“The Truman Show” gives off a surreal pastel Technicolor, like the eerie glow that emanates from a TV set in an unlit living room. That must have been the same radioactive cling that encircled director Peter Weir’s head after he read the script by Andrew Niccol.
In 1995 Weir, who had been nearly reduced to begging for scripts, found himself drawn to Niccol’s closed-circuit vision of the universe. Niccol, whose debut script “Gattaca” probed the grim possibilities of a genetic future, similarly takes television addiction and power to comic excess in “Truman.”
“The script was a dream, without a question, ” Weir recalls. “I couldn’t think how to play it. It couldn’t just be a regular performance, it had to have something about the character that had to be watchable. No question it had to be a movie star.”
His producer, Scott Rudin, recommended Jim Carrey, who at the time had finished up “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, ” to play the amiable Truman Burbank, the oblivious object of hidden cameras broadcasting 24 hours a day.
“I had by chance seen it and was impressed by the sort of uniqueness of his talent, his recklessness, his sort of connection somehow to the silent era, ” says the Australian director. Although audiences knew Carrey more for his malleable flesh and double-jointed slapstick than cerebral comedy, Weir appreciated his “utterly unpredictable” appeal.
It’s the same quality he saw in Robin Williams, who after several box-office failures successfully remade his popular image with “Dead Poets Society, ” which Weir also directed, and garnered a best actor nomination.
“Both of them were at a point where they wanted a change in their careers and were excited at making the change. Therefore, in common there’s a degree of recklessness, which is probably closer to the way they began moviemaking, began acting, before they had anything to lose. When you ain’t got nothing, you ain’t got nothing to lose. That kind of spirit is very exciting and appealed to me, because I like to try to do that with each film.”
Carrey had prior film obligations, but Weir was so sure about him he was willing to wait. In the meantime, Weir did his research into the obsessive nature of television drama. He watched daytime television, from talk shows to reality TV. He visited the set of “Days of Our Lives” and was flabbergasted by the enormous fan culture. He dug up Alan Funt’s “Candid Camera” to look at how people conducted themselves before and after they realized they were on film.
Ironically, the truest element in the film is the hypernormal Seahaven, the idyllic town in which Truman Burbank lives. Weir had contemplated stringing together a bunch of Universal back lots. An eclectic mix of European byways and New York streets, however, just wouldn’t quite do. Wendy Stites, Weir’s wife and usual set designer, found the planned community in an Australian travel magazine.
“She clipped an article about this Seaside in Florida, built to a particular building code, which was in the style of the small town: clapboard, picket fence architecture of the late 19th century. And so we went there.”
It might be tempting to parallel Weir re-creating this celluloid world with Christof (Ed Harris) creating “The Truman Show.” The straw-blond Australian, who affectionately calls beret-wearing Christof “Dr. Frankenstein” and “the director gone wrong, ” happily disowns any relation whatsoever.
He “seemed to fit with a certain type of, I think, rather scary entrepreneur we’ve got today, which are really all moguls who are thinking in terms of lifestyles as much as profits, ” Weir says. “They are gaining as much power, if not more power, than governments. More influential than governments, and they’re not elected Nobody knows where it will end or how far it might go because of the power of the unelected media conglomerate.”
Weir was not an entrepreneur but a pioneer when he delved into filmmaking in the late 1960s. Not only was he new to the business, but so was the entire country of Australia, which had no film industry at the time. At age 19, Weir had embarked upon a European cruise in which he recalls starting out as “a young, about-to-be Realtor in my father’s business. I came back married and wanting to be in show business. And with long hair.”
Weir went to work at Channel 7, the only television station that produced native dramas. On the side, he created shorts and ultimately returned to Europe on a film grant. His first feature-length film, “The Cars That Ate Paris, ” premiered in 1974, one year after daughter Ingrid was born.
Nearly three decades have produced a diverse body of work. Yet seeking links or repeating even broad themes, such as a defiance of colonial mentality (“The Year of Living Dangerously”) or examining a culture in crisis (“Witness”) unsettles the 53-year-old director.
“As far as I’m concerned, I find this an uncomfortable aspect, this sort of so-called fingerprint or whatever, ” he says thoughtfully. “I try to feel I’m doing something very fresh each time out.”
The engaging Weir prefers to see himself as a storyteller, the man at the bar or the troubadour wandering court to court singing his ballad “before he got into trouble with the politics of the court.”
Besides, repetition and recklessness, which verges on mantra for Weir, don’t kindly co-exist. This might explain why he favors mountain climbing as his latest analogy in how he approaches his craft. “Each film is a climb, ” he says, “and I’m a very experienced climber. One area of judgment, one wrong footplace can lead to failure or catastrophe. So it doesn’t matter how much you learn. The story is the mountain.”
This article appeared in the Contra Costa Times