Interview: Director Tom Shadyac ('I Am')

The director of Photo: Shady Acres

DENVER, April 11, 2011 - Tom Shadyac’s new documentary “I Am” includes such liberal icons as Noam Chomsky and the late Howard Zinn, but the director insists his film isn’t political in nature.

“I wanted to go beneath the politics. The second we define someone as a Democrat or Republican, it creates a whole set of limitations. Definition is the death of discovery,” says Shadyac, the man who directed Jim Carrey to speak from his anus in “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.”

Shadyac’s transformation from A-list comedy director (“Liar, Liar,” “Bruce Almighty”) to philosopher gives a personal touch to “I Am.” Shadyac’s recovery from a bicycle accident, which included a frightening bout of post-concussion syndrome, forced him to re-examine his opulent lifestyle.

Filmmaker Shadyac interviews Desmun Tutu (Photo: Shady Acres)

Filmmaker Shadyac interviews Desmun Tutu (Photo: Shady Acres)

He didn’t like what he had become, so he decided to make wholesale changes – like trading his mega-mansion for a modest mobile home – and capture his journey on film.

“I had no idea what the finished product would look like. I was the most naïve documentary filmmaker who ever picked up a camera,“ he says. “When I saw the end product, I was pleased. It expressed much of the heart and soul of the matter I wanted to express.”

The film asks luminaries like Zinn, Chomsky, Desmond Tutu and others their thoughts about the current state of mankind, and ways to improve the planet. Shadyac also interviews researchers who use technology to illustrate the tangible impact we have on each other.

In a nutshell, we’re all connected, and our pursuit of material goods is a cancer on the globe.

Shadyac says those sentiments may be magnified by a film industry flush with cash, but the problem extends beyond Tinsel Town.

“It’s societal. Even people who don’t have money in society would think, potentially, he’s off his rocker,“ he says. “That’s the poison, the illusion that the mansion creates a happy life. Show business is part of a larger culture, a world-wide culture that must make up to the fact that the accumulation of things doesn’t make a life necessary any happier or purposeful.”

And Shadyac doesn’t see the benefits of a consumer culture that some argue drives innovation.

“Technology is not good, it’s neutral,” he says, his tone getting more intense. “We split the atom and we killed tens of thousands of people with it. We can do good things, energy-wise, with it. Cell phones can set off a car bomb or connect with a loved one.”

The motivation to make a new product for economic gain can’t be more powerful than the same drive to cure cancer or other benevolent aims.

“We’re in this crazy illusion that money is the only motivator, that it pulls us forward. My father wasn’t pulled forward by money when he created St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.”

For those who don’t believe small changes advocated in the film can make a difference, consider the Middle East, circa 2011. The region once filled with dictators now simmers with populist revolt.

“These little acts are what created those revolutions; people were changing,” Shadyac says. “It’s my belief, what you might label optimism, is that changes are happening all over that you and I are not aware of … when the change comes it comes exponentially fast.”

Those changes could save us all, he says.

“[Albert] Einstein said humanity needs a new way of thinking to survive. If you look at how we behave we are doomed,” Shadyac says. “Everything that thrives is in a cooperative. Either we’ll work that way into that cooperative, and there will be rogue cells and rogue this and rogue that, but it will be inside a cooperative shell, and not this shell we have now that pits us all against each other. I think we’re gonna get there.”

One might disagree with Shadyac’s thesis, especially in light of the cooperative-style societies like Cuba and Venezuela, which hardly seem Utopian. But give Shadyac credit for walking the walk on the lifestyle front.

The affluent director gave up much of his riches, as well as his mansion, to live in a modest mobile home. The first day in his new, smaller house proved traumatic.

“I was moving away from something I was taught was not the way to go … I thought I had made the biggest mistake of my life,” he recalls. “One day later, the fear disappeared. I saw through the illusion, and I never wanted to go back. In hindsight It was not hard, it was wonderful.”

“I Am” doesn’t just take sides against consumerism. It shows that religion and science, often seen as mortal foes, can actually coexist.

“We have this idea that science and religion are enemies, but they’re saying essentially the same thing,” he says. “If I told you everything is connected … those are the underpinning of both science and religion.”

One of the more intriguing sequences in the movie has Shadyac getting wired up to a petri dish filled with yogurt. When he thought about topics he felt passionately about, a device measuring cellular movement in the dish starts to spike.

“We know we affect things, and then to see it …” he says. “The people I know who are uncovering the new discoveries in science, the people at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, the science makes them deeply more spiritual. At the end of all the science, all you see is mystery.”

Shadyac emerged from making “I Am” a changed artist. He isn’t against making more comedies, but he hardly seems thrilled by the notion. But the experience did allow him to see the critical failure of one of his past comedies, “Patch Adams,” through a new lens.

“’Patch Adams’ is outside the paradigm,” he says, as was the classic film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The latter was deemed “at best sentimental, and at worst, an insult to humanity,” he says, referring to some early reviews.

“You don’t need material wealth that George Bailey thought you needed. You need a different kind of wealth,” he says of the film’s message.

“Patch got rich because he served people. That upset people,” he says. “When someone lives a life like Patch … it can feel threatening. You get a lot of sharp responses.“

Christian Toto is a veteran journalist and film critic whose work appears in The Denver Post, The Washington Times and PajamasMedia.com. His movie reviews are heard on WTOP radio and “The Dennis Miller Show,” and he blogs on film at What Would Toto Watch? Read more of Christian’s work at Movies in Toto in the Communities at the Washington Times.
-cl- 4/13/11

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Christian Toto

Christian Toto is a freelance entertainment reporter and film critic with more than a decade of experience in daily newspapers, magazines and the Web. He currently reports for The Washington Times, boxoffice.com, The Denver Post, Denver Magazine, MovieMaker Magazine, HumanEvents.com, PajamasMedia.com and Big Hollywood. His radio commentaries can be heard on WTOP in Washington, D.C. and 94.5 Country in Topeka, Kansas. He is the official film critic for “The Dennis Miller Show" heard nationwide on Westwood One stations. He regularly blogs about film at What Would Toto Watch? and the Denver Film Community Examiner site. He is a member of both the Washington, D.C. Area Film Critics Association and the Denver Film Critics Society. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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