Since essentially relocating from Malibu to Memphis close to five years ago, Tom Shadyac has established himself as a teacher, a mentor, a riverfront homeowner, a distributor of free bicycles, an employer and an investor in the economically disadvantaged Soulsville neighborhood, where he has located a climbing gym, a community center and a production facility.
Even without his California history, Shadyac is unusual among the Memphis motivators who share his passion for social justice. His hairdo suggests "Weird Al" Yankovic, and his lingo is hippie-esque ("peace, brother" is a favorite salutation). As a story in The Commercial Appeal reported in 2014, after Shadyac began teaching storytelling classes at the University of Memphis and LeMoyne-Owen College: "He’s a bike-riding, long-haired vegan on a barbecue-eating commuter campus, a surfer trying to make waves as a self-described 'fairly radical cat' in an often conservative town."
Radical or not, Shadyac hasn't been in the national spotlight much since he began devoting himself to Memphis. But this week, he reintroduces himself to not just Memphis but to the nation in the guise that originally brought him celebrity and fortune: the guise of a filmmaker.
Made in Memphis, "Brian Banks," which opens Friday in more than 800 theaters across the U.S., has enabled Shadyac to embed his activism into his art. It is Shadyac's first feature film as a director since the philosophical/spiritual documentary "I Am" and his first narrative feature since "Evan Almighty," the 2007 comedy that cast Steve Carell as a neophyte member of Congress turned visionary modern Noah.
Actor Sherri Shepherd, left, and director Tom Shadyac on the set of "Brian Banks," a Bleecker Street release. The movie filmed in Memphis in 2017. (Photo: Katherine Bomboy / Bleecker Street)
"Thirteen years, my brother," marvels Shadyac, 60, discussing the gap between the production of "Evan" and the release of "Brian." "I hope the entire city of Memphis shows up for it."
If the city — and the rest of the country — does show up for it, "Brian Banks" could boost more than the careers of its cast and crew and its real-life title character (who is now a motivational speaker).
"It is our hope," Shadyac wrote in an email, "that 'Brian Banks' will be the first of many TV and film productions made out of our Soulsville campus, where we will train, hire and inspire the next generation of artists and storytellers, with an emphasis on diversity in cast, crew and content."
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In the email, Shadyac identifies South Memphis as "one of the most underserved neighborhoods in America." He says he fell in love with the area thanks to the "promise of the youth," whose talents and enthusiasms could help Memphis become "a new center for film and TV production."
Memphis locations aside, "Brian Banks" is an unusual movie for Shadyac: It's a drama, in contrast to the comedies with Jim Carrey, Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams that made the former Bob Hope gag writer's reputation as the money-minting mastermind of a decade's worth of Hollywood hits, from "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" in 1994 to "Bruce Almighty" in 2003. Overall, his six comedy movies earned close to $2 billion at the box office.
Aldis Hodge and Brian Banks on the set of Tom Shadyac’s "Brian Banks." (Photo: Courtesy of Bleecker Street)
"Bruce Almighty" featured Memphis-born actor Morgan Freeman in the role of God; "Brian Banks" more or less continues that theme, with Freeman as teacher Jerome Johnson, the inspirational prison mentor of the real-life title character.
"The path to happiness begins and ends in the mind," Johnson tells Brian (Aldis Hodge), a Long Beach, California high-school football player imprisoned for six years after being wrongfully convicted of sexual assault.
"Free your mind, Brian," Freeman adds, paraphrasing the Book of Clinton, "and the ass will follow.”
He also tells him: "Given the right perspective, prison can set you free. And your despair can become a doorway."
Scripted by Doug Atchison (“Akeelah and the Bee”), "Brian Banks" is a dramatization of the true story of its title character, who was headed to the University of Southern California and a likely pro football career before his life was derailed in 2002 by a false accusation of sexual assault and kidnapping. He was exonerated in 2012 after his case was accepted by attorney Justin Brooks (played in the film by Greg Kinnear) of the California Innocence Project, a San Diego-based nonprofit.
The film moves back and forth in time to chronicle Banks' alternately tragic and triumphal tale, revealing information somewhat in the manner of a courtroom mystery, as Brian reluctantly shares his narrative with the people he meets while he is fighting to expunge his "sex offender" identity. For much of the action, Brian wears a GPS ankle monitor, as a condition of his parole; when the monitor is plugged into its charger at night, the tethering suggests a high-tech upgrade of an old-school convict's ball-and-chain.
According to the Memphis & Shelby County Film and Television, "Brian Banks" employed 149 local cast and crew members — in addition to the hundreds more who showed up as extras for various crowd scenes — when it was filmed over 40 shooting days between Sept. 25 and Nov. 18, 2017.
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Among those who gained on-the-set movie experience were 32 "apprentices," who worked various jobs and were able to "shadow" more experienced employees. One such intern was Jeffrey Garrison, 28, who was a LeMoyne-Owen student with "aspirations of being in the film industry" but "no idea of how to pursue it" before he got the "Brian Banks" job.
After learning about the apprentice opportunity via an email from Shadyac sent out through LeMoyne-Owen, Garrison applied and was accepted. He was paired with a Memphis "film mentor," Tracy Facelli, on the camera crew; he ended up doing what he calls "some of everything." The experience paid off: He's since worked on a Hallmark "Graceland" movie, and currently has a job as an assistant in the production office for the NBC legal drama "Bluff City Law."
Shadyac said he was impressed by the interns. "Their curiosity, their passion to learn changed the culture of the film. It gave us another reason to show up to work."
Garrison, in turn, said he was impressed by Shadyac. "Long Beach and Memphis are not the same thing," he said, "so I respect Tom for giving us the opportunity."
As Garrison's comment indicates, "Brian Banks" reversed the typical Memphis-movie conundrum. Often in the recent past, movies and televisions shows such as "The Blind Side" and "Memphis Beat" were shot in Georgia or Louisiana even though their stories were set in Memphis. With "Brian Banks," Shadyac demonstrates that Memphis can convincingly "play" the roles of Long Beach and Los Angeles (depending on what type of locations the script requires). In this case, Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, Booker T. Washington High School and the Shelby County Courthouse are among the places that represent sites in California.
Unlike Shadyac's studio-backed comedies, "Brian Banks" is being distributed by an "art" film company, New York-based Bleecker Street, which specializes in independent and auteurist cinema (Steven Soderbergh's "Logan Lucky" and James Gray's "The Lost City of Z" are two examples). The release comes almost a year after the movie's debut at the Los Angeles Film Festival, where "Brian Banks" was met with "multiple standing ovations," according to Variety, which wrote that the movie "underscores the importance of speaking truth to power."
In fact, "Brian Banks" is being promoted with a timely slogan that emphasizes that theme: "The Truth Matters." Another slogan, printed on the movie's posters, sums up its premise in two simple sentences: "A broken system. A man who wouldn't break."
In real life, Banks' innocence seems incontrovertible. Shadyac, however, said he is aware that the rise of the #MeToo movement might cause some viewers to be disinclined to sympathize with a character accused of rape. He said he hopes that plot element won't discourage viewers, because "our movie is primarily a social justice movie about a very specific false accusation. Brian could have been falsely accused of theft, he could have been falsely accused of a different kind of crime or assault..."
Essentially, the movie is a protest against what Shadyac calls the criminal justice "conveyor belt," built to funnel people of color into prisons for the sake of law-enforcement convenience and industry profit, as examined in Ava DuVernay's documentary about mass incarceration, "The 13th."
"I live now in Memphis, I work in South Memphis, and I'm exposed daily to the challenges that people without means and oftentimes people of color face," Shadyac said.
He said his students at LeMoyne-Owen and the U of M face "a much higher rate of injustices... So when I read Brian's story, I saw my students' stories reflected therein."
In Shadyac's movie, Brian Banks is told "prison can set you free." Similarly, Shadyac credits a traumatic experience with freeing him from Hollywood materialism and definitions of success. In 2007, Shadyac was injured seriously in a bicycle accident that required a lengthy recuperation. The process caused him to reasses and reorder his priorities. He began downsizing, materially speaking, and upsizing, spiritually. He stepped away from the pressures and expectations of the movie industry, he sold his Los Angeles mansion, he donated to charities, he funded such endeavors as a Charlottesville, Virginia, homeless shelter, and he got more heavily into meditation, yoga and so on.
In other words, he began to more fully embrace the positive message of his comedies.
"Film at its best is a guide into the real world — not escapism," Shadyac said. "My previous films, they're all morality tales, they're all little parables that have an idea or a theme that I support." For example, in "Bruce Almighty," Jim Carrey is a man who is given the power of God, only to discover his real superpower is "a power we all have, which is the power to love each other and bring goodness into each situation."
Shadyac was introduced to Memphis via family connections: He is the younger brother of Richard Shadyac Jr., the CEO of ALSAC, the fundraising arm of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital; the two men are the sons of former ALSAC chief Richard Shadyac Sr., who died in 2009 at 80. So it was natural Tom Shadyac would think of Memphis as he began trying to build a more purposeful life. (After all, what institution has a more purposeful healing mission than St. Jude?)
As his trips here became more frequent, Shadyac began to see Memphis as a city trying to recuperate from its own trauma, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In Soulsville, he found an "underserved" neighborhood that could benefit from his involvement.
Shadyac sees his Memphis Rox rock-climbing gym, community center and production offices at 879 E. McLemore near the Stax Museum of American Soul Music as a "campus" of recreational and creative activity. He wants to make more movies here, and he hope that "Brian Banks" will counter the false impression that his break from filmmaking was intended to be permanent. What he rejected, he said, was not filmmaking itself but the Hollywood studio "ethos."
"The ethos is that only the elite can access (the studios)," he said. In contrast, "Our gates are always open. We want to engage young people. Memphis is rich and ripe with talent and stories. If Memphis wants the commerce and attraction of an entertainment industry, there's no reason not to do it here."
According to Shadyac, "storytelling is a sacred art" and "art is a service industry." He said Hollywood tends "to elevate rather than celebrate artists. We put them on a pedestal." But "I believe art is a service industry and I want to do all that I can to return it in my own life to its original intention."
With the story of Brian Banks, "I could've told a very dark tale and left it all shadow but that's not what moved me about Brian," Shadyac said. "What moved me was he met the darkness with positivity and persistence. His life was as dark as it can get and he has no bitterness. He was crushed into a diamond."
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