Life on Cruise Control: Is Mario Salcedo the Happiest Guy in the World?
We’ve all had that thought, haven’t we? What would happen if I just, well, left? In our ceaselessly busy world, the idea of packing a bag, quitting our job, and leaving the problems of the world on a distant shoreline seems idyllic—almost fantastical. But, on a massive ship in the middle of the ocean, filmmaker Lance Oppenheim found such a person in Mario Salcedo, and made a film about him. “The Happiest Guy in the World” is Lance’s most recent short, in which he gives us a colorful, poignant look at what seven thousand nights—or nineteen years—on a cruise ship feels like. On the surface, such an existence seems serene, almost perfect. And yet, as we vicariously dive into Salcedo’s life, we begin to sense what’s absent. Happiness is a choice, right? We spoke with Lance about his approach to the film and the stories behind the final cut.
Brittany Washington: How did Mario first enter your life? How’d you find him?
Lance Oppenheim: I had first learned about Mario through my grandparents — both avid cruisers. As several of their senior friends have opted to spend more time on cruises than on land, my grandparents had heard of an “élite cabal” of permanent passengers scattered across different cruise lines. Having fostered an interest in making films that explore the transformation of non-traditional places and spaces into homes, I was immediately intrigued. I spent several months attempting to get into contact with one senior passenger (who had been living aboard Cunard cruises for nearly a decade), but she unfortunately passed away at age 94 in 2013. After doing more research, I soon discovered there were other “frequent floaters,” and eventually stumbled across Mario’s story. From USA Today, to Travel Weekly, to even The New York Times, Mario’s story — collected by reporters when Mario was at bay — had been well-documented, yet I felt that his day-to-day life at sea had not been fully addressed. I made contact with Mario after connecting with Royal Caribbean’s PR team, and sensing his extreme enthusiasm for wanting to depict that day-to-day routine, I managed to convince four friends (including my sister!) to join me on the high seas for five days.
BW: The film is beautiful, brightly colored, scenic — almost dream-like in its aesthetic. It’s also quite paced out, and really allows the viewer to breath, to truly be with the subject — a similar mood to Long-term Parking, a previous Op-Doc you did. Tell us about your visual approach.
LO: Rather than measuring shots by their independent aesthetic merits, the visual language of the film was developed by how Mario viewed his cruise-ship home. To do so, we chose to shoot the film anamorphically on steadicam to allow viewers to get closer to inhabiting Mario’s fantasy. Further, one of our chief intentions was to push beyond the headlines and local news reports that have circulated around Mario’s unique living conditions, and instead delve into his headspace. As Mario has been often quoted on the fantastical elements of living on a cruise ship (“I think I live a fairy tale existence. It’s not a real life…”), I wanted to portray Mario in a manner reminiscent to space-travel sci-fi films (a la Steven Soderbergh’s portrait of Clooney in his SOLARIS remake): untethered from our reality in a continual state of beautifully insightful, blissful ignorance.
BW: I’d imagine that, at some point while filming, you asked him about how he affords to live on cruise ships. What did he say? I’m curious as to why you choose to leave it out of the film.
LO: Though he receives accommodations/supplementary benefits from Royal Caribbean, Mario supports himself through a small finance management business that he manages remotely from the cruise ship. For me, it wasn’t necessarily important for audiences to understand how Mario is able to afford to live on the cruise (a point that has been belabored by the news coverage he has received). Rather, I was more interested in delving deeper into Mario’s headspace, and cinematically simulating the effects of what spending more than 7,000 days on a cruise ship would do to you.
BW: The piece so nicely juxtaposes exterior impressions with Mario’s inner struggles. There are a few uncomfortable moments that question Mario’s claim to be the “happiest guy in the world.” Tell us a bit more about this dynamic.
LO: Our shoot was a relatively difficult one, in that our presence as a crew of four presented disruptions to Mario’s usual routine (especially in attempting to shoot in incredibly tight places like his cabin!). Though Mario surrounds himself with throngs of anonymous tourists, he nevertheless is a private man who leads a relatively monastic life at sea to shirk away from the responsibilities that land-life would dictate. We ultimately were able to find a way that would mutually work for the both of us — a process that involved us simply setting up shots in the places we knew he would eventually flock to. From there, we would attempt to capture moments of his day as unobtrusively as possible.
BW: Were there any moments left on the cutting room floor that should be mentioned?
LO: Yes and no. We spent a long time attempting to find the right length and pacing for the film — especially considering that much of the piece’s structure is more of a roving exploration rather than following a concretely linear story. Much of the stuff we lost on the cutting room floor were largely extended versions of scenes that are already included in the final cut. That said, I do wish we were able to capture more of the circularity of Mario’s routine. For example, crazily enough, Mario gets honored in the same fashion (as he does by the captain early on the film) every week.
BW: The film recently premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. (Congratulations, by the way! ) Has Mario seen the film? How did he receive it?
LO: Thank you! Mario saw the film shortly after our screening with the Video Consortium. Sadly, though he won’t be able to attend the film’s premiere at Tribeca, he did share with us the following note:
“Totally enjoyed watching the final product… I absolutely loved the title “ The Happiest Guy in the World” … you could not have come up with a better one. And you did an outstanding job in showing all the various phases of my alternative lifestyle…I will be sailing every week this year … zero time will be spent on land … so unfortunately I will be missing your screening at the TriBeCa Film Festival … I would love to be there with you … but you, out of all the people in the world, know well that I have to be floating on the ocean to survive. Many thanks for your kind invite … and I wish you the very best at the Festival!”
BW: That’s fantastic. And, now that this has wrapped, what’s next?
LO: I am working on two new projects — another Florida story that explores the largest retirement community in the world, and another about the exclamation point.