Patricia Sheridan's Breakfast With ... Tom Shadyac
After a bike accident in Virginia, film director and producer Tom Shadyac suffered debilitating concussion symptoms. When he had recovered, he wrote and directed the documentary "I Am" about our consumer-oriented society. It explores two questions: What's wrong with our world, and what can we do about it?
Originally from Falls Church, Va., the 53-year-old began as a comedy writer for Bob Hope when he was just 24. In 1994, "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" catapulted him into the spotlight as a comic director along with star Jim Carrey. He went on to direct "Liar, Liar," "Bruce Almighty" and "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry," among others. "I Am" is now available on DVD.
In the film, you explore competition vs. cooperation. You have always been a high achiever. Were you driven to do so to please your parents, or was it just in your DNA?
I think there's a certain amount of competitiveness in all of us, but the way we define competitiveness is what I call into question. As long as competitiveness is about bringing out excellence -- because I love to see who can run the fastest, jump the highest -- that's wonderful.
We have added a deadly poison to that, which is: You must win that competition to survive in our culture. Many indigenous cultures did not swallow that poisonous pill, but our culture has.
For you happiness was getting rid of a lot of your stuff, scaling back. But you had stuff to give away. There are people who will say, "I still need to get it before I can give it away to be happy."
[Laughing] That may be their path, but whether a person has it or not, there are many who did not have stuff, who understood that things would not bring you happiness. I just don't like to look at it as giving up stuff. I feel like rather than giving up something, I moved toward something, gained something.
When I gave up the walled estate, I gained neighbors and friends. I gained community. When I gave up all this stuff that had to be maintained ... I moved toward lightness and enlightenment. I got lighter because I wasn't carrying around a lot [laughing].
So basically it freed you up.
Yes, it was a shackle in a way, and I found a key.
What's interesting is that before the accident, you were noticing that things weren't making you any happier than you were before.
Oh, I knew these things as a kid. As a child someone once asked me, "What kind of a life do you want to lead to be happy?" I thought as long as I had friends, a sense of play and a sense of creativity, I'll be very happy. And music. I wanted music as well.
Then of course, society, I was co-opted into a vision that I think is askew, and that got more complicated and changed. I believe I was participating in a silly thing.
You have talked about the torture of the concussion symptoms you experienced after the accident. What did you do to cope?
Complete isolation. The brain is like a computer that is hurt. The concussed brain is like a computer that is on overload. So you just want to shut it down. I literally shut my brain down.
I lived essentially in a dark room with blackout curtains over the windows. I slept in a closet. I cut off most ties with friends. I didn't use a cell phone for three or four years. That turned out to be a blessing, by the way. I simply shut it down so it could hopefully at some point reboot stronger. Eventually, that did happen when a number of other things fell into place. It really is a matter of just taking time. Going back to zero and then rebooting.
How do you stop your thoughts?
My brain was creating tension by saying, "How long is this going to go on? Why? Why? How long?" That created tension.
Once I accepted what was, at that moment it released the tension. I started to feel almost instantly better or at least a level of better. I started to say this just is, for now. I am just in pain for now. It's not always going to be this way. That helped me tremendously, and I think that's instructive for others who are in pain. Whether it's an emotional pain or a physical pain, it's not always going to be this way. It will change and become something else. It will heal.
In "I Am," there is no blueprint for how to disengage an entire society from being addicted to consumption.
I concern myself with the individual. We still have a bit of a herd mentality, but if enough individuals change, I think there can be a critical tipping point. ... There is an energy that comes when a certain number of individuals change.
I am not interested in masses. I don't know how to talk to masses. I know how to talk to you. So I ask people, "Who are you? What do you want to stand for? What energy are you putting out? What conversations are you having?"
Then suddenly we see revolutions happen, like what we see in the Middle East and what we saw with the falling of the Berlin Wall years ago. That's how I believe it happens. We share who we are, what we know, with all the passion that we have, and then leave the results to this higher organizing intelligence I call God. It will take its course.
Will you continue to explore these ideas in film?
Why would I not? My life, I hope, is about that idea, so I want to put that energy into whatever I do. Whether it's this conversation, the next script I write (I'm writing a book right now), whether it's the class I'll teach at Pepperdine, it's all the same thing. We all wear tool belts, and we all have different tools. One day, I'll take out my film-writing tool, but it's all for the same thing. It is all to add a value, to tend toward love or a more loving world.
I think one of the poisons of our culture is we don't see it that way. We say well, this is just business. So I can be a jerk in business and I can be very predatory and selfish, but I'll go home and be loving and kind. That does not work. It doesn't work in nature, and it doesn't work with us.
After people experience a life-altering event like near-death, it seems the purpose of life is very clear initially, but day-to-day living fades the impact. That is not the case with you.
If that's true, and I hope it is, it is because the accident didn't change my perspective. My perspective had been shifting for the better part of a decade. I had been giving more money away and moving toward these principles, understanding the hypocrisies in my own life. The accident simply made me talk about it.
There were very few people that understood the ideologies that were animating me. What happened with the concussion is that I didn't want to die with those ideas buried inside me. I wanted to share it. I wanted to tell my story.
How careful are you with your thoughts now, especially because you learned so much doing this movie?
I think we can get overly critical of ourselves. I think there is really one thought that has to go, and that is judgment. Oh, I just had a bad thought about a person. Oh, I'm a bad person. It creates a tension.
I am a storyteller, and all great stories are about one controlling idea. What's the controlling idea of your life? So if you have a thought you say, "OK, how does that serve or not serve the controlling idea of my life?"
As Emerson says, "Just get in the stream that animates all whom it floats, and you're compelled to a right." We make it mechanical. It's that word "intention," which I'm not crazy in love with.
When you go to [work] on Monday and you say, "I can take advantage of my neighbor and make a profit," you are telling us who you are. ... You preach a message with all of your life and all of your actions.
Again, as Emerson said, "The goal of life is to unify those actions." That's what integrity means. So that when you look at a person's life, you can see who they are with any drawer that opens in their life.
First Published February 13, 2012 12:00 am