When budding film director Tom Shadyac hired a relatively unknown Jim Carrey in 1994 to make a silly movie called Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, the careers of both men exploded—and so did their bank accounts. Shadyac, who went on to direct The Nutty Professor, Liar Liar, Patch Adams, Bruce Almighty and Evan Almighty—several of them morality tales that reflected Shadyac's spiritual beliefs—dove right into the lifestyles of the rich and famous with huge Hollywood homes and expensive cars.

Tom Shadyac

Tom Shadyac

As often happens, it wasn't long before Shadyac discovered that wealth and the accumulation of stuff didn't buy happiness. It hit him especially hard on his last mansion upgrade when, after the movers left and he was standing in the foyer all alone, he had what he calls a spiritual epiphany: Materialism isn't working.

Shadyac heard but ignored that small voice inside for a few more years until a 2007 bike accident left him with a concussion and then post-concussion syndrome, where he suffered migraine headaches, a constant ringing in his head, and severe mood swings. When he was depressed, he even wanted to die: "I was done," he said. He wondered, "If I were to die, what did I want to say to the world before I left?"

Eventually, Shadyac turned a corner in his recovery, and in doing so, re-evaluated his life and priorities. He embarking on a quest for the answers to two questions: "What's wrong with the world?" And, "What can I do about it?" He grabbed a small film crew and traveled the world in search of the answers, then turned all that footage into a new documentary called I Am, now showing in limited theaters. (Our review will post Friday, March 25.)

We talked to Shadyac (whom we also interviewed when Evan Almighty released in 2007) about the new documentary, and what he's learned along the way.

You mention in the film how your wealth really made you no happier. Now, that's an old story. Did you think it would be different for you?

A lot of people tell that story, but people still don't believe it's true—that money doesn't make you happier. It does to a certain point, if it buys you out of the burdens of homelessness or hunger or you need an operation. But once those basic needs are met, it doesn't make you any happier. When I bought that big house, I had a very spiritual moment where I realized that this [wealth] was neutral. It was a very tangible realization that this was a treasure on earth which moth and rush could destroy, and it had no power other than the power that I brought to it. Like if I brought love and family, then that would have a power. But the acquisition itself was neutral.

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And that realization came well before your bike accident and the trauma you went through, right?

Yes, but I successfully suppressed that realization and went on my merry shopping ways.

You set out to make the film with two questions: "What's wrong with the world?" And, "What can we do about it?" Did you find satisfactory answers?

I think the answers are right in front of us, and it's a matter of opening up to them and seeing, as the mystics see, into reality. So I think we know enough. The question is, "What are we going to do about what we know?" We have the evidence in front of us every day. Today there's a tragedy in Japan, and we see the human species leap to help. We see hearts all over the world exploding with empathy and compassion and sympathy for the Japanese, and as brothers and sisters.

People helping people is one thing that's right with the world. As for what's wrong—wars, conflict, sin—our readers would says it's the result of the fall of man. It's original sin. Where do you stand on that?

I see things in a bit differently. I think that we have, whether you call it original sin or the fall, the capability of doing both good and evil. But I also think our Creator built us in a way that we could actually survive. To do that, I think the admonitions from Jesus and others who have come to teach us have spoken of love as a force, as more powerful than hate, as the force that may very well be what moves the blood in your veins. Love is real; I believe that that's in us. So while we do have, whether you call it original sin or a propensity to be selfish, we also have this much greater force—love—that pulls us to God. I think that's the more powerful story of who we are. And that solidifies my faith because it makes sense to me.

Shadyac with Morgan Freeman on the set of 'Evan Almighty'

Shadyac with Morgan Freeman on the set of 'Evan Almighty'

I think faith should walk practically. The moral teachings of Jesus are very practical: the meek will inherit the earth. If the hubristic, if the arrogant continue to run the earth, they're not going to be around much longer, and the meek will inherit the earth. I do believe it's harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man, like myself, to enter the kingdom of heaven. Where is the kingdom of heaven? It is within, as Jesus said. And when you isolate yourself as rich, like I did, storing up treasures on earth, you miss the kingdom, which is right in front of you—the beauty and the need of the person in front of you, which is the least of these. "That which you do for the least of these you do for me." I believe in the physical manifestation of those teachings in the faith. And for me, that's what the evidence in the movie points to—that we have science to point to the practicality and the provability of the wisdom of these moral teachings.

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One of those scenes has you hooked up to a Petri dish of yogurt via electrodes, and the yogurt apparently "reacting" to your emotions. I was pretty skeptical; were you?

Look, scientific protocols had to be relaxed for that because we had other people in the room. But it's not hard for me to buy that my energy, my emotions affect living things. Since I was a kid, we've heard about studies where if you speak to your plants in a positive way, they might grow faster. We know that our energy affects each other, that my energy affects your energy. You know? If you come home in a bad mood, your spouse feels it and your spouse's energy is affected. So it's only one more step to think that, well, if there's another living system in the room, our energy can certainly affect other things. That, to me, is not a leap.

Now, did I prove that in that yogurt scene? Not necessarily. But something happened to affect the energy of that yogurt, obviously. The magnetometer's needle was moving, and it seemed to coincide with my emotional state. But we'd have to study that much more.

Why do you think that understanding the world in that way—our connectedness, or our shared energy, so to speak—is important for making the world a better place?

Well, let's go back to the moral teachings. Are we really brothers and sisters, even with a stranger? Does my energy, does my love, do my prayers affect someone I haven't even met yet? And the answer for me is, "Certainly." But science is now saying, "Very possibly." Scientific evidence is suggesting that those things we've talked about in churches matter—our thoughts about one another, our care and love for one another. We've structured a world where we've pulled prayer and love out of certain sections of our life, and we call it the business world. We've compartmentalized our lives, so of course we have a society that is askew. So we must stop this silly notion of compartmentalization, of thinking we can pull morality out of any part of our life.

What do you want the viewer to take away from watching this film?

What do I want them to take away? I want them to take away their blinders. I think we all have blinders on, and I think we need to take them off and see there are other ways that we can do things, and that there's a beautiful story of humanity that's not being told—and that they can be a part of it. And that shift can change everything. And if they believe in that Jesus cat, I hope that Jesus cat is holding their hand as they walk into their business meeting on Monday.

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Does this mean you're not going to make any more blockbuster movies?

Well, this is going to be a blockbuster, right? I'll do my business differently, but I will always be open to making any movie that carries on the ideas that I think are worth sharing.