Tom Shadyac: The filmmaking philosopher of the trailer park |

Tom Shadyac: The filmmaking philosopher of the trailer park

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times

Tom Shadyac presentsa screening of the French comedy "The Intouchables" in a MountainSummit event today at the Wheeler Opera House.
Lynn Goldsmith Special to The Aspen Times |

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the voice of the civil-rights movement, and 50 years ago this week, he gave one of the great speeches in U.S. history during the March on Washington. Rumi was a poet whose words have endured 700 years and don’t seem to be losing their power. Jesus Christ was the son of God.

And what exactly are the credentials Tom Shadyac brings to the job of philosopher, inspirational figure and examiner of the human spirit?

“He’s the director of ‘Ace Ventura.’ He doesn’t have a discipline in macrobiology or economics,” said someone who is a presumed expert in Shadyacology — Shadyac himself. Shadyac summed up the reaction to his taking on the role of profound thinker: “’Who is this guy?’”

Shadyac, whose resume includes “Bruce Almighty” and “Liar Liar” in addition to “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” is now the guy who wrote “Life’s Operating Manual,” a look at the issues confronted previously by King, Rumi and Christ as well as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Rainer Maria Rilke and Jonas Salk: justice, compassion and community. The book, published in May, takes on the fundamental question of “What is the source of happiness, and comes to the conclusion that happiness is found not in being victorious or in financial achievement, but in generosity and simplicity.

Shadyac, who is appearing at the Wheeler Opera House’s MountainSummit this weekend, is quick to note that his insights into the human condition are not new.

“It would take all day to list the people who have said this before,” he said from his home in Paradise Cove, the Malibu trailer park he calls home.

What “Life’s Operating Manual” adds to the conversation is the point of view of a modern-day thinker, someone who has witnessed such occurrences as an epidemic of school shootings.

“I’m not saying anything new. Really,” the 54-year-old Shadyac said. “It’s just another perspective on the why. The modern media is full of the what, but not why. This is a perspective on the why. The hope is to get to the root of these issues — why we have the problems that lead to the problems.”

“Life’s Operating Manual” makes it clear that Shadyac has done his reading of those who have come before him; he quotes liberally from all the figures above. But he doesn’t want to come off as though he’s handing down a set of commandments. He notes that his take on the world comes mostly from observations grounded in his own experience.

“I don’t say, ‘This is all truth,’” he said. “But I stand on this soil. I say, ‘This is what I’ve garnered on my journey.’”

The most recent leg of the trip began in 2007, when Shadyac had a biking accident. He experienced months of headaches and depression, and when he finally came out of it, he had a different perspective on the world. He gave up his mega-properties and moved into the double-wide and began delivering a message of generosity. “I Am,” his documentary that screened at the 2010 MountainSummit, presented the theory not that humans ought to be kind and community-oriented, but that we are hard-wired for such traits, and that we are most emotionally fulfilled by being benevolent.

The reason we’ve gotten away from those ideas, and become competitive and materialistic, according to Shadyac, is that we’re still early in the learning curve.

“The universe is 13 billion years old; life is 4 billion years old. We’re maybe 175,000 years old,” he said. “Living systems experiment. We’re like that. We’re not doing this because we’re bad or hard-wired for it. We thought (that) by accumulating and accumulating, it would make us more comfortable. That thought is not without its rooting. But we’re finding out that it doesn’t work.”

Shadyac points to a movie, the current “The Butler,” about a black man who serves eight presidents as a White House staff member, as an indication of our progress. “Someone from a different race is not property — they’re leading us. Our president is from that race,” Shadyac said. “Attitudes can shift. But because we’re inside these attitudes, we don’t see it.”

The next phase of Shadyac’s journey is back into feature films. Shadyac, who hasn’t directed a comedy since 2007’s “Evan Almighty,” is in the midst of casting for an English-language version of the 2011 French hit “The Intouchables.” In an event at 2:30 p.m. today at MountainSummit, Shadyac will introduce a screening of the original film and talk about the remake he is working on. (Shadyac also was scheduled to give a talk — a “Tomversation” — about “Life’s Operating Manual” on Saturday night in Carbondale.)

“It’s a big deal in that I’ve seen a way to make other films, a much simpler way,” he said of his return to feature films. “I want to be a student of the process. I still love film, love storytelling, but there’s a rigor that we go through to make these things.”

In a way, remaking “The Intouchables” represents easing his way back into large-scale filmmaking. Shadyac says he has no designs to significantly alter the original version, the touching, humorous story of an aristocratic, paraplegic man who hires an unpolished inner-city man to be his caretaker.

“I loved the French original,” Shadyac said. “We’re very intent on honoring it. We’re relanguaging the wheel for a culture that hasn’t seen the film.”

The project also opens a new emotional terrain for Shadyac as a filmmaker. “The Intouchables” is a comedy but not in the style of “Ace Ventura” and “Liar Liar.” Shadyac says the themes he was attracted to in “The Intouchables” were “humor and inspiration.”

The film also hits a personal note for Shadyac. His mother became a semi-paraplegic when he was 15, and he appreciated the portrayal of the paraplegic in “The Intouchables” as a fully rounded person.

“I love the way the inner-city character handles the other character with utter honesty — my mother appreciated that. We had a great sense of humor between us,” Shadyac said. “The way the character is treated, with humor and like a human, it takes a little of the fragility away from how we treat others with disabilities. I know that world really well.”