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The (Not So) Odd Couple

David Kronke, senior writer for the Hollywood bureau of TV Guide Canada, is a frequent contributor to Calendar

‘The Truman Show” meditates, variously, on the unavoidable invasiveness of the media, on Americans’ desperate need to identify with celebrities, on how society steamrollers individuals’ innate sense of adventure and nudges them toward group mediocrity, on how personal contentment and conformity exist uneasily on the same slippery sliding scale.

And this is a Jim Carrey film?

Well, yes and no. It’s also a Peter Weir film, and from his earliest movies made in his native Australia (“Picnic at Hanging Rock” and “The Last Wave”) to his high-profile Hollywood fare (“Witness,” “The Mosquito Coast” and “Fearless”), Weir has dealt with profound themes, from the tenuously testy relationship between man and nature to confronting the specter of death.

But “The Truman Show” is also a Carrey vehicle, and from his earliest ventures (the vampire comedy “Once Bitten” and the cartoony sitcom “The Duck Factory”) to his megasuccessful Hollywood product (“Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” “The Mask,” “Dumb and Dumber” and “Liar Liar”), Carrey’s movies have boldly explored the spiritual restiveness of the inner lives of twerpy guys who talk with their butts.

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Wait a second, something doesn’t seem to jibe here.

The $50-million “Truman Show” represents an even bigger gamble for Carrey than “The Cable Guy,” which petered out at the box office after audiences perceived it as darker than the comic’s usual frenziedly antic efforts. If audiences reject this film, they’ll essentially be telling Carrey they don’t want to see him in thoughtful movies in which his characters have inner lives and believable emotional arcs.

In the film, written by Andrew Niccol (“Gattaca”) and opening Friday, Carrey stars as Truman Burbank, a 30-year-old man who, unbeknown to him, has grown up from birth before America’s eyes on TV: His entire life is a 24-hour-a-day “reality” show that takes place in a mammoth soundstage fashioned to look like an idyllic oceanside village (the film was shot mostly in Seaside, Fla.). Hidden cameras are strewn throughout the faux community like psychic land mines, zeroing in on Truman as he lives the artificial, made-for-TV life he’s known since birth: Greeting the neighbors, peddling life insurance, bantering with wife (Laura Linney) and buddy (Noah Emmerich) who, like everyone in his world, are actors--they enter their “scenes” with Truman by plugging beer or some other product.

Running things behind the scenes is the erudite mad genius Christof (Ed Harris), who plays God to a media-obsessed world; Christof cues the sunrise, fills Truman’s life with tension and happiness, then cues the sunset as the camera closes in on Truman’s slumber. Even though his world literally revolves around him, Truman is restless, and as the facade of his tele-existence slowly peels away, he becomes increasingly desperate.

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It’s heady stuff for any summer movie, and Carrey dropped his usual asking price of $20 million to star in it (though at $12 million, he was still handsomely rewarded). The film recalls an obscure short Paul Bartel film, “The Secret Cinema,” which was remade as an episode of “Amazing Stories” in the ‘80s, though Bartel’s work focused primarily on the paranoia of the subject (Weir and Carrey profess no knowledge of Bartel’s film).

Weir and Carrey got together recently to discuss their collaboration, Weir looking casual in a vest and baggy white shirt, Carrey snappy in a dapper dark-blue pin-stripe suit. Carrey seems touchingly grateful to have worked with a genuine auteur; during the interview, he frequently turns to gauge his inquisitor’s reactions to Weir’s comments, his broad, beaming smile a silent way of saying, “Isn’t this guy brilliant?”

And when Weir recalls the time Dennis Hopper left the production over creative differences, and admits with a shudder that he almost took the role of Christof before Harris came available, Carrey is like a kid flattering his teacher: “You would’ve been great.”

Carrey has “Man in the Moon,” Milos Forman’s Andy Kaufman biopic, up next, followed improbably by a remake of the Don Knotts fish farce “The Incredible Mr. Limpet.” Weir has his own ideas for Carrey’s future.

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“I think he should be rather happy with not doing anything else after this,” Weir suggests. “It’s a great promotional angle: ‘He never did another film.’ Like Rimbaud, he never wrote another line.”

Question: What were the films you had each seen by the other that led you to think, ‘This is the guy I want to work with on this project’?

Weir: I saw a poster of “Ace Ventura” in the local video store. I was interested in the haircut and the birds, it was a striking poster. I was aimlessly wandering down the aisles, and finally I said, “Gimme that one with ‘Ace Ventura.’ ” And right from the opening glimpse of Jim, I thought, “Ah, hello, here’s someone new.”

Carrey: You get points for that.

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Weir: You have to remain open as you go on, making films, encountering new people. Not two months later, [the script for] “The Truman Show” was sent to me and after that the producer said, “Have you ever heard of a guy called Jim Carrey?” I said, “The haircut, the birds?” He said, “He’s interested in it.” And I thought, “What a startling idea. What an interesting idea.”

Carrey: He’s a madman. A risk-taker.

Weir: So, you?

Carrey: Well, I’ve seen all his movies, I’ve always admired him and, for me, this script was like a realization of something that I’d already been thinking of that, suddenly, had come to fruition somehow. And it’s also a major departure for me, so when Peter was connected to it, I just thought, “Well, how can I go wrong? I’ve got someone guiding me here that I can trust--if I can’t trust him, I basically can’t be directed.”

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Q: [to Carrey]: The idea of a fishbowl existence must have resonances for you.

Carrey: It’s very parallel to my life in many, many ways. There’s a lot of levels to think about on this movie. Everybody’s felt unrequited love, the person they couldn’t have. Everybody at some point gets to a point where they have to separate themselves from what people want for them and what they want for themselves. And in order to do that, you have to go into unknown territory, you have to take a risk of losing everything.

And there’s also the reality of my life. Because that love can be the wrong kind of love at times. People love me, and their kids love me. But, you know, if I meet 50 of them in one day, someone’s gonna be disappointed. You know what I mean? Because I have emotions. I get tired and everything else. So that love can be kind of dangerous. Say a prayer for Leo [DiCaprio].

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Q: [to Weir]: Many of your films have dealt with metaphysical issues before . . .

Carrey: That’s not his fault, man! Oh, is that a good thing?

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Q: How do you get away with it when discussing it with studio executives? “Pay no attention to that subtext behind the curtain?”

Weir: Well, I didn’t have to do that. Essentially, I look at this as a craft, and I’m a storyteller. That’s my trade. And this film presented tremendous challenges. At first, I didn’t really know if it was achievable, whether I could pull it off. I rejected the approach that right from the beginning, the audience would know this is make-believe, but decided to attempt something in the near-future that had a possibility that it could come to pass. Now, this thing bristles with metaphors, and I decided early on to leave them alone. They would take care of themselves; they were inherently in the material. So I concentrated on the storytelling. . . . In Andrew’s original conception, he set it in New York, which read very well but of course when you go to transpose it to film it was not credible.

Carrey: How did you find that place [Seaside]?

Weir: It was Wendy. My wife, she collects magazines . . .

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Carrey: I was thinking New York City, apocalyptic kind of stuff, and he comes up with this place that looks like it fell out of a greeting card. In the middle of nowhere.

Weir: Choosing the town unlocked a whole approach to the film, from the perspective of the show’s creator who Ed Harris played, which was that everything was tastefully done--the whole show was, apart from selling the products in the houses, everything on camera was an attempt to educate the people to a certain way of seeing things. This was certainly what made the villain more interesting, more complex; he was a man of taste and had an aesthetic that made him more chilling. He was not crazy. Those houses in that little town is the way he thinks we should live. It’s not an unreasonable argument. The clothing that he chose, classic Americana, Saturday Evening Post covers . . .

Carrey: He showed up at my house with a binder full of pictures and cutouts and things that he had put together that might inspire me to feel this aesthetic of the movie.

Weir: I wrote out what I call the short history of “The Truman Show,” which was to give an idea of how the show was born and how it was sold.

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Carrey: There was some Salvador Dali stuff in there once in a while. Sometimes, it was just a cutout from a magazine of a kid standing on a beach looking out, things that inspire you to think the same way. I thought, “Oh my gosh, this guy’s really working on this. He’s an artist and I’m going to have to do my best.” It sparked me, the stuff he had written down.

Weir: When we first met, I took this CD of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” and one of the first things we did was, I said, “The film is in this piece of music.” If you look at those lyrics--"So you think you can tell heaven from hell, blue skies from pain . . .”

Carrey: It’s so right on, masterpiece of a song.

Weir: For a long time, we were going to use that song over the end credits, but it didn’t happen. I didn’t want to spell it out quite so clearly. There are many thoughts you can walk away from this film with.

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Carrey: The one thing you do come out of this picture with are thoughts. A lot of films, you walk out and you’re ready to see the next whatever, the next thrill ride. I think of this as a psychological thrill ride.

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Q: Yet it’s coming out in the summer, and it stars Jim Carrey, whom we associate with a different kind of a thrill ride. Can the public be educated enough beforehand about this film--"He’s not talking out of his butt this time, folks?”

Weir: I had this exact situation with the first interview I did for “Dead Poets Society.” The journalist said, “Boy, are you nervous?” and I thought, “Is there a reason I should be?” And she said, “Well, Robin Williams, he’s not going to be doing straight comedy. What do you think about that?” And I said, “Well, he’s an actor. It’s his profession.”

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I have no prejudice in the slightest towards comedy or drama. . . . It’s only that Jim’s particular format had such an appeal with the kids and he had his own way of doing it that the question arises. If we had done “Hamlet,” this would have been relevant.

Carrey: I am Hamlet. It’s a perfect part for me.

But this film is a little bit of a Dali painting, in the way that I’ve always been showing you what’s on the surface and what I do to be accepted and to be loved, but here, we’re lifting up the ocean to see the sleeping dog. For me, that’s what this is. Everybody has a sleeping dog, that thing which is to be revealed.

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Q: Can someone be a fan of yours without having much regard for most of your other movies?

Carrey: Absolutely. It’s a marketplace, and people squeeze the oranges and pick the ones they want. There are gonna be things there that aren’t necessarily to your taste. They’re gonna appreciate it later that I didn’t stick on the same note.

It used to drive me crazy when I was doing my stand-up; I saw guys there that had been doing stand-up since I started, which was a good 15 years, and they were still doing the same 20 minutes of material. You can’t live that way. You gotta believe, “If I go into the abyss, and I take a chance, there will be a reward for me sometime.” You’ve got to be willing to make a fool of yourself in this business, otherwise you don’t get to those interesting places.

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Q: Obviously, the reaction to “The Cable Guy” didn’t keep you from stretching, but you must have thought about it when you decided to do this.

Carrey: I liked “The Cable Guy.” You know, you can’t eat fish every night. You gotta eat something else, too. I’d be insulting the audience to think that they’d want to see the same thing over and over again. People grow, they have new input, they change. I think my audience, there’s a lot of young people that are growing up with me. Maybe I’d do what they think they want, but sure enough, if I stayed with it, two films down the road, they don’t want to see me anymore.

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Q: So how difficult was it to create this performance? In the past, directors have not said to you, “You have to consider where this character will be emotionally at every point in the film.”

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Carrey: For me, my natural reaction is to entertain, rather than, maybe, react. And at times, I’d just come with a bunch of stuff and keep bugging him and throw my stuff at him. He was open, and he’d listen, and he’d carve the edges that didn’t belong . . .

Weir: While trying not to inhibit this flow of ideas. Because we’d generally check with each other in the morning, I’d go see Jim in makeup and say, “Anything else? Anything come through overnight?” And invariably there’d be an idea Jim had about some aspect of the scene. Or we would add something together. So I think there’s a wonderful feeling and an essential path that the director must take in keeping an actor direction-free, feeling open, to have a certain spontaneity. The last thing you’d want to do is inhibit. I’d never want to tell Jim, “We don’t want this, we don’t need that.”

Carrey: I have a natural tendency to want to score. [Pause] In scenes.

Weir: To make each scene a complete unit rather than let them build.

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Carrey: I’d ask him, “Tell me when that’s appropriate.” There’s a lawn mower scene that’s not really in the movie, but he literally let me play for a day with this damn lawn mower, and I was dancing with it. It was wild, just a different movie.

Weir: There are scenes which were backstory in which Truman addresses himself in the mirror or looks at himself or draws on the mirror with soap which were favorites with viewers. So that was a scripted scene, and Jim came up with a half-dozen other variations, having worked on them at home, and we shot them all. Some were so complete, little stories in themselves, that I was tempted to use them all, but finally we went with the spare ones, the simpler ones that didn’t resolve themselves completely.

Carrey: That for me is flying without a net, that’s a scary thing for me. . . . Sometimes I would ask for the extra take from Peter and he’d go, “OK, fantastic.” I wouldn’t know what I’m doing, I’m just going on inspiration or electricity, and invariably that take would be a complete [wipeout]. Everybody [he mimics the crew’s embarrassment for him]. I’d go [sheepishly], “OK,” and walk away.

Weir: There was no way I wanted to be cautious about it any more than Jim did. He would say, “Maybe this is too much,” and I’d say, “No, it’s only film, let’s shoot it.’ I did one of those things where you cross that line. It was Christmastime, and probably the result of coming off this film. Sometimes as a director, you take some time to get back to civilian life. I just got back off a long postproduction, and a policeman stopped me at the car park of a local beach, and said, “You didn’t have your seat belt on.” And I just crossed that line--I said, “So you’re telling me about that and you’re wearing a gun and I’m in a swimming costume. Let’s talk about that. . . .’ Wendy was behind me, going, “Don’t go to that place.” I got about three tickets. Sometimes you should keep it in your head.

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Carrey [imitating a director]: “Can you come to the car again? Only this time, you’re scared, got your gun drawn.”

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Q: Now that you have this under your belt, is there a feeling of, “The sky’s the limit?”

Carrey: God willing, I’ll get to do everything, express everything. As an artist, that’s all you can ask for, the chance to express everything. Whether it works or not commercially is another thing. But I have a really amazing career. I’ve been so lucky. I’ve got a lot of people who love me, and I think acting to a certain extent is understanding the dark and the light.

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