'Truman' director tells tales about making Jim Carrey's first serious film
Truman Burbank is the world's biggest television star, but he doesn't know it. An upstanding, innocent rube who lives in an artificial sound stage world created just for him, his life is a fiction, manipulated by an unseen director for the sake of a live soap opera broadcast 24 hours a day -- "The Truman Show."
This invasion-of-privacy TV show and it's subject are at the center of a storm of psychological and ideological question raised by Peter Weir's deceptively light-hearted film, also called "The Truman Show."
Weir, known for such thinking-person's fare as "Dead Poets Society" and "The Year of Living Dangerously" (along with a few losers like "Green Card"), took a disturbing story about a man who doesn't realize he's a zoo exhibit trapped on an island inside the world's biggest sound stage, and plunked it down in the idealized world of a Normal Rockwell painting, giving it a very surreal edge.
The film stars Jim Carrey in his first foray outside slapstick comedy, which, Weir says, made Paramount Pictures very nervous.
"I think they stood back and held their breath," the director laughs. "Obviously they felt an insurance with Jim Carrey, but on the other hand, he's not doing at all what he's known for."
That's an understatement.
Truman is a man blissfully unaware that his life is being deliberately shaped, plotted and planned by powers unseen, and that his friends, his parents, even his wife, are all actors. The film garners a share of ironic laughs, but at it's core is a very creepy concept that, in this age of "The Real World," "Cops" and Jerry Springer, doesn't seem all that impossible.
Weir, a wiry, 54-year-old Australian whose cheerful, boyish face seems to have been worn more by laugher than anything else, visited San Francisco in April to talk about "The Truman Show," Jim Carrey, and the creation of this completely original film, which follows Truman as he begins to realize that something is amiss with his entire existence.
SPLICED: When you read the script originally did the potential importance that this film strike you? Did you have any reluctance to attack the project?
Peter Weir: I just wasn't sure I could pull it off. It was immediately apparent that it was full of tricky ingredients to balance. In fact, I found it very intriguing. What held me back from saying yes to the producer was that I wasn't sure who could play Truman. 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!"
S: With Carrey's life so closely watched, you must have had interesting discussions about the parallels between Truman and himself.
PW: Yeah. Yeah. He said that right off. He said, "I could draw off the feelings I have." He said, "I'm a prisoner." Not that he looks for anyone to be sympathetic, or that he would trade places with you...(laughs).
S: It is kind of scary with this trend of invasion journalism...
PW: Oh, yes!
S: What with people breaking in -- or maybe not breaking in -- to Pamela Anderson's house and selling that video all over the place. We're not that far away from something like "The Truman Show."
PW: Well, all these stars have their houses swept quite regularly by people who work in the surveillance security business. They come in and they look for bugs and things. You know, if you bring a repair person in to fix the pluming or something, that person, in Hollywood, could plant a microphone or a camera.
S: Do you think something like "The Truman Show" could happen someday?
PW: Well, there's that girl on the Internet -- although this isn't an example of someone who doesn't know they're on -- but there's a girl on the Internet who posts one photograph every two minutes from her bedroom.
S: Really? Someone is webcasting her entire life?
PW: We used to call her up from the editing room of "The Truman Show" -- she didn't know it was us -- (and she said) she's going to go to the grave with it.
S: I'm wondering what might have been your influences while you were putting this film together. There's obviously an element of "The Real World" from MTV on the concept, but I was thinking of "The Prisoner" (an 1960s TV series about a spy imprisoned on an idyllic island).
PW: I did look at "The Prisoner," but I didn't find it much help. The big difference being the (television) audience is complacent with what's going on in "The Truman Show."
I think probably the single film that occurred to me was "Dr. Strangelove," in terms of tone -- humor mixed with major drama. Kubrick pulled it off. He walked the line.
S: It's funny, but it's so creepy...
PW: Normally as a director, you do look at other films and things that are relevant. But with this film, it became impossible because I became so aware of the camera placement. In normal films we're supposed to forget that there's a camera there, 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 (laughs). It turned my head inside out sometimes.
S: Did you talk to the actors who were playing the actors, the people in Truman's life, about their motivation, about why someone would participate in this?
PW: Oh, did we ever! I wrote a thing for myself called "A Short History of The Truman Show" about how it all came to be, and who Christof was (the obsessive creator and producer of the world-wide broadcast that follows Truman's life). I wrote it as if it were 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 ad lib together, and I would often play the part of a 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 that the time Truman might do something unpredictable.
So I would talk to them as this character...and they would ad lib responses as these characters, these actors. This was going on to such a degree that I rang Paramount and said, "Listen, let's put together a little documentary unit and shoot this. We could use it as a promotional item." I was always pushing them to promote the film as if the show existed.
So we shot that, and I sort of cannibalized it. (In the establishing scenes there are interviews with "cast members" of the TV show that is Truman's life.) It became a great exercise in developing the kind of schizophrenic nature of their personas. (This "documentary" will be shown on pay cable later this summer.)
S: This discussion must have been particularly important for Laura Linney (who plays Truman's wife), talking about why her character would take part in something like this. About why she would sleep with this man, marry this man, when she's not even the woman she's pretending to be?
PW: Oh, yeah! Those ad libs were fantastic. In fact, the interview that she shot as (the actress) Hanna Gill is incredible. She is so cold and so hard and so neurotic because of what she's done. She's immensely wealthy -- making profits of a Meryl-Made line of clothing and so forth. But she is so deeply compromised because of all of this.
She signed a contract not only to sleep with him -- so it's like super-whoredome, although she likes to think of it as an arranged marriage -- but also the fact that she's trying to conceive a child. And if she does, certain kickers will come into the contract. But also, there's a whole contract over the rights to the child (when it's born).
S: I'm interested in how you chose such human, emotional films for most of your projects -- "The Year of Living Dangerously," "Witness," Dead Poets Society." You never make action blockbusters, although I'm sure they're offered to you.
PW: No, I'm not usually sent them. And if I am, I'm just not drawn to them. Sometimes you have to sweat it out. Like right now. I'd love to have another film to go on to. I'm in the mood to work. But I have to be patient, you know, to find that particular kind of project. Occasionally I'll write one myself if I can summon up the energy.
S: How do you feel about the summer release date? Because I see this as an Oscar nominee with, say, a September release.
PW: Well, I'd swap the prizes for the public. I mean, that's my trade -- putting on a show. I mean, prizes are kind of fun, but you know, I think it's kind of unfortunate that it's become a kind of marketing device in itself. So anytime I've had a film in which they've said "Let's go out in November," I've said, "Oh, no!" I'd rather go out in the summer. In a way it's more vulgar to feel that your campaign is being shaped toward impressing (only) 5,000 people.
S: I suppose you've got to sell this film as a curiosity, because it will be a hard sell as a Jim Carrey drama.
PW: I don't know if there will ever be an ideal way of selling an original picture. Because everything you're doing, you're inventing. And this one, the tone is so unusual because it's a light touch, but it's actually a very dark subject.
S: OK, last question. Who is the biggest cut up on the set -- Mel Gibson, Robin Williams or Jim Carrey?
PW: (Big laugh.) Well, Mel I haven't worked with in a long time, but he was a practical joker. I read that more and more these days. Robin is just hilarious all the time. It's hard to work sometimes.
Jim would just go of to his trailer and prepare for the next scene. 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, too, 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) talking about "the show."