Tom Shadyac, the Catholic film director perhaps best known for the movie comedies "Bruce Almighty" and "Evan Almighty," still wants to bring the human journey into clearer focus.

It's just that he's shifted from comedy to documentary to take the latest steps.

Shadyac directed "I Am," which debuted on OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network Jan. 1 and became available on DVD Jan. 3. 

"The serendipity of 'I Am' as the original utterance of God is beautiful and something I find to be no accident," Shadyac said in a telephone interview with Catholic News Service from his home in Malibu.

The documentary had a working title of "Imagine," but Shadyac said he found that to lack specifics. The choice of a title is a microcosm of what Shadyac found to be the difference between documentaries and feature films.

"The storytelling is essentially the same," he said. In features, he added, "that script becomes your bible, and you improvise off that script. You know it well and it becomes your guideline and your source. In documentaries you have an idea and you get a lot of information, and inside of that information you have to create a script. It's kind of reverse engineering. You really write the picture in the editing room."

"I Am" came about after Shadyac was injured in a 2007 bicycling accident in his native Virginia. For months he suffered from acute headaches and hypersensitivity to light and noise. He's largely recovered.

"On a scale of 100, I'm in the high 90s," he said. "Occasionally I have a challenge with the post-concussion (syndrome), (being in) places too loud, or (when) I'm flying. Otherwise, it is what it is. I'm as good as I'm going to be. I'm soaring."

The incident, though, prompted a re-examination of his life. He sold his 17,000-square-foot mansion in Los Angeles. He gave away much of his money, using some of it to open a homeless shelter in Charlottesville, Va. He had earlier marketed a brand of bottled water, call "H to O" for "Help to Others," with proceeds going to dig water wells and combat AIDS in Africa.

For "I Am," Shadyac wanted his interview subjects to address two basic questions: What's wrong with the world, and what can we do about it? He missed out on securing interviews with the Dalai Lama and poet Maya Angelou, but said he was pleased by getting such thinkers and theorists as Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn to go on camera.

A typical response to an interview request, according to Shadyac, was “‘I can't wait to have that conversation. Let's do it.' We ask about the what --- what are we doing in the world? What laws are we passing? But we don't ask why.”

Shadyac is not the only one in his family with a charitable bent. His brother, Richard, is the CEO of ALSAC, the fundraising arm of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. It's the third largest health-related charity in the United States, raising about $1.34 million a day on average to cover the costs of running the hospital.

"I speak sometimes at their events and I definitely go and help out in any way I can," Shadyac told CNS.

Shadyac, who at age 24 became the youngest joke writer to be hired by Bob Hope, still worships at St. Agatha Church in Los Angeles, calling it "such an open church. That was Catholicism (practiced) in what I believe was its original intent."

He chafes at being labeled. "Do I support this or that? Am I pre-Vatican II or post-Vatican II? Jesus said, 'You understand the letter of the law but not the spirit of the law,'" he said. "If 'Catholic' means I have some exclusivity on the truth, I would say no, but (yes) if you say I've given my full life and my heart to God and given myself over to Jesus."


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