Acting is my day job, enjoying characters and wondering what people think makes them happy. Along with that, I love photographing people and I love getting lost in places I've never been. In my experience, that’s when interesting things tend to happen.
I've lived in the states much of my adult life, having fallen in love with the place as a kid. A few years ago I'd just moved back to a Brooklyn neighborhood I hadn't lived in for 15 years and the American dream had well and truly hit the fan, this proud country was on its knees and it was struggling.
Around this time, I was spending much of my time flying back and forth between my gentrified east coast, west coast bubbles peering out the plane window wondering what the hell was going on down there, how was the American heartland dealing with these tough times?
My old neighborhood had changed somewhat in 15 years; bullet proof delis had been replaced by fashionable eateries and quirky cafes. An Australian photographer called Mister Basquali owned one such place I had come to enjoy.
One day, I walked in and mentioned to him I was thinking abut driving cross country to speak with people about how they felt about the state of America, at which point he said he'd come along too.
I'd only known him 3 or 4 weeks, so it seemed a little soon to be spending a month on the road together, but we got on well and it turned out we were both a little disillusioned about the state of the country we'd both fallen in love with as kids, so I thought - well, why not? He said he'd bring his camera, and I'd seen his photos and they were damn good.
The only person I'd ever interviewed was, strangely enough, His Holiness the Dali Lama as part of somebody else's documentary in India earlier that year, a spectacular person to have on the resume, but even so, I knew nothing about interviewing anyone.
As I googled 'How to interview people', Basquali dug out his knackered old film cameras and assured me that most of the time they worked just fine.
I called up a cameraman friend and asked another friend of mine if he could hold a boom mic, and 2 weeks later the four of us were marching 'round New York looking for our first interviewees. Not the easiest place for our fledgling team to get going, but eventually we got the hang of it, and before you could say: "Excuse me we're doing a documentary about America, can we interview you please?" we were heading west.
With our Sony HD cam, hard drives, Canon G9, Nikon FM2, a $200 super 8 camera, Basquali's old Canons and a few bags we stuffed ourselves in a van and landed up in Pittsburgh (PA).
We didn't really have a route, we wanted to let it unfold as we went along, and from NY to LA that’s pretty much what happened, prompted by the occasional recommendation we'd hear along the way.
By daylight we would travel country roads, stopping off to photograph whatever piqued our interest and by night, we'd be on the freeway getting miles under our belt.
The interviews happened randomly, anywhere we happened to stop: gas stations, diners, and places we were photographing. At which point we'd invariably see someone interesting and ask them if they'd like to talk with us about America. Most people were open to the idea, and soon settled in for a chat in front of the camera.
Some of my favorite moments were waking up and seeing where we'd ended up having driven 300 miles the night before, looking out the motel window, seeing a giant cross in the middle of Texas or an NRA gun show in Arizona or arriving at another motel and meeting this unwanted little fluff ball soon to be called Bodhi. She now sits outside Basquali's cafe in Brooklyn wooing customers, and making me very happy whenever I see her.
Shooting the film was a great experience, the classic American road trip, four guys stuffed in a small van with rolls of film and seeing where the road took them... But the people! The American spirit!
It was so great experiencing that in the flesh, on the ground- much better than from that mile high airplane window. Now I could feel America, now, I was getting to know the people.
As the journey progressed we found the discussions started moving away from the state of the country and more towards the state of our minds. Speaking with people of different backgrounds and different faiths, the question of happiness and fulfillment would arise and how best to spend our brief time on this planet.
What makes us truly happy ? The big house, the big car, pots of money or something else?
Listening to American people questioning the very tenets of the American dream: materialism and consumption, was fascinating to me. Especially considering the pursuit of that dream had pretty much brought the country to its knees. All this at a gas station, a diner, a gun show and a cattle auction.
And then we arrived at the Pacific Ocean and it was all over. I'd done a few of my favorite things: got lost in places I'd never been to, photographed people and chatted with them about life and what makes us happy.
What made ME happy at this point was that my love for this country had been renewed by this experience; it was like falling in love with America all over again, just as I'd done when I first visited as a 12 year old.
But from a filmmaking point of view it turned out that was the easy part: rolling film and chatting with people. Now we had to go through 96 hours of footage, raise more funds, find the right editor, submit to festivals, find distribution, etc., etc.
This part of the process has been an extraordinary learning experience and without the support of so many people this film would just never have happened.
I know now why people recite lists as long as their arm at awards ceremonies, because these projects are just not completed without the extraordinary efforts of extraordinary people.
From people that lent us equipment, or gave us ridiculously generous deals, or simply gave us their time and energy for nothing I will be eternally grateful! But mostly of course, I am grateful to the people we met on our road trip who allowed us to interview them and taught us so much: this country may be going through tough times, but the American spirit WILL prevail, the human spirit CAN pull us through. Especially if we're there for each other and we're thankful for what we DO have!
In the immortal words of our Tennessee folk singer Jon Worley: "There’s a desperation about the country right now, but you know what man we survive, I guess that's the thing about America, we always gonna survive, no matter how tough shit gets Americas gonna be here man, if nothing else we'll just get some duct tape - get that shit down the road!!"
Amen to that.
- Paul Blackthorne, September 2013