When Peter Weir first read an early draft for The Truman Show, he immediately foresaw a film that was highly ambitious and unusual in its scope. Yet Weir never imagined that it would be as eerily prophetic as it would become.
“I had no idea the film foreshadowed Reality TV, or that it would come in recent years to touch on the old philosophical question, “What is reality?” Weir reflects.
Prior to making his 1998 box office hit, Weir was already an acclaimed and highly respected director. In the decade prior, he had delivered major Hollywood successes which included Witness (1985), nominated for eight Oscars and winner of two; The Mosquito Coast (1986), his second collaboration with Harrison Ford; and Dead Poets Society (1989), which received four Oscar nominations and one win.
Yet, Weir was frustrated, creatively. While he yearned to work on unorthodox features which would challenge him, Hollywood was sending him formulaic and conventional projects. Consequently, the gaps in his filmography began to widen.
"Searching for the ‘next story’ became harder as the years passed", Weir recalls.
Weir’s refusal to compromise led him to becoming more proactive in searching for stories himself. When he came across New Zealand-born writer Andrew Niccol's screen play for The Truman Show, he knew he had found a project he wanted to do.
Weir recognised immediately it was a feature unlike anything he had directed before. He was intrigued by the numerous themes the material examined – privacy, consent, celebrity, reality, media manipulation. Another salient factor which attracted him to the film, and perhaps what gives it its enduring relevance, is that it invited multiple readings and interpretations yet it didn’t lecture its audience.
"The film is pregnant with metaphors – some intended, some ‘organic’ as it were. It’s not didactic, not pushing anything, other than the immorality of the whole enterprise".
"It’s like a chameleon, taking on the colouring of the background supplied by the viewer", he adds.
Having committed firmly to the project, Weir set his eye on casting and had Jim Carrey in mind for the role of Truman. Weir believed the part was ideal for Carrey, who up until then had very few opportunities to showcase his dramatic chops. He vividly recalls seeing one of Carrey's performances for the first time:
"It was pretty clear he was the new kid on the block after seeing Ace Ventura. [I thought Carrey] had a unique talent. Such energy, such unpredictability,” Weir remembers.
While he was certain in his choice of Carrey for the eponymous role, there was a logistical problem: Carrey was tied up with filming The Cable Guy (1996) and Liar Liar (1997). Carrey’s contractual obligations delayed the The Truman Show’s scheduled start date, significantly, yet Weir was so determined that Carrey was right for the part that he opted to wait for the actor to be available, rather than re-cast the role as was standard Hollywood practice.
Weir's belief in Carrey was affirmed when they first got together to rehearse the film. The director remembers his impressions of their meeting to this day:
“Our first meeting was at Jim’s house and we were working on new ideas within the first half-hour. I remember saying, 'they would probably have a camera in the bathroom mirror. Maybe he talks to himself?' Within seconds Jim was on his feet – 'let's try it!' We were in business,” he recalls.
The role of Truman Burbank is one that was meaningful to Carrey. Upon receiving and reading the script, Carrey immediately showed interest. At the time, he was one of the highest paid male actors in Hollywood, yet he was willing to take a significant pay cut from his reported $20 million fee per film to be involved in The Truman Show – a risky gamble, given his star status. According to Weir, it was also a very personal role for the actor. Much of Carrey's brilliant and spontaneous improvisations, which are so central to the film and to the character of Truman, came from Carrey's own father, he reveals.
"I'm sure there’s a lot of Jim there, but he told me his father was an inspiration. All those big smiles, hearty handshakes and ‘how-de-doos’, were his dad's".
Despite securing one of Hollywood's biggest actors, Weir had reservations about how the studio (Paramount) would market his film to audiences, concerned they would lighten and dumb-down the challenging and audacious work he wanted to make. Weir's apprehension about the publicity and marketing led him to take a more hands-on role in strategising how the film was to be sold.
“I was concerned that the easiest sell of a film starring Jim Carrey would be as a comedy, whereas I was aiming for something more than that. I asked to meet with key marketing and publicity people during pre-production to give them an idea of what I intended to do. That (involvement by a director) was unprecedented, as far as I know, and resented by one or two", Weir recalls.
"But the meeting went ahead, and I took them through the story scene by scene. I think it helped with the great job that resulted", he adds.
Looking back on The Truman Show, Weir agrees that it was and remains incredibly prescient. How does he reflect on the film in view of our modern, confusing digital era of pervasive smartphones, social media and virtually non-existent privacy?
"There's a key line in the film when the show’s creator, Christof, is asked why Truman has never discovered the lie that is his life. Christof answers – ‘We accept the reality with which we're presented’", Weir says.
"Perhaps, given the bewildering array of new technologies, that line has picked up new meaning which impacts the film's relevance", he adds.
– Anthony Frajman