In 1993, Eric Saperston graduated from college, hopped into a 1971 Volkswagen Bus with his golden retriever, and set off to follow the Grateful Dead. What a long, strange trip it turned out to be.
Challenged by his college mentor to make his Deadhead meanderings more meaningful, Saperston hit upon an idea that rerouted both his tour and his life. As he puts it, "I decided to call up some of the most powerful people in the world and ask them out for a cup of coffee."
The result, nearly nine years later, is The Journey, a 91-minute documentary that chronicles Saperston's three years on the road asking an array of figures — CEOs, movie stars, leadership gurus, a former U.S. president — for advice on how to lead a successful life. The Journey is On the Road meets Tuesdays With Morrie. It's Roger & Me meets Chicken Soup for the Soul. It's MTV's Road Rules with a heart. It's ... well, you get the idea. The film — which premiered at last year's South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas and captured the audience prize at the Atlanta Film & Video Festival — opened last year in New York and Washington, DC and is slated to open in more markets this year.
"I never planned to make a movie," says Saperston. But, as he explains, "Sometimes you take a trip; sometimes a trip takes you." When bigwigs began agreeing to see him, Saperston persuaded his friend Dave Murcott to quit his job and get on the bus. Then he convinced his friend Paige O'Brien to make it a trio. And after considerable cajoling, he lured cinematographer Kathleen Kelly away from MTV to join their adventure.
As the bus chugged along, the crew began to pick up corporate sponsors. UPS chipped in $10,000. AAA wrote a check. The crew pocketed $20,000 from Walt Disney Co., which at one point wanted to turn their odyssey into a TV show.
All the while, the camera continued to roll, capturing advice from those whom Saperston calls "elders." Jimmy Carter urges never to underestimate the power of one person. "Oz" Nelson, then-CEO of UPS, crumbles into tears explaining the role of family. "You'll get a lot of no's," says ninetysomething former vaudevillian Maurice Duke, exhaling a life lesson between puffs of his cigar, "but then one guy will say yes."
Duke's advice could be The Journey's slogan. Saperston calls CEOs — cold — from pay phones. And calls. And calls. Yet Saperston, who is bulldogish in both appearance and personality, is a surprisingly appealing character for such a pest. He's Huck Finn with a digital camcorder. He's Merriweather Lewis with a laptop. He's Charles Kuralt with a goatee. He's ... well, you get the idea.
He's also shrewd, using each interview to land another. A checkers game with Ann Richards leads to a conversation with Henry Winkler. "I was more nervous interviewing Henry Winkler than I was hanging out with President Carter," Saperston says. Winkler then leads to Billy Crystal in a bizarre in-the-flesh version of "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon."
Indeed, Winkler becomes the expedition's North Star. They call him regularly from the road for advice and inspiration. ("Are you eating well?" Winkler asks, sounding more like Mrs. C. than the Fonz.) He hooks the foursome up with other celebrities. And, in the end, he tells them to listen to their instincts and come home.
The Journey isn't exactly Citizen Kane. Like an extra-large pizza, it can be both cheesy and sloppy. Yet it's irresistible. In irony-free 2002, it may be — and I forbid the use of the following phrase in any advertisement — the feel-good movie of the year. Saperston, who is now CEO of Journey Productions Inc., is on the lecture circuit. He and his current compatriots — Patrick Jones, a Duke MBA who became executive VP of Journey Productions, and Kelly, the company's director of production and the film's director of photography — have also hit the corporate speaking circuit, screening the movie for companies such as Coca-Cola and Nike.
Their journey has turned these gen-X wanderers into figures who dispense advice as well as collect it. What counsel would these road-tested veterans offer to those mapping their life's course? "Be grateful for the moment you're in," says Kelly. "If you are just doing excellently what you're doing every day, that is success." In other words, it's not the destination. It's the journey.
Learn about The Journey on the Web (www.thejourneyfilm.com), and post your review in Sound Off.
Sidebar: Mind Your Elders
Filmmaker Eric Saperston spent three years on the road interviewing famous people about how to lead a meaningful and successful life. Here is a sample of the advice he gathered.
Former governor of Texas
"You're not sent here on this earth to spend your life in drudgery.... You're going to do a lot of that because you have to earn a living. But the main thing is [to] enjoy."
Author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
"Follow your bliss — and your heart will lead you right."
"You can never give up your power.... Once you start giving that up to somebody else, then you're done. I exhaust every inch of what I can do to find the right solution to a problem."
"Your mind knows only some things. Your inner voice, your instinct, knows everything. If you listen to what you know instinctively, it will always lead you down the right path."
Former president of Coca-Cola
"What separates those who achieve from those who do not is in direct proportion to one's ability to ask for help."
A version of this article appeared in the February 2002 issue of Fast Company magazine.