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SHADYAC, TOM: Patch Adams

LAUGHTER IS GOOD MEDICINE – NOT TO MENTION BOX OFFICE
Critics often hate his work but audiences love them, from the first Ace Ventura, through to Nutty Professor, Liar Liar and now Patch Adams; former joke writer and stand up comedian Tom Shadyac is now one of Hollywood's bigger players. PAUL FISCHER spoke to him in Los Angeles.

Tom Shadyac is one happy man these days; after all, how many American directors defy the critics and end up making films that overtake that magic US $100 million at the box office? Tom Shadyac's latest film, the medico comedy/drama Patch Adams, may well have received some of the worst notices in his career, but it's turned out to be the most successful film in a troublesome year for Universal Studios. "There's no doubt that critics have lost touch with audiences", explains the director from his office. "We got some of the best results at our test screenings, we knew we'd do well. After all, when Ace Ventura came out, the critics not only hated us, but also predicted Jim Carrey would quickly disappear. I don't make films to please critics; if I did, there'd be forty people attending my movies, and they'd all be critics", he adds laughingly.

"I'd always had a passion for comedy"

The 41-year old director had no idea what he wanted to do as a youngster. Born and raised in Virginia, he discovered early on his penchant for comedy. He utilised those talents to his advantage, when he started writing humorous articles for school papers. "An uncle of mine knew Bob Hope, and suggested that if I wanted to start writing jokes for him, I'll give him the material. So I did, and Hope called me one day and said: There's some pretty good stuff here, can you do it again? That's how the relationship started." Shadyac was a mere 21, and a senior at college at the University of Virginia, where he was studying government, of all things. "And let me tell you, that remained the greatest source of humour, giving me the greatest material in the world. And it still is - Bill Clinton's zipper is the greatest source of comedy than I can remember."

From government to film would seem quite a leap, and indeed it was, but Shadyac, who was unsure of his life's ambition at that stage, formed a passion for it through his love of comedy. "I'd always had a passion for comedy. Even as a kid I would write skits, obviously as a way to get your friends to go: Hey, you're pretty funny. It was a means to popularity. I dabbled in stand-up for a while and wrote a lot. When I came out to Los Angeles, I didn't really know how my passion was going to be focused, so I tried a whole bunch of things, from stand up, to joke-writing, did a little acting and I eventually tried directing, just like I was trying all these other things; that's where all the bells went off."

"He was a dynamite waiting to explode" on Jim Carrey

Shadyac meandered in Hollywood for more than a decade before hitting pay dirt as the co-writer and director of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, the 1994 feature film that confirmed that Jim Carrey as one of the biggest stars in Hollywood and grossed more than $200 million worldwide. It was Shadyac that really gave audiences Carrey. "I'd watched In Living Colour for years and Jim made me laugh; he was a dynamite waiting to explode, but nobody gave him the right venue; the freedom to do his thing."

Shadyac's latest film is the semi-true story Patch Adams. It opens in 1969, where Hunter ‘Patch’ Adams (Robin Williams) is a voluntary inmate in a mental hospital. His experience with the patients there energises him with a desire to heal, leading to his enrolment two years later in medical school. There he becomes a top student, but angers a conservative dean (Bob Gunton) by testing his theory that laughter is the best medicine on actual hospital patients.

While repeatedly butting heads with administrators, Patch and two classmates (Monica Potter and Daniel London) commit themselves to creating a place where they can treat patients not just with prescriptions, but with compassion, personal contact and big red clown noses.

Shadyac first saw a finished script of Patch Adams after he got off Liar, Liar. "I read it on the plane the first day I took off on vacation. It made me laugh, it made me cry, and I connected to it very personally on a number of levels. I called the studio and told them I'd do it - but only with Robin Williams; I didn't see anyone else playing this role. I wasn't expecting him to do it, but he responded in much the same way I did." He waited for Williams to complete three other films, and in the interim got married, before he was finally ready to go.

"People go to movies to have some kind of emotional experience"

The film defied a strong negative reaction, to become the unexpected box office champ over a competitive US Christmas weekend. The reason for this success is simple, explains Shadyac. "People have told me that it touched them in an extraordinary way; it put them through a gamut of emotions, from laughing to crying, it made them think, it made them reassess. I think people go to movies to have some kind of emotional experience and I think Patch Adams takes them there. It's such an interesting and unique story."

Shadyac doesn't want to remain compartmentalised as merely a comedic director, so his next film will be a complete departure: a dramatic thriller. "It involves the world of near-death experiences in children, and it's essentially a movie about faith; how somebody goes from being a complete non-believer to reawakening his faith through this incredible journey that leads him through the world of near death experiences of children in a very personal way. I can tell you it's the best ending of a movie that I've ever read." He's hoping Mel Gibson may agree to play the lead.

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