Peter Weir likes to tell the story of how, after an early screening of The Truman Show, he was accosted by a puzzled member of the audience. "He told me he came out of my film with a very strange feeling," the director recalls. "And then, he said, he realised what it was. He was thinking." That unnamed individual might be forgiven for finding it a novel, and unsettling, sensation. In the course of the 1990s, it has become a cliche to speak of the dumbing down of Hollywood. It is manifested, so conspiracy theorists argue, in the annual plethora of under-plotted, vacuous event-pictures and in the wave of crass comedies self-consciously and proudly celebrating stupidity. (Another one, There's Something About Mary, opens here on Friday.) Even Oscar-fodder such as Forrest Gump looked part of the trend: the intelligent person's celebration of simple-mindedness.
But in 1998, American audiences also found themselves offered a suite of quirky movies with ambitions to do more than sell popcorn. Not just little independent films either, but star-studded productions from respected directors, with healthy budgets provided, in many cases, by major studios. There was a trio of caustic political satires: Barry Levinson's Wag the Dog, Warren Beatty's Bulworth and Mike Nichols's Clintonian burlesque, Primary Colors. There was Robert Redford's honourable adaptation of The Horse Whisperer. Most significantly, there were two critically acclaimed films which, against every expectation, have been making serious money: Steven Spielberg's Second World War epic Saving Private Ryan - and The Truman Show.
The Truman Show is about a clean-cut insurance salesman (Jim Carrey) who lives in a small town straight from a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover. One of Weir's first moves was to transplant the setting from New York City to a rural community. "You have to serve the strict logic of the story," he says. "If you build Manhattan, you must be making money beyond what any show could generate. And why recreate something that is already there and full of problems?" The film's great plot twist is evident in the film's first few minutes: Truman's island paradise is a domed studio backlot peopled entirely by actors. Ever since he was born on live television, our hero has unknowingly been living his little life, 24/7, before a mass audience, under the despotic eye of the show's producer Christof (Ed Harris). He is a kind of director-surrogate. "I enjoyed his excesses, his exploitation of emotions," Weir admits. "He sees himself as a god. And what director hasn't wanted to say, 'Cue the sun!'"
Weir is, of course, an Australian. The film's screenwriter, Andrew Niccol, comes from New Zealand; his first film, Gattaca, was another futuristic piece about Everyman fighting to preserve his individuality against the threat of new technology, in that case genetic engineering. Weir, however, denies they jointly brought a jaundiced, Antipodean perspective. "It's not a polemic; I don't think there's an attack, because there's no war," he says. "I'm not part of the liberation movement. I just try to poke a stick in the eye of the beast. Just to laugh. It's a dark laugh. But as long as you laugh, they ain't got you. When I read the script, I had an intellectual appreciation of its theme, but I was also looking for an emotional connection. And what stuck with me was the risk Truman took when he realised his situation. The desperate desire for freedom that was so deep he was prepared to risk his life and, in doing so, to overcome his greatest fear. I remember someone saying to me, 'This is a very bizarre movie', though its story is very old. But the setting is new and it reflects our times."
Indeed. The great shrewdness of The Truman Show is the skill with which it skewers a myriad millennial anxieties: about our growing taste for trivia and voyeurism, about the cruel and omnivorous appetite of the Great God Television for human sacrifice and, more generally, about the idea that there might be a not-altogether-benign power presiding over our lives. "The nightly news, in my observation, some decades ago grew into a kind of entertainment," Weir says. "You have a little opening montage with trumpet music; you see a plane crash, a fire, a woman weeping; and then the faces of the newscasters - and there's usually a slight smile on them. They don't want you to be depressed. You don't really feel for these people in the crash or the fire. Just as, while they watch The Truman Show, the viewers in my film are part of the monstrous exploitation of a person, to the point where they have lost the ability to differentiate between real and unreal."
In the middle of editing The Truman Show, Princess Diana died. "It was hard not to make comparisons. If there had been cameras trained on her that last night, people would have gone on watching. The romantic tryst at the hotel ... she's coming out of the Ritz ... and then - oh, my God! - she's going to die. It was fascinating to me, the agony the audience was feeling - I call them the audience. Yet the paparazzi were working for them. We are complicit in creating the monster." Weir has no difficulty in finding contemporary counterparts to Truman: he mentions the Internet site which transmits video images of a young woman taken in her bedroom at two-minute intervals, and a notorious suicide on the Los Angeles freeway. "A guy set fire to his truck and shot himself. The whole question was whether to zoom in. And most of the channels did. It was the cartoon hour on television and a lot of children saw it. A friend asked me if I had, and I replied: 'No, and I'm glad I didn't'. You have to say to yourself, quite frequently, 'I don't have to carry that image in my head'. There is no dictator forcing us to live in a certain way."
The director made his name a long way from all this, as one of the leading talents of the New Australian cinema of the 1970s, with brooding, poetic films such as Picnic At Hanging Rock, The Last Wave, Gallipoli and The Year of Living Dangerously. Since 1984, he has worked in Hollywood. But he has managed to retain his reputation for tackling unusual and thoughtful material. He explored the Amish community in Witness, an offbeat Franco- American love affair in Green Card, and a deranged visionary's attempt to start a new life in Central America in Mosquito Coast. However, his work was also often dismissed by hostile critics as convoluted or pretentious. His most recent film, Fearless, gave Jeff Bridges one of the best roles of his career, as a plane-crash survivor who believes himself invincible. The film flopped. "It was a gamble that the story would not be off-putting, that I could widen it out enough to make the accident, as it were, a metaphor," Weir admits. "But it didn't work. I knew I had failed as soon as the first review came out. It read: 'Love this movie. But if you're afraid of flying or are planning a trip, don't go, and tell your friends not to either'."
It has taken him five years to bounce back, three of them setting up The Truman Show. When Carrey he joined the project, he was one of Hollywood's most bankable stars, thanks the zany comedies Ace Ventura, The Mask and Dumb and Dumber (the keynote film in debates about the growing banality of Hollywood). But he had no track record in darker and more complex dramatic roles. Indeed, his first foray into this terrain, The Cable Guy, was a disaster. Weir, however, was convinced. "I thought, 'What a man touched with genius!' If this were the silent era he would be up there with Keaton and Chaplin. And he was able to suggest why people watched The Truman Show, because he's funny and you can patronise him: he's a little goofy, a boy-man. His whole development as a human being is arrested; he's in desperate trouble really. There were warnings that we would go down in flames. That Jim would drag in so many million on the opening weekend, and then people would say, 'It's neither funny enough nor dramatic enough nor emotional enough'. After all, this is a film of ideas, which is not traditional Hollywood fare."
Which brings us back to where we started: in America, The Truman Show has effortlessly sailed well past the $100m milestone, with plenty of gas left yet. In the rest of the world, where it has still to open, commercial prospects are even brighter. For all Weir's apparent gloom about media culture, the wind could be changing. "I don't know," he says guardedly. "There has always been this question: is the audience getting dumber? Or are we film- makers patronising them? Is this what they want? Or is this what we're giving them? But the public went to my film in large numbers. And that has to be encouraging."
'The Truman Show' opens on 9 October.
'TV's just an electronic fireplace sometimes': Andrew Niccol, director of 'Gattaca' and writer of 'The Truman Show', speaks to Dennis Lim
It doesn't take much probing to reveal that Andrew Niccol is a deeply paranoid person. When I ask the young filmmaker what he's working on now, he replies: "I'm scribbling a few things, but I wouldn't tell my own mother in case she ripped it off." The writer-director of Gattaca, last year's coolly dystopian genetic- discrimination parable, Niccol is also the suspicious mind behind the premise of The Truman Show, a media satire that takes the form of an egomaniac's ultimate paranoid fantasy - Big Brother is watching - and this time he's been joined by a worldwide television audience. "It's always been a daydream of mine," says Niccol, when I ask if his screenplay had its roots in personal neurosis. "You can decide if it's healthy paranoia or not. I think everyone questions the authenticity of their lives at certain points. It's like when kids ask if they're adopted."
Although The Truman Show certainly counts as a bizarre project by Hollywood standards, Niccol believes that the TV show within the film isn't really such a stretch. "There's no end to what we'll watch," he says. "People look into a fireplace for hours and contemplate things. TV's just an electronic fireplace sometimes. There's also this blurring of fact and fantasy - you even have this word in America: infotainment. It's hideous." Still, Niccol appreciates the irony and inherent dishonesty of TV-bashing as a movie theme. "The film's going to end up on TV, so what sort of hypocrite am I? I don't hope to change anything. I just think it's funny."
Now in his mid-thirties, Niccol left New Zealand for London at 21 ("people ask what the New Zealand film community's like; well, it's not in New Zealand") and worked in advertising for some years. "When I first started writing screenplays," he says, "one of the occupational hazards was that all my scenes ended up being 60 seconds long. That was a terrible hangover."
The script for The Truman Show actually predated Gattaca's, but basic Hollywood economics interfered, and Niccol was not allowed to direct it. "If it's your first film," he notes wryly, "studios are slightly reluctant to give you $80m, for some reason. There are barriers whenever they're dealing with something different - they have to wait for those elements that give them reassurance. Jim Carrey. Peter Weir. OK, now we feel comfortable." Niccol says Truman would have been "darker" if he had directed it ("Originally, I set it in New York, and Truman was an Everyman trapped in an everyday routine"), but he makes it clear that he's pleased with the pairing of Weir (whom he recommended to the studio) and Carrey ("he lives in a bubble already, so in a way it's casting to type"). "I think the premise is pretty bullet-proof, though," he adds, allowing himself a moment of self-satisfaction. "Even if you make it darker, whatever shade you go, it's still about a man who wakes up and finds out his whole life is a sham. I don't think you can go too far wrong with that."
For obvious reasons, The Truman Show has been marketed, especially in America, as this year's Forrest Gump, even though the movies have nothing in common except clueless protagonists (who are, needless to say, clueless for very different reasons). "I think they want the dollars associated with Gump," says Niccol. "The philosophy is, we'll draw people in with what's familiar and then present them with something unfamiliar. I don't know if there needs to be truth in advertising, as far as this film's concerned."
Apparently not: it has grossed $125m so far in the US. Two movies into his Hollywood career, Niccol - who says that, from now on, "everything I write, I want to direct" - already sounds like a wary old-timer.
"Studios are strange beasts," he says. "You'd think, naively, they would buy material to make movies, but sometimes they buy material so that others can't buy that material, or they'll buy material that they will want to develop into something else." His misgivings about the studios aside, Niccol has also had to adapt. "I tend to have expensive ideas. If I was doing My Dinner With Andre, I could get chiropractors to finance the film, and that would work. There's usually a scene in a film that I hang on to, just to keep me getting up in the morning to go and do it, and in Truman, it's that scene when he hits the sky. If you build a huge cyclorama on a low budget, it's just going to look cheap."
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