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SCOTT ORLIN reports from the set of Edtv, the new Ron Howard comedy in which Matthew McConaughey’s Ed gets more than he bargained for when he wins 30 days of TV fame in a competition.

Matthew McConaughey knows a thing or two about instant fame. After A Time to Kill, the 29-year-old actor saw his life go from relative obscurity to stardom almost overnight: his face, which once basked in anonymity, now graced the cover of magazines like Vanity Fair. So it’s a little ironic that he is now starring in a film about a guy who gets catapulted into instantaneous celebrity.

"Ed and I aren't the same guy" Matthew McConaughey

"It's a nice mirror: it's pretty damn close," laughs the Texas-born actor, rubbing his hand through the stubble of his beard. In Edtv, McConaughey plays Ed Pekurny, a naïve young video-store clerk who wins a contest where the prize is having his whole life aired on cable TV for the next 30 days.

The show catapults Ed to instant superstardom. But it also showcases every turmoil and conflict that arises. Not only does it almost rip his dysfunctional family apart, but it also causes him to lose his sense of self.

It's not really his story, though, says McConaughey. "A lot of stuff that I've used from my own experiences is just reactions when you learn information for the first time. Ed and I aren't the same guy. He's my age, but he didn't go to school. I think he's a bit more of a simpleton, a little more of a boy. I never had this kind of scrutiny for 24 hours a day like Ed does. If I went out somewhere, it was all speculation. If Ed goes out, the whole world knows about it."

"when celebrities do dumb things, it's exposed everywhere." Ron Howard

You could be forgiven for thinking that the film sounds rather similar to last year's The Truman Show - a point which, unsurprisingly, is not lost on the film-makers. Although Edtv is loosely based on an obscure 1993 French-Canadian film called Louis XIX, King of the Airwaves, director Ron Howard readily acknowledges that some of the themes are comparable to the Jim Carrey vehicle. But, he points out, there are more differences than there are similarities. "Truman was set in a completely created environment that is unbeknownst to its principal," he notes. "In our film, the man knows what he is doing and allows himself to become a celebrity."

Part of the appeal for Howard in making the film was that it examined the impact the media can have on the lives of those who are caught in its glare. Having literally grown up in public in such TV series as The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days, a movie that looked at what it meant to get all that public attention struck a chord.

"Anybody who is in the public eye can relate to this," says Howard. "You know what it's like to have strangers calling out wisecracks from across the street at inappropriate times, or to have embarrassing photos show up in newspapers and magazines, or even just to do something stupid and not be able to keep it a secret. Let's face it," he sums up, "everybody does dumb things. But when celebrities do dumb things, it's exposed everywhere."\

"The fulfilment of fame has to come from within." Ron Howard

Howard cast the movie with this celebrity theme in mind, utilising the talents of Woody Harrelson as Ed's older brother, Ray; Elizabeth Hurley as his opportunistic girlfriend; Jenna Elfman as Ray's jilted girlfriend; Ellen DeGeneres as the network executive; Sally Kirkland and Dennis Hopper as Ed’s parents; and Martin Landau as his stepfather.

"All of the people in the film have pretty much found themselves in the media's eye in some kind of interesting way," notes Howard, relaxing between takes on Soundstage 19 on the Universal lot. "So, in that sense, from Woody to Jenna to Ellen, there is a lot of relatability there."

Realising that it might seem hypocritical for a group of film-makers to show only the pitfalls of fame, the director aims to take the audience with Ed on a comedic journey into the implications of becoming a pop celebrity. Further, he hopes to explore the aggravation and embarrassment that comes with it. "If there is a message," he declares, "it would be not to avoid fame at all costs, but that its fulfilment has to come from within."

"I heard this idea and thought it would be a great American comedy," Ron Howard

Although he scored early in his career with such comedies as Splash! and Parenthood, Howard has recently been filling his dance card with more serious fare like Apollo 13, Ransom, and Backdraft. So, for the award-winning director, Edtv marks a decisive return to his comedic roots. "I heard this idea and thought it would be a great American comedy," he says. "Plus, after all those other films, it's great to laugh in dailies [rushes] again!"

For the screenplay, Howard turned to long-time collaborators Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, two of the most sought-after writers in the industry. Having written the likes of Splash! and Parenthood for Howard, they also worked together on such hits as City Slickers and A League of Their Own. With EDtv, though, their most daunting task was opening up the storyline from the original premise, while at the same time keeping it simple.

Howard likewise wanted the finished film to be simple, unself-conscious and unpretentious. "I didn’t want to be preachy," he says. "It's very much an entertainment piece, yet we are stepping into an arena where people think a lot about these things and a lot is written about it. For us, the challenge has been to find a balance because, hopefully, we will be playing to a real smart audience."

Part of the problem they faced was that the concept they were using was not completely new. Back in 1970, the Public Broadcasting Service presented a series entitled An American Family, where cameras invaded the life of the Loud family. More recently, MTV has been running a successful series called The Real World, where the private lives of strangers have become a staple of weekly entertainment.

Ganz believes the difference with EDtv lies in its examination of how the media distorts real life. "Unlike other programmes," he stresses, "we see how this show on cable is supposed to be an examination of someone's real life. But, once it gets on TV, it's not real life anymore."

"Suddenly, you have this mirror in front of you all day and all night" Ron Howard

Howard agrees. "Those are all edited documentaries and this is a little more - a little bit more of how you live your life minute-to-minute, oblivious to what you are doing. Suddenly, you have this mirror in front of you all day and all night. Not only do you have to take a good hard look at yourself, but everyone else gets to look as well. And that's where it gets funny."

Although set in San Francisco, the $45-million movie only shot in the Bay area for three weeks. The remaining 11 weeks of production were spent in and around Los Angeles in such exotic locales as a pool hall, a bowling alley, a cemetery and a hockey rink. In the latter sequence, Howard was able to convince the National Hockey League to let him film during two 15-minute breaks of a San Jose/Anaheim game - the first time such permission has been granted.

One interesting twist the film-makers had to confront on set, meanwhile, were the crossover moments between reality and the movie. For example, there were two sets of production trucks: one contained props for the movie; the other was a prop. Likewise, every scene is not just among the characters: it's also about the cameras in the room, the people operating the cameras, the director in the truck and the network executives. Most obviously, there are two mobile video crews which tape the cast’s goings-on for the ‘inner’ part of the story. "Sometimes, there have been moments where it did get a bit confusing as to which camera is mine and which one is internal in the film," grins Howard.

Look closely behind one of those cameras and you may recognise Clint Howard, Ron's brother, who plays the cable show’s director. "He's having a blast with this part," boasts Howard the older, who always casts his younger brother in his films. "Most of his stuff will be shot after we've videotaped everything, but he is hysterical."

As the title suggests, a lot is riding on the shoulders of Ed Pekurny, which means that McConaughey, as the film's protagonist, really has to capture the audience's sympathy. Initially, the part was written as a working-class guy from New Jersey, sort of in the My Cousin Vinny mode. When McConaughey was cast, however, the script was geographically tailored for him. "It's a much different sound than what the writers usually write," notes Howard, "and I think it's really been refreshing."

"He is such a downhome guy who had this meteoric rise," Woody Harrelson on Matthew McConaughey

If McConaughey is feeling the pressure, it doesn't show; and co-star Woody Harrelson believes that he is entirely up to the task. "It's really appropriate for Matthew to be playing this part, because he is such a downhome guy who had this meteoric rise," he says. Producer Brian Grazer agrees. "Matthew was chosen for his charisma and his performance in the film Dazed and Confused. I think audiences will love him."

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