About the Film
The Making of HAPPY, or What To Do When You Believe You’ve Had An Actual Epiphany.
In the Summer of 2015, I made a delightful new social media acquaintance in visual artist, Leonard “Porkchop” Zimmerman. That was just about the time that a taped Tedx Talk he’d given earlier in the year, hit the internet. I was more than curious about what my talented new friend might have to say on such an inspiring and prestigious platform! Leonard’s talk was roughly 12 minutes long. It was incredibly powerful, and when it was finished, I had tears streaming down my face. I wasn’t yet sure of the purpose, but I clearly understood that our paths had crossed for a reason…and that talk he gave stuck with me for months, like oatmeal to your ribs in Winter!
Fast forward 6 months. An Interior Designer by education, I was working in Las Vegas, designing a corporate showroom for a furniture manufacturer. My alarm went off at 6:15 in the morning, and in the haze of being half awake, Leonard was curiously the first thing on my mind. I said to myself (with my inside voice) “Someone should make a film about that guy’s life.” And in that very moment, I heard an audible voice in the room say “You. You should make this film.” My eyes flew wide open, I bolted upright in the bed, and adrenaline was instantaneously coursing through my veins, every hair standing on end. Now, you can call that voice what you like, you can even call me crazy if you like. But I know what I heard, and that voice was clear as a bell.
I shucked on my jeans and ran to the hotel restaurant to acquire and extra large coffee to go. Back in my room, I excitedly paced the floor until I had to go into work. I was going to make a movie! Never mind that I had ZERO experience in filmmaking, nor had I any previous inclination to do so.
Later that day I sent Leonard a message, saying that I had an idea for getting his “HAPPY” campaign in front of an even larger audience, and could we chat on the phone when I returned home. He responded with an exuberant “Of COURSE!”. Little did he know what I was going to ask.
I ended up waiting a few weeks before making that call. I had homework to do. If I was going to ask him to trust me with his life story…with HAPPY, I had better not sound like I’d lost my mind! By the time we finally talked, I actually had a scope of project.
The first question he asked me was “Do I have to be in it?”. Well yes Leonard, you do. I told him there was no hurry, and he should take time to think it over. He wanted to consult his parents, his best friend. A month later when he gave me the green light, he said “I have a good feeling about this, and I feel your intentions are pure.” It’s funny to hear his version of this waiting period, because it’s quite different than mine! I never doubted that he would say yes. But then again, he’s not the one who heard a voice.
Now the real work began in earnest. I assembled a local team in Milwaukee for post, and a film crew in Augusta. I did not personally have the wherewithal to fund this project, so we turned to social media and crowd sourcing to raise the funds. And the funds came.
While few spoke of it, some of my nearest and dearest were very concerned. I was making a film with zero experience, because I heard a voice tell me I should. People were asking me if I was nervous. Truthfully, I felt that if it had been given to me to do, then I must be capable! But in the days leading up to the first round of filming, I became incredibly anxious. When my plane landed in Augusta, I had a death grip on the armrest. Just think about it… I was going to show up the next morning “on set”, with a crew of people on payroll, who would be expecting my direction. I knew what I wanted, but I honestly had no idea what I was doing.
This is where I have to give major props to my wonderfully talented Cinematographer (and lead camera man), Denton Adkinson. He was well aware that this was my first rodeo, and he shouldered much of the responsibility, often wearing more hats than I could afford to pay him for. He was quite literally, a Godsend, and I will be forever grateful for his patience and guidance.
In fact, it was truly remarkable how people showed up to help, in every way imaginable. Whatever I needed, things I didn’t even know that I needed, someone would miraculously show up with.
Example. When I needed color coordinated extras for a staged parade (which required props galore, many musicians, street permits, security, intersection barricades, and an expanded film crew with a steady cam that had to be imported from Atlanta), over 200 people (and 3 horses) showed up, and patiently waited for hours under a chilly and sprinkling November sky while we filmed 6 takes with cameras in different positions.
We ran out of money a third of the way through the editing process. By that time, my incredibly gifted Editor Derek Degenhardt had become so immersed in the story, so passionate about the project, that he said “The world needs this story and so we’re going to finish this project because it needs to be finished. But ya still have to figure out how to pay me.”
So I conceived a really risky World Premiere event at the historic Imperial Theater, in downtown Augusta. In order to square up with Derek, I had to clear (after expenses) $7K in ticket sales. We ended up selling 765 of 843 seats. Derek got paid, and the surplus covered our initial film festival submissions.
And so began HAPPY’s film festival journey! It was fiscally impossible to attend all the festivals we made it into, but a total thrill to attend the ones we could. Leonard and I went to some together, some separately. HAPPY made into 2 festivals in England, spaced 3 weeks apart. Leonard was with me the first week for the festival in London, and we had a magical time. I couch surfed with friends for 2 weeks until the festival in Manchester, where HAPPY picked up its first award- Staff Pick.
HAPPY would go on to be nominated for awards at nearly every festival it screened in, eventually snagging Best Documentary (both Jury and Audience) in Atlanta, Audience Choice in Fort Worth, and the one that personally means the most, the Sydney K. Shapiro Humanitarian award in Phoenix.
As lovely as all those honors are, the real affirmation of this journey was in the reaction of the audiences. Post-screening Q&A sessions were common, and people were so genuinely engaged, and engaging! Often, folks would be too nervous to ask a question during the Q&A, but would come up to me in the aisle or lobby after, with eyes welled up, and say “Thank you for making your film, I really needed to hear that message.” Receiving hugs from strangers was standard at most screenings ,and it was in those moments, that I realized the true grace of my epiphany.
As 2018 started drawing to a close, I had to make some decisions about what to do with the film next. We had tried to monetize it through an unsuccessful distribution partnership, which had come to an end… and it was now 2 years since the film premiered in Augusta. I was once again on the road for work and in a hotel room, when it hit me….like a ton a bricks.
In the Spirit in which Leonard has so freely spread smiles through making his HAPPY stickers and buttons free, I should make this documentary FREE. Release it from the bondage of monetization so that it could go into the world and touch every heart that needs to hear it’s message. This project had clearly come into the world on point and with purpose. It suddenly seemed so wrong to try and hold it back from doing what it came here to do, for the promise of a bloody buck!
When I think back to the morning of my “epiphany”, I contemplate that voice I heard. It was a male voice. It was firm yet calm, and in no way threatening. It said “You. You should make this film.” Should is a suggestion, but not a command. Now when people ask me why I made HAPPY, I simply say that it was a spiritual directive.
The gift I received by being obedient to that voice, was discovering a new artistic voice within myself. I now know that I want to tell stories through cinema. Stories that uplift and inspire. If by chance a voice in the room should ever suggest that you do something outside your realm of comfort , I strongly suggest you at least consider the possibilities. In the lyrics of her song used to close the film, Sam Phillips sings “There’s magic for everybody, I know it’s so.” And I do.
Michael Patrick McKinley, December 2018