Everyone, travelers in particular, seems to have a bucket list these days. The phrase, bucket list, wasn’t even on people’s radars until screenwriter Justin Zackham brought it to public attention with his film The Bucket List, starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman.
After graduating from NYU film school, Zackham wrote himself a “List of Things to Do Before I Kick the Bucket,” which he shortened to “Justin’s Bucket List.” The first item on the list was to get a movie made at a major Hollywood studio. Several years later, the list itself became the idea for a screenplay. Zackham wrote it on spec before submitting to producers, nearly all of whom turned him down.
The script found its way to Rob Reiner, famous for his role in All in the Family and directing films like Stand by Me, When Harry Met Sally…, and A Few Good Men. Reiner called Zackham after reading the first 10 pages of the script and said he would like it to be his next film. After the international blockbuster was released, the term bucket list made it into both Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary.
Zackham is also known for producing and directing his screenplay, The Big Wedding, starring Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon, Katherine Heigl, Amanda Seyfried, Topher Grace, and Robin Williams. He wrote the original screenplay One Chance, and is also the creator and executive producer of the FX drama series Lights Out. In 2018, Zackham wrote Second Act, which stars Jennifer Lopez.
Now Zackham, his wife Katherine, and their two sons are tackling a new travel-related bucket list goal: to make it into the Guinness Book of World Records for being the first family to visit every country in the world.
TravelAwaits sat down to speak with Zackham about the impressive to-do that he’s in the process of achieving, plus his thoughts on the importance of a bucket list and the benefits of travel.
Travel Awaits: So your boys, Finn and Cole, are 10 and 6 — I bet they’re loving traveling the world.
Justin Zackham: They’re enjoying themselves immensely; but tired of being told how lucky they are. [Laughs]
TA: Yeah, I just started laughing myself because my mom took me to Europe for three months when I was 12 and everybody told me how lucky I was — but at the time I wished I could be at the pool.
Zackham: That sounds cool.
TA: Yes. It was fun. Okay, first off, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. I’m eager to hear your story. Let’s start with your current bucket list vision. Tell us about your goal of making the Guinness Book of World Records for being the first family to visit every country in the world. Why is that important to you? What is left to accomplish this goal?
Zackham: We’re only about 29 countries in, so we have 170 to go. We’re going on an itinerary, from country to country spending a week to two weeks in each. Right now we’re in Cuenca, in southern Ecuador, which we love. We had planned two weeks but we added another week.
The importance of getting the world record isn’t as important as the journey. Being the first family to travel to every country is something we’re going to do — we may not complete it until the boys are in their 20s — but we’re going to try to do it in the next few years. But, you know, we’re fully aware that our kids one day may say, “I want to go to a regular school…” but they love to travel, and Katherine and I love to travel, so we’re sort of of the mind that we’re going to pursue this goal and if we get it done in a few years…fantastic…and if we get half way there and have to piece it together later on…that’s terrific also.
For us, the whole point of this is much more about teaching our children that there’s more to the world than the United States. That despite what you hear in the United States these days, not all children have to deal with shooters in their schools like our boys have had to. Not all countries look at people with different color, you know, skin or language or anything like that as anything less than they are. This has sort of been the primary drive for us.
TA: Absolutely. That’s wonderful. So what does travel mean for you and your family? Why is travel important to you? How did it become important to you? Was there a defining moment when you realized that travel changes your life?
Zackham: My wife and I grew up traveling with our families — to an extent we are incredibly lucky. I was raised a British citizen and traveled a lot as a child. My wife’s family traveled all over too. Travel helps you find who you are. I don’t think you really know who you are until you’re in a number of situations where you sort of have to rely on yourself and your wits and your personality. We just love to travel.
TA: Right. Absolutely. So you actually coined the term bucket list — can you tell us a little about the back story?
Zackham: I graduated from NYU film school in New York and moved back to Los Angeles. A couple years went by and I was bartending and having a great time, but not doing a spectacular amount of work toward my goal of being a filmmaker. I was feeling sort of disgusted with myself, and so I wrote out “Justin’s list of things to do before I kick the bucket” on a piece of paper.
Some of the items included travel and being the father I always wished I had and whatnot. When I finished I posted it on a bulletin board and shortened it to “Justin’s bucket list.” The list sat up there for about a year and then I had the idea of writing a screenplay about two men who had limited time to finish their bucket list. That’s where it all came from.
TA: In Second Act, Jennifer Lopez plays Maya, a 40-year-old woman struggling with frustrations of unfulfilled dreams. How does the message from this movie translate into real life? What advice do you have for people 40+ looking to prioritize their unfulfilled dreams and ambitions?
Zackham: It was sort of like a natural progression from The Bucket List. It’s this story of a woman who always thought she could do things with her life but because of circumstances and people telling her she couldn’t, she never did. And one day she gets an opportunity and she sees it as the last chance to find out if she has the talents she always thought she had.
It’s a universal thing, you know. For me, it was, I wrote The Bucket List, and fulfilled a lot of items on my list: I got married, I have kids, and then…Second Act was kind of one of those things where my wife and I were talking about “Do we want to stay in the States and this house?” Our whole way of thinking came about in the same way of thinking as in Second Act. People think there are no second acts in American lives, but that’s simply not true. My big thing is, and hopefully the lesson for my boys, is that we get to decide who we are. There’s a line by Eric Roth in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button that says, “I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the courage to start all over again.”
I fully believe you get to shape your life. I think a lot of people don’t think that’s true or are too afraid to do it, but all it takes is making a decision. And if I’m not completely happy, then I need to stop doing the things that are making me unhappy and put myself in places where I have a better chance at happiness. So that’s sort of the whole Second Act thing. She just goes for it — and it turns her world upside down — but in the end, she proves herself right.
TA: Did Second Act stem from anything in your life personally?
Zackham: I brought my own family aspect to it. Plus I had achieved more success than I ever dreamed of, yet why wasn’t I still totally fulfilled? I have beautiful children, a beautiful wife, a career that most people would kill for — and all these things I worked so hard for, but at the same time, I felt like there was more I could do. I could be a better dad, a better husband, and there were things in me where I had become sort of blase about it all. …I was going through a sort of midlife malaise, asking myself, “Is this all there is?”
So all of this was along the thinking of the movie…and now this trip. And we’re also looking for a place to live. So as we travel around the world, we think we want to pick a place outside the U.S. for a while. Right now the choices are between Lisbon, Portugal, though we’re set to visit New Zealand and Australia and Southeast Asia…so who knows where we’ll end up living? We’re hoping to find the place where we would love to live.
TA: Why do you think it’s important to have a bucket list?
Zackham: I think number one: It brings out your true dreams. We’re trained to not really think about those things. But just by writing them out you’re saying to yourself, “Here’s the type of person I want to be.”
What I always tell people is to do it in tiers. So pick a few things you could accomplish within a month. Whether it’s running a race or something like that, it needs to be something you can cross off. Because once you cross off a couple things, you see that it’s actually attainable. And that sort of funnels you toward the big things in life — like travel around the world. Or move to Paris.
TA: So you’re saying to start with short-term goals first?
Zackham: Yes, start with short term, achievable goals and build your way up to things that are actually life changing. The whole idea of a bucket list is to give yourself a framework for giving yourself the best possible life you can think of.
TA: What are your thoughts about how this works? Is it just putting it out there that puts the energy into action to come back to you? Like the metaphysical term “law of attraction”?
Zackham: I don’t really subscribe to that if you put it out to the universe the universe brings it back to you — I’m much more of a “If you build it, they will come.” If you want to travel, travel. Start saving up. Take 5 percent of every paycheck and put it into a separate account. When you’ve got enough in the bank, then you’ll be good to go. It’s much easier to give the world, or the universe, or whatever people want to call it, giving them a role in it…but in my whole life, the only things I’ve ever gotten were things I worked for myself.
TA: I think what I was inferring is that if you put something in your mind — and put it to paper — it sort of helps take it to fruition.
Zackham: Oh, of course!
TA: For example, I publish a magazine here in Kansas City. Ten years ago I asked myself where I wanted to be in 10 years and I decided I wanted to “retire” from the magazine as a travel writer. [Laughs] Other than putting it onto paper, I didn’t take any other steps. But 10 years later, I realized it has come about. So what I’m curious about is if you think focusing on something — and getting clear what you want — helps bring it to fruition?
Zackham: Absolutely. It’s the process of taking it out of the ethereal, hopes and dreams and wishes, taking it out of your brain and writing it on a piece of paper and looking at it as a guide map of “This is where I want to go with my life.” I wholeheartedly agree.
TA: What, for you personally, defines a great trip?
Zackham: For us, as a family, because we have kids, our itineraries are more activity-heavy, more archeological things. I think a great trip is when we go somewhere we’ve never been, we see and learn things we’ve never known before, where the people are lovely, and it’s a place you want to go back to.
TA: Tell us about your favorite destinations.
Zackham: We loved Lisbon, Portugal. It was spectacular. We had no idea what to expect and just loved it. We also spent a week in Medellin, Colombia, and wow, what a place that is. Everyone should go there. …That city is just so amazing. …The heritage, the people there are amazing, and there’s great food, and it’s up in the mountains, and there’s so many things to do. And it’s always spring.
TA: Is there a funny story from your travels or a travel mishap you overcame?
Zackham: When traveling with kids, we try not to think of things as mishaps, but rather, “Okay, this is what we’re going to do today.” The best stories for me are not necessarily funny. We stopped in Little Rock, Arkansas, during a tour through the south. We went to the Little Rock high school where the black students tried to go to school and were kept out by the National Guard. And trying to explain to my 10-year-old why these kids couldn’t go to school because they looked a certain way — I mean, he kind of got it, but then the next day we went to Memphis and went to the National Civil Rights Museum and it’s the most beautifully done museum I’ve ever been to.
After two hours of that, coming right from Little Rock, his understanding of the civil rights struggle and racism and all those other things…he has an understanding now that he wouldn’t have gotten from a classroom. So that was maybe the highlight of my whole experience thus far. And even my 5-year-old has an understanding of it. Those are the kinds of experiences that make travel the most enriching.
TA: Absolutely. I had a similar experience of traveling the south by train and everywhere I went I kept asking myself, “Why did we not learn this in school? Why have I not heard of these unsung heroes in the civil rights movement?” So thank you for that.
TA: Last question: What’s your biggest piece of advice you have for someone looking to tackle their bucket list?
Zackham: Like I said, do it in tiers, so have a short term, medium term, long term. Make sure you can knock off a bunch of them quickly. A lot of people say they don’t have the money for it if there’s travel or things like that involved. Like I said, take 5 percent off of everything you make. Take it right off the top and you won’t believe how fast it accumulates.
And you can travel anywhere in the world cheaply if you really put your mind to it. We stay in Airbnbs and pay about $50 to $60 a night in most places. The hard part of getting started is just to do it. Don’t come up with reasons why it won’t work because anyone can do that. Just go for it. You only get one chance at life. Make it as incredible as you can.
*Portions of this interview were edited slightly for clarity.
Photo Credit: The Zackhams on Instagram