Peter Weir

It's showtime

Director Peter Weir helped instigate what is now regarded as the Australian New Wave with movies like The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975), and The Last Wave (1977), but there's nothing inherently Australian about his films. Alienated characters, regardless of their country of origin, are frequently central to Weir's films, whether it's Jeff Bridges' plane-crash survivor in Fearless, Richard Chamberlain's lawyer in The Last Wave, Harrison Ford's would-be settler in The Mosquito Coast (and policeman in Witness), Robin Williams' teacher in Dead Poets Society, or, most obviously, Gerard Depardieu's French immigrant in the oft-maligned Green Card. Weir's new The Truman Show is no exception: In it, Jim Carrey plays a man who discovers his entire life has been broadcast around the world as a 24-hour-a-day TV show. While the casting of Carrey may lend The Truman Show a deceptively mainstream veneer, the film is as eccentric and thought-provoking as Weir's other works. The Onion recently spoke to Weir about marketing his offbeat tale, exploiting Carrey's star power, and the odd world of The Truman Show.

The Onion: Why the long wait between Fearless (1993) and The Truman Show?

Peter Weir: Because I needed to be at home for personal reasons. I had a son going through his final year of school. I needed to rest after that movie; it was emotionally tiring. And then I couldn't find anything I wanted to do. It's not as long as it probably seems, because 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. And he [the Truman character] would have been quite different, having grown up amongst liars. [Laughs.]

O: Did the involvement of Jim Carrey help make such a challenging movie easier to produce?

PW: They wouldn't have made it without a star they approved of, for sure. Not even if I just wanted to make it. It's too expensive to take that risk. I'm sure they held their breath even given that it was Jim and I, particularly as Jim wasn't going to be doing flat-out, broad comedy.

O: Is it true that the movie was originally envisioned to be much darker than how it ended up?

PW: Yeah. The way Andrew wrote it, which was for himself—he's a director now, and he wanted to do it—it was set in Manhattan, and it was a phony Manhattan. And I think the way he would have approached it, with a lower budget in mind, [the city] would be shot for real but portrayed as fake. So it would be somewhat darker, more paranoid. It may have been very good, but for my take on it, I thought that while it read well in the Manhattan setting, it wasn't critical. I thought I had to relax it and give the audience, within the terms that the movie was setting up, the feeling that this was possible. If you don't believe that it's possible as it's happening, you won't go with the film. So I thought, further to that, that this producer [played by Ed Harris] would be selling a lifestyle. He wouldn't be presenting something for 24 hours a day that you already live in, because you want to escape via "the box." And so Seahaven came to be, really, with all of the buildings and the clothes, the way we wish we were, some kind of nostalgia. We studied Saturday Evening Post covers for this kind of dream of a small-town America that may never have existed but was certainly mythologized in movies and other media.

O: Do you think this vision of a small-town suburbia is in some ways more frightening than an urban sprawl?

PW: Yes, I think we tend to think it is, but in this film, we're dealing with something beyond that anyway. We're dealing with people who are exploiting a human being for the sake of making money. You know, their morals and ethics are all shot through, and their sense of reality is gone. But no one thinks they're bad people; the [fictional] audience watches and doesn't complain. Most of them, at least. The producer's not crazy; he's simply... somewhere else.

O: The Truman Show isn't just another Jim Carrey vehicle; it's much more "adult." Do you have any say over how the film is marketed?

PW: First, I acknowledged that it was difficult for them to do it. Second, I could see they initially leaned toward the obvious "soft" option, the comedy market. The marketing department, I think, began to realize that that wasn't the way to go. But at the same time, they didn't want to hide Jim's light under a bushel; he does provide entertainment, as he does in The Truman Show, the actual program. That's again why people watch it: It's kind of funny, a bit goofy. So [the marketing people] had a devil of a time trying to give the various facets of this film equal expression. I think they're getting better at it, but I think it will finally have to depend on word-of-mouth. I wonder if word-of-mouth is still alive in America. I don't know anymore. In other words, if you didn't hear about it on TV, is it worth going to? Or someone says, "I haven't seen that film, but I hear it's pretty weird, and I hear it's not a comedy," and the other person has to say, "Trust me, go."

O: I heard that early screenings of Fearless found the audience perplexed. Has that happened at all with The Truman Show?

PW: Yeah, but fortunately, it's been a small percentage. And hopefully, the advertising campaign and the word-of-mouth, the talk, will give [audiences] a bit of a clue. It's not like an intelligence test, but it seems that for some people, unless they have a clear map of what they're going into, they can't change channels mentally. Another type of person might just go, "Hey, what's this? Oh, it's a TV show of some kind." But [test audiences] go in only knowing it's a Jim Carrey movie. The public will never approach it that way; there'll be so much publicity.