TOM SHADYAC - DIRECTOR/PRODUCER
In the midst of the two and a half year epic journey that was making Evan Almighty, there were plenty of times when director Tom Shadyac would ask himself what, exactly, he had gotten into.
There he was, often surrounded by animals (lions, elephants, giraffes to mention but a few) building a real life ark and juggling a huge production filming in Virginia’s unpredictable, often boiling hot, climate, when, he jokes, he felt a certain empathy with Noah himself.
“The whole logistics of building the ark was just impossible,” he smiles. “And I’m sure that’s how Noah felt too! Believe me, I can understand that. I’m just a guy and I don’t even know how to use a screwdriver at home! And we had to build an ark.
“We actually called it The Day of Reckoning. I looked at my AD (assistant director), Jonathan Watson and I said ‘Oh Jesus, we actually have to do this!’ And then there were the animals...”
It’s a tribute, says Shadyac, to his multi skilled crew that the task, and indeed, the film was finished. It’s a doubtless a testament to the director’s single-minded determination, talent and powers of leadership, too.
Shadyac first had the idea for Evan Almighty after completing the 2003 box office hit Bruce Almighty which starred Jim Carrey as a man temporarily given the powers of God and featured a memorable performance by Steve Carell as the vain, preening newsreader, Evan Baxter, that Bruce turns into a gibbering wreck on the small screen.
“I liked Steve’s performance so much and I really liked the character of Evan,” says Tom. “I felt that there was a lot more we could do with him and that’s where the idea started.”
In Evan Almighty, Baxter has become a Congressman and is moving his family to Virginia to start a new life and live up to his campaign pledge to ‘change the world.’ But things do not go as he planned especially when God – in the impressive human form of Morgan Freeman once again – orders him to make an ark and prepare for a flood.
Carell has, of course, become a major star since the first film was released thanks to his Golden Globe winning performance on The Office and starring in the huge hit The 40 Year-Old Virgin.
Shadyac, who has worked with some of the biggest names in comedy including Carrey, Eddie Murphy and Adam Sandler, rates Carell up there with the very best.
“Steve is as good as anybody I’ve ever worked with and he’s completely different. Physically he’s extraordinary and people were calling him Buster Keaton on the set.
“There is humility about him and a relatability about him and this guy can act. There are moments in this movie where I tell you there is magic in those eyes.”
In the story, Baxter unwittingly gets sucked in to supporting legislation by a greedy congressman (John Goodman) which could destroy an area of outstanding natural beauty.
One of the themes in the film is that we should cherish and protect our environment – a cause that Shadyac takes very seriously. Indeed, Evan Almighty is Hollywood’s first ever truly Green film.
Working closely with The Conservation Fund of Washington, the carbon footprint left by the production was calculated and then more than 2,000 trees – ranging from hardwood species such as oak to cottonwood and willow trees – were planted to offset the emissions.
“I read about these carbon offsets and we didn’t just want to have a little message in a movie. We wanted to live that message – the message being, ‘have respect for this gift’ which is this beautiful planet we live on.
“So we didn’t want to be sending poisons out into the world and then telling people be aware of the poisons you’re sending into the world. So we hooked up with a group called The Conservation Fund.”
“And they helped us to calculate how many carbons we were putting in the air, through, trucks travelling and travelling crew members and cast and then we would sequester that carbon by planting trees. Sequester carbon and turn it into good stuff, oxygen and then you zero out that impact. So it’s really easy.”
Shadyac, 47, was born in Virginia, and after moving to Los Angeles in the early 1980s became the youngest staff joke writer for the legendary Bob Hope. He also tried his hand at stand up comedy before switching to filmmaking.
His impressive CV as a director includes Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Nutty Professor, Liar, Liar, Patch Adams, Dragonfly and Bruce Almighty.
Q: Logistically, this sounded like a hard movie to make. Tell me about the process.
A: It was a very hard one and a long one. The whole logistics of building the ark, I’m sure as Noah felt. It felt impossible. I’m just a guy and I don’t even know where my screwdriver is at home. And we had to build an ark. The idea became real. We called it The Day of Reckoning. I looked at my AD (assistant director) Jonathan Watson, and I said ‘Oh Jesus, we actually have to do this!’ And then there were the animals. You just get a lot of help. A lot of help.
Q: How big was your crew?
A: Well you’ve seen it but the credits are seven and a half minutes long. We had to go very deep into the song. We had to find the LP version of Stairway to Heaven. It was just very long.
Q: There are always things that can surprise you when you’re in the middle of making a movie. Are there things that surprised you here?
A: You know, everything surprised me. First of all there were pleasant surprises like when ILM (Industrial Light and Magic) filled a shot of just Steve (Carell) working on the ark with animals and they’re all in the movie. And it was like that was a boring shot when I did it and now it's a shot that lives, it’s alive.
Q: So how many animals would you have had in the shot when you did it?
A: Maybe none. Like there’s a shot for example when Steve is up on top of the ark and it’s the montage after Joan (Lauren Graham) has left and he’s building the ark himself and he’s putting some wood on the deck and he walks across some animals. “Scuse me guys, heads up!” And there is nothing there. I mean to try to get a skunk or racoon to behave while a guy’s walking towards you would be impossible. So they’ve just created magic. You see where he steps and they place an animal. They shoot a live animal and they put all these plates together and then a boring shot where I think, I’m going to have to cut this from the movie because there is no life to it, suddenly lives.
Q: How many real animals would you work with at any one time?
A: Well, the second unit worked with hundreds of animals and they shot live animals for months and months and months. So when you’re seeing those animals board the ark a lot of those are real animals. They just did it on plates, on a stage. You think you’re in a field but they’re not, they’re on a stage. They’re walking towards an ark, which we built instead on a stage. On the live set with Steve, for example during the building montage we had animals that we were working with. We were working with the elephants, the giraffes, the llama, and the baboons. When you get a live animal you get the possibility of a comedic moment. Like the baboon, for example. Like what the elephants can do. Like who knew that an elephant can hold a board and lift it up and put it against an ark?
Q: What do you hope that the audience will take away with them after watching the film?
A: What Frank Capra said was, ‘It’s got to be entertaining.’ If it’s not entertaining nobody is going to come and so the entertainment value is what puts people in their seats and what we primarily want our audience to experience is a good time. But when they’re laughing we also do drop a seed or two. We’re telling a parable here and people take different things from it. I heard a woman say yesterday that the most powerful moment for her was when God says ‘The Noah story is a love story and it’s about two by two. “And took that to mean her, her husband and her family. For me it’s about changing the world. Like we all have this big idea. We’re like idolaters of magnitude. We all think we have to do something big. But you change the world, as Gandhi knew, by being yourself. You be the change. We’re all pointing to our governments to change but we’re the driving forces behind what our governments are doing. So for me it's about personal change.
Q: It’s a film that also seems incredibly timely with its environmental message. Was that intentional when you conceived the movie?
A: Yes. The alarm clock in the movie is about waking up. I don’t know if we’ve woken up yet although we’re starting to wake up to what our effect is, not just on the world, not just on the physical environment but also on the environment between people. I think the messages are very timely. I agree with you. I think this movie wanted to be made. And we had a lot of help from something, because it seemed like it wanted to be made. It wanted to be in the world right now.
Q: You’ve offset the carbon footprint left by the movie. Could you tell us how that worked?
A: I read about these carbon offsets and we didn’t just want to have a little message in a movie. We wanted to live that message – the message being ‘Have respect for this gift’ which is this beautiful planet we live on. So we didn’t want to be sending poisons out into the world and then telling people be aware of the poisons you’re sending into the world. So we hooked up with a group called The Conservation Fund and they helped us to calculate how many carbons we were putting in the air, through, trucks travelling and travelling crew members and cast and then we would sequester that carbon by planting trees. Sequester carbon and turn it into good stuff, oxygen and then you zero out that impact. So it’s really easy.
Q: So part of the message of the movie is a practical one, that it can be done?
A: Yes. I thought it was going to be in the millions of dollars to do it. There was seven and a half minutes of credits after all - a lot of crew. So I think it’s very do-able. And when you approach the work with a consciousness it feels good. It feels integral. We’re not trying to put out a message with the right hand and then inviting a message with the left hand.
Q: I was interested to read that you were building the ark as you filmed. Did you build it so that the actors would have something tangible to work with?
A: Yes, that’s exactly why we did it. It creates a stage for the actors. The stage has to be created and that stage in this movie is the ark and Steve has to be able to walk on that stage and act on that stage. This is the fun for us, this is the comedy. This is just a big playground. Steve actually built the ark, physically, in about five or six stages. He laid the keel out, he attached the first ribs. He learned to use what we call the God crane. He physically built sections of the ark and then our teams would rush in and finish that section and we’d get to the next level and he’d take to the next point. It was hard but it was fun.
Q: Did the ark become a tourist attraction in that area?
A: On the weekends we literally had a line of cars! You’d think they were paying admission, to go through the San Diego drive-through zoo. We literally had an officer at the ark saying ‘please just continue, no stopping.’ And it was a line of people. And I know this because I lived in a little rented house about 500 yards from the ark – and you can see where I lived in wide shots of the ark. So I watched it go up and I watched these people
Q: You’ve worked very successful with some of America’s biggest comedians. Where does that empathy come from?
A: I did a little bit of stand up myself. Nothing to the level of these guys but I know what it’s like to stand up on a stage, hold a microphone and face that room. Face that fear. So I think as a result of that I also know how to create an atmosphere of safety for these guys. To make them feel that no joke is a bad joke. Just, how about it? Whatever thought comes to your head… bad jokes lead to good jokes. So we don’t have any judgement on our set and I think they feel freedom. I wrote jokes for Bob Hope. That’s how I started as a young pup. It was a good, quick schooling into showbiz and I was on stage as a comic and I appreciate comedy. So I think those three things work together. I’m a brother, a kindred spirit.
Q: Is it different working with comedians than with more conventional actors?
A: Yes. They see the world differently. There’s a sensitivity there. They work differently. We’re all dealing with stresses in life and, in a certain way, a comic spins it into humour. He’s always deflecting things into humour.
Q: How do you rate Steve Carell?
A: Steve is as good as anybody I’ve ever worked with. Different. Completely different. Physically he’s extraordinary and people were calling him Buster Keaton on the set. There is a lot of physical stuff that’s not in the movie, although there’s a lot that is. He’s just very different, very subtle. It’s in the eyes. There is humility about him and a relate-ability about him and this guy can act. There are moments in this movie where I tell you there is magic in those eyes. It’s traumatic. When he says he’s talking to God there’s a moment when you’d think he was in a Franco Zeffirelli movie.