In this interview, Shane Nelson discusses art as a social experiment.
As far as stages go, where in your career do you feel you’re in?
That’s a hard question! I would have to say I am still in the budding stage, as it is. We have one feature-length film under our belt and have scripts written out for others. Our production company, Guilty Peach Productions, is slowly gaining momentum and we have many freelance projects on our calendar as well. I never set out to work up a ladder and decided to do things independently [because] making movies is my passion and not my “job.” We are building our own staircase, so to speak.
You filmed a documentary titled "Left" wherein you walked across the country asking people a set of five questions. You did this pretty soon after finishing college. How did this idea come about?
When I was in high school, a friend and I had very similar dreams a night apart from each other. Both dreams dealt with walking across the city of Savannah to Tybee Island. The next night we decided to go for it. We joked about walking across the country and being homeless for a year. That event stuck with me throughout the years, but it wasn’t until my senior year of college that the idea came full circle. I was reading a lot on Ken Kesey & The Merry Pranksters, more specifically the book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I was enamored with their extroverted personalities and the cross-country “trips” they took. They would load up the bus and go wherever life took them, filming everything along the way. They had a mindset that everyone was the star of their own movie. I thought, “Hey! I could do that!” But I didn’t have a bus.
I want to understand the preparation that went into this project, speaking first to the physical aspect of it. Did you take time to train or did you just go for it? Was there research done about what to pack with you? Did you determine when to walk based [on] the seasons?
I trained every day for around three months prior to my departure. I started walking everywhere I could. I would increase distance every other day. As far as research goes, walking across the continent is not an uncommon thing. Around 20-30 people do it a year. There was plenty of information online [about] what people did during their walks. It was a good starting point, but everyone’s journey takes its own unique shape, so I learned a lot as I went along. That made it a little more exciting for me, and I ditched a lot of my preplanned routes. Even though I started later than I wanted to, I was still able to avoid the harsher cold weather. I can’t say the same for some of the summer days; however, being from Savannah, Gawga, I will choose heat over cold any day.
As far as administrative concerns, did your schooling prepare you [for] drafting interview release waivers, obtaining music permissions, fundraising techniques, etc. or were these things that you had to educate yourself on?
My film coursework readily prepared me for these endeavors. I wouldn’t have made it very far without the lessons I learned from my teachers Tyson Davis, Jason Knowles, or the late Kent Murray. I hated having the extra weight, yet I still carried a binder filled with 500 release forms. I would mail the signed ones home whenever I could.
I tried to stay away from having to use music licenses. Since we are independent filmmakers, I prefer [that] our music [comes from] independent musicians. We reap mutual exposure when we work together. Most of the music in the film was recorded live and was written by the performer. The two exceptions were cover songs. I got the appropriate licenses for each of these songs, but it wasn’t without a bit of hassle. Licensing requirements can take a LONG time, so it is necessary to remain patient and proactive. And always have a backup plan in case something doesn’t work out for that specific song.
[Did you research] hitchhiking laws before you began your journey?
My route wasn’t determined by any hitchhiking laws. Although I did hitch a few times, I had never really planned on it. When I first started planning my trip, I had wanted to include certain concerts and music festivals within my film. I was not able to secure proper licensing and didn’t want to take the risk, so the footage from these performances was not included. The film took a different direction regardless, focusing more on the street musician rather than the big name artists.
As far as research goes, I looked into what the laws were for which roadways I could or could not walk on, what the terrain would be like, and what the wildlife consisted of. I tried to explore a lot of my route possibilities using Google Earth, making note of lodging, campsites, gas stations, and the width of the road shoulders.
Did you have any personal concerns about walking across the country? As a woman, I wouldn’t be OK with hitchhiking, at least not by myself.
Well, again, hitchhiking wasn’t necessarily a part of the plan. I was pushing a large cart, so it wasn’t like I could squeeze into any little Volkswagen Beetle that stopped me.
However, I am pretty crafty and can read people well, so I never feared anyone that approached me. Eventually I did take a few rides from strangers here and there. I never asked for one, but if one was offered, I would talk to them for a little bit (performing a discrete vetting examination) before making my decision.
I was more concerned with the wildlife, the weather, and avoiding head-on collisions from oncoming traffic. The traffic is the most dangerous part of the journey. I have had a few friends lose their lives to a collision [while] doing the same thing I was doing. I had some close calls, so I would consider myself lucky to be alive today. Being aware of your surroundings at all times is of the upmost importance during an endeavor such as this.
You crowdfunded through Kickstarter. How was that experience? What did you need to do to get people to support your idea? I’ve been a part of campaigns that were a failure because it wasn’t understood that it wasn’t enough just to post it on your social media; people needed to feel invested in the project.
I hit my goal near the end of my Kickstarter campaign and it was an awesome feeling. The thing with any sort of crowdfunding is you have to establish an attraction for the donors—make them not only believe in the idea, but in your ability to accomplish it.
Proper planning is key in order to gain support. If you show that you have everything mapped out, including your budget, and if your rewards are enticing enough, you are likely to succeed. An idea can sound great at face value, but the true selling point is when the backers are confident that their money will not only yield some sort of promised perk, but will ultimately fund something that they too believe in and know will succeed.
I usually try to appeal to people with a layer of humor (but not too much, as an air of seriousness is needed). My Kickstarter video featured [me] interviewing myself. One served as the pitchman, who explained the ins and outs of my idea and what I planned to do to accomplish it, whereas the other served as the comic relief. Creating a proper balance between humor and sincerity will keep people engaged, so all of the information is presented without the viewer losing interest.
What did you think to fundraise for?
I planned my budget according to food, supplies for the walk, and post production. I had a goal of $6000, with $1500 going towards the material needed to make my walk happen, [and] $3500 went into the expenses for film equipment and post production. The extra $1000 was used to supplement my basic needs of water, food, and shelter. I had saved around $3000 more for that as well. I based my numbers off of what I felt like my personal spending habits were in comparison to successful Kickstarter campaigns that had a similar concept.
Were there unexpected expenses once you were traveling?
None that stick out to me, aside from a hospital visit for when I got pinkeye in Nebraska.
Did you create your own production company in order to produce the documentary?
I had always used the moniker “Slimsam Productions” when dealing with any of my personal films. Since then, I have partnered with my hometown friend Blake Turner and together we created Guilty Peach Productions. This is our independent production company that we are going to keep building into the future.
The people in the documentary sometimes gave you rather personal responses to your questions. What challenges were there to get strangers to engage with you to such a sincere level?
I always let the other person approach me first. Outside of a cardboard sign that said, “I’m walking across America,” I never advertised to strangers that I was filming a movie. It may have been a drawback in regards to creating diversity on-screen; however, it also [weeded] out the people that weren’t comfortable being filmed or opening up to a stranger. It was much easier to get honest and sincere answers from people [who] opened the door to begin with.
I feel as though my personality and the “purpose” of my project put people at ease as well. In my experience, when people do something for a cause or for awareness for some group or entity, it often times non-intentionally projects an ulterior motive. People are turned off to the notion of giving away money or time to something that they may feel doesn’t affect them directly. My film project didn’t ask for money. I didn’t try to force any beliefs on anyone. All I did was open the opportunity for discussion. I asked for opinions. And if the Internet is any indication, people LOVE sharing opinions! Left was filmed with a GoPro. I could certainly see the convenience of having a compact camera that’s meant to endure the elements and physical abuse, but were there any technical limitations to using a GoPro?
I would say that 95% of the film was actually shot on a Canon T3i. The GoPro was used primarily for supplementary shots when I was walking so that I could shoot hands-free using one of the convenient attachment accessories that GoPro is known for. Any limitations that the GoPro would have were made up for by use of the T3i, and vice versa. It is important to have multiple options in order to not limit your possibilities.
You coined the hashtag #ShaneWalksLeft. How much was social media a part of this project?
It is funny you ask that. One of my biggest reasons for doing this was to find out where that balance lies for need and overindulgence within social media. One of the questions I asked was, “Do we communicate well as a society?”
Most people seemed to think that we do not at all, and that social media is a big reason why. We can communicate shallow things and ideas across to a wide audience, but we can’t seem to connect with the people right in front of us. I think that I use social media far too often and would admit that I am a bit addicted to it. However, due to my job field, it is a necessary evil as I have to promote my product, which sometimes can be myself!
During my walk, social media was essential, although I do often wonder what the experience would have been like without it. Social media allowed me to make connections with people all across the country, and they would share my story. I would meet people who had seen me on their friend’s Facebook or be offered a place to stay by someone down the road. It was truly an incredible tool for meeting people and getting my message out. I still talk to many of these people today. There are many different social media apps that came in handy all throughout the trip. Life360 allowed my friends and family to track me via GPS, and I could send out a distress signal if I was in danger. Venmo allowed me to pay people electronically [and] even to receive some donations if they were offered. Vine, Facebook, and Instagram helped people stay current with where I was in my journey and allowed engaging posts to be shared via other social media apps. Using my hashtag made it easy for people to find my page. Being mistaken for another cross-country walker via Instagram also led me to meeting Jared Reichbaum.
Jared was walking across America to register bone marrow donors and was a day behind me. If someone hadn’t confused our identities, I may never have met him! We walked together for almost three months after meeting in Omaha. We split ways midway through Nevada. Instagram and Facebook Messenger also allowed Jared and I to start a group chat that kept us in touch with some other cross-country walkers, specifically Pete DeMuth, Mitchell Sodersten, and Ben Claggett. The latter two were on our same route about a month or two ahead of us and gave us tips on routes and camp spots. CouchSurfing, Facebook, and yes, even Tinder helped me find lodging and meet some really cool people. I must note at this point that I never used Tinder for its perceived purpose—only to find a couch to sleep on. It worked a few times, but I can’t even begin to explain how some of those conversations went.
What’s next for you?
Now we build our brand and focus on our latest projects within Guilty Peach Productions. We have a lot of new stuff coming out for people to enjoy and I cannot wait to share with everyone! This includes some feature-length films as well as an independently-produced talk show and a few sketch series. Our biggest project currently is a faux-television network that we [have] been building called “The Live Stream Network.” By collaborating with many content creators, we have been using Facebook’s livestream feature to stream unique and original content straight to Facebook. We treat it as if it is our own independent television network and stream around an hour’s worth of content biweekly. It is like a mixture between Adult Swim, Mad TV, Toonami, and something else entirely.
Oh, and I’m writing a book about my walk as well.