The happiest man in the world

IDFA. Brian McGinn, a connoisseur of quirky characters, picked Mette Heide of Denmark to be his producer after seeing a Heide-produced film about the eccentric Japanese inventor Dr Nakamats. "The Record Breaker" is a documentary comedy about Ashrita Furman, a 56-year-old New Yorker who holds the world record for most world records. The film has its first screening at IDFA on Saturday 17 November. 

Ashrita Furman holds the world record for walking in the heaviest shoes (323 lbs), catching the most grapes in his mouth (202 in three minutes), splitting the most apples in the air with a samurai sword (27 in one minute) and bicycling the longest underwater (3.03 kilometres). He also holds the official record for most Guinness World Records – 147 in all, at this writing.

"We arrived at the conclusion that the core of the story is a universal narrative of letting your children follow their hearts."

"We arrived at the conclusion that the core of the story is a universal narrative of letting your children follow their hearts."

But what drives this 56-year-old manager of a health-food store to dedicate his life to breaking records, to travel round the world and tirelessly train his skills in all manner of odd disciplines, even as his family and friends shake their heads? This is what the American director Brian McGinn set out to investigate in his documentary "The Record Breaker", introducing us to Furman as he trains to ascend Machu Picchu on stilts.

McGinn stumbled on the Danish producer and her company Plus Pictures when he saw one of her past productions, Kaspar Astrup Schröder's "The Invention of Dr Nakamats", a portrait of the eccentric 85-year-old Japanese cult inventor who claims to hold the world record for most patents. McGinn is a devotee of quirky films about incredible things – films like "Man on Wire", Amélie and the work of Wes Anderson. Heide's film about Dr Nakamats made him think that the Furman project would be right up the Danish producer's alley. And it was.

The American connection

Heide founded Plus Pictures in 2008. The company focuses on making thought-provoking, surprising and entertaining documentaries, often produced in partnership with American filmmakers.

"Mixing up the teams makes for exciting information exchange," the producer says. "But even in productions that do not directly involve American co-production partners, we try to include the American partners financially to get into the American distribution market and expand our network. That way, American money goes back to Denmark and we get exciting partners, creatively and financially," she says.

Of course, McGinn's nationality was not why Heide jumped at the project because of but because of the American director's vision of reaching large audiences by making a meaningful documentary comedy. All the same, the American director does provide access to the American market, and that's interesting to Heide because it's so much bigger and has other distribution opportunities than the Danish market.

Ambitious eccentrics

A good example of an artistically and financially successful partnership is the co-production of Lauren Greenfield and Evergreen Pictures' documentary "The Queen of Versailles", which won the Directing Award at Sundance 2012 and has exceeded expectations at American theatres. The film is a Shakespearian tale of an American family of billionaires who got hit by the recession while building the biggest house in America. Though David and Jackie Siegel have no one to blame but themselves and their decadent ways, they are actually rather quite lovable people and easy to identify with – no one was untouched by the recession, after all.

Furman, the subject of Heide's new production, holds the world record for most world records, Dr Nakamats for most patents and the Siegels for biggest house. Eccentric, passionate, larger-than-life characters variously afflicted with delusions of grandeur appear to be the common denominator in Heide's productions. Meanwhile, she has also introduced us to such absurd characters as Ryuichi Ichinokawa, the Japanese proprietor of a company that rents actors out to people who need stand-ins for family members, in Kaspar Astrup Schröder's "Rent a Family Inc", and the dating coach Neil, in Anders Gustafsson's "Chasing Success", who does nonstop sit-ups while raving about how great he feels.

Personally, Heide does not think she goes for offbeat characters as much as what she calls "unique stories with universal themes." On her involvement in "The Record Breaker", she says,

"I'm attracted to unique stories told in entertaining ways. 'The Record Breaker' is an amazingly positive story about a man who wants to be happy and has his own way of looking at what makes him happy."

The courage to go your own way

As they shot the film, it came out that even a zesty record breaker has his sorrows. After dropping out of Columbia University, Furman and his father didn't talk for years, because his father was disappointed that his bright son had abandoned his plan to take over his father's law firm. Instead, Furman devoted himself to spiritual study. His wish to get closer to God, in fact, is what motivates him to break records. Meditation and mental focus enable him to break physical limits, he says. His parents, for their part, were initially unimpressed by all his records.

Furman's conflict with his parents elevates the film from a curiosity to a universal tale of acceptance, dedication and the courage to go your own way.

"We arrived at the conclusion that the core of the story is a universal narrative of letting your children follow their hearts," Heide says.

Over the course of the film, though, the parents do come closer to accepting their son's life choices, as Furman's dad realises that his son is "the happiest man in the world" and that's the most important thing. Indeed, Furman does look happy when he is bouncing on his pogo stick like a giddy, overgrown kid, hula hooping or crawling up a mountain like a bear. It almost makes you want to drop out of the rat race, quit your day job, forsake materialism and go out and play.

In the meantime, you can secretly practice at your desk: eat 18 marshmallows in one minute and you'll break Furman's record.