In June 1998, high-concept sci-fi parable The Truman Show was released to widespread critical acclaim and commercial success. It earned more than $260m at the box office on the back of a $60m budget, while proving that Jim Carrey could do more with his acting than the rubber-faced histrionics that had made his name.
Carrey plays Truman Burbank, an insurance business office drone who lives in an idyllic community named Seahaven Island, unaware that since birth he’s actually been the star of a reality TV show broadcasting his life to an eager global audience.
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Since the film’s release, reality TV shows have dominated TV networks across the planet, while social media platforms have made billions by harnessing similar ideas. After all, when we upload to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, we’re essentially creating our own show.
We spoke to Andrew Niccol, who co-produced the film and wrote its Oscar-nominated and BAFTA-winning screenplay, to discuss how the creative team made this prescient work and dispel some of the rumours that have surrounded it.
The initial idea and ‘Truman syndrome’
I’ve had it from almost childhood. When you’re a kid, as a defence mechanism you have to think the world revolves around you. Most people grow out of it, but I guess I never did. The thing about the movie actually is, you know you’ve made it when you have a disease named after you.
I heard it was inspired by an episode of The Twilight Zone.
No. Goes to show you can’t believe everything you read.
Brian De Palma was in line to direct it
At one point, Brian was gonna direct it and then Jim Carrey came on board. He approached the producers. He hadn’t done anything dramatic and Brian didn’t see him in the role, so creatively that didn’t work. Peter Weir really did see him in the role. Peter’s interesting because he can take actors who you wouldn’t think normally are dramatic – Robin Williams, for instance [in Dead Poets Society, 1989]. He can help an actor stretch. I didn’t see Jim in it myself but I went along for the ride.
There were at least 16 drafts of the script and it was initially far darker
It was an interesting process. I call it ‘interrogating it for the truth’. The idea was bulletproof, but there were just so many different ways you could go. The original was so much darker. Truman was seeing a prostitute. It was set in New York. It didn’t end where it ended.
I had followed him once he went through the sky. He went into his own souvenir store. There were cardboard cut-outs of himself. It got even more warped in a strange way. He even jumped on a studio tour tram with the guy driving it giving the facts of his life that he didn’t know.
Jim Carrey’s involvement influenced how the film developed
I think once Jim came on board he almost dictated the tone of it and Peter had his own sensibilities. When you’re not directing something you’ve got two choices as a writer: you can wash your hands of it or you can grab hold of it and still try to influence as many decisions as you can. I chose the latter, obviously.
The influence of the film
I was just shocked to get it made. I never have any expectations. The other day I saw some senator from Louisiana referenced it regarding what was happening with Facebook [the Cambridge Analytica data scandal] and he went, “It’s like The Truman Show.” I went, “Wow, even the deep south of America” – even the most conservative people reference it, so I think it struck a nerve.
What it’s really about
I don’t like to analyse myself but it could be about leaving home. I think it was an André Gide quote that was in the original script: “You have to lose sight of the land for a very long time to make it discovered.” And I guess I did.
What it’s not about
My favourite piece of fan mail was a woman wrote to me and said, “Thank you because I know that this is an anti-abortion film and that Truman is a fetus sailing to escape on a uterine sea.” I went, “That’s beautiful and it’s messed up.” No. But I love it when people see things in the work that I didn’t know were there.
Are we all in our own Truman Show?
Even to this day I have what I call Truman-esque moments. When you’re in a traffic jam and it’s a phantom traffic jam where you slow down and then speed up for no reason, it’s because Christof (Ed Harris), the director of your reality show, is not ready at the next set.
Or I walk into a store that I wouldn’t normally walk into and I realise that the extra standing there pretending to be running the store knows nothing about that particular store. And I go “Oh” because I’ve never done it, I’ve acted out of character and gone into some equestrian supply store, which I never would. And they think I never would so they’re not prepared. So they’re either extras or an actor – they’ve got no dialogue; they don’t know how to talk to me. For me that’s what I call Truman-esque moments.