Twenty-five years ago, as a graduate of University of King’s College in Halifax, Christopher Richardson gave the valedictory speech to top all valedictory speeches. A half-dozen drinking references, a few mentions of throwing up, a nudity reference, a laugh track and him pulling out a beer and chugging it back — it was the perfect creative tribute to the previous four years of university life.
As soon as Richardson stepped off the stage after giving his speech, people began telling him how he embarrassed himself, the graduating class and the university, and asking him what the heck he was thinking, making a mockery of the occasion. He ended up leaving the reception early, he was so shocked and disappointed.
Richardson’s cringe-worthy speech — the video of which he has kept in a box in his basement since 1987 — has haunted him ever since that moment.
“For the last 25 years, whenever I’ve had to speak in public or make a pitch of an idea, I’ve always had this little voice saying; are you going to be a disappointment to yourself and your team this time? It wasn’t debilitating, but it was there,” Richardson said.
When Richardson, now 48 and a producer/director with Henge Productions and Consulting in St. John’s, was invited to his 25-year class reunion and given a chance to have a do-over, he started thinking about regrets in general. What do they say about us? Can you live a life without them and should you even try?
Using his own experience as a backbone, Richardson decided to make an hour-long documentary, exploring the idea of regrets and if there might be a positive side to them.
Richardson’s last film was 2010’s “Where’s My Goat?” in which he travelled to Africa to try to track down a goat he had bought from a charity as a gift for a client, and found himself delving into some ethical issues. “Regret” was going to be a lighthearted film, he explained.
“When we did the pitch to the Documentary Channel, we actually pitched a funny film,” he said.
“When we did the demo, it came out pretty heavy, and I realized, really, this isn’t a funny topic. It’s something that affects a lot of people.”
The film branches out much further than a funny film — Richardson and his crew spoke with psychologists, life coaches, Kevin Hansen of the website secretregrets.com and Neal Roese, a professor at Northwestern University and expert in regret research and counterfactual thinking.
Richardson has also spoken with ordinary people with regrets, asking them to share those regrets on camera. The most common regrets he’s seen have been in the areas of education, family and relationships, he said, with the single biggest one being regret over not having enough education.
One man tells the camera he regrets putting his ailing father into alternate living arrangements, since he died three weeks later. Another says he regrets not learning English, and now “time has passed and it’s too late.”
A woman says she regrets not raising her children in the church in which she was baptized.
One of Richardson’s friends says he regrets not returning a colleague’s phone calls.
“He had a friend who had moved on, and was trying to get back in touch with him to talk about something,” Richardson said.
“My friend was putting it off, saying he’d return his calls when he got around to it. The guy worked in the World Trade Centre and ended up dying in the terrorist attacks, and my friend was left with that.”
Hearing people’s laments has been an interesting and thought-provoking situation for Richardson, who said it forced him to examine his own life.
He has been surprised to discover that trying to live a life without regret may actually leave you regretting things even more.
“We’ve met two kinds of people: ones that say, ‘Let me tell you about the regret I have,’ and ones that say, ‘I have no regrets.’ The people who say they have no regrets, I want to meet them in 20 years’ time.”
Some people have been able to go back and try to get some redemption for their regret and have become a better person for it, Richardson said. The film follows him to Halifax where, last month, he was given the chance to re-do his speech at his class reunion.
He won’t say what the outcome was, other than that it was stressful for him.
Filming is still ongoing, and Richardson and his crew are still looking for people willing to share their regrets on camera. More information and a trailer of the film is available online at www.regretthefilm.com.
“Regret” will air on the Documentary Channel in December.
“We hope people will watch the film and think of their life, the things they have done or should or could do,” Richardson said.
“When it comes to regrets, it’s all about what you can live with, and what you can die without.”