Geoff Murphy arguably helped usher in a new age of appreciation for New Zealand cinema, when he consecutively directed three classics of the Kiwi film renaissance in the 1980s: road trip blockbuster Goodbye Pork Pie, colonial epic Utu, and end of the world tale The Quiet Earth.
Murphy was a teacher in Wellington when the film bug bit. After a kickstart from friend Derek Morton, Murphy began in the mid 60s by working on wildly ambitious, ultimately unfinished short The Magic Hammer, based on a musical he had written for one of his primary school classes. By now Murphy was hanging out at a local jazz club alongside a group of people "with ardent, and often misguided artistic ambitions" — among them future collaborators Bruno Lawrence, John Charles and Alun Bollinger. Pooling resources, they began making films together in the mid 60s, including short film Hurry Hurry Faster Faster, in which Murphy acted.
Using old film stock and borrowed equipment, the trio worked together on short film Tank Busters. This tale of student bankrobbers starred Bruno and Murphy, and was purchased for screening by the NZBC, who may have been unaware their resources had helped get it made. When the magic bus of Blerta (the Bruno Lawrence Electric Revelation and Travelling Apparition) left town for its first tour the following year, Murphy was on-board, as trumpeter, filmmaker and explosives expert. The philosophy of Blerta was to avoid boredom through creative activity, a philosophy "pursued with great vigour".
Murphy honed his directing skills on a series of slapstick shorts featuring character Percy The Policeman, based on material he had created as a primary teacher. Murphy then helped pull together the short-lived Blerta TV series (1975), which mixed musical performances with sketches. The series was heavily influenced by Monty Python, but exhibited a robustly Kiwi sense of humour. Excerpts from both the Blerta series and the Percy sketches can be seen in compilation Blerta Revisited.
Drawing on all his skills and contacts, Murphy headed to the West Coast to cobble together comic colonial tale Wild Man, which at 73 minutes is often regarded as his feature debut. The budget was around $25,000, plus $30,000 more to blow the print up to 35mm. Wild Man was semi-improvised by many of the Blerta regulars, and partly funded by money from the Blerta series. When it was shown on a double bill with Murphy-directed Fred Dagg short Dagg Day Afternoon, audiences responded enthusiastically.
Murphy's all-round technical abilities would help keep the wolf from door over coming years; outside his own projects, he cooked up explosions and fake AK-47s for feature Sleeping Dogs, helped out on Nutcase, and rented out a homebuilt camera crane (built with Andy Grant), when they were as rare as hen's teeth. Murphy also helped other filmmakers get early projects off the ground, from Vincent Ward's A State of Siege, to co-writing Gaylene Preston's debut feature Mr Wrong.
After Wild Man, Geoff Murphy began developing a script called Meatballs with Ian Mune — until the arrival of a Canadian film with the same title saw the name changed to Goodbye Pork Pie. Though Sleeping Dogs had done reasonably, Pork Pie marked our first local blockbuster, partly, as Murphy noted, because "it was a celebration of New Zealandness". The film mixed the Mini Cooper hijinks of The Italian Job with a spirit of rebellion. Refuting claims by some that the film was an attack on the police, Murphy argued that Pork Pie was "more an attack on the law. Just about everything you want to do in this country is illegal or you need a permit to do it."
Murphy's followed Pork Pie with arguably his most ambitious film to date: period 'Western' Utu (1983). The film follows Te Wheke (Anzac Wallace), a Māori warrior seeking revenge for the massacre of his village. Mining action, comedy and empathy for both its Māori and Pākehā characters, the $3 million production was the first historical epic directed by a local since Rudall Hayward's Rewi's Last Stand, four decades before.
The character of Te Wheke was based on Māori leaders as varied as Te Rauparaha, Wiremu Tamihana and Te Kooti; Murphy argued that the character was "true to Māori leaders of the period and even draws on some in the present day". Murphy deliberately set out "to draw a parallel between the conflicts of today's New Zealand and those of the last century", telling Rolling Stone "that same violence is here today; it's just that the nature of it has changed." (he also told the magazine he was having problems finding funders for a film about the 1981 rugby tour: "they're scared shitless of it".)
Utu proved a local hit. Overseas, many reviewers raved. Le Monde called it a "unique astonishing film" and "spectacular but intimate"; The Montreal Press praised Utu for combining the adventure and romance of old Westerns with a humanist approach to its Māori characters. In a rave review, legendary New Yorker critic Pauline Kael singled out "a feeling of exaltation and spirituality" hovering over the film, and praised Murphy's instinct for popular entertainment, plus his refusal to reduce the narrative to simple heroes and villains.
End of the world tale The Quiet Earth (1986), written and shot under urgency to meet tax shelter demands, became another Kiwi classic. Adapted from the Craig Harrison novel, and originally a Sam Pillsbury project, the film featured an extended solo turn by Bruno Lawrence as one of the last men on earth. The Quiet Earth sold to around 80 countries, gained a cult following, and won Murphy attention in the United States.
He followed it with another movie shot on the road. Released on an impressive 69 local screens, Never Say Die was a light-hearted thriller about a couple on the run, with cameos from John Clarke and Murphy veteran Tony Barry. Again Murphy showed the keen casting eye which had seen him pick the untried Anzac Wallace for Utu; this time overcoming opposition from his producers to give the main role to the relatively-untried Temuera Morrison.
By now feeling frustrated and constrained by funding limitations, Murphy embarked on an extended period of international wandering. After playing a racist farmer in Merata Mita's Mauri he directed his first project outside New Zealand: 1989 TV movie Red King, White Knight, a spy thriller featuring an Emmy-nominated performance by Max Von Sydow.
Over the next decade Murphy worked largely in America. Murphy brought style and pace to bratpack western Young Guns II and Steven Seagal train thriller Under Siege 2. He also helmed a host of televison and cable TV projects, including Rutger Hauer thriller Blindside, the pilot for a Magnificent Seven television series, and Mickey Rourke western The Last Outlaw.
Murphy has also made significant contributions as a second unit director to a number of big-budget productions, including US-shot disaster movie Dante's Peak, directed by Roger Donaldson, and Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings.
In 2001 Murphy put together Blerta Revisited (aka Blerta — The Return Trip), which collects together skits, shorts, and music from the Blerta archives. He followed it with his first drama on home soil in 14 years: conspiracy thriller Spooked (2004), which proved a box office disappointment. Starring Cliff Curtis as an investigative reporter on the trail of a mysterious payment, the story was inspired by a real-life Auckland computer dealer who got caught up in a legal battle over bank records found on old computer equipment.
Tales of Mystery and Imagination played in the 2009 round of local film festivals. An experimental take on music inspired by the writing of Edgar Allen Poe, the film mixes concert footage, CGI cooked up by Murphy, and interviews — including one where he draws parallels between the project, and his early years performing with Blerta.
In 2013 Murphy hit the headlines again. Recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award at the year's end Moa NZ Film awards, he was made an NZOM in the 2014 New Year Honours. Earlier he had been honoured as one of New Zealand's 20 greatest living artists when he was named an Arts Icon by the Arts Foundation, the same month a restored, shortened version of his 80s classic Utu won positive reaction when it debuted at the NZ Film Festival.
In 1999 Murphy was the subject of a short book by British academic Jonathan Rayner: Cinema Journeys of the Man Alone: The New Zealand and American Films of Geoff Murphy. Murphy's highly readable autobiography A Life On Film was published by Harper Collins in 2015.
Geoff Murphy, The End of the Beginning’ in Film in Aotearoa New Zealand. Editors Jonathan Dennis and Jan Bieringa (Wellington: Victoria University Press, Second Edition 1996)
Roger Booth, Bruno - The Bruno Lawrence Story (Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 1999)
Helen Brown, 'Mr Pork Pie - rebel of the silver screen' (Interview) - Evening Post, 15 August 1981
Pauline Kael, 'Mirrors' (Review of Utu) - The New Yorker, 15 October 1984
Malcolm McSporrran and Redmer Yska, "The First (and Last?) Great New Zealand Movie - Rolling Stone (Australia), Page 63, 1983
Geoff Murphy, 'The End of the Beginning’ in Film in Aotearoa New Zealand. Editors Jonathan Dennis and Jan Bieringa (Wellington: Victoria University Press, Second Edition 1996)
Utu Press Kit