In June of 2010, Ray Williams left Boston’s shores and arrived in the majestic terra firma of Iceland with little more than the idea to make a travel film about . . . something.
Armed with just a love of travel, a camera, and a loose plan, Williams and his crew — essentially himself and a camera person — had a production budget limited to what he was able to amass bartending and waiting tables. There wasn’t a script. Soon after, they met a perfect stranger, handed him a camera and audio equipment, including some earphones purchased for a few bucks on a recent JetBlue flight, and dubbed him “sound guy.”
“He had the time of his life,” says Williams. “He came to Iceland to go camping, but we sucked him in.”
Williams, 34, who lives in Boston, says the sudden addition of a crew member made the group seem somewhat more professional, and by the end of the trip, locals and even the Icelandic club scene welcomed them in to party as VIPs.
Back then it would have been hard to believe that in five or so years, “Hostile Living,” the nascent, episodic docu-travel-culture-comedy series created by Williams and featuring a cast of friends and co-workers as they immerse themselves in foreign cultures, would find its footing enough to take home a film festival award. In this case, “Best Experimental Film” at the Manhattan Film Festival in April.
“This is a series [about] passionate guys doing this with no experience, learning on the fly, on a shoestring budget, with long-shot odds,” says Williams, noting that the project’s name is a play on both hostels, which budget travelers know well, and the plight to break into the travel film and television industry.
The winning installment, “Hostile Living Vietnam: The Bourdain Experiment,” is essentially a scripted cat-and-mouse search to find Anthony Bourdain, a popular Travel Channel personality, chef, and author, while he filmed his own program in Vietnam.
The theme that connects that Vietnam episode back to the first sojourn to Iceland, and to every trip since, is a love of travel. That, and working together at Haru Sushi in the Back Bay.
“There’s this revolving door of characters that travel and are also serving tables [with us] at Haru,” says Williams. “It’s this odd place where we all met, and I had this crazy idealistic idea that I was going to turn my passion for travel into a career.”
The original concept was to highlight world travel on the cheap through the lens of that initial Iceland trip. But Williams and his co-writer, cameraman, and editor Mark Kelley, 31, say the team realized the loose footage they were amassing demonstrated everyone had a lot to learn about how the travel filmmaking sausage was made, and maybe that was part of the story, too. They weren’t film students, after all.
Subsequent trips for other “Hostile Living” episodes have taken the crew to Iceland, Panama, and China, as well as two expeditions to Colombia — the latter involving successfully tracking down and meeting with Pablo Escobar’s brother by way of being smuggled in the back of a truck filled with scrap metal and 10 other people.
For Williams, the film festival award is validation for a primarily self-financed passion project, and for the effort that went into actually getting Bourdain’s attention, which was key to wrapping up the celebrated Vietnam episode.
In 2015, the team launched a Kickstarter campaign aimed at raising a thousand dollars, an arbitrary amount they set to “purchase” an hour of Bourdain’s time. They hit their target in just a few days, eventually growing their Bourdain-meeting war chest to more than $6,000. All they needed then was for the man himself to catch wind of it.
Enter Tim Williams (no relation to Ray Williams), otherwise known as “Trivago Guy.” The filmmakers reached out to the discount travel website pitchman through his fanpage, and the two Williamses met for a few lunches in New York City. Eventually Trivago Guy connected the “Hostile Living” crew with Bourdain’s assistant. The Trivago pitchman’s willingness to help them connect with Bourdain’s people proved to be the big break they needed.
Bourdain eventually agreed to check out the group’s project if they donated the money they’d raised on Kickstarter to charity. And while they never got to meet with Bourdain in person, he sent the “Hostile Living” crew a filmed response of him watching their work and commenting on it, and that footage was later edited into the film. The critique scene underscored the filmmakers’ underdog status and the lumps one must take when soliciting feedback.
As for what’s next, Williams and company are hoping the attention will lead them to the kind of deep-pocketed backers that could make a full-time career traveling the world and making films possible.
Williams offers with a smile, “We’re just waiting.”