The Truman Show, 1998.
Directed by Peter Weir.
Starring Jim Carrey, Laura Linney, Ed Harris, Noah Emmerich, Natascha McElhone, Brian Delate, Holland Taylor and Paul Giamatti.
Truman Burbank’s perfect world is thrown into turmoil when he unwittingly discovers that his life is being staged by a global television network.
Around the world critics and audience members embraced the cinematic satire. The cautionary tale about the media’s ability to shape an individual’s existence provided Australian director Peter Weir with a few challenges. To solve one of them he turned to a much-loved movie classic. “I think probably the single film that occurred to me was Dr. Strangelove, in terms of tone – humour mixed with major drama. Kubrick pulled it off. He walked the line.” Then there was also an unconventional issue that had to be addressed. “In normal films we’re suppose to forget that there’s a camera,” stated the Sydney native, “but in this case I had to be very conscious of where the camera was. I had to imagine where [the show’s producers] placed it – in a duct, in a button, up his nose or whatever. I turned my head inside out sometimes.”
All the creative problem-solving caused Weir’s imagination to run wild. “I even had a crazy idea at one time which was impossible technically,” he reminisced, “I would have loved to have had a video camera installed in every theatre in which the film was to be seen. At one point, the projectionist would cut the power and could cut to the viewers in the cinema and then back to the movie.”
Interestingly, it was not all the technical issues which made the internationally respected filmmaker reluctant to take on the project. “What held me back in saying yes to the producer was that I wasn’t sure who could play Truman.” He confessed. “It wasn’t just a matter of getting an actor who was a good actor. Then the producer said, ‘Do you know Jim Carrey?’ And I thought, ‘My God, what an interesting idea!” When approached about the role, celebrity tabloid favourite Jim Carrey was immediately receptive. Carrey said to him, “I can draw off the feelings I have. I’m a prisoner.” Weir went on to add with a chuckle. ”Not that he looks for anyone to be sympathetic, nor would he trade places with you.”
After dealing with the comic frenzy of Robin Williams on and off the set for Dead Poets Society, the Australian moviemaker encountered a very different situation with the zany Carrey. “Jim would just go off to his trailer and prepare for the next scene,” recalled Peter Weir. “He was very involved in this project. We could chat, he’s easy going but pretty occupied. He wasn’t a comedian on the set. And he’s a perfectionist, with a capital P. His preparation was intensely thorough, and he didn’t want to be too much a part of the chat on the set because we were often [in character] taking about the show.”
In preparation for the film, the director decided to create a back story to go along with Andrew Niccol’s original screenplay. “I wrote a thing for myself called ‘A Short History of the Truman Show’ about how it all came to be and who Christof [the program’s obsessive creator and producer] was. I wrote it as if it was a press release from the show. Then I found some of the cast and crew asked for it, so I passed it around. We would ab lib together, and I would often play the part of the mid-day shift director on the show who was trying to get ahead. [We decided] there were six shifts per day, and like a radio station, some were more highly valued than others. Obviously midnight to 4 a.m. was pretty much your learner’s position. The directors who did the weekend stuff were very experienced, because of that the time Truman might do something unpredictable.” The role playing was so well embraced Peter Weir decided to take things a step further. “I rang Paramount and said, ‘Listen, let’s put together a little documentary unit and shoot this.’” He told them, “We could use it as a promotional item.” The major film studio agreed with him. “So we shot that and I sort of cannibalized it.” Weir used the mock interview footage of the “cast members” in the T.V. show so to establish scenes in the movie.
For the protagonist to gain the sympathy of the audience he needs a formidable and believable adversary. With The Truman Show this crucial responsibility was given to the godlike figure of Christof. “I think Christof is such an interesting character,” Weir stated in reference to the role played by Ed Harris. “He is kind of an artist. He sees himself as a great teacher, doing something very worthwhile. There was a decision early on in talking to Ed that he would not be crazy, insane – in the legal definition. He is certainly a fanatic, but, on the other hand, while making billions of dollars he was doing something that he thought was beneficial to the world and was demonstrating a way to live. That’s what makes him truly sinister.”
In the movie, Truman Burbank’s idealized world unravels when a falling spotlight nearly hits him. Afterwards his car radio inadvertently picks up a conversation detailing his drive to work. These strange events prick his curiosity so much so he becomes oddly aware on how the whole town of Seaside seems to revolve around him. The insurance salesman’s suspicions are confirmed upon discovering a hidden camera in his house. Truman decides to take control of his life; however, he faces a major obstacle. Christof will do anything short of killing his star to ensure the survival of the show. When an orchestrated sea storm nearly drowns Truman, the program’s creator relents and allows him to enter into the real world.
When asked what The Truman Show is about, Peter Weir answered, “To me, the real centre of the film is the loss of reality. I think now [in the media] there’s so much acting and reenacting, and dramatized news broadcasts and cops with cameras, and society viewing it all second hand. As Bill Gates recently said, ‘We may soon never need to leave our armchairs,’ as if that were a good thing! And that’s what I liked and what I tried to apply to the audience [in the film]. They applaud, they laugh, they cry.”
Weir strongly believes in the dramatic power of implying things. “It can get harder these days because films are so didactic, and they so present everything to the viewer.” Weir explained. “All [the audience] has to do is sit and eat popcorn and keep their eyes open. Whereas I like a film, and like to make films in which, at least emotionally, you are joining in and completing the picture with me.”
With three Oscar nominations for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Ed Harris), Peter Weir went on to the BAFTAS where the British film industry handed him the David Lean Award for Direction.
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Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.