‘The Truman Show’: Weir and Niccol’s Uplifting Yet Prophetically Disturbing Dystopian Satire

Peter Weir’s The Truman Show, the dystopian satire from 1998 written by Andrew Niccol, remains one of the most heartwarming, uplifting yet strangely disturbing films we’ve seen so far. The story of the world’s first baby legally adopted by a company, who lives on a huge movie set encapsulated in a gigantic studio dome, unaware that everyone he knows and loves are simply actors paid to be a part of his life, completely oblivious to the fact that he’s a globally successful reality show’s main attraction, has a certain way of remaining hopeful and somehow completely human despite the fact that the whole premise is somewhat nauseating and anxiously prophetic from the perspective of the world in which we type this introduction, the world of omnipresent cameras, publicity, celebrity cults and reality shows trying to grab our attention on practically every other TV channel. Allegedly inspired by an episode of The Twilight Zone, Andrew Niccol created a spec script called The Malcolm Show, much darker in tone than the film that was born under Weir’s helm, and the screenplay was soon optioned by Scott Rudin. In the early stages of development, such directors as Brian De Palma, Terry Gilliam and Barry Sonnenfeld were considered, as Niccol was deemed too inexperienced to make “the most expensive art film of all time,” but it was Peter Weir’s reputation and experience that ultimately earned him the spot in the director’s chair.

The Australian filmmaking legend was a great choice for many reasons, not the least important of which was the fact he had once before worked with a skillful comedian-turned-actor. In Dead Poets Society it was the beloved Robin Williams who benefited from his advice and guidance. Here, famous comedian Jim Carrey played his first dramatic role, coming to the set shortly after finishing another picture from his traditional repertoire, Liar Liar. Later acknowledging the fact that he shared several key character traits with the protagonist of this film, Carrey delivered a masterful performance, creating a character that’s effortlessly easy to relate to and feel for. Laura Linney, in the first big role of her often underappreciated career, shines equally bright, while Ed Harris, Noah Emmerich and Natascha McElhone all contribute praiseworthily. The Truman Show was a considerable box office hit in the summer of 1998, eventually garnering three Academy Award nominations and highly impressing the critics’ community.

Shot by expert cinematographer Peter Biziou (Mississippi Burning, Monty Python’s Life of Brian), with the great American composer Philip Glass’ minimalistic piano compositions, The Truman Show is now considered among the very best pictures of the nineties. For us, it stands tall not only because of its great acting or impeccable screenplay riddled with numerous unique moments of comedy and tragedy combined, but because of its oracular quality of an exceptional cautionary tale and a message that should resonate even stronger today that it did twenty years ago.

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Andrew Niccol’s screenplay for The Truman Show [PDF1, PDF2]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 
An interview with Peter Weir by Dan Lybarger. Originally appeared in the June 4-10, 1998 issue of Pitch Weekly.

“I heard someone say the other day, ‘What a bizarre movie,’” recalls Australian director Peter Weir. “I don’t think so. I think life is outrageous right now, and the film is reflecting that.” The movie in question is Weir’s most recent effort, The Truman Show, and it is certainly unconventional. The film stars rubber-faced comic Jim Carrey as an insurance salesman whose entire life has been televised internationally without his knowledge. Speaking by phone from Chicago, Weir says, “Some have said to me that they looked at things differently after they came out and made jokes about whether they were on-camera or not.”

Probably the strangest aspect of The Truman Show is the fact that Weir cast the frequently hyperactive Carrey in an everyman role. Weir claims that putting Carrey in such a position is hardly a stretch. “The ability to make people laugh is unique and something you’re born with or not. It’s possible for someone who has this gift to make the transition to drama, but not the other way around,” he says. “You don’t think of Larry Olivier as good at light comedy. When he tried it, I wouldn’t say that’s what we remember him for.”

The Truman Show has several offbeat touches (strange camera angles and a shot of the moon being used as a spotlight). Weir remembers several of the ideas that he and his collaborators had were left out so the storytelling would not be sacrificed. “I even had a crazy idea at one time, which was impossible technically. I would have loved to have had a video camera installed in every theater the film was to be seen. At one point, the projectionist would cut power and could cut to the viewers in the cinema and then back to the movie. But I thought it was best to leave that idea untested,” he says.

If The Truman Show does poke fun at the absurdities of media voyeurism, Weir doesn’t directly condemn it. He declares, “I think, as we saw with the whole Lady Diana business, the very people who were outraged at the perceived cause of her death, which were the paparazzi chasing the car, were the same people who bought the magazines and the sensational tabloid papers. That’s a complex situation, and you can’t blame them. They loved her, but they wanted to watch every moment of her life. If they’d had a camera in her house, they would have had the viewership of The Truman Show or more.”

In fact, the 53-year-old filmmaker recalls that television, particularly classic American shows like I Love Lucy and The Twilight Zone, was an important influence when he was growing up in Sydney. “I was 12 years old when television came, and I couldn’t believe it,” he recalls. “I just was transfixed by it. I used to darken the room down like a theater at night, like a movie house. My father used to always get annoyed and said, ‘You’ve got to leave a lamp on, or you’ll lose your eyesight.’ I said, ‘It’ll be worth it.’ No one was allowed to talk. At one stage, I wouldn’t let anyone go to the bathroom. That didn’t last long.”

Weir says he and other Australian directors of his generation, such as Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies) and Gillian Armstrong (Little Women), benefited from their exposure Peter Weir and Jim Carreyto imported culture from the United States and Europe. He says seeing American movies helped him and others adapt to Hollywood moviemaking and to create an Australian brand of cinema. “We had a culturally similar diet to Americans of the same generation. (Australians) had no culture. We were a simple people until recent times. We were Europeans in the bottom end of the world. As with any new colony, the arts are the last thing to be developed. I think my generation was the first to not withdraw and go to London, like the generation before us did. We stayed. We were determined to make our mark, like the kid who’s been the short kid in school and been bullied,” he says.

Before his crossover success in America (he received Oscar nominations for directing Witness and Dead Poets Society and for writing Green Card), Weir first gained notoriety for his eerie 1975 Australian drama Picnic at Hanging Rock. The movie is loosely based on a real but undocumented disappearance of students and a teacher from a girls school at the turn of the century. Previously unavailable in the U.S. (except for bootleg copies), the film is being rereleased and is scheduled to play in Kansas City in July. “I remastered the soundtrack and made some cuts in the movie itself.” He laughs and adds, “I think it’s going to go in the Guinness Book of World Records as the only director’s cut that’s shorter than the original.”

In the films that Weir has in current release, and with his previous movies, he often sidesteps the obvious. For example, Witness and The Year of Living Dangerously are remarkably steamy even though neither shows much skin. “When the Hays Code (which governed Hollywood movies from 1930 through 1966) operated, directors were far more inventive with the way they showed strong attraction between male and female, love and lust. With the Hays Code gone—and who would argue it should be there—I tried to use the lessons I learned from those directors, that less is more. You allow the viewers to join in making the film and apply their imagination,” Weir explains.

His approach does have its drawbacks. “Of course, that implies the presumption the audience will join you and has that imagination. It can get harder these days because films are so didactic, and they so present everything to the viewer,” Weir says. “All (the audience) has to do is sit and eat their 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.”

 
It’s showtime: Peter Weir interview by Joshua Klein.

Why the long wait between Fearless and The Truman Show?
Because I needed to be at home for personal reasons. I had a son going through his final year of school. I needed to rest after that movie; it was emotionally tiring. And then I couldn’t find anything I wanted to do. It’s not as long as it probably seems, because I read the script [for The Truman Show] around this time in 1995, then flew over and met Jim and [screenwriter] Andrew Niccol in August of that year and shook hands and agreed to do it. But I wanted Jim, and he wasn’t available for a year, so I said I wanted to wait, because I couldn’t see any other star. I knew it had to be a star who played this part, because that helps the logic of the “show.” I mean, why would you watch a guy every day? [Stars are] very watchable; they have a quality on screen. But apart from that, there’s something about Jim. It had to be someone different from us, someone who had lived his life in some extreme place. And he [the Truman character] would have been quite different, having grown up amongst liars. [Laughs.]

Did the involvement of Jim Carrey help make such a challenging movie easier to produce?
They wouldn’t have made it without a star they approved of, for sure. Not even if I just wanted to make it. It’s too expensive to take that risk. I’m sure they held their breath even given that it was Jim and I, particularly as Jim wasn’t going to be doing flat-out, broad comedy.

Is it true that the movie was originally envisioned to be much darker than how it ended up?
Yeah. The way Andrew wrote it, which was for himself—he’s a director now, and he wanted to do it—it was set in Manhattan, and it was a phony Manhattan. And I think the way he would have approached it, with a lower budget in mind, [the city] would be shot for real but portrayed as fake. So it would be somewhat darker, more paranoid. It may have been very good, but for my take on it, I thought that while it read well in the Manhattan setting, it wasn’t critical. I thought I had to relax it and give the audience, within the terms that the movie was setting up, the feeling that this was possible. If you don’t believe that it’s possible as it’s happening, you won’t go with the film. So I thought, further to that, that this producer [played by Ed Harris] would be selling a lifestyle. He wouldn’t be presenting something for 24 hours a day that you already live in, because you want to escape via “the box.” And so Seahaven came to be, really, with all of the buildings and the clothes, the way we wish we were, some kind of nostalgia. We studied Saturday Evening Post covers for this kind of dream of a small-town America that may never have existed but was certainly mythologized in movies and other media.

Do you think this vision of a small-town suburbia is in some ways more frightening than an urban sprawl?
Yes, I think we tend to think it is, but in this film, we’re dealing with something beyond that anyway. We’re dealing with people who are exploiting a human being for the sake of making money. You know, their morals and ethics are all shot through, and their sense of reality is gone. But no one thinks they’re bad people; the [fictional] audience watches and doesn’t complain. Most of them, at least. The producer’s not crazy; he’s simply… somewhere else.

The Truman Show isn’t just another Jim Carrey vehicle; it’s much more “adult.” Do you have any say over how the film is marketed?
First, I acknowledged that it was difficult for them to do it. Second, I could see they initially leaned toward the obvious “soft” option, the comedy market. The marketing department, I think, began to realize that that wasn’t the way to go. But at the same time, they didn’t want to hide Jim’s light under a bushel; he does provide entertainment, as he does in The Truman Show, the actual program. That’s again why people watch it: It’s kind of funny, a bit goofy. So [the marketing people] had a devil of a time trying to give the various facets of this film equal expression. I think they’re getting better at it, but I think it will finally have to depend on word-of-mouth. I wonder if word-of-mouth is still alive in America. I don’t know anymore. In other words, if you didn’t hear about it on TV, is it worth going to? Or someone says, “I haven’t seen that film, but I hear it’s pretty weird, and I hear it’s not a comedy,” and the other person has to say, “Trust me, go.”

 
The Cinematography of The Truman Show. Cinematographer: Peter Biziou. Nominated for the 1999 British Society of Cinematographers Award for Best Cinematography. Courtesy of Evan E. Richards.

 
“Weir found that he had so much good material asking the actors to come up with answers to his questions as their onscreen personas that he put together a documentary unit to capture everything. Some parts made it to the movie, and the rest were turned into a half-hour documentary about the show that ran on Nick at Nite, presented as an episode of Tru Talk, hosted by Harry Shearer’s Mike Michaelson character.” —15 Truths About The Truman Show

 
“How’s It Going to End? The Making of ‘The Truman Show’ is an excellent two-part behind the scenes documentary, which covers a bit more than your average pat-on-the-back featurette. The majority of the cast and crew are on hand for this documentary—even Carrey, though his interview footage appears to have been shot a few years back—and everyone does a fantastic job of sharing the highs, lows and in-betweens during the film’s original production. Director Peter Weir is also in good spirits here, covering everything from the film’s unusual location shooting to the original story by Andrew Niccol.” —Randy Miller III

 
Faux Finishing: The Visual Effects of ‘The Truman Show’ covers the film’s tasteful and clever use of CGI—many viewers will be surprised to find out what was real and what was just an illusion.

 
Evan Puschak’s video essay “What The Truman Show Teaches Us About Politics.”

 
A director of distinction and finesse, Peter Weir (Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show) discusses his filmmaking style and offers advice to first time directors. Event recorded on 6 December 2010. Courtesy of BAFTA.

 

 
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Peter Weir’s The Truman Show. Photographed by Melinda Sue Gordon © Paramount Pictures. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

 
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