weir Interview

07 January 2009

'Truman' director tells tales about making Jim Carrey's first serious film

'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 artificialsound stage world created just for him, his life is a fiction, manipulatedby an unseen director for the sake of a live soap opera broadcast 24 hoursa day -- "The Truman Show."

This invasion-of-privacy TV show and it's subject are atthe center of a storm of psychological and ideological question raisedby Peter Weir's deceptively light-hearted film, also called "TheTruman Show."

Weir, known for such thinking-person's fare as "DeadPoets Society" and "The Year of Living Dangerously" (alongwith a few losers like "Green Card"), took a disturbing storyabout a man who doesn't realize he's a zoo exhibit trapped on an islandinside the world's biggest sound stage, and plunked it down in the idealizedworld of a Normal Rockwell painting, giving it a very surreal edge.

The film stars Jim Carrey in his first foray outside slapstickcomedy, 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 beingdeliberately shaped, plotted and planned by powers unseen, and that hisfriends, his parents, even his wife, are all actors. The film garners ashare 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, boyishface seems to have been worn more by laugher than anything else, visitedSan Francisco in April to talk about "The Truman Show," Jim Carrey,and the creation of this completely original film, which follows Trumanas he begins to realize that something is amiss with his entire existence. When you read the script originallydid the potential importance that this film strike you? Did you have anyreluctance 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 yesto the producer was that I wasn't sure who could play Truman. It wasn'tjust 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 Trumanand himself.

PW: Yeah. Yeah. He said that right off. He said,"I could draw off the feelings I have." He said, "I'm aprisoner." Not that he looks for anyone to be sympathetic, or thathe would trade places with you...(laughs).

S: It is kind of scary with this trendof invasion journalism...

PW: Oh, yes!

S: What with people breaking in -- ormaybe not breaking in -- to Pamela Anderson's house and selling that videoall over the place. We're not that far away from something like "TheTruman Show."

PW: Well, all these stars have their houses sweptquite regularly by people who work in the surveillance security business.They come in and they look for bugs and things. You know, if you bringa 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 "TheTruman Show" could happen someday?

PW: Well, there's that girl on the Internet -- althoughthis isn't an example of someone who doesn't know they're on -- but there'sa girl on the Internet who posts one photograph every two minutes fromher bedroom.

S: Really? Someone is webcasting her entirelife?

PW: We used to call her up from the editing roomof "The Truman Show" -- she didn't know it was us -- (and shesaid) she's going to go to the grave with it.

S: I'm wondering what might have beenyour influences while you were putting this film together. There's obviouslyan element of "The Real World" from MTV on the concept, but Iwas thinking of "The Prisoner" (an 1960s TV series about a spyimprisoned on an idyllic island).

PW: I did look at "The Prisoner," butI didn't find it much help. The big difference being the (television) audienceis 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 majordrama. 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 otherfilms and things that are relevant. But with this film, it became impossiblebecause I became so aware of the camera placement. In normal films we'resupposed to forget that there's a camera there, but in this case I hadto be very conscious of where the camera was. I had to imagine where (theshow'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 wereplaying 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 myselfcalled "A Short History of The Truman Show" about how it allcame to be, and who Christof was (the obsessive creator and producer ofthe world-wide broadcast that follows Truman's life). I wrote it as ifit were a press release from the show. Then I found some of the cast andcrew asked for it, so I passed it around. We would ad lib together, andI would often play the part of a mid-day shift director on the show whowas trying to get ahead.

(We decided) there were six shifts per day, and like aradio station, some were more highly valued than others. Obviously midnightto 4 a.m. was pretty much your learner's position. The directors who didthe weekend stuff were very experienced, because that the time Truman mightdo something unpredictable.

So I would talk to them as this character...and they wouldad lib responses as these characters, these actors. This was going on tosuch a degree that I rang Paramount and said, "Listen, let's put togethera little documentary unit and shoot this. We could use it as a promotionalitem." I was always pushing them to promote the film as if the showexisted.

So we shot that, and I sort of cannibalized it. (In theestablishing scenes there are interviews with "cast members"of the TV show that is Truman's life.) It became a great exercise in developingthe kind of schizophrenic nature of their personas. (This "documentary"will be shown on pay cable later this summer.)

S: This discussion must have been particularlyimportant for Laura Linney (who plays Truman's wife), talking about whyher character would take part in something like this. About why she wouldsleep with this man, marry this man, when she's not even the woman she'spretending 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 clothingand so forth. But she is so deeply compromised because of all of this.

She signed a contract not only to sleep with him -- soit's like super-whoredome, although she likes to think of it as an arrangedmarriage -- but also the fact that she's trying to conceive a child. Andif she does, certain kickers will come into the contract. But also, there'sa whole contract over the rights to the child (when it's born).

S: I'm interested in how you chose suchhuman, emotional films for most of your projects -- "The Year of LivingDangerously," "Witness," Dead Poets Society." You nevermake 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 rightnow. 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 releasedate? Because I see this as an Oscar nominee with, say, a September release.

PW: Well, I'd swap the prizes for the public. Imean, that's my trade -- putting on a show. I mean, prizes are kind offun, but you know, I think it's kind of unfortunate that it's become akind of marketing device in itself. So anytime I've had a film in whichthey'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 tofeel that your campaign is being shaped toward impressing (only) 5,000people.

S: I suppose you've got to sell this filmas 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 idealway of selling an original picture. Because everything you're doing, you'reinventing. 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 biggestcut up on the set -- Mel Gibson, Robin Williams or Jim Carrey?

PW: (Big laugh.) Well, Mel I haven't workedwith in a long time, but he was a practical joker. I read that more andmore these days. Robin is just hilarious all the time. It's hard to worksometimes.

Jim would just go of to his trailer and prepare for thenext scene. He was very involved in this project. We could chat, he's easygoing, but pretty occupied. He wasn't a comedian on the set. And he's aperfectionist, 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 becausewe were often (in character) talking about "the show."


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