How does one go from directing some of Hollywood’s top-grossing comedies to finding the answers of what’s wrong with the world? For director Tom Shadyac, 52, the man who brought us the phrases “Allllrighty then” (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective) and “B-E-A-utiful” (Bruce Almighty), it took a bicycling accident.
After a really hard crash in 2007, Shadyac developed Post Concussion Syndrome (PCS), creating a continuous set of concussion symptoms that can last for decades and cause extreme pain. Feeling as if death was a near possibility, he wanted to leave a meaningful contribution. He broke away from mega-budgeted tentpole blockbusters in order to fund his own documentary, I Am. He trades comedians Jim Carrey, Eddie Murphy, and Steve Carell for thinkers such as Noam Chomsky and Desmond Tutu, asking top scientists, philosophers, and religious leaders about today’s world problems and what we can do to help.
Despite selling his multi-million dollar mansion for a mobile home and living with only what is needed, Shadyac doesn’t come off crazy, but enlightened. Speaking to the Beacon one on one, the PCS-recovered talked about the meaning of truth, the neutrality of technology, living with only what one needs, and the heart being stronger than the head.
When you set out to make the film, you ask these very big, broad questions, like “What’s wrong with the world? How can we fix it?” Did you expect to find an actual answer to those questions?
TS: I don’t see them being broad at all. I see them as being very specific. If I had asked them in the way we almost always ask them, “What’s wrong with the world?” “Oh we have hunger, oh we have poverty, oh we have an economic crisis.” No, I was not interested in the symptoms. I consider those symptoms. What I wanted to do was to focus the question on the root epidemic problem that creates the other problems. What’s the crisis that creates the other crisis? It is said that the definition of intelligence is to identify primary causes. I wanted to identify the primary cause of the world’s ills. And then you can go on a corrective course and have a conversation very specifically about that corrective course. So now, if we behave more in line with what may be true, then we can create something different. So it’s very practical to me. A friend of mine joked, she’s a poet, [after I told her about the documentary], she said, “Wow! I hope that’s a long movie.” (laughs). But I don’t see it that way at all. I could tell it to you in a sentence.
So did you always have these questions you wanted to ask or was it after your accident that they emerged?
TS: No, I’ve always been questioning how I’ve been walking, what is true, what am I doing to add value to the world or to detract from the healing of the world – always interested in that. The bike accident simply compelled me to talk about it. I was literally facing my own death and I thought that I cannot die with this conversation. There was a conversation in me that I had to be a part of at birth and offer to people.
Going back to what your friend said, that this should be a long movie, how did you edit it down, because it is quite short?
TS: 77 minutes. If you see my films, they are all pretty tight. Ace Ventura … they aren’t long films. I believe “when in doubt, leave it out.” So things have to really speak to me to be in a film. They have to say to me, “I demand to be in this film.” So I just simply listen and I believe movies should move. Less is more often in filmmaking. So I could have made this a two hour and thirty minute film, but I think there is enough there to awaken someone to the principles that can help get us through things.
You talk to such a wide array of people in I Am: philosophers, scientists, religious leaders. How did you approach them to be in this documentary?
TS: First off I told them that they helped to effect me. These people helped to change me through their research, their ideas, their books I’d read, seeing them in documentaries or speaking. And then I said, “I want to have this conversation with you and I don’t want to talk about the symptoms. Can you help me to identify the root problem?” And they were excited and wanted to be a part of it.
Did your perspective change from the original intent of the film after talking to all of the subjects?
TS: Well I did deepen my perspective greatly. So I had an idea what that fundamental root problem was, but what I didn’t know was how much research had been done in that area, how many experiments and information was coming out, was very much proving that to be potentially true. So there are all kinds of evidence and quantum-physics, biology, humanities, in the natural sciences that were saying, “We’re not seeing things as we are,” and this whole other story emerged. Especially about the inherent hardwired for goodness of a human being.
You keep using the word truth. What does “truth” mean to you, how would you define it?
TS: I find truth as … it’s like all the things that are important in our lives; it’s very hard to define. But you know it when you experience it. You know it when you hear it. I think truth awakens some kind of knowing, some kind of eternal timeless knowledge that we all carry around in our hearts and I can only say you know it when you hear it, read it, experience, express it.
Do you feel like you experienced truth?
TS: I feel like I’ve been blessed to be touched by truth. There are not many more layers to go. There certainly very well may be, but I believe there has been a power to these ideas that have animated me. And it’s the same power I see in the life of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Jesus, Martin Luther King, Saint Francis. This idea that there is something greater that we are a part of and when we serve that, we serve each other, we really do find ourselves and meaning and purpose.
Mentioning those great philosophers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, do you think there is anyone like that today?
TS: Here name is Mary Oliver. She’s a poet who lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts. She’s the best selling poet in America. She’s won the Pulitzer prize, and I believe that she’s as close as we have to Mr. Emerson today. There are a few people carrying forth those voices: Daniel Ladinsky who translated the poet Hafiz. Emerson first translated Hafiz and woke up to his beauty, in fact he said, “He sees too far. Such as the only man I wish to be.” Daniel Ladinsky is now sitting inside of that poetry and giving us the beauty of Hafiz. There are a few, not many, but there are a few.
The movie presents a lot of fascinating ideas, so what was the one of the most interesting things that you’ve learned?
TS: Everything that kind of blows your doors off the space-time continuum. So the space-time continuum would say [in an experiment shown in the film that showed yogurt can move after being effect by human thought] that to affect the yogurt, I got to touch it, poke it, prod it, wet it, but when you see what actually happens – that energy, that thing we can’t see that’s now going into your iPhone, affects everything. The reasons behind intuition they are now studying. So when your mom may have intuited that you sprained your ankle at school, there is no way she could have known that, nobody told her, but simultaneously, instantaneously she knew something has happened to her son. All that stuff was revealed to me in experiments. Now there is one experiment by Rupert Sheldrake called, “When Does Your Dog Know When You Are Coming Home?” So most people know that their dog knows you are coming home, because they are waiting by the door. Maybe it is when the keys hit the lock or the dog hears the car rolling up the driveway. Rupert Sheldrake has evidence now that it’s when you make the decision to go home. So you are in a party all the way across town, and you say to your friend or parents “I’m going to go home now,” your dog somehow picks up that information. Now that seems crazy. Inside the space-time continuum it’s crazy. But when you think about intuition and the connections we are discovering in quantum physics on the micro-level, if it can be moved to the macro-level, there is an explanation. So that kind of stuff was mind-blowing. How our hearts affect each other. How you walk in with an electromagnetic field ten to fifteen feet from your body. I could feel you as you walked in here. My brainwaves linked up. That stuff is very cool.
I thought that the most interesting thing was that your heart is the central organ to our bodies.
TS: That’s right, you think it’s your head. But see, we might very well be leaving the age of reason and moving into the age of empathy and the heart is in a different kind of enlightenment. They are discovering how powerful the heart and body is to sending signals to the brain and that makes certain sense.
Do you think this is an evolutionary phenomenon or it has to deal with all of the scientific breakthroughs we have achieved, being able to look at things microscopically?
TS: I think it’s both and this is a pure theory, because I certainly don’t have a caveman to measure his experience (laughs). But I think that even the empathy and the compassion have been evolving in us; just like how nature has evolved into a big cooperative. Single cell life used to be four billion years ago, very competitive, and then it learned to cooperative and that’s how single cell life learned to create nucleated cells, multi-celled creatures, and then us. We are very young so we have been competitive, and now we are learning the power of cooperation and that has been evolving in us like it’s evolved in nature.
What is your opinion on today’s modern science technology, being able to break things down to such a scientific level?
TS: I think technologies are neutral. I don’t subscribe that technologies advance us. I think that’s the myth of this generation; that your cell phone and the Internet advance you. I think that’s a myth. Technology is neutral. Your phone can be used to connect people or can be used to set off a car bomb. It can be used to start a revolution like Facebook in the Middle East, or it can be used to harass. If technologies were advancing us, then why are the stress levels so high, why are our suicide and medication rates at record level? They don’t advance us. What advances us is an understanding of reality, who we are and walking that reality. Technology is potentially very powerful, but the power won’t come from the technologies but from the individuals who use them for an intention and a purpose.
One thing you explain about yourself in the documentary is that you only live with what you truly need. So how does a person know what he or she truly needs?
TS: It’s up to them and I’m still experimenting with it. I think I have more than I need and I’ve got to go another level. I still have money in the bank that I don’t need and that needs to go to people who need it more. If you walk with an open eye and ear, you’ll find many people who need that money. People enslaved, someone will die today who can’t afford an operation – that should not happen. It’s really up to individuals. I’ve found my needs to be relatively simple. I don’t need a lot of square feet in a home so I can live in a smaller home. I don’t need toys. I know what toys I need. I love to surf and I love to bicycle and those are how I get out in nature and experience them. The wave, if you will, you experience while surfing or seeing nature on a bike ride. But I don’t need the latest games, bells and whistles. I haven’t bought clothes in about a decade. My needs are simple. Everybody is different. Someone may have a different vision and something speaking very differently to their heart and they need to listen to it. You walk; you take steps. If I had walked into that “double wide” life, the trailer home, which still costs a lot of money, in which I live, but I found less joy, I wouldn’t have stayed. It’s a simple philosophy. So you take a step and see if it brings you joy, brings you meaning. But have the courage to take the step.
Is that what you hope I Am does, to give people the courage to take a step?
TS: I hope it is an alarm clock to help them wake up to their own power. You are told that you can’t do anything about world hunger and Desmond Tutu says very clearly, “Oh yes you can,” because you can become kind to this person. You don’t necessarily have to give him money, but you can be kind to him. You can tell him you can care. Everybody has the greatest resource in them right now. They have the ability to care, to love – right now. And you are taught to wait. “Wait until you get out of school. Wait until you get a job. Wait until you are in the real world. Wait until you make more money so then you can give some back. Wait until your business is a success and then you can share some of it.” That is all insanity.
Being in the Hollywood industry, how do you feel about Hollywood’s economical structure after doing this documentary?
TS: Well I’ll speak about my own economic life and Hollywood is simply a reflection of how we do business. How everyone does business. Wall Street. Someone is successful in the entrepreneurial area, we are taught to take as much as we can. You’re taught that if you have a skill or a talent, you commoditize that talent and then you ask for as much as you can. I’m a more valuable director than you. You haven’t made any films. I’ve made films that grossed billions of dollars. I’ve worked with Jim Carrey, Eddie Murphy, and Robin Williams and Dave Chappelle and Steve Carrel. I’m more valuable than you. I don’t think that’s true. My moral side says that I am no more valuable than you in the divine sense and my economical life and be a reflection of my moral views. So I’ve shifted that. I don’t say that anymore. I never believed it, but I stood on top and said, “Well the economy said I should do this so…” and then I realized that saying, “Be greedy now so you can be generous later. Take all the money now and then you can give it away later.” But let’s cut out the middleman. Why should greed be the middleman? So ask yourself in your life, “How much is enough? What makes me feel?” This isn’t about living a poor existence, this is living a rich existence, but it’s questioning what’s really true wealth. What makes you rich? And if you are like the rest of the human species I’ve seen and studied, what will make you rich is when you reach out and connect with other people and other creative people. Whether it is an idea or something in the natural world.
Do you think you will return to that studio system, because I believe that a film like this would be almost impossible to make in a major studio that you’ve worked with in the past?
TS: I believe you’re right (laughs). That’s why I did it outside the studio system. But look, I want to tell stories that are powerful and if there is a thread or idea existing inside the studio system, I will serve it. I will do my personal business differently. I will stand in the middle of that system and say, “I don’t want to argue with me, I want to argue for we.” So whatever I can generate from this film, let it become a part of we, and not me.