After 15 years, “The Truman Show” Leaves a Lasting Legacy By Wendy O. Dixon
In 1995, the Florida Panhandle was pummeled by Hurricane Opal, one of the most severe hurricanes to make landfall in Florida in recent memory, causing millions of dollars in damage with its 140 mph wind gusts and a storm surge of 8-14 feet. While Seaside fared better than most beach communities along the Florida coast, the perception nationally was that the entire Panhandle was completely washed out.
“Our normal visitors had the impression that we suffered heavy damage,” said town founder Robert Davis. “The news media was kind enough to show that we were OK, but that didn’t overcome the impression that there was no point in coming to Seaside.”
So it was fortuitous that Paramount Pictures sought to film a movie in Seaside, bringing 300 crew members and a Hollywood budget, which helped the local economy recover. The impact is still felt 15 years after filming, drawing a new group of curious visitors who love seeing sights that were shown in the movie.
“The Truman Show,” directed by Peter Weir and starring Jim Carrey, tells of Truman Burbank, a regular nice guy who unknowingly stars in the most famous reality television show of all time. A film some would say was ahead of its time with the concept of reality TV, the movie portrays a genre that was little known at the time the film made its début in the summer of 1998.
With 24-hour access to Truman through thousands of concealed cameras, viewers across the country are engrossed in watching the lovable husband who longs to travel. But in order to keep Truman within the dome-shaped television studio, his efforts to leave the cheery but suffocating town are continually stifled by other characters on the show, all actors playing the roles of his manipulative parents, wife and friends.
Negotiations for filming
Weir needed to shoot the film in what would be a hyper-stylized, storybook town called Seahaven Island. After rejecting the back lots in Los Angeles, he searched for a real town.
“I thought it should be in a sort of holiday resort,” said Weir, “the ideal place … a dream haven.” Weir had never heard of Seaside.
“We were originally looking for a location on the east coast of Florida,” said producer Edward Feldman. “And then we were told by Peter Weir’s wife, Wendy, that there was a place called Seaside she had read about in Architectural Digest that Peter should take a look at. Once we took a look at it, it was some kind of dream. Seaside is a set.”
Linda Page Sargeant, Bay County film commissioner at the time, was tasked with finding the locations for filming, which included a pier, hospital, deserted road and, of course, the town of Seahaven. She guided Weir and the production designer all over the Emerald Coast. “We had a lot of places to look at,” she said. “But I saved the best for last when I showed them Seaside.”
But Davis was reluctant at first to let the film be shot in Seaside, concerned about the kitsch stylization of the town the film would execute.
“We actually knew they were going to make it kitsch,” said Davis, who made an appearance in the film with wife and Seaside-cofounder, Daryl Davis. “I thought long and hard about it, but I thought it was brilliant as a finished product.”
Once the negotiations were settled, Seaside became home to hundreds of new temporary residents from Hollywood, creating buzz and excitement in the 30A community like never before.
“Seaside was well known in a limited circle before the movie,” said Robert Davis. “Mostly among architects, designers and urbanists. And it had been published in the popular press. But this brought other people to Seaside who might not have an interest in architecture and new urban design—it made a real difference.”
The town greatly benefited from the influx of a massive film crew, according to Daryl Davis. “All of a sudden they show up with so many trucks,” she said. “With wardrobe in one truck, makeup in another, landscaping in another. Suddenly 300 people were working in Seaside. We were so thrilled they showed up, because they helped the local economy and made things better than they were likely to have been.”
Some of the cast and crew lived in homes in Seaside. Others stayed in various 30A residences and resorts during the six months of filming. “It really gave Seaside a great boost,” Sargeant recalled. “I could only guess at the income, but it would have been in the millions.”
Negotiations also benefited the Seaside Neighborhood School, with location fees paid by Paramount helping to build the first building.
“It was fun because it gave you a real insight into what goes into movie making,” Daryl Davis said. “We asked them to stop for a holiday weekend, and four days is a long time to take off when shooting a movie. They were very nice to do that. Paramount Pictures was wonderful.”
As the set was being built, Seaside rapidly was transformed into Seahaven. Production design involved creating a synthetic, stylized, too perfect world in which Truman lived. Seaside, with its pastel homes and white picket fences, fit the Norman Rockwell-style suburb the film needed. Modica Market was largely unchanged, as its design fit ideally with the small town grocery store in the film.
Using computer-generated imagery, upper levels were added to two downtown buildings in Seaside. A concrete entranceway into Truman’s office was placed in what is now Ruskin Place, still recognizable in the park. Otherwise, the town needed few modifications.
The cottage at 31 Natchez Street served as Truman’s home, owned by Florida Senate President Don Gaetz and his wife, Vicky Gaetz. The home was chosen partly because of its location on the west side of Natchez Street. The exterior was painted in bright hues, and a lawn was added, as well as a grill and some garden gnomes. The interior of the home was filled with different furniture, but the rest remained as the Gaetzes designed it. A replica of the interior was used off-site during inclement weather. With no detail spared for the duplicate home, even the doorknobs were the same.
When filming wrapped, as if by movie magic, the Gaetzes found their home just as they left it, as the production crew repainted the home in its original color and removed the yard accessories. And just as fairytale princess Cinderella kept her glass slippers after her magical night at the ball, the Gaetz home also has a memento from its time in the spotlight in the form of the house number, which causes slight confusion for those seeking the address. While the home is number 31, Truman’s home was number 36.
“It might have been more visually pleasing to see a number 36 on the house, rather than 31,” Vicky Gaetz guessed. “People still come here, no matter the time of year, to take a photo of the home. It’s the first question they ask when they visit Seaside. It’s astonishing to me that there is still so much interest in it.”
Behind the Scenes
In showbiz, nothing is what it seems. Amy Walchak and her husband, Marty, were bartenders at Shades (now Great Southern Café), the façade of which was used in the movie. The restaurant didn’t shut down for production. Instead, it was a daily retreat for the crew. “They had impressive resumes. The crew had worked on a lot of movies and shared stories of other stars. One makeup artist was at one time Richard Burton’s makeup artist,” Walchak said. “Peter Weir was especially nice.”
Many Seaside locals found the oddness of seeing their town transformed into a movie set intriguing. “We had to go to work on the movie set for months, which was kind of weird and funny,” Walchak said. “We had a dishwasher who really wanted to be an extra, but didn’t get chosen. He would dress up in period costume anyway, and wherever the extras were hanging, he went. I think he may have sneaked into the movie.”
David Rauschkolb, owner of Bud & Alley’s restaurant, The Pizza Bar and The Taco Bar, along with Seaside residents Willie and Leah Mason, became fast friends with Weir and the crew.
“Every morning, we’d eat breakfast with all the actors,” said Rauschkolb, who became the unofficial weather reporter, letting the crew know if there was a cold front coming in during the winter months of filming. “They were so accessible. Peter even let me look through camera during filming.”
“We just wouldn’t go away,” added Leah Mason. “Even if they filmed all night, we’d stay up all night. They started calling us the Three Amigos.”
Filming on the beach required the use of a series of large mats that allowed vehicles to move over the soft sand. Willie Mason’s connections with nearby Eglin Air Force Base provided mats, which gave him an insider access to the filming process. It turned out to be a fun time for him and his wife Leah. “When they filmed all night, they’d get the wine bar to open as the sun came up,” Leah Mason said. “They’d have black and white movies playing in the bar, commenting on the direction and pointing out things. They’d drink until about noon, go sleep and then work all night.”
Not only was Seaside used extensively in the film, so were its townsfolk. Town founders Robert and Daryl Davis giggled together while adorned in costume. And Charlie Sr. and Sarah Modica, along with their son, Charlie Jr., played the roles of store clerks in Modica Market. Radio personality Logan Kelly played a television commentator.
Matt Christ, who played one of the young Trumans in the movie, was six years old when he was first introduced to the business of movies. “As a very young person at the time, movies seemed magical,” he said. “I didn’t comprehend how a professional staff and company could not only dream up a story, but make that story a concrete reality. Seeing the actual business of making the movie, where entire units were set up to feed the cast, or take care of nothing else but the lights, made a lasting impression on me. It made me cognizant of the enormous creativity that was possible when a group of professional and dedicated people worked together.”
Christ, who won the role of young Truman because he was the only child among the hopefuls who could read, said the experience of being in front of a camera crew forced him to overcome his shyness. “The first time I saw Jim Carrey I leapt behind a column to hide because I was so painfully shy,” he recalled. “He must have seen me, and took to playing a game of hide-and-seek to coax me out.”
Carrey had an ice cream truck brought to Seaside for the boy. “He could have anything he wanted,” said Matt’s mother, Jamie Christ. “It was a very exciting time not only for a six year old little boy, but for his parents as well.”
Christ recalls that Carrey was friendly and funny, just like many of his characters in previous movies. “Every time we interacted he went to great lengths to make me laugh,” Christ said, “propping me up on an ice cream truck’s counter and repeating my orders in a hilarious, exaggerated manner as only Jim Carrey can do.”
Though his part was cut from the theatrical version, he receives royalty checks each month, and his scene shows up in the DVD deleted scenes. “We didn’t even know he made it into the DVD until years later,” said Jamie Christ.
The Masons and Rauschkolb were each offered a role in the movie, too. “Only Dave said yes,” Willie Mason said. “He got royalties because of his speaking part, and every time he got a royalty check, he’d make a copy of it and wave it at me.”
“They put me in a sailor outfit and gave me one line, ‘OK, we sail without him?’ But maybe I wasn’t supposed to say it as a question. In hindsight, I wished I would have just asked,” Rauschkolb laughed. “The scene was cut, but I got to see it in the dailies.”
Kent Smith, set production assistant, was charged with cuing a difficult scene in which several cars were to simultaneously charge toward the center street to keep Truman from escaping Seahaven. “We did it in one take—it was an amazing feat,” Smith said. “Those extras were the best I’ve ever worked with.” Smith was also tasked with memorizing every person on set, to prohibit unwanted press or onlookers from snapping photos. “That’s why there aren’t a lot of photos around,” he said. “Jim Carrey didn’t want any photos taken of him.”
All actors were gracious and nice, say several people who were involved in the filming. “They were very accessible,” Rauschkolb said. “All but Jim Carrey, probably because he was newly married.”
Seaside celebrated the end of filming with a wrap party at the Red Bar in Grayton Beach. Later, the movie premiered in Fort Walton Beach, and locals dressed up in tuxedos and evening gowns celebrated with a reception in the Lyceum, followed by a bus ride to the premier. “It was so much fun to get dressed up and see the premier,” Walchak said.
Rauschkolb describes the experience like a circus coming to town — here one day and gone in a flash. “It was a wonderful thing for Seaside,” he added. “I don’t think it would ever happen quite like that again.”
Filmed 15 years ago, The Truman Show pre-dated the rise of reality television, and gave a glimpse into what is now a popular TV genre. “It was light years ahead of its time,” Daryl Davis said, adding that the experience of filming a movie about one man being watched resonated with her. “It was a game changer for me. I felt a little like Truman. I felt like I had no privacy in my life. In the scene where he starts climbing up the stairs to the door that leads to the real world, that door, for me, represented letting go of my role as a compulsive person with regard to Seaside. I learned that everything was not my problem.”