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Adam Shell & Nicholas Kraft traveled from Disneyland to Detroit "Pursuing Happiness"

Adam Shell & Nicholas Kraft traveled from Disneyland to Detroit "Pursuing Happiness"

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Pursuing happiness. that's a universal quest for people around the United States and around the world. Who doesn't want to live a meaningful, happy life? But what exactly is happiness?

Documentary filmmaker Adam Shell and producer Nicholas Kraft decided to investigate the subject a short time after Shell completed an earlier documentary, "Finding Kraftland," that featured Nicolas Kraft and his father, Richard Kraft, a major globetrotting Disney collector, music fan and pop culture enthusiast.

"Pursuing Happiness" will be screened at 5 p.m. Saturday, May 2, at The Delta King as part of the Sacramento Film Festival. Tickets for this "ultimate feel good" documentary can be purchased at www.SacramentoFilmFestival.com.


The following is a Q&A session with the filmmakers:

Tell me a bit about your friendship. Did it start with "Finding Kraftland" or before? What did you learn doing that project that helped you on "Pursuing Happiness"?

Shell: Nicholas' father asked me to edit and co-direct the most overproduced home movie of all time, 'Finding Kraftland,

despite only being an acquaintance of his. You don't spend months going through someone's home videos and interviewing all their friends without becoming a close friend yourself and, ever since, I've been very close with both Richard and Nicholas.

What made you interested in tackling the topic of happiness?


Shell: In part, it grew out of touring Finding Kraftland at festivals: time and again people would tell me that Richard's lust for life attitude inspired them to bring more joy into their own lives. That planted a seed for me.

The real inspiration though came from being fed up with the onslaught of bad news that dominates the media. It seemed everything was a sensationalized tragedy and that constant focus on what was wrong in our world had a tangible effect on my life - the conversations I was having, the attitude of those around me, it was all so negative.

Kraft: For me, there is nothing more interesting in the world than people - why are we the way we are? When Adam asked me to help him with this kooky idea of making a documentary about happiness, it sounded like an amazing opportunity to learn more about people in a truly unique way.


Disney Legend Richard Sherman

Tell me about your interview with Disney Legend Richard Sherman.

Kraft: What an honor. We should have called off our search for the happiest people in America after spending the day with Richard - the search was over, we found him!

Shell: As a musician myself, I wanted to know how it was possible for someone to make a career out of writing truly happy songs. We have this trope in our culture of the "tortured artist" and The Sherman Brothers, who have written some of the most recognizable, beloved, and fantastic songs in American history are anything but that. And he admitted that writing happy songs isn't easy, "writing a really originally happy tune ... you've gotta dig for that." I think that's a great metaphor for happiness itself; it's so easy to go to the dark side and give in to negativity, but to lead a happy life ... you've gotta dig for that.

Did Richard Sherman discuss Walt or Disneyland being the "Happiest Place on Earth"?


Kraft: You can't make a documentary about happiness in America without talking about Disneyland - especially when someone from the Kraft family is involved in the making of the film. Richard Sherman described Walt as a "purveyor of joy" and one of the things we ended up discussing with him was the power of giving. You think you're going to interview this Disney Legend about his music - and we did - but the real heart of Richard Sherman, and Walt of course, is that these men derive so much pleasure from doing things for others.

In Walt's case, that was providing a place for families to have a truly memorable experience together. For The Sherman Brothers, that was giving the gift of song - fun, uplifting, sweet songs - to millions of people.

Shell: I have two young children and there is nothing more fun than spending a day at Disneyland with them. There is this unrivaled joy they experience that is truly infectious. It's the same joy I experienced as a kid and so many millions of people experience every year. Truth be told, I still experience it even when I visit without my kids. Is it the rides? Sure. Is it the music and the costumes and the thrill of meeting Mickey (or Elsa if you're my daughter)? Absolutely. But the real heart of it is that shared experience we're having together. The "stuff" isn't so much making us happy as it is providing an environment that's conducive to laughing, having fun, and sharing that together.


There is something else about Disneyland that I only really began to appreciate after making this film. Disneyland takes extreme care in ensuring that everything is always presented with perfection: The perfectly manicured flowers to the smiles and gracious attitudes of all the cast members. They make the effort to present themselves in the light they want to be remembered for and, as a result, that is the way the world thinks of Disneyland. The metaphor for me as it relates to happiness is that we all have the ability to present ourselves in whatever way we choose and in that presentation that is our experience. If we take the time and effort to put on a smile and show our very best to the world our experience then will be just that.

We can't all live in Disneyland - unless of course you're Nicholas' father - but we can all create environments that are conducive to connecting with one another and being happy.

Tell me a bit about your own relationship with happiness and how you personally define it?

Shell: Happiness and I have an open relationship - sometimes we're together, and sometimes I'm sad. Sometimes I'm hurt. Sometimes my kids are kicking and screaming and driving me up a wall and I just want to run away to a tropical island.


You'll see in the film that we define happiness in two parts - Hedonic and Eudaimonic. The first is what we typically think of as happiness - a smile, a great meal, laughing with friends. The latter is about fulfillment and purpose. So for me, I define it as a healthy balance of both of these things: I want a life filled with Hedonic pleasures but I also know that the richness of life - the ups and the downs - is what really makes it all worth living. We explore this in great depth in the film.

How challenging was it to edit the several hours of material you gathered into the final 80 minute film? Are you satisfied with "Pursuing Happiness" and the response you've received from those who've seen it? How have the people you interviewed responded to the film?

Shell: When you spend nearly two years gathering hundreds of hours of footage from more than 400 people and no real road map of what it all means, the most difficult task is making sense of it all. For me this is one of the best parts of documentary filmmaking. Unlike a narrative film where a writer spends a significant amount of time writing and rewriting a screenplay to flesh out characters and story before a single frame of footage is shot, the thing I like best about documentaries is working the exact opposite way. It's kind of like doing an intense research paper in school. You go out and gather a ton of information on a subject or a person and then have to weave it all together in a way that make sense and is entertaining. And, usually you become an expert on the subject in the process. I never had much of an agenda with what the final product was going to look like, but I always knew what I wanted it to achieve and what I wanted audiences to feel when watching the film. I always say, if you have to, make them laugh and cry and then you can make them think ... I think we achieved that. One of the best comments we have received during a Q&A was when a woman said "this should be required viewing to be a human." I think that says it all.


As for the people in the film, the ones who have seen it have responded very favorably. John Lawson, one of our interviewees who lost both of his arms, has seen it twice now. When we interviewed him he was joking around with me about how challenging difficult it was going to be to make something interesting out of this project and, kind of sarcastically, he wished me luck. After the first screening, he said he just didn't believe how we were able to make such an impactful film and he was honored to be a part of it.

Kraft: One of the greatest lessons for me in making this film was to just go for it. We set out with a very loose concept and no story whatsoever. We had cameras, hundreds of referrals, and a great passion for making this film. Of course, that means that we faced some great challenges after collecting 300 hours of footage - how did any of this fit together?

Editing the film was like putting together a puzzle with an infinite number of pieces and no picture on the front of the box to go off of. What was helpful was giving ourselves some limits: it has to be under 90 minutes, it needs to include these people and these concepts, and well that's it, really, ha! It was a tough process to have to leave out so much great footage, but our goal for the film was to create a platform for discussion and the film is only one aspect. We hope to release as much of the additional footage as possible - perhaps online - because it deserves to be seen.


The film includes several experts - from doctors to theologians - talking about happiness and it seems like happiness is defined by two well represented groups in the film. Tell me a bit more about both groups: The people who choose to live in the present as much as possible because of illness, tragedy or it's their nature and those who derive their pleasure from making others happy as a key part of their lives.

Shell: I kinda co-opted the phrase "aha moment," but it's what I we strove to create in this film: a combination of technical information provided by experts in various fields and then real life examples from everyday people. I think it's very easy to learn something, but to actually have it make an impact and inspire change, it needs to strike an emotional chord and that is what the everyday people provide.

For example: if I explain to you that being selfless is one of the best ways to be happier, you probably understand that - chances are you already know that! But if you then seen a beautiful example of selflessness that really resonates with you, you're more likely - I think - to remember that down the line and implement it into your own life. It is very similar to how we imitate people we admire. We might not do it consciously, but we do it.


Tell me a little more about Gloria Borges' story and her cancer fight. Was there a friendship that preceded the filming? What made her story so intriguing and how did she inspire you as filmmakers?

Shell: I knew Gloria prior to making the film because she worked with my wife. She was my referral for the happiest person I know, and anyone who sees the film will immediately understand why. Nicholas has the more interesting story as it relates to Gloria, and his experience for me was proof that this project was going to work.

Kraft: Gloria was one of the first people we interviewed, and while I was certainly excited by the project, I wasn't gung-ho, all in, 100% sold until we met Gloria. That was a life-changing experience for me, which is crazy because we only spent two hours with her. But that's all it took; two hours hanging at her house and I was forever changed - she was all I could talk about for weeks on end, "I met the most amazing, inspiring, and awesome person the other day and I have to tell you about her."

Shell: That was it. When we walked out of her house I was kind of amazed at Nicholas' reaction. For me it was just another day hanging out with someone I had known for years and I wasn't that phased by it. But seeing how someone new reacted to her, that is when I knew that if we could find more people like Gloria and share their stories, this film would hopefully have a profound impact on audiences and really ignite conversations.


Tell me a little more about Kyle Bartell and Charles Molnar and their "Sit On It, Detroit" bus benches/public library efforts.

Shell: Whenever we told people we were going to Detroit for the film, they all said the same thing: good luck! Again, the news is so negative - all you hear about Detroit is that it's bankrupt, corrupt, and in shambles. But of course, all of the time we spent there was with incredibly happy, empowered, and helpful people, such as the Sit On It Detroit guys.

Kraft: What I love about them is that if I were to tell you I met two people who had taken it upon themselves to rebuild the city of Detroit one bus stop at a time, you would never in a million years guess that they were those two characters.

Why do you think the U.S. is ranked 23rd in the U.N. happiness report? Is there growing pessimism because of political gridlock, the growing income inequality gap, self-imposed or societal pressures - the mild to moderate day-to-day stress that keeps people "in the red zone"? Were you surprised by the evidence that after $75,000 in annual income, there's little correlation between wealth and happiness? (Money may not buy happiness, but for people living near poverty, more money can make a difference in their lives and their loved ones).


Shell: I'll answer the second question and leave the first for Nicholas. No, I was not surprised by the correlation (or lack thereof) between income and happiness. Does anyone truly believe money can buy happiness? I don't think so, and yet we can't get out of the habit of acting as though it can. What I was surprised to learn though is that you can use your money to "buy" happiness; we just go about it completely backwards.

Kraft: Why do we rank 23rd? That's a tough question because you have to take into account the ways in which they measure happiness as well as ask yourself how effective it is to measure something subjective across such varied cultures. But I can tell you something that's certainly not helping us in the rankings: we are the most individualistic country on the planet. In the galaxy. In the universe!!! Doesn't it sounds more intense when I say "in the universe!!!"?

There are plenty of positive things about being individualistic, but much like income, at a certain point, being more self-centered doesn't make us any happier and - I think - actually starts to impede on our well being.

What is it that you hope viewers take away from seeing "Pursuing Happiness"?


Shell: Pursuing Happiness, to me, is a conversation starter. What people take away depends completely on who they are and I believe there's a lot in this film for everyone. But my greatest hope is that this film starts meaningful conversations about fulfillment and happiness. To get back to your first question: we spend a lot of time discussing what's wrong in the world or being distracted by the latest celebrity gossip. I hope this inspires some people to start different conversations at dinner with their families.

Kraft: Ditto!

For more information about the film and additional film festival screenings, visit: http://www.pursuinghappiness.com/aboutthefilm.html