Sinking Deeper & Deeper Still...

Ben films a Puja Ceremony in Ura Village in Eastern Bhutan during his return trip // June 2012

Ben films a Puja Ceremony in Ura Village in Eastern Bhutan during his return trip // June 2012

It’s time for a long overdue update on the film.

Please accept my humble apologies for the radio silence!  More than anything, my silence is an expression of my focus on the creative work of getting the film made.

The short update:

The film is very much alive and well!  Apart from taking on small stints of outside work to help support myself while I make the film, I have been working tirelessly on making The Happiest Place the best film it can be.   My estimate as to when the film will be finished and premiere is some time in the next 12 months - though my experience to date is that everything takes longer than expected.

The long update:

The film has been evolving since we spoke, inching forward day-by-day in search of it’s final form.

From the very beginning of the project when I was approached about joining the expedition to cross Bhutan, the common through line in all of our journeys was a burning curiosity and desire to explore what we can learn from Bhutan - both individually and collectively - and to share these lessons with the world.

When we started the project we had anticipated that the journey across Bhutan would work as the narrative backbone to sustain the film.  Through hundreds of iterations the last 2+ years with two different editors, it never really “clicked” as the engine that drives us through the film.  In part it’s because the journey doesn’t fit the traditional paradigm of a white-knuckled, “cliffhanger” sort of adventure where the viewer is asking whether or not the protagonist will complete their quest / reach their destination.  In the process of editing with David Pond (editor) and  Eric Metzgar (award-winning Director in his own right) and workshopping countless iterations of the film with friends, grantmakers, fellow editors, directors, etc - the feedback has been consistent that they want to see Bhutan featured more prominently and understand more deeply what lessons Bhutan has to teach.  This is very much consistent with my initial intention for the film -- which sparked the whole journey.

A mother carrying her child during the day's work // Ura Village, Bhutan // June 2012

A mother carrying her child during the day's work // Ura Village, Bhutan // June 2012

As I shared with you months ago, in an effort to move the film in this direction and to provide more flexibility in developing the exploration of ideas in the film we began including my voice in the film in voiceover.  Gradually, we started to experiment with including elements of my own journey in the film - along with the footage from my return to Bhutan in June 2012.   Through the process of working with this new material we have slowly evolved the film away from centering entirely on the adventure of crossing Bhutan, focusing instead on the quest to understand what we can learn from Bhutan about how to live happier, more meaningful lives in the West.  

During my return trip to Bhutan in 2013, I was able to really go deep in this inquiry, and focus on capturing the most powerful footage and stories that would bring Bhutan’s story to life.   We also filmed behind-the-scenes of the return expecting that we may want to use some portion of the return footage to complete my own narrative throughline.   Quite unexpectedly, what started as a trip to potentially fill in a few gaps yielded interviews, encounters, and stories that we never could have imagined.

Subsequently, we have decided to really double down on developing a powerful essay / flow of ideas within the film.  We are structuring the film as a hybrid documentary (you can explore popular recent films like “I Am” or “Chasing Ice” or “Connected” for points of reference) that combines both a personal character journey (protagonist with a quest!) and essay (exploration of an idea or question) that includes interviews with subject matter experts - both from the West and from Bhutan.  We’re using my journey on the expedition and subsequent return to Bhutan as a character through-line, as it allows for tremendous flexibility in drifting between beats in the character journey and ideas with the essay.  It also allows for the expedition crossing Bhutan and the return to exist in the same film.

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In the last few weeks, we have been starting to conduct interviews with experts on positive psychology / social connection / the economy / etc. to develop the underpinning for the essay (again, the film “Chasing Ice” is a good example here) which will provide context to the lessons from Bhutan. We’ve just begun filming and integrating these interviews, but so far the result has been incredibly powerful.

I’ve been slow to share any updates preemptively while we’ve been in the middle of this process of really understanding the contours of the story - and experimenting with the best ways to bring it to life. From the very beginning, my deepest intention has always been to make a powerful film that conveys some small piece of the wisdom Bhutan has with the rest of the world. I never could have imagined how challenging the task would be!   

However circuitous the process has felt to date, I’ve received a great deal of support and assurance from other filmmakers / mentors that the film is just where it should be - and that, however challenging the process has been, almost every documentary follows this path of discovery, starting with the seed of an idea and evolving slowly in search of its true form.  To this end, you’ll find if you speak to other documentary filmmakers  that most documentaries take 3-6+ years to finish, and often start thinking they are telling one story, only to discover (often later in the process!) that they are, in fact, telling another.  So, while the process has seemed incredibly slow, we are very much on track!

As always, I’m eternally grateful for all of the love and support that you’ve given me - and for your continued faith in my vision as a filmmaker.

If anyone has questions or wants to jump on a phone call to get a more comprehensive update, just let me know!