Happiness is often considered to be an elusive idea and concept for many people as they struggle to find purpose and meaning in their lives. But prosperity can ultimately be simple to accomplish, as the simple connections and situations available in life can truly prove to make even the most cynical people content. Proving that joy is simpler to achieve than many people believe is the entrancing theme in director Adam Shell’s new documentary, ‘Pursuing Happiness.’
The film was made over the course of two years, and utilized crowdfunding and social media as the source of both its production budget and content. While Shell faced such hurdles of trying to figure out how to find and interview the happiest people in America, and how to shoot the film with a small crew, he used his own versatility and exhilaration to accomplish his dream of making the movie independently. He largely relied on the support of his fellow writer, producer and editor, Nicholas Kraft, who also served as the film’s camera operator and a sound re-recording mixer, to showcase that finding happiness isn’t just a dream, and is truly possible.
As a result, Shell and Kraft’s gripping joint effort has had successful screenings at several film festivals, including the Illuminate Film Festival in Sedona, Arizona, earlier this month, as well as last year’s Sacramento International Film Festival Newport Film Festival. The movie’s presentation at the film festivals helped lead to Shell also playing the documentary during this year’s United Nations International Day of Happiness on March 20, and as well as him making an appearance on ‘The Today Show.’ The documentary was also released in select theaters this spring, and is set to be released On Demand, as well as on streaming services and DVD, this fall.
‘Pursuing Happiness’ follows Shell and Kraft as they travel across the country and talk to people who radiate genuine happiness. Every story shows a different struggle and triumph as such people as artists, public servants, parents and dreamers show the world what makes them happy. Their stories also chronicles how their happiness has a remarkable impact on the people and communities that surround them. Also featuring testimony from experts in the field of mindfulness, psychology, art, sociology, religion and cultural studies, as well as the growing worldwide happiness movement, the film is a crash course in what makes people their best.
Shell generously took the time recently to talk about co-writing, directing, producing, co-editing and serving as the cinematographer on ‘Pursuing Happiness’ during an exclusive phone interview. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how he decided to make the documentary after realizing that there’s a lack of uplifting stories in the media, but there are so many people who strive to find contentment in their lives. Shell also explained that he enjoyed working with Kraft on the documentary, as his collaborator had never made a film before. As a result, Kraft was therefore willing to try anything to find the best people to talk to about achieving happiness, and create the best story possible.
The director began the conversation by revealing why he decided to direct ‘Pursuing Happiness,’ and showcases people’s quest to achieve and maintain contentment in their lives. “The first thing that really made me interested in this idea of happiness was that I saw a lack of uplifting stories in the landscape of the media and entertainment. There weren’t many stories that left you feeling good,” the filmmaker revealed.
“There are many stories in films about important subject matters, but after watching them, you often feel burdened and depressed. Often times, these movies focus on subjects that the audience can’t do much about,” Shell further explained. “So I had an urge to make a movie that leaves people feeling good, energized and happy.” The director added that “Everyday, you’re reading another article about happiness and how to find it. So I thought this was something that we’re clearly all looking for, but we’re having trouble finding it, which is why there’s so many information. So I wanted to take a journey to figure it out, and find out the real secret to how we can all obtain happiness.”
Shell then spoke about the process of shooting the documentary over the course of two years, and traveling with Kraft across the country to talk to people about finding genuine happiness. “It was the perfect recipe. Before I started working with Nicholas, I did spend a lot of time looking for producers and working with several people. But the project ultimately didn’t work out,” the helmer revealed.
“But when Nicholas came on board, it was the perfect recipe, for several reasons. He’s the perfect guy to work with, because he’s the guy who says, ‘let’s do it and experience something new.’ So that attitude was really important for this film, because we didn’t know what to find and expect,” Shell also mentioned. “One of my philosophies in filmmaking is to follow every lead. There are never any bad ideas. You never know what’s going to lead you to the gold, and make the movie really work.”
The filmmaker added that Kraft was a great collaborator on ‘Pursuing Happiness’ because “he was fresh out of college, and had never made a film before. He didn’t have any of these experiences, so he couldn’t say, ‘well, last time we did it differently, and now you’re saying to do it this way.’ So everything was new and exciting to him, and he was willing to try everything.” Shell added that as a result of their experience making the documentary, he became much closer friends with his co-writer-editor. “That’s really helpful when you spend a lot of time with the same person on the road.”
Besides directing and co-writing the film, Shell then discussed how he also served as one of the producers on ‘Pursuing Happiness,’ alongside Kraft. “I’ve never made a narrative film, so I can’t speak to that kind of filmmaking. But in terms of the documentary film world, when you’re at the helm of a project like this, half of the work is producing and putting the project together. So it can become difficult to separate the producer role from the director role,” the filmmaker revealed.
“It’s really my project and I’m the driving force behind it, as it was my idea and I’m seeing it all the way through. So it’s all about making the project happen,” Shell explained. “So sometimes I’ll have to put on my producer hat and go through all the job of having contracts signed and making phone calls. I do love being able to do a lot of different things-if I’m only doing one thing, I get bored.”
Te director also revealed that most of the production was funded through the Kickstarter campaign, “which was fantastic and awesome. Kickstarter was really key for us in several ways. We were actually able to raise the money to turn the project into a reality.” Shell added that the funding platform also helped find the “happiness people in America, which was my goal. But I quickly realized that I don’t know that many people, so I questioned how I was going to find the happiest people.”
The helmer’s partnership with Kickstarter really started t become beneficial during that process. “We not only asked people to ask people to contribute money to the film, but also referrals to the happiest people they knew,” Shell explained. “There were a lot of people who didn’t even support the campaign, but who would send us emails and say, ‘You have to meet this person; they’re the happiest person I know.’ So we were able to get both things out of the one campaign, which was really awesome.”
In addition to directing, co-scribing and producing the documentary, Shell also served as the cinematographer. He laughed as he described the process as being “exhausting. I experimented working with a few other DPs (Directors of Photography) when we first started working on the project. They would film me conducting the interviews.”
The filmmaker described the process of working with different DPs as being “cumbersome, because our crew started to get bigger, and we wouldn’t be able to take everyone on the road with us. That would become expensive, and I wanted to keep the cost down.”
Shell added that he also didn’t want to have too large of a crew because “this type of film is very intimate. We were going into people’s lives, and wanted them to feel very comfortable with us. That way, they would be willing to share their most intimate experiences and thoughts with us on camera.”
At the same time, the director also wished to share the entire filmmaking process he and Kraft took together while making the documentary with the world. “I wanted the audience to feel as though they were on the road with us. Every time we met someone, I wanted the audience to feel as though they were part of this journey,” Shell revealed. “So by having the camera on my shoulder while we were shooting, that fourth wall was broken down. Since Nicholas also had a camera, it often feels though the viewers are part of the team. That’s what I really wanted, and I think that technique really worked.”
Once he completed principal photography on ‘Pursuing Happiness,’ Shell also edited the movie. He then discussed the process of determining which material he wanted to include in the final version of the film. “It was a tough process,” the filmmaker admitted. “We shot hundreds of hours of footage, and had over 400 interviews that we conducted, which ran for various lengths.”
Shell felt it was an exciting and great experience to have had the opportunity to speak to so many people for the documentary. But since he had so much footage, he “brought in a few extra editors to help with going through all of it. Once we got all the pieces down, we broke the interviews up by character, and then we decided to watch them all.”
The filmmaker also noted that “The editing process was both nerve-racking and exciting at the same time, however. It was exciting because we realized we had something cool, and it was fun to see everything all together. But it was also nerve-racking, because we realized we had a lot of work to do in order to make it a cohesive piece that people will actually sit through and get something out of when they watch it.”
Shell also pointed out that documentaries aren’t like narrative films, “where there’s a specific beginning, middle and end, and we have to make sure everything in between works. We only started out with this idea of what type of film we wanted to make, but we didn’t have a specific ending. So figuring out that story was definitely the most difficult part of making the movie.”
Since he traveled across America for two years to interview people about their process of finding happiness, and has so much extra footage that he filmed but wasn’t able to include in the final cut of the movie, Shell added that he’s looking to also release some of that material. “I’ve spoken to some online media companies and TV networks about taking all of this footage and parlaying it into a series. There’s also the idea that we’ll continue the journey and find more happy people, and not just in the United States. There’s a lot more happiness out there, so I think there’s room for more of this,” the director revealed.
Shell then discuss how once he finished editing the film, he showed it at the different film festivals. “It was a rewarding experience to finally get to the point where this idea that I first developed several years ago, and the journey I have taken since then, can finally be shown to people,” the filmmaker revealed. “I would say the most exciting aspect was all the feedback we received from audiences. People are really appreciating the film, and getting something out of it, which was always my goal. I want to affect as many people as possible, and make them think about their own lives. I want to give them the inspiration to make a positive change in themselves. It’s great to know that people are getting something out of the film.”
In addition to the movie’s festival circuit run, Shell also mentioned how he decided the best way to distribute the documentary. “My goal is to have as many people see the movie as possible. So having it available in as many capacities is definitely important,” he emphasized.
“We have a strategic plan on how we’re releasing the film. We (had) a theatrical run, and (now) we’re showing it in an educational sense. It’s available to be shown in schools, universities and libraries. It’s also going to be available on DVD and VOD in the fall,” Shel explained. “We have so many opportunities of how we’re able to immediately see films. So many people are watching films on their smartphones and other devices. So having the movie available in every possible way is key.”
Written by: Karen Benardello