There are times when you hear about someone taking on a task so difficult, so trying, that you wonder, “Why would you put yourself through this?” Mind you, we’re not talking 127 Hours/James Franco difficult. The film Hector and the Search for Happiness (starring Simon Pegg as Hector) is truly a global experience in terms of the action on the screen and the filmmakers journey to create it. A virtually army of professionals (numbering nearly 600) shot on four different continents, dealing with differing time zones, languages, and currencies to create this masterpiece. To coordinate as well as lend creativity required a very special producer, which is exactly what John Albanis defines. The film’s director, Peter Chelsom, brought John onto this project because of his practically inhuman ability to coordinate and facilitate, all while lending an artistic eye. In order to keep the integrity of the script, a number of producers contributed financially to the film while Albanis’s role was to be the “boots on the ground” in charge. Attesting to the accomplishment of the film’s intact vision are the many awards and nominations it received. These include: 2015 nominated for a Canadian Screen Award, 2015 Leo Awards – nominated Best Motion Picture, nominated Best Production Design in a Motion Picture, nominated Best Musical Score in a Motion Picture, and many others (including a win “Jury Prize” for Peter Chelsom at the Monte-Carlo Comedy Film Festival and a win for Best Foreign Comedy Trailer by the Golden Trailer Awards). A truly stellar cast including: Simon Pegg, Rosamund Pike, Toni Collette, Stellan Skarsgard, Christopher Plummer, Jean Reno, and others was required to deliver incredible performances. Peter Chelsom was required to direct and guide the performances while Kolja Brandt captured them on camera. All of this would have been for naught if John Albanis had not set the table perfectly for all of these artists…and the table required was massive!
When Chelsom requested Albanis to join the film as a producer, it was primarily because of their successful work history (the two have worked together on multiple feature films). When you are about to spend a year of your life biting off more than you can chew, you want someone you trust sitting next to you chewing even faster than yourself. Proving that he was much more than a coordinator or purse string guardian, the relationship between John and Peter would be based on encouraging and advising creatively. Albanis notes, “I had a history of working with Peter and by this point, we’d also become close friends. I wanted Peter to bring more of his personal artistry into this film. I’m a huge fan of his early two films, which were European indies: Hear My Song and Funny Bones. His direction is masterful in those films because the tone is so unique to him. The films he’s made in Hollywood are also fantastic (and certainly financially successful), but they didn’t showcase everything that Peter was capable of achieving. For Hector, Peter needed to get back to his roots and be more creative. This mandate spilled into every decision we made. A lot of the more creative aspects of the film were brainstormed between us early on. A good example of this is the treatment of Hector’s travel journal, which we decided to animate because it afforded us some wonderful thematic and editorial transitional opportunities.”
It’s impossible to separate the diversity of stories in Hector and the Search for Happiness from the diverse situations in which the production was placed to create it. The essence of the story is that Hector (Simon Pegg) is a psychiatrist who feels disillusioned by the mundane nature of his life and emotional experience. On a quest for his own happiness, he seeks out what it is that cultivates this emotion in others. He travels the planet, interacting with and experiencing lifestyles and people completely unlike himself…only to discover that the source of happiness was always with him. The filmmakers were insistent on not using soundstage trickery to “resemble” the feel of each location, meaning that the production travelled to each location, spanning the planet with John Albanis leading the charge. Because he was in charge of scouting locations, this meant that John travelled the globe twice for this film. He explains, “We felt it was crucial to the film’s success to physically go to each country to follow Hector’s journey. And yes…we all wanted to prove it could be done. Hector was an extremely ambitious project with a modest budget — yet we still managed to film across 7 countries and 4 continents including: Vancouver (Canada), London (UK), Johannesburg (S. Africa), Shanghai (China), Los Angeles (USA), Ledakh (India), and Germany. From the very beginning, we viewed it as four indie films that made up one larger story.” A larger studio may have requested a different tone for the film so, rather than rob it of its heart…multiple entities were called upon to aid a financial hand to the artistic integrity. Ultimately, London’s Bankside Films understood the filmmakers vision and agreed with it.
Travelling to exotic destinations with world famous actors may seem glamorous, and it is at times. Producing is a demanding job that requires a clear head and split second decisions at times, especially when in foreign lands. Sometimes the situation calls for a calm demeanor in the most troubling of circumstances. Relating a particularly unsettling experience during the filming of Hector and the Search for Happiness, Albanis recalls, “There’s a section in the film where Hector travels to a Tibetan monastery. We were originally going to film the monastery sequence in rural China. During my initial scout, I sourced the most beautiful monastery in the remote Kangding, Sichuan region of China, which we’d planned to shoot immediately after Shanghai. However, upon arriving at the location, there was unrest between the local monks and the Chinese military police (unrelated to us), so we could no longer film there. This was disastrous for the film and a horrible way to end the production. We went on a hiatus for a few months to game plan how (and where) we were going to film the monastery sequence, which was pivotal to the story. Ultimately, we discovered similar-looking monasteries in Ledakh, India. However, by this time, due to budgetary restraints and cast availability, we were unable to get our entire crew to India. So we decided that I would go to India to produce and direct all of our wide exterior shots, working with a 100% Indian crew and casting a double for Hector (Simon Pegg). I then met back with the rest of the crew along with our cast in the Bavarian Alps in Germany to shoot the interiors, mid-shots, and close-up shots. Coordinating how these shots worked together was quite complicated and each shot had to be precise and storyboarded in great detail.”
Hector and the Search for Happiness is a warm and tender film yet; it is also uncomfortable. What happens to Hector and those around him is sometimes joyful and affirming and sometimes frightening and unsettling. The adage, “It’s about the journey, not the destination” is accurate and somehow too simplistic to convey the tempering which we humans need to be forged into thankful creations. If the experience solidifies a sense of self, then John Albanis might be the most actualized producer in the film industry today as a result of Hector and the Search for Happiness.