The following is an interview with director Bronwen Hughes (Breaking Bad, Forces of Nature) regarding the worldwide release of her critically acclaimed film, The Journey Is the Destination. The film tells the true story of Dan Eldon, who is the inspiration for many movements and change-makers today, including Blake Mycoskie of TOMS shoes, the Invisible Children, and the Creative Visions Foundation. In this interview, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief Barbra Dillon chats with Hughes about the inspiration behind the production, what she hopes that audiences will take away from the film, her upcoming projects, and more!
Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: Congratulations on the worldwide release of your film, The Journey Is the Destination! What inspired you to bring this story to the big screen?
Bronwen Hughes: There is something magical that happens when you open the book of Dan [Eldon]’s journals called The Journey Is the Destination. As you flip the pages, you see this life unfold — full of beautiful people from every corner of the world, witty observations, astute comments, and a dazzling array of artistic techniques. It’s like going down a rabbit hole. I thought to myself, “That is the life I’ve always wanted to live.” And I wrote to Kathy Eldon to pour out my heart to say so. I’ve since realized that Kathy gets these letters every single week! People saying the same thing as I did, that they have been inspired by Dan’s book to seize the day, to do things they’ve always hoped. To get busy. To make it happen. To act. People who realize the time is ripe.
Once I was lucky enough to make the film, I had a global Dan fanbase to answer to. We call them the Dan Fans. They could not be disappointed.
BD: The film takes on a number of impactful issues, including violence against journalists and the refugee crisis. What do you hope that viewers will take away from the film, and what makes film such an important entertainment medium through which to bring about change?
BH: I hope that people take away from the film a general and a specific:
I think Dan’s essential gift was his ability to find connection with almost everybody he encountered. If he met you once in Tokyo or Malawi, you were friends for life. A simple evening could turn into a grand adventure. Of the thousands of people he knew in his short life, we have heard from so many of them who say that Dan made them feel like they were capable of things they didn’t even realize. For the group that went with him on the teenage road trip-slash-safari to deliver the money they’d raised to the refugee camp in Malawi (first half of our film), each and every one credit Dan with opening their eyes to possibility. Among them we now count an Oscar winner, a Pulitzer Prize winner, an Oscar nominee, an Emmy nominee, two publishers, a woman who runs an orphanage… extraordinary people who were just average teens when they took that trip with Dan.
In specific, I hope that people realize that what Dan brought to the world’s attention through his photographs of Somalis is that there are regular people — families, mothers, children — behind the political headlines and foreign policy decisions. Families whose lives are wrecked by insensitive military occupation, even when well-intentioned from the West. “Peace enforcement” is an oxymoron. A child is taught prejudice and mistrust, not born like that. So, if anybody is looking for an explanation on why it is easy to recruit to hatred a young person from a society in which say, drone bombs have been dropped on a wedding, then please meet the family in our film.
BD: You have quite a talented cast and crew working on the production. What can you tell us about their creative process in bringing the film to life?
BH: It was as if Dan from above made sure that the making of this film was going to be a Dan-worthy Grand Adventure. Starting from day one in which his beloved Land Rover Deziree decided to quit, literally as we rolled camera for the first shot of the movie! And then every day that followed held some kind of chaos or unexpected event.
We made the film with a 100% African crew, which was the only way to tell this story. The best technicians of South Africa came to work on this story, wanting to see it made right. Our AD department spoke English, Zulu, Xhosa, Sangaan, Portuguese, Tsonga, Venda, and Afrikaans between them.
We brought in actors from all over the world to play Dan’s global village of friends. We worked with hundreds of Somali refugees who were re-enacting the exact months of crisis they themselves had lived, so you don’t get much more authentic than that. I’d find women weeping on the sidelines, having cut too close to the bone of trauma. Same for the Mozambicans. Somalis in the lead speaking roles had never been near a movie set before, though understood intrinsically the story we were telling.
And for Dan’s friends who were Maasai, we were determined not to do the racist thing and dress up anybody in a red cloth and call it close enough — they had to be actual Maasai. The hard part is that Maasai don’t have passports to travel to our shoot. Until the day that our producer, Gail McQuillan realized there is one group of Maasai who could travel, and that was the Maasai Cricket Warriors team. We brought them all! And their mum. Quite a sight to meet them at the airport.
BD: The Journey Is the Destination has received critical acclaim as this month’s pick of the New York Film Critics Association. How would you describe your experience with the audience response thus far to the film?
BH: For the New York Film Critics Association to choose our film over any other in the world is astounding. Such an honour.
The public screenings of the film have been overwhelming. Starting from the TIFF red carpet gala at Roy Thompson Hall, Opening Night in Washington D.C., through the LA and last night’s NY premiere of the film, we seem to have achieved some kind of visceral effect with a room full of many hundreds of people who laugh and weep, and rise for a standing ovation after the absolute silence of the fade-to-black. I got mobbed after Manchester and Atlantic City — young people with wet eyes who say they are trying to find words to describe how the film stays with them. You hope for that. You hope to touch maybe a few people. But the energy in a big audience of collective experience can’t be matched. Let’s hope that some of that rubs off on a viewer watching alone after a download. I think it will be different than the collective, but perhaps more personal?
BD: How has the film been most impactful to you as a creator?
BH: The hard part about having had the privilege of working on a film like this is that so many others pale by comparison! The story means so much to so many people, and even with the book we’ve seen the start of the ripple effect of inspiration. Now, the film should hopefully reach more people through more of their senses, and the ripples might grow into waves.
Creatively for me, I considered the multi-layered, mixed media journal art of Dan Eldon to be a kind of visual map he left for me. So, in order to try to experience the world through Dan’s eyes, I adopted this visual language for the film. I don’t think it’s ever been done so extensively as narrative storytelling before. I’m not sure how often I’ll get an intrinsic opportunity to push the boundaries of visual language so far beyond the normal. I shall hope to invent a way!!
BD: Are there any other upcoming films or projects that you would care to share with our readers?
BH: I seem to gravitate to true stories of extraordinary lives. Or more specifically, ordinary characters who find themselves in an extraordinary time and place in the world, and transform because of it. So, next for me will hopefully be either the last days of pre-Revolutionary Havana, an exposé of a Montana man facing off to corporate giant Remington, and I’m very excited by a project about a group of Inupiat Eskimos who stood up to the giant Goliath of the Atomic Energy Commission, and won.
BD: Lastly, what would you like to tell fans who want to learn more about The Journey Is the Destination?
BH: If Dan Eldon’s story has lit any kind of fire in you, then you must immediately go to the site of the film, and then to the Creative Visions Foundation. This is the foundation started by Dan’s mom and sister, Kathy and Amy Eldon, who realized that they had to do something about the sheer numbers of people contacting them with ideas for projects inspired by Dan. So, they started this group which fosters “creative activism” — world-saving, life-changing ideas — through their network of like-minded people. There are currently more than 200 projects, films, and events under their umbrella. It’s amazing.