For a guy who once made a film where the main character talked out of his butt, Tom Shadyac is surprisingly insightful. The director of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Liar, Liar and Evan Almighty cites environmentalist Daniel Quinn and philosopher Noam Chomsky among his influences, and seems to have a neverending list of favorite writers, including A Wrinkle in Time author Madeleine L’Engle and the Sufi mystic Hafez.
Considering that, it might not be so surprising that Shadyac’s new film I Am — his first foray into the world of documentaries — tries to find an answer to all of the world’s problems.
“I went out and asked two questions,” Shadyac said. “What’s wrong with our world, and what can we do about it? And when I ask what’s wrong with our world I don’t want to hear the common answer.”
Some of the answers he received did not please him.
“‘Oh, we’re destroying the environment.’ ‘Oh, we’re always at war.’ ‘Oh, there’s so much poverty, so much economic disparity.’ Those are the symptoms,” he said. “I wanted to have a conversation about the root problems. What causes these things?”
In 2007, Shadyac was involved in a bicycle accident that gave the lifelong surfer, biker and outdoorsman his fifth or sixth concussion. With this concussion, however, the symptoms didn’t go away. His doctors diagnosed him with post-concussion syndrome. Light and sound were painful to endure; his only real solace came in quiet, dark rooms. Shadyac feared he was facing death.
“I asked the question to myself, ‘If this is it for me, what do I want to do before I go?’” Shadyac said. “I wanted to explore some things that I had become aware of, that I had woken up to in my life. I had a conversation sitting in me that wasn’t happening in the larger world. And I didn’t want to die with that conversation inside of me.”
After he had healed, Shadyac and a camera crew asked 18 people, in various fields, including himself, his two questions. Quinn and Chomsky made it into the film, as did the late historian Howard Zinn, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and alternative scientist Dean Radin.
Being his first documentary, I Am posed new challenges for Shadyac. He was accustomed to writing and planning a film before shooting it. With a documentary, it’s the opposite. The film’s shot, then the story is shaped during editing.
“I didn’t know what it would turn into. It turned into a very positive, very uplifting film,” Shadyac said. “That didn’t evolve until we went on this journey. You have to follow your interviews. They’re your scripts — the people you talk to, the moments you uncovered.”
In some ways, though, this is old hat for Shadyac. Most of his characters, particularly in Patch Adams and Bruce Almighty, either want or have to change the world for the better. The lessons are often simple: love thy neighbor; the truth shall set you free; simple acts of kindness make the biggest differences. In some ways, he’s a modern-day Frank Capra.
“There’s been kind of an evolving message in the films I do. I like to think of them as parables. Each one stands for something,” Shadyac said. “Even something as silly as Ace Ventura is really rooted in the idea of a childlike joy, which I think is spiritual.”
That mission has gained Shadyac a reputation as a Christian filmmaker, even though he’s never quite labeled himself as such.
“I don’t consider any film that I’ve done to be targeted towards any specific religious audience. I do films about things that move me. I want any film to be appealing to people of various faiths, whether you’re a Buddhist or of a Judaic faith,” Shadyac said. “I find a commonality between all my major faiths, and my films try to meet that commonality. It’s not about this dogma that calls you a Christian, or a Jew, or a Hindu or a Muslim. I want to get beneath that.”
For Shadyac, that also means exploring both science and faith in I Am, areas that many consider mutually exclusive.
“I think if you have this belief about a creative force, that when you look at the science and really explore it, it does nothing but blow your mind and increase your belief,” Shadyac said. “I just always want to know what’s true, and this movie is really an exploration of some ideas of what may be true about who we are as people and what the basic fundamental nature of reality may be.”