The Truman Show anticipated reality TV a year before Big Brother debuted in England and launched the TV genre as we know it. The film, produced in 1997 and released in 1998, is set in a near future where the first child legally adopted by a corporation is raised to adulthood in the biggest studio set ever built, essentially a self-contained world, for a 24/7 TV series. Surrounded by actors playing the parts of friends, family members, and coworkers, everyone except for Truman knows that it is all artificial and his life is being broadcast into homes all around the world.
Andrew Niccol wrote the original treatment in the early 1990s and his first screenplays were dark and satirical, the portrait of a miserable man in a broken world whose daily ordeal is recorded for all to see. Producer Scott Rudin bought the film for Paramount a day after reading the script. Such filmmakers as Brian De Palma, Tim Burton, and Terry Gilliam were sought out before Australian director Peter Weir read the script. After a successful career directing such critical and popular successes as Witness (1985) and Dead Poets Society (1989), the filmmaker took a break after the box-office failure Fearless in 1993 and was looking for something interesting for his return. The sophistication of The Truman Show excited him and he flew to Los Angeles to meet with Niccol and actor Jim Carrey. A major star for such cartoonish comedies as The Mask (1994) and Dumb and Dumber (1994), Carrey was looking for a more serious role. Weir thought he was perfect for the lead role of Truman Burbank. "I couldn’t see any other star…. It had to be someone different from us, someone who had lived his life in some extreme place."
Weir chose to wait a year for Carrey, who was already committed to make The Cable Guy (1996) and Liar, Liar (1997), to become available and spent the time working with Niccol to reshape the script. "I think once Jim came on board he almost dictated the tone of it and Peter had his own sensibilities," Niccol reflected in a 2018 interview. Weir's concerns were practical: "Why would millions tune in 24/7 to something grim and depressing?" he thought. He imagined a sunnier, funnier film with a likable central character and Niccol agreed to work on Weir's vision, turning out over a dozen drafts to fine tune all the details. Once production began, Weir invited Carrey to contribute his own ideas, many of which were incorporated, including Truman's signature greeting: "In case I don’t see ya… good afternoon, good evening, and good night." Carrey said it was inspired by his father. "He was just a very affable, beautiful soul. I wanted it to be a tribute to him."
The setting was relocated from the urban crush of New York to a sunny small island town called Seahaven. Weir found his location in the master-planned community of Seaside, Florida. The entire town became a movie set and the cast members actually lived in the town during shooting. Visual effects were added to add floors to some buildings and shape the outer contours of the town in long shots but most of the special effects were designed not to look real but slightly unreal and distorted, to enhance the artificiality of Truman's world, from the too-big moon to the perfect sunsets to the blur on the horizon.
Dennis Hopper was originally cast in the role of Christof, the God-like series creator and director who cues the sun and feeds lines to the actors in Truman's world from a control center high above the town. When Hopper proved to be a bad fit, producer Rudin went looking for a last-minute replacement. Ed Harris agreed to the role days before he began shooting his scenes.
Jim Carrey performed his own stunts in the dramatic finale, featuring Truman on a sailboat in a studio-created storm, and he almost drowned while filming the scene in a studio tank. Despite safety precautions, including divers under the water ready to pull the actor out, they failed to recognize Carrey's signals that he was in trouble. "I just barely made it to the edge of the wall where the sky is, and hung on the edge of the wall gasping for air, looking back at the storm that was raging still," Carrey recalled years later. Director Weir only realized what happened after calling cut. "Needless to say, we made changes to our safety procedures following this near accident," confirmed Weir, "and, despite what had happened, Jim was up for more takes."
The film opened in the summer of 1998, in a season generally relegated to action spectacles and escapist fare. Audiences responded. It was a commercial hit and earned solid reviews. New York Times critic Bernard Weinraub called it "the most subversive studio film of the summer." The film was nominated for three major Academy Awards, for Peter Weir's direction, Andrew Niccol's original screenplay, and for supporting actor Ed Harris. Harris and Jim Carrey won Golden Globe awards for their performances and Niccol won a BAFTA, just a few of the many awards the film won.
In hindsight, the film was remarkably prescient. Hundreds of reality shows fill cable channels and streaming services today, individuals stream their lives on YouTube channels, and millions of people send personal videos over Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and other social media platforms. "I certainly didn’t foresee the onslaught of so-called reality television," Niccol joked in 2018. "I doubt the film had much to do with it. If it did, I apologize.”
"An interview with Peter Weir," Dan Lybarger. Pitch Weekly, June 4-10, 1998.
"Twenty Years Later, Everything Is The Truman Show," Julie Miller. Vanity Fair, June 5, 2018.
"How we made The Truman Show – 20th anniversary," Lou Thomas. BFI, May 31, 2018.
"Director Tries a Fantasy As He Questions Reality," Bernard Weinraub. The New York Times, May 21, 1998.
How's It Going to End? The Making of The Truman Show, documentary produced by Jon Mefford. Paramount Home Entertainment, 2005.
Faux Finishing: The Visual Effects of The Truman Show, documentary produced by Jon Mefford. Paramount Home Entertainment, 2005.