'Jim & Andy' director on hanging with Jim Carrey: 'I didn't know who Jim was anymore'

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Jim Carrey looks back at himself, and Andy Kaufman, in Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond. (Photo: Netflix)

Earlier this year, Jim Carrey raised eyebrows when he turned an ordinary red carpet interview into a major metaphysical moment. Speaking with E! News, the former Ace Ventura star questioned the reality of our collective existence, remarking, “There is no me. There’s just things happening.” Nobody knew quite how to react to Carrey’s comments in the moment, but documentary filmmaker Chris Smith understood exactly what the actor was getting at. “Jim is constantly searching and evolving in terms of the way he thinks about his place on this planet at this time,” the director tells Yahoo Entertainment. “Most of us are so consumed with our day-to-day lives that we don’t get the time to step back and reflect. He’s at that point where he’s taking that time, and it leads you into places of self-reflection and trying to figure out what’s meaningful to you.”

Smith was uniquely positioned to decode Carrey’s remarks, having sat with the reclusive actor for an increasingly rare, and remarkably expansive, interview that lasted eight hours over a period of two days. That conversation forms the narrative and thematic spine of the new documentary, Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond — Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton, which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and was released on Netflix on Nov. 17. As the title indicates, the film explores the period that Carrey spent living inside of legendary comedian Andy Kaufman’s skin for the 1999 Miloš Forman biopic Man on the Moon. And Carrey really did inhabit the role, to the point where he essentially lived as Kaufman — who died in 1984 (or did he?) — even when Forman’s cameras weren’t rolling.

As it turns out, that off-camera performance was captured via behind-the-scenes footage filmed by Kaufman’s girlfriend, Lynne Margulies, as well as his partner in comic crime — and current inhabitant of Kaufman’s Tony Clifton get-up — Bob Zmuda. Unreleased for years, Carrey screened the material for director Spike Jonze, who nominated Smith to mine it for documentary fodder. The resulting film alternates Zmuda’s and Margulies’s footage with Carrey’s contemporary commentary. “I think when they turned the footage over to me, there was an expectation that the movie would interview multiple people about this experience,” Smith says. “My fear with that approach is that it would limit the movie to being a movie about the making of Man on the Moon. I felt there was an opportunity to make something bigger: not just an analysis of that film, but also an analysis of how that movie affected Jim going forward.” We spoke with Smith about where Carrey is today … and where he may be going next.

Yahoo Entertainment: How much behind-the-scenes footage from the Man on the Moon shoot exists?
Chris Smith:
There were 100 hours of footage, so we had to be really selective. I turned the material over to my longtime editor, Barry Poltermann, and he did a first pass. Then we worked together to get it down to three and a half hours. That was the footage we worked with in terms of constructing the interview. There’s so much interesting footage that a whole second movie could be made! But I feel like everything that’s supposed to be in there is in this cut.

Jim Carrey stares at his Andy Kaufman reflection in Jim & Andy. (Photo: Netflix)

We see Miloš Forman expressing a lot of exasperation with his star’s antics in the footage. As a director yourself, do you sympathize with him? Or do you think you’d be more tolerant of Carrey’s behavior?
It’s funny, I feel like I would enjoy and embrace the process. Miloš is a brilliant director who I think was very used to being in complete control of every element of his films. Whereas I feel like I’m very fluid in the sense of embracing the world around me. Over time, we did notice that they gained a mutual respect for each other. It felt like Miloš began to care for Andy and Tony and understood how to work with them. A lot of the initial frustration you see in our movie is from the beginning, but as the production went on, you see them working together in an easier way.

Did Carrey perhaps course-correct his behavior because he was aware of how much he was frustrating people?
I didn’t see it that way. He was pretty adamant about respecting Andy’s legacy and felt like he should stay the course the whole way though. And as Andy got sick, I think that the temperament and attitude changed.

Prior to Man on the Moon, Carrey had a very well-defined public identity in the ’90s. Since that movie, though, it’s gotten harder to get a sense of who he is. What were your thoughts about his public persona prior to making this movie?
That was most attractive thing about doing the movie: I didn’t know who Jim was anymore. I didn’t have a good sense about where he was in his life, and I thought he felt very underexposed in that way. There was a great opportunity there if he was willing to talk about these things. When I started working on this film, a lot of people asked me, “What happened to him? Where is he?” So it was interesting to sit down with him, because you got a sense of where he’s been and what he’s been up to.

How much time did you have with him prior to filming the interview?
I didn’t meet him until we sat down to do the interview. There’s an energy that comes from that initial interaction that I like to capture on film as opposed to having a discussion beforehand. We just sat down and started talking. I think he thought the movie was just going to be a reflection on that event. It wasn’t until he saw the first cut that he realized it was much more. I don’t think he even thought about the interview that much. There was something magical about the day we filmed where it was this very open and free dialogue right from the beginning. Of course, we started with the experience of playing Andy and being Andy, but it went in a lot of different directions very quickly.

Did you ever see flashes of Andy come out as you were talking to Carrey?
Jim would embody the character at times in terms of a reflection. So you would see glimpses. But it was definitely Jim in the room, and it was a real pleasure to get a sense of where he’s at now, especially from someone who was so articulate about being able to express their thoughts.

Were there any anecdotes from the interview that you had to omit, but gave you insight into who he is now?
We shot some amazing footage about Jim and his life that was too tangential to the themes and thesis of the movie we have today. There was a lot of material we filmed that was more biographical, and we ended up not being able to use that because when we would veer away from Man on the Moon too much, those things would be at odds with each other. We wanted to keep everything tied back to his experience with Andy; when it got too far away from that, it started to feel like a different film.

Jim Carrey in character on the set of Man on the Moon. (Photo: Netflix)

Did he express any guilt or remorse about his actions as Andy?
Yeah, I think he even expresses it in the movie. The choices Andy would make were different from the choices he would make. When he was in the wrestling scenes, he’s out of his mind. Andy was provocative and would provoke people and challenge them. I think that Jim definitely has elements of that, but not to the degree that Andy did.

Is there something you personally took away from this experience?
My takeaway is that the movie is really a mirror for us to look at ourselves, and think about the goals we set. Here you have somebody saying that he achieved everything he wanted to achieve and was still unhappy. So think about what you’re working towards and don’t just work blindly towards it, because it may not bring you happiness.

Based on what you saw, where do you think Carrey goes now? Does he do another movie like Man on the Moon or does he go back to broad comedy?
I think that’s one of the beautiful things about the movie. He’s one with the universe in terms of where he’s at, and is very much open to where things lead him. He talks about how each film was a reflection of where he was in his life at that time. He says in the movie that he’s waiting for the next project that fits where he is currently. I don’t think he’s desperate to make something for the sake of making it. He’s open to the possibilities that come his way.

Given the nature of Man on the Moon and this footage, was there ever a sense that he was playing you a little bit? That maybe he was doing a character?
I didn’t feel that way just because spending time with him when we weren’t filming, you could tell he was genuinely in a very thoughtful space. It’s a fair question. From my experience of spending time with him, he feels very much this person at this time. But he’s an incredible actor, so I guess anything’s possible! [Laughs]

Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond is currently streaming on Netflix.

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