Dec. 9 2009 12:00 AM

Filmmaker seeks meaning of happiness with latest movie, tour


First graders in America know they have the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” But what does that mean? And how do we, as a country, actively pursue it?

It’s these questions that director Andrew Shapter asked for more than three years, as he embarked on a crosscountry road trip to find out just what happiness is. His new film, “Happiness Is,” profiles his voyage, an emotional journey that brought unexpected results and changed Shapter’s life.

In the movie, viewers meet a wide array of characters. Some are experts on happiness, some are spiritual leaders, like the Dalai Lama, and some are pop celebrities, like singer John Mellancamp. But most central to the film are the everyday people Shapter stumbled upon who all offer unique perspectives on what happiness means to them and how they find it in their own lives. “You’d be surprised how in-depth some of the most simple people out there can get,” Shapter said. “Everybody had a different answer.”

Near the end of his journey, Shapter met Alan Graham, whose story gave the film new purpose. Graham dresses as Santa Claus as a hobby during Christmastime, and Shapter originally approached him because he wanted to talk to “Santa” about what happiness is. He found much more than a jolly old man’s answer.

Graham’s day-to-day work is with Mobile Loaves and Fishes, a social outreach ministry that delivers food and clothing to the homeless via 12 catering trucks that serve Austin and San Antonio, Texas; Providence, R.I.; Nashville, Tenn.; and New Orleans every night of the week.

“It all turned on a dime when I met Alan,” Shapter said. “I was frustrated; I didn’t have what I needed, that connection on how to end this thing. I began to connect with the people he was feeding, eyeto-eye, hand-to-hand. I can see that that they’re in great pain, but I can see that I was doing a whole lot of good helping them out. I went home feeling a sense of satisfaction, like I had done something right that day.”

Now Shapter is taking his movie on tour, screening the film and using the funds raised to support a variety of nonprofits: a homeless shelter for children, Habitat for Humanity and here in mid-Michigan the East Lansing Film Festival. The director is bringing the film to East Lansing High School for screening on Saturday, with the proceeds benefiting the film fest. “Everywhere we go it’s raising money,” Shapter said. “The overall message of the film is that happiness or contentment can be gained through acts of giving. If the message is that reaching out and giving is a path to greater happiness, then why don’t we set that example by doing these things?”

Before “Happiness Is,” Shapter made a documentary called “Before the Music Dies” about the music industry, for which he spent time with big-name artists, like Eric Clapton. While touring in support of that film, he developed the idea for “Happiness Is."

He never thought his latest film would turn out like it did. Before the film, movies were a business and happiness was financial security. This movie is a way to raise money for those that are doing good and bring some change to the world. “It’s about realizing that I’m part of a greater community, I’m part of a smaller community and a family, and that is most important,” he said.

He’s meeting new people this time around, too. “On my first tour, I was meeting rock stars,” he said. “I’m meeting people right now that give up a lot of wealth and opportunity and security to help other people. It’s not a glamorous rock star lifestyle, but I’ll tell you who’s happier — the people that are helping.”

‘Happiness Is’

screening and talk by director Andrew Shapter 3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 12
$3 East Lansing High School Auditorium, 509 Burcham Drive, East Lansing