The creator of Glee and Nip\Tuck talks about his new feature film starring Julia Roberts based on the internationally popular novel
Writer/director/producer Ryan Murphy is best known for creating some of the most popular shows on TV including the WB's cult-classic Popular, FX's award winning and groundbreaking series Nip/Tuck and Fox's current runaway hit Glee. But Murphy is also an accomplished filmmaker having made the 2006 film Running with Scissors based on the memoirs of Augusten Burroughs and starring Annette Bening, Alec Baldwin, Gwyneth Paltrow, Evan Rachel Wood and Brian Cox. Now Murphy returns once again to the big screen with his new film, Eat, Pray, Love, which is based on the extremely popular novel by author Elizabeth Gilbert and stars Oscar winners Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich) and Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men), as well as Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins (The Visitor), Golden Globe winner James Franco (Spider-Man) and veteran actor Billy Crudup (Watchmen). We recently had a chance to sit down and speak with Ryan Murphy about his new film, the challenges of adapting the book into a movie, collaborating with author Elizabeth Gilbert, his favorite scene in the film and working with Julia Roberts. Here is what the talented filmmaker had to say about his new project:
To begin with, a lot of men may look at this film and think that it is just your average "chick-flick" but really the movie deals with universal themes and issues that anyone can relate to, is that the way that you saw it and the message that you were going for with this film?
Ryan Murphy: I felt so. I mean I was very interested in doing a movie like this. Look if you're a dude and you've been divorced, you've broken up with somebody, somebody's broken your heart or you have a son, then I think you will be able to relate to this film. I think all the male characters in this movie are so strong and all the male actors are so strong that I think there are things that men can be interested in. I think that everybody is on the path to finding them selves or finding balance. That's not just a female trait.
I think it's also not a typical movie with a female in its lead. That would be sort of the stupid romantic comedy where she would walk in and find her husband in bed with the bimbo and she says, "Fuck you, I'm going around the world." Life is more difficult and complicated than that. In a divorce you are both the heartbreaker and the heartbroken. You play both roles and its really difficult. I've been through that. That's what I love about the movie. It is ambivalent in its declarations, which is an interesting thing. Those are all the movies that I loved growing up, those Hal Ashby movies. I feel very fortunate that the studio let me shoot this script.
Also, surprisingly the film has many strong male characters, are they directly from the book or did you have to build them up a bit for the film?
Ryan Murphy: A little bit of both, Billy's character especially. The great thing about Elizabeth Gilbert is she said, "Listen do with it what you will." I really worked hard with her in the writing of the script. My co-writer Jennifer Salt and I sent her every draft and she had opinions. Sometimes I would call her and be like, "Tell me more about the stars Javier character because I have to do it shorthand and quickly. She said, "One time I remember he cried when his son went back to college and I just fell in love with him even more." I was like, "Why didn't you put that in the book?" She's like, "I know." So I felt sometimes like it was our therapy sessions where I would pull stuff out. I think the line from the movie that is on the posters, "You don't need a man you need a champion," I think that is just from something she told me. The Richard Jenkins stuff, Liz graciously put me in touch with the real Richard from Texas and I wrote that big scene with him. We wrote that together. There was a lot of stuff that he told me that was not in the book because he didn't tell Liz.
You brought up the big scene with Richard Jenkins when his character, Richard from Texas, tells Julia's character his back-story. It's one of the most powerful scenes in the movie and you let the entire scene unfold without a cut, it's all one take from over Julia's shoulder. Was that to allow the emotion of Richard Jenkins' performance to really resonate with the audience and can you talk about your choice to edit that scene that way?
Ryan Murphy: There was not a cut. Yes, that is my favorite scene in the movie. There were a couple of things that were at play in that scene. I loved that scene, I wrote it with Richard from Texas. Richard Jenkins said, "I don't want to rehearse it. I just want to shoot it. I don't want to talk about it. I don't want to hear it. I don't want you to hear it. I just want to shoot it." I agreed, shot it and the take that is in the movie was his first take. He knocked it out of the park and when he ended it I remember crying. Julia was crying and then I got myself together and we shot for another hour. We shot, shot, shot every angle and everything. Then we got in the editing room and I looked at the scene and I did not cry. I was like, why am I not moved by this? I was so moved by it when we shot it, I was so disappointed and I thought, is it my writing?
So I said to the editors, my editing crew, these three straight dudes, "Lets just hold his one first take. Lets just hold it, lets just do that." I think its four minutes and forty-five seconds, its really long but riveting. So we watched it, it ended and I was crying. Then I looked around, they were crying and I was like, "Okay well that's that." With everybody who's seen it, I think there is so much tension because I don't cut. You literally get to see someone have a nervous breakdown, which is what I think Richard was doing in that scene and I think it is a tremendous acting achievement. It was his first fucking take, first of all. He doesn't stumble over a word, he is crying, she is crying and I think it is really beautiful and true. Of all the scenes in the movie that is the one I am most proud of because it is all happy accidents. That's the thing about movies now is that everything is MTV-style cutting so when you do something like just sit with a take it makes you tense because you keep waiting to be taken out of it. The story is so difficult that I don't want you to come out of it.
Can you talk about the other changes you had to make from the book in order to adapt it to film?
Ryan Murphy: Well it's a hard book to adapt because it is the bible to so many people. We did focus groups because I wanted to hear people talk about what they could not live without. You know, they couldn't live without the pizza scene or the rooftop scene with them dancing. There were certain greatest hits that the people wanted.
There were certain things that I took out like a really long section in Bali for example. When the Wayan character is house hunting and she keeps leading Liz down this primrose path. Which is fine and I shot it but then when you get into the editing room, you know Julia and Javier are so good together that even when I did a preview I had left it in there and the audience is like, "We don't want it, we want them, get them back together." So I took a four-minute chunk out, things like that that you learn throughout the experience. Nothing crazy.
You also added fantasy sequences towards the end of the film where Julia's character is remembering her former life with her husband, these scenes were not in the book so could you talk about the importance of adding them in order to make the film work?
Ryan Murphy: One of the things that I felt with the script was that I didn't want to do a movie that was like, I went here ... then I went there ... then I ate this and then I prayed there. I didn't want it to just be episodic. I wanted it to feel like the culmination of something so I did a lot of flashbacks and flash-forwards with Jennifer in the writing of the script. That wedding scene being my favorite because I just thought, you know, it's complicated. Everyone remembers that there was a point when she loved him, he was her guy and you saw why. When he does the dance and he is just a goofball, I love how Julia does that thing where she says, "Come over here ... come over here" and "I love you" to him.
So we see that guy and we see the loser guy at the bar that he becomes, who at forty is going to go back to college and I liked that you got to see both sides, the reason that she loved him and the reason that she couldn't be with him any more. I like that at the end he got a happy ending, which the real Steven in real life did. I believe that everyone in your life brings you to where you are supposed to be. It's like, your marriage may not have lasted but the lessons that you learn will inform your next relationship. Then when you are in that next relationship you realize that everything happened so you could get there and life works like that. As long as you keep accepting that theory, I think that you grow as a person, at least that's how it works for me.
Finally, could this movie have starred anyone other than Julia Roberts or do you think that she is the only actress that could have pulled-off this role?
Ryan Murphy: Well every girl in town wanted that part for sure. They all chased it. I got calls from everybody even when I said that Julia was doing it. Every girl in town wanted that part, name anyone but my agent said to me, "Do you want to do this with Julia? I said, "Yes," because I have always been obsessed with Julia Roberts and I think that is because she posses the rare combination of being a great actress and a great movie star. She's very rare. We have a lot of great actresses who are not great movie stars and a lot of great movie stars who are not great actresses. I think the only person who is like a Julia Roberts is a Meryl Streep. Mike Nichols also believes that by the way.
I don't know, there is just something about her. There is a reason that she is the most successful actress of all-time. I think that guys want to date her and girls want to be her best friend. You know when you shoot with her that is what happens. Guys who play her boyfriends or husbands fall in love with her and Viola Davis loved being her best friend. I love being her friend. There is something infectious about her. There is something about her that is life affirming. When she smiles the heavens part, the sun comes out. You know I would be in the worst mood and then I'd go into the editing room and hear that laugh and even now when I hear that laugh I just get thrilled. So I love her in this film because I'm almost the same age as Julia. I'm just two years older and you know, I grew up watching Julia Roberts' movies. She's been a star since she was eighteen and I love her in this part because she is segueing into that great part of her career that feels very Meryl Streep-ion. I truly feel that and I think there is nothing that she can't do.
Julia Roberts is so deeply talented. I want to do every movie with her. This was a very hard movie to make so I want to do a fun romantic adult comedy about her in a marriage with kids and how difficult that it is to deal with, being a workingwoman and having children. So I'm writing that for her now, it's going to be an original thing but I don't know when I'm going to shoot it. I just love her and we're really close. We have a short hand now and I would love to direct her again now knowing what I know. But I can't say enough good things about her, she is amazing and I just admire her life.