I had my yellow, legal-sized notepad out in front of me and the etchings of a nomadic travel documentary series twisting and turning rambunctiously. Our concept was roving, roaming, floating and sinking. We lacked an identity. A host. If only the notepad could spout out a name. Beside me was fellow director and travel vagabond Izaiah Kane. He was drinking a triple or quadruple shot of something that I’m sure would make my skin crawl and jump off a cliff. A few weeks earlier, QE Productions CEO and Executive Producer Randolph Paul Kelman had come to us with the framework of a travel documentary series and a challenge to re-invent the genre.
I would produce and co-direct the series with Izaiah. Jamie Spittal was attached as our sound designer. Paul wanted us to go back to China, first, and then the rest of the planet. We spoke of countries like Vietnam, Greece, Italy, Spain, Pakistan, Iran, and Israel. We would spend 30 days in each country, live via the local economy, and document a socially responsible travel experience on a budget of one thousand dollars and whatever we could carry. We would explore culture, cuisine, and tradition while immersing ourselves in local communities, both on and off the beaten path. It was enticing but, as storytellers, Izaiah and I knew that we needed to go further. What was our motivation? Why would the audience care? Who and what, exactly, was our lens dedicated to? We all needed to chain ourselves to the chair, give life to this concept, and scribble on yellow notepads.
A year ago, Paul produced a short film in China titled “Road to Ningbo” that I had the pleasure to write and direct. Izaiah served as Cinematographer and Jamie was our Sound Designer. As we filmed in bustling cities and faraway villages, Izaiah, Jamie, and I came to befriend local residents and take part in their lives and daily rituals. These were the same indigenous locals that we had seen in B-Roll of countless documentaries paraded around as a low-toned and sultry voice would narrate their lives for us. Often times they were simply categorized as farmers or fishermen put on our dear planet Earth to work their calloused hands dry. If the harvest was weak or the water polluted, well, as were their lives. As we came to break bread with our new friends, we realized instead how beautifully complex they were. They carried much more than a fishing rod or a sickle. They had hopes and dreams beyond their need for survival. They had passion projects, guilty pleasures, invigorating and enthralling insights about art, travel, and love. They had stories of triumph, heartache, and redemption dating back decades or minutes. They had nutritional advice, fashion advice, and political opinions. They loved music, movies, and storytelling. They had favourite books, authors, quotes, and lines of dialogue. They carried colourful traditions and rituals dating back centuries because they wanted to. It made them happy. What I wanted to understand was this pursuit of happiness. Their definition of the word and why they sought after it? What contributes to their joy in life? What are they passionate about? I wanted to know what, besides the necessity of survival, got them out of bed? What make local residents, from one country to the next, tick? How does one cafe owners happiness in Guatemala perhaps parallel a tailors in Jerusalem? How do they differ? This became the perspective and the central question of our travel series. Why do we smile?
We had mulled over dozens upon dozens of potential suitors to host our show, many of them local actors with a thirst for adventure. Nothing fit. At the time, we had an idea that our host would travel via a single mode of transportation across the country. We wanted someone vulnerable along the open road and alone. We wanted someone middle-aged, cultured, and well traveled. We didn’t want a self-appointed expert. We wanted an amoeba. Someone who would soak up knowledge, adapt, and grow with the show and our audience. We needed someone personable, trustworthy, and quick-witted. I was researching “single modes of transportation across China” in a Starbucks on November 13th, 2014. Around Google’s fifth page I discovered “Allan Karl: Three Years. Five Continents. One Motorcycle.” Allan had written a book titled, “FORKS”, which documented his travels through 35 countries on his motorcycle, “Doc”. I sent Allan a tweet.
— allankarl (@allankarl) December 6, 2014
I hopped on a phone call with Allan and we hit it off. I told him that we were a small and intimate crew, 4 filmmakers at the most, and wanted to follow him around the world. The pursuit of happiness was our honey pot. Our lens was reserved for the local people and we wanted him to serve as our seeing eye and vehicle for a changed perspective. We wanted to explore roads less trodden and pursue chance connections. We wanted to give a voice to those locals often misrepresented and misunderstood on the global stage and above all else, we wanted to find out what made them smile. This was Allan Karl. At times we were talking over each other not because we weren’t listening but because we shared the same sentence and sentiment. A few months later, Izaiah, Jamie, and I were in Encinitas, CA making Fattoush salad in Allan’s kitchen. Paul was already in China in full pre-production. He Skyped in from the city of Ningbo. Our first production meeting.
Now, we are weeks away from filming our pilot episode in China with Allan and “Doc”. Our official press release has gone out and we are amidst final preparations. This is happening and we can’t wait to share with audiences this exhilarating journey. Allan will set out to discover the world–one country at a time–alone on his motorcycle. From grandma in her kitchen to heads of state, we will document and watch as locals from around the world paint us a portrait of their happiness. Smile, wonder, and wander. That’s exactly what we’ll do.