Tom Shadyac: Life begins after you give away your Hollywood toys
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Correction: In writing about a scene from Tom Shadyac’s new film, ‘I Am,’ I inaccurately transcribed a line of dialog. When Shadyac talks about his agent, he actually says: ‘My agent. A source of stress in show business!’ My apologies.
There’s a scene in Tom Shadyac’s new documentary, “I Am,” where the filmmaker visits the Institute of HeartMath, a research organization in Northern California that explores the scientific basis for understanding human connectedness. Shadyac sits in front of a bowl of yogurt, which is connected via electrodes to a meter that can somehow register your heart’s emotional reaction to various stimuli. When the needle on the meter doesn’t move, Rollin McCraty, a senior researcher at HeartMath, suggests to Shadyac that he should think of something that might trigger a reaction.
Shadyac jokes, “Maybe I should call my agent.” The camera cuts to the meter, which gyrates wildly, like a Geiger counter near a uranium deposit. Shadyac’s mouth opens in amazement. “My agent. A source of stress and humiliation in show business!”
I still can’t figure out how the yogurt so quickly identified high-level anxiety, but when it comes to Shadyac’s feelings about his Hollywood career, the meter was right on the money. Once the most celebrated comedy director in the business, having made a fortune with hits like “The Nutty Professor,” “Liar Liar” and “Bruce Almighty,” Shadyac is now a Hollywood dropout.
Now 51, he hasn’t made a feature film since “Evan Almighty” in 2007. He sold a 17,000-square-foot mansion in Pasadena and moved into a trailer park in north Malibu. He’s been giving away most of his money and was well on his way to shedding his possessions several years ago when he took a serious fall while bicycling in Virginia, breaking his hand and suffering a concussion.
The hand healed, but Shadyac ended up with a nasty case of post-concussion syndrome, an ailment common among professional athletes that can cause depression, disorientation and has even prompted some victims to commit suicide.
It took Shadyac months to recover. When I visited him Friday at his trailer park home, he pointed to a closet in his tiny bedroom. “That’s where I would sleep a lot of the time,” he says. “Everything felt too loud and too bright because my brain had lost the ability to filter things out.”
When Shadyac finally returned to health, he decided that he needed to make a film that could explore why today’s culture is so obsessed with competition and separation instead of community and cooperation. Due in theaters early next year, “I Am” features interviews with all sorts of wise men and women, including well-known cultural figures such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the late historian Howard Zinn as well as lesser-known scientists, poets and evolutionary biologists.
They all grapple with Shadyac’s central theme, puzzling over why man is often more competitive than cooperative, more aggressive than empathetic — in other words more like Donald Trump than like Gandhi. The film is crammed with intriguing ideas, but Shadyac earns his keep as a filmmaker. He illustrates the serious talk with provocative images, emphasizing our sense of connectedness, for example, with a great scene of dozens of skydivers, holding hands as they plunge earthward.
But the film is clearly an act of penance as well. Five years ago, Shadyac was flying everywhere by private jet and staying in lavish hotel suites. He was giving away money, but he instinctively knew something was amiss — after “Liar Liar” opened, he slipped away to Thomas Merton’s monastery in Kentucky for a 10-day silent retreat.
“I had a woman at my production company whose job was to find people in need that we could help — people whose houses had burned down, kids in a blind children’s center,” he told me last week, sitting in his cozy trailer overlooking the gorgeous California coastline. “But I didn’t realize that even though I was giving my money away, my own life was a very poor reflection of who I thought I was. I thought I was taking care of others, but I was really only taking care of me.”
He laughs. “I couldn’t decry the gap between the rich and the poor and actually be the gap between the rich and the poor. As Mr. Gandhi says, you have to be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Childless and divorced for more than a decade, Shadyac now realizes he was searching for meaning, something he wasn’t destined to find in the shallow slipstream of Hollywood.
These days, Shadyac has one trailer that he lives in, another that functions as a production office. He admits he was afraid at first to make such a downscale move but says that “after one night of fear, I’ve found a great community here — I’m much happier in this little place than I’ve ever been in all my fancy houses.”
He’s still teasing out the complexities of how much he can practice what he preaches. He doesn’t have a cellphone. He has a small car, but he travels most places by bicycle, always wearing a helmet. He has taken planes to show his movie at film festivals, but he flies coach, not private.
“Look, this is an experiment,” he says. “I still have a lot of money that I don’t feel is mine because it came from a competitive system that is helping, in its own way, to destroy the world. So the way I run the economy of my life is to take only what I need to live and funnel the rest to other people.”
As for his career, that’s a work in progress too. Shadyac hasn’t taken a studio meeting in more than two years. When his agent and business manager come to see him, he encourages them to paddle-board in the ocean with him before anyone can start talking business. If he does take a job, it would have to be on his terms.
Shadyac is on the short list to direct the remake of “The Incredible Mr. Limpet,” a Warner Bros. comedy that has Zach Galifianakis attached as its star. However, Shadyac envisions the film as an environmentally conscious comedy, so much so that he first ran his ideas by the filmmakers who did the eco-documentary “The Cove” to make sure they were environmentally sound.
You get the feeling he isn’t counting on getting the job. “I don’t think it’s going to happen,” he says. “The studio may have someone else whose take they like more.”
For now, Shadyac is more preoccupied with getting the word out about “I Am.” “I’m doing my career in reverse. Usually you start with a little movie and work your way up to the big ones, but I started with the high-profile films and I’ve managed to work my way down. But what good is our art if it doesn’t change us, if our lives don’t reflect the values that we put into our films? Too many things are handed to us — the private jets and the big hotel suites. But what it does to you is insidious.”
He falls silent, staring out his window at the ocean.
“It’s already enough of a privilege to be an artist. We don’t need anymore privileges. I’m not saying that movie stars shouldn’t have trailers [on movie sets]. That’s not the line for me to draw. But if I make another film, all I need is a room, not a trailer,” he laughs as he points out the obvious. “I’ve already got one.”