Before confronting director Peter Weir about the meaning of The Truman Show, I was talking to Laura Linney, who stars opposite Jim Carrey as Truman's wife/the actress who plays Truman's wife. As she put it - and her prolix style is true to the movie's many layers, "You can talk about ethics and cameras, you can talk about media, then there's the entertainment value of the film and fantastical vision of Peter Weir, or the intrigue of power and will of human spirit in a TV show as a demonic force; or someone's increased awareness that they are instinctively knowing they're not living the way they should be and that they have to get out..."
Talking about the movie is almost as much fun as seeing it. Especially if you're talking with Peter Weir, the director
Q: It seems to me that most of your films have been about a sixth sense that something is in control of us - something we do not really apprehend - the water, for example, in The Last Wave, or the mystery of the cliff in Picnic at Hanging Rock; or even that sense of poetry in adolescent boys that you explore in Dead Poets Society. It's a consciousness that manifests itself in small ways and will destroy us, if we don't figure it out. In The Truman Show, you propose that there's something outside the soundstage - beyond the bubble of Truman's world, in control of him and, for that matter, everybody who participates in his world. What is out there - besides the producer Christof?
Weir: Control. It's a system of control that is larger than the one Truman lives in, at least.
Q: That's a really paranoid proposition.
Weir: I think it's truthful. I believe the reality that we think we've lived - the agreed upon reality - is highly disturbed. There are people who see the world startlingly differently. But the primary influence - or call it control - in our lives is television, so the metaphor of the movie certainly applies to things we see all the time. I could spend this entire interview citing examples: the suicide on live television last week, children shooting other children because they don't know what's real. Does it make sense to say that these children don't know what death is? Has TV completely robbed us of ordinary definitions of life and death? That's what I find interesting, so if you think that's what the movie is about, well, you're not wrong.
Q: Do people in the Bizness know what's real? I mean, part of the significance of your film is this: the minute we say we are all stars in our own lives, we also have to admit that somebody else is controlling it. The producers - the evil producers...?
Weir: OK, first a disclaimer: I'm just a poet, I travel from court to court and play my tune, like every other working stiff...and I make observations but I don't have the answer. I think the film is saying, on the one hand, "Get out!" or "Find out who's in control."
Q: There is a subtext to the film that is very unsettling...
Weir: Our lives are unsettling. In fact, somebody recently told me, what a bizarre film. And I told him, no, it's made of very traditional elements. There's the quest for the truth, an escape, betrayal, a love story. It includes all the puzzling elements of modern life.
Q: What did you think of Wag the Dog? Does your producer Christof live down the road from Hoffman's character in Wag the Dog?
Weir: Of course. I know that character, too. Yes, of course, I've met all these guys, but Christof is a very different cup of tea. He's not a traditional, phone-grabbing, gabbing by the pool producer. I see him more as a designer or one of these characters nowadays who designs and promotes himself into a style, then a lifestyle. Like Armani or Versace -- (I'm a bit fascinated with the way they move and see themselves. Christof is like that, he's trying to design an entire world - in a Svengali or modern Frankenstein way...with a Truman - the word says it: True-Man...
Q: ...which we perceive as humorous, almost ridiculous. At least, Christof makes him funny. Look what he's done with his creation: reduced him to an insurance salesman who is so full of cliches, we can't take him seriously.
Weir: Well, I'm not defending Christof's vision - or comparing it to these very earnest type of designers we have these days. Truman is just Jim Carrey. He's such a nice guy. He is made up of a man who has positive moral values, dresses well, well-rounded, well-read, nothing too eccentric, hasn't watched too much television - or, at least, only the classics - I Love Lucy, that sort of thing. Truman is a model citizen, designed according to some late 30s or 40s model.
In the end, the pain that the producer feels, as Truman is leaving, is legitimate. Christof did love him in some kind of twisted way. He was his father in a sense, providing shelter and the context for a life that would be safe and useful...
Q: You were very good at reining in Jim Carrey. You did a similar thing with Robin Williams. Is it like breaking wild horses?
Weir: Oh, I hate to think of both of them as horses. When I saw Robin Williams, we were laughing, because Andrew Nicoll called me a comedic chiropractor - I take all the kinks our of comedy. But it's interesting that in both cases, they came with the project, and they'd been with it, working on it already. They wanted that control from a director. They are so diverse and so talented, they can run something by you, first this way, then that way, and before you know it, you're picking from twenty different interpretations they've applied to the same material. It's absolutely astounding to work with people who are so commited to the work.
Q: Actually, Laura Linney was saying that she had been surprised to see how hard somebody like Jim Carrey works. That he really digs into the material and work and works until he's got it perfect.
Weir: One of the agreements between us is that we both have the freedom to make absolute fools of ourselves. In other words, what goes on doesn't have to end up in the film. It's all part of finding the right way to do it. It's a liberating thing for the director as much as the actor.
The work Jim Carrey does is prodigious. He would come in with a certain angle on the scene, an interpretation that he'd run by me, then he'd see how big it could be. But he was totally prepared for every scene - something he worked on by himself.
For example, the mirror moments, when Truman stands in front of the mirror and draws faces on himself. I came up with it, because I thought it work very well in video - all the mirror moments of the character would add up to something. So I told Jim, and then Andrew wrote up a few lines for him - that's how that arctic explorer business came about Subsequently, Jim worked on it and brought me up to his bathroom in his Hollywood house, where there were mirrors everywhere. He had drawn himself an entire series of them; turned it into a long sketch, and some of them were too extravagant, but he had so much to work with that we could pick and choose and pull it down into just the defining moments of the character's transitions. I nearly broke the mirrors, I thought.
But that's where we got that very important opening line: "I'm not gonna make it. You're going to have to go on without me!" which had a wonderful resonance, since it was his first straight role.
Q: The actors have talked about the improvisation you did before the film, during which you invented all the back stories for the different characters. Is that also when you shot the photos that we see in Truman's or his mother's homes?
Weir: The improvisation was something that went on throughout the shoot, actually. We did shoot two days of still photographs - of the wedding and thanksgiving, so we could use them in the set design and all. And I shot some video. But yes, the actors seemed to enjoy developing the backstories, because the premise was such fun.
Q: Can we think of the society that enjoys the Truman Show as being without censorship, since Truman was "born" on TV?
Weir: Yes, that, or a society of lawyers. They sat there with there yellow pads and worked out argumentation for all the problems, I suppose. My backstory was that they'd been in court for 30 years. And they had the money to do it!
Q: You're drawn to subcultures in your films. Why?
Weir: Well, Australia's a young country, and they have few roots. So they travel around and you'll find little communities of them almost everywhere. Usually in a bar.
I'm Scottish three or four generations back, so I went to Scotland and I didn't fit in there. But I'm interested in what constitutes a society, a group. What are the minimal rules of cohesion?
Q: Something like The Truman Show has very strong rules and regulations - provided by SAG, it seems...from the incident where Meryl or Laura Linney screams that this is not in her contract and another time, cites a $10,000 bonus for every time she sleeps with Truman.
Weir: Yes, that was very humorous. It contributes to the overall fascist esthetic of perfection in Seahaven.
Q: So, Peter, you wouldn't like living in Seahaven?