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Living dangerously: Geoff Murphy 1938-2018

Geoff Murphy. Photo/Jane Ussher

With his three local classic films, outspoken director Geoff Murphy became a leading pioneer of New Zealand cinema before reluctantly becoming a Hollywood gun-for-hire. 

Geoff Murphy’s career was a bit like the yellow mini he made famous in Goodbye Pork Pie. It involved lots of handbrake turns suddenly spinning him down a different road or heading him back the way he came – quite possibly with a raised finger out the window, accompanied by a hilarious one-liner.

The haphazard drive to Murphy becoming a pioneer of New Zealand films was brash, noisy and fuelled by sheer bloody-mindedness. It occasionally backfired when it clocked up higher mileage. It sometimes got stuck in Hollywood traffic. But in its tracks, Murphy left three classic New Zealand movies.

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After his car-chase comedy became such a hit in 1981, Murphy quickly delivered his “puha Western” Utu in 1983, then last-man-on-earth sci-fi story The Quiet Earth in 1985.

Viewed today, Goodbye Pork Pie remains the generational touchstone. Utu’s mana has only increased, especially since its 2013 director’s cut and restoration as Utu Redux. The Quiet Earth remains a testimony to the screen magnetism of the late Bruno Lawrence, whose early acting career was intertwined with Murphy through their friendship and time together in the travelling musical troupe Blerta.

Together, Murphy’s three first features offered a blokey, nervy, defiant, often mordantly funny picture of life in Godzone, past, present and future.

The man himself, who has died at the age of 80 after a long illness, led an often complicated life. He was married three times and had six children. Most spent time working on their Dad’s sets growing up. They now populate the NZ screen industry; his third-oldest, Matt Murphy, directed the 2016 remake of his father’s car movie.

Goodbye Pork Pie will forever remain Murphy senior’s best-loved film, if not by him. “It is clever, but it is not a work of genius, as claimed by some of the more enthusiastic critics …,” Murphy wrote in his 2015 autobiography.

It was a simple story – two losers team up to find a purpose in life: “We’re taking this bloody car to Invercargill, boy.” The zany rebel spirit and driving antics of Murphy’s two smart-mouthed louts proved infectious. He predicted it would.

“I wanted good red-blooded Kiwi blokes sitting in the back seat of the theatre with their sheilas to think, ‘I could do that’, and, in fact, when the film came out, they did do that in their minis all over the country.”

It became a phenomenon, selling an estimated 600,000 tickets locally and being sold overseas. Adjusted for inflation it’s still among the top-10 home-grown hits.

It was Utu, though, that he regarded as his best film, with its story of Te Wheke, a scout for British colonial troops avenging the massacre of his tribe by the army that recruited him. Murphy had wanted to make the story since the late-1960s, when he was starting out.

When released here, it did roughly half the business of Goodbye Pork Pie and the reviews were generally unkind.

“When you make a film about racial conflict, you are living dangerously,” Murphy said at the time. “When you make a film about racial conflict in a country that congratulates itself on what a successful bicultural society it is, the danger heightens.”

“Perhaps Utu was simply ahead of its time,” he reflected later in his book. “The country has certainly changed in the years since.”

Influential New Yorker reviewer Pauline Kael singled the film out for a rave upon its US release. Utu got Murphy invited to Hollywood – but for his action-directing chops. As well as orchestrating those car chases in Goodbye Pork Pie, Murphy was a good keen bloke when it came to blowing things up.

“I think there are two sorts of people in the world – people who like explosions and people who hate them,” he told the Listener in 1981. “I’m one of the ones who likes them.”

Murphy’s DIY approach to pyrotechnics first erupted, often leaving live audiences diving for cover, in the Blerta days. When Roger Donaldson made his 1977 hit Sleeping Dogs, it was Murphy, armed with gelignite, gunpowder and petrol, helping RNZAF Skyhawks strafe a forest and a fleeing Sam Neill. His otherwise forgettable 1988 local thriller Never Say Die began with an impressive explosion, which levelled a Ponsonby villa.

Also going up in flames at the time of that film were Murphy’s finances, necessitating becoming a hired hand in Hollywood. Initially, he blew his big break stateside. Murphy had been in line to direct Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator when word got to the star that Murphy had jokingly called him “Cronin the Librarian” during a meeting about directing a third Conan film. “It was my big mouth.”

But in the 1990s, he cranked out movies, including some westerns (Young Guns II, The Last Outlaw), a solid Steven Seagal thriller (Under Siege 2) and some duds (Freejack).

“You do undergo considerable humiliation in making those American things,” Murphy told this writer in 2004. “The whole concept of watching this incredibly high level of talent make this garbage can get really soul-destroying.”

In the early 2000s, he was back in New Zealand directing second-unit action for The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

In 2004, he had one last go at a New Zealand drama of his own with Spooked, a conspiracy thriller starring Cliff Curtis. It disappeared without trace. Murphy took it as a sign: “I was now well into my sixties and I decided it was probably time to move on. After all, it wasn’t a fit occupation for a grown man.”

In recent years, Murphy collected various lifetime-achievement awards as well as delivering his autobiography, a scathingly funny memoir, which reminds that Murphy remains the Godfather of one other fixture in the local movie industry. When it comes to the now ancient tradition of complaining that the NZ Film Commission has failed to see the genius in a submitted script, Murphy wrote the book.

This article was first published in the December 15, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.