Geoff Murphy: a life on film

Geoff Murphy Stuff pic

NZTECHO   Summer 2015

Waka Attewell reviews and reminisces as he reads Geoff Murphy’s autobiography.


There’s this pub conversation that we’ve been having for more than thirty years that goes something like this: ‘How would you get Pork Pie made today?’ followed by ‘How would you get a Maori film through the Film Commission?’ and ‘Would they (they) let you make Utu today?’ These are uniquely NZ national cinema related and could only occur amongst those folk who care and seriously believe that ‘national cinema’ is a worthy and vital pursuit. So if you can’t get Geoff Murphy to come out to the pub and have that conversation then buy his book instead!

The they (of course) is the Film Commission, and the underlying question that remains (not so much) between the lines, is: ‘Did we gift the film business to a bunch of art bureaucrats?’ – The second part to this question could also just as easily be adapted to read: ‘or a bunch of crooked wide-boys who exploited the whole tax-law-loophole scam and ruined it for everyone?’ As you can see, no one gets out alive!

I love this shit. It’s honest and from the heart, and a somewhat more correct version of what happened… you’ll have to buy the book to find out all the details… yeah he names names. Unity Books have it, so support the independents.

Bugger all this stuff about Gallipoli inventing the kiwi bloke; it was Geoff Murphy who defined us with that line ‘We’re taking this bloody car to Invercargill.’ Brilliant eh? Not Auckland or Wellington or London. Bloody Invercargill, for god’s sake, which might be code for ‘we’re taking this car to nowhere,’ as in this is the quest of the guys from the heartland who go from nowhere to um err nowhere, while confronting every authority, every obstacle, along the way. And then… and then — well, you know… they sort of make it… but they don’t — oh fuck off you know what I mean! It’s a movie… no it’s not – it’s a bloody Geoff Murphy movie!!!

He has a unique voice we love… and he also did that kiwi thing of going somewhere else and being good in Hollywood. Well, actually he didn’t have much choice. He’d made four really successful films and then wasn’t required anymore in his own country… now tell me again how that works?

Good thing he did, I say, because Young Guns II still has the best gun fight in any movie… in any movie I’ve ever seen. I would go as far as saying it is yet to be topped! It was what Geoff bought to the gun fight, and it wasn’t that western hero thing that you might expect.

There’s a truth in the fight, it’s about scared boys not invincible heroes, and in fact Geoff does this kind of stuff for the boys in just about every movie he has made.

During the mid 70’s Pacific Films did a robust impersonation of an Irish drinking culture, yet the work achieved was deeply profound and ground breaking, then O’Shea signed a bunch of hippies to make a kids series… what was he thinking? I mean with the imminent arrival of the hippie bus from somewhere up north you could’ve been mistaken into assuming – especially if you had recently been witness to a Blerta show – that you were about to be inundated by a bunch of dope-smoking hippie procrastinators that got fuck-all done. But actually when it came to it (Geoff Murphy being at the front of the charge) the opposite was true… the pursuits of the highest standards of professionalism yet to achieved in New Zealand film were on offer and talked about, and the bastards looked like they were having fun!

But this review is getting ahead of itself (after all structure is important), which reminds me: Geoff’s film-making was the first time that I understood film structure — and he certainly nailed it. Pork Pie is a classic three-act structure, in case you hadn’t noticed.

Geoff & Bruno.jpg

A bus filled with wives and kids duly arriving at Pacific Films for the ‘Percy the Policeman’ kids TV series which, as it transpired, was brilliantly original — sticking the middle finger up to the authorities. Do you think this might be a theme? The young hippie children and the young wives and the hippie bus and the commune living … is this real? I mean, was the multi-coloured bus really there at the studio? I have an enduring image of a bus with a wooden floor that was always well washed because it was easier to keep it clean than to put nappies on the kids. Brilliant lateral hippy thinking!

Murphy’s, Lawrence’s and Sanderson’s… there must’ve been Bollinger’s also.

Suffice to say, Geoff and I have a relationship I value from those times, it’s a sort of long term service record thing — and it’s always interesting to pick up where we last left off — and we have agreed (on more than one occasion) that both being arseholes helps. There’s a considered innocence and wisdom to this yarn; it’s a fail-safe position to put yourself when it comes to Hollywood. Do you think the lawyers had to do a pass of the first draft? I thought Sir PJ got off with much less than the local papers made out.

There was a disastrous night when I found myself in the MC chair at a ‘Script to Screen’ live chat show thing and there were a few incidents that shouldn’t have happened this particular evening, both of us late ring-ins (me the first and Geoff the second.) Merata Mita was supposed to be there too but couldn’t make it. They had already selected her clips to throw to on during the evening and were committed to this. The fact that Geoff was a substitute guest because he had an association to ‘Utu’ appeared to be their only prerequisite, and the fact that he was also the recently estranged husband of Merata seemed lost on the organisers. They looked surprised when I mentioned this.

Oh well, the show must go on.

I started off by asking Geoff how was it that the Anarchists had got their own TV show up… it went downhill from there, when those at the back yelled they couldn’t hear so Geoff grabbed the mic off the table and spoke directly into it (as an old rocker has a need to do.) The fact that there were several people from the Film Commission in the room merely added to the hilarity. The third Mrs Murphy (to be) was sitting in the audience (though really she was the second but that’s already in the book… Have I MENTIONED YOU SHOULD BUY THE BOOK?) so the references to Merata that night were more than a little awkward. The cue to the techs up the back to play a clip was for me to touch my nose, but I must’ve done this as a nervous reaction to the circumstances, as those clips rolled in at random… oh hell!

Actually one of the best nights we spent was discussing the comedic timing in the lake-jumping scene in Pork Pie, when the cop puts the seat belt strap through the steering wheel. Should we show the audience the seat-belt before the stunt or after? Both are funny but which was funnier? Actually, nothing is funny unless the ‘what’s that cop doing?’ line was included (‘I think he’s pulling out’ – ‘NO don’t stop!!’) Film making, film speak, film talk, film thinking (call it what you like) is a conversation that isn’t done enough these days.

Geoff Murphy, you’re a bloody good film maker. There’s never been doubt. I should also mention courageous and committed — and did I say mad already? From blowing shit up to talking passionately about the ins and outs of cinema you are brilliant.

I think it was Mike Horton who once said, whilst viewing one of those tax-break pieces of crap we all worked on, ‘I’ve seen better film on Geoffrey Murphy’s teeth!’ I can mention this here because nowhere in the book does he tell us when he got those wonderful Hollywood teeth…

What? You think we didn’t notice?

This book does discuss the ins and outs of the film business and does get past those ‘bastards at the Film Commission’ – but what does a memoir like this one do? At best it reminds us how we got here and at its least it encourages us to have a life that we own. But most importantly it keeps the notion of ‘national cinema’ alive, something that can be quickly lost to the nation in one generation with a Hollywood blockbuster mentality – which is why you should buy it. Go on. Go out and get it now!


(Colour Photo Geoff Murphy from Fairfax Media

(B&W Photo Geoff Murphy & Bruno Lawrence from Paul Murphy Collection)