How Did You Do It? A Conversation with Tom Shadyac

Tom Shadyac is known for directing blockbuster comedies featuring some of 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 enormous hits including “Liar, Liar” and “Bruce Almighty” with Carrey, and the remake of “The Nutty Professor” starring Eddie Murphy. Shadyac's most recent feature was “Evan Almighty” starring Steve Carell, the most expensive comedy ever made.

But in the fall of 2007, Shadyac suffered injuries in a bicycling accident including a concussion and a broken arm. The after-effects 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.

Yet he recovered, at length, with a renewed desire to investigate the world's ills - and his own. Shadyac's discoveries - all of 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 beginning and sustaining an ongoing public dialogue around the two main questions asked in “I Am”: What’s wrong with the world? What can we do about it?

“I Am” represents a major change for Shadyac, not just in terms of subject matter, but in terms of the way he perceives the world, himself, and his life’s purpose. I spoke to him recently in San Francisco. After a short exchange about the reading material he had with him (Rumi and Emerson), I began by asking him about his early days.

CB: How long did it take you to get to Hollywood and a show business career in the first place? Let’s say, starting after college – what were the steps you took?

TS: I got to show business fairly quickly. During my fifth year at the University of Virginia (I had to go back for one last class), I started writing jokes for Bob Hope. He responded, and I started working for him. So I got to show business fairly early. But, for eleven years, I was adrift. I wasn’t fulfilled by joke writing – it didn’t seem like “it” for me. I tried a little bit of everything, experimentally: stand-up comedy, acting, I taught acting, I wrote sitcoms, I wrote screenplays. Eventually, I went back to school to direct at UCLA’s grad school. And that’s when heavens parted. But what I had to grow into was a freer, less fear-based self. My personal journey was about learning to stand with my own authentic creative self, regardless of what the energy in a room was. Often times, I felt a fear that I would be rejected for expressing myself. So, I was living under someone else’s vision, and not my own. When I finally threw all that out, after years of therapy, I was no longer seeking approval but simply authenticity. And then, it was about a New York minute before I got my first big break, which was “Ace Ventura.”

CB: And how long after the grad program was this?
TS: About two or three years. I went to grad school in ’88 or ’89, and I got “Ace” in ’91 or ’92. But I had done a lot of preparation to be ready when that opportunity presented itself.
CB: And the grad program helped confirm that you wanted to zero in on directing?

TS: Yeah. It was that “knowing” – like Spielberg might have had when he was 8. I had it when I was 28. But then it was another several years before that knowing was realized in terms of employment. I did a lot of observing of sitcom directors. I would go anywhere I could potentially learn something. I would sit in rooms like this and hear them talk about story problems. And I would have what I thought was a wonderful idea or fix. But I wasn’t able to express myself because it wasn’t my time. But then, because I had much more fearlessness – having moved through whatever fear I had – that’s how I got “Ace Ventura.” I told them very strongly what the script needed. I came up with very specific ideas. I still remember the meeting I had with the Morgan Creek people: I handed them ten pages of a rewrite, and they said, “We’ve been in business twenty years and we’ve never had anybody do work for free. It’s our first meeting and you’re handing us ten pages.” All the work before that was preparation for being tossed into the flames.

CB: So the script had already been in development for some period of time?
TS: Years.
CB: With others, before Jim Carrey?
TS: Jim was perceived as a stretch as a choice – other directors had considered him, but many people simply thought of him as a television star, even though he’d done several movies before. I eventually said, “This is who I really believe in – if we can get him, it’ll be a blazing, blinding light.” Jim had to actually audition for Morgan Creek. And I remember he acted out part of the movie in a Hamburger Hamlet up on Sunset Boulevard, to convince people that not only was he the guy, but that this could really be something.
CB: Hard to imagine him being asked to audition now.
TS: Yeah – hindsight! I called some very good friends who were writers and very creative, and I said, “I’m thinking of hiring Jim Carrey.” And everybody knew him from “In Living Color.” And I often got, “He’s a TV star. He’s not a film guy.” I had to listen to my own intuition, which was, “No, I think if we tap into this guy, he could be amazing.”

CB: Now, when did the injury happen?

TS: September of 2007.
CB: And “Evan Almighty” had been released?
TS: Yes, “Evan Almighty” came out in June that summer. I hurt myself in September.
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: Did you have personal connections to the people you talked to? How did you wind up coming to everyone you interviewed?
TS: The journey started with people I wanted to speak to who had moved me in some way. So I had read their work, or seen them in a documentary, or heard them speak. So that would be Coleman Barks, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky. And then often one thing led to another. We were turned on to certain people by some of the interviewees. And Harold [Mintz, Shadyac’s friend and the film’s publicist] turned me on to Mark Ian Barasch. There are many people I wanted to interview that we didn’t get to. I tried to talk to the Dalai Lama. Mary Oliver is a friend; she’s the best-selling poet in America. She was my first request, and she politely said, “My poetry speaks for itself. My poetry articulates what I believe.”
CB: How long did you shoot?
TS: We shot for two years, and there was a good solid year and a half in the editing room. Documentaries – you gotta write in the editing room, so it’s a long time.
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.
CB: Do you see additional documentaries, potentially, about related subjects?
TS: There are a thousand subjects that have surfaced that I’d love to explore in terms of documentary. I personally think that what’s most needed now is an ongoing conversation about the ideas and themes that this film provokes. I’ve got a talk show that I’m probably going to host – I may do it with the Oprah Winfrey network – to continue this conversation and to take people’s questions and frustrations and share them. Years ago, I started waking up to the hypocrisies that I was a part of and that our culture accepts, and it took me a long time to get here – to get to the film that you see. I had to ask a lot of questions, and I didn’t have a lot of help in terms of places I could go with those questions. So I think it may be important to provide a place where some of those questions can be aired. But I will do films. I have two films that are in development right now that are real close to getting made, with stars. And we just got one financed!
CB: Is there anything you’d like to add about what you are communicating with “I Am” – which addresses big problems in a hopeful way?
TS: I think what people forget is that we rail against all these negative stories that are out there because they are the aberration. The way we behave with each other, by and large, is the collective story of humanity. We’re kind to each other, we’re compassionate with each other, we want have fun and explore… The larger story of humanity gets ignored because somebody will steal a car today, and that will make the news. But the thousands and millions of people in this city and others who engage in cooperative behavior will not be reported. The aberration is reported simply because it’s the aberration, and we’ve accepted the aberration as who we are and we’ve crafted our society around that. The other day, I was checking into a hotel and they literally had me sign – I couldn’t believe it, it was like I was buying a house. They said, “We have to protect ourselves. Our rooms are non-smoking, and we had a guy who smoked in one of the rooms.” They’ll have thousands of visitors this year, but one person who smoked in a room – that’s their story. And that’s a fear-based idea. We’re deluded. You’re a writer, I’m a writer. Why would it hurt me if I was able in some way to help you become the best writer you could be? And why would it hurt you, if you were to help me in some way to become the best writer I could be? Because we’ve both been deluded into thinking that if you’re a better writer than me, I’m not gonna eat.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading this, Casey. I really liked a lot of the things he said, particularly the stuff about overcoming fear and moving towards creative authenticity. Would you mind if I quote a few sentences of things he said on my art blog later this week (and link it back to this interview)?