Playing with FIRE : the Director’s story


For the last year or so, the FIRE community has been eagerly awaiting the release of the Playing with FIRE movie.

And last week it finally arrived!  The US premiere was aired at MMM HQ in Colorado to rave reviews from those who were there.

Even better…the London premiere of the film will be held on the evening of Wednesday 12 June. We’re planning to combine a meet-up, drinks, a screening of the 1hr 30m film and then a live Q&A with the Director, Travis Shakespeare.  This will be an amazing opportunity to meet the director in person and discuss what I think will be a landmark film.

Travis is an award winning TV producer working for BBC Studios in Los Angeles. I’m no TV expert but he’s made TV shows that even I have heard of (Ice Road Truckers, Deadliest Catch, Top Gear USA etc etc).  In short, Travis is a pro and this film will do for financial independence what The Minimalists and Marie Kondo have done for de-cluttering.

I was lucky enough to meet Travis last year. Since then I’ve been pestering encouraging him to write me a blogpost with his own story.  I’m amazed delighted that I’ve finally worn him down got him to tell us the inside story of the film.


The Escape Artist


Why I Made a Documentary About FIRE

About 10 years ago my father passed away from Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS). In many ways, that was a turning point for me.

Losing a loved one is hard but it can also be accompanied by profound insight about the path we find ourselves on. For me, two pressing questions arose:

  1. Knowing life is short, how do we ensure it’s meaningful? and
  2. What is the role of money in constructing a meaningful life?

The question of the role of money was made urgent for me by my own financial status at the time. I always wanted to live the “artistic life,” and for most of my life I did just that: pursuing a career as a performer. Like most actors I was good at being broke. And in debt.

By the time my dad died, I was still carrying $40,000 in student loan (at 9% interest!), and a few thousand dollars on credit cards. I had what I call “the lottery mentality” i.e. some day I’d hit it big and would wake up magically rich. But clearly things weren’t quite working out the way I had hoped.

My dad was a math teacher (apparently his talents didn’t rub off on me), and so the bulk of his net worth went to my mom in the form of his pension. But being a careful person around money he also managed to save $150,000 besides, tucked away in a Vanguard fund, which became the basis of my inheritance. After splitting the account with my sister, I paid her half of the value of my dad’s 2005 Honda Civic ($6,500) and cleared my debts once and for all. For the first time in my life I was financially in the black.

But I panicked, because I knew next to nothing about personal finance–let alone investing–and I was already 40 years old. For the first time ever I ran a retirement calculator, only to see clearly I would be eating cat food in my old age. I knew I’d have to get educated about money or be a victim of my own ignorance forever.

A couple of years of bumbling around with complicated investment books left me tired and all the more confused until I came across both Early Retirement Extreme and Jacob’s incredible story was easy for me to relate to since I had lived austerely during many periods of my life. And MMM’s blog painted a picture of hope as The Shockingly Simple Math Behind Early Retirement was, well, shockingly simple.

But was it too late for me to start at the age of 42?  Well they say that the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago and that the second best time is now. So I got started on The Path.

At the time I was only spending about $30,000/yr living in Los Angeles, which meant I’d “only” need to save a cool million (plus inflation) to reach FI. Since my career as television producer was starting to pick up, that seemed doable over the next 25 years if I was careful. So I promised myself that I’d keep my spending level at the same level no matter how much I made going forward.

And that’s exactly what I did. Over the years my salary increased steadily but I kept my spending under control and so my % savings rate rose right along with it. Within a few years, I was saving 50% of my after-tax income.

Fast forward to 2015 when I saw MMM, MadFientist, JLCollinsNH and GoCurryCracker would be hosting a chataqua in Ecuador. Something about a bunch of financial bloggers meeting in Ecuador to discuss investing seemed odd to me until I noticed a day of community service on the agenda. These people were clearly up to more than just getting rich, so I went for it. And, like many people who’ve drunk the FI Kool Aid, my life changed forever.

Here was a group of incredibly thoughtful, intelligent individuals, remarkably generous with their knowledge and time, and all questioning the standard narrative of “buy until you die.” It was clear what they were focusing on had the power to do way more than save me from a miserably poor old age. It had the power to save millions of people from the clutches of a consumer-driven, financially unconscious society.

A couple months after I got home I kept asking myself if I myself had anything to contribute to the conversation. A math lover I was not, nor an investing guru. The blogs were already fantastic. But I knew how to make films & TV, so I decided to make that my contribution.

My goal was to make a film that would reach a broad audience. To reach the parts that blogs alone can not reach. To reach people who don’t know The Path to financial freedom. I sent the four leaders in Ecuador an email asking if they would participate in a film and they all said yes.Then, as often happens to the non-early retired, my day job got in the way. It’s a good job and I enjoy it but it’s demanding and often consumes all my time.

Making independent films is no joke in terms of time and raising money.  I managed to eek out some time on the side and eventually I got all the experts lined up for interviews along with a clear vision for how the the film should play out. But I lacked a central human driver for the narrative, which would require real effort in terms of research. My job kept encroaching on my free time, and finding that central story became more and more elusive. I started thinking it was just too ambitious a dream and that I’d have to give up.

But then I heard a guy named Scott Rieckens on the ChooseFI podcast. Scott had started filming himself and his wife on the first year on their journey to financial independence, and their story of wanting to give up a spendthrift lifestyle in a high cost of living area sounded like the answers to my prayers. I immediately reached out to him and we ended up forming the perfect partnership. That meeting launched what has now become an 18 month long journey to finish Playing with FIRE which is not only the first film about FIRE but also, I believe, the first documentary about personal finance!

Creating a compelling film takes enormous resources of time, energy, and money. We called in favors wherever possible to offset the hard costs, but we still had to pay for equipment and hire the core crew: camera & sound operators, editors, graphic artists, etc.


The Rieckens family, the FI bloggers and other wonderful people featured in the film all gave their time for free. Scott and I worked entirely pro bono throughout. A successful Kickstarter campaign helped massively thanks to the core FIRE community (and especially the efforts of ChooseFI in promoting it), covering the primary editing and finishing costs–about $100,000. But that amount only covered about a third of the total costs, the rest of which was financed through private investment.

We figure we’ll need to sell about 30,000 copies of the film in order to pay back the investment. Of course it would be nice to see some kind of modest surplus for our efforts, but our hope in making the film has never been to make a fortune. Our goal is to change lives by starting a conversation most are unwilling to have, and drive new readers to the incredible body of work already available in books, blogs, and podcasts.

The FI community has already begun to rally around the film. We recently had a private screening with about 100 attendees at Mr. Money Mustache’s HQ in Longmont, Colorado, and the reception couldn’t have been more positive. This is a huge milestone for us, since having the community’s blessing feels important to me.

Having said that, I’ve said from the start that my intention in making the film wasn’t to preach to the choir. Instead, the goal is to connect with the general population in the way I know best: popular entertainment. I’ve already seen two important trends in those watching the film who’ve never heard of FIRE before. First, an awkward interest as the taboo around money is broken before their eyes. Then, a genuine sense of relief to be able to talk about personal finance openly, accompanied by a feeling that it really is possible to move in a positive direction outside the standard wage-slavery narrative.

I’ve also seen the film’s power to change lives even before the final cut ever landed. Each of the crew working on Playing with FIRE was exposed to FIRE for the first time and most had never had any significant discussion around personal finance generally. But once exposed every single person working on the film immediately adjusted their orientation around money!

Hearing one interview, our sound man paid off the balance of his student loans when he suddenly understood the money he had in savings was being eaten away by the interest on the loans. After watching the film for the first time, our color artist went home to have a three hour long conversation with his wife about what they value in life, prompting them to make a household budget for the first time and begin directing resources away from expensive handbags and towards what matters. Stories like these happened again and again in the making of the film.

Going forward our distribution plan will focus on the grassroots, first hitting the core community with a limited screening tour to raise awareness, followed by a direct-to-consumer offering which will allow us to speak directly to the audience without the message being distorted by “gatekeepers”.

Along the way we hope to get attention from the mainstream press, which should help land us on outlets like Netflix and/or terrestrial broadcasting. But since the FI movement was born out of a quiet grassroots rebellion, I would like to see the film follow a similar path before transferring over into mainstream consciousness where we then hope to invoke real, massive change.

I am sincerely grateful to the FI movement which has already changed my own life, and I am beyond excited to see what happens when another million people –or ten million or one hundred million — are freed from keeping up with The Joneses and debt-based slavery.

I try to imagine the long term consequences on our societies and on our environment from people taking charge of their own lives, freed to bring positive change. What happens when 10 million more millionaires are free to dedicate their creative efforts to improving our world?

I don’t know…but I can imagine the possibilities.


  1. Hey Travis,

    It’s great to read your WHY for making the movie. Like all things creative, a lot more work goes into making them happen than people can see or imagine.

    I’m personally super excited about your film and happy to play a small role in helping to get the word out here in the UK. Money affects our day to day lives, relationships etc and the more people figure out how to take control of it (and understand the purpose of money), the better our society will be. Pleased to read that you have this big picture viewpoint too.

    I look forward to seeing the film become a big success and also look forward to meeting you on the 12th June.

    Good work!

    1. Hi Ken! Thank you so much! I can’t wait to show it in the UK!! Looking forward to meeting you and everyone who’s able to attend. I’m very curious about the differences in those pursuing FI in the UK (where there’s a robust social net) as opposed to the US. Curious about the changing social structures there etc.

      1. Awesome! The premiere will make for some good conversations after.

  2. It’s always better to get a story from real people with real and real emotions.
    I think I will try to get to London for the 12th! It could be a great meet-up

  3. ladyaurora · · Reply

    Will TEA update the non london dwellers where we can get to see the film. Hope so.

  4. Michael Phelan · · Reply

    Good post. Just a small correction. It’s Fisker not Fisk.

  5. So when is it going to be on iTunes?

    1. Hi Erin. If you sign up for updates at the website you’ll get a notification as soon as it’s available.

  6. I am quite happy to pay for a copy and appreciate the value in this project. Give me a link to order it, and I’ll get right on it.

    I found out about FIRE quite by accident as I manically trimmed my personal budget post-divorce. I was 48 at the time. My odometer is about to click over to 55 in a month and I’m nearly half way to my goal in somewhat less than the 7 years represented by those ages. Starting late means I don’t get quite the advantage of starting young, but at least I can toss the cat food recipe book!

    I do have a question about showing it. What would your position be regarding showing the movie at a public venue like a library?

    While FIRE is certainly more difficult when one is poor, it isn’t impossible. Does the movie touch on that topic?

    My little city in upstate New York (at the base of the Adirondacks) is quite impoverished with 1/4 of the 15,000 (+/-) residents living below the poverty line and another quarter qualifying as working poor and just barely staying afloat. Many of my fellow citizens really need to hear a message like this, but, to be honest, don’t really have the money to pay for it.

    Our library has a room designed for plays, lectures and movies, with a seating capacity of about 100 people. It gets reasonably good turnout for events, but because it is a public library things have to be free for the public to participate.

    I am sensitive to the notion that showing this movie in such a venue short circuits the idea of selling copies to recoup the cost of production, and I’m quite unused to arranging such things so I have no idea if there’s any protocol involved here where a library would contract to show a movie for a nominal fee.

    If you have any thoughts on whether this is possible, and how to proceed, I can get the information to the director since she’s in love with me for some reason and on this FI journey right by my side.

    1. Hi thanks for your questions and congratulations on your progress! For the moment we’re trying to recover our costs so we won’t be organizing free screenings. Eventually the film will be available for sale, at which point I’d love to see people organizing local screenings. One of our primary objectives is to encourage the conversation broadly. If you sign up for the email list you’ll get news about availability as it comes.

  7. Good to finally have a serious documentary made by people who actually believe and live it rather than a curiousity-slot soundbite (at best) by the mainstream media who can only accept majoritarian views. What will now be interesting is the reaction by the public given the trend is still for austerity to erode standards of living, so rendering the philosophy more acceptable now than in a long time.

    Equally interesting will be the reaction of the establishment to a respectable outing of one of their main tools of civil control. (mindless consumption) Will they coolly ignore it so as to not draw attention to it and hope that apathy wins it for the status quo, or will they aggressively try to discredit us as the tin-hat brigade prepping for the apocalypse?

  8. I feel very fortunate to have watched the documentary a couple of times already – one failed attempt to watch with a sibling (they pulled out after a long day – though my wife and I went ahead and watched by ourselves), and another viewing with my parents who loved it and wished they’d seen it years earlier. They are now telling us that we have to share with all our friends.

    Travis – the documentary is excellent – so well put together and professionally edited – I’m not surprised you and Scott have so many accolades to your names!!! I look forward to the extended cut at some stage in the future!!! And I have no idea how you managed to pack so much into a standard length documentary.

    1. Thank you so much for the feedback! I can’t tell you how happy that makes me. This was truly a labor of love. And thanks for sharing it with your family!

  9. Hi Travis, it was great to read the WHY you chose to make this movie.
    “What happens when 10 million more millionaires are free to dedicate their creative efforts to improving our world?”
    That is indeed the thought that motivates me personally as well for being active in the (EU) FI community and help build it, connect people. In fact, at FIWE this year we’re going to talk a lot about “FI for impact” and we decided that FIWE next year is going to be mostly about this topic.
    I added the screening to the events list.
    What are your plans on improving the world after reaching FI?

    1. “What happens when…” is indeed the question. Thank you for adding the screening to the list there. For me personally, this film is the first step in my attempt at improving the world, first through broader awareness. Personal finance remains taboo for many people (as I’m sure you’re well aware), so the first thing to my mind is giving those people permission to come out, so to speak. From there I’d love to see a push in education which I’m sure will be way harder than making a movie!!! But us getting to young minds before the credit card companies do would be a worthy cause.

  10. Upwardly Frugal · · Reply

    Someone someday was going to make a documentary about the FIRE movement. I’m glad it was done by people like Travis and Scott who not only took the time to understand the movement, but also became part of it. The film is top notch and I couldn’t be more excited to watch its impact on the World. Have a great time at the London screening!

    1. thank you UF!!

      1. Hi Travis,

        I would like to show the movie in Germany (Cologne or Berlin) to our podcast’s audience. Is that feasible?


        (From and financial Independence Meetup Cologne.)

        1. Hi! Yes please email and we’ll be in touch, thanks!

  11. […] Travis has written about what motivated him to create the movie. […]

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