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Originally published Thursday, February 24, 2011 at 3:01 PM

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Interview: 'I Am' filmmaker Tom Shadyac steps back to explore the big picture

An interview with filmmaker Tom Shadyac, who gave the world "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" and "Liar Liar." With his new documentary, "I Am," he explores the meaning of life. "When I got sick and thought I was not going to be around long, I was compelled to make this film," he says.

Special to The Seattle Times

Can the writer-director who gave the world "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective," "Patch Adams" and "Liar Liar" be trusted with the meaning of life?

Well, if Monty Python can take a swipe at it, why not Tom Shadyac?

The 52-year-old writer-director behind several Jim Carrey blockbusters has flirted with expensive religious parables in "Bruce Almighty" and "Evan Almighty," both of which featured Morgan Freeman as God.

Now he's taken the shoestring-budget approach with "I Am," a nonprofit documentary inspired by an epiphany Shadyac had while recovering from a bicycle accident. Suffering from post-concussion syndrome, he wasn't sure he would survive.

"When I got sick and thought I was not going to be around long, I was compelled to make this film," said Shadyac by phone from Portland, where the movie had its premiere last week. It opens Friday, Feb. 25, in Seattle, followed next week by San Francisco, then Los Angeles and New York.

Although he started downsizing years before the accident, the recovery experience was so disorienting that it jolted him into thinking more urgently about the future. He compares the flashing lights and distorted sounds he experienced to "Dante's Seventh Circle of Hell." Because of head injuries he suffered in high school, there's a chance it could return.

Shadyac decided to round up some of his favorite people and create a script that would address what had for him become an essential question: "What's wrong with our world and what can we do about it?"

Among the talking heads in the film who join in the discussion are Noam Chomsky, Thom Hartmann, Desmond Tutu and the late Howard Zinn. Shadyac tried but failed to add Maya Angelou and Cornel West to the list.

"We would love to have had more women in the film," he said.

While assembling the talking-heads footage, he watched the material almost start to shape itself. He gives special credit to his veteran editor, Jennifer Abbott ["The Corporation"], for tightening the narrative and eliminating fat.

"Patterns began to emerge," said Shadyac, who sees "too much negativity" in contemporary movies. "I have walked away from those things, despairing, and I think it's time now to turn to solutions."

Not everyone shares his optimism. Critics have used "hippie" and "New Age" to mock his approach.


Shadyac's own father, Richard, despite having devoted much of his life to charity work at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Tennessee, sounds the most pessimistic note. One of the first people Shadyac interviewed, he died in 2009.

"To me that scene presents a kind of a blindness in our society," said Shadyac. "My father had helped to build this wonderful place, maybe a model for the future and how we do business with each other, and — I don't want to give away anything in the film — but my own father couldn't see what he had done. He didn't think we were capable of that."

Shadyac finds himself agreeing more with Anne Frank's most famous quote: "In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart."

"I think it's beautiful what she said ... it's a testament to her insight and wisdom and beauty that she saw that in the very difficult world she was in."

John Hartl:

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