ON THE AIR. UNAWARE.
There’s an episode of Twilight Zone, the 1980s revival, called ”Special Service” that aired in 1989. Written by J. Michael Straczynski who later created the sci-fi classic Babylon 5, the episode tells the story of a man who discovers that his whole life is a reality show on TV; even his wife is in on it. One of the people who saw that episode was fledgling screenwriter Andrew Niccol who was inspired to write a screenplay. Initially, Niccol’s idea was to make a sci-fi thriller set in New York City and he also wanted this to be his directing debut. But everything changed when Peter Weir was hired.
”The Truman Show” is a reality TV program that’s been on the air for 30 years, which is as long as Truman Burbank has existed. He was literally born on the show, originally an orphan, raised by a mom and dad who were in fact actors. At one point, when Truman was a child, his father ”died” in a boating accident, making the boy terrified of the sea (and thus making it easier to keep him on the gigantic set in Hollywood called Seahaven where he grew up). At the age of 30, Truman is married to Meryl (Laura Linney) and works as an insurance agent.
He’s a goofy man who loves his life and its predictable routines in Seahaven, but he’s never forgotten Lauren (Natascha McElhone), a college schoolmate, who was mysteriously removed from his life just as he was falling for her. Now he harbors dreams of going to Fiji…
From darkness to a lighter touch
The reason why Weir was hired for directing duties is that the studio wanted a man of experience. This supremely talented filmmaker read the script and saw how it should change. Niccol had written a dark story, but Weir spotted the potential for satire and wanted a lighter, more humorous touch. His argument was undeniably true: why would anyone watch this show 24/7 if it wasn’t fun and easy-going? That’s what Niccol finally delivered, and the film’s warped sense of humor makes it easier to swallow the fantastical story. At this time, reality television hadn’t made as much of an impact as it eventually would. The way small, hidden cameras follow Truman’s every footstep every minute of his life predicted the rise of Big Brother, the Dutch reality show that premiered in 1999 and became a worldwide, still ongoing, sensation.
That show takes place in a house. Being seduced by The Truman Show requires a greater leap of faith, since Seahaven was elaborately constructed on such a huge stage, with an artificial ocean and sky, that Truman believes this is his world. But if you buy into it, as you would if you were watching a Twilight Zone episode, there are rich rewards. Seahaven is neatly built like a Norman Rockwellian fantasy town and Jim Carrey’s Truman initially looks like he fits right in; he’s superbly corny and lovable.
As the story progresses, the film’s tension lies in Truman slowly realizing that wherever he turns in Seahaven he’s being duped, and this greater acting challenge for Carrey pays off. He’s increasingly moving and we desperately root for him as he tries to leave the town, something that cannot happen since that would be the end of the show.
The film’s villain is Christof, the creator of ”The Truman Show”, a man who can’t believe that it wouldn’t be anyone’s greatest dream to be in Truman’s place. Ed Harris plays him icily and with great calm, a classic antagonist to a traditional American hero, standing in the way of his quest for freedom. And personal integrity.
The Truman Show 1998-U.S. 102 min. Color. Produced by Edward S. Feldman, Andrew Niccol, Scott Rudin, Adam Schroeder. Directed by Peter Weir. Screenplay: Andrew Niccol. Music: Burkhard Dallwitz, Philip Glass. Production Design: Dennis Gassner. Cast: Jim Carrey (Truman Burbank), Laura Linney (Meryl Burbank/Hannah Gill), Ed Harris (Christof), Noah Emmerich, Natascha McElhone, Holland Taylor… Paul Giamatti, Harry Shearer.
Trivia: Dennis Hopper was first cast as Christof.
Golden Globes: Best Actor (Carrey), Supporting Actor (Harris), Original Score. BAFTA: Best Direction, Original Screenplay, Production Design.
Last word: “I read the script [for ‘The Truman Show’] around this time in 1995, then flew over and met Jim and [screenwriter] Andrew Niccol in August of that year and shook hands and agreed to do it. But I wanted Jim, and he wasn’t available for a year, so I said I wanted to wait, because I couldn’t see any other star. I knew it had to be a star who played this part, because that helps the logic of the ‘show.’ I mean, why would you watch a guy every day? [Stars are] very watchable; they have a quality on screen. But apart from that, there’s something about Jim. It had to be someone different from us, someone who had lived his life in some extreme place.” (Weir, The A.V. Club)