Sunday Times, 11 February 2013
In the 2007 film Evan Almighty, Steve Carell, playing a modern Noah, asks God (Morgan Freeman — who else?) when the flood will come. “September 22,” God replies with uncharacteristic precision. Soon after completing the movie, Tom Shadyac, its director, suffered concussion in a cycling accident in Virginia. Shadyac is no stranger to concussion; he is, to be frank, a bit of a head-banger. Thanks to snowboarding, surfing and biking, he’d had half a dozen previous concussive episodes. But this one was different, and it happened on — you guessed it — September 22.
“My heart must have intuited something across space and time,” he says. “If I hadn’t had that accident, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today, talking to you and having made this little film.” This “little film” is I Am, an autobiographical documentary consisting of interviews with big thinkers such as Noam Chomsky and the late Howard Zinn, as well as Shadyac’s own thoughts on life, the universe and everything. It emerges from the flood that washed over him on 9/22. It was not water, it was revelation.
First, pre-flood Shadyac. He is as he has always seemed to be: long-haired, athletic (the upside of all that head-banging), energetic and eloquent. He exudes the natural authority of an A-list director. Born in 1958, he is one of two sons of a well-off Virginia family and describes himself as three quarters Lebanese, one quarter Irish. “I’d hijack the plane and make sure there was a two-drink minimum.”
It would have been similar one-liners that established him as the comedian of the family. Noting this, an uncle put him in touch with Bob Hope, for whom he became a gag writer after studying government at college. When Hope first took him on, he telephoned from Hollywood. Mrs Shadyac answered, asking who it was, and when he replied “Bob Hope”, she said, “And I’m the queen of England.”
Shadyac’s mother convinced him of the importance of comedy. She had been “semi-quadriplegic” since he was 15 and would watch comedy on television with him. “She was funny all the way up to her death. You could see the restorative nature of comedy. People say it’s an escape from reality, but I think it’s a walk back into reality — we escape the pressures created by our social structures, we escape back into who we are.”
He went to the West Coast and studied film at UCLA. While crouching on the floor of a lavatory — he was setting up the first shot of his first film — he experienced an epiphany. “I knew this was what I was going to do.” And he did it — directing — with interstellar success. He launched Jim Carrey on an unsuspecting world with Ace Ventura: Pet Detective; then there was The Nutty Professor I and II; Patch Adams; Bruce Almighty, with Carrey and Morgan Freeman (who else?) as God. He was, as David Beckham persists in saying, “living the dream”, except there was something wrong, something that became apparent after the first Nutty Professor in 1996.
‘You could see the restorative nature of comedy. People say it’s an escape from reality, but I think it’s a walk back into reality — we escape the pressures created by our social structures, we escape back into who we are.’
“I used to drive around the fringes of Beverly Hills and think, ‘This is what success looks like. Maybe one day I’ll have a house like this in the 90210 zip code’ — and I did end up buying a house there. On the first night, after the movers had gone, I experienced an ‘Aha!’ moment. This didn’t do it for me.
“Some of my friends have talked about this. One guy had a multimillion-dollar contract for his show, a new Porsche, a model girlfriend, and he was on his way to his Malibu beach house when it hit him. This didn’t work.”
In 1997, after his next film — Liar Liar, with Carrey — the feeling became stronger. He couldn’t understand why he deserved the wealth being showered upon him. “When I finished that film, I sat down with a friend who is a counsellor in my life, and I said, ‘None of this feels right. Why should all this be coming to me? I’m doing what I want — maybe the person who’s not doing what they want, but serving us, should be getting more.’”
He wanted to give away all his money and goods, but his friend said no, he should keep accumulating and give away as much as he wanted. Shadyac went along with the advice. He kept giving away money, but the Beverly Hills house was replaced by a 17,000 sq ft palace in Pasadena. Also in 1997, he had married the actor Jennifer Barker, but it lasted only two years. He was, it seems, embarking on a slow process of renunciation that reached a climax with Evan Almighty, a film that took three years to make and for which he drew no fee at all. Then he fell off his bike.
“I could hear the ping, so I knew there was a slight concussion. What I didn’t expect was that, 24 hours later, I would no longer be able to process information in the same way, that light and sound would become torturous, and the only things that got me through were darkness, silence and isolation.”
Shadyac had PCS — post-concussion syndrome — which can last weeks, months, years or a lifetime. “Western doctors were no help. They said they couldn’t do anything, and some people never get better. Alternative therapists said there was a way out, but it took time. I hit bottom. Then I started to inch my way upwards. When I thought I could make this picture [I Am], something energetic happened. The emotions are connected to the body, and in some ways I think I invited the accident. At a spiritual level, I wanted to knock myself out of my head and into my heart. My heart is what is in that film.”
He abandoned the idea of accumulating and giving away, and just started to give. He disposed of the Pasadena palace, leaving himself with 32 room-sized storage bins. He now has eight left, mainly office equipment, and plans to give all that away, too. He moved to a mobile home in Paradise Cove. This is not quite the renunciation it appears to be. Paradise Cove is the grooviest trailer park on the planet — it has been featured in Vanity Fair — and homes there cost millions. Still, he got a fairly modest “double-wide” (about 24ft) trailer. Then he gave that away, too, to a homeless friend. He now lives in the trailer he was using as an office.
The point is that being a rich Hollywood philanthropist just does not address the problem. “Philanthropy is the Band-Aid we put on the world’s problems with our left hand while, with our right hand, we create these problems. I don’t want to be a left- or right-handed person. I want to live the philosophy of the oak tree — it takes what it needs and gives to everything around it.”
The title of the film is taken from GK Chesterton’s response to The Times, when it wrote to ask him what he thought was wrong with the world. He simply wrote back: “I am.” The message is that of the mystics, saints and sages — you can’t change the world unless you change yourself. Shadyac, now soaked in the works of the Persian poet Rumi and the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, is convinced he can do both.
His father, to whom the film is dedicated, would have said: “Be realistic.” He was the chief executive of St Jude Children’s Research Hospital, in Tennessee, but he did not believe that charitable impulse could be extended into the world. His son hates seeing people lose their faith in that way. “The light in their eyes goes out. My father didn’t even believe in the beauty of what he had done. That’s part of the malaise, part of the sleep dust that has to come out of our eyes. It’s about being awake. Buddha was not said to be wise, he was said to be awake.
‘Philanthropy is the Band-Aid we put on the world’s problems with our left hand while, with our right hand, we create these problems. I don’t want to be a left- or right-handed person.’
“I believe the world can change for one simple reason — it makes you happier. The end result is better. Like Gandhi said, hate may rise up for a time, but love will always overcome it. I can see human civilisation inching towards morality, and I believe the next revolution will be a moral revolution.”
The film is sweet, powerful and, doubtless, will be hated by the critics. It is like a middlebrow nonfiction version of a Terrence Malick movie, an invocation of a better world that, if we could look somewhere out there at the edge of our lives, we could find. It is a bit repetitive, and Shadyac has fallen for some wishful thinking when it comes to the science. But — and this is what matters — it rings true. This is not “putting your mouth where your money is” Hollywood posturing of the kind that embraces any fashionable cause from the Viet Cong to gun control. This is a heartfelt prayer, an innocent astonishment at our inability to do better. And he is now living the dream, though not Beckham’s.
“It’s all that I am. ‘Who am I?’ is the most important question people ask themselves. But they let who they are become secondary to what everybody else wants them to be. That’s why we have the prophets, to tell us that if you want to gain your life, you’ve got to lose your life. I lost my life and I gained it. I hope that’s an example that can help others.”
This double life is neatly and discreetly captured early on in the film. While Shadyac is setting up the interview with Chomsky, regarded by many as the greatest living intellectual, Shadyac asks the grand old man if he has seen Ace Ventura. Chomsky looks uncharacteristically baffled.
“That is my way of saying I am leaving my world and entering a world where I have no cachet, showing it’s a level playing field for me now. I was approaching the conversation in that way.”
Shadyac is now re-entering mainstream movies with a comedy, which, he says, is both exactly like and exactly unlike his previous films — funny with a heart, like Liar Liar, but more gentle, more simply made, more romantic. He is hoping to stay as pure as he is now, unstressed, unacquisitive, giving it all away. I doubt he’ll change the world, but only God, played by Morgan Freeman (who else?), will ever really know.