focus on the things that I want to fill my time with and that is happiness.
KRISTIN: This documentary took two years to make. What was the process like?
ADAM: It’s funny. When you are making a documentary you get really close to people who barely know you. You spend hours and hours combing over interviews and watching people frame by frame. You get to know their expressions and their speech patterns and their voice gets ingrained in your head. When it is all said and done you have spent so much time with people that in some ways you know them better than they know themselves. And the joke is you actually only spent a few hours together. That makes for some awkward moments.
I often liken making a documentary film to writing a research paper. You get to pick a topic, go out and talk to the people who know the most about it, and if you do it right it all makes sense in an entertaining way that captivates people. I love this process.
KRISITN: This project was funded a lot by crowd funding and social media. How does it feel as a creator to be able to go to the audiences and get them to fund the things they want to see instead of having to only find investors?
ADAM: When I set out to make this film my concept was that I wanted to meet the happiest people in America. A pretty daunting task considering they are not listed anywhere as such. So after exhausting every happy person Nicholas and I knew we had to do something to widen our net. That is where Kickstarter and social media came in. In our Kickstarter campaign we not only asked people to donate money but we asked them to refer us to the happiest people they knew. It was amazing because we not only were able to raise the money to make the film but we also got hundreds of referrals for people all over the country.
328 people backed our campaign. They gave us their hard earned money because they wanted this film to get made. It is amazing that before we even make a film we already have people who want to see it. So if nothing else the DVD will live on their shelves, and hopefully get played once or twice. We live in an amazing time where these things are possible. This film couldn’t have been made 20 years ago. At least not like this. It’s incredible.
KRISTIN: You got to work with producer Nicholas Kraft on this documentary. How did both of your visions for the final outcome come together on this film to create the final masterpiece?
ADAM: Nicholas was truly the perfect partner to make this film with. It helped a lot that this was his first film and he was pretty much learning everything as we went. That is not just because I got to teach him how to do things my way but there is true genius in naiveté. I learned a long time ago that there is no such thing as a bad idea. Sometime following through on the worst ideas are the pathway to discovering the best ideas. When you are making a film like this you really have to just throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. This film in particular was a crazy idea to begin with – we are going to travel the country and find the happiest people in America. Most people would, and did, stop at that because it just seems like a crazy plan, there are so many variables that can cause the entire thing to fail. Because Nicholas was both open-minded and had no other experience of making a film he really got on the journey with me which was amazing.
KRISTIN: When going across the country filming people and finding genuine happiness… what did you encounter along the way. What do you think the key to happiness is?
ADAM: The film is titled Pursuing Happiness which has a double meaning for me. It is not only a film about people pursuing their happiness it is also a film about Nicholas and I pursuing happiness itself. When I began this project my original concept for this film was to just show happiness. You know that almost nauseating kind of happiness that is synonymous tons of sugar and candy. That film would have been exciting for about ten minutes and then you would almost have to turn it off. What I ended up discovering and the film chronicles is that there is a lot more to happiness than a positive attitude and a smile on your face. We interviewed many people who have gone trough and are going through some pretty traumatic experiences. Take John Lawson for example. He was a Piano player who at the age of 30 lost both of his arms in an accident. He has the most amazing way of surviving tragedy, and it is all about his attitude and focus. Truly amazing was when he actually sat down and played the most beautiful original composition for us with just two hooks. And yes that is in the film.
KRISTIN: This is being called the Happiness Movement. What do you hope your film inspires people to do?
ADAM: Pay attention to our actions and behaviors. Here’s the thing, we can’t control the world around us. As John says in the film “life happens, you can’t control that.” What you can control is how you live and the things that you pay attention to. Our minds are incredible and powerful things and the crazy part is for the most part we get to control them. We get to choose what to focus our attention on. In the film I spoke with life coach and Author Gary Van Warmerdam. He opened my eyes to something that I never really thought of before. He said that our expressions are our experience of life. I mistakenly likened that statement to what we commonly know as Karma, what you give is what you get. He quickly corrected me and said “No, what you put out into the world is your experience of the world. You don’t have to wait for something to come back to you cause you already experienced it as you put it out there. So if I am putting hate out into the world I experience hate and conversely if I put love out into the world I am experiencing love.” And it really is just that simple.
KRISTIN: You had some great success with this film with festivals and screenings. What has the feedback been like so far?
ADAM: The response has truly been amazing. Not only have we won several awards but we have been invited to screen at some pretty incredible places – I got to speak at the UN. But the best are the individual comments we get. The best comment we ever got in a screening was “This film should be required viewing to be a human.” I think that says it all.
KRISTIN: When and where can we check out this film?
ADAM: The film will be available for theatrical screenings in any market you desire through a platform called Tugg.com. I really love this platform because it enables the film to be seen by audiences in a theatre in pretty much any market. One of the things we learned about happiness is that it is much more prevalent in strong communities. Seeing this film with a community of friends and like minded people in your community has proven to have a real great effect on people and we have been getting tremendous feedback. Additionally the film will be available to the educational market in April and available on VOD and DVD in the fall.
KRISTIN: What other projects are you currently working on or plotting out?
ADAM: At the moment I am concentrating on getting Pursuing Hapiness out to the world. We have a very comprehensive distribution plan that is going to require a lot of my time and energy. My stated goal from the very beginning was to share this film with as many people as I possibly could. So I will be spending my time attending screenings and getting out in the community. My favorite thing to do.
KRISTIN: Where can we keep up with your projects online? Do you hold a social media presence?
Make sure to follow the film on the above listed social media sites and stay tuned to Adam Shell for more information on upcoming documentaries he has up his sleeve.