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Natural Awakenings San Diego

I Am: An Interview with Film Director Tom Shadyac

Mar 07, 2011 05:23PM ● By Linda Sechrist

After a long recovery from a serious bicycle accident, Tom Shadyac—the celebrated comedy director of Ace Ventura, Liar, Liar and Bruce Almighty, among other films—sold his California mansion and gave up private jets, lavish vacations and expensive cars to live a simple lifestyle. His latest movie, the documentary I Am, explores why today’s culture is so obsessed with competition and separation, instead of community and cooperation.

What life-changing personal revelation did you have on the day that you moved into your first mansion?

There had been such an emotional build-up to the purchase of this home in an affluent Beverly Hills neighborhood, where I often dreamed that I would live some day. The culture I was living in saw it as a measure of my success, and I thought I did, too.

I’ve never forgotten how I felt, as I stood there alone after the movers pulled away. I felt completely neutral. It was shocking that the Beverly Hills address and mansion didn’t do what I had been led to believe it would. Owning it didn’t increase my personal happiness or cause me any feelings of elation. Instead, I was flooded with my first sense of understanding and appreciation that material wealth, beyond a certain point, couldn’t do anything for my happiness. In that moment, I thought of the mystics who knew that and walked away from material wealth to find happiness in a connection to community and in loving one another.

I felt grateful and fortunate because I realized that somehow, amidst all the noise about my supposed achievement and expensive square footage, the truth had broken through, and I was able to hear a deeper and more meaningful message that many of us are not able to hear.

Were you a seeker of truth before experiencing post-concussion syndrome (PCS) from your biking accident?

I’ve spent most of my adult life asking questions and studying the works of great sages and philosophers in pursuit of what is true, all the while, hopefully, remaining open.

The dogma, doctrine and exclusivity of the church that I was raised in prompted me to seek a larger truth, beyond religion. I began my search by reading about mystics such as Thomas Merton and great thinkers such as the Bohemian-Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke; Persian poet and mystic, Hafiz; and the Sufi poet, Rumi, as well as transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson and modern mystics like Mary Oliver. Reading and studying led me to the discovery that the great mystery exists in all faiths.

My biking accident and PCS symptoms led me to contemplate my mortality, and that experience led me to a sense of clarity and purpose. It also forced into my awareness ideas that I felt compelled to talk about in a film.

I grabbed my camera and a film crew to explore these ideas. We began by asking the significant minds of our century—Bishop Desmond Tutu; Dr. Dean Radin, senior scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences; Dr. David Suzuki, environmental activist; and the late Dr. Howard Zinn, author and professor of political science at Boston University—challenging and rarely asked questions about what was wrong with the world, and what we could do about it.

I was interested in finding out if there is a hidden problem underneath that causes all the problems of humanity, all the problems of our world. I believe that we end the film with the discovery of what it is that is right with our world.

Was it difficult to do a documentary like I AM in Hollywood?

In Hollywood, which is emblematic of our larger culture, filmmakers tell stories using modern-day parables to engage an audience and provide entertainment value. Like any filmmaker, I didn’t want my movie to be preachy or tell people how they should live their lives. Rather, I wanted to meet people where they are, portray my ideas as well as what I have come to know, and hopefully touch audiences who will consider how the subject affects them.

Do you believe that millions of individuals will be able to see and absorb what you see and know, so that they can begin to change?

When enough of us stop compartmentalizing our lives, begin to embody the change we wish to see and walk out of church to live a life that honors the values we profess we believe in—like feeding and clothing our neighbors when they need help—then I believe we can achieve the critical mass we’ve been talking about for so long. It may happen like the Berlin Wall, which no one saw coming. Hopefully, all the ideas that are already out there penetrating today’s society will open people up, and their veils of illusion will fall away unexpectedly, just as the Berlin Wall did.

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