In the five years since author Mark Manson published “The Fine Art of Not Giving a F*k,” the self-help book has sold more than 15 million copies, spent 279 weeks on the NY Times bestseller list and transcended the pop culture realm.
“It’s really been a pleasant surprise,” says Manson diversity Zoom Over, out in late December, reflects the success of the book, which combines historical anecdotes with personal stories of teenage indolence and mid-twenties blunders to illustrate the best way to live a contented life.
“I’ve heard great people from all over the world — like Aaron Rodgers say it was his favorite book in the offseason and helped him prepare after losing the playoffs — it’s just crazy stuff,” Manson continued. “It’s a real pleasure and joy as a writer to see these kinds of things. And when that happens it makes my day.”
And while it was special to see Rogers choose titles for his book club in January 2022 — praising Manson’s philosophy of focusing on what’s really important in life instead of giving an af*ck about things that aren’t — it’s just one of many shout-outs he’s had lately. I had to wrap my mind around it.
last month, An eagle-eyed observer Manson’s follow-up book, 2019’s “Everything is F*cked,” was seen in a Season 2 episode of HBO’s “The White Lotus.” Then, on Friday, U.S. Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) went viral when she was photographed reading “The Fine Art of Not Giving a F*k” amid chaos in the House of Representatives during a four-day marathon speaker election (Kevin McCarthy (R -Calif.) was finally confirmed as Speaker of the House on the 15th vote.)
“We made it Congress fam,” Manson tweeted after the photo went viral online.
And he made it to Hollywood, too, in the (slightly re-titled) documentary “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a #@%!” With, which is now playing in select theaters and is available for rent and digital download
Over the years, Manson fielded several pitches from producers interested in turning the tome into a film, but Matthew Metcalf’s (“Don Reid”) approach ultimately won him over. Directed by Nathan Price, the film’s official synopsis describes the project as “a cinematic documentary designed to help us become less fearful people” delivered through some unusually truthful, R-rated language.
“I think part of what made the book work was that it was very disruptive to the self-help genre—it was funny; It was disrespectful; It was a little strange at times; It keeps them surprised and doing unexpected things,” explained Manson. “We wanted to bring the same ethos to the film – some crazy animation and fun footage and some stuff that’s a bit more and silly.”
When Manson and the filmmakers began pre-production on the project, the author realized that it would be three or four years since he would really look back at the book and evaluate its content.
“As a writer, it’s always an uncertain situation to go back and read your old work because you never know how you respond to it,” Manson explains. “There have been many times where I’ve looked at old articles and pieces that I wrote years ago and cringed a bit, saying, ‘I can’t believe I published this.'”
But in the case of “subtle art,” Manson was “pleasantly surprised” by what he found when he turned the pages. “I still felt good about 99% of the ideas and concepts,” he says. “There was some nitpicking like, ‘I could have written this paragraph better today’ or ‘I wish I had taken one more stab at it in this chapter,’ but it stuck in my mind.”
Manson’s participation in the film was twofold: First, he sat down with Price for nearly 20 hours of interviews, recounting stories from the book over three days. Then, the author does some light acting in a few live-action scenes, like synchronized swimmers floating through a pool while waxing poetic about his self-help stories.
After participating in hundreds of interviews about the book, the retelling of the stories was “very natural and kind of easy,” Manson says. “I feel like I had about five years of dress rehearsals for the shoot.”
He added: “The thing that was uncomfortable was watching it after shooting, because I’m a writer. I’m not used to being on camera.”
Furthermore, the idea of acting took Manson completely out of his comfort zone. “I had no idea what I was doing,” he says with a laugh, thankful that many of the live-action shots were “pretty spontaneous.” For example, in one scene one is asked to handle a snowman. Manson volunteers. “They were going to get a crew member to do it, and I was like, ‘Why? I’m here,'” he recalled.
But the production allowed Manson to play Desperate Panda, a fan-favorite character featured in the book, whose superpower is telling people harsh truths. “Originally we were going to do a shot where I take the head off and it turns out to be me, but you couldn’t see a thing outside of that suit and it became a safety hazard,” says Manson.
The author also watched from the sidelines as two young men acted out scenes from his teenage years, pretending to be him during a major turning point in his life, such as his arrest in eighth grade for possession of marijuana. Manson had no hand in the selection – which he described as two wonderful young people in New Zealand, where the documentary was filmed amid the Covid pandemic – who portrayed them.
“I met them briefly on set one day,” he says, laughing again. “It was totally weird.”
As weird as that moment was, it’s not his most memorable experience from the shoot. That crown goes to filming the book’s final chapter, an anecdote about Manson’s friend Josh’s unexpected death as a teenager, which changed his outlook on life.
The poignant story stands in stark contrast to the cheeky tone of much of Manson’s writing, so the filmmakers initially decided that this scene would also end the documentary. But the filming was considerably different – and more emotional – than the author imagined it would be.
“Writing that part of the book was emotional,” Manson explains. “But there’s something about writing that’s a little more emotionally detached, or less intimate than saying it, a little more logical.”
Add to that the fact that Price spent a good amount of time getting Manson to think about his friendship with Josh before the cameras rolled, probing him about old stories and showing him some photos his friend’s family had posted online.
“Nathan really got me talking about the old days and my time with him,” Manson recalls. “It really blindsided me because there are so many things I wouldn’t have thought of even in 10-20 years. So when the camera was on, I was in that headspace of being very nostalgic and missing my friend.”
The most impactful moment came towards the end of the conversation. Price asked Manson what he thought Josh would make of it all. “These are things I never considered,” the author says. “I never thought about what Josh would think of my career. He made me emotional on set, which I didn’t expect. He did what a director is supposed to do.”
Now that the film is in the can, Manson is working through a different kind of emotion — a light dose of fear.
“I’ll probably leave the house in abject terror,” Manson said of the prospect of watching the finished film with the audience.
So much for not giving a fuck.