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Geoff Murphy: The outsider

Geoff Murphy. Photo/Jane Ussher

Geoff Murphy has always had a fondness for things that blow up. In 2007, as he took on that fraught genre, the sitcom, Diana Wichtel caught up with the veteran Kiwi film-maker.

Geoff Murphy – film-maker, perennial outsider, national treasure. At 68, and looking only a little more feral than he always was, he’s retired. Sort of. He’s just finished directing a local sitcom currently screening on Prime, set in backpacker bedlam and ominously entitled Welcome to Paradise.

He really should make a movie set in Wellington’s Aro Valley, a chilly, spooky location on a late afternoon in early spring, with evening and the surrounding bush closing in. There’s a school built on the site of an old prison where utu was once exacted by means of the rope. Back in the 40s, one of its roads, “a small backwater of houses of indifferent quality”, was proposed as a site for the university to conduct research involving radioactivity and explosions.

So it’s oddly appropriate to find Murphy here. He was a founding member, with Bruno Lawrence, of Blerta, the trippy 70s band and multimedia extravaganza that travelled New Zealand, frightening the horses. Murphy was known for experiments with explosives that stopped just short of nuclear. At one church hall happening, two rows of South Island hippies were blown over backwards in their pews – some sort of anti-war statement, apparently – by overly exuberant Murphy pyrotechnics.

He left Blerta to pursue something then even more wildly improbable – an international movie career, characterised by explosions of brilliance that knocked more than local audiences back in their pews.

Murphy: man of lists. Best New Zealand movies? Murphy’s films of the early 80s – Goodbye Pork Pie, Utu, The Quiet Earth – invented a blokey, anxious, mutinous version of life marooned at the ends of the Earth. Welcome to paradise.

New Zealand song? “Dance All Around the World”, Blerta’s great and only hit. Best New Zealand dialogue? There’s Utu’s “I’ve only been Pakeha for one minute and already I hate you Maori.” Personal favourite: Goodbye Pork Pie’s immortally existential “We’re taking this bloody car to Invercargill, boy.”

Murphy’s style was forged filming gags for Blerta shows. That sort of anarchy takes discipline. “See, we never had any sound. All that stuff was shot to go with music or it was silent comedy. So I learnt to tell stories with pictures. That stood me in really good stead, I think. If I was making a drama and I was struggling with it, sometimes I’d go, ‘How would I make this if we didn’t have any sound guy?’”

Geoff Murphy movie Goodbye Pork Pie.

Images do linger. Bruno in lingerie in The Quiet Earth, reworking the notion of man alone. “See, that was his idea. The crew was sniggering and I was saying shut up. Bruno’s saying, ‘Well, I’m lonely and I’m smelling women’s clothes, because that’s all gone, and I’m trying to be both.’ Frightened the shit out of me.”

You could do a lot worse for an image of postcolonial bewilderment than Pork Pie’s imported, increasingly battered yellow Mini.

“The country was beginning to slip downhill economically, socially and racially,” Murphy has said. “Suddenly, here was a film where the heroes didn’t buy any of this shit. And it was funny. It was the last laugh.”

He tends to recount his career as if it’s been one long, unexpectedly successful Blerta prank. Murphy may be a trumpet player but you don’t blow it on your own behalf. There’s nothing grand-old-man-of-movies about the terrace house that he occupies. Up a winding, still-bohemian street, it looks like it was once a dairy. The bathroom is outside. “Did you remember the lemon?” asks his partner, Diane, when he makes us afternoon tea. He did. The cake tin is opened. The house is warm, welcoming and deeply unglamorous. He came out of the movie thing okay? “Oh yeah. America looked after that. I don’t need to work.”

So, what possessed him to take on that most cursed of local genres, the sitcom? His mate Dave Gibson asked him. “He said, ‘There’s 13 of them.’ Then he said, ‘We’re shooting two a week.’ Then he said, ‘And there’s no money.’ I said, ‘I’ll do it!’” The memory of this incomprehensible folly sets off an attack of his orchestral smoker’s laugh. “I think he thought he was going to get Cheers.”

Inevitably, the spectre of TV3’s Melody Rules comes up. “That had a great cast and it bombed. People left for Australia afterwards, they were so embarrassed,” he points out gleefully. He’s always had a fondness for things that might blow up in your face. The man who took on second unit director on The Lord of the Rings admits he was a bit worried. “Because they never work. It’s so rare any sort of New Zealand comedy doesn’t get savaged. This one might, too. But I’m confident they’re funny.” There’s an element of surreality – “I could smell it in the scripts” – that suited his style. They work- shopped the scripts for three weeks. “It was my condition. Because I was frightened.” He hastens to put in a good word for the writers.

“They did a great job. I’d like you to say that, because we had a lot of fights.”

Geoff Murphy's Utu.

His sitcom philosophy is simple: “It has to have a situation and it has to be comic. If it’s not funny then it has to be something else. It has to be something, even sad. So long as you’re always delivering entertainment to the audience at a fairly brisk pace with enough laughs in it you’ll be all right.”

Murphy’s first instruction as a director is always “Show me what you’ve got.” This cast, he says, rose to the challenge. One of them came up with a gag that involved the manager addressing the hostel’s manpower problem via an excruciating dance that recalls David Brent, but without the benefit of clothes. “I didn’t have the faintest idea that there was a male strip group called Manpower that was quite famous. I’d never heard of them,” marvels Murphy. “They’re funny, talented kids,” he says fondly. “They’re beautiful and confident and they make you sick.”

They teased him about being deaf. “Sometimes I wondered what they thought of this old codger who was bumbling around the set. I think it was a lot more casual than what they’re used to.” Murphy can be wonderfully vague. “You’re not taking notes,” he says part way through our chat. I point to the tape recorder. “Oh.”

But the laid-back-to-the-point-of-coma routine is deceptive. “A lot of sergeant-major drilling went on,” he says, of Paradise, “because the essence of exciting situation comedy is the precision.”

In the end, he had a good time, shyly proffering as evidence a photo from the cast, of a clutch of fresh-faced young things with some wild-haired loon in their midst. Nice. Only it’s inscribed “To Zac Murphy”.

“The thing is, I kept getting their names wrong all the time. Right to the end. I called them all Zac.” Ah, yes. Utu.

Murphy’s no stranger to a bad review. He recalls Radio New Zealand’s assessment of his 1983 kumara western, Utu. “The guy was saying, ‘This film stars Zac Wallace who has been involved in a lot of union disputes. Well, Zac, don’t give up your day job because you can’t act.’” Foreign critics were kinder. “Utu got me into America where Pork Pie didn’t. They recognised it as a powerful dramatic statement.” The downside: “They tended to see me as an action director. So I spent a lot of years making American rubbish.”

Leaving wasn’t a choice. “I could have stayed here and gone bankrupt … The phones were ringing, saying come over and make these films for ridiculous money. My fee for the second film I made there, Young Guns II, was bigger than the entire budget of Pork Pie. And they call you ‘Sir’ and treat you like you’re really important.”

Even so, there was considerable culture shock for a man then more at home on a Hawke’s Bay commune called Snoring Waters, with the likes of Bruno Lawrence and cinematographer Alun Bollinger. “It was outrageous. It was so ridiculous in Hollywood. Blerta made a lot more sense … I was thinking, ‘Take me back there. Get on the road and smoke a joint.’”

It was a newly constrained way of working. “Making a film like Utu, we wrote the script, then I took it to the commission and got it up, got it running. In other words you were the auteur. When you get to the States, they give you a script, which you think is marginal anyway, and you see that your task is to be a craftsman, to turn this script into something that’s reasonably entertaining.”

Geoff Murphy's Spooked.

His blunt Kiwi style wasn’t always an asset. “They’d ask what I thought of the script and I’d say I think it’s fixable. And my agent would say that’s not what you say. You say it’s great.”

He got fired quite often. “By the time I left Hollywood, I think I’d offended most people,” he says with some satisfaction. “The producers and above were the ones who took offence. I was extraordinarily popular on the set with actors and crew. Because I didn’t tend to throw tantrums.”

But was it fun? “It has the disadvantage of being full of Americans. There were certain aspects to it that were good, but I wouldn’t recommend it. And I was living there as a very wealthy person.”

He did some things he’s proud of. “Young Guns II is a pretty good western.” But there was nothing of the originality of the early films. “People used to ask why I didn’t put my own stuff up to the studios. I couldn’t bear it being screened in front of a bunch of 18-year-olds who write things like ‘Not enough sex.’ And spell ‘enough’ wrong.”

Murphy’s been pretty outspoken back here, too, over the years, about the frustrations of mainstream television and film funding. “Yeah, it has got worse. The more money involved, the more bullshit there is, there’s absolutely no doubt.” But he seems to have mellowed. On television now: “I don’t take that much notice of it. I tend to watch the rugby.”

He’s philosophical about Spooked, the 2004 movie he made here that tanked. “The Geoff Murphy film doesn’t relate to the modern situation like it used to,” he muses. But he can see the funny side. “It’s really hard to make a thriller in New Zealand, because it’s not thrilling here,” he explains, with wonderfully Blerta-esque logic. “Attendance of Spooked was so low it couldn’t have been the film. It wasn’t word of mouth. No one went to see it!”

People approach him about doing foreign films. If it happens, it happens. “You spend six months in another country and you’d come back with hundreds of thousands more dollars. Can’t hurt.”

Outside for photos. Murphy takes us to his backyard studio, where he keeps the trumpet, the family photos. There are several film-makers among his six adult kids. “Paul’s making a feature film here up at Paraparaumu. It’s a comedy. He’s got two of the Paradise cast in it. We’ll see how he gets on with them.” There are vast numbers of model ships. “He’s building a fleet,” says Diane.

There are some DVDs he made of last year’s New Year’s Eve party at Snoring Waters. There’s Murphy playing with a jazz band. Who knew you could smoke and play the trumpet at the same time?

There’s footage of the annual kids’ show. A new generation of children with surnames like Murphy, Bollinger and Lawrence perform on a stage built by Bruno and restored by Geoff. “That,” says Murphy, indicating a beautiful, funny little girl prancing around the stage like she owns it, “is Bruno’s granddaughter.” Even his home movies play like documentaries of our cultural history.

Local film-makers are warned: “I’m thinking of entering next year’s 48-Hour Film Festival. Like an amateur.” Still making pictures, having the last, wheezy laugh.

I ask Murphy how he fits into the local film scene now. “I don’t think I do any more. I’m a bit of an outsider now,” he says, without rancour. “Sometimes I’ll go up to the archives for some reason and I sort of feel, God, I should be in a glass case.”

This article was first published in the September 29, 2007 issue of the New Zealand Listener.