2019 has been a big year for J.J. Murphy.
It’s the first year since 1981 that Murphy has not taught classes at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Murphy retired from the university's Department of Communication Arts in December after teaching courses in screenwriting, film production and other courses for aspiring student filmmakers for 38 years.
He also published his third book, “Rewriting Indie Cinema” with Columbia University Press this spring. The book, a companion of sorts to Murphy’s first book on indie screenwriting, “Me and You and Memento and Fargo,” looks at improvisation in independent films, starting with the New American Cinema of the 1950s, running through the movies of John Cassavetes in the 1970s and the “mumblecore” movement in the 2000s, and finally contemporary filmmakers like Sean Baker (“The Florida Project”) and the Safdie Brothers (“Heaven Knows What”).
Finally, Murphy plans to leave Madison at the end of the summer to move back to his native New York City and work on his next project, a book-length look at “The Florida Project." Murphy talked with the Cap Times about falling in love with movies as a Brooklyn kid in the 1950s, his early career as an avant-garde filmmaker and his love of teaching students.
When did movies first become a part of your life?
When I was a child, my mother took us to the movies all the time. It was the ‘50s, and movies were air-conditioned. We lived in Brooklyn and it was really hot in the summertime. And movies were cool. She had this idea, I don’t know where she got it, to see all the great movie theaters in New York. That must have been an influence.
I think she would let us go to the movies. Sometimes she would take us to the movies and leave us there with the matron, and give the matron a little bit of money, and go off and live her life. I remember one time I saw “Tarantula,” and it scared the crap out of me. I went home and blamed her. “How could you let me go see a movie like that?”
In college, I discovered foreign films in my first year. I went to “Knife in the Water,” a Roman Polanski film. I was sitting in the back of the theater and everyone was responding to the movie. I was just baffled. I didn’t understand a word of it. I thought “These people must speak Polish.” And then I sat up in my seat and saw the subtitles at the bottom of the screen. What an idiot.
I started going every week to the film society. And by sophomore year I was running it. And then I wanted to go to grad school to study film.
Did you have a specialty?
I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had no model. I didn’t know anybody who was interested in film. That’s why I went to the movies by myself in New York. I would go to movies all day long, starting at 8:30 a.m. on 42nd Street. So I really went to grad school to be able to talk about movies. But once I took a film production class, I got really hooked on making films.
I took a couple of classes, and then I made (my first short film) “Highway Landscape” and I thought, "I don’t want to take classes anymore. I’m a filmmaker. Why would I take classes?" I guess it was kind of arrogant. I made a couple of other films outside the classroom. I moved to New York, and my films started to show. I was making movies in New York and teaching.
Why did you leave being in filmmaker in New York to come to teach film production in Madison? It sounds like a great life.
It was a great life on one level, but I was really poor, and I couldn’t figure out how to survive. I was an adjunct and taught a little bit, but those gigs didn’t pay very much. I won a grant, I did lectures, and I started showing my films at colleges. I had a headache all the time trying to figure out how I was going to make the rent.
What was the film program like when you got here?
It wasn’t much. They didn’t have much equipment. I asked them for money and they gave me the money I needed to buy equipment and get things going. But there was tremendous interest by the students. The students were very hungry. And it was just me, basically. They were just lined up.
What did you enjoy about your time teaching?
The students are great. That’s the whole reason. Their energy and excitement. I’ve had really wonderful students over the years. There’s something about being in contact with new energy all the time that’s compelling. I think teaching can really have a profound effect on people. There were just a couple of people who changed the direction of my life. You need that.
You’ve written a couple of books about screenwriting, right?
It’s funny, because I was an avant-garde filmmaker who made very visual films that didn’t have anything to do with scripts. But when I came here, I was the only film production person. My own interests were fairly narrow, so I really adjusted, and tried to be much more reflective. The students would ask things about narrative film and documentary film, and I was trying to help them.
That’s kind of how I backed into it, and basically taught myself all that stuff. I had never taken a screenwriting class, but I know a lot of about screenwriting, because I was trying to figure it out myself.
I started my (first) book on screenwriting to try and understand. People would say independent films didn’t have a structure, which I didn’t really think was true, but until you really study something you don’t know.
This book does seem tied to the first one, in that you’re again talking about screenwriting and story.
It’s the flip side of the first book. The first book is about analyzing independent scripts. This one is about what happens when you don’t use a script. What happens if you don’t have a traditional screenplay? I tried to trace it historically, because it struck me that a lot of things that people are doing today, if you go back to the beginning of the New American Cinema, people were doing a lot of the same things.
If you’re using an outline or a truncated script instead of a traditional script, what are you doing? Often, you’re improvising. Improvisation was very much in the air in ‘50s culture, which was all about spontaneity. It was in (Allen) Ginsberg in poetry, (Jack) Kerouac in literature, (Jackson) Pollock in art, the Living Theater.
That’s what the book is about, is trying to look at the history of indie cinema through this other lens. Which really makes it look different.