Ryan Murphy, Director of Running with Scissors Interview

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

Ryan Murphy is the Golden Globe Award-winning creator of FX’s provocative, original drama series "Nip/Tuck.” In addition to his duties as executive producer, Murphy has also written and directed multiple episodes of the critically acclaimed hit series.  "Nip/Tuck” was named to the American Film Institute’s list of the 10 Best Television Shows of 2003 and 2004 and was the only first-year drama series in 2004 to earn a Golden Globe Award nomination for Best TV series, Drama. In 2004, Murphy earned his first ever Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series.

Murphy began his career as a journalist, writing for such publications as The Miami Herald, Los Angeles Times, The New York Daily News and Entertainment Weekly. His screenwriting career began in the late 1990’s when Steven Spielberg purchased his romantic comedy "Why Can’t I Be Audrey Hepburn.” Murphy’s next effort was The WB’s "Popular,” an award-winning black comedy/satire which he created and produced with his fellow "Nip/Tuck” executive producers Greer Shephard and Michael M. Robin.

Most recently, Ryan Murphy produced, directed and wrote his first feature film, "Running with Scissors,” which is based on Augusten Burrough’s harrowing personal memoir of the same name.  The film is at once a scorching comedy, a deeply moving human drama, and a spellbinding tale of how a young man survived a nightmare childhood while keeping his sense of humor and his sense of forgiveness intact. 

In this warped, out-of-control, 70s-era coming of age tale, Murphy has crafted a strikingly universal story about the strange power of families, the wonderment of childhood, the madness of adulthood, and the revelation of finding your way in spite of it all. The film stars Annette Bening, Brian Cox, Joseph Fiennes, Alec Baldwin, Jill Clayburgh, Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Cross, and Evan Rachel Wood.

At the Los Angeles press day to promote "Running with Scissors,” Ryan Murphy sat down with Movies Online to discuss what it was like directing his first feature-length movie involving a stellar ensemble cast. Here’s what he had to say:

Q: Hi there!

RM: This is the fun room, I can tell.

Q: Nice shoes!

RM: Thank you. The only person in town who has better shoes than me is Brad Pitt. It drives me crazy. Just when I think I’ve got these great shoes, I show up and he’s got like custom made Prada alligator wackadoo… like ‘How did you get those?’ ‘They were made for me.’ I’m like ‘Yeah, of course they were, Brad Pitt.’

Q: TV has gotten so good, are movies still the ultimate goal for storytellers?

RM: Not for me. I remember when I first started writing, there was such a great discrepancy. You were a TV person or you were a movie person and you did not do both of those things. I think the rules changed. I don't know what happened but I think there are so many people now who try and do both. I know J.J. (Abrams) who I admire does both and goes back and forth. It’s hard. It’s difficult when you have a television show in production as we both do and you’re doing these movies. But I don't think so anymore. I had such good luck this year on my television show getting calls from people like Catherine Deneuve who wants to do my show who’s never really done TV that I’m like, "really?”, but she loved it and she’s a fan. People like Nicole Kidman want to do the show and yet these movie stars that are fans of television, they become hooked and they love the storytelling. So I think those rules are gone.

Q: Do you say no when Nicole asks?

RM: I think Catherine called and she said, "Next time you’re in Paris I’d love to see you.” Conveniently, I arrived two weeks later. (laughs) I was going to go to something but I was like even if I just get to sit in a room with her because I’ve loved her for so many years and she did not disappoint, but Nicole I’m doing this movie with and she said, ‘Will you please write me something on nip/tuck? I’ve never missed an episode.’ I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ and then I thought I’m going to bring back that Virginia Wolff appliance if it kills me. They’re very sweet and they’re great fans of the show so to have people you admire like your work, whenever I do anything like this movie or that TV show, I always think, ‘Well, no one’s ever going to watch this. It’s never going to get picked up.’ And then it does and it’s shocking.

Q: Ever think "Running with Scissors” could be a series?

RM: I think that’s a spin-off, The Finches. They’re like the modern day Addams Family. I think they really are. I love them, yeah. I’d do that.

Q: Was it more difficult to shoot the movie in between seasons than you thought?

RM: No, because I had been working on it. The weird thing is I finished that script I think in September and then I got Annette in October and I got everybody else in the next two months and we were shooting in, I think, March. It happened so quickly. I was shocked. Every day was like some other huge international A list star that I had wanted who was my first choice who said ‘yes.’ Then the battle was this has always been an independent movie. This movie only cost $12 million and everybody did it for scale and it’s being released by a studio which is a great boon to me. So I was shocked. It happened so quick but it wasn’t a problem with the show, no.

Q: Did you do a search for Augusten?

RM: Yes. I think between tapes and interviews and meetings I think we met 400 kids for that part. He was the last part cast and it was December and Dede Gardner the producer, I think she was doing his deal as her water broke. She had a Christmas baby. I just didn’t meet anybody I liked and I met every big actor who was the appropriate age in town and I just didn’t think they had that thing. And I didn’t know what the thing was and so everybody was so furious with me because I couldn’t say what I wanted but when he walked in the room, he looked like Augusten and he looked like Annette and he was very sweet. And he auditioned and he was the only one who ever made me cry, so I was like, ‘Well, he’s the one.’ And then I brought him into town and gave him a little makeover and had him read the studio. That was fun.

Q: What do you mean a little makeover?

RM: You know, when you see an actor on tape, a lot of times the studio wants to make sure can this kid go on the Tonight Show? This kid is up against Annette Bening and Brian Cox and Gwyneth Paltrow. So I brought him into town and gave him a little haircut and took him and got him some clothes that were sort of TV. I just knew that I had to do that and he was amazing in the room and they were like, ‘We love him.’ And we were like, ‘Yeah, it’s the makeover.’ I knew it was the makeover, but I wanted him, and I was like I’m not doing this without him. He was the one. He was the only one and I knew it as soon as he read. He’s become such a hot little ticket now. He’s like the go to kid so I felt like okay, I was right. I just instinctively knew when he read.

Q: Were you a fan of the book?

RM: Huge. I read a review and I was like, ‘Wow, this is kind of about my life.’ I related to it oddly. And then I read the book and I was like, ‘Wow, this really is my life.’ I had never met anybody else who polished their allowance. My mother was very similar to his mother, although she keeps begging me to tell people that I didn’t drop her off with her shrink. But I related to that idea of women trapped in a time- - my mother was a beauty queen turned housewife and then she turned on the TV in 1972 and there’s Gloria Steinem telling you to burn your bra and that there are more choices available to you. Many women like my mother and Augusten’s mother were like, ‘Really? Okay.’ And that struggle to sort of get an identity and find yourself, I grew up with that. I know what it’s like to be four and be the confidante of my mother. And when I met him, he didn’t want to sell the book at all and those were the kind of stories that he was like, ‘Okay, so you’re the one.’ And he gave me the rights and I spent nine months interviewing him because I wanted the movie to really be sort of a Terms of Endearment-y mother-son tale. Anyway, that book is so sprawling and episodic and wild, I could have done so many different movies. That was the story I really wanted as the through line. But we always saw it the same way, Augusten and I. I would say he’s kind of a creative soul mate in some way to me. I feel that way.

Q: Did you make sure it was true to avoid a James Frey incident?

RM: You know, I never did because to me I wasn’t making a documentary. I was making my version of the story he told of his life. I will tell you that before I was able to shoot that script, several people went through that script line by line and really vetted all that information and they would come back and say, ‘Well, we found out this happened. This was true, that was true.’ I actually think Augusten’s childhood was much worse than he has in that book. He told me some stories about things that happened to him that weren’t in the book that would make your hair curl much, much worse so I never cared about that. I believed that it was a story about a memory and when you’re looking up as a child, things seem bigger to you and more outrageous. But the truth of the matter is, I don't think you can make up that toilet bowl scene. I just don’t. I couldn’t come up with that. I couldn’t come up with the Christmas tree up for two years. There have been people who come out in his home town who said, ‘Yeah, that happened. We were in that house. That’s what it looked like.’ But now his mother is coming out of the woodwork who he’s estranged from saying it’s not true. And I understand the pain of that. I can’t imagine being a mother and having your son write something about you that must be so painful for you to digest. And I feel the same way about that Finch family, so I understand people who come out and say, ‘It didn’t happen, it didn’t happen.’ What are they going to say? How are they going to respond? My favorite thing that they apparently say is that, ‘Well, we know this happened and that happened but my mother was an immaculate housekeeper.’ They’re really upset about all the dirty dishes on the table I think.

Q: Psychiatry a hot topic in the media. Do these problems still exist?

RM: I don't know. I don’t look at it in terms of it’s a blanket statement about psychiatry. I think it’s about this one doctor who was a full on wackadoo who had a messiah complex who wasn’t so much a psychiatrist as a pharmacy. The thing about him that I find so moving about Annette’s performance is what she does is terrible, but we try to make you understand what she does. And I don't think- - I think if she had gotten the right- - in the movie, people sort of complain about this to me, they’re like ‘Well, you never say what was wrong with her.’ And I’m like well, yeah, because she didn’t find out until the late ‘80s. She was never properly diagnosed as a bipolar borderline psychotic with manic depressive tendencies until later. So she just would go to this doctor, ‘I don't know why I’m feeling what I’m feeling’ and he would say, ‘Here’s an upper’ and then he would also give her a downer and she became hooked on these drugs that not only are toxic but they literally destroy your brain. Your brain implodes so a lot of the movie is about, you know, that scene with him giving away, ‘I got this as a free sample in the mail.’ He would get them, give it away. It was like Pez candy to that guy. So I don't think it’s about psychiatry. I think it’s about that one doctor.

Q: Your experiences with therapists?

RM: Well, I’ve gone to a therapist since I was 15. I was a high strung child as they say. But no, I’ve always had great doctors. My parents, when I was 15, they took me to a doctor and he talked to me for like an hour and then called them in and said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with your child. He’s too precocious for his own good and you either accept him or he’ll leave you at 18 and you’ll never see him again.’ Okay. And that was it. I’ve always had great shrinks who were very helpful but now I tend to only go to them in times of crisis. I had a recent bad breakup and I went for like three months and that was good. I use it for problem solving. I don’t use it as a tonic. I don’t do that.

Q: How much of the ‘70s environment came from your memories?

RM: That was the amazing thing to me about the movie. As strange as that movie is, the Finch house, that version of the ‘70s, everyone’s like, ‘Whoa, it’s so big and over the top and overblown.’ It’s like we have pictures. The thing about Agnes, Jill’s character, she would go to tag sales and buy like eight rusted egg beaters and bring them home and arrange them. That was her creativity. So that house was so insane. That’s the truth. The beginning of the movie is much more my version of my mother. My mother and Augusten’s mother decorated to match with drapes and all that stuff. So that was my memory. The greatest moment, the thing that I think Augusten when he first saw the movie that he loved the most is the scene where Annette gives Joe away at the table, the adoption paper scene. She takes the drink of coffee and he literally stood up and said, ‘My mother had that exact mug when she da da da.’ I didn’t know that but I only put it in because my mother had that rainbow mug. So it was like a collusion of the greatest hits but we were very specific. My production designer and I wanted to do a movie about the ‘70s that wasn’t the Brady Bunch version. It was much more about a middle class version of the ‘70s, very specific colors. I had a ban on certain colors and I helped pick out every prop in that damn house. It was funny, that was my favorite thing I think, designing the look of that movie.

Q: Will the organ thieves be the new Carver?

RM: Oh no, we’re never doing the Carver again. I don't know if you got that memo.

Q: I was at TCA, but it’s another criminal element.

RM: Well, Jackie Bisset as an organ harvester, is there anything better than that? And I didn’t tell her when she signed on that that’s what’s going to happen to her so now she’s appalled and loves it. But Jackie Bisset in an Yves St. Laurent trench coat going on an organ harvest. No, it’s not because it’s not nearly as graphic. It’s not nearly as scary I think as that Carver stuff was. I didn’t want to do anything that was serial killer-esque and none of Jackie’s patients die. They all recover. But the show is about gothic elements. It’s an overblown pastiche about stuff like that and I always say that every season is only as good as its villain so it’s a medical story that’s kind of crazy but I love that.

Q: Lingering Carver question, why did they give Christian the perfect alibi instead of setting him up?

RM: They had compassion. I don't know. I think they did. People hated that last year. A lot of people, they thought it was too much. They thought the fun had gone out of the show so this year I was really conscious about okay, no more gore, very little gore, a lot more comedy, a lot more sex and even if you do something like the Jackie Bisset organ harvest, you do it with a wink. The show has always had a sense of irony about it.

Q: But it was so thought out.

RM: I don't know, the whim hit me. I knew they’d end up on the coast of Spain getting away and continue to carve people. I don't know. It’s just what I wanted I guess. I know it doesn’t make sense.

Q: How did you handle the pressure of doing the movie and knowing the show wasn’t making everyone happy?

RM: No, it’s never tough. I understand anything like that. I think if you do a television show particularly, it’s difficult to have everybody love everything. I always think that this show is probably going to run for six, seven, eight years. It’s like a marriage. Not every year in a marriage is fantastic. Some of them are really bad or difficult. And you learn things and I learned things. I learned what the audience loved and what they didn’t love and what I loved and what I didn’t love and I tried to make them mesh this year and as a result, this is the highest rated year we’ve had. 94% critical raves I think which we’ve never had, so I learned a lot from that and it’s all about that. It’s about okay, I hear you and I’ll try and fix it but it was never hard. It was sort of fun because it’s a challenge and it was like okay, I’m excited to prove that I can do this.

Q: Any hope for Matt? Can you redeem him?

RM: No. No. (laughter)

Q: Will you shoot the next movie after "Nip/Tuck?”
RM: I don't know if I’m doing "Nip/Tuck” again. I don’t have a contract past this month so I don't know what I’m going to do. I have a couple movies in development. I have a couple of TV shows in development. I’m getting ready to start a production company. I don't know what I’m going to do. This year has been such a whirlwind for me with all this stuff and I feel so appreciative. I don't know. I don't know what I want to do. I know I’m doing this Meryl Streep movie with Annette. I know that I’m doing that so I think I’m going to direct that next fall.

Q: Would you let another showrunner take over?

RM: Never, are you kidding? I don't know. I don't think they’d want to do it without me. I say that only because I’ve asked them. It’s a hard show. It’s a tone poem. It’s very much about my point of view of the world. Maybe. I would love it. I would love it if some of the other writers would do it and I’m not saying I won’t. I’m saying right now I don't know. I don't know what I want to do. I love the show. I love the people on the show. They’re like family to me. I hope to do both.

Q: What about Christian in jail?

RM: Oh, I think that was sport. Those wackadoos. Crazy.

Q: Do you have a big action movie in you?

RM: Never. I am working on something that I don't think people are expecting me to do which is a very huge, huge David Lean like movie.

Q: Want to take any "Nip/Tuck” actors into film with you?

RM: Well, I love them all as actors. That’s tricky because I even like- - sure. I’m using Annette and Jill and Brian in the next thing. Yeah, I’d like to mix it up. There’s a good part in that for Dylan. I’d love to do something with Julian but he’s become quite the movie star. He’s getting all these things now so he probably wouldn’t have me. I don't know.

Q: Thank you.

RM: My pleasure.

Next up for Ryan Murphy will be "Dirty Tricks” which he wrote and will direct. An adaptation of the hit off-Broadway play, the film will star Meryl Streep, Gwyneth Paltrow and Annette Bening. "Running with Scissors” opens in theaters on October 20th.


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