Sunday 3 February 2019

In memoriam: Geoff Murphy (Telegraph 05/12/18)

Geoff Murphy, who has died aged 80, emerged as a pioneering director of the Kiwi film industry before enjoying modest success as a purveyor of Hollywood genre fictions. Although he cut a droll, somewhat weather-beaten figure in later years, this former longhair retained a taste for the raucous, pedal-to-the-metal action showcased in his breakthrough Goodbye Pork Pie (1980). This leaning brought him to the attention of American producers looking to deliver carefully budgeted spectacle, and in the US, Murphy became a sequel specialist, overseeing Young Guns II (1990), Under Siege 2 (1995) and Fortress 2 (2000) among others: projects that sporadically yielded fond memories and multiple video rentals, if few critical plaudits.

Geoffrey Peter Murphy was born on October 12, 1938 in Wellington, where he attended St. Vincent de Paul school and later St. Patrick’s College. After failing the Air Force exam – dashing youthful hopes of becoming a fighter pilot – Murphy entered teacher teaching, only to fall in with the Blerta collective, a rotating troupe of actor-musicians (Murphy was a handy jazz trumpeter) organised around college pal Bruno Lawrence. The group toured the islands in a bright red Leyland Tiger bus, attempting to circumnavigate the strictures of a largely conservative country, and pairing up between impromptu performances. By 1972, Murphy and first wife Pat Robins – future production manager for Peter Jackson – were the parents of five children.

That Murphy was a late starter can be attributed both to this enthusiastic embrace of fatherhood and the limited opportunities his industry then provided. His first credits came with Lawrence-starring shorts, as a writer on Hurry Hurry Faster Faster (1965), then as director of comic heist doodle Tank Busters (1970). Commercial gigs paid some of the bills, and the idiosyncratic Lawrence’s growing notoriety opened a few doors besides. The pair’s Percy the Policeman shorts (1974) were shelved by nervy broadcasters fearful of their anti-authoritarian bent, but Blerta’s first, Python-influenced sketch series aired in 1976, allowing Murphy to scrap his way towards feature-length production with knockabout Western Wild Man (1977, again starring Lawrence).

By then, a new wave of Antipodean directors had drawn eyes Down Under, and Goodbye Pork Pie, tailing two best buds in a stolen yellow Mini, was the sort of runaway hit international distributors couldn’t ignore. (It was also blamed for a localised spike in car crime.) Utu (1983), Murphy’s blood-soaked fable about a vengeful Maori, received a cooler response domestically, though Pauline Kael noted “the ferocity of these skirmishes and raids is played off against an Arcadian beauty that makes your head swim”. He followed it with The Quiet Earth (1985), a clever, funny midnight-movie staple in which a scientist (Lawrence) wakes up to find Auckland voided of life. After a row in 1990, director and star never reconciled; Lawrence died of cancer in 1995.

Murphy’s facility with screen-filling action and spectacle eventually saw him America-bound, but he started on the wrong foot, being dropped from Predator (1987) during development after repeatedly mocking a disgruntled Arnold Schwarzenegger as “Conan the Librarian”. Having earned respectable notices for HBO potboiler Red King, White Knight (1989), Murphy’s subsequent US output rarely cleared critics’ “dumb but fun” bar, although there were two bona fide hits: none-more-1990 Western Young Guns II, with its Jon Bon Jovi title song and blow-dried cowboys, then Under Siege 2, which survived producer-star Steven Seagal’s muscular offscreen interventions to crack $100m.  

Less felicitous was Freejack (1992), which united Emilio Estevez and Mick Jagger for a much-recut futuristic runaround described by fourth-billed Anthony Hopkins as “terrible”. That high-profile flop relegated Murphy to made-for-cable fare: thriller Blind Side (1993) earned a UK video release thanks to its then-saleable combo of Rutger Hauer and Rebecca De Mornay, as did The Last Outlaw (1994), a return to Western stylings with the troubled Mickey Rourke. This work wasn’t unprofitable – it helped Murphy meet a sizeable tax bill from the Kiwi authorities – but by the millennium he was reduced to second-unit directing, assisting Roger Donaldson and fellow Wellingtonian Peter Jackson on Dante’s Peak (1997) and the Lord of the Rings films (2001-3) respectively.

Having travelled full circle, Murphy received a Lifetime Achievement prize at the New Zealand Film Awards in 2013 and the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2014; he wrote a memoir (A Life on Film) in 2015, and saw son Matt direct Pork Pie (2017), a remake of his own 1980 success. His death came mere days after a retrospective of his work at the New Zealand audio-visual archive, and prompted PM Jacinda Ardern to dub him “a trailblazer”, yet Murphy himself never quite abandoned his old Blerta irreverence. Upon learning he was to receive an honorary doctorate from Wellington’s Massey University in 2014, he commented: “It’ll be good when I’m arguing with the city council.”  

He is survived by his third wife Diane, and six children: five (Linus, Matt, Miles, Paul and Robin) by Pat Robins, and a son (filmmaker Heperi Mita) by his second wife, the producer-director Merata Mita.

Geoff Murphy, born October 12, 1938, died December 3, 2018.

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