Interview: I Am’s Writer-Director Tom Shadyac

by | May 2nd, 2011 | 6:30PM | Filed under: Interviews, Movies

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From the mid-’90s to the mid-’00s, Tom Shadyac was one of the most successful comedy filmmakers working, having directed Ace Ventura: Pet Detective; The Nutty Professor, Liar Liar, and Bruce Almighty.

But Shadyac slowly began to question the competition and materialism that seemed to drive the film industry as well as modern human civilization. He eventually divested himself of as much worldly excess as possible—he got rid of his Pasadena mansion and estate as well as many of his possessions and moved into a nice little trailer park.

Following a bicycling accident in 2007, Shadyac suffered from a debilitating post-concussion syndrome—the syndrome passed after a year, but the harrowing experience and accompanying depression left the director feeling he needed to share what he believed with the world.

So he took a small film crew and began interviewing various philosophers, scientists, poets, and thinkers (including Desmond Tutu, Noam Chomsky, historian Howard Zinn, and Shadyac’s own father, who co-founded St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital), asking them What’s Wrong With the World? and What Can We Do About It?

The conclusion Shadyac came to and the answer he found to both questions was “I am”–that became the title of a personal, eclectic (and often lighthearted and hopeful) documentary of Shadyac’s personal explorations and beliefs that roams over topics such as evolution, compassion and love, competition and cooperation, human connections, and the “cancers” of greed, hatred, and materialism.

I sat down with Shadyac a few weeks ago in Chicago to talk about I Am and especially about the ideas the documentary raises.

When you started making this film, did you have any idea where you wanted it to go, what you wanted it to cover?

Tom Shadyac: I had an idea about the fundamental problem that creates other problems, but I wanted to go on an exploration to see what these great thinkers thought was the problem. It’s a very positive, hopeful movie–I started uncovering all this evidence about how we’re hard-wired, what builds us up, and what breaks us down.

What was the biggest thing you learned during filming?

Shadyac: All the evidence that’s out, all the research, it’s just getting started in what you’d call alternative research: mind connection, intuition. But the work they’ve already done blew me away; the hard science, not just quantum physics, but what’s been done research-wise in terms of physiology, our evolutionary traits–you can see the evolution through 175,000 years of our history, even from the smile to the laugh. All these things are pointing in the same direction–there’s a ton of evidence to say love isn’t just a trope, it’s not just an idea. It has force and weight and merit in the way your body works.

The film talks about the idea that despite the notions of “survival of the fittest” and “the selfish gene,” evolution and biology actually favor cooperation over competition.

Shadyac: Every biological system that thrives over the long haul is a cooperative. But you say, “Wait a minute, things kill each other in nature.” But as we say in the movie, the lion kills one gazelle, it doesn’t kill every gazelle. Human behavior would be to kill every gazelle. We kill and store and kill and store and throw everything out of balance, much the same way a cancer does, destroying our own host and then we die–that’s what happens to biological systems that take more than they need, they don’t thrive. We have a philosophy these days that says we don’t have to live in balance, that we can take whatever we want.

To me it’s simple: I don’t think we’re going to survive as a species. I came to the same conclusion as Mr. Einstein did observing our behavior from a completely different angle, that we just won’t make it. Other civilizations have died off before us with similar ideologies, and other species have died off with similar ideologies, and cancers die off, and humanity’s not going to make it unless it has a new way of thinking.

You’ve said this film is not about proscribing a certain course of action for people, but for you personally, where do you go from here?

Shadyac: The whole I Am film is a non-profit project, and we created a foundation around it (The Foundation for I Am) to continue the principles and the good work that’s going on around the world. I see myself personally involved in the conversation somewhere, continuing maybe through more films, and I have some opportunities to do a talk show. I do want to start this institute, bring people in, talk about this idea, carry on this conversation.

When you talk about spreading love and compassion, there’s also the question of trust and fear—like in the Prisoners’ Dilemma, where if both sides do the right thing, they both come out okay. But there is that temptation born of greed, fear, and mistrust that you can personally get more by exploiting the other guy’s weakness or “compassion.” And if both sides take advantage of the situation they both lose.

Shadyac: That fear is what we have to get beyond, what we have to have the courage to see through. I think that ultimately non-violence gains its power because it’s based on a principle that love is greater than hate. And you spread this by letting others see you living it. For me, I made this film, I live my life in a certain way—that has a power.

There is power in saying, “I am going to stand on a principle and see you as my brother even if you hate me, and I’ll allow you to hit me, or even kill me.” If I say, “I’ll kill you before you kill me because I know you have plans in the future to kill me,” well I’ve just become the cancer that I’m trying to end. So I want to have a dialogue with you even at the risk of my own life, and if you kill me, I believe it will create a story that is more powerful that will eventually overcome whatever hate or ignorance you’re in. That, to me, is reality.

I Am is currently playing in about 50 select theaters across the country.

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