For the past couple of months, I have been in New Zealand filming a feature documentary based on my work. And because I know there will be a bajillion questions about the film, the process, when it comes out, how it went, how it happened, etc., below I’ve written up more than you ever wanted to know about the process of turning a book into a film. This includes how I got into New Zealand during the pandemic, the process of making the film, what it’s going to be like, when it might come out, and much, much more.
Table of Contents
How It All Started
In 2019, a New Zealand production company called GFC Films bought the film rights to my book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, with the intention of creating a documentary based on it. Upon completing the deal, my agent coolly told me, “Just so you know, 99% of these things don’t get made, so don’t get too excited.”
I tempered my expectations and moved on with my life. It was a busy year. I had just released Everything Is F*cked: A Book About Hope, I was doing a worldwide speaking tour across five different countries, and I was working on the draft for Will Smith’s book. So yeah, a film was the furthest thing from my mind.
The way film rights work is kind of weird. Production companies purchase what are called “options” from authors. An option basically means they pay the author a little bit of money for the right to pitch the book to film studios to get a movie made. If no movie gets made, then the option eventually expires and the film rights return to the free market and another production company can take a stab at it.
The reason my agent told me not to get my hopes up was because book options are so cheap (they pay the author a few thousand dollars per year in most cases), a lot of film companies just accumulate dozens and dozens of book options, just to like, have them in their back pocket. You never know what’s going to take off, or what genre is going to be the next big thing. Also, if you’ve got the rights to them, that means other production companies don’t. So there’s that.
Once a production company options your book, the executive producer(s) then go pitch to movie studios to try and get them to finance the project of making a film out of said book. If they can’t find a studio willing to finance the movie, then the option goes back in the file cabinet and collects dust. But if a studio is willing to finance the film, then a deal is struck, and everybody gets paid.
As my agent said, 99% of options for book rights never get made into a film. But I was fortunate and had a few things going for me:
- Documentaries are having a bit of a moment, especially on streaming services. For decades, documentaries were kind of the red-headed stepchild of the film industry—passion projects done for the greater good of humanity with the understanding that almost none of them would ever make a profit. But for some reason, Millennials and Netflix have changed that. Documentaries are exploding in popularity.
- The book has done incredibly well by any standard. Over the past five years, it has been one of the bestselling non-fiction books in the world and continues to sell well today.
- Matthew Metcalfe, the lead producer at GFC Films, is a fucking super-fan of the book. He was so into it, he would often start excitedly telling me about sections of my own book and how good they were. Eventually, I had to be like, “Dude, I wrote the thing. I get it.”
- GFC has a track record of producing high-quality documentaries for Universal. So that relationship was already solid.
Given the points above, Universal decided that it was worth taking a chance and went ahead and financed the film.
Once the film is financed, then it’s a fucking go. The production company looks to bring on a director and hires a crew. People start scouting out locations, coming up with concepts and ideas, imagining the visual style and image of the production.
I was fortunate to be included in most of these conversations. I told them that my biggest concern was simply translating the style and tone of the book to the film. The advice is easy. I can blather about advice all day. It’s what I do. But what so many people love about the book is the irreverence, the humor, the spontaneity, and raw honesty. That all needed to come across on camera as well.
GFC brought on Nathan Price, a well-respected director from New Zealand. We decided that the film would have some surreal elements to it. Some parts would be animated. Some parts would be live-action. Some shots would feature me doing weird and crazy shit. Other shots would have live actors. Matthew and Nathan insisted that the driving aspect of the film be a long conversation with me about the concepts and experiences from the book. Therefore, despite all the zaniness going on around me, the bulk of the film would be a straight-up, classic documentary interview—i.e., me sitting in a chair looking incredibly handsome.
By the time the Universal deal came through and everyone got on the same page about what to do, we had another problem: COVID-19. The world was in the midst of a full lockdown. I was in New York City, where getting anything done was trepidatious, at best. GFC was in New Zealand, which was basically sealed off like Fort Knox. The film industry itself was on indefinite hold.
Months passed. And after some brief calls on what it would look like to shoot remotely (i.e., me sitting in a studio with a crew in New York, and Nathan directing me from Auckland), I told them that I wasn’t thrilled with this idea. This was roughly October, close to the peak of the second wave in the United States, where everything was shutting down once again. The idea that I was going to sit in a studio on the other side of the world and essentially Zoom call an entire movie shoot with a director I had never met seemed insane to me.
But, at the time, I hadn’t realized something. Kiwis are insanely polite. Like, absurdly polite. They will break their backs to avoid inconveniencing you. I discovered this on a call one day that went something like this:
Me: Is this the only option? There’s nothing else we can do?
GFC: I don’t think we should wait. Who knows when the pandemic will be over.
Me: Isn’t there a way for me to come down there? Doesn’t New Zealand grant business visas or something?
GFC: Well, yes… but it’s quite complicated. And, unfortunately, you’d be forced to quarantine for fourteen days. And, well, we would never ask you to do that.
Me: Wait… how many days?
GFC: Yes, two weeks in a hotel from the moment you touch down in Auckland. It’s a terrible inconvenience.
Me: That’s it? FOURTEEN DAYS?!?!? And I can stay in Covid-free New Zealand for months?!
GFC: Well, ye—
Me: ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?!?! SIGN ME THE FUCK UP!!!
This exchange was indicative of what I have found to be the case with pretty much every Kiwi I talk to—they really have no conception of what pandemic life is like for the rest of the world. In their mind, fourteen days of quarantine is some form of hell. For me, a New Yorker in the dead of winter, it sounded like a one-way escalator to heaven.
Granted, even if you do have a legitimate business reason to get into New Zealand, there is an ungodly amount of paperwork. I will give their government credit: they are thorough motherfuckers… which is probably also why there’s no COVID there.
Getting a New Zealand visa during COVID is like breaking into a bank vault, where instead of explosives, you scan and fax papers representing literally everything you’ve ever done in your life. It took almost two months, a new passport, and dozens of long, tedious email exchanges with the government to get everything arranged.
But it eventually happened. On January 12th, my wife’s and my visa arrived. And on January 26th, we were on a one-way flight to Auckland, double-masked and socially-distanced for the last time.
The quarantine itself wasn’t so bad. For one, we were seasoned quarantiners at that point. We had spent almost ten straight months at home, often not going outside for a week or two at a time. We mostly used the time in quarantine to catch up on sleep, read some books, watch TV shows we had missed, and work.
On February 12th, we were released to the outside world. Walking around Auckland with no mask, sitting in crowded restaurants, riding in crowded elevators, shaking hands with strangers, it was all so surreal. It was like returning to a forgotten world.
Then the NZ government found three cases in south Auckland, and like that, the entire city shut down overnight.
We were locked down for three days—enough time for the government to track and trace and test all contacts of the three positive cases. The government tested more than 2,000 people within two days, all targeted and isolated based on their degrees of separation from the initial patients. Once they “put a ring” around the initial infection—i.e., tested and isolated every single person the initial positive cases had come into contact with, the city opened up, and life resumed.
As an American (and my wife, Brazilian), we sat by, absolutely stunned by the speed and competence of the New Zealand government. It was astounding. What was more astounding was the adherence by the people. In the United States, if there’s a lockdown, maybe half of the people take it seriously and stay home, a quarter act like nothing’s happening, and another quarter get angry and start posting “Rabble rabble, #freedom! Rabble rabble, tyranny!!” on Twitter.
Not in NZ. You walk outside and the streets are just empty. Grocery stores rarely have more than 5-6 people in them at any given time (all masked and distanced) and all stores and restaurants are closed. No exceptions, no protests, no nothing.
It reminded me of an email newsletter I had recently written about the role of distrust in society. When a government is untrustworthy, people are disinclined to follow rules. And the more people don’t follow rules, the more the government compensates by either becoming authoritarian and/or corrupt, thus generating greater distrust. It’s a downward spiral of sorts.
Well, it’s also an upward spiral. And it was fascinating to be at the other end of it for once. People here trust the government because it knows what the fuck it’s doing and does it well. So they do what it says.
Planning the Documentary
From the earliest conversations, Matthew was insistent that the film be almost entirely centered around me. Obviously, me, my ego, and I thought this was a fucking brilliant idea.
But it also made sense. The book is highly personal. And a lot of what makes it powerful is my own vulnerability in sharing some of the darker episodes of my own life. In fact, that’s largely what makes The Subtle Art work—by sharing the worst moments of my life, rather than the best, I am demonstrating the power of the concepts of the book—the power that can be found in accepting pain and struggle, coming to terms with one’s own mortality and failings, being comfortable with rejection and embarrassment, etc.
This was established before I got to New Zealand. What wasn’t established was the dozens and dozens of other decisions—what will the set look like, what other scenes will we have, will there be animations, voiceovers, live actors, etc., etc.?
Eventually, after many discussions, we decided that we wanted the tone of the film to be a little bit surreal—as if it’s a little bit dreamy and we’re kind of inhabiting my id. As a result, we produced sets that were a little bit over the top. We decided to have scenes for stories that would be over-the-top and hilarious. We’d play with the format, switching seamlessly between me being interviewed in a chair, and some zany animation going on to illustrate what I’m talking about.
It took months to hammer out all of these decisions—and I’ll admit, a lot of the ideas made me uncomfortable at first. But fuck it, you only get to make a movie once, right? Or not at all. So let’s go with it.
Due to a number of delays—which are standard in any sort of creative venture—the shoot didn’t start until March 15th. The schedule was as follows:
- Three days of filmed interviews with me (5-6 hours per day).
- Extra scenes, some involving me, some not, shot after the interviews each evening.
- One big pool scene, shot across two days—one underwater shoot for a day, the other above water the following night.
In all, we shot interviews for about 15 hours, probably resulting in maybe 10 hours of footage, of which, I imagine, 90 minutes will be in the final cut.
The interviews were mentally exhausting. If you’ve ever taught a seminar or a long class, you know that after a couple hours, your brain starts to get fried, you begin to lose track of what you were saying, your energy drops and you become less enthusiastic. It required a lot of effort to keep myself as fresh and energetic as possible through these days.
Shooting for a film is also a strange and unnatural process. Everything gets edited, so it’s about getting the right sentence, the right story, the right punchline. As a result, you end up repeating yourself a lot. I ended up telling most of the stories 3-4 times, each in a different way with a slightly different energy. I often had to repeat central points or themes I wanted to make half a dozen times. Sometimes they’d even have me say the same thing with different postures—e.g., leaned forward or leaned back.
This was the meat and potatoes of the shoot and will be the meat and potatoes of the film. In all, I would say that probably 50% of what we shot came directly from the book, 25% was kind of a remix or expansion of ideas in the book, and 25% of it was brand new material.
The Extra Scenes
Hard to talk about these without spoiling too much, but let’s just say that there are some hilarious side scenes that will hopefully make it into the film. One involving a jacuzzi, another with a Lamborghini, another with a snowman, and, of course, one with a panda (you know who).
As if being mentally exhausted wasn’t enough, they decided to wreck me physically as well. Again, I’m not going to go into too much detail here to avoid spoilers, but one day of shooting involved me holding my breath underwater for 30-40 seconds at a time, over and over and over and over again. We actually had to strap weights to my ass so I would sink. No, seriously, my fat ass is too buoyant, so I had about three kilograms of weights tucked into my swimsuit so that I’d drift downward underwater.
So I’d hold my breath, all this crazy shit would be going on underwater with scuba divers and cameras floating around me, and then I’d have to swim back up to the surface with metal weights in my underwear. Then I’d sit there floating for a minute, then we’d do it all over again.
What a fucking weird day.
But the final night really knocked me on my ass. We were supposed to get a variety of shots of me chilling out in a pool with some stuff going on in the background. It was me in one of those barcaloungers that floats, with a fruity drink and some sunglasses on.
The problem was that it was fall weather in New Zealand in the middle of the night. So it was fucking cold outside (around 12 degrees Celsius, 55 degrees Fahrenheit) with a shrill wind, and here I am, lying around in this pool with cameras rotating around me, trying to look like I’m enjoying a warm tropical breeze and appreciating the finer things in life.
Every 30 minutes, they’d pull me back out of the pool, throw about twenty pounds of towels and blankets on me, I’d down a bunch of hot tea and go shiver in a corner for an hour until they were ready for me to get back in. This went on until four in the fucking morning.
I’ve read articles about the crazy things actors do to get shots, the way they starve themselves, freeze, pass out from exhaustion, yada, yada—all to just entertain us for a couple hours that we’ll most likely forget the next day. That night gave me a newfound respect for that. Even the most innocuous scenes in a film can be agonizing for the actors to go through to get the right shot.
Shout Out to People Who Work in Film
Speaking of which, I want to give a shout-out to people who work in film. I don’t mean the “talent.” I mean the people working the cameras, the lighting, the set, the art department, the wardrobe and make-up, and the dude who somehow finds Coke Zero and a bag of Skittles at two in the fucking morning.
These people work their asses off. Most of the crew was there long before I showed up and stayed long after I left—and I was pulling 12-14 hour days!
I don’t know when these people slept. Or if they even slept.
It was incredible how they could improvise solutions to seemingly calamitous problems. Every single day, something would fuck up—an underwater camera would break, lighting would be messed up, weather would trash a set—and these people would somehow duct tape a solution together that worked within a matter of minutes. I was so impressed.
Throughout this whole process of making The Subtle Art documentary, I tried to maintain a sense of gratitude. After all, this is likely the only time in my whole life that I will have a movie made. So, each step of the way, even in the most stressful (or frigid) moments, I tried to remind myself of how fortunate I’ve been and appreciate everything going on around me.
I’m also so thankful that I was able to come down here to Auckland—not just because of the lack of COVID, but because physically being here, being able to get involved with scenes, offer ideas, and come up with silly stuff on the spot likely made for a much better and more authentic film.
All that said, this was definitely one of the most mentally and physically exhausting weeks of my career. There were moments of intense stress and anxiety (I had a mini-diva moment about some wardrobe decisions, something I didn’t know I had in me). There were also periods of intense, serious emotions. Going back through my life and many of my memories in such excruciating detail called up a lot of old feelings and new reflections.
All in all, it was an incredible experience—one I’m grateful for and expect to be deeply proud of. I can’t wait to see the movie and can’t wait for you all to see it, too.
Q: Is the documentary done?
A: No, it’s still not done. As of this writing, the editor and director are working through all the footage to cut it down to a reasonable length.
At some point in the next month, I will need to go into the studio to do voice-over work on some of the scenes. They’ll also likely want to do some reshoots of a couple of spots that I flubbed or messed up. I believe there are still a couple of scenes we haven’t shot yet as well.
It’s probably at least another month until my involvement is done. From there, I have no idea how much work they will have to do (I’m guessing a lot).
Q: When is it coming out?
A: I have no idea. Everyone I’ve asked legitimately has no idea. If I had to guess, I’d say 2022 some time. But who knows?
Q: Where will it be available?
A: If this was before the pandemic, I might know. But the pandemic totally scrambled the film industry. Nobody knows the best way to release movies now. I imagine it’ll end up on a streaming service of some sort eventually, but I have no idea which one or when. Stay tuned.
Q: How long are you going to stay in New Zealand?
A: My wife’s and my visa lasts until the end of July. I need to be here until mid-May to finish the film. My guess is we’ll go home soon after I’m done with the film. New Zealand has been great, but the US is rapidly getting vaccinated and we look forward to life returning to normal back home.
Q: Will you be doing any speaking or signing events in New Zealand?
A: I did not plan to. But depending on how long I end up being here, I may schedule a simple book signing in Auckland and/or possibly Wellington. We will see. I’ve been quite busy here and have been enjoying living the COVID-free life so much that I’m hesitant to add the stress of events on top of everything else. But given how rare it is to come to New Zealand, maybe I should.
Q: How can I receive news and updates about the documentary?
A: If you want to receive updates about the film, make sure you’re subscribed to my newsletter as well as my YouTube channel. All announcements will be made in both places. I will also be adding some behind-the-scenes footage to the channel at some point. I’m also told that there will be a “making of” video closer to when the movie’s ready to come out.