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[Dino de Laurentis invited Geoff Murphy, director of Goodbye Pork Pie, Utu and The Quiet Earth to Los Angeles in March to talk about directing Conan III. Murphy turned the film down. But while he was there 20th Century Fox discussed a project with him. His brother, Roy Murphy, talked to him about his films and his present plans. After this interview Fox engaged Murphy for script development of The Hunters.]

Do you think Utu was viewed [in New Zealand] as a picture promoting the Maori point of view and not the pakeha point of view?
Yeah, I think it was viewed like that.
Do you think it was like that?
Well, there was only one white New Zealander in Utu and that was Scott [Kelly Johnson]. He was the only white born in New Zealand and he didn't like the Poms either (laughs). People said things like, we don't have anyone to identify with. But when Mr Muldoon went to see it, he was profoundly moved by it, particularly at the end. He was crying, evidently, according to Merata [Mita]. Although I don't know whether that's substantiated.
She wasn't there?
Yes, she was, but he was hiding himself. I think he was very moved by the end scene. Now that indicates to me that Mr Muldoon had no trouble identifying with Te Wheke. And the statement that they had nobody to identify with is essentially racist. Because they don't have problems identifying with the heroes of Japanese films.
It's not that I didn't expect the Maoris to respond. It's that I didn't expect it to be that much greater than the European response. I expected the Maoris to respond because it presented them in strong uncompromising roles, which is very rare, and I expected the Europeans to respond because history is such a rare commodity in New Zealand. We don't have much history, so every bit we have is precious, I would have thought.
The producer, Don Blakeney recut Utu. You've seen the latest version haven't you?
I haven't actually seen it in its completely finished form. It hadn't been mixed and it hadn't quite been finished. But it was there - I got the picture.
What did you think of it?
I thought it was quite clever in the sense that he'd managed to make it different without particularly hurting it. Which wasn't that easy because the material's very strong. I declined to recut it myself because I was absolutely exhausted and saturated with it. I couldn't face it. Secondly, I wasn't given any clear directive as to what the recut was meant to do. I was told it needed enhancing, which is essentially saying, make it better, and maybe shortening it a bit but not necessarily making it go faster. Or make it a bit more accessible, which was another thing - one doesn't make films to be accessible, one makes television to be accessible.
I didn't then, but I know now what I would have done with it, and it wouldn't have been much. I would have changed the front around so it didn't have an overture and used the music slightly differently, and changed the titles. That's about all I would have done. I thought that the first cut was complete enough - or cohesive enough, I should say - that to recut it would be a major undertaking. You'd have to rethink it, which is what [film editor] Ian John did. That was the main reason I didn't want to recut it, because it was like living that part of your life over again.
How do you choose what films to make?
Basically I try and see whether I can make them work in my own terms. Whether I can make a film that I'd want to see. I think there's three basic reasons for making a picture: one is money, one is art, the third is subject or statement, because you want to say something. Art tends to be the isolated one. There seems to be some merit in making a brilliant piece of work that no one wants to see and that doesn't make any particular statement about humanity, but nevertheless has intrinsic value in itself.
But the other two, statement and money, are related, in my opinion. There's no point in making a profound philosophical statement to an empty room. So basically I try to make a film that I think will not only appeal to me but to a considerable number of other people. If I can also see a way of its having its own intrinsic value and, further to that, make some statement about humanity, then I am quite delirious about the project. If I can only see a way of making money, then I'm not a helluva interested in it.
What sort of statement was Utu making?
Utu made extremely complex statements about the absurdity of trying to alter people's political and philosophical thinking by shooting bullets into their heads. At times that absurdity was expressed very coldly, like at the end, and at times it was expressed with pure absurdity so that the madman becomes devastating in the battlefield because that's the place of a madman. Those are the sort of things that Pauline Kael [the New Yorker film critic] was mentioning, but none of the critics in New Zealand who hated it noticed anything like that in it.
What about Goodbye Pork Pie, what was the statement there?
The statement there was once again not a helluva simple but it was basically anti-materialist. It sort of said the relationships that you form with other people are more important than anything else that can happen to you, including material goods - you can discard them, you can smash them up if you like, they're not much use to you in the end. What the establishment thinks of you is much less important than the genuine connections you make with other people.
It had another overlaid statement which said something like, in a society like New Zealand, or most societies, your goals are created for you from outside as you grow up. In New Zealand society they are sort of created by television commercials. That's how society presents to you how you ought to be. If you're very successful in New Zealand society you look just like the people in the ads. The church used to do it, but it doesn't any more. So now we're preached to by television. Now, there's a lot of people who look at those goals as set by television and decide that's not what they want. In other words, they have no goals. Society doesn't satisfactorily offer them any. Success in normal terms is not attractive to them.
In Pork Pie, you've got a couple of jokers who are like that but they're also brought up with what we call the achievement compulsion, which all males are brought up with. Little girls are pretty and have to get married and have babies, and boys have to make something with their lives. They're indoctrinated with that. And the something that they've got to make is presented to you on television between programmes. And these two jokers reject that, but in rejecting the goal they don't lose the compulsion, so they make a goal up. A totally absurd one, but at least they made it up and it's theirs, and they set about achieving it. It's taking this ridiculous little car to Invercargill. It might seem a silly little goal to you and me, but to them it's perfectly reasonable because it's theirs. So Goodbye Pork Pie said things like that. They're not very obvious, but they're there all right.
What about The Quiet Earth?
Once again, it's a multi-level picture. At a certain level it's about science, how the ethics of the scientist right back to the ancient Greeks, right through to Isaac Newton and so on, that they dedicated their lives to driving back the frontiers of knowledge for the benefit of mankind. That's the scientist's basic ethic, isn't it?
But in the modern world that's no longer valid, that ethic. Because now, in return for payment, they push back the frontiers of science for the benefit of the joker that's paying and no one else. And the joker that's paying makes sure that no one else can have that knowledge. It might be the Russians, or it might be Unilever or du Pont. If they've got something they're making big bucks out of they keep it secret. So the scientist that delivered it is having his knowledge used by a very narrow section of society for its own gain. It became acute between the wars. It's a terrific ethical dilemma that's facing scientists today. Eventually, if you work in your laboratory and you find a disease that will wipe out the world, you immediately know that some people are going to be intensely interested in it. You also know that eventually someone else is going to discover it. So what do you do with it?
The Quiet Earth is about an energy grid, the purpose of which is loosely explained as being to transfer the energy from the sun directly to some working machine. And it goes right round the world. Your car has an aerial on it and that's all it needs, you don't have any petrol in it. The same with planes, and so on. And the Americans have set it up. They've set up these grids around the world in places like New Zealand. They use radio telescopes to focus the beams. This is all explained visually. They've supplied computer programs to all the nations that are contributing to this international corporation, but when this particular scientist tries these programs, he finds they're incomplete. He presumes it must be deliberate, there's no other conclusion he can draw. They're deliberately withholding information. He concludes that there are potential side effects to this experiment which could be devastating and that the client country, New Zealand, is being duped by the Yanks. There's plenty of precedent for this.
The scientist is so freaked out by it that he commits suicide and he leaves an explanation on a dictaphone beside his bed. But unfortunately for him, the experiment goes into operation that night when he eats all his pills. At the exact moment he dies, this effect that he suspected might happen, happens, and when he wakes up there's no one left on earth except him. Then he finds two other people who also died at that exact moment. So basically it outlines that kind of scientific dilemma and who has the right to own knowledge.
He falls in love with the girl and when the other guy arrives, he feels the world's overpopulated. So it's also about selfishness, and selflessness because in the end he commits suicide again so that they can live together unimpeded by him as Adam and Eve. But unfortunately, at the moment that he pushes the button to blow up the project so that they'll be safe, the effect happens again and he finds himself in another reality, and that's how the picture ends.
So you're looking for Quiet Earth II, are you?
No, but it's neat enough isn't it! I think it's colder than Utu, I don't think it has the warmth. It's partly because it's science fiction, the characters become colder somehow, more removed.
Let's get on to your trip here. You came over to talk to Dino ...
Yeah, and I passed on Dino's project and you can print that.
Which was Conan III. Money not good enough?
Yeah, ah, no. I didn't like the project.
That's amazing. I can't understand that. Didn't you want to meet Arnold Schwarzenegger before you made a final decision?
No, I didn't need to. I watched Conan I.
You're now talking with 20th Century Fox. What about?
It's called The Hunters and it's about an alien who comes to earth on safari to hunt the most dangerous animal on earth. And its computer tells it the most dangerous animal on earth is an American anti-insurgency commando dropping from a helicopter into Central America, or some place like that. So he hunts this patrol of Yanks. A sort of thriller, really.
Now, we haven't arrived at a fee, but I know it would probably equal all the money I've ever earned in my life. Probably exceed it, actually. But, you see, I haven't earned much money in my life. Between 1970 and 1980 I hardly worked at all. I've always had a strange attitude to money and never felt very comfortable with it. When I was working on The Quiet Earth they gave me a big flash car and I couldn't stub my fags out on the side of the door any more like I always used to on my own car.
That's the price you pay, Geoff, for success.
So money is a very mixed blessing as far as I'm concerned. I've got bugger all in the bank. I don't own anything much. I don't have a car any more, and I don't have any property, so I'm fairly fancy-free.
If I get Hunter, I'll quite enjoy shooting that. They're talking about shooting it in Hawaii. It's basically a sneaky-poo through the bush. I've done a bit of that before. There's suspense and frightening people and I can do that. I look at it and I think, yeah, I can do this picture and I can do a really craftsmanlike job on it. I can frighten people. I can probably make them laugh a few times too. I can say a little bit about the military, just in passing. And that's quite interesting. So I say yes. But Fox can still say no.
OnLine Magazine, New Zealand, 1985
Filmmaker's Philosophy


Geoff Murphy