On the seminal film’s 25th anniversary, we look back at the horror movie it could have been
This article was originally published on 1 June 2018:
Truman Burbank goes to work, maintains his lawn and kisses his wife, breezing through life in a perpetually mint-fresh and anodyne haze. But Truman is also the unwitting star of his own reality TV series, his tragic backstory elaborately choreographed, and his friends, family and daily passers-by all played by actors.
Released 20 years ago today and at a time in which reality television was confined to MTV’s The Real World and the grimy softcore series Taxicab Confessions, The Truman Show has proven remarkably prescient. Firstly, in its vision of constructed TV entertainment driven by the illusion of authenticity, but also in its depiction of mental illness – psychiatrists in 2008 coined the term “Truman delusion” for patients who believe that they are existing in an elaborate fictional world in which they’re the star.
This all sounds like a horror movie – the inevitable conclusion to a culture of instant fame, 24/7 surveillance and corporate exploitation. But in the hands of director Peter Weir and star Jim Carrey, The Truman Show is a genre-bending comedy drama that is as tender and romantic as it is gently surreal. Angle it a little differently, as it did in a draft of the script written just a few years before it actually got made, and it’s basically a David Fincher film.
Andrew Niccol’s script existed in at least 16 different forms before Weir came on board, originally titled The Malcolm Show, and sometimes being prefaced by a quote by Lily Tomlin (“We’re all in this alone”), or an image of Edward Hopper’s painting “A Room by the Sea”. One specific draft, found today tossed around in the nerdier corners of the internet, is especially weird, with far more in common with grim 90s thrillers like Dark City and The Game than the film it would eventually become.
In this version, Truman’s world is a fake, rain-drenched New York built on a Hollywood soundstage, Truman himself addicted to alcohol and emotionally disengaged from society and his wife Meryl (really an actress named Hannah). The truth of Truman’s life is treated like a mystery, his existence in a reality show rendered a third-act plot twist, with the character of Christof, the all-seeing God figure behind the show, here perpetually lurking around set corners like Dick Dastardly in a wireless headset.
“In this version, Truman’s world is a fake, rain-drenched New York built on a Hollywood soundstage, Truman himself addicted to alcohol and emotionally disengaged from society”
But while the specifics of the plot remain the same, there’s a gruff, exhausting machismo to the script, never more notable than in a scene in which Truman seeks out a sex worker named Veronica to re-enact his last encounter with his lost true love Sylvia. “Hey Truman!” Veronica yelps from a street corner on the red light district. “Where you bin? You bin cheatin’ on me?”
Other suggested scenes further perpetuate thriller tropes. At one point, Truman threatens to kill a newborn baby if a random mother he encounters on the street doesn’t tell him that his world isn’t real (“Say my name or I’ll smash its head open!” he screams). The idea of Jim Carrey doing this and not, say, Sean Penn or some other veiny rager of a leading man is, obviously, ludicrous.
In another scene, Truman witnesses a woman being attacked on a subway platform but resists sounding the train alarm, so sure that it’s a stunt. The train doors close just as the two thugs prepare to rape the woman, but when Truman’s train pulls out of the station, losing sight of the trio, the woman and the two attackers all break character, fixing up their clothes and remarking their surprise that Truman didn’t react.
All of this is especially jarring because so much of Niccol’s script was kept intact when it came to the finished product. The pacing is generally the same, Truman reassembles his memories of Sylvia by cutting pictures of models’ facial features out of magazines, and Truman still tricks his overlords at film’s end and escapes the set by boat, smashing into a large wall painted to look like the ocean.
But rather than cutting to black as Truman finally steps outside into the real world, Niccol’s script sends him fleeing through a Hollywood backlot, taking a tour guide hostage and engaging in a rooftop stand-off with Christoff. It’s not The Truman Show, it’s basically Taken 3.
When Weir first came upon Niccol’s script, it was only after requesting his managers send him “broken” screenplays, things he could fix and smooth out. He admitted to the New York Times in 1998 that he was still uncertain about the project even after signing on to direct.
“It was like trying to pick up a hedgehog,” he said. “It was bristling with metaphors, and I was concerned about whether or not I could take the audience with me on this journey that would break some of the conventions of mainstream movie making.”
“Rather than cutting to black as Truman finally steps outside into the real world, Niccol’s script sends him fleeing through a Hollywood backlot, taking a tour guide hostage”
Weir loved Niccol’s script, but found its metropolitan setting unrealistic, believing a television studio would not go to the expense of building a vast New York skyline. He also thought it unlikely that millions of people would watch something so visually dank. It’s a valid criticism – the Truman Show in Niccol’s original script is basically Big Brother by way of Se7en. Instead Weir envisaged suburbia and good weather, citing a popular Australian soap opera as his inspiration.
“Home and Away was a very big influence on me,” Weir said during a BAFTA Q&A in 2011. “It was sunlight and holiday and I thought, ‘This is what you’d watch’. So I transferred it to a holiday setting.” That ended up being Seaside, Florida, a planned community with a candy-coloured, carefully-constructed sheen just real enough to not feel completely uncanny valley. The location doubled for Truman’s fictional home of Seahaven Island throughout filming, and The Truman Show remains Seaside’s primary claim to fame.
Weir also had a hand in re-writing the script, having thought the draft brought to him originally was too “dark and angst-ridden”. Carrey had been looking for something relatively serious after starring in a run of comedies, and he and Weir hit it off. His involvement also meant Weir and Niccol could make the film itself more playful, leaning into the pop culture silliness of it all. The in-show advertisements seen in the film, with Truman’s friends and family unconvincingly holding up desirable products to the camera, were a late-in-the-day script addition, while the depressive nihilism of Truman’s paranoia is made less bleak and more darkly comedic in Carrey’s hands.
The Truman Show, as it exists in script form, is thoughtful and compelling, while being grounded in an idea of staggering originality. But it also betrays a creative mind so eager to get his first film made that he has stocked his script with the sort of things you’d assume a Hollywood movie would need in order to get funded. It’s basically the fifth or sixth season of a reality show – louder, sillier and sort of familiar, but not exactly what you originally signed up for.
Read the original screenplay here.