Peter Weir: Weir's World

Director Peter Weir's movies, which include Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoli, Witness, The Year of Living Dangerously, Dead Poet's Society, and Fearless, tend to be unlike other movies, and unlike one another. His newest, The Truman Show, which stars Jim Carrey as a man who doesn't know he's living in a TV show, fits that bill perfectly.


Australian director Peter Weir's new film, The Truman Show, is about a man named Truman Burbank, who, at the age of 30, begins to suspect that the neatly arranged life he leads in a shipshape island town in sunny Florida is some sort of elaborate setup of unknown purpose. The truth is more outrageous than he could possibly guess: Truman actually lives on a gigantic soundstage and is the unwitting star of the hit TV program "The Truman Show," which has broadcast his every move to viewers around the globe ever since he was a baby. The people in Truman's life--his mother, his wife, his best friend--are all actors hired by the show's godlike auteur, Christof. And all of them are lying to him.

In short, The Truman Show is not your average summer film. It's funny and poignant with a vividly subversive undertow. It's a tale Kafka might have written had he been born into the couch-potato society now approaching the millennium.

Peter Weir's films have never slipped easily into conventional genres. His first feature-length work, 1974's The Cars That Ate Paris, was a black comedy of '60s-inspired anarchy involving spiked jalopies. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1974) resonated like a tone poem of gently rising hysteria among Victorian schoolgirls. The Last Wave (1977) infused a modern apocalyptic tale with Aboriginal mysticism. Gallipoli (1981) was a lyrical war movie. The Year of Living Dangerously (1983) unfolded a political thriller/love story against the collision of East and West. Witness _(1985) set a cop thriller/love story amid the otherworldly Amish community in Pennsylvania. _The Mosquito Coast (1986) chronicled the downfall of Yankee individualism in a Central American jungle. Dead Poets Society (1989) celebrated poetry and self-expression in a conformist '50s prep school. The movie Weir himself wrote as a deliberately light romantic comedy, Green Card (1990), contained moments of unsettling emotional intensity one seldom sees in that genre. The extraordinary Fearless (1993) was a passionate mortality tale of life after a disasterous plane crash.

As uncategorizable and different from one another as Weir's movies may be, they all have in common a generous, anti-elitist ambition to entertain a broad audience--with a story that carries weight and with emotion that has the power to unnerve. The Truman Show, because it is very entertaining and very unfrivolous, may be the ultimate Peter Weir movie. As he did with Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, Weir has guided Jim Carrey to a less-is-more performance that's a surprise in itself and gives The Truman Show an enhanced ability to set off subversive little explosions in the imaginations of unsuspecting viewers.

Q: Since _The Truman Show _is a sort of seriocomic nightmare fantasy about the ultimate voyeuristic, exploitive television program, it suggests that you take a fairly jaundiced view of the role of media in our daily lives. Is that true?

A: It's a broad question, and I hesitate to answer, because modern life is changing so rapidly. It's so puzzling, particularly to someone like me, who is both part of the media and at the same time, between films, very much outside of it. I do a film every couple of years, and then I drop out and go to a house that's well outside of Sydney and live a very simple life. I only look at a newspaper once a week and see very little television.

Q: What do you watch on television?

A: Documentaries mostly. With commercial television, the problem for me is advertising. Commercials have become so seductive, using so much good music and such clever images. The brainwashing strength of it is considerable. I can't see that that's healthy for a society--you're constantly in a state of mild anxiety about acquiring things.

Q: Your children are grown up now, but how did you deal with TV when they were little?

A: We didn't have one. We had one for the babysitter that we hid in the cupboard. In fact, I remember my son struggling in with this portable set one morning, so excited with this found treasure, saying, "Look what I found in the back of the cupboard."

Q: Your son and daughter watched no TV?

A: We eventually got a television, but having lived in a world of books, music and good movies, they'd developed their own taste by the time television was freely available to them. Now that they've grown up and moved out, neither of them has a television.

Q: So you really distrusted television.

A: Yes, I remember a friend of mine who was in the Children's Television Foundation saying, "Will you join? We want to make better programs for children." And I said, jokingly, "I think that's the worst thing to do. I think we need more bad programs that will drive them outside into the fresh air."

Q: You've said in the past that children need to be bored in order to use their imagination.

A: Not just children. That's what I do in between films. What I mean by boredom is just allowing your imagination to revitalize itself and to engage with life rather than be dictated to by images that stop you from thinking.

Q: So, when you came upon Andrew Niccol's screenplay for The Truman Show, did it strike you as the perfect vehicle for dramatizing every doubt one could have about the age of media?

A: I decided early on that because this material was so pregnant with metaphors, I would to a large degree ignore them. They were always going to be there.

Q: How did you come to direct The Truman Show?

A: After Fearless, so many scripts seemed safe and predictable. The disappointing commercial reception of that film made me determined to do something even less predictable. I thought, Oh well, I'd rather go out in a blaze of obscurity. It became kind of a joke. When people asked, "What are you looking for?" I'd say, "I'm looking for trouble." The one who responded to that was [producer] Scott Rudin. He sent me The Truman Show.

Q: What was your first impression of it?

A: It was, as I'd requested, unusual and original material. I though my usual process, which is to deny it, to say, Well, I'm not going to do this, it's too difficult.

Q: What seemed so difficult?

A: The suspension of disbelief was going to be a huge challenge, because here's a story set not too far in the future and the audience has to go with extraordinary events. The guardians at the gates of logic had to be passed. The easiest way to go was kitschy, but I knew I couldn't do that. And I couldn't do it hyperreal. Yet figuring out how to do it realistically seemed some kind of torturous puzzle, and if you failed, you'd fail in an awful way.

Q: What got you over that?

A: As with other scripts I went on to do, I found I couldn't get it off my mind--it began to haunt me. You know--in daily life, going to the supermarket I get lost in the aisles because I'm thinking about the story, or some scrap of music is played at random on the radio and it seems as if it's from the soundtrack of this film. [Laughs] It's portents--lions whelp in the streets, a two-headed dog is born. And I think, Ah, I have to do this, it's the only way I can get it out of my head.

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