Director Tom Shadyac

The man behind a string of blockbuster comedies and author of Life’s Operating Manual recounts events that prompted him to downsize his life in a major way.

An acclaimed director, producer and writer, Tom Shadyac traded his Hollywood lifestyle for one that was very different. He had become one of the most prolific comedy filmmakers in the business with such hits as Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Nutty Professor and Bruce Almighty, but he wasn't happy. A traumatic cycling accident in his native Virginia was a turning point, and he subsequently donated his excess fortune and was inspired to follow his heart. Now a professor of communication at Pepperdine University (Malibu, CA), Shadyac chronicled his personal journey in the documentary, I AM, and extends the film with his book, Life's Operating Manual.


Tavis: Tom Shadyac was living a life many would say was the pinnacle of success. A string of blockbuster comedies including “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” “The Nutty Professor” and “Bruce Almighty” made him a go-to director in this town with a multi-millionaire salary and a 17,000-square-foot mansion. But a bike accident back in 2007 caused him to reassess his life.

To say that he downsized would be an understatement. We’ll get to his trailer in just a moment that he now lives in. But he’s chronicled a change, a change that took place in the heart, in a documentary called “I Am” and now he has a book out called “Life’s Operating Manual.” Tom, I am delighted to have you on this program.

Tom Shadyac: Delighted to be here. Thank you.

Tavis: I was going to run a long clip of all the best of your work, but I…

Shadyac: Let’s do it.

Tavis: No, everybody knows your work [laugh]

Shadyac: All right, all right. I’ll ax them out. We’re good, we’re good.

Tavis: Everybody knows the work that you’ve done.

Shadyac: I’m happy.

Tavis: Let me start with the book. I was watching “Bruce Almighty” again the other night, one of my favorite films. I’ve seen that thing a thousand times. It’s funny, but there’s so many life lessons in that movie. Obviously, you did it and you know that.

But I was watching the movie the other night and then the book comes across my desk in time for our conversation and, in the book, what you really are doing is having a conversation between two people, your truth self and your fear self.

Shadyac: Yes.

Tavis: So fear is talking to truth and truth is talking to fear. Why a conversation between truth and fear in this new, “Life’s Operating Manual?”

Shadyac: It was interesting. I didn’t plan it that way at all. I planned to write a series of essays and, you know, take the conversation which I started in “I Am” a step further because I’d been touring with the movie, getting a lot of questions about it.

So I started to write furthering that conversation and I could hear peoples’ questions as I was writing and I could hear my own fear. Oh, people are gonna think this is unrealistic, they’re gonna think this is naive. And a conversation happened naturally as I finished the essays.

And then I went back into the essays and I looked at what I felt my own fear would say to these essays and trying to, you know, dismantle them and I came up with these dialogs, the fear and truth dialogs. Of course, I’d been writing dialog for 20-plus years ’cause I’m a film director, so it was very natural to me.

Tavis: Let me break it down if I can. Tell me about your fear and then I want to talk about your truth. What makes your fear unique? All of us have fears and they’re all unique. What makes yours unique?

Shadyac: Well, it’s easy. Ken Robinson is one of the great educators. He’s got the number one TED Talk, Sir Ken Robinson. Ken says we’re born with love and fear is what we learn.

So I learned very specifically a certain kind of fear was the fear my culture taught me, that if I didn’t look a certain way, dress a certain way, have a certain success, job status, that I would be less than an unworthy.

So I think my fear came out of who I was supposed to be as opposed to the love that’s in me which comes out of who I already am, and that’s what the conversation is in the book, my fear saying to myself, “You’re crazy, dude. You’re nuts for saying this stuff. You’re out of the paradigm.”

Tavis: Who were you expected to be?

Shadyac: I was expected to be very specifically a lawyer. You know, I come from a family of lawyers. I was expected to be a professional of some sort, not an artist. I was never uplifted for my art.

I was always kind of finding humor to be an access point to the conversation, to a pain relief, if you will. My mother was in a wheelchair since I was very young, so she was in pain and we used humor. We used to watch Johnny Carson.

But those weren’t the things that my culture said, yeah, you can make a life that way. It said this is what society respects. You need to do it this way and those things can be on the side. Fortunately, I stepped into that fear. As Emerson said, always do that thing you’re afraid to do, and that changed my life.

Tavis: I’m gonna come to the truth in just a second, but since you mentioned Johnny Carson. One of Johnny’s regular guests and a long-time NBC connection was a guy named Bob Hope. You at one point were the youngest writer.

Shadyac: The youngest writer for Bob Hope.

Tavis: For Bob Hope. How did that happen?

Shadyac: Oh, my goodness. I had an uncle who lived out here. I lived in Virginia. I was raised just outside of Washington, D.C. I was doing some funny things in school and he said, “If you ever want to submit jokes to Mr. Hope, I’ll get them to him.” So he got a stack of jokes this high every day from various writers.

He called one day. I’ll never forget. He calls the house, says, “This is Bob Hope for Tom” and my mother said, “Who is this?” He says, “It’s Bob Hope” and literally she said, “And this is the Queen of England” and she hung up [laugh].

Fortunately, he called back. He said to me, “It’s one thing to write a funny batch, but can you sustain this? Can you do it again?” I did it again and again and then he hired me and it was my first job in show business.

Tavis: Do you recall one of your early Bob Hope jokes?

Shadyac: Oh, gosh, no! You don’t want to do that here.

Tavis: Okay, I’m just asking.

Shadyac: It was something about a fruit fly [laugh]. Yeah, and I think Lynn Barker – you remember Lynn Barker? And then Morgana ran out during the All-Star break and there was something about the seventh inning stretch marks, something we don’t want to talk about here [laugh].

Tavis: Yeah, we don’t. We’ll move on. I’m getting fearful. Now you’re tapping into my fears [laugh] on what is to come, so we’ll move on. So we talked about your fears and I think, again, every one of us can resonate with what people expect of us and the journey in life that takes you to your own truth.

Shadyac: Right, right.

Tavis: So speaking of truth, I’m curious specifically as to what the bike accident in 2007 said to you, taught you, about your own truth.

Shadyac: Yeah. It’s interesting. Most people feel – and it’s part of the way I think I told the story – that the bike accident had me radically change my life. I had been changing my life for some 10 to 15 years. I had been looking at the hypocrisies as I accumulated and then the moral teachers that I’d always admired my whole life. You know, Jesus was the figure in my life.

They told me not to accumulate, not to store up in the barns, and I saw this hypocrisy. So I was changing my life for some time, but I was doing it very quietly. I didn’t have public conversations like this about it. I’d never really made a movie about it.

When I faced my own death, that’s what really happened after the bike accident. I faced my own death and that is a very powerful motivator. I lost my fear. What else is there to fear? You know, it’s the ultimate fear that we’re gonna die. And when I faced that, I said, if this is my last expression as an artist, ’cause I didn’t think I was gonna live long, I’ve got to share my journey.

I have to share where I’ve been, what I’ve discovered not as a way to say I know something you don’t, but this is what I’ve experienced and I want to offer that to people. So it pushed me into that powerful place where I said I don’t care. Everybody thought I was crazy.

You know, I’m $100 million dollar-plus moviemaker and I’m gonna do a little documentary. They don’t make a lot of money, they take a lot of effort and a lot of time and they don’t go anywhere, but I didn’t care. And I dropped into my truth, which is this is what I believe. The reason that you are interested in “Bruce Almighty” from a kind of spiritual level or from a principle level is ’cause that’s what I care about.

That’s what Jim Carrey and I talk about when we get together, you know. It’s not all just, you know, craziness and silliness. We talk about this thing called God, whatever that is, that force that maybe started and organized the universe, what is it, what do we owe to that, what is our relationship with that? I wanted to put that truth out in a film.

Tavis: Since you mentioned, I think I got a clip here of one of my favorite scenes from “Bruce Almighty” when Morgan Freeman who plays God is having an encounter with Jim Carrey. Well, if you’ve seen the film, you know the scene. But we’ll play it again for you.


Tavis: I said earlier before we played that clip that there are so many lessons in this movie. There are so many things that you come to terms with through this comedy which I think the end is brilliantly done. What was it for you about this notion of free will that becomes really the epicenter of the struggle that Carrey has trying to win his girlfriend back, for those who’ve seen the movie. Tell me about this notion of free will and why that was so critical for you?

Shadyac: It’s interesting ’cause I’m standing in a different place now as when I made this movie ’cause I’m always sort of questioning everything. Well, you know, it’s the idea that we have a power in our lives that we give away and it’s the power to walk and act and be and do the things that are in you uniquely and we give that power away.

Jim, as Bruce, gave that power away, you know. He said, “I can’t control anything in my life. I don’t have any power. God, you’ve got all the power.” And the whole journey is to say, “Bruce, you have the ultimate power. You have the power to not only be who you are, but to love.”

So that was a really important idea to me, a really important idea because I think people think that the power is out there. It’s in the greedy corporations, but people don’t realize they have the power to withdraw their power from the greedy corporation and create a story that’s more powerful, which is a loving one that can grow. You know, that can be a seed that can grow great change.

Tavis: With regard to “Life’s Operating Manual,” the new book, how did you come to learn that lesson in your own life?

Shadyac: Well, you know, I’ve had the blessing through doing “I Am” and being in the arts, to be around so many great minds and spirits that I’ve learned so much. It began to appear to me very simply as I kind of coalesced all the teaching from the prophets and the poets and the saints and the sages. And I looked at the science that maybe there actually is a manual for this thing, right?

Everything we get in our life has a manual. We know how to run our computers ’cause of a manual and our iPhones ’cause of a manual. Then you look at earth and you’d think, well, what if there’s a manual for that? This idea began to form that, well, of course, there is.

When I interviewed Desmond Tutu for “I Am” and I said, “Desmond, what’s going wrong? Why are things askew here in the world?” He said, “Tom, God gave us instructions on this box of this thing we call human being and we are not following the instructions on the box.” I think the instructions on the box are all around us, you know.

Look at nature. We think of nature because of the story we tell ourselves that it’s chaotic, that it’s selfish, aggressive, that everything is survival of the fittest, and it’s not. It’s actually an incredible cooperative system that is nature and it’s all around us.

So the instructions are everywhere. We just haven’t looked. We haven’t looked and seen the oak tree. That’s a cooperative system. The human body is a cooperative system. Everything is cooperating and, when it doesn’t, when something’s taking more than needs outside of the laws of nature, the body shuts down.

So I think the answer is right in front of us. It’s in front of us. And this idea of God, you know, all mystical traditions say that God is in everything, right? So God would be in that system all around us and how does life thrive? How does it work? And that’s what we talk about in the book.

Tavis: I don’t mean with this question to cast aspersion on anybody who happens to be a Christian in this business because you are and I am. I know many folk who are. But I don’t know many folk who operate at the level that you operate in this business who are so open about their beliefs, whose Christology is at the center of what they do and who they are.

So let me ask this question without offending anybody. How does one own his or her Christian belief ethic in this business at the level that you operate? I’m only asking that because I can think of a gazillion situations where that belief system is compromised, it’s challenged, it’s put to the test.

Shadyac: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: You get my point.

Shadyac: Of course.

Tavis: How have you navigated this journey at this level?

Shadyac: Yeah. I’ve grown up. I’ve grown up and that’s a fear-based idea that I can’t be who I am and everything that I do. And that’s the fear, the social fear, the collective fear, coming at us saying you can’t put out this idea in the middle of a very, say, self-centered business or a business that’s about ego. You’ve got to be egoistic.

And I say no. I’ve got to be me. So if I don’t fit in this business, I’m out. And when I think of myself as a Christian, it’s real important for me to say there’s no question Jesus was the most influential spirit in my life, physical presence I could feel, like there’s a power in this story, in this man that I have never experienced or have not seen equaled.

But I also am not dogmatic in any way about that. I don’t think I know something more than you or anyone else and I’m really interested in people’s story and I think that’s where God meets all of us.

Dogma to me is God backwards twice. Dog is God spelled backwards, ma is am, the original utterance of God spelled backwards. So when I say you gotta follow my dogma and I’m right, I think I’ve got it backwards twice. So it’s really just looking at that fear. You know, Emerson said always do what you’re afraid to do, and I’m not afraid to be me anymore.

Tavis: The one thing, to your point about all faiths and all religions, every one of them has at the epicenter of it this notion of love, however they phrase it. It’s about loving thy neighbor as thyself. That’s how it comes out in the Christian ethic. But it’s at the epicenter of all of these traditions and yet we live in a world where everybody – not everybody, but so many of us belong or believe something. Love is at the center of that thing we believe and yet what the world lacks so much of is love.

Shadyac: Yes.

Tavis: And you don’t shy away from talking about that notion of love in your book.

Shadyac: Yeah, because actually I think love isn’t a sentiment. It’s actually incredibly practical. It’s how things work. The base of love is cooperation. You know, things are getting along, working together. And if you look at how things work, it’s really love.

Maya Angelou says love may be the force that animates the blood in the body. You know, it moves the blood through the body. It keeps the electron rotating. You know, it keeps rotating around the nucleus. Love is practical, right? That’s why Einstein said our moral leaders are geniuses in the art of living. Our moral leaders who’ve preached love were geniuses in the everyday art of living, how to shop, how to make choices for your family, how to educate, geniuses in the art of living.

So love to me is very practical. And we think it’s this sentiment and it’s idealistic. That’s, again, fear talking and I don’t find it sentimental in any way. I find it practical in the meat and marrow of how things actually work and thrive.

Tavis: Even after going through the book, you know, over the last few days, I’m still fascinated as to how you operate in a space that in so many ways seems antithetical to what you believe. Again, some will take this as demonizing Hollywood, but I think that the only thing where Hollywood and love meet is the love of money. You know what the love of money is.

Shadyac: Absolutely.

Tavis: Hollywood loves money. Every other definition of love that I believe in, I’m not sure that Hollywood espouses. Love means that everybody is worthy just because. So there ought to be more people who get a chance to green-light projects in Hollywood.

Shadyac: Yes.

Tavis: There ought to be different story lines that are told in the movies that we see coming out of Hollywood. Don’t get me off on a tangent talking about love…

Shadyac: Go!

Tavis: And how it is not practiced by this particular industry. Yet here you sit at the center of this industry a huge success in it and the love that you believe and the love that you espouse and the love that you live by doesn’t seem to be in circulation around you and yet you stay centered and focused. How does that work?

Shadyac: Well, that’s a big question. First of all, I think it’s really important that I pull myself and surround myself into that love. So I agree. I believe our business right now, like pretty much all business, is beating to the drumbeat of how much can I get for me. That to me is not inside of life’s operating manual. It’s now how life works and that’s why our economy is askew. It’s why we have haves and have nots. We’re all haves, but we’ve pulled ourselves out of that.

So it’s really important for me to pull myself out of that illusion and feed myself every day the things that really buoy my soul and feel authentic to me. So I have conversations with people like you. I’m blessed to do that. I’m able to meet with documentary filmmakers who are seeing injustice in the world, slavery that still exists in the world. They buoy my spirit.

So I go, I get what I call nutritional food rather than the junk food which is, “Hey, dude, how’s your movie doing? Are you number one at the box office? You know, this one’s coming out right opposite you.” All that stuff, you know. Guess who won this award? None of that stuff matters to me, right?

So that’s the junk food for me. So I gotta always be pulling myself. Make choices, as you said. Make life choices that pull myself out of that idolatry of magnitude into what I feel is true and powerful.

Tavis: So believing what you believe and practicing those beliefs doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to take a vow of poverty. You don’t have to go the Gandhi route. And yet, when I said at the top of this conversation that you have seriously downsized your situation over the years, you don’t live in that mansion anymore. I’ll let you talk about where you live – not the address, of course…

Shadyac: Right, right, right.

Tavis: But how you live, and you really have changed your lifestyle where money is concerned.

Shadyac: Yeah. And here’s the cool thing.

Tavis: Gave a whole lot of it away.

Shadyac: Yeah, yeah, and giving more away and I’m still a work in progress and I’m downsizing even more. But when I downsize in terms of square feet or in terms of the money that I have to use to sustain a lifestyle, I upsized in everything else.

So I upsize in terms of community when I downsize in square feet ’cause I know all my neighbors. You have to. You can’t take the trash out where I live and not run into 10 people who know your stuff. They’re in your stuff, right? And it’s cool. Like I love them all. It’s a community for me. So I know have less on my back because I’ve upsized in terms of purpose.

Right now, I have more time to teach. I have more time to write. I have more time to become involved with organizations like Free The Slaves and Invisible Children and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, people that are doing good work in the world, you know.

So this downsizing, I wouldn’t continue to downsize if it didn’t upsize in something that’s more powerful. So it really is true that, you know, it’s letting go of a false god and embracing a truer god.

Tavis: How does letting go of – I have a couple of friends who I know who live their lives this way, and my life isn’t terribly complicated. I don’t have 18 cars and 18 houses and all that kind of stuff. My life is not terribly complicated, but you and other friends of mine even have less complicated lives. And by complicated, I mean you have less stuff.

How does less stuff simplify your life? I get it and I revel in the joy that I see my friends bring forth because they live very simplified lives. But how does that simplification bring greater joy to your life?

Shadyac: It’s best summed up by saying, you know, we think we own our stuff and our stuff tends to own us. Everything you have requires some kind of energy to maintain or to store or to upkeep. And when you let go of that, it feels light. You know, to be enlightened means you’re light. And stuff, you know what it is. It’s stuff that kind of weighs you down. It kind of roots you in a lifestyle that may not be your own or authentic. Oh, he’s got a thing, I gotta get a thing.

You know, we get pulled by these other voices. And we use a thing once and that’s it. However, what I’ve found is, instead of getting that thing, if you get involved in that person, that cause, that healing venture, that stays with you. You don’t have that experience once. That stays with you.

Tavis: What do you say to folk who say, you know what, if that works for you, fine, it works for you. But it just sounds a little…

Shadyac: Yeah. I would say how’s it working for you? How’s the light in your eye? I seem to somehow be getting younger in terms of perspective, more energy, more engagement. How’s it working for you? If that’s working for you, I haven’t met the person who has been accumulating and doesn’t feel a weight or a stress by that accumulation.

If it is, I want to know ’cause all I want to know is the truth. If it’s true, tell me. I want to know ’cause that may be different than the laws that I’ve learned, these moral laws that I’ve seen all around me.

Tavis: What do you hope or want the takeaway to be from “Life’s Operating Manual: With the Fear and Truth Dialogues?

Shadyac: Well, the hope is that we can begin as a society to have a conversation as to why things are actually the way they are. You know, we have school shootings, we have an economy that is working very well for some, but for many it is not. We have all these problems, genocides and wars, and I think of it as symptoms. They’re all symptoms of something that Martin Luther King saw, that Gandhi saw, that Jesus saw.

It’s this chasm, this moral chasm that we have. We have technological growth that’s crazy, off the chart population growth, pollution, but our moral revolution has yet to come. So I want people to have that conversation to say that there’s a moral reason why we’re having these problems. We’re outside of how things work and morality is practical. It’s in the laws of life.

And if we can have that conversation, if we can talk about the mental illness that’s in all of us, not just in those who pick up guns and go into school, how we all participate in that winner take all scenario, that’s a winner taking all in a very abhorrent way, but it’s still inside of our philosophy. I want people to see that we are all brothers and sisters and we’re all creation. And when you understand that, man, it can get pretty fun.

Tavis: Is there space inside of all that to continue to make blockbuster movies?

Shadyac: I hope so. I think these truths are what are “blockbuster,” you know. I think that inside of “It’s A Wonderful Life” is the truth.

Tavis: And “Bruce Almighty.”

Shadyac: And “Bruce Almighty,” and I’ve got a new one. We’ll see, we’ll see.

Tavis: All right. The book is called “Life’s Operating Manual: With the Fear and Truth Dialogues.” The author is big-time Hollywood director, Tom Shadyac. Tom, congrats on the book and on the journey, and glad to have you on this program.

Shadyac: Great to be here. Thank you.

Tavis: It’s good to see you. That’s our show for tonight. I’ll see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, goodnight from Los Angeles, thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: May 6, 2013 at 2:58 pm