Producer Don Murphy is legendary in Hollywood not only for the films he has made but for the insanely funny methods with which he has made them. He is, in part, responsible for Natural Born Killers, Apt Pupil and Permanent Midnight, in addition to being attached to, at one time or another, Planet of the Apes. Each film comes with its own hilarious and notorious anecdotes. (Many of them detailed in his former producing partner Jane Hamsher’s tell-all book, Killer Instinct.)
Murphy is a conundrum. A grown-up name producer in the dog-eat-dog world of Hollywood, he nonetheless collects action figures, plays video games, voraciously reads comic books and pulls pranks.
A comic book geek myself, I interviewed Murphy recently to find out what he’s doing, what he does as a producer and how he fits into the Hollywood panorama.
What’s in the hopper with Don Murphy at the moment?
Well, there’s a big, big movie that starts in June for Fox, which I’ve been working on for six years for Chrissake, called From Hell. It’s like a Jack the Ripper movie. The Hughes Brothers are directing. And then there’s a little film that Larry Clark is doing for Canal Plus, which is called Bully, that we’re in the process of casting right now, and we’re going to shoot that right after in Florida.
So, how do these projects find Don Murphy or vice versa?
Every single project has a different history, whether it was brought to me, whether a writer brought it in, or someone in my company turned me on to it. Every project has a different history.
Well, in particular, From Hell.
From Hell was originally serialized in a now defunct horror series, Taboo. But when the very first stand-alone issue came out, Alan Moore who created it, included eight pages of very, very dense footnotes. And I was just completely taken by how thorough he researched this damn thing was. It was insane. And the story was just so epic in sweep. It was such a movie. I immediately, before anyone else knew what it was, pounced on it before, you know, it was like eleven issues comic. Before the third issue had even come out, we had you know set it up at Touchstone.
With the Hughes Brothers attached to direct?
The Hughes Brothers came years later. Touchstone bought it. Terry Hayes, my ex-partner who I was working with on The Planet of the Apes, which we’re no longer involved with -- it’s different than what they’re doing now -- was hired to write it. We wrote several drafts. I think the studio thought Spielberg might be interested. When ultimately he didn't join on, they told us to go get a director -- Allen and Albert Hughes who currently had a deal with them. And they said, “This is great, now you can have your project back.” We said, “What the--?!” We took it over to New Line and then developed it there, almost made it there, and I’m making it finally at Fox. Six years and three studios later.
Another comic book title you’re developing is the terrific League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. How did you acquire that?
That was the big trump. After From Hell was set up after only three out of eleven issues, I became friendly with Alan Moore at that time. I got to read the treatment of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and I almost shit myself, like, “Oh my God! This is such a great idea for a movie, as well.” So, I basically took the treatment around to a couple of places and pretty much the second place I took it to, Fox, they were like, “Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!” and they bought it.
Is it in development right now?
Yeah, we spent some time with a writer who didn’t quite get it, so there’s a new screenwriter who’s working on it at the moment. You know what the official term is… you get a draft and it’s “disappointing.”
Are there any other comic book properties you’re involved with?
Well, I’m doing Dr. Strange, which Chuck Russell is supposed to direct -- the guy that did The Mask. I’m doing Astro Boy, which is more of an anime thing from Japan, which I’m doing here at the studio that they’re very keen on. I think everything that I’m doing is somewhat complicated. I’m doing Death and the High Cost of Living, which is a spinoff from The Sandman property -- at Warner Bros. with Neil Gaiman, who’s another comic book guy.
Oh really?! Did he write the script for it?
He’s writing the script as we speak.
Did he come to you or did you come to him?
We got friendly through Alan. And I just set it up at one point. If I have a sort of reputation or any sort of strength or whatever else, it is that I think I’m very tenacious. I find something I like, and I just stick to it. Sometimes it takes a long time, sometimes it takes a short time, but you know, I think the only way things get done in town is when people are really tenacious.
Even though that’s still in the script stage, are you entertaining thoughts as to who might play Death? I know I am.
There’s all kinds of possibilities. Today it could be Rachel Leigh Cook, it could be Natalie Portman. Tomorrow, it could be whoever else is new. It depends on when you’re ready to make the damn thing.
Do you have any non-comic book related properties you’re working on? The Larry Clark thing?
Larry Clark’s thing is called Bully. It’s based on a true story about a bunch of kids in Florida who think life would be really good if that asshole bully was just kind of out-of-the-picture, so they kill him. They get caught immediately and don’t understand what they did wrong.
“He was a dick, we killed him, what did we do wrong?”
“Yeah, but you can’t kill him.”
“Yeah, but he was a dick.”
“Yeah, but you still can’t kill him.”
So, you know, it could be a very moral sort of interesting choice movie. I’m doing all kinds of non-comic things over here.
I’m doing Cool Breeze on the Underground, based on a series of books, trying to reinvent the detective genre with a young actor. I’m doing Phoenix Without Ashes, which is a big science fiction property, based on a book by Harlan Ellison, that David Goyer is writing. I’m doing a big science fiction series of books based on a series of well-known British children’s books called The Tripod’s Trilogy for Touchstone. Which is kind of a retro-Star Wars sort of thing. It takes place in the future, although the future has reverted to Medieval times. And the basic premise of that is: what if the War of the Worlds happened? They won. We lost. They stayed. And I think I made whatever name I have by doing weird, edgy shit and I still have plenty of that. But I’m focusing on what I consider to be Big Event-type things.
They all seem to come from a very literary place, most of the projects you’re involved with. Certainly the comic book projects are sort of the crème de la crème of comic books.
I was fortunate over the years to build up a relationship with the main guys: Alan Moore and James Robinson. Now I’m getting ready to do stuff over here with Grant Morrison. You know, I have been able over the years to get some comic-book-street-cred as it were. And then as a producer, if you make enough movies, your credibility rises.
Are there any dream projects that you’ve wanted to do for a while?
Well, then I alert half the world to go look for them, don’t I? One that I’m working on that I’m co-writing and co-directing has been a dream project of mine for years. Right now, I’m in the interesting circumstance of trying to find someone to produce that, since if I’m going to co-write and co-direct, I shouldn’t co-produce. There’s other things I’m in negotiations on that are also comic book stuff that I thought were really good ideas. I won’t tell you about the one I just told you about, but I’ll tell you for example: I don’t know if you have heard about the old comic book, The Alien Legion?
It’s such a great idea for a movie: the Foreign Legion in space. And I always wanted to do like my Star Wars, and I think this could be it. And so J. D. Zeik, the guy who did Ronin, is writing it for me. And we’re in negotiations with the studio now and as soon as we can announce it, I’ll tell you. I mean I like to feel like I’m a movie geek and a toy geek and a comic book geek. You know, I’m getting to make stuff that I like.
Which Breakfast Club member did you resemble most in high school: The Brain, The Athlete, The Basket Case, The Princess or The Criminal?
Which one was the brain?
Anthony Michael Hall.
I’m gonna have to go with that.
Really? I would have thought The Criminal or The Basket Case?
Two parts Michael Hall, one part Judd Nelson.
That’s fair. Well then, anecdotally, is there is anything you’d like to share? Your favorite story of Hollywood jackassness?
I’m sure there’s tons of stories and they change each day. Most recently, I got very depressed, I’m trying to do another Japanese project that is animated. I think it would make a very nice live-action film. And in it, there’s a girl who needs to be kind of a young sort of sexy pop star who can sing. And there’s an actress, who I’ll tell you about off-the-record if you turn your tape recorder off -- but there’s an actress who I thought, “She’s right down the hall!” She has a little company and I thought, “Hey, it might help? It might not!” I don’t think her star is as big as it was two years ago.
So anyway, I went down to this girl. This girl has somebody who runs the development company, who’s like her friend from high school two years ago. All of a sudden in the middle of this pitch, I was just feeling like, “What are you doing? Why am I pitching to this nineteen-year-old high school girl?” But I still kept going and I kept giving it my all and I’m talking about Hitchcock and DePalma and what a great thriller it will make. And she turns to me and says, “It reminds me of a segment of Days of our Lives.”
And I thought, “There’s nothing bad about her, but, man, sometimes the things we have to go through in order to get what we want going.”