NEWSVINE Interview With Andrew Shapter, Director of "Happiness Is"

I saw this fascinating, thought provoking documentary Aug. 9 I had previously arranged to interview the director, Andrew Shapter

The following is the result of that interview.

 Scott: What was your goal with this film and did that goal evolve over time?

Andrew Shapter: My goal was to find common ground and a common voice throughout all of the different cultures that live in the U.S. We all share the common goal of achieving happiness, but we define it in so many different ways. I think I discovered only the tip of the iceberg in making this film, but I hope that what it does illustrate causes audiences to think in a new way about what their happiness means to them, as well as how they can contribute to the happiness of others.

It's such an important thing that ultimately, I discovered that what I truly wanted--and needed--to do was to use the film as a tool to try and achieve that happiness goal by turning each screening into a fundraiser for a charitable cause.

What are the logistics for this project? When did you actually travel and shoot the film and what has happened since then?

AS:I began filming while I was on the road promoting Before the Music Dies (2006). Shooting started in Summer 2006 and ended Summer 2008. From there we took the film to festivals while building our grassroots organization to distribute the film. We're at the point now where we're ready to start a screening tour. The plan is to keep it on the road for years to come...

The movie was also just released as a DVD, right? Is there an online site where people can buy it?

AS: Yep, from our website. So while the proceeds of the screening tour of the film go directly to charities, buying the DVD helps us (the filmmakers) recoup our costs and helps us stay on the road, promoting the film and helping more and more people as a result. So please buy the DVD!

What will be on the DVD that was not in the theater release?

AS: It depends on when folks buy it. We're going to gradually add bonus scenes and extras over time. Maybe some of those colorful interviews that didn't make it into the film because of time constraints.

Was this your first film? Did you have any regrets at tackling such a huge topic?

AS: My first film, Before the Music Dies, is a documentary about the music industry, and it features Eric Clapton, Dave Matthews, Erykah Badu, Elvis Costello, Les Paul, Bonnie Raitt, The Roots and so many more.

I'm currently working on a new 2010 version (re-release) of it now. You can visit the website at

Do I have regrets taking on a huge subject?

AS: Absolutely not. What I love most is that we didn't follow the film school rules of how docs should be, and the first thing they preach is to "narrow your subject." I believe that, in film, rules are made to be broken, and, yes, we certainly broke the biggest one with this film!

I personally grew from the experience, and I have heard from many audience members who claim that it has had a huge impact on their lives, too. The project has made me much happier because I know that it's having a positive effect.

What are you working on next? A sequel, unhappiness?

AS: A film about unhappiness would be way too easy. The majority of documentaries already cover the dark side of life. I plan on staying on the road for a long time with "Happiness Is.." Everywhere we go, the film will benefit non-profit groups in need of help. So far the film has already raised significant awareness and funds for charities. So, we have every intention of continuing the tour for as long as possible.

How did you decide who to interview? Of those interviewed, how many were actually included?

AS: Other than the authors that were chosen for their research on happiness, the rest of the cast was found at random. I literally stumbled upon most of them as I drove around the U.S. I wanted to include a wide range of folks. Rich and
poor. Rock stars, cab drivers, teachers, authors, grandparents and so on. I'd say about 60% of the folks I talked to made it into the film. Editing it down was a challenge because we got such great stuff, all of which I would have wanted to showcase somehow...

Why did you decide to do some scenes (one was at a junkyard, one with some old folks on a porch) in animation?

Actually, I did it to protect their identity. They were not happy to be interviewed about happiness. Like I said, I stumbled upon most of the people that I interviewed. These particular people seemed like such characters to me, so to mix it up a bit, I just had them animated. Plus, I'm a huge fan of Collection Agency (the animators) so it gave me a great opportunity to work directly with them.

I found some sections quite thought-provoking. I liked the observation that kids smile hundreds more times a day than adults. I loved the question which was something like: if we are a nation of strivers, why is the number needing help growing?

AS: Exactly. It's ironic: this nation is home to so many of the world's greatest inventions and medical breakthroughs. But what drove those breakthroughs was usually money or notoriety.

Solving society's problems such as homelessness is neither profitable nor glamorous, so, unfortunately, the problem is growing unabated. The film simply points out the need to apply the same type innovation to society's biggest problems, regardless of profit. If we did that, we'd all be happier.

What Alan Graham is doing with Mobile Loaves and Fishes is a prime example of this. He is an entrepreneur who had a dream that he could serve food to homeless people every day, and who is literally probably one of the happiest people on Earth....and he'll tell you so, himself.

Why did you decide to include the exchange on illegal immigration between Bill O'Reilly and Geraldo Rivera? What scared me was that Geraldo came off as rational and, when he's the rational one ... yikes. When Geraldo sounds rational you know something is amiss....

AS: I used it as an example of how this country is currently so polarized, and of how fear is being stirred up on a regular basis by our cable "news" media.It's also a great example of nativism, which has been an issue of tension in our society, literally since the signingof Declaration of Independence, and before.

Another favorite section was the commenting about how people in poor countries may be happy - that maybe they are comparing themselves to others in their country versus other parts of the world. Does this mean that in those cases ignorance really is bliss?

AS: That's another reason why the issue of immigration is in the film. Americans tend to have strong opinions about immigrants and immigration in general. But what we can actually learn from economically poorer countries is that we should be much more grateful, rather than boastful, about being American. It's as simple as just looking around at poorer societies and counting our blessings. We all have more than enough reasons to be happy.

SCOTT (SCOOP) BUTKIHome Page Visit Scott (Scoop) Butki's column >>



GivingCity Magazine Review of HAPPINESS IS

Posted on July 31, 2009 by givingcityaustin

It’s hard to write a thoughtful reaction to a film that left me so emotional. And I wasn’t the only one. There were quite a few beefy guys walking out of the theater with puffy, watery eyes last night, too.

But “Happiness Is” by Austin’s Andrew Shapter will do that to you. It’s not that it’s a sad film by any means. In fact, it’s pretty hilarious. Shapter interviewed some characters, for sure. The woman who admitted to thinking that happiness could be found in a solid-surface countertop sticks in my mind. (HINT: It can’t.)

What it is is hopeful because the message is this: Happiness is within your reach. It’s not something to strive for, it’s something you find within yourself. For proof, Shapter talks to happiness historians (they exist), scientists, and anthropologists. They’ve done the research and can pinpoint exactly when most Americans stopped being happy. (HINT: Rampant materialism, duh!)

Then, to further prove his point, he interviewed an incredible mix of people from all over the country – men, children, immigrants, scholars, artists, musicians, comedians, old people…. Though they all get there differently, eventually they all come to the same conclusion.

There are a couple of things you should know about the film:

1. It’s going on a screening tour around the country, and they’re paying for that tour with the support of generous sponsors. If a quarter of the population in America saw this film, it could change this country for the better. Seriously. So if you can swing the DVD, buy it here:

2. The film is being used to raise money for the sponsoring nonprofit. In the case of last night’s screening, the nonprofit beneficiary is Mobile Loave & Fishes, the organization that takes food out to the homeless and is run by the incredible Alan Graham. (He’s featured in the film.) You can support that organization here.:

There were hundreds of people at this screening last night. I wonder what they’re thinking today.


More from GivingCity -


Giving City Magazine has written an article on Happiness Is. Below is the full article and you can also download the entire article here.

A new film asks one of mankind’s most profound questions – and gets the answer.
by Monica M. Williams

After Andrew Shapter finished the film, “Before the Music Dies,” a critical look at the popular music industry, he wondered aloud about the focus of his next project. “Before the Music Dies” had taught him everything there was to know about the music industry, he says, “So I told people my next film had to be about happiness. It was kind of a joke at first.”

But the idea took on its own life, and soon Shapter found himself once again traveling to the far corners of the country to talk – to anyone who was willing – about happiness. “I’d just walk up to them and ask them what their ‘pursuit of happiness’ is. Some people knew right away. Others didn’t know what to say.”

Shapter didn’t have the answers either, but an introduction to Alan Graham, he says, “triggered a dramatic twist that would lead to a definitive ending” for the film.

Graham is a founding member and president of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, an Austin-based nonprofit that takes meals out to the homeless and working poor. On that particular trip, Graham took him on a lunchtime truck run to the downtown library. “It was a real cold, wet, miserable day, I remember,” says Graham. “Usually the homeless move in there to stay warm and dry. They shot all the footage of us in that single truck run. I think (Shapter) got a lot out of it.”

In the video clip, Shapter shows Graham and volunteers making plans in the food pantry area, loading the truck, driving to the Austin downtown library, and handing out food to homeless men. Graham talks about his journey– how he was a successful real estate broker who started asking the tough questions in life and found himself investing everything he had to create MLF. The nonprofit is now in four states and enlists 12 catering trucks and almost 10,000 volunteers a year.

It can be said that Graham is not exactly an ordinary person. “If there were a Fortune 500 for the world’s happiest people,” he says, “I’d be at the top of that list.” His decision to relinquish his wealth in favor of service to the homeless is what led to that happiness, he says. “I run into people all the time that say, ‘I wish I could do what you did,’” says Graham. “When people witness someone like me who has made such a radical change in their life – and now happiness is such an intrinsic part of my life – that impresses people.”

What Shapter found, after interviewing dozens of people from children to accomplished and wealthy businessmen, was proof that achievement, wealth, and fame don’t lead to happiness. Giving to and supporting a cause you believe in, he says, does.

He refers to a statement made by Mother Teresa, sainted for sacrificing her own well being for the sake of the extreme poor of that city. “People need to find their own Calcutta. The people who are happy in this film all have their own causes,” says Shapter. “The message is that you need to find your own cause, and give.”

For Shapter that cause is Capital City Kids, a nonprofit that helps homeless kids in Central Texas obtain the resources they need to succeed in school. (In Austin, more than 4,000 students pre-K through high school are homeless.) “When I saw the reaction from people after the initial screenings, I thought maybe people were being touched by the film. So I made a request at the end of one screening here in Austin for donations to Cap City Kids, thinking I’d raise about $1,000. Turns out we raised more than $10,000 that night.”

That same night, a person affiliated with the Obama campaign was in the audience, and is now working with Shapter and C3 (producers of the Austin City Limits Music Festival) to build a model for the film’s distribution. This summer, the team will enlist sponsors to take the film on a 40-city tour that will engage local charities and turn screenings into fundraisers, with Shapter selling DVDs of the film at those events.

“What I found then is that when people get over their egos, they generally stop doing whatever it is that is keeping them from being happy,” says Shapter. “They stop comparing themselves to people ‘above’ them and start looking around at others. Then they start to help.”

Shapter on Happy, Texas

“I was shocked to see the the small towns deteriorating. We have these mass migrations to the big cities – like Houston, Miami, and Phoenix – because people are leaving these tight-knit communities where everybody knows your name. And it’s sad.

“There was this woman in Happy, Texas, whose husband died, and that caused the whole town to come together and take care of her, support her through that time. But then that widow moved to Dallas and joined a support group for widows; there she met another widow who lived in Dallas when her husband died but said none of her neighbors even knew her. That broke her heart.

“You know, our country is a nation of immigrants; we are people that believe success and wealth lie somewhere else. So it’s in our DNA. It’s why young people move away from home. “What’s remarkable is that new immigrants are the ones re-making these small communities and keeping them alive. I think young people will continue to move away and take that journey, but what’s going to happen is that they will always get called back.”

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