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WEIR, PETER : THE TRUMAN SHOW

IMPRISONING VISIONS By Paul Kalina
Weir and weirder – how The Truman Show was made. And why.
Peter Weir talks to Cinema Papers and Urban Cinefile.*

Q: Given Jim Carrey's association with madcap rôles, did you at any stage see the possibility of a problem, or had he agreed early on to your vision of the rôle?

A: Of course, we had to have an accord, and that first meeting was critical. I wouldn't have accepted the film without that having gone well; and I'm sure that was true on his side. I had a very open mind about how he should be, because I was still thinking and coming up with ideas about what it would have been like to be born and live under these circumstances for 29 years.

One of the first things I thought was those around him are all actors. They would have leaned in close to him, beaming away, because they would know they are on camera when they are close to him. Plus, if he liked you, you would maybe get a long-running part. Then I began to think about other aspects of what that life might be like.

At the end of the movie when he is told the full truth about his circumstances, there needed to be a reaction from the character which was, "Oh, so that's what it was." Unconsciously, all his life, it would have seemed that there was something, and he never knew what it was. That something caused him to be a performer. It's as if there was a will from those around him to be entertaining, to be funny, to be "on", which is not dissimilar to Jim's own story in a way. He was the entertainer of the family. That's true of many theatrical people.

Truman needed to be innocent of the lie.

He was also a really strange person. I think if he'd have stayed on in that town, if he hadn't come across the truth, he would have gone completely crazy. He was kind of an adolescent really. His development was arrested. That was part of his strangeness and also part of his appeal to the audience. It was, in a curious way, a rites-of-passage movie.

Q: Many of the US reviewers tended to see the film less as a rites-of-passage journey than as a cautionary tale of the global media. Does the film have that specific intent about the media, or are the US critics reading into it what they will?

A: One of the appeals of the script was its many planes and levels, and that's one of them. I don't think it's necessarily the most interesting, but it's there. It's true that the American media concentrated on that, to the extent that sometimes I felt uncomfortable because it seemed as if, in the view of many, I was a self-appointed critic of television – headlines saying, "Weir against television". But they're very concerned there, as are many people in the world, about the kinds of programmess. . . And it's not just the content. It's the loss, for many, of a sense of reality and the fact of children being exposed to so much television.

Q: Andrew Urban's REVIEW of the film calls it a good parable of the Christian Church, with Christof as the Christ figure. . .

A: The film picked up metaphors as it went along. I was surprised as we began to put it together how it was relaying other meanings. I was rather more drawn to Greek legend. Christof is Zeus, in the sense that he's trying to control the mortals. In my reading, as I recall, the one thing Zeus could not do is interfere with fate. He could do other God-like things, including controlling the weather, but he cannot, as Christof/Zeus does, begin to interfere with the decisions his creature has taken, which is to leave. So Christof/Zeus crosses a line at the end and is punished for it. There are all sorts of other understandings. Somebody gave me a brilliant Buddhist one, with Christof as Siddharta's father, the King, trying to stop him leaving the garden and discovering the pain of life that lies outside the palace walls.

Q: Do you see the film as modern-day Brave New World?

A: I think you can look at it that way. World domination by giant corporations with which the people are complicit. The walls of the prison are built by the very inmates.

Q: Brave New World ends with the protagonist expecting to be expelled for his rebellion, but then finds himself dispatched to Utopia.

A: And in this case, it's a Utopia that the producer has constructed. I think that Christof [Ed Harris] is such an interesting character, he is a kind of artist. He sees himself as a great teacher, doing something very worthwhile. There was a decision early on in talking to Ed that he would not be crazy, insane - in the legal definition. He is certainly a fanatic, but, on the other hand, while making billions of dollars he was doing something that he thought was beneficial to the world and was demonstrating a way to live. That's what makes him truly sinister.

Q: Is Christof based on any actual producer or filmmaker?

A: Not specifically. In my research I was interested in the couturiers, who are kind of quasi-artists: Armani, Karl Lagerfeld, Versace, who was alive when I was working on it. They generally dress in black, they have enormous influence on the world, and a very particular self-view, as if they were great artists and designers of more than just clothing. And the way they're dealt with by the press. Their "vision" is implied each time they come out with a new line.

Q: At what stage was Ed Harris cast in that rôle?

A: At the last minute. Somebody else was cast and it just didn't work out. I was deep into the film, in fact I was days away from shooting those scenes which were at the end of the schedule. Fortunately, he was available and came straight into the movie with about two days' preparation.

Q: Christof is a far cry from the typical villain of the piece.

A: It was difficult. With the most recent James Bond movie [Tomorrow Never Dies, Roger Spottiswoode, 1997], you have this manipulating character in the control room. How to reinvigorate the cliché? Ed was wonderful to work with because his background is in theatre. He tends to be cast along certain lines in the last decade - he's often the policeman; the GI with a buzz-cut; he can be on one side of the law and the other - and play these things very well. This part, I think, demonstrated how much more he can do. Ed said he would normally not consider going into a film with a complex character like that with only a few days, but sometimes there's a benefit in not having too much time to think, reacting intuitively to a part. He had a lot to work with because I could show him the programme ["The Truman Show", the TV serial Christof masterminds]. And I had a very detailed backstory. I wrote up quite an involved piece about how the show was put together, and that concentrated on Christof.

Q: Scott Murray [Editor, Cinema Papers] has suggested that he could be the X Files' Chris Carter.

A: [Laughs.] I wonder what Chris Carter would think of that.

Q: What of the other characters and actors?

A: With the cast of those close around to Truman - Laura Linney as his wife, Meryl, and Noah Emmerich as his best friend, Marlon - to keep the schizophrenia alive I would talk to them off the set as if they were in their actor persona. I would call them by their names. She was Hannah Gill, playing the part of Meryl Burbank, and Lewis Coltrane who was playing Marlon, everyone being named after an actor. I would talk to them as if I were an aspiring director on the show, who was on the afternoon shift, and asking them to put in a good word for me to get me onto what was the most-prized shift, which were the weekend shifts where the most experienced directors were. It was a way of passing the time, but it helped keep their awareness that they were somebody else.

Then I suggested we shoot a documentary of that, and got a documentary crew in and shot a lot of stuff with them. They were so warmed up in these characters that they began to invent their own backgrounds. That became a little promotional film in the end. I made sure the documentary was shot on 35mm. I had my eye on it. I thought there may be something here I could use, so in the end part of that went into the opening titles.

Q: How did you work with Andrew Niccol on the script?

A: It was a long process. We started in November 1995 in LA and 10 drafts later we were finished. I re-worked the tone of the film. Everything changed really, other than the concept and the characters. We took it apart and rebuilt it.

Q:What shifts took place during the course of those 10 drafts?

A: His was more what I think you could call Kafkaesque. It was certainly darker. It was a more psychological piece. He had it set in New York City and was going to shoot it there. Truman was more of an everyman. I'd like to have seen his version of it, but, unlike theatre, you can't get to see anyone else's take on [a film]. Andrew wanted to direct the film; he just didn't have any track record and it was too expensive. When I read it, I felt the first problem was New York. More than usual, I had to satisfy the credibility of the idea. You had to believe it was possible. Being set in the near future, you have to relax the area of logic for the audience to join in with the film, so they would not be constantly thinking, "Could this happen?" I said no producer would build New York!

Also, it wouldn't be an ideal community. Why would you create something that had all the problems of our world? Why not build an idealized world? That led eventually to Seaside, to a pristine community created in the style of the last century. Given that it was set in the near future, this would be the way people would like to live, almost like a holiday brochure really, an ideal island somewhere. And everything was for sale, everything from clothing to furniture to the houses themselves could be purchased in the mail order catalogue. That was the way we went.

There was an immense amount of detail. And we had a lot of fun. Andrew's a New Zealander. I don't know if that helped; I'm sure it did in the sense of humour that we shared. In the meantime, he wrote and directed Gattaca [1998], his first feature. There was a long period of preparation, which wasn't only spent working on the script with Andrew. I was always writing about the show for my own use, collecting material about the show. I even went so far as to make up swap cards that I thought could be in cereal packs and so on. They were called Truman trivia and on the back were details about an extra who'd been on the show, or the first person who'd died on the show and other arcane knowledge. During all that time I was thinking this is going to be a difficult sell. Directors today have to be involved in the marketing. It has become so critical, unfortunately, and I began to think of marketing ideas and asked to meet the marketing department of Paramount before pre-production had even begun. They were astonished, and in a way interested, that I wanted to meet with them all. Some 30 people came to the meeting - from television advertising, the

Internet department, the trailer people, the poster people - and I gave them Truman trivia cards. I told them, "I think you should sell this whole thing as if the show does exist." None of that really happened, and they didn't sell it that way, but I think the fact that I was there that early, whereas [directors] don't normally come on until the film is made, worked. They came to see me on location and one of them said I know the guy who's got the only computer programme to make up a face out of a myriad of other photographs, which became the poster. I think that involvement with the director did get a lot of the key people thinking. The campaign was masterful and, in a country which is very literal, fantasy, unless it's of the most obvious kind, is not common in their movies. They like to have things very clear, and so this film was in jeopardy of being nothing more than a curiosity piece in the midst of conventional summer fare."

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* Peter Weir’s schedule being limited, he agreed to this shared interview between Cinema Papers and Urban Cinefile. This is an extract from the full interview which appears in Cinema Papers, out October 1,1998.

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