Movie director Tom Shadyac was living large in Southern California until he made a personal transformation that extends to his latest film, the documentary "I Am."
Falls Church native Tom Shadyac has lived what many would describe as a gilded Hollywood life. After graduating from UVA, he moved to Los Angeles in 1983 and became Bob Hope’s youngest joke writer ever. He received his master’s degree in film in 1989 and went on to direct some of Hollywood’s biggest comedy hits including “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” and “Bruce Almighty.” At the height of his commercial success his pictures were returning five to seven times what they cost to make. He rewarded himself generously in response. As Shadyac, 52, reflects, “I became a big sinner in the consumptive world.” Yet despite his ambition, he declares, “I have always been interested in this idea of what is true.”
In September of 2007, the director was mountain biking in Annandale’s Wakefield Park when he suffered a horrible fall and head trauma that threatened his life. He characterizes his ongoing recovery as brutally difficult, yet the accident was a blessing. He says it “knocked me out of my head and into my heart. I mean, what is a guy who really is moved by the power of Jesus and Gandhi doing in a 17,000 square-foot, three-home compound in Pasadena? Something’s askew here.” His revelation prompted him to sell almost all of his possessions and move into a trailer park—albeit an upscale park in Malibu—and to reassess his life.
That’s not to suggest that Shadyac was not a reflective and charitable man prior to the accident. Quite the opposite. After shooting “Evan Almighty” in Crozet, between 2006 and 2009 he spent a reported $5 million to buy and renovate a 19th-century church on Market Street in Charlottesville and turn it into The Haven at First + Market—a day center for the homeless and working poor. Shadyac says that when he was a student at UVA, the cafeteria, sanitation and maintenance crews had helped him get an education, yet many of them were unable to pay for their own needs, and he wanted to do what he could to serve them. “My heart of course is bursting for Virginia. The Haven grew out of my presence here and my waking up to the needs of the community. The living wage and homeless situations seemed so manageable and certainly not enough was being done.”
Kaki Dimock, The Haven’s executive director, says that the facility serves over 75 homeless people every day, and she notes that in August 2010, “Tom provided an additional $100,000 to support this first critical year. Many of our guests have met Tom and count him among their friends.” Shadyac hopes that everyone in the community will eventually come for a locally-sourced free breakfast, served daily, and meet those persons who may be challenged: “That person is edified, you’re edified and community happens that way.”
Shadyac’s latest film, “I AM,” is a documentary and a complete departure from the studio releases of his recent past. Says he: “Here I was decrying the gap between the rich and the poor, and yet, I am the gap between the rich and the poor.” He now questions the need and desire to amass wealth and acquire possessions, saying: “It’s a part of a cultural perception that we have, that we accept, and I think it’s a sickness. That’s what I felt about it in me.” The film posits, in an earnest yet light-hearted way—based on conversations with many notable thinkers, including Desmond Tutu and the late Howard Zinn—that all humans are connected in a fundamental way. Separatism and self-centered competition are antithetical to who we are.
Shadyac seeks to birth a bigger conversation about the wisdom of the heart and inspire individuals to effect change from within. Says the director: “Emerson says, ‘When we wake up to these principles in our lives we will no longer weave a spotted life of shreds and patches. We will live with a divine unity.’ My journey has been about doing what I can to unify my life.”
“I Am” is now in limited release around the country, and Shadyac is currently developing a talk show based on the principles of the film. Its name is “Shift Happens.”