'Nip/Tuck' creator Ryan Murphy turns to film direction

Charlie McCollum
San Jose Mercury News
Joseph Cross and Evan Rachel Wood star in "Running with Scissors." (Handout/MCT)

Ryan Murphy didn't mean to become a stalker. But after he read Augusten Burroughs' "Running With Scissors" shortly after it was published in 2002, the writer-director, best known for creating FX's "Nip/Tuck," found himself on a plane to New York. He was determined to get the film rights to Burroughs' memoir of life in a dysfunctional family -- even though Murphy had never directed a movie.

The book's characters were "so much like my mother and very similar to me and my sensibility," says Murphy, a 41-year-old former newspaper reporter. "So I pursued him. I was prepared to mortgage my house -- even though he didn't want to sell the rights to the book."

Burroughs finally agreed to meet over a dinner that ended up lasting five hours. "I sat there and said, `I will not leave this table until I have the rights. I just won't get up,' " recalls Murphy.

"In the end," Murphy continues, "I think he saw that, creatively, we were on the same page."

The same page, in this instance, is a modern American horror story about a sensitive boy, his mildly crazed mother, her truly crazy psychiatrist and the shrink's even loonier family that the boy goes to live with.

"Running With Scissors" is a hair-raising piece of writing. Burroughs recalls a childhood so appalling, so bizarre and so hilarious that it has resonated with millions of readers.

Initially, the book was treated as a true memoir although, rather quickly, considerable questions have been raised about the levels of truth in Burroughs' story. (A family that Burroughs -- real name, Christopher Robison -- lived with in his teens, and that apparently is the real basis for the gathering of loons in the book, has filed suit, charging defamation and emotional distress.)

All of which may explain why Murphy's film begins with the Burroughs character (played by Joseph Cross) saying in a voiceover, "I guess it doesn't matter where I begin. No one is going to believe me anyway."

But no matter how truthful "Scissors" may be on the printed page, Murphy saw Burroughs' tale as a kind of exercise in emotional excess and a kind of examination of human extremes that has marked his own work on television's "Popular," a wickedly satirical high school drama, and "Nip/Tuck," set in the world of plastic surgery.

"I like really extreme behavior," Murphy says. "I've always been attracted to stranger-than-fiction kind of stuff."

The characters who populate both the book and the movie certainly are strange.

Burroughs' mother Deirdre (played by Annette Bening in a truly memorable performance) is a frustrated 1970s suburban housewife longing -- and failing -- to be the next Anne Sexton. She is constantly battling with her husband, Norman (Alec Baldwin), a drunken academic totally out of touch with his family.

When Deirdre seeks help in sorting out her life, she turns to Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), a quack who hands out pharmaceuticals like candy at Halloween and finds inspiration in a toilet bowl.

His freak show of a family includes an emotionally battered wife (Jill Clayburgh), two damaged daughters (Gwyneth Paltrow, Evan Rachel Hunter) and an "adopted" son (Joseph Fiennes), a pedophile who seduces young Augusten.

"What they do is so insane; their choices are so insane," Murphy says. "But that's Augusten's life. I never looked at it as being over the top. I looked at it as extreme."

The characters, he suggests, "don't think what they did was crazy. Dr. Finch didn't think it was insane that God was talking to him from the toilet bowl. He thought that was normal.

"His mother did not think it was insane to put her dishes out to be exorcized by the moon. She thought that was normal. So the idea was to play it as if these were all valid, completely rational choices."

Murphy says his problem in writing the film was that it was "sprawling and epic, and every chapter was a different emotional adventure. I really felt it needed an emotional spine -- which was the love between a mother and a child, and also the love he got from the Jill Clayburgh character, Agnes."

That love, as difficult as it might be in the world of Augusten and Deirdre, is something Murphy can understand. It turns out that Deirdre does bear at least some resemblance to his own mother.

"A lot of people who read that book think that mother is the monster of all time," Murphy says. "But I always loved her from the beginning. I got what she was about.

"She's funny. She's really twisted. She's completely narcissistic in some respects. She has such a longing to be famous. The thing I love about the movie is that it's about a boy trying to get the love of his mother because she's trying to find a way to love herself."

His own mother also struggled with finding ways to express herself -- although Murphy adds with a laugh that she "never dropped me off with crazy shrinks."

While the release of "Running With Scissors" marks the end of Murphy's magnificent obsession with that book, he is continuing to focus his work on the extremes of life, "the things we think will make us happy but ultimately don't."

He is finishing up the fourth season of "Nip/Tuck." FX recently picked up his new series "4 Ozs," about a transsexual sportswriter with a wife and two teenage sons.

His next film will be "Dirty Tricks," starring Meryl Streep as Martha Mitchell, Clayburgh as Pat Nixon and Paltrow as Maureen Dean. He also has signed to write and direct a film version of Elizabeth Gilbert's "Eat, Pray, Love" that will star Julia Roberts.

And in his spare time, he's starting to write a script about Alfred Hitchcock and the making of "Psycho."

That's a lot for anybody's plate, but Murphy says it's the only way he can work.

"I just think you have to find the time," he says. "When I was a journalist and I really wanted to do scripts, I would work all day and then come home and write every night from midnight to 3, every day. I always had that determination.

"If you want something badly enough, you'll find a way time to make it work."



Age: 41

Previous life: Reporter with the Miami Herald, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Daily News.


"Popular" (WB, 1999-2001)

"Nip/Tuck" (FX, 2003-present)

"4 Ozs" (FX, pilot)


"Running With Scissors" (2006)

"Dirty Tricks" (pre-production)

"Eat, Pray, Love" (announced)





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