by Megan Basham
Director Tom Shadyac began his career with the hit film “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” (that’s right, he and Jim Carrey go way back and apparently work wonders for one another’s career.) He followed that project with “The Nutty Professor”, and then went on to team with Carrey once again for 1997’s “Liar Liar”. Shadyac professes to be a Bible-believing Catholic. He sat down with Christian Spotlight to talk about his latest film, “Bruce Almighty”, and to share out how he reconciles his spiritual walk with his high-profile profession.
First off Tom, I’d like to know, who made the decision to have the couple unmarried?
[Laughing] Do you mean who made the bad decision?
Well, it just seemed to me like it actually would have been more poignant had they been married. I guess my question is, why make that decision? I mean, though the characters do end up married, it’s not like they ever say, “Okay, what we were doing before was wrong.”
Well, Bruce wasn’t really grown up. You know, we don’t start perfect people in movies, we start with imperfect people and then they have to go on a journey. I mean, let’s pick up our Bibles and find out how many people cohabitated and did imperfect things. There is shadow in the movie that helps the light be more light.
And we’re not espousing any lifestyle, we’re not trying to tell people how to live outright, we’re telling a story. Bruce wasn’t grown up enough to appreciate anything in his life. I think when you get married you have to appreciate your life and the partner that you’re with. Bruce wasn’t mature enough for that yet. It was a big step for him and that’s why the movie ended up where it ended up. You can’t have the end of the story without the beginning. [Laughing] Do you forgive me?
Well, I have to be honest, I laughed so hard at this movie, and I was so touched by it emotionally that while I was watching it, I didn’t think about the curse words and things like that. But I do have to think about what I’m going to go back and say to the people who are waiting to hear whether or not they can take their kids to see this movie. And I’m frustrated with that because I do want everyone to see it, so I’m wondering why those things had to happen.
Well, okay, it didn’t have to happen, but it does happen because we’re storytellers, and as storytellers we’re dealing with humans, and humans, as you know, tend to make mistakes. I don’t know whether everyone realizes it, but people curse.
And obviously it’s up to parents when they want to introduce that reality to their children. But I will say, when Bruce makes the choice to curse, it’s at the lowest moment of his life, y’know. He wouldn’t be proud of it at the end of the movie; he wouldn’t be espousing it. But he does make mistakes.
I think that one of the challenges of the church is to accept humanity for all it is. And I as a filmmaker am not going to deny that. I think it’s important to acknowledge that we are imperfect. If you followed some standards today, you couldn’t even read your Bible. I mean the Bible is chocked-full of some racy stuff, folks. There is a lot of sexual impropriety, there’s a lot of violence, and all kind of things. But the point of the Bible is that it’s not about a moment, its about the entire journey. Because if the Bible hadn’t ended where it ended, it be a pretty downer of a book. But it ends with redemption. So if you take one sentence out of the Bible and that sentence deals with violence or sex, and you just focus on that sentence, you wouldn’t want to go near the Bible. But if you look at the Bible as a whole, its redemptive and beautiful, and it’s God’s love story to mankind. And this, in a way, is our love story, I hope, in dealing with our relationship with God.
There was a line that I cut from the movie where God was showing Bruce some footage of Lance Armstrong. And he says, “To paint a picture like that, you’ve got to use some dark colors.” You know, the most powerful stories we tell are about people who come from dark colors. They’re people who’ve been challenged by addictions or abuse. And to overcome those things is really the light overcoming the darkness. Without the darkness, you’ve lost humanity and the power of the light.
Getting back to Bruce’s journey, it seems like God goes to an awful lot of trouble to teach this one man to pray. How did God teach you to pray?
[Smiling] He went to an awful lot of trouble, I can tell you that. The movie is very personal to me in a lot of ways. I’ve been the guy on the ground struggling, asking God why don’t you answer this prayer. I couldn’t get work ten years ago—I couldn’t even get arrested. I remember I had an opportunity to direct an episode of this show, “She’s the Sheriff,” and I thought for sure it was going to come through and it didn’t. And I was screaming at the man, “why, why, why?” Of course, in hindsight I can see why; I was being prepared, I was growing up, I was learning to die to my own way and to embrace the divine way.
I think God goes to an awful lot of trouble with most of us. We’re petulant, we’re stubborn, we need a lot of help. There’s a line in the movie that kind of goes by pretty quickly, but it’s really significant to me. Bruce says, “Yeah I kind’ve just gave everybody what they wanted,” and God replies, “Since when does anyone have a clue about what they want?” We think we want the car, the house, the certain relationship, and we have no idea what we really want. What we really want is to love and be loved, and it’s often quite a journey getting us to that place.
At certain point, God says, “That’s everybody’s problem, they keep looking up.” This line really startled me. Can you explain what it meant?
Yes! And here comes the big controversy--[laughing] gotta stir the pot! The word in that sentence is that you keep looking up. It’s not that you look up—I think looking up is essential. Looking to God with humility is essential, because I believe it’s a reality. It’s in your blood, it’s your DNA, and it’s in mine. However, to keep looking up means that we expect God to do everything for us. There’s a story about a nun who went to God and asked, “Why God don’t you do something about the poor and the sick?” And He said, “I did, I made you.”
Right here is where I’m to look for God. There’s a reason why Jesus went up. I mean Jesus could still be here, but he decided, I think, to go up to leave us as his hands, as his feet, as his heart—as his expression of love.
There seems to be a lot of subtle messages in this movie, as well as some of the more obvious ones.
I think there’s subtle messages all over this story. And the great thing is you can take them for what you will—wherever you’re at on your particular spiritual walk. For example, I accidentally ran into Father, Son, and Holy Ghost analogies because of Morgan playing the electrician, the janitor, and the boss. Many of these elements were intentional and many were coincidental. Which is one of my favorite sayings: “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”
I mean, we purposely did not want to be dogmatic in this movie. And I think Jesus purposely did not want to be dogmatic. Jesus was a storyteller—he didn’t get into a lot of dogma when he told the story of the prodigal son. And we are telling a kind of parable here, and we didn’t want to divide with dogma either.
I think its fair to say we’ve needed to have an influence in the entertainment world for a long time. And I would love to hear you talk about what’s its like being in Hollywood, and being around people who feel Christians don’t get it, and that we’re harsh, and that they can’t go to church. What would you tell them to make a difference?
First of all, I think the entertainment industry can be overly vilified. We’re just like everyone else, we’re just doing the best we can and we are imperfect. You know, I’ve been on a walk myself, and I’ve been part of the judgmental segment of society, so I really understand it. You want the best for somebody; you want them to see the light. But it’s so important for us try to see people through God’s eyes. How does God see that Hollywood person who may not be walking the cleanest walk right now? God sees them as full of potential. And who knows what God is doing in that person’s life?
I think we Christians have to get off our judgmental high thrones. I understand why we’re like that, but God is working in each one of us—independently, individually—and He allows people to go on their own imperfect journeys that He will make it perfect. I hope that the Christian community—the very community that could embrace this movie—will give it a chance as a whole, and not lose the forest for the trees.
Christians have a tendency to talk about religious movies as being ones that deal with religion implicitly, and it’s just not true. This one happens to have it God in it, so it seems like a religious movie, but so many movies can be spiritual movies, but we somehow don’t see them that way because they’re not about a priest or a nun or a minister. Take for example the movie “Scent of a Woman”. The movie “Scent of a Woman” is really the book of Ecclesiastes—but how many Christians stayed away from it because there was cursing and because he slept with a hooker? And it really was the book of Ecclesiastes—a man was saying “all is vanity” and had no hope until the love of a child, God incarnate through a boy, came in and said “I love you,” and it changed that man’s whole life. If we as Christians stay in our judgmental boxes, we will miss movies that.
Along those same lines, one of things people asked me before this interview was, “what about this raging against God, isn’t that kind of blasphemous?”
Well, I answer with Elijah, Jonah, and Job. And I answer it with my understanding of what God seeks with all of us, which is relationship. Relationship demands honesty. And while I don’t think we’re ever to live in our anger and our rage, to express it is to express a step along the journey.
Bruce raged at God, and a few weeks later he got a chance to see how silly and self-indulgent that was. But had he not raged, had he not been honest, who knows whether he could have take the steps that he did.
And God deals with Bruce’s anger so lovingly, which seemed like one of the major themes of the movie—that Bruce had God wrong all along.
That’s right! And God loved Bruce all along, but that soil had to soften before he could see it.
You know it seems like the whole movie is Bruce’s journey from seeing God as an artificial trick-doer, to being really God-like at the end when he is pleading with Jennifer Aniston to love him. That scene just really seemed like a window into the heart of God. Like all of creation is saying the same thing Bruce did, “Love me, love me,” and yet we are so obtuse to it.
Right, and God won’t make you love him. He could have made us Stepford Wives, but he didn’t. He gave us free will, and what we do with that free will is really up to us.