Adapt and Expect the Unexpected: Storytelling Lessons from the Producers of ‘Travel by Dart’

Imagine getting together with your buddy one day, throwing a dart on a whim at the world map, promising you would pack up and go wherever that dart lands.

What if that dart lands at the North Pole? Or in the middle of a country with political unrest?

Imagine traveling wherever that dart takes you — then throwing it again. And again.

For Sorin Mihailovici and Matt Cook, what seemed like a crazy idea — who does that? — turned not only into an adventure but also into a unique way to tell compelling stories.

Travel by Dart at North Pole

Sorin Mihailovici and Matt Cook took off for the North Pole without knowing they’d turn their idea into a show. Good thing they brought a professional videographer with them to document their experience.

Inspired by the positive reaction and success of their first trip — to North Pole — the Canadian duo decided they had the makings of a show on their hands. With an added element of philanthropy and the gumption to embrace a story without knowing what that story is, they set off to make Travel by Dart into a series. (Watch the pilot and the Russia episode online.)

Following their second trip to Russia, where they visited an orphanage, Mihailovici and Cook have been trying to get the attention of a celebrity as well as a television network. Regardless of how successful that turns out, the pair are off at the end of the month to Calcutta, India, where they’ll throw their third dart.

Many creative people thrive on chaos but as a writer and a filmmaker myself, I know that throwing yourself (no pun intended) at a story without knowing what that story is requires not only a certain skill and curiosity but also a daring attitude.

Travel by Dart is a hybrid of a reality show, short documentary and campaign for a cause — and proof that if you follow your heart and take risks, it can lead to something beautiful, no matter how crazy it sounds.

Even for Sorin Mihailovici, who’s been a media producer for 17 years, the experience proved challenging at times. I recently spoke with him about the lessons the two have learned so far as storytellers.

How is this different from traditional filmmaking?

What we want to do is inspire people by telling stories but the stories have to be real and eye-opening. We cannot script the show because once we go to a place, we don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s not like doing a documentary, where you have all the shots prepared and a schedule from the beginning. We have to be very good at storytelling with the stuff we encounter.

What challenges does that kind of storytelling create?

A lot of challenges. First of all, for us the concept of throwing the dart basically means face the unexpected. In a game of cards, for example, you have to play the game with the cards that you’re dealt. And you have to win the hand with what you have.

We have to make something happen in a good way where you’re not only winning the hand but getting somebody else to win. So obviously the storytelling has to be extremely good.

Once you’re at your destination, how do you know when you’ve found the right story to tell when you can do so many things with it?

Every successful movie or reality show, every successful story has to have specific elements. We put down a few things — like we have to have an antagonist. It doesn’t have to be a person.

Travel by Dart photo

Filming in Russia

In the Russia show, we didn’t have an interpreter so we emphasized that in the story as the antagonist. Another antagonist was not getting the visa in time. So we created a little bit of conflict in telling the story so people would ask, are they going to make it?

Once we got there, we decided on which of those winning aspects to focus on. For example, Matt fell in love in Russia for real so we put that in the movie.

Any other winning storytelling elements that you can mention?

Drama, but not necessarily like an antagonist. In Russia, toward the end of the movie, you see all those kids taking their gifts and some of them were crying. Drama doesn’t have to be a bad drama.

You have to get the viewer to emphasize with you in your endeavor. You have to get him to like you first. In business, there’s that concept of “know me, like me, trust me, pay me” — that could apply anywhere. “Pay me” doesn’t mean pay me money but pay with your “yes, I like your stuff.”

How much research do you do before your trip? Do you contact the people you may want to interview?

We do quite a bit because we have to serve the cause, whether it’s child homelessness or polar bears. We need to find that specific cause and we don’t want it to be political.

We try to find as many compelling stories as we can but we also need to find one that matches the mandate. In every country, there’s something to do.

How do you know that you’ve nailed the story? Creative people often tend to keep fine-tuning and revising, and some projects never seem to end. How do you know it’s time to stop — or is it based on a timeline because once the trip is over, you’ve got what you’ve got?

It’s exactly that, we have a timeline. In Russia, another thing we emphasized as part of the antagonist was the fact that of all the orphanages we contacted, none would let us film. We could come visit but not film.

How did you overcome that?

We have a saying that the world spins the way it spins, and good thing that it spins in our favor. There’s always something.

In Russia, Matt fell in love with this girl who actually spoke English. She liked him so much, she took a few days from work and decided to call, in Russian, every orphanage she could find.

All the orphanages in Moscow and St. Petersburg said no but after a few hours of calling, she found one in the middle of nowhere.

So some of it is luck?

Yes.

When we hired somebody here to call, the orphanage we ended up at was one of those we called. Initially they said no but when the girl called again, they said come.

What was the biggest lesson you learned as a producer?

You have to expect the unexpected every single time. Whatever you’re planning, add more time to it.

How was this different from the work you’ve been doing as a media producer?

What I’ve been doing is scripted and you have everything by the minute down on paper. When you go into the unknown and you’re trying to get something good with the cards you’ve being dealt, you learn to adapt to things fast and in the best way possible.

Do you think it takes a certain personality to adapt or can any creative person rise to the occasion?

It’s not for everybody, that’s for sure. If you’ve chosen that path, you have to be ready to do it. But you have to get a taste of whatever you want to do and if producing and storytelling is your thing, you’ll know after a few tries.

You have a unique concept and unique mission. Can you talk about the idea of finding a niche as a storyteller? Any words of advice for other creatives?

Sometimes a lot of things come your way and you have to embrace them as they come. You have to sample things.

I’m Romanian and in Romania there’s a saying that says your appetite comes with eating. The more you like something, the more you start doing it. You can chose the things that come your way and turn them into creative and successful projects, whatever that may be.

Any other lessons as a storyteller that you’ve learned through this experience?

I’ve learned that scripted interviews are not telling the story the same way as the ones done on the spot. When you tell your story, you have to be as genuine as possible. Be yourself because people like the genuine aspect.

 

Sorin and Matt have a winning formula for telling good stories: take risks, be curious and ready for anything and don’t be afraid to go off script. Add a little conflict and drama — and  you have a compelling story that gets your audience rooting for you. Throw that proverbial dart at your map, and go for it!

Author: Rodika Tollefson

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *