On screen in Aspen: ‘I Am’ reveals a Hollywood filmmaker’s reality check
December 24, 2010
ASPEN – Tom Shadyac, the director behind some of the most popular and most expensive comedies of recent decades – “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” “Bruce Almighty,” “Liar Liar,” all starring Jim Carrey – has been on the road of late with his new film, “I Am.” “The traveling circus of ‘I Am,'” said Shadyac, who often engages in discussions with the audience following the screenings of the film. If the reception the film has received in Aspen is typical – “I Am” was the most popular film at the MountainSummit festival this past summer, and it gets an encore screening Saturday at the Wheeler Opera House – it’s safe to say the audience response has been favorable.
Still, Shadyac must be anxious about a special screening set for early March in Los Angeles. That is when many of the 52-year-old director’s friends, collaborators and acquaintances will be seeing “I Am” for the first time. “Not a lot of my quote, unquote celebrity friends have seen it,” Shadyac said by phone from Virginia.
Perhaps more significant than the reaction of his pals, it will be interesting to see how the film plays in Hollywood. “I Am” is a documentary that takes aim at values – materialism, social Darwinism, lives measured by numbers (box office, square footage, price tags) rather than spiritual achievements – often associated with the movie business. The film, which features conversations with philosophers, doctors, poets and religious leaders, argues that humans not only should be more magnanimous, but that we are, in fact, biologically wired to look out for what Shadyac often calls “concern for the common good.”
The early returns from the show-biz crowd has been positive. Ellen DeGeneres devoted a monologue last month to “I Am,” and, while using the film largely as a platform for her own jokes, gave a thumbs-up to the spiritual message. The “cultural creative” movement, as Shadyac calls it, represented by the likes of Marianne Williamson, founder of The Peace Alliance, has shown “amazing support.”
“My sense is they’re going to be moved,” Shadyac predicted of the L.A. premiere. “I’ve questioned some things in my own life, and maybe that wouldn’t play well for people who aren’t on that path. But I think the movie meets people where they are. I’m only showing what I’ve discovered and hope people take from it, asking what they can do.”
For Shadyac, the path begins with his father, Richard. Richard Shadyac died last year, but makes an appearance in “I Am,” speaking about St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, a facility that provides free care for children with cancer that the elder Shadyac was closely involved with. During his rise as a filmmaker, Tom Shadyac tried to embody such selfless values, but the culture surrounding him became an overwhelming influence: “The driving mechanism is always the next thing, bigger and bigger – and this feeling that that’s good, to keep expanding,” Shadyac said before last summer’s Aspen screening. As shown in “I Am,” in cautionary tones, Shadyac accumulated enormous homes and happily flew in private jets.
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Shadyac began to have his head turned when, in 2003, he first attended Mountainfilm in Telluride, a festival devoted to consciousness about the world. But an even more urgent wake-up call came in 2007, when a mountain-biking accident left him with a concussion and, even worse, post-concussion syndrome, a condition whose symptoms included severe depression. When the darkness lifted, Shadyac had a new perspective on the world and his place in it. He sold his mansions and moved into a trailer park, where he still resides.
With “I Am,” Shadyac attempts to share some of the lessons he learned, in particular the discovery that the more he devoted himself to others, and weaned himself from material pursuits, the happier he became.
But the film, his first documentary, backs away from preaching. Instead it is a dynamic, moving and well-constructed story that touches on science, nature and philosophy. And humor – Shadyac, who began his career as a joke writer for Bob Hope, doesn’t hesitate to poke fun at himself, or use gags to make his points. “I Am” is not only a vehicle for Shadyac, the newly enlightened being, to make his points about humanity; it is also Shadyac, the filmmaker, seeing if he can make that message into an entertaining night at the movies.
“Because I’ve been in movies for two decades, I know you have to present things in an emotional way,” he said. “The root of ‘movie’ is ‘move.’ That means not only pace, but you have to move people. I knew this message could be static unless we found the emotion in those ideas. I think it was Hitchcock who said, ‘Movies are like life, with the boring parts taken out.’ I want pace. I want something to be happening.”
Shadyac has also gotten his message out in ways that are more tangible than images on a screen. A homeless shelter in Charlottesville, Virg., that he was instrumental in building is about to celebrate its first anniversary. Much of his philanthropy is focused on Telluride. He gave a significant contribution a few years ago toward the town’s effort to buy the prominent parcel of land at the entrance to Telluride, and preserve it as open space – “So that Telluride would continue to be what it is and attract the people who do this amazing work,” he said, referring to Mountainfilm in Telluride.
Ironically, Shadyac is now trying to develop property he owns in Telluride. He hopes to establish the I Am Institute, which he calls “Telluride’s version of the Aspen Institute. We want to bring people together to have this conversation about values, who we are, how we hope to make a difference.”
Shadyac is also eyeing a return to Hollywood. He has several projects in the works that would be more commercial-minded endeavors than “I Am” – but would not represent a return to the old filmmaking model he followed.
“It’s not that I won’t make big Hollywood comedies again,” he said. “I’ll just do it differently. I’ve changed. I’ll tell different kinds of stories and make them in a different way.”