To hear him talk about it, one would think that acclaimed Hollywood director and newly reformed documentarian Tom Shadyac’s teaching methods were a perpetual cycle of talking and eating. The screenwriting class he teaches at Pepperdine University begins with coffee, includes pizza, and culminates in a “final” wherein he takes his students out for a meal and a sit-down conversation that could last several hours. It may sound unorthodox, but this new methodology jives with the new life the filmmaker is trying to create for himself, one based on sharing findings, feelings, and conversations, especially with students.
“I like to see who students are and where they are,” the filmmaker said before a talk with about three dozen William & Mary students during his visit to campus last week. “I think too often we talk at students instead of letting them tell us.”
It was just such a conversation that brought Shadyac to Williamsburg this week. The Virginia native and his production team have been traveling the country since July, holding screenings for the director’s latest film and first documentary, “I Am,” with a showing at Colonial Williamsburg’s Kimball Theatre Tuesday rounding out the most recent leg of their tour. William & Mary students got the chance to talk with the director during the time he was here, to learn more about the message of the movie, and the man behind it.
Shadyac, who is perhaps more commonly associated with the Jim Carrey flicks he’s directed such as “Ace Ventura” and “Liar Liar” had a life-changing experience a few years back when a severe mountain biking accident left the filmmaker with severe post-concussion syndrome. Stricken with chronic pain and very conscious of his own mortality, Shadyac says in his documentary that he remembers wanting more than anything else to share the things he’d learned, “from one generation to another.”
“I want to leave you with this,” he said to a group of students gathered to hear him speak in Blow Hall the day before the screening. “And do with it what you will.”
At face value, the documentary is about the pervasive culture of disconnectedness which the filmmaker feels is threatening to define humanity’s role in the world. On a more visceral level though, Shadyac’s movie is about talking to people and opening up a dialogue, whether it’s with a 21st Century luminary, a next door neighbor, or a mother left homeless by an earthquake halfway around the world.
The film features a number of notable thinkers such as Noam Chomsky and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, most of whom are asked at one point about their familiarity with the “Ace Ventura” series, with the result being a “no” or a baffled look almost every time.
Once he gets done quizzing them about his film career though, Shadyac takes the time to ask these great minds of the modern age the two central questions behind his movie: What is wrong in the world, and what can be done to fix it? The exchanges that ensue form the backbone for the entire film.
To help get these conversations out into the world Shadyac and his two production assistants Nicole Pritchett and Harold Mintz, a former student and a childhood friend respectively, took to the road, showing off the fruits of their labor and getting students, such as film and psychology double-major Alyssa Weinberger ’11, involved in the dialogue.
“I think he hit on a lot of really interesting research that's been done recently, especially in the fields of noetics and quantum physics and how they're just now starting to basically prove what Eastern religions have been saying forever,” said Weinberger, an aspiring filmmaker “I also appreciated the way he tended not to proselytize, opting instead for opening up a dialogue.”
Megan Hermida ’11, also a film major doubling with English, agreed, adding “I thought he was very eloquent. He was clearly very passionate about his transformation and this topic, and he seemed exceptionally enthusiastic to discuss with students.”
The day before the screening, William & Mary students had a chance to participate in just such a discussion when the literary and cultural studies department hosted a talk with the director that nearly doubled the hour of time anticipated for it. Shadyac, eschewing the chair set out for him behind a desk opted instead to perch himself on top of a table where he liberally dispensed high-fives, jokes, and impassioned stories about what he called the “waking up process” he went through after his accident.
Drawing on quotes from Sufi mystics, the Gospel of Thomas, Albert Einstein and Jim Carrey, Shadyac shared with the assembled students the path his journey of self-discovery had taken, and how much he hoped that they would find paths of happiness in their lives as well. He cautioned against following the expected “serious” road. He discussed the danger of being “turned into the product.” But mostly, he urged students to be the type of person that they would most want to be.
When Matthew Sonnenfeld ’12 asked for advice about how to become a successful filmmaker, Shadyac simply replied that he would urge him “to be the best human being you can become.”
“Always be intent on growing,” he said. “Follow your bliss.”
After the talk, Weinberger said that the impression he made on her went much deeper than just the advice he gave.
“I found him really approachable,” she remarked. “That could just be because he reminds me really forcibly of my friend's dad, but when I went up to him to talk after his conversation on Monday we high fived and he gave me a hug.”
And, by all appearances, Shadyac was just as excited as the students to be able to do something that makes him happy: sharing his thoughts, his experiences, and his life.
“I’d love to take you all out for pizza for like, a month” Shadyac said in making his goodbyes at the Kimball Tuesday night. He and his team had an early flight out of D.C. the next morning, forcing the director to truncate his usually 90 minute Q&A session and announce that he would have to leave immediately after he was done speaking.
Twenty minutes later, Mintz and Pritchett finally succeeded in pulling the filmmaker out of the Kimball’s lobby, where he was busying himself with students, dispensing words of encouragement and hugs.