Tom Shadyac was one of the most successful directors in Hollywood. He had wealth and fame. He worked with superstars like Eddie Murphy and Jim Carrey. But a bicycle accident left him in terrible pain, physical and spiritual. He realized he was not happy or satisfied. And so he made a small documentary about two questions: what’s wrong with our world, and what can we do to make it better? The movie is filled with fascinating encounters with people who are questioning some of our most fundamental assumptions about the way we interact with each other and the universe, from cutting-edge scientists to people who study history, culture, and theology. It was a great pleasure to speak with him about his literal and spiritual journey.
How are you feeling now?
I feel so much better. I’m 95 percent and if this is as good as I get, I’m beaming. I didn’t think I’d come out of it, so even getting to 70 percent, I’m blessed. The mind-body-spirit is definitely connected for me. Not only did I call in the accident into my life because I didn’t have the courage to get out of my head and speak to my heart. So what better accident than one where I had to leave my head to feel my heart. I had been living this way in the closet and my head said you should not do a film about this or talk about it. and I didn’t have the courage to see outside the box. I believe that when I finally said I would start this conversation and share this story the tension was released in my healing and it improved by leaps and bounds.
I had that message and I went on my merry way suppressing it, ignoring it. So I accumulated more — I bought a bigger house. I was being pulled along by the way we do things. Maybe the thought was there that this situation will be better, but it was a sleepwalk. That bell or this whistle will fill that emptiness.
Your late father appears in the film and he seems to have happiness figured out. He did meaningful work as the co-founder of St. Jude’s hospital in providing free medical care for sick children.
There was a sadness, though, in my father. I don’t think he saw what he did or how capable we are of creating societies based on compassion. At the end of the interview, he says he doesn’t think mankind can build businesses based on compassion because of who we are. People behave one way on Sunday and then forget about it the rest of the week. But I believe we behave that way, but that is not who we are. We’ve deluded ourselves that those ideas have to stay inside those churches and cannot walk in our daily lives. He didn’t see what he had done. He thought of the world outside St. Jude’s as competitive, angry, always at odds with each other.
The indigenous peoples you describe in the movie are very peaceful but there are others who are very violent, just like more developed societies.
That wasn’t the overriding indigenous way. They had conflicts and no one would suggest that a new society wouldn’t have conflict. But the conflicts were limited. If a person was hurt or a piece of land was taken payment had to be made for that, a warrior against a warrior. But not genocide. Not what’s happening today. There’s an ideology underlying that about our disconnection that’s run amok and it allows us to do all kinds of insane things.
You mention in the film how important it is to you to know your neighbors. That really requires a smaller community like indigenous tribes or small towns, doesn’t it?
It isn’t just the idea of small, the size of it, though that is important. But there are no barriers, no one was isolating themselves, taking all the land. A Native American had a tent; he didn’t get to own a peninsula. What we’ve built out of our society exacerbates the gap between us, between what are called the rich and the poor, though I don’t subscribe to those terms because the rich can be very poor and the poor can be very rich.
There were spiritual elements in some of your big-budget films, like “Bruce Almighty,” in which Jim Carrey gets to exercise God’s powers and learns that sacrificing for others is the most powerful thing he could do.
With my left hand I may have been helping to heal the world but with my own life I was fighting that message. “I want a more just world but not so just I can’t have everything.”
Do you think that there is a way in the context of a blockbuster film to convey the message you want to get across more effectively than with this small documentary?
That’s the kind of linear thinking that is not where I want to live. It’s important for me to do what’s on my heart and if I am called on to make a film that may touch a handful of people, I’ll do that. I do not want to be a servant of what Emerson called “the idolatry of magnitude,” that it has to be big to be important. The only giving mentioned in the Bible is the widow’s mite. She gave a penny but it was all she had and it was important. It was all she had. If a narrative film comes to me and it demands to be served, I will do it. It’s not that I wouldn’t make “Ace Ventura 3.” I would make another comedy because I believe it is sacred, a beautiful experience to bring people together to share laughter. But I would hope to behave differently as the director, not how I treat people — I always treated people respectfully. But in how I do the economy of my life. I don’t want to stand on top of a movie and say, “I am more valuable than you.” I want to say, “I want to be your brother, your sister, and I want you to be my sister, my brother,” and to have that reflected in the way I do the economic drawer of my life. If additional profits come, I want to distribute them to others. It was never mind in the first place.
How did you pick the people who appeared in this movie?
They changed me. Through the course of reading their work, seeing them interviewed, learning about their lives. “The People’s History of the United States” is a beautiful, brilliant work. The poetry of Rumi. The life of Desmond Tutu.
What was it like to meet them?
I walked into Howard’s office and it was as modest an office as I have ever been in. It spoke volumes about his modesty and humility. That is what I call integrity. Emerson says, “If you look in any drawer of a person’s life you know what a person is.” When I saw how he greeted me, when I saw his office, I saw he was open, compassionate, humble. But my economic drawer was taught to me by my society, not by my heart.
What was it like to go from a big budget film to a four-person crew?
Remember when Mel Gibson yelled out “Freedom!” in “Braveheart!?” It was very freeing to be able to see a shot and get the camera out and get the shot and not have to get a permit and a license and get the lighting and bring 240 people out there and the craft services truck. I like traveling light, an artistic extension of what is going on in my life.
Tell me more of what you have learned.
I’m much happier in this walk than I was in the isolated walk. I don’t think it’s about changing who we are; it’s about waking up to who we are. We know external things bring us joy to a certain point, but beyond that it doesn’t. How about competition bringing us together instead of separating us. Ignorance comes from the word “ignore.” We experience heaven when we serve each other. I felt that power with my father. When we feed others, we feed ourselves.
Fraser Heston was kind enough to take time to talk with me about the re-release of some of his father’s greatest films. Fraser, who played the baby Moses in The Ten Commandments, directed his father in Charlton Heston Presents the Bible. Both have been restored and are being re-released this week.
How did the Bible project come about?
That came out of a conversation between my dad and me many years ago, in the early 90’s. We were sitting around talking about what his next project should be. Dad said, “I’ve always wanted to record the Bible again.” He had done a wonderful recording for Vanguard records back in the 50’s. I said, “If we’re going to record the Bible, it has to be on film. We’re not going to do it behind a curtain. And we have to go to the holy land. We have to film in something like a Roman amphitheater. And we’re going to need some great Biblical art. Let’s illustrate these stories — we can’t just have my dad talking all the time. We found these marvelous paintings throughout the whole history of Biblical art. We decided to make a broader, much more open-ended and he ended up doing the commentaries between chapters. We didn’t do the whole Bible. We did his favorite stories, edited down. And then he comments and talks about it as a story-teller or an actor, not as a priest or a scholar, to share these stories and the beautiful art that goes with them, for people of all faiths.
The King James translation?
He loved the King James translation. It’s beautiful language and still very accessible. I think it’s the most powerful translation and he did as well. We talk about it, how it came to be written, how there are foibles and mistranslations and how it’s all part of the warp and weft of the fabric of the Bible.
How did you find the images?
You have to hire a whole department who researches these things and get the rights and get a filmable image – nowadays we do that all with a computer. The aggregate of all of these images together from Salvador Dali to the classics from the Sistine ceiling and the Michelangelo Moses, all of them together have such an impact.
What else is being restored and re-released?
“Ben Hur” and “The Ten Commandments.” And we’re also re-releasing some of our classic films through Warner Brothers like “Anthony and Cleopatra,” and “Mother Lode,” directed by my father and co-starring Kim Basinger,” and “Treasure Island,” with a young man you may have heard of: Christian Bale.
How long did it take?
It was as long as a feature. We were in the holy land for about three months. And of course in Jerusalem there’s a checkerboard of different faiths and they all have different Sabbaths and holidays. The Moslems have Friday, the Jews have Saturday, and the Christians have Sunday. And different sects have control the access to this monastery or that little place, and so on. One day I was filming in what they call the Hall of the Last Supper and went down to get a cup of coffee and found myself in the tomb of King David. I thought, “Oh, my gosh, this is amazing. I’ve just walked out of one chapter of the Bible and into another, transcended thousands of years of history.” It was pretty darn cool.
Do you have a favorite Bible story?
I love the New Testament but I am very, very partial to the story of Moses. The story of the exodus is the story of freedom. And how poignant today that people on the same ground, walking on the same sand, are fighting for their freedom in Egypt and North Africa. The irony couldn’t be stronger, could it? The words of Moses are inscribed on the Liberty Bell: “Go forward and proclaim liberty throughout the land.” That became a watchword for Dad. Everything he did had to do with freedom.
What stories did you hear about your portrayal of baby Moses in “The Ten Commandments?”
The very first telegram my mother got when I was born was from C.B. DeMille [the director]. He said, “Congratulations, he’s got the part!” And then they put me in the basket and the darn thing sank! My dad had to go out there and rescue me. I’ll never forgive them for that.
Did your father have a favorite Bible passage?
He loved the death of Moses, where he passes on his mantle to Joshua. He had it by heart and never forgot it, even when he had Alzheimer’s. It’s just a moving passage. “I shall not cross over.” It’s very moving and there are so many moving scenes in that story and in that film that just kind of ring true. So many small, human moments. Moses was not divine, though that was not always clear in the DeMille version. He questioned his worthiness, and that just makes you care about the guy. He has loves and hates and he has a temper. He becomes a very human character in a giant story. It’s a mistake to hold the Bible up as a remote, sheltered experience. It needs to be vibrant and contemporary. And “Man for All Seasons,” a whole Charlton Heston collection. He was an actor’s director. He was artistic; he looked at the scene from an artist’s point of view, a story-teller, not to call attention to himself as a director but just tell a story the best way he can. He learned that from William Wyler and C.B. DeMille. “Ben Hur” and “Ten Commandments” are not about the effects or the crowds or the action; it’s about the people. Many times the camera doesn’t move at all. Shots like that are what you remember from those films. We are so fortunate that a major part of our cultural heritage is being restore with such care by Warner’s made made available to a new generation.
I have one copy each of “Charlton Heston Presents the Bible” on DVD and “The Ten Comandments” on DVD and Blu-Ray to give away. To enter, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the DVD or Blu-Ray you want in the subject line. Be sure to include your address. I will select a winner at random on April 2. Good luck! (My policy on accepting prizes to give away is posted on the site.)
Ballet is more than a profession or even an art form; it is a calling, almost a cult, that demands the ultimate commitment. Ballerinas give everything they have. Director Darren Aronofsky, always drawn to stories about obsession, now takes us inside the mind of a woman who is becoming unraveled.
Ballet is about art but also about discipline and control. It tests every muscle in the body and every bit of resolve of the spirit. Natalie Portman plays Nina (the very name evoking a sort of uncertain syllabic wobble), the daughter of a failed ballet dancer (Barbara Hershey) who has focused on Nina as her second chance to realize her dreams of stardom. Nina is a child-like adult, completely sheltered by her mother and her nun-like commitment to dance.
She wants more than anything to have the lead role in that most revered of ballets, Swan Lake. It is really two lead roles — the story is about a princess who is turned into a white swan. Her chance for breaking the enchantment is lost when the prince is seduced by her nemesis, the black swan. The director (a faun-like Vincent Cassel) tells her he is certain she can perform the part of the white swan with technical perfection. But he is not sure she has the passion, the sensuousness, the willingness to take risks to play the black swan. As she struggles to both maintain and lose control, the world around her distorts. Her mother’s art studio is filled with dozens of portraits of Nina, and their eyes move as she walks by. Nina keeps catching glimpses of herself in mirrors and reflective surfaces. The company’s newest dancer is Lily (Mila Kunis), her name another wobble on the tongue. Is she a friend, a rival, to be feared, hated, desired, overcome? Is she just another of Nina’s reflections?
Visual and narrative symbols of duality and doppelgangers are everywhere, with black, white, gray, and toe shoe pink as the movie’s palette. The script is heavy-handed at times, especially in the scenes with Nina’s mother. But Aronofsky draws us into Nina’s struggles with reality until, like her, we are never sure whether we can trust our eyes. Portman, who studied ballet for a year and did most of the dance moves herself, is superb her struggle to stay in control showing in every muscle, her yearning to break free fighting with her need for approval. Cassel’s louche manipulator, Kunis’ confident rival, and Winona Ryder’s brittle rage as the fading prima ballerina whose role (and lipstick) Nina covets are all exceptional and like Nina herself we experience the performance of the ballet itself as both tragedy and triumph.
It turns out that being a spy is not glamorous at all, especially when you are the mother of twins. Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) does not get to pick up a bunch of fun gadgets from Q or change from a wetsuit into a ball gown to crash a party at the palatial home of the bad guy. What she does do is a lot of tough, gritty research and a lot of painstaking relationship building with people who have every reason not to trust her. And sometimes she also had to threaten people who were pretty scary. And then come home and make dinner for her husband and children.
Her job at the CIA requires judgment, skill, courage, intelligence (in both senses of the word), loyalty, integrity, and the ability to keep a lot of secrets. While she had all of that, the people around her did not, and she found herself outed as a spy in the press, not for anything she did but because the government wanted to discredit her husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson (Sean Penn). Suddenly she was out of a job but still not permitted to speak publicly, even to respond to the false and disparaging statements being made about her.
The problem was not that the White House made a mistake in thinking — and saying in the State of the Union address — that there was evidence that Iraq was making an effort to buy uranium from Africa to make nuclear weapons. The problem was that the White House made a mistake about how to respond when they were publicly contradicted. Former Ambassador Joe Wilson wrote an op-ed in the New York Times saying that he had been sent to Niger by the CIA to investigate this rumor and found no evidence of any such transaction, explaining the basis for his conclusion. Instead of responding on the substance, pointing to a better source of information, or accepting his conclusion and providing additional justification for concerns about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the White House decided to discredit Joe Wilson, which involved telling the press that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was a spy.
Director Doug Liman (who was his own cinematographer here) can make a scene with two people across a desk as gripping as the action scenes in he gave us in “The Bourne Identity” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” Based on the books by Plame and Wilson and on court transcripts and other records made available since the trial, he has given us their side of the story, with the leak of Plame’s role a weapon of mass destruction aimed at their reputations and their family. Because it is from their point of view, they are in almost every scene. That means we never see who is plotting against them or what the plot is; we just know that the most powerful men the world has ever known see them as “fair game,” or, even worse, as collateral damage. Liman, whose father was counsel in the Iran-Contra investigation, understands the culture of Washington well, the wonky dinner party debates, the show-boating, the passion, the long hours, the patriotism and the partisanship, the ends/means balancing act, and the way that sometimes everything boils down to a kind of middle school clique-ish brattiness.
Watts and Penn are outstanding, very compelling in the scenes about national security and even more so as what is going on affects their marriage. Penn lets us see that Wilson can be a bit of a blowhard and Watts lets us see that Plame knows that, can be frustrated by it, but loves him because she understands that it is a part of his passionate engagement with policy. Watts makes Plame a serious professional who achieves her objectives with preparation and diligence, though her being an exceptionally attractive woman made it easier to diminish and marginalize her, and she contributed to that by posing for Vanity Fair. The best surprise of the film is David Andrews as Scooter Libby, a wonderfully layered performance that shows us his mistrust of the career staff and his insecurity about the way they saw him. At the end of the day, you don’t need a Dr. Evil to be the bad guy. You just need a bully who thinks he can get away with it.