Before The Truman Show made it to production, an early test sequence needed to be put together – with Gary Oldman’s help.
Few blockbuster movies can claim the prescience of 1998’s The Truman Show. The movie, directed by Peter Weir, written by Andrew Niccol and starring Jim Carrey, was not only a big hit, but it also identified the reality TV show boom that was just around the corner. With Survivor in America and Big Brother in the UK, the round-the-clock observing of real life mechanic was shortly to jump from fiction to fact just a year or two later.
It’d be fair to say that The Truman Show may have been slightly easier to sell to a studio after all that happened rather than before. But then producer Scott Rudin and Paramount Pictures’ then-boss Sherry Lansing liked what they saw in Niccols’ script. Then in the infancy of his career, the screenplay he penned was a lot darker than the final version of the film. The character of Truman was struggling with drink in the draft that was sold, and he was cheating on his wife too. The idea there being that he’d be fighting to keep these details a secret, whilst unbeknown to him pretty much everybody on the planet would be fully aware of them.
I’ve covered The Truman Show in a previous podcast episode (that you can find right here), but there’s one story I’ve only recently uncovered (that Vanity Fair has filled in some of the gaps on). For what I was unaware of was that Niccol – who at that stage hadn’t directed a feature – was offered the chance to helm the film as part of his initial deal. But it came with a pretty hefty catch. Paramount Pictures agreed to fund Niccols filming a single scene from the film to see if it was going to work with him behind the camera.
Niccols seized his chance. On a studio backlot, he thus got to work on his scene. In it, we’d have seen Truman suspecting that he was being observed. As such, he seizes a baby from a passing woman’s stroller, and effectively holds it to ransom. If she won’t admit she knows his name, Truman would – he threatens – drop the baby.
See what I mean about that original darker tone?
The scene would conclude with the woman in question panicking, Truman handing the baby to her, and she unwittingly saying “Thanks, Truman” as she took her infant back.
To film the scene, though, Niccol needed a Truman. As such, producer Scott Rudin called in a favour, and Gary Oldman agreed to take the role for the test sequence. Oldman was under no illusion that he was in line for the part itself should the film come to fruition. But one Saturday, Oldman and Niccol – with around $50,000 of Paramount’s money – shot their sequence. Annabella Sciorra was said to have played the unnamed woman in the scene.
Niccol delivered his sequence, but clearly somewhere along the line it didn’t pass muster. Instead, Brian De Palma for a while was linked with directing the film, before Peter Weir ultimately got the nod.
As fate would have it, Niccol didn’t have to wait for his chance to direct. By the time The Truman Show had come to the screen, he’d written and directed his helming debut, the impressive sci-fi movie Gattaca. A project he brought about in the time between selling his The Truman Show script for $1.5m in 1993, and the film being released in 1998.
As for that footage of Gary Oldman as Truman? It’s surely one of the many reels held deep in studio vaults, and it’s very unlikely we’ll ever get to see it. Unless, in a few decades time, there’s still a market for a very special DVD release…
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