Larry Kasanoff shares his adventure of creating a movie about mindfulness.
I make movies about martial arts, science fiction, killer robots, funny cartoon characters, pretty girls. And I love it. An article in the Washington Post about me once started this way:
“…fights, explosions, mindblowing visual effects and hot babes – this is Larry Kasanoff’s formula for success in the movie business.”
So how did I wind up friends with Thich Nhat Hanh, making a just released documentary called, ‘MINDFULNESS: BE HAPPY NOW’? Several years ago, I read Thay’s book, ‘Peace is Every Step.” I thought I could use his message as inspiration for a character in a series of movies I’ve made called, ‘MORTAL KOMBAT.’ I arranged to meet him. After spending two hours with Thay and Sister Chan Khong and the others, I felt like I had been on vacation for a week. I asked Thay, ‘What is your secret?’ He said, ‘No secret – practice!’ I thought, wow, I could learn this? And I was hooked on mindfulness.
Now, looking back, I realize in addition to inspiration for the character for my movie, I was probably also looking for something for myself. I always loved what I do and have tons of energy, but I also had a quick temper, didn’t listen too well, multi tasked a lot and had my share of anxiety. Over the years, I saw Thay and Sister CK and Sister Dang Nghiem –who I met along the way – as often as I could. They all came to my house once to speak to an invited group of Hollywood types, some of whom still tell me that night changed their lives. I loved the times I spent with Thay and the sisters. We became, I like to think, good friends. And Thay, I learned, in addition to being the Zen master, is also fun with a great sense of humor. (People still need to realize mindfulness is fun!). And mindfulness was changing me. I gave out hundreds of Thay’s books, took anxiety ridden girl friends to meet Thay and always talked about what I was learning to anyone who seemed remotely interested. And I kept practicing as much as I could.
One day, Thay asked me to make a documentary about mindfulness. He was very clear that it should NOT be about him, but about teaching mindfulness. Now, I’d never made a documentary and had no real interest in doing so. But, I loved Thay’s message of ‘Peace in Yourself, Peace in the World.’ What could be better than trying to spread this? And I loved Thay. Thay first told me, “make this movie mindfully.” Now movies are made lots of ways – screaming, cajoling, arguing, working insane hours, travelling like crazy – but mindfully is not really one I had experienced. Once, when shooting Thay and some of the monks on a really hot day when everyone was tired, the cameras broke. I got a bit worried the monks would call it quits or be upset about having to do it all again and waiting for the cameras to be But Thay said, as we were waiting, “This is a wonderful moment. Let’s enjoy it.” Only if all movies could be made this way!
Part of filmmaking is selling the film, and putting in elements that will attract an audience. At one point, as I was raising money, I decided to put in the film supermodels, sports stars and ninjas types. I figured this would attract a broad audience, and they all practiced mindfulness, so it was authentic. Thay, I thought, understood, but this caused a bit of a ‘monk uprising’ among what I call the monk community. Most hated the idea. Had this not been, well, this movie, about mindfulness, I would have reacted by saying, “Tough – it’s my movie, I’m right, you are wrong and we are doing it this way, and if you want to fight, I will use the controversy against you to sell the movie.’ But then I thought of Thay’s words – make the movie mindfully.
Peace in Yourself, Peace in the World
One of my favorite Thay-isms is, ‘Be Still and Know.” I did get still and realized making this documentary is not like making my other movies. I am not the voice here, I am the conduit, the presenter of the voices. You guys are the Zen masters, I’m the filmmaker. So, for the first time in my life in movies, I axed the supermodels and ninjas. That of course made it kind of impossible to raise money, so I decided I would finance the movie myself. What could be better, as a charitable cause, than to try to spread ‘Peace in Yourself, Peace in the World,’ I again thought. We did, over time, in addition to Thay, Sister Chan Khong, and Sister D, attract some wonderful, brilliant and famous mindful practitioners from all walks of life. They include Deepak Chopra, Academy Award winning film director Oliver Stone, TV star and ‘dog whisperer’ Cesar Milan, Harvard professor Dr. Blaise Aguirre and famous actress Sharon Stone.
When editing all the footage from all these interviews, I discovered two things. First, spending several hours a day watching and listening to these interviews made me so relaxed and mindful! Just their words had this effect, so I knew we were onto something.
Second, any ‘flashy’ or B roll, as we call footage of people doing things like teaching, walking, travelling, took away from the great words our teachers spoke. If we weren’t going to have the supermodels, I decided, let’s have just the substance. Nothing else. No flashy shots, no animation, no visual effects. A Zen like film about Zen.
We had so many great people saying so many thought provoking, inspiring, mindful things, I decided we would just have the interviews. My goal became not to make the movie for the already deep into mindful practitioners, but for those searching, wanting to learn, needing just the right introduction to start their own process of discovery.
My goal became not to make the movie for the already deep into mindful practitioners, but for those searching, wanting to learn, needing just the right introduction to start their own process of discovery. Planting the seeds, as Sister D called it. I think people all over the world are searching for this, they are just not sure where to start. Plus, I wanted to make it fun and mindful when you watch.
The Joy of Mindfulness
The film was released in November on Video on Demand (internet based on demand viewing, like Hulu and Amazon and iTunes – how these types of films are released these days). To my surprise, the distributors did no marketing. Also to my surprise, neither did the monks. Sister CK did ask if there was a Hollywood premier she should come to (see, everyone gets a little affected by Hollywood!). Once again, Thay’s words came back to me: Make the movie mindfully. It would have been kind of ironic to scream about a movie about mindfulness. Funny, but ironic. So instead, I hired a great publicist. Then, a funny thing started happening. People started finding the film, and loved the film.
I’ve made over 200 movies. Family members and friends who probably have never called me about any of them, called and said they loved it. ‘It was excellent.’ They recommended it. People we didn’t know called, wrote and asked for screenings. The reporters I spoke to seemed genuinely interested – not only for their readers but for themselves. And the film has only been out for six weeks, so it is early in the process.
What do I feel about all this? Mostly, I realized, I feel gratitude. I’m grateful for all the wonderful people I have met, like Thay, learned from and become friends with. I’m grateful I can share what I have learned with people now by simply pointing them to the film. I’m grateful that now I rarely get mad, do not multi task any more but uni task, get ‘still and know’ often and have very little if any anxiety any more.
Finally, Dr Aguirre told me someone called him and told them the film made them cry with joy, as mindfulness helped save one of their children. He said to me if that’s all the film did, just for this one person it would be worth it. I’m grateful for that.
Now, to be clear, I still make action and science fiction movies full of supermodels and ninjas, and I love it more than ever. But now I always hear Thay’s words in my soul, not just about our documentary, but about all my movies: Make the movie mindfully.
So hopefully, I now do!
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