The idea of even asking the question, “What is the secret to happiness?” or how to find it might seem impossible to the average man, but filmmaker Adam Shell quickly shows that he is anything but average as he seeks to take on the complicated question with his new film; Pursuing Happiness. Not just looking to make a syrupy flick that panders to some new age mantra, Shell had another goal in mind when conceiving the feel-good film- he wanted to change the constant negative thinking that was monopolizing the world. If that still sounds a bit too bohemian, the gravitas of the statement only becomes clearer when you realize just how much the world could use a happy perspective, and the more interesting question stops being what makes people happy, but why aren’t we looking bothering to look at these happy folk, and why are we only bothering to focus on the miserable people?
Shell has the balls and the conviction to confront that topic in a way that is wholesome, hearty and heavy all where it needs to be. Him and his producer, Nicholas Kraft, traveled all across America to interview people from all walks of life about the simple nature of what makes them happy. And the answer might very well be different for everybody- they might not be tapping in on one universal secret that will change the world, but what Shell brilliantly examines is that even though these people aren’t celebrities suffering some tragedy, they still deserve to get their story told- in fact, maybe even more so.
Here, Shell takes a minute from interviewing others on their happiness to talk about his film and his findings, and why this is important to him;
The idea of “PursuingHappiness” seems like such a broad and impossible task that really has been the question of life that everyone has been seeking. What inspired you to tackle such a subject?
There is something about making a film that has an inspiring and positive effect on people. If you take a look around, there is a lot of negativity out there and I hate that. Life is truly beautiful and so is humanity. We are not all rotten politicians, people with guns, or criminals. I really believe that life is what you focus on and I think our culture has spent an in ordinate amount of time focusing too much on the wrong things. If I really wanted there to be more conversations about what is good in the world, then I had to make it my job to do just that. I really wanted to help start that conversation. And what better way than to talk with the best experts on the subject, the happiest people in America.
Talk about your process of documenting the happiness of others, and the adventures you went on to find what made people happy.
I wanted this film to feel as much like a narrative film as it was a journey into the hearts and minds of the happiest people I could find. Pretty much everyone we met were complete strangers to us. A lot of them were referrals. We would literally show up at their door with our cameras rolling and see what happened from there. It was just two of us, each with a small camera and I wore a hip pack with the audio equipment. I didn’t want to invade people with heavy equipment. Often, our subjects would even put us up in their homes and cook for us! It was amazing. There is so much humanity and compassion in this country. It is really great to see it.
Was it ever grueling or hard to go out on this trek, or to get people to open up to you?
It was really grueling at times. We would often have a day full of interviews, and then we would get on the road and drive for 4 or 5 hours to get to the next town. Not only was it a lot of physical work lugging the camera and making sure you have a good shot and that the audio is working, but it was emotionally taxing as well as I was conducting all the interviews. I never really found it difficult to get people to open up. I would go on this ride with them as they were sharing some of their most horrific moments and greatest discoveries- the kind of things that completely change people forever. It was quite incredible. So going through those memories with them and hearing those stories was definitely an emotional roller coaster of my own.
What did you find out through these adventures? Without spoiling the film, can you give audiences a hint as to the secret of happiness?
Here’s the great thing about this film; you can’t really spoil it. There is so much information and amazing characters and experiences, that the ride of watching the film is an experience all in its own! All the tips and tricks to leading a happy life we learn on the way are almost the goody bag at the end of a great party. So, I will tell you this, and this is something I learned myself that I try to remind myself of every time I am in a frustrating situation; One of the secrets to happiness can be summed up by the fact that: Your expression is your experience. How you express yourself is how you experience the world. So if you are expressing love? You feel love. If you express hate? You feel hate. That adjustment can have a dramatic effect on our experience of life and thus, make us happier.
Talk a little bit about your past projects, Put The Camera On Me, and Finding Kraftland, and what inspired you to do those projects.
I got into documentary filmmaking somewhat by happenstance. My first film, Put The Camera On Me, was a film that centered around a collection of films a group of friends and I made as kids. As young adults, my friend Darren Stein and I took those films and sought to preserve them by cutting them into what was intended to be a memento for us. The result was a film that much to my surprise people really enjoyed watching. Finding Kraftland was actually somewhat of an inspiration for Pursuing Happiness. A good friend of mine is a huge collector of what I call “pop culture crap”- lots of plastic toys and memorabilia. He simply wanted to create a video chronicling his collections. What I found far more interesting was why those collections existed in the first place. The film is a father/son love story that dives deep into the heart and mind of an obsessed collector, spun around a cribs style countdown of the most amazing things in his collection. What inspired Pursuing Happiness was that Finding Kraftland was a story of one man’s search for happiness and joy and how it made him a truly happy person.
And what do you have coming up?
I have a couple different films I want to make and haven’t decided yet which to pursue first. When I set out to make Pursuing Happiness, it was my goal to share the film with as many people as I possibly could. So for the time being I am making that happen. We are doing all kinds of screenings and I am attempting to attend as many as I possibly can!
And if Shell learned anything from his own message? He should certainly do what makes him happy! Magic clearly comes from it!
Pursuing Happiness can be seen at select screenings.