In 2006, Tom Shadyac seemed to have the world at his fingertips. He had directed nearly every one of Jim Carrey’s comedy blockbusters, including the “Ace Ventura” films, “Liar Liar” and “Bruce Almighty,” as well as Eddie Murphy’s remake of “The Nutty Professor.”
His resulting $50 million fortune included a 17,000 square-foot mansion with two other side houses on a seven-acre property in Pasadena, and yet he still felt miserable. Then he had what he believes was a cosmic awakening, after experiencing a near-fatal accident on his bicycle and subsequent post-concussion trauma for three years.
As part of his recovery, Shadyac decided to change everything, giving up his lavish lifestyle to reconnect with the Catholic faith of his youth. He also walked away from Hollywood for over a decade, but is mounting an unexpected comeback this weekend with the inspiring and dramatic true-life biopic “Brian Banks” — a movie that also shines a much-needed spotlight on the need for judicial reform.
“I got sick about 13 years ago, had a bad concussion and it tossed me out of the game a couple years with post-concussion syndrome,” he recalled. “I haven’t been able to get anything going for a long, long time. I had a lot of changes in my life that led to a film like this. I live in Memphis now and live and work in an underserved community that’s changed my life. I went to work and teach in Memphis and I ended up being taught.
“I moved to Memphis because my father was one of Danny Thomas’ partners in starting St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital there,” he said. “My brother heads their fundraising now and challenged me to move here and teach film. I started at University of Memphis, then switched to a historically black college. It allowed me to experience a part of America I’d never been allowed to experience before, and I couldn’t move on after having the pleasure of teaching their young people.”
The choice of telling Brian Banks’ life story as his comeback film came about because Shadyac was having difficulty getting comedies approved after his long self-imposed exile, and because he found Banks’ story a compelling story of never giving up hope. Banks was a Long Beach high school football star who was falsely accused of rape by a female classmate when he was 16, and was pressured to make a no-contest plea deal by his public defender.
The defender assured Banks that he’d get three months’ probation, no adult criminal record, and the ability to keep on track for USC’s football program and the NFL. But when the judge unexpectedly threw the book at him with a six-year prison sentence and five years of parole, Banks’ life seemed over.
The film shows how one juvenile detention center instructor, played by Morgan Freeman, convinced him to turn to faith and prayer to get through his ordeal. It also shows that the key to Banks’ eventual success in clearing his name and getting an NFL career at the seemingly impossible age of 28 came about through the efforts of the California Innocence Project and an incredible series of legal twists and turns.
“I took the picture because he was so positive,” Shadyac said. “His mantra is ‘it’s not what happens to you, but how you respond to what happens to you.’ So it’s a lesson in how we can handle hardships in our lives.
“I’m raised in the church, with Catholic faith, and it’s all about service and sharing your wealth and helping the underserved, and yet I had found my life being completely the opposite. I felt the wealth inequity in society for years and didn’t want to be part of the inequity. I’ve been giving my wealth away and I don’t say that to be praised. I’m doing it as part of this experimental path. But I do feel that when one is given , one must give.”
Shadyac addressed his crisis of conscience in several ways, selling off his mansion and using some of the money to create a homeless shelter in Charlottesville, Virginia, and making major donations to other causes nationwide. He first moved into a double-wide trailer home on the cliffs of Malibu before heading to Memphis.
Along the way, in 2011, he starred in and directed a documentary about the world’s social problems and how they can be addressed through caring individuals and faith-based groups called “I Am.” He traveled the world to make it, as part of his reconnection to his own faith.
“In ‘I Am,’ we asked two questions: what’s wrong with the world, and what can we do about it? And in asking what’s wrong we discovered what’s right with it,” he explained. “If you look inside of nature and how things work, you’d see a brilliance and positivity and feel like Dr. Martin Luther King that “the arc is bending towards justice, eve to be serving and not accumulating.’ ”
While Shadyac and Carrey parted ways professionally between their biggest hit, 2003’s “Bruce Almighty,” and Shadyac’s last prior film, its 2006 Carrey-less sequel “Evan Almighty,” he looks back fondly on their magic string of comic collaborations.
“I do believe in this thing called destiny,” he said. “I see those threads all over my life and Jim was one of those threads. When I got the opportunity to direct Ace, he was explosive; no one could match him, he took over every room. The depth of his talent is bottomless. I said let’s see if we can give this guy a platform, people have tried to sit on him and not give him free rein springboard for his talent.
“We built Ace around how he used to take the microphone, that’s how we built the Ace character off how he’d first greet an audience,” he added. “ ‘Good to see you, ladies and gentlemen, how are you, take care, bye bye then!’ We ended up doing the whole movie that way. The silliness, the total commitment, the childlike quality somehow resonated.”
Ultimately, Shadyac is simply happy to be here, making films that put a positive message into the world, regardless of genre.
“I want to do every color of the rainbow,” he said. “Don’t put me in the dramatic box only. I just want pictures that will inspire. I think the bend of the universe is toward justice and light. We won’t avoid movies with real difficulties in them, we’ll go deep and dark, but want to come out in the light.”
“Brian Banks” opens Friday throughout the Los Angeles area.
To hear the rest of this extensive interview from the KRLA AM870 talk show “Man Up,” cohosted by Kozlowski, visit www.manupshow.net/episodes.
Carl Kozlowski is a journalist, comedian, and radio personality living in Los Angeles.
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