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A Conversation with Tom Shadyac

A Conversation with Tom Shadyac
by Casey Burchby

Tom Shadyac is known for directing blockbuster comedies starring the biggest names in show business. From his (and Jim Carrey's) breakout movie, 1994's low-budget "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective," Shadyac went on to direct a string of hits including "Liar, Liar" and "Bruce Almighty" with Carrey, and the remake of "The Nutty Professor" starring Eddie Murphy. But in the fall of 2007, Shadyac suffered injuries in a bicycling accident, the after-effects of which lingered for many months, rendering Shadyac virtually inert with intense headaches and an extreme sensitivity to light and sound. In his new documentary "I Am," Shadyac recalls being resigned to death during his agonizing convalescence.

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Yet he recovered, at length, with a renewed desire to investigate the world's ills - and his own. Shadyac's discoveries - which are documented in "I Am" via interviews with leading scientists, philosophers, poets, members of the clergy, and historians - resulted in personal transformation. Not only did he have his health back, he also sold his palatial Pasadena estate, gave away much of his own wealth, and adopted a minimal lifestyle. He also became committed to sustaining an ongoing public dialogue around the two main questions posed in "I Am": What's wrong with the world? What can we do about it? I spoke with Shadyac recently in San Francisco.

CB: Making strong, principled, philosophical statements like "I Am" doesn't seem to happen often in Hollywood. How has your relationship with the industry changed - if at all - since this all took place?

TS: Lots of people haven't seen it. But the few who have, have been very supportive. My agency, which may run on the current economic system that I have questions about, have been incredibly supportive. Artists who have seen the film - The Black-Eyed Peas, Peter Gabriel - gave us songs at incredible discount rates. Artists are good people, with big hearts. They're on a journey just like I'm on a journey. They've been raised in a culture just like I was raised in a culture. And, I do think that films do speak about moral issues, whether they're aware of it or not. Although this is a very direct examination.

CB: Yes, this is a very direct statement, with a very particular way of looking at things and asking particular questions.

TS: And it's not just show business; our culture doesn't encourage this kind of conversation. We tend to look at things symptomatically. I was just reading a Rumi poem that says, "You don't want to hear, yet, about the reality that's underneath, whether you call it God or life or the divine spark." Basically, he's saying, "So turn the news on, 'cause that's what you want to hear." And that's sort of what we encourage. I wanted the freedom to express what I had been feeling and seeing and intuiting for years and years and years, and that accident is what compelled me to do it. I had to face my own death to get over the fear that kept me from doing it before.

CB: Going back to the idea of "So turn the news on" - what is it about bad news? There are a lot of documentaries out there about -

TS: Bad news.

CB: - social and cultural ills, whether it's war or the economy or whatever. But they're always about the badness of those things and revealing what the badness is, as opposed to being constructive or offering alternatives or just asking questions as your film does. Why do you think that is?

TS: I think we're young. And this vision that we have of the world is not that old. The human species has been around for 175,000 years, and this particular vision - call it the "Consumer Vision" or the "Me First Vision" - is only about 10,000 years old. And that's really young, especially when you look at the history of life on this planet, which is 4 billion years old. I think there's a place for, as you said, the identification of the bad. But I think we're hungry for something new. We know the bad. We know something's happening with the environment. We know that war after war is happening. We know that greed has surfaced in many forms. But I think it's the challenge of each of us to heal the internal greed that we have, which is what our movie talks about. So I think it's easier to say that the greed exists on the outside. That's one step. But the step that we need is the one that says, "Before I heal the greed on the outside, I need to deal with my own greed, my own internal violence, my own internal anger. And emanate that." Listen, I know these films are valuable, but I got very depressed and frustrated with this style that's 85 minutes of the problem and two minutes of, "You can go to this website," or whatever.

CB: How much of what ended up in "I Am" was a discovery for you in the process of making the movie?

TS: Much of it. The connective idea of unity and interconnection - I was well aware of that and felt strongly about it as a truth. But all the flesh, all the muscle on that skeletal structure was new to me. Like Heartmath. I had no idea that there was science now - fringe science, but still science - that was emerging to tell us that intuition may actually be measurable. That the heart may be the source of that intuition. That it may be able to predict the future. That the heart has an electromagnetic field that extends ten to fifteen feet from the body. Elizabeth Satoris is an evolutionary biologist who told me about the history of cells. And Rupert Sheldrake - his work wasn't in the movie - his ideas, like, "When does your dog know when you're coming home?" It's when you make the decision to go home that the dog moves to the door. So all that stuff, all that evidence, that confirmed the intuition and the kind of philosophical, spiritual, and moral principles that I had been awake to through Emerson and others - that was what was really fun on the journey. To be able to say, "Wow, there's all this cool work being done to confirm this."

CB: As far as the changes you've made in your own life since completing the film - selling your property, changing your whole lifestyle - how do view your pre-2007 self? When you look back at your career and your success, how do you view it now?

TS: The bike accident didn't so much change my perspective as make me talk about it. But if I can step outside a bit, I would hope to have empathy for the person that I was. I had always walked with the intention of wanting to be a part of the healing, wanting to be a part of making our world better. And I simply wasn't aware that, with my right hand, I was helping to heal the world, and with my left hand, I was helping the world continue exactly the model that was so destructive in many ways. Eventually, I was able to see that there were many hypocrisies and tensions in my life that I wasn't comfortable with. There are still hypocrisies and tensions in my life that I need to examine. So on the one hand, I would have said I love the Sermon on the Mount: "Don't store up treasures on Earth, where moth and rust destroy..." Yet, I was comfortable storing up treasures. I was giving money away, but I was still participating in a philosophy that was very destructive, that you don't see reflected in nature.

CB: Where do you see things going now? How have your recent experiences changed your interest in filmmaking?

TS: I hope to go deeper and deeper into whatever this idea is that animates me. The more I read these cats [indicates nearby copies of the works of Rumi and Emerson], the more I feel at home. I've often wanted to walk as an ascetic - just leave it all. But somehow I think the world is calling for a reasonable path, so that we can continue with this celebration, this creative art we call life - but to find a reasonable to path to walk with each other and with the natural world. I just hope I go deeper.

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