Matt Murphy: Pork Pie director looks back on his life of Pie
Matt Murphy had decided by the age of 11 that he intended to be a film director.
It may have taken him another 41 years to make his first full-length feature, but the result is certainly true to that childhood resolve.
Seven weeks off school when he was 15 to lug lighting equipment around the set of his father Geoff's movie, Goodbye Pork Pie, merely confirmed young Murphy's plans and left him with a diminishing appetite for formal education. A half-hearted, if more popular ("once the film came out and was popular, I did go from having maybe two friends at high school to five") bash at sixth form quickly faded into a long and varied career in film production.
But not until 2012, after mostly spending his time making expensive car commercials, did the idea to reimagine Geoff Murphy's 1981 classic occur – and only then when his friend Alan Harris, who would executive produce the new version, suggest it.
Murphy went away and ploughed through four drafts of a potential script before he completed one he liked.
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On the way, he showed the first, rather hokey version to his father, who had crafted a reputation, not just as a Kiwi cinematic pioneer, but also the industry's most forthright and belligerent elder statesman. Publicly, Geoff Murphy's first comment on the idea of a remake was this: "I find the concept confusing because I can't see how to remake it."
Privately, says his son, he was "very kind in being restrained about the feedback", gave sound advice, his blessing, and the rights to remake his classic for the modern day.
It's only proper Murphy had his father's approval for a film whose crew includes a third Murphy generation. The original didn't just make young Matt more popular at school – the way he recalls it, it made the entire tribe a whole lot more palatable to New Zealand.
Matt Murphy was six when his father and a group of acting mates, including Bruno Lawrence and Goodbye Pork Pie's charismatic lead, Tony Barry, embarked on Blerta, a Ken Kesey-like travelling circus of which he recalls "going into these small towns and blokes looking sideways at us".
After that, his father, the late actor Martyn Sanderson and the Goodbye Pork Pie cinematographer Alun Bollinger established a commune in the Hawkes Bay village of Waimarama.
Goodbye Pork Pie – based on an anecdote Geoff Murphy had heard about a couple of jokers selling off the spare tyre and jack of their rental car for gas – was conceived in those commune years and its success proved that this strange crowd knew what they were doing.
But the idea of a re-make had stalled by the middle of 2015, says Murphy, until the recruitment of a young producer, Tom Hern, who could barely remember even seeing the original.
Hern, then 30, arrived with the aim of having the film fully financed and shooting within a calendar year. They fell short, but only just.
Making Pork Pie was, says Hern, a particularly complex funding arrangement: 22 different backers, from the obvious – the New Zealand Film Commission and New Zealand On Air – to those who had supported Hern's last project, The Dark Horse, to rich individuals making their first foray into film financing because they loved the original, and who may have had fairly strong ideas about how it should all look. "You always want to make people think things were their idea," smiles Hern.
"How do you do it? It really comes down to the pitch," he says. For the locals, it was about engaging their love of the original; for those less familiar with the phrase "we're taking this bloody car to Invercargill", it was "selling a rollicking road movie that goes the length of New Zealand with a motley crew of accidental outlaws jammed in a yellow Mini. And that's pretty universal stuff".
Hern knew how these things worked. His first movie, I'm Not Harry Jenson, cost a tiny $180,000, stitched together from money begged from friends of friends and entirely without mainstream funding (the cast, incidentally, included Goodbye Pork Pie's co-writer Ian Mune and a regular Geoff Murphy collaborator in director James Napier Robertson's uncle, Marshall Napier).
Having read that the Coen brothers had once cold-called a list of doctors and dentists drawn from the Yellow Pages, Hern and Napier Robertson did the same, with a "very tragic" hit rate. The 25 individual investors they eventually mustered have yet to see their money back, but Hern seems deadly sincere when he says he will one day repay them. Those who stayed on board for Hern and Napier Robertson's second movie made theirs back, and more.
The pair met, says Hern, "as teenage actors on a variety of rather bad television shows" (Hern's CV includes What Now, Small Blacks TV, The Tribe, Power Rangers and Shortland St) and thought they could make something better for themselves to act in. I'm Not Harry Jenson exposed that idea, but gave them an appetite to do better behind the camera.
Hungover and channel hopping, Hern one day chanced across a Maori TV repeat of the 2003 documentary Dark Horse, which reported the life of the remarkable Gisborne speed-chess champion Genesis Potini. In tears, Hern called Napier Robertson to say he'd found their next project. The result, 2014's The Dark Horse, featuring an amazing turn by Cliff Curtis as Potini, turned Hern into a serious film producer. "We devoted our lives to that film," says Hern. "For four years, everything in our lives came second to that movie and we almost challenged each other as to who was more committed to the film. Every decision went through the filter of 'film comes first'."
The Dark Horse's esoteric, but heavy subject matter made it an unlikely winner overseas, but Hern says he never faltered. "The thing with making an arthouse drama is the bullseye is so small... and if you're an inch away from the bullseye no one sees it. But it was so deep in our bones we felt we could hit it." They did.
It's the same drive he hopes he has brought to Pork Pie, and the same desire to "protect the film: to preserve Matt's original vision that we signed up to".
Hern didn't watch the original Pork Pie film again until they were well underway. "I knew Matt had it deep in his bones, and I thought it would be helpful to have another voice in the mix that didn't have that."
Apart from his obvious ability to sell, Murphy says Hern's big influence came in shaping the characters, particularly the lead, failed writer Jon – an archetypal urban wanker played with pizzazz by Dean O'Gorman, all borrowed Crane Brothers suit, tousled hair and general f...wittery. Where's his model for that? Hern smiles widely, and says: "Dizengoff" [a popular Ponsonby coffee shop].
Murphy and Hern had never worked together before, never even met before forging what they say is a tight relationship – but Hern knew various other members of the clan from other shoots. While none of the first Pork Pie's cast have returned, even in cameo, there's some delightful circularity at play behind the camera: there's a flock of Murphys, including Matt's brother Miles as second unit director and sister Robin – who also worked on the original – as locations manager, plus Matt's daughter Saoirse in the costume department. There's also Hern's girlfriend, brother and father, and the late Lawrence's son, daughters and grand-daughter.
For his father, says Murphy, Goodbye Pork Pie was the beginning of a journey, but it was his next movie, the critically-acclaimed Utu (1983) that really launched his father's career, sparking two decades in Hollywood. He will allow that it was at least something of a springboard. Will this movie offer the same for him? He pauses. "Not sure," he says. "I am working on a couple of things."
He's been renting a house in Newtown, Wellington, and once the movie is out, he has decisions to make whether to stay or return to Australia, where he's mostly lived for a long time. At 56, and with a sixth child due the day after his movie premieres, it's not made explicit, but there appears to be a linked decision to be made about staying with features or returning to more commercial work.
It was that background in shooting glitzy car commercials which meant probably the film's most technically difficult scene, a car chase through downtown Wellington and (in one of the few moments of direct recreation of the original) on to the platforms of the railway station went smoothly. Hern says, admiringly, that Murphy the entire sequence, shot for shot, mapped in his head – and what we see is exactly what he planned.
But Murphy came to realise that the ultimate car movie wasn't really about cars but characters, particularly that trio of accidental outlaws, played by O'Gorman, James Rolleston and Ashleigh Cummings.
One of the key bits of advice that Geoff Murphy had offered his son on reading that initial draft was that the entire caper should be conceivably completed by a teenage tearaway from Lower Hutt. "I think I had visions of Hollywood in mind with big exaggerated car chases," says his son. "It was a great piece of advice. I grounded it in that reality and it became inherently more Kiwi, more about the characters and less about the action."
Murphy senior knows the plot outline and has visited the set – including for that chase scene – but has yet to see the finished film. Does Murphy Jr dread the phone call after that screening at The Embassy in Wellington?
"He doesn't hold back. We have a pretty honest and robust relationship. But I am pretty happy with the film. I think he will like it."
Pork Pie will have its world premiere at Auckland's Civic Theatre on Thursday night. The film opens nationwide on February 2.