In 1998, The Truman Show told the story of a man whose life, unbeknownst to him, is a phenomenally elaborate reality television show. Every day and around the clock, every move made by the hapless Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) is captured by a network of hidden cameras and broadcast live worldwide for the entertainment of millions. And then Truman begins to notice discrepancies. “Things that don’t fit,” he says, in the original script. “Loose threads. False steps. Slips of the tongue.”
Twenty years later, The Truman Show writer Andrew Niccol frequently experiences what he calls Trumanesque moments. Terrible acting. Incongruous casting. Sloppy art direction and set design. Continuity errors. Generally inept production management.
And he doesn’t mean anything happening on a set or on a screen. He means daily life. “There’ll be a traffic jam, for instance, for no reason,” Niccol says. “In my mind, the reason is actually that Christof”—the all-powerful, demiurge director of The Truman Show—“isn’t ready at the next set. Or when you see someone out of context. And you realize, oh my god, that person was in the hospital scene. They’re recycling extras.”
“So much of the acting is melodramatic,” he says of his interactions in the real world. “Worst of all, the writing is so bad.”
Famously, The Truman Show has provided the conceptual framework for a rare but very real psychological disorder, dubbed the Truman Show delusion, whose sufferers believe they, too, are the scrutinized prisoners of reality television. But Niccol himself doesn’t come off as crazy. His “reality show” seems like the product of excessive imagination rather than an authentic paranoia.
He does go on about the fantasy in remarkable detail though, with an impressively straight face. “I can’t tell you how long I’ve felt this way,” he says. “I can never truly escape the idea.”
When the The Truman Show was released, it seemed delightfully far-fetched. Big Brother hadn’t yet turned its gaze to the US. Google was still in the garage. Cell phones were actually meant for phone calls. But it’s clear now that Truman’s plight anticipated the explosion of reality television, the voyeuristic excesses of celebrity culture more generally, even our ravenous appetites for the trivia of other people’s lives. Today, we are all Truman, our lives and our data on display, available for the scrutiny of strangers—whether they be social media followers or app developers. The key difference between our lot and Truman’s is that he was an unwitting victim, while many of us are happily complicit in the gratuitous oversharing.
In 1997, just months before The Truman Show was released, Niccol directed Gattaca, and while the genetically deterministic society he portrayed was persuasive—the Human Genome Project was underway, after all—it was undoubtedly science fiction. Jump to today, and 23andMe is analyzing our saliva and Crispr targeted genome manipulation promises to make genetic engineering a snap.
Starring a slick-haired Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman at her most serene, Gattaca is a deserved cult classic, a highlight in the hubristic-humans-playing-God subgenre, the urtext for any discussion of the slippery slope toward eugenics. In 2011, it topped a NASA poll of the most plausible science fiction movies ever made.
After Gattaca and The Truman Show, Niccol continued to make movies that explored the intersections of technology and humanity, reality and artifice. In 2002’s S1mone, a megalomaniac director conjures a computer-generated actress, passing her off as the real thing. (In the credits, “S1mone” was boldly listed as having played herself; the film’s marketing campaign ran with the idea, withholding the identity of the real actress.) In Time (2011) takes place in a future when an aging gene is switched off at 25. Good Kill (2014) depicts the disturbing reality of drone warfare as a dehumanizing videogame.
“He manages to put his finger on the major emotional political and spiritual crises of our age,” says Ethan Hawke (Gattaca, Lord of War, Good Kill). “He asks questions you don’t have easy answers for.”
Niccol’s new film, the chilly sci-fi thriller Anon, released on Netflix today, revisits many of the themes that have defined his career, The Truman Show and Gattaca in particular.
Clive Owen plays Sal Frieland, a detective investigating a series of murders in a society where every eye is a surveillance device, everyone’s personal information is perpetually on display, and every millisecond of lived experience is recorded via a brain-computer interface. The key to the murders is a young woman (Amanda Seyfried) with no digital trace of her own, who provides an unusual service: She hacks and alters memories. Between its exploration of the merging of humanity and technology, the intentional distortion of reality, and Orwellian surveillance, in 20 years there’s every chance Anon will be yet another Niccol film renowned for its uncannily accurate prognostications.
The movie could hardly be timelier. I meet Niccol just days after the first reports surfaced that millions of Facebook users had their psychographic data harvested by British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. Niccol calls the panoptic society presented in the film as “Cambridge Analytica on crack.”
“I’ve always wanted to do a film about privacy,” Niccol says. “It’s about how we just gave it up without a fight. All in the name of convenience. There was no war for our privacy at all. We just gave it away.”
“It’s a false choice,” he continues. “They say, if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”
Niccol’s feelings about that axiom are summed up by Seyfried’s character in the film. “It’s not that I have something to hide,” she says. “I have nothing I want you to see.”
Niccol’s beachside home overlooks the Pacific Ocean. Or so I’m told—I’m not allowed in, a Netflix representative informed me, since Niccol “wants to be in control.”
So instead, on a tempestuously rainy March morning in Malibu, California, Niccol pulls over to the side of the road and picks me up in his 1965 Pontiac GTO Convertible. “You can wear a lap belt,” Niccol says, accelerating onto the Pacific Coast Highway. “It probably won’t save you.”
Niccol has an impressive knack for vehicular casting. In the manicured utopia of Gattaca, Ethan Hawke’s character drives a turbine-powered Citroen DS Cabriolet. Justin Timberlake luxuriates in a silver Jaguar E-Type and is terrorized by brutish Dodge Challengers in In Time. The malevolent Seekers of The Host, the 2013 adaptation of the novel by Stephanie Meyer, pursue their prey in gleaming chrome Lotus Evoras. Even in that first script for The Truman Show, Niccol goes to the trouble of specifying that Truman drives an Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme.
It would be too easy to interpret Niccol’s 50-year-old car as a symbol of his antipathy toward modern technology—“no technology is all good or all bad,” he says. “It’s how it is used and abused”—but it does suggest a fondness for lo-fi living. “I like that my car doesn’t tell me what to do,” he says. “It doesn’t beep if I don’t want to wear the seatbelt or when I go in reverse. The way I look at it, if I don’t know I’m going in reverse then I deserve what I get.”
Driving is also Niccol’s way of contentedly losing himself in his thoughts. He writes on the road sometimes, longhand. “If I ever crash while doing it, I’ll be found slumped over the wheel with a pen in my hand.” (Despite this habit, he’s suspicious of self-driving cars. “If I’m a self-driving car and five kids run out in front of us, do I swerve to avoid the kids and kill you? Where’s my loyalty as a computer? What calculation does it make?” Beat. “It’s quite an interesting time.”)
That I’m speaking to Niccol at length now, on the occasion of his having made a film about privacy, is something of a perverse delight to him. Over the years, he has managed to reveal extraordinarily little about himself in interviews, even toyed with the possibility of hiring an actor to play him at press junkets. He’s not on social media (“I mean, is there something you could click on to request fewer friends?”) and has never had a personal publicist. (“For someone who doesn’t want publicity it seems counterproductive.”) When prospective buyers read his scripts, he has often wished that he could erase their memories afterward, perhaps via hypnosis or “something more invasive.”
“I’m always conflicted about interviews,” he says during our interview. “I want to support the film for the people who paid for it. I also want the work to speak for itself. It’s a compromise.”
Originally from New Zealand, Niccol has two children with his wife, Rachel Roberts, an actress and model who, incidentally, played the artificial actress S1mone.1 When I suggest I might want to speak to Roberts, he steers me away, “She wouldn’t say anything polite about me.” He is not a recluse, though, not quite. “That would draw attention in itself,” he says, as if that might be the main reason. “You’ve got to be careful. You keep a balance.”
“Anyway,” Niccol says, “you know everything about me already. Filmmakers tell on themselves with every frame. With every choice you make, every costume, line of dialogue.”
How would he describe himself in a screenplay? “Nondescript.”
On set and off, Niccol dresses in black, collared, buttoned-up shirts. (At age 5, his son told him, “You always wear black. Your whole thing is black.”) He speaks softly, cautiously, in what often feel like pre-engineered sentences, sprinkling his conversation with quotes from John Lennon, Matisse, and Aristotle.
When Niccol notices my Australian accent, I suggest that we might develop an antipodean rapport. He contemplates that for a couple of seconds: “You might just be faking it.”
Niccol is known for his exceptional and sometimes unnerving attention to microscopic detail. On the morning before a shoot, he’s been known to ride his (all-black) bicycle in shark-like circles around the set and the crew preparing it, inspecting every inch.
Behind the scenes of In Time, Niccol knew the exact automotive finish he wanted for Timberlake’s car and personally chose the glowing font for the digital timers implanted in characters’ forearms (“The right font was very important to him,” costume designer Priscilla Elliot tells me). Shot-disrupting trees were mercilessly cut down on his orders. (He was so firm in that demand that a location manager wondered if an aversion to trees was a “lifelong thing.”)
He supplies reams of reference illustrations and photography to his art department and location crew. He’ll even make the props himself. “Most directors are not even that engaged with those elements,” says Igor Knezevic, a concept illustrator, who worked on the handheld time capsule for In Time. “I couldn’t work it out, design-wise. He went away and an hour later came back with a mockup of the thing in 1:1 scale made of glued foamcore layers.”
When hiring assistants, one of the questions Niccol asks candidates is which they prefer: Frank Gehry’s flamboyantly curvaceous Guggenheim in Bilbao or the restrained boxiness of the Getty Museum. If they choose the Getty, they don’t get the job. “It’s just taste,” Niccol says.
From his leading men (Hawke, Timberlake, Owen, Al Pacino, Nicolas Cage), he coaxes a brooding intensity that resembles his own. His directorial style is to gently “lean them in one direction or another,” he says.
Hawke describes Niccol as shyly secretive but capable of startling brazenness. “I love watching him think,” he says. “He reminds me of a wise and powerful elf.” Another crew member describes Niccol as possibly having “just a tinge of evil.”
Niccol is always writing, if not physically putting words to paper, then daydreaming. (In Good Kill, January Jones’ character tells her drone pilot husband, played by Hawke, “If I didn't start a conversation with you then, I swear to God, we would never fucking have one.” The line, Jones has said, was taken from Niccol’s wife.) He’s a prolific filler of notebooks and a relentless accumulator of research and reference material, compiling hundreds of images for different projects. He has written at least half a dozen unproduced screenplays. (He describes one he’s especially keen on, about a modern-day descendant of the Manahatta-dwelling Lenape Indian tribe, living off the land in Central Park—another lonely soul rebelling against the world.)
For Niccol, the appeal of science fiction is its effectiveness as a Trojan horse—a go-to analogy for Niccol—that can smuggle tricky or challenging ideas onto the screen. “It’s a way to say something about today. The audience can detach and tell themselves, ‘This is the future. It’s nothing to do with me.’ When hopefully it has a lot to do with them. I want to give people a good time. But I like to sneak in an idea, almost unnoticed.”
Gattaca was set in the “not-too-distant future,” but Niccol emphasizes that he doesn’t think of his stories as futuristic. “I think of it more as a parallel present.”
Apart from his distaste for self-promotion, there’s another reason Andrew Niccol isn’t a household name. Not counting The Truman Show—or Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal, for which he wrote the story—Niccol hasn’t had anything you’d call a runaway box office hit. In 2011, his last movie, In Time, with a budget of $40 million, fell short of breaking even domestically.
Netflix purchased Anon for a reported $4 million. “There’s a reason it’s called show business,” Niccol says, apparently untroubled that the film is not screening in theaters in the US. “I’m not a purist. A good story’s a good story.”
But, he goes on to admit, getting projects off the ground has been a persistent challenge in his career. “The ideas that occur to me are expensive and unconventional,” he says. “That is the worst combination. You could go to a studio with an expensive idea or an unconventional idea. But not an expensive, unconventional idea. Studios are afraid of new ideas, and I’m afraid of old ones, so my life will always be difficult.”
“His ideas are often large,” Hawke agrees, “and need real money to achieve. I wish he had a fairy godmother. He should have a government grant. It’d be money well spent.”
Andrew Niccol grew up in Auckland, New Zealand. His father was an airline pilot for Air New Zealand, and his mother a high school English teacher. His father’s copies of New Scientist magazine were scattered around the house; the bookshelves were filled with books by the likes of Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury.
He spent much of his time making up stories, which he’d take to school to present to his teachers. At age 8, he was writing, illustrating, and designing his own newspaper. At around 10, he saw 2001: A Space Odyssey in a theater. “It remains the most immersive movie experience of my life. 3-D without the glasses.”
He attended the prestigious Auckland Grammar School, known for producing doctors, lawyers, footballers, and actor Russell Crowe. “It tried to beat out any creative bone in my body,” he says. Turned off by the experience of law school, he ditched the plan to be a lawyer—much to the disapproval of his mother—and, at 21, moved to London to pursue a career in advertising.
Niccol spent 10 years directing narrative-driven commercials. (In one, an ice hockey coach denies his team Pepsi, so they can channel their anger in their game.) Eventually, he became creative director of the London branch of the prominent agency BBDO. “It’s a great film school,” he says. “But once you realize you’re getting an award for something people go to the bathroom during, it loses its magic.”
“He always wanted to do things differently, saw the world in a different way,” says Steve Hastings, a colleague of Niccol’s at the time. “When he said, ‘I’m going to make films in Hollywood,’ I thought,”—sarcastically—“yeah, right.”
In the early ’90s, Niccol began working on what would become The Truman Show. On the cover of his draft was a picture of Edward Hopper’s gently surreal “Rooms by the Sea,” which places the viewer inside a sun-washed house looking through an open doorway that leads immediately to the sea and sky. Niccol spent around a year writing it, in the evenings and on lunch breaks.
He moved to New York in the mid '90s and, by his account, had no trouble finding interest in his script (“I knew it was a bulletproof idea”), but producer Scott Rudin refused to let a first-time director helm what would be an $80 million film. (Niccol would come to regret that The Truman Show was his first screenplay, and hence the one he missed out on directing himself.) Instead, the project went to director Peter Weir, who insisted on waiting a year for Jim Carrey to become available for the lead role.
In the meantime, Niccol wrote and directed Gattaca. The film confirms its arthouse-meets-sci-fi aspirations viscerally and immediately, opening with the sight of nail clippings the size of elephant tusks, hair follicles that resemble tree trunks, flakes of skin like sheets of shale—Ethan Hawke’s Vincent diligently scrubbing himself of his selfness—set to a haunting score by Michael Nyman.
The film was released with the tagline, “There’s no gene for the human spirit,” and had a tie-in website that invited visitors to design their own offspring. Critic Roger Ebert called it “one of the smartest and most provocative of science fiction films, a thriller with ideas.” It may have been too smart; Gattaca did poorly at the box office, easily overshadowed in its opening week by the teen slasher I Know What You Did Last Summer. Most of the plaudits would come long after its theatrical run.
So provocative were the scientific questions raised by Gattaca that few noticed it was also a meditation on the public self versus the private self—the former being the product of a painstaking deception.
In 1998, The Truman Show was released to considerably more fanfare and acclaim. More than a satire of television or surveillance, the film has endured because it works on multiple levels: as a parable of free will, fate, truth, and individuality; as a riff on the (newly trendy) theory that reality as we know it is a cruel or malfunctioning simulation; as a metaphor for our isolation in ideological bubbles. (The day before I meet Niccol, Louisiana senator John Kennedy, speaking about Cambridge Analytica, invoked the film when describing Facebook’s “contrived world”: “I mean, sometimes I feel like Truman in The Truman Show.”)
But The Truman Show—especially the original screenplay, which is more naked in its despair than the script that was shot—might also be read as a much more personal expression of existential anguish. The script opens with a quote from Lily Tomlin that didn’t make it to the final cut: “We are all in this alone.”
Writing it, Niccol carried the image in his head of Truman reaching the edge of his reality:
The sea really does meet the sky. The join is only too apparent. Looming above him out of the sea is a cyclorama of colossal dimensions. The sky is nothing but a painted backdrop. Truman looks upward, straining his eyes to see the top of the sky, but it curves away at a steep angle beyond his sight.
The bow of the boat comes to rest against the sky, bumping gently into its latex surface. Truman unties his binding and stumbles across the deck to the side rail. Clinging to the rail with one hand, he tentatively reaches out toward the painted cyclorama. He touches the sky.
He feels the surface, puts both terrified hands against it. His eyes well up with tears. He presses his distraught face into it. He screams at the top of his voice. No words. A primal scream. A pained, animal howl.
It may be the most revealing and deeply felt moment in any of Niccol’s scripts. In past interviews, he has said that hailing from the other side of the world has given him the wary worldview of as an outsider. In truth, the feeling runs deeper than that.
“I’ve always felt like a misfit or an outsider. Even in my own country. I have a book on my shelf that says, You Are Being Lied To. I’ve never read it, I just bought it because the title just spoke to me. I’ve always felt that. I guess my films are interrogating the world for truth.”
When Niccol first arrived in America to pursue his Hollywood dreams, he was given “Resident Alien” status. Many foreigners are appalled by the terminology. He was thrilled. “For me, it’s the perfect description of how I feel on this planet a lot of the time. In many ways, I feel I’ve arrived from another world and I’ve come into contact with a different life form.”
Niccol turns off the highway and drives us by the beach—in his films, a frequent site of cleansing and catharsis. His binder of reference imagery for The Truman Show includes a large section labeled “WATER” (along with “TESTING THE WORLD,” “ESCAPE,” and “THE END?”). He’s drawn to the ocean, not only by memories of coastal New Zealand but by the strangely comforting feeling of insignificance it instills in him. “Those waves were coming in and out long before me and will be long after I’m gone,” he says.
This particular one, Leo Carillo Beach, was the location for the pivotal scene in Gattaca in which the young Vincent, in contest with his brother, swims out as far as his body will allow, saving no energy for the return to shore. It was a favorite pastime of Niccol growing up, though, unlike in the movie, he did it alone. “It was a contest with myself.” One of the Gattaca souvenirs that Niccol has kept is Jerome’s silver swimming medal—a reminder of that character’s failure to live up to his genetic potential.
If Niccol’s subsequent films, though not lacking in ambition and ideas, haven’t captured audiences’ imaginations the way The Truman Show and, eventually, Gattaca did, he doesn’t seem to mind. The most important audience is in his head.
“I don’t think I’m satisfied with anything I’ve done,” he says. “It’s never how you dreamed it.” But, also, “I’m really only telling stories for myself. Even though of course it’s a very public medium. I’m really just doing it for myself and my close friends.”
For Anon, Niccol’s grandest hope is that it will give viewers something to think about.
“On one level, it’s a serial killer film,” he says. “On another, it might give someone pause about how much of themselves they are giving away.”
Days after the interview, back in New York, I receive an email from Niccol, reiterating his hopes that I reveal as little as possible about him in the story. “I kind of like the idea that you can’t be absolutely sure that you were interviewing Andrew Niccol or an actor playing him,” he writes.
That day, I overhear a conversation in a coffee shop: a man enthusiastically describing the plot and themes of his favorite sci-fi film to his 11-year-old grandson. “It’s about free will, destiny,” he says. He was talking about Gattaca.
For a startling moment, I feel like Truman incredulously encountering a corny or contrived plot point. Am I the one being ludicrously punk’d by the world? Should I be questioning the fabric of my own reality?
“It’s typical of how predictable the director of your reality show has become,” Niccol says, when I relate the scene to him. “How was the actors’ hair and makeup? When the show is behind schedule it can get very sloppy.”
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1 Correction appended, 5/8/18, 9:45 AM PST: A previous version of this story mistakenly identified Roberts as a former model.
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