by Derek Hockenbrough
Should you find yourself holding a small plastic queue card, huddled amidst a dozen or so eclectic filmgoers garbed in everything from Jansport beanies to the latest retro-hippie winter fashions while sipping a freshly brewed Cowboy coffee and vibing on the permeating inspirational energy in Telluride, Colorado, during the end of May, then you are probably attending the quickly growing docu film-fest Mountain Film. And, should you find yourself in said line watching a jovial man with long waving hair, beaming eyes and a permanent smile chatting with newly-turned fans then you could be looking at either Tom Shadyac or Roko Belic.
Tom and Roko are two like-minded brothers from other mothers who have set out to change the world through film (and they happen to look similar). The two met a few years back while attending Mountain Film in Telluride and have since brought two films to the festival, each film winning the respected Audience Award and Kids Choice Award, in their respective years. Indeed, these two filmmakers are creating waves across screens all around the world with documentaries that aren’t your average historical or espionage induced educational romps, but instead are filling theaters by asking basic human questions like, “What does it really mean to be human?”
“What is happiness?”
Roko Belic is best known for his directorial debut, “Genghis Blues,” which focuses on blind singer Paul Pena’s journey to the Asian nation of Tuva in order to perform in a singing festival. The film was nominated for an Academy Award in 2000. I got the chance to sit down with Roko and the newest addition to the Belic family, his 9-month-old daughter Viva, in his bright chaotically Indian-decorated trailer in Malibu’s Point Dume to talk about his latest documentary, “Happy.” Roko lounges on his massive bed-lounge sprawled across his living room, holding a mildly interested Viva on his lap.
Derek: How did you get started as a documentary filmmaker?
Roko: Well, I never intended to make documentaries. When I was growing up, I was always interested in films and art. But when I was like seven or eight years old, on our TV the knob had broken. This was the old days when TVs had knobs you would turn. The knob had fallen off and inside was a metal spindle and to change the channel you had to use vicegrips. I was too small and too young to do it, so our mom locked the TV on the local PBS channel. So, I saw tons of documentaries growing up. For a few years, that’s all we saw. And I didn’t realize how it had affected me ’til college. When I was there I saw this documentary about this place in the center of Asia that was like a Shangri-la that was untouched by outsiders. So, I decided I wanted to go there. And that became my first project, “Genghis Blues.” I went right out of college and I didn’t have much support, with money that is. And my friends were asking, “When are you going to make a real movie?” Then four years later, it won the audience award at Sundance and, like, 50 awards around the world. Then it was nominated for an Oscar, and that validated to me that I could keep doing this.
D: How did you get on the subject of happiness?
R: One day, out of the blue, Tom Shadyac called me and he said that he had read an article in the New York Times about happiness. And it said that America is one of the richest countries in the world, but we are nowhere near the happiest. We’re near, like 25, and Tom said, “What’s wrong? How are we No. 1 in wealth, but not happiness?” And he said, “I have an idea. For the last 15 years or so, I’ve been living in a mansion and I have gardeners, housekeepers, chauffeurs. And almost every day for the last 15 years, I’ve noticed that some of them seem happier than my millionaire movie star friends I work with everyday. So, Tom suggested that we explore happiness and try to get at the real causes through a film. I immediately said yes, knowing that it was at least a one- or two-year commitment, and it ended up being a five-year commitment.
D: Was there a moment in the beginning that you became completely fired up about the subject?
R: Immediately. When he called me, I had a flashback of my first trip to Africa. We had gone to film refugees of the Mozambique civil war, and we knew the war was horrible. People were mutilating each other and just wanted people to suffer. So I had mentally prepared myself for that. And I was totally shocked that when we got there, I know that they had suffered, but what I saw was people who were totally alive. They were vibrant and dancing. And they were curious, laughing and (had) this incredible spirit for life. How is it possible that they can’t afford clothing and have no house to live in but they seem happier even momentarily than some of my friends back home who have everything in comparison? And when Tom called me, I thought of those people and I wanted to answer that question.
Viva agrees with a soft coo and Roko smiles.
“So, every movie that I make is in some way about experiencing that incredible opportunity to live.”
D: What was the most fascinating thing you learned in the process?
R: I had always known that exercise was good but it wasn’t until I talked to some neuroscientists that I learned the deep impact of physical aerobic exercise. What they said was, as we get older, our dopamine system deteriorates and dopamine is a chemical that is required for feelings of pleasure and happiness. The extreme version of that deterioration is Parkinson’s disease, so in a way we’re all on a path to Parkinson’s but that’s extreme and most of us don’t live long enough to get there. But the best way to maintain health of our dopamine system is physical aerobic exercise. I always knew that I felt better when I was in good shape but it was the first time I heard a direct correlation between our emotional state and being physically fit. After hearing that, I thought, “Wow, I gotta get on it.” It’s just something we need to prioritize. And I feel that most of us in our culture don’t prioritize that. Someone says, “I worked 60 hours last week.” We think that’s a hard working dude. It’s much more rare to hear, “Yeah, I biked for three hours yesterday.” We think, get serious, you need to get to work.
D: What was the biggest contrast of what you found and what our society tells you makes us happy?
R: A researcher named Sonja Lyubomirsky came up with a pie chart that divides up the pieces of our lives as they relate to happiness. It shows that roughly 50 percent of the differences in our happiness is genetic. So if you’re a generally grumpy person or happy person, half of that is from your genes. But fully, the other half is not genetic, so it’s effectible. So the things that we are told to strive for — security, money, social status, beauty, luxury — those only count for 10 percent of our happiness. I thought that would be more like 40 percent. I believed the cultural idea that things we can obtain would be more important. And the other 40 percent has to do with our values and how we choose to spend our time. So, even if you’re poor or have a job that doesn’t bring you these things, you can value friendship and value wanting to make the world a better place. And having those values will boost your happiness versus if you value money or power. Just valuing those things will affect your happiness in a huge way. And it’s how you spend your time. So if you spend your time shopping, you’re less likely to be happy than if you spend your time riding a bike or being in a close relationship and things that you can experience more viscerally. Once we get over the age of 18 or so, we’re not encouraged to practice our hobbies, like skateboarding. No one would say if you’re 35, you should skateboard more. But, if you have some free time and you love skateboarding, evidence now shows that you will be healthier and happier if you do it. And that will affect everything. Happy people tend to be better at work, they tend to be more creative and find solutions to problems. They get more promotions, more raises, better customer reviews. They have relationships that last longer and they even live longer. I didn’t realize how important happiness is. In making the film, I wondered if a piece on happiness was too small. The world is at war, there’s poverty and terrorism. But the science is that, happy people are less likely to commit crimes and more likely to help a stranger … less likely to hurt the environment and more likely to make the world a better place. Being happy is one of the best things we can do for the world.
D: Do you find similar themes in your films?
R: Yes. I realize that every movie I make is about life, about appreciating the one chance we get here. I think frequently about the incredible nature of our existence. Life is such a tiny sliver of a massive spectrum of circumstances. Space is freezing and the universe is infinite, we’re on this floating tiny blue ball in space. I’m blown away by the extremely slim chance that we exist anyway. So that helps calibrate my appreciation for things. So, every movie that I make is in some way about experiencing that incredible opportunity to live.Viva decides cordially that the interview should be done. So, Roko and I split paths, going on to experience life and hopefully remembering the importance of happiness.
Tom Shadyac is a heavy-hitting Hollywood director. Some of his most notable films include “The Nutty Professor,” “Liar Liar,” “Patch Adams” and “Bruce Almighty.” However, in recent years he has left the studios behind to become a student, teacher and documentarian of life as seen through his eyes. He has spent the last five years traveling the world to ask some of the most prolific thinkers and scientists two questions: “What is wrong with our world?” and “How do we fix it?” The outcome of these questions is Tom’s latest film, “I AM,” which is currently still undergoing a wide theatrical release, now available on DVD.
I first met Tom Shadyac while attending Pepperdine University back in 2005. It was my freshman year and I had been a long time fan of Tom’s comedies, specifically “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.” It was his first year teaching at Pepperdine and I was nervous as hell to meet him. I remember walking into his screenwriting class 10 minutes late wearing a Pink Floyd hat. He had already started class, so I did my best to sneak in and quietly hide in the back row. I failed. He stopped talking and looked at me, “Who are you?” I froze, fumbled my words and croaked, “Um, hi. I’m Derek.
I was hoping to sit in on your class.” He slapped a giant grin on his face, threw up a peace sign and said with his heaviest stoner accent, “It’s your world, man!” And that is the motley mixture that Tom serves: a heap of philosophy, a side of calm questioning, with a giant gulp of humor to wash it down.Tom is currently isolated in hermit-style writing mode, deep in the trenches of his first book. But he took some time to give Blindfold his insight on how everyone can make the world a better place.
Derek: I hear you’re busy. That’s exciting.
Tom: Well, I’m writing a book and that’s a new venture for me. That, along with the continued distribution of the DVD, the talks, the teaching, etc. … So, I got a few things … in the hopper.
D: And the book, is it in line with the film?
T: Yeah, sort of my turn to speak. The film was allowing others to express these principles and this would be my turn to express my points of view. … OK. I’m ready, baby!
D: What was the catalyst of the transition from a Hollywood lifestyle to a very different one filled with teaching at Pepperdine and more of a focus toward documentary filmmaking?
T: The transition in my life was not the concussion; it was not the knock to the head physically (before the making of “I AM,” Tom suffered a concussion due to a mountain biking accident). It was the knock to the head spiritually and emotionally when I started waking up to principles in my life that suggested a new way for me. So, after reading books like “Ishmael” and “The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight,” I began to see inconsistencies and hypocrisies in the ways I did economy, for example, the amount of resources that I used, and I wanted to eliminate and correct those hypocrisies in my life. So, I started to downsize, I started to give away more money, I started to do my economic life differently and that birthed me to coming to the trailer park (Malibu’s Paradise Cove). And then, it was the concussion that gave me the courage to talk about it in a film.
D: Do you remember a precise moment where you started downgrading? Where you said, “well, this is enough”?
T: I remember, after making “Bruce Almighty,” reading the book “Ishmael” and I began in a very short time understanding that principle that worked in nature that I was violating; that nothing in nature takes more than it needs … and I saw a lot of behaviors of mine that were not obeying that principle: flying privately, the amount of square feet I was living in, the purchases that were required to fill that square feet, etc.
D: And how did you end up at Pepperdine with us crazy people?
T: (laughs) Well, I’d done teaching before. I had taught acting years ago through Vincent Chase’s workshop, as in the famous Vincent Chase that Entourage’s character is named after. And, when I began to see a new perspective, simultaneously Pepperdine approached me. They saw “Bruce Almighty,” they said that we would love for you to come and teach a class. Would you help us come and birth a film department? So, it was a combination of those two things: them approaching me and me approaching those ideas.
D: Well, when things align like that it’s hard to ignore. So, having sat most of your classes, I know it shifted over time but what would be your main message to the students there?
T: On the one hand, I consider myself a box-breaker. I want to break the boxed, whatever box a student may be in. Whether it’s a cultural box, a family box, a box of perspective, I want to open them up to new ideas. The main goal of the class is to awaken a student into their own part, into their own unique meaning, purpose and passion.
D: And what have the students taught you? What has been something you’ve taken away from those sessions?
T: I have gone from modestly hopeful to extraordinarily hopeful. Their openness and their connectivity with these ideas and their willingness to follow truth. And their courage in opening new pathways for themselves has left me extremely encouraged that this generation can do things differently. That’s enough of a gift. I don’t need to be paid by the school; that gift alone has paid me in infinite reward.
D: Is there some kind of arc that you’ve seen your teachings going through while you’re teaching, while you’re getting responses back? Is there a transition in your messages that you’ve felt over time?
T: I wouldn’t say that there is a transition in the messages. There’s a transition that takes place in the receptivity of the message.
It’s like an onion. You have to peel a layer back at a time. And students, depending on how they were raised and what kind of background they have, they all come with different layers that have to be opened up, questioned and peeled back. But the message is always the same. And the message that I’m talking about is no different, I hope, than the message that others have talked about before.
D: All the films that you’ve made, and I’m talking about the studio films previous to this transition you’ve gone through, all of those have very strong messages, very strong themes that they play with. What was it about the message of “I AM” that you found it necessary to walk away from showing it as a studio, fictional point of view to this renegade documentary you’ve done?
T: Well, the difference in the message is that it’s a deepening of the message. The other films talked about a message. “I AM” is about becoming the message. And, there was no way to make “I AM” with a studio because it didn’t have a certain promise of a box-office upside. So, it had to be done independently, and I’m glad it was done independently because it gave us the freedom to do it the way we wanted to do it.
D: The process of making “I AM” — the interviews, the research — what did you take as the most valuable information that you learned and that you feel that the human race would benefit from learning, through your perspective as well?
T: There’s a ton of evidence to support our intuitions. You don’t have to go very far to find a person who believes that love is the most powerful force in their life. But we now have scientific studies that can quantify in certain instances what that might mean. Heart connections, intuitions, entanglements, entrainments — there are all these studies that we’re just beginning. But there’s enough collective evidence to say, ”Wow, science and spirituality are now merging.”
D: So, the debate on that, from my understanding, is that half the scientific community agrees and half of it says there’s not enough quantified evidence. Where do you stand in your belief of it? I know you have witnessed some of it firsthand. What is your argument of that reality?
T: Well, I use an argument that is kind of expansive from the scientific point of view. I think personal experience is evidentiary and palpable and it’s telling. From the evidence I’ve experienced in my life, from people I’ve known who’ve had intuitions. People I’ve known who’ve had unexplainable events happen in their life, from a scientific point of view, I consider that relevant. I don’t throw that away and say, “Well, there was no scientist in the room studying that.” The fact that you immediately knew that something had happened to your father, you woke up at three in the morning, the phone rang and your father had passed away. I consider that evidence. Now, science wouldn’t, because there was not a scientist in the room. And, I think it’s silly to throw those things out. I think it’s also silly to have to quantify everything, because we can’t quantify, or we have difficulty quantifying the most important things in our lives: How much do you love your father, your mother, your brother, your sister, your spouse? So, science is, I think, good to be sober about these discoveries; we need to explore them more. But, when someone said many hundreds of years ago that the world is not flat, science was in an uproar, and science is in an uproar now in saying that connection can’t be the real order of things when it certainly looks like that is the case.
D: Let’s switch tracks and talk about Roko. I guess it wasn’t until I interviewed Roko that I realized that this was sort of double team, powerhouse, “let’s get some people to listen.” How did you both align to do that, it seems, nearly around the same time?
T: It’s more the universe, what I would call “the guiding hand.” Call it “God source” or “life,” because it wasn’t a conscious choice. You’re going to make a film that’s a subset, a particular case, for the larger argument about the film that I’m going to make. We didn’t set out to do that. We set out to do films that we were both passionate about. And then, the serendipity would have it that they virtually came out and were finished about the same time, even though Roko started about two and a half years before me. So, it was very serendipitous but it’s no accident that Roko is a brother of mine. He is a very kindred energy. We met at a film festival. We were immediately drawn to each other. I was drawn to his work, I was drawn to his spirit, I was drawn to what he was trying to say. The guiding hand was all the way back then, when we met in line for a movie in Telluride.
“You don’t have to go very far to find a person who believes that love is the most powerful force in their life.”
D: So, how much do you think that happiness is important to what you want people to take away from “I AM”?
T: Happiness is an outgrowth of understanding what is real and when you can answer in a deep truthful way the question “Who am I?” Happiness is the natural outgrowth of that. Now, it’s important for me to note when talking about happiness, that that doesn’t mean you don’t get sad. It doesn’t mean that you don’t experience loss. You do. Like Roko’s film suggests that you recover more quickly. It’s inside of the context of a larger purpose. Happiness is, as Roko’s film suggests, a kind of subset of the conversation of “I AM.” But they are one and the same. You don’t separate wet from water. In other words, when you’re in the ocean of truth and reality then happiness is an automatic instantaneous effect of that cause.
D: You have titled your film “I AM.” So, who is Tom Shadyac through his own eyes?
T: (laughs) That’s a very good question. I am a soul on a journey and I am a servant of something larger than Tom Shadyac. I am a servant of this thing I would call “The Devine Idea.” And, I am on that path, walking it imperfectly, but I hope with passion. … And a sense of humor.
“I am a soul on a journey and I am a servant of something larger than Tom Shadyac.”
D: Can you give me a really quick one-two of “The Devine Idea”?
T: Well, you can call it what you wish. “The Source,” “God,” “The Universe,” George Carlin calls it “The Big Electron.” I do believe that something very creative is at the start of all this. Science can only take you back to the big bang, but nothing can take you before the big bang. That’s mystery. That’s where I find that presence.