Ace Ventura at 30: 'We thought we were making the biggest piece of rubbish'

Ace Ventura: Pet Detective launched Jim Carrey into the stratosphere. Three decades on, the movie’s cinematographer reveals what made it such a sleeper hit.

Jim Carrey's career took off like a rocket in 1994 with a triple whammy of hits, including Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. (Alamy)
Jim Carrey's career took off like a rocket in 1994 with a triple whammy of hits, including Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. (Alamy)

By the end of 1994, it was safe to say that Jim Carrey was the biggest movie star on the planet. Which is incredible considering the three movies that had propelled him to that position all came out that very year.

Ace Ventura: Pet Detective was the one that started it all. Released on 4 February, 1994, it was a low-budget, low-expectation slapstick comedy featuring a low-profile Canadian actor who was best known for gurning his way through Black-centric Saturday Night Live knock-off In Living Color.

By December, the film was a sleeper smash having made £58million on a £12m budget. Not bad for first-time movie scribe Jack Bernstein and debut director Tom Shadyac, the latter of whom had previously been a dialogue coach and gag writer. In fact, the title of most famous person on the film was a toss-up between actress Sean Young and American football star Dan Marino. Cinematographer Julio Macat was used to newbies though, having worked with Chris Columbus on Home Alone

“Tom was concerned about it,” says Macat from Wilmington, North Carolina, where he’s excitedly prepping for the comedy Merv, directed by Brit Jessica Swale (Summerland). “But I said, ‘Look, just work on the performances and the writing of the jokes. And I'll cover you and shoot enough shots to make the point and get the scene.”

Released in 1994, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective starred Jim Carrey and veritable menagerie of furred, feathered, and finned creatures. (Alamy)
Released in 1994, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective starred Jim Carrey and veritable menagerie of furred, feathered, and finned creatures. (Alamy)

“Both of us were pretty young, you know, we were in our early thirties,” he continues. “But we kind of discovered it together. [He] worked with the actors and I blocked most of the scenes, because he was just learning about blocking, but he had a great sense of the comedic rhythm. Everything for him started with the dialogue and the ridiculous comedy situations.”

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Ultimately though, a movie like Ace Ventura was going to live or die by its lead actor. Various (very random) people were considered, including Rick Moranis, Alan Rickman, David Alan Grier and Whoopi Goldberg. But when Carrey was cast, the film changed shape, leaning into the performer’s physicality and flair for improv.

Macat was certainly bowled over by his first meeting with the star.

DADDY'S HOME 2, director of photography Julio Macat, 2017. ph: Claire Folger/©Paramount Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection
Cinematographer Julio Macat, pictured at work in 2017. (Paramount/Everett Collection)

“Tom Shadyac says, ‘I want you to meet Jim Carrey, let's go to his hotel room and say hello,” he remembers. “So we knock on the door and the door opens and it's Jim Carrey, completely naked. He extends his hand and goes, ‘Hey! How are you?’ And my reaction to it was, ‘Oh, mine's bigger than yours.’ And he laughed.”

“I mean, I don't know that there's any other comedian that could have pulled it off,” he adds. “He was like a rubber band, man, he could do anything.”

Nevertheless, though they knew their hero was talented, that didn’t mean they weren’t unsure about how the film would come out.

THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO -- Episode 512 -- Pictured: (l-r) Actor Jim Carrey sings as host Jay Leno watches on August 04, 1994-- (Photo by: Margaret Norton/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)
By the end of 1994, Jim Carrey - seen here appearing on The Tonight Show in August that year - was the biggest star in Hollywood. (Getty Images)

“We thought we were making the biggest piece of rubbish that ever existed,” admits Macat. “We all just kind of went at it like, this could be outrageously funny, or it could be the biggest piece of s***. We did a lot of stuff that was silly for the sake of being silly. That's the magic of filmmaking — you never know how it will be received.”

The movie shot in Florida in the wake of an awful hurricane and the filmmakers ended up finding locations that had been devastated, such as the home of mysterious ‘villain’ Ray Finkle. They also got permission to film at Joe Robbie Stadium, home of the Miami Dolphins.

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“We had advertised on the radio, if you want to come out and meet Dan Marino, whatever,” says Macat. “We filled up a quarter of the stadium, which was incredible, something like a thousand people came out. Dan Marino did a great job.

ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE, Dan Marino, Jim Carrey, 1994. (c) Warner Bros./ Courtesy: Everett Collection.
American football star Dan Marino put in a sporting cameo alongside Jim Carrey in 1994's Ace Ventura. (Alamy)

"I did give him a football and I ran to the end zone and I said, ‘You got to toss me a pass, because I have to say that I caught a pass in the end zone from Dan Marino. He did and as I caught the ball, which was thrown pretty hard, I dropped my light meter, I busted my stuff, but it was well worth it. And I still have the ball!”

“One day, Shadyac wanted to have the whole crew race on the running track around the stadium,” he continues. “It’s like high school. He took off like a rocket and won. Half of the crew dropped off after 20 metres.”

Of course, the cinematographer had already worked with children thanks to Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone, but he broke the other cardinal rule of filmmaking with Ace Ventura and its cast of animals.

“The word is patience,” he grins. “I have sat for three hours waiting for a cat to hit his mark. You have to not be uptight because animals sense that. You want to be mellow. But the dolphin was really well-behaved.”

Jim Carrey's animal-loving Ace Ventura was never far from his furry friends. (Alamy)
Jim Carrey's animal-loving Ace Ventura was never far from his furry friends. (Alamy)

Thirty years later, making the film still evokes fond memories. “I remember it was a really fun set,” he says. “Most of the crew had a crush on [Sean Young]. This was a modest comedy with a modest schedule and Jim just went for it. And then the fact that the co-stars played it more real grounded it in a strange way, so he was still liked by the girlfriend and the threat of the story was still a real threat.”

“I remember not long ago, I ran into Jim and we talked for a while and he goes, ‘Hey man, all I can tell you is that we worked on a classic.’ So I think he still thinks of it as special, you know, jumping off the diving board and not knowing exactly what he was going to do.”

And make a splash he did. After Ace Ventura, 1994 also saw the release of The Mask in July, followed by Peter Farrelly's Dumb and Dumber in December.

As Ace himself would say: 'Alrighty then!'

Ace Ventura: Pet Detective is streaming on Netflix and NOW with a Sky Cinema Membership.