Twenty Years Later, Everything Is The Truman Show

Two decades ago, The Truman Show seemed preposterous. “We would laugh about how unrealistic some of it seemed,” said co-star Laura Linney, remembering conversations the cast and crew would have on the film’s Seaside, Florida set. “We couldn’t quite believe that someone would want to tape themselves, so that people could tune in and watch what was considered at the time to be mundane, and see that as entertainment.”

“By no means did I think that this movie was going to be prescient,” agreed Sherry Lansing, who oversaw the production of over 200 films—including The Truman Show—during her tenure as C.E.O. of Paramount. “That suddenly, we were going to have all these reality shows—the Kardashians, The Real Housewives. When I watch reality television and people who live in front of the camera—there are many now who do—I wonder how much of this is real, how much of it is just because they’re in front of the camera. Do they really know themselves? But every time I watch one, I think of Truman.” Screenwriter Andrew Niccol echoed her: “When you know there is a camera, there is no reality,” he said. In that respect, Truman Burbank “is the only genuine reality star.”

The intricate fable, brought to life by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Peter Weir, centers on Truman—an upbeat man, played by Jim Carrey, who gradually realizes that his entire life is an elaborately constructed ruse. His friends and family members are actually actors; his every move is captured by 5,000 hidden cameras and broadcast to the world. Even his actions are manipulated by a power-crazed director named Christof (Ed Harris). In addition to forecasting the reality-TV craze, the film predicted the scope of modern product placement (as presented by Linney’s impeccably named character, Meryl Burbank), privacy invasion, and the existential quandary of whether to live for yourself or an audience—be it television or social media. Truman must ultimately decide between accepting the artificial world he knows, or venturing into the unknown in pursuit of truth.

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Twenty years after Truman heroically exited the soul-deadening reality series that was his life . . . well, to quote co-star Holland Taylor, “Here we are.” In 2015 alone, there were roughly 750 reality series on television. Those of us without official series are essentially starring in and producing our own reality shows, via constant Twitter updates, Instagram Stories, Snapchats, Facebook videos, and YouTube videos. As an audience, we didn’t just blow past The Truman Show’s cautionary subtext; we’ve elected a reality star as our president. Added Linney, “The Truman Show is a very foreboding, dark movie—and, unfortunately, our world had gone even way beyond that.”

It wasn’t an easy production. One of the leads was fired and re-cast; Carrey suffered a traumatic incident while shooting that caused the studio to re-evaluate its safety standards. When producer Scott Rudin showed Lansing an early cut of the film, he joked that he should have an ambulance waiting outside the screening room—in case she had a heart attack after realizing an $80 million budget had been burned on what was, in its first cut, an art film. (“It’s not unusual to have a bad first cut [of a film]. It was unusual to have that bad [of] a first cut, I have to say,” said Lansing.) But 20 years after it premiered, the movie remains one of the modern age’s most hauntingly prophetic films.

“I have a very hazy crystal ball,” joked Niccol. “I certainly didn’t foresee the onslaught of so-called reality television. I doubt the film had much to do with it. If it did, I apologize.”

hen Carrey read the script for The Truman Show in the mid-90s, he was living a surreal experience that in some ways mirrored that of the movie’s main character. The Canadian-born actor had recently shot onto the A-list, thanks to the 1994 movie-star-making trifecta of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Dumb and Dumber, and The Mask. By the time he boarded Truman less than two years later, he was commanding $20 million a movie—and haunted by paparazzi cameras that could be hidden anywhere, including Carrey’s own backyard. Photographers even followed him to a private resort in Antigua, where Carrey was honeymooning with his then-wife Lauren Holly.

“Those were the kind of things that happened periodically that made me realize, ‘O.K., my life will never be the same,’” said Carrey. “It’s almost as if celebrities lose their civil rights when they become famous. There’s great advantages, too. I’ve certainly been shown incredible amounts of love, but there are certain times where there’s just no sympathy for someone who has done well whatsoever . . . no one is going to cry a river for me.”

Truman, too, was surrounded by people who were not who they said they were, and dogged by a mass audience taking voyeuristic pleasure in his personal life. After starring in seven studio films in three years, Carrey also related to Truman in another way: he wasn’t sure whether he should continue on his trajectory, or begin leading a life that felt more authentic. The Truman Show would be Carrey’s first dramatic role, marking the beginning of what he seems to consider a more fulfilling stage of his career.

As Carrey was dodging photographers and contemplating his strange new life, Niccol, a New Zealand-born screenwriter working in London, was grappling with a concept that had been nagging at him since childhood: that everything around him was nothing more than a charade. The concept of “round-the-clock recording and the counterfeit world” came first, before Niccol figured out that a TV show could serve as a framework to rationalize those elements. “At the time of writing, there was no reality television,” Niccol pointed out. “The Real World started just after I finished the script.”

“Andrew is the king of paranoia,” said Lynn Pleshette, Niccol’s former literary agent, who took the screenwriter around town to pitch the project. “We once had a meeting at MGM. The valet took our car, and Andrew said, ‘Well, he’s wearing the valet uniform. But we don’t know if he’ll bring the car back, do we?’”

Niccol’s initial script was darker in tone and set in a parallel dimension in New York City, rather than an idyllic seaside town. Per the screenwriter, “Truman had a drinking problem. He was cheating on his wife with a prostitute—of course, he didn’t know that it was the worst-kept secret in the world, since the affair was being televised. In one scene, he fails to intervene in an assault on the subway.”

The details were malleable—but the concept was undeniably strong. Said Lansing, “I remember thinking that the basic idea was simply extraordinary—that as you think you’re going about your life, you realize it’s all fake . . . And the idea that it could be a television show. . I was involved with the movie Network as an executive. This script kind of reminded me of the idea that the media in some way could control your life, and that you didn’t have free will and that everything in your life was fake. It so resonated with me, that tragic nature of it.”

“Andrew is the king of paranoia,” said Lynn Pleshette, Niccol’s former literary agent, who took the screenwriter around town to pitch the project. “We once had a meeting at MGM. The valet took our car, and Andrew said, ‘Well, he’s wearing the valet uniform. But we don’t know if he’ll bring the car back, do we?’”

Niccol’s initial script was darker in tone and set in a parallel dimension in New York City, rather than an idyllic seaside town. Per the screenwriter, “Truman had a drinking problem. He was cheating on his wife with a prostitute—of course, he didn’t know that it was the worst-kept secret in the world, since the affair was being televised. In one scene, he fails to intervene in an assault on the subway.”

The details were malleable—but the concept was undeniably strong. Said Lansing, “I remember thinking that the basic idea was simply extraordinary—that as you think you’re going about your life, you realize it’s all fake . . . And the idea that it could be a television show. . I was involved with the movie Network as an executive. This script kind of reminded me of the idea that the media in some way could control your life, and that you didn’t have free will and that everything in your life was fake. It so resonated with me, that tragic nature of it.”

The details were malleable—but the concept was undeniably strong. Said Lansing, “I remember thinking that the basic idea was simply extraordinary—that as you think you’re going about your life, you realize it’s all fake . . . And the idea that it could be a television show. . I was involved with the movie Network as an executive. This script kind of reminded me of the idea that the media in some way could control your life, and that you didn’t have free will and that everything in your life was fake. It so resonated with me, that tragic nature of it.”

Twenty years after Truman heroically exited the soul-deadening reality series that was his life . . . well, to quote co-star Holland Taylor, “Here we are.” In 2015 alone, there were roughly 750 reality series on television. Those of us without official series are essentially starring in and producing our own reality shows, via constant Twitter updates, Instagram Stories, Snapchats, Facebook videos, and YouTube videos. As an audience, we didn’t just blow past The Truman Show’s cautionary subtext; we’ve elected a reality star as our president. Added Linney, “The Truman Show is a very foreboding, dark movie—and, unfortunately, our world had gone even way beyond that.”

It wasn’t an easy production. One of the leads was fired and re-cast; Carrey suffered a traumatic incident while shooting that caused the studio to re-evaluate its safety standards. When producer Scott Rudin showed Lansing an early cut of the film, he joked that he should have an ambulance waiting outside the screening room—in case she had a heart attack after realizing an $80 million budget had been burned on what was, in its first cut, an art film. (“It’s not unusual to have a bad first cut [of a film]. It was unusual to have that bad [of] a first cut, I have to say,” said Lansing.) But 20 years after it premiered, the movie remains one of the modern age’s most hauntingly prophetic films.

“I have a very hazy crystal ball,” joked Niccol. “I certainly didn’t foresee the onslaught of so-called reality television. I doubt the film had much to do with it. If it did, I apologize.”

hen Carrey read the script for The Truman Show in the mid-90s, he was living a surreal experience that in some ways mirrored that of the movie’s main character. The Canadian-born actor had recently shot onto the A-list, thanks to the 1994 movie-star-making trifecta of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Dumb and Dumber, and The Mask. By the time he boarded Truman less than two years later, he was commanding $20 million a movie—and haunted by paparazzi cameras that could be hidden anywhere, including Carrey’s own backyard. Photographers even followed him to a private resort in Antigua, where Carrey was honeymooning with his then-wife Lauren Holly.

“Those were the kind of things that happened periodically that made me realize, ‘O.K., my life will never be the same,’” said Carrey. “It’s almost as if celebrities lose their civil rights when they become famous. There’s great advantages, too. I’ve certainly been shown incredible amounts of love, but there are certain times where there’s just no sympathy for someone who has done well whatsoever . . . no one is going to cry a river for me.”

Truman, too, was surrounded by people who were not who they said they were, and dogged by a mass audience taking voyeuristic pleasure in his personal life. After starring in seven studio films in three years, Carrey also related to Truman in another way: he wasn’t sure whether he should continue on his trajectory, or begin leading a life that felt more authentic. The Truman Show would be Carrey’s first dramatic role, marking the beginning of what he seems to consider a more fulfilling stage of his career.

As Carrey was dodging photographers and contemplating his strange new life, Niccol, a New Zealand-born screenwriter working in London, was grappling with a concept that had been nagging at him since childhood: that everything around him was nothing more than a charade. The concept of “round-the-clock recording and the counterfeit world” came first, before Niccol figured out that a TV show could serve as a framework to rationalize those elements. “At the time of writing, there was no reality television,” Niccol pointed out. “The Real World started just after I finished the script.”

“Andrew is the king of paranoia,” said Lynn Pleshette, Niccol’s former literary agent, who took the screenwriter around town to pitch the project. “We once had a meeting at MGM. The valet took our car, and Andrew said, ‘Well, he’s wearing the valet uniform. But we don’t know if he’ll bring the car back, do we?’”

Niccol’s initial script was darker in tone and set in a parallel dimension in New York City, rather than an idyllic seaside town. Per the screenwriter, “Truman had a drinking problem. He was cheating on his wife with a prostitute—of course, he didn’t know that it was the worst-kept secret in the world, since the affair was being televised. In one scene, he fails to intervene in an assault on the subway.”

The details were malleable—but the concept was undeniably strong. Said Lansing, “I remember thinking that the basic idea was simply extraordinary—that as you think you’re going about your life, you realize it’s all fake . . . And the idea that it could be a television show. . I was involved with the movie Network as an executive. This script kind of reminded me of the idea that the media in some way could control your life, and that you didn’t have free will and that everything in your life was fake. It so resonated with me, that tragic nature of it.”

“Andrew is the king of paranoia,” said Lynn Pleshette, Niccol’s former literary agent, who took the screenwriter around town to pitch the project. “We once had a meeting at MGM. The valet took our car, and Andrew said, ‘Well, he’s wearing the valet uniform. But we don’t know if he’ll bring the car back, do we?’”

Niccol’s initial script was darker in tone and set in a parallel dimension in New York City, rather than an idyllic seaside town. Per the screenwriter, “Truman had a drinking problem. He was cheating on his wife with a prostitute—of course, he didn’t know that it was the worst-kept secret in the world, since the affair was being televised. In one scene, he fails to intervene in an assault on the subway.”

The details were malleable—but the concept was undeniably strong. Said Lansing, “I remember thinking that the basic idea was simply extraordinary—that as you think you’re going about your life, you realize it’s all fake . . . And the idea that it could be a television show. . I was involved with the movie Network as an executive. This script kind of reminded me of the idea that the media in some way could control your life, and that you didn’t have free will and that everything in your life was fake. It so resonated with me, that tragic nature of it.”

“When I sit in a car or in a van or a room, and I see 90 percent of the people with their faces glowing and their eyes in the palm of their hand, I go, ‘This is Orwellian.’ Their consciousness has been reduced to what other people think, period,” the actor said. “I do enough of it myself. I’m not innocent of it, but I’m cognizant . . . I see what’s happened to the world because of this easy access, social media, and the contraptions we drag along with us like a ball and chain, this new appendage we’ve been saddled with. And I think of Steve Jobs in hell being pursued relentlessly, for eternity, by demons who want a selfie.” He’s mystified by the notion of social-media influencers; though he says the Kardashians he’s met are not bad people, “The phenomenon of the Kardashians is, I don’t think, a healthy one. There’s so much onus on just being famous at any cost. Sell it all. If there’s nothing left to sell, bend over and open your butt cheeks, because they haven’t seen that yet—and how do we commoditize that?”