"The Truman Show" meditates, variously, on the invasiveness of the media, on Americans' desperate need to identify with celebrities, on how society steamrolls individuals' innate sense of adventure and nudges them toward group mediocrity, on how personal contentment and conformity exist uneasily on the same slippery sliding scale.
And this is a Jim Carrey movie?
Well, it's also a Peter Weir film, and from his earliest films made in his native Australia, "Picnic at Hanging Rock" and "The Last Wave," to his high-profile Hollywood fare, "Witness," "The Mosquito Coast" and "Fearless," Weir has made films with profound themes, from the relationship between man and nature to confronting the specter of death.
The $50-million "Truman Show" -- written by Andrew Niccol ("Gattaca") -- presents an even bigger gamble for Carrey than "The Cable Guy," which was darker than the comic's usual antic efforts, such as "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective," "Dumb and Dumber" and "Liar Liar," and petered out at the box office.
In the film, which opened Friday, Carrey stars as Truman Burbank, a 30-year-old man who, unbeknown to him, has grown up from birth before America's eyes on TV. His entire life is a 24-hour-a-day "reality" show that takes place in a mammoth soundstage fashioned to look like an idyllic oceanside village.
Hidden cameras are strewn throughout the faux community, zeroing in on Truman as he lives the artificial, made-for-TV life he's known since birth: Greeting the neighbors, bantering with his wife (Laura Linney) and buddy (Noah Emmerich) who, like everyone in his world, are actors.
Running things behind the scenes is the erudite mad genius Christof (Ed Harris), who cues the sunrise and fills Truman's life with tension and happiness. Even though his world literally revolves around him, Truman is restless, and as the facade of his tele-existence slowly peels away, he becomes increasingly desperate.
It's heady stuff for any summer movie, and Carrey dropped his usual asking price of $20 million to star in it (though at $12 million, he was still handsomely rewarded).
A few weeks before the opening, Weir and Carrey united in a suite of the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills to discuss their collaboration. Weir looked casual in a vest and baggy white shirt, Carrey dapper in a dark-blue pinstripe suit.
What were the films you had each seen by the other that led you to think, "This is the guy I want to work with on this project"?
Weir: I saw a poster of "Ace Ventura" in the local video store. I was interested in the haircut and the birds -- it was a striking poster. I was aimlessly wandering down the aisles, and finally I said, "Gimme that one with 'Ace Ventura.' " And right from the opening glimpse of Jim, I thought, "Ah, hello, here's someone new."
Carrey: Well, I've seen all his movies, I've always admired him and, for me, this script was like a realization of something that I'd already been thinking of that, suddenly, had come to fruition somehow.
And it's also a major departure for me, so when Peter was connected to it, I just thought, "Well, how can I go wrong? I've got someone guiding me here that I can trust -- if I can't trust him, I basically can't be directed."
The idea of a fishbowl existence must have resonances.
Carrey: It's very parallel to my life in many, many ways. There's a lot of levels to think about on this movie. Everybody's felt unrequited love, the person they couldn't have. Everybody at some point gets to a point where they have to separate themselves from what people want for them and what they want for themselves. And in order to do that, you have to go into unknown territory, you have to take a risk of losing everything.
Many of your films have dealt with metaphysical issues before. How do you get away with it when discussing it with studio executives? "Pay no attention to that subtext behind the curtain?"
Weir: Well, I didn't have to do that. Essentially, I look at this as a craft, and I'm a storyteller. That's my trade. And this film presented tremendous challenges. At first, I didn't really know if it was achievable, whether I could pull it off. I rejected the approach that right from the beginning, the audience would know this is make-believe, but decided to attempt something in the near-future that had a possibility that it could come to pass.
Now, this thing bristles with metaphors, and I decided early on to leave them alone. They would take care of themselves; they were inherently in the material. So I concentrated on the storytelling. ... In Andrew's original conception, he set it in New York, which read very well but, of course, when you go to transpose it to film, it was not credible.
And so it stars Jim Carrey, whom we associate with a different kind of movie. Can the public be educated about that?
Weir: I had this exact situation with the first interview I did for "Dead Poets Society." The journalist said, "Boy, are you nervous?" and I thought, "Is there a reason I should be?" And she said, "Well, Robin Williams, he's not going to be doing straight comedy. What do you think about that?" And I said, "Well, he's an actor. He's an actor and he was paid to play this part. It's his profession."
I have no prejudice in the slightest toward comedy or drama. ... It's only that Jim's particular format had such an appeal with the kids and he had his own way of doing it that the question arises. If we had done "Hamlet," this would have been relevant.
Carrey: I am Hamlet. It's a perfect part for me.
But this film is a little bit of a Dali painting, in the way that I've always been showing you what's on the surface and what I do to be accepted and to be loved, but here, we're lifting up the ocean to see the sleeping dog. For me, that's what this is. Everybody has a sleeping dog, that thing which is to be revealed, and I feel grateful that I had Peter at this moment to lead me into that and allow these other colors to be seen.
Can someone be a fan of yours without having much regard for most of your other movies?
Carrey: Absolutely. It's a marketplace, and people squeeze the oranges and pick the ones they want. There are gonna be things there that aren't necessarily to your taste. They're gonna appreciate it later that I didn't stick on the same note. ... It used to drive me crazy when I was doing my standup -- I saw guys there that had been doing standup since I started, which was a good 15 years, and they were still doing the same 20 minutes of material. You can't live that way -- you can't. You gotta believe, "If I go into the abyss, and I take a chance, there will be a reward for me sometime." You've got to be willing to make a fool of yourself in this business, otherwise you don't get to those interesting places.
How difficult was it to create this role? In the past, directors have not said to you, "You have to consider where this character will be emotionally at every point in the film," and you couldn't take any diversion you cooked up.
Carrey: For me, my natural reaction is to entertain, rather than, maybe, react. And at times, I'd just come with a bunch of stuff and keep bugging him and throw my stuff at him. He was open, and he'd listen, and he'd carve the edges that didn't belong.
Weir: While trying not to inhibit this flow of ideas. Because we'd generally check with each other in the morning, I'd go see Jim in makeup and say, "Anything else? Anything come through overnight?" And invariably there'd be an idea Jim had about some aspect of the scene. Or we would add something together. So I think there's a wonderful feeling and an essential path that the director must take in keeping an actor direction-free, feeling open, to have a certain spontaneity. The last thing you'd want to do is inhibit. I'd never want to tell Jim, "We don't want this, we don't need that."
Now that you have your first truly serious film under your belt, is there a feeling of, "The sky's the limit?"
Carrey: God willing, I'll get to do everything, express everything. As an artist, that's all you can ask for, the chance to express everything.
Whether it works or not commercially is another thing. But I have a really amazing career. I've been so lucky. I've got a lot of people who love me, and I think acting to a certain extent is understanding the dark and the light.
Pub Date: 6/08/98