Tab Murphy

Tab Murphy, an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter who wrote “Gorillas in the Mist,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Tarzan” and many others, is one of 11 accomplished authors who will be featured speakers at the 2022 Jackson Hole Writers Conference in June.

Tab Murphy grew up in Olympia, Washington, where his parents fostered a love of the movies by taking him to see films that as a kid he had “no business seeing,” he said. Like when he was a young teenager and they took to him to “The Godfather.” While his mother tensed beside her son, uncomfortable with some unexpected nudity on the screen, Murphy became enthralled with the power of telling a good story on screen.

“I just loved movies and I just went to all the movies I could, with or without friends,” he said.

This passion eventually led him Murphy to study filmmaking at USC. He started working as a screenwriter in 1983. In 1988 he was nominated for an Academy Award for his writing on “Gorillas in the Mist.” He went on to work for Disney, writing on movies such as “Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Atlantis.”

Still working on numerous TV and film projects, Murphy also is a featured speaker at this year’s Jackson Hole Writers Conference, which starts Thursday. He will give a presentation at 2:50 p.m. Friday titled “Pages 1-20: The Most Important Part of Your Screenplay.”

The News&Guide spoke with Murphy about his career and what makes a good screenplay. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What was it about movies that you loved when you were growing up?

A: I just found something magical about sitting in a theater as the lights would go down and the smell of popcorn and the excitement was palpable for the movie to begin, and it was just like a magic carpet ride to wherever the movie was going to take you and however the story was going to unfold. That still exists. I still get that sensation. It has never left me. It’s that feeling of being transported to a story, to a world, to characters and sort of being just captivated for hours that was magic for me. I knew eventually I had to be a part of that.

Q: Were you always a writer?

A: I was always a writer in that I enjoyed creative writing and wrote some weird little stories that got attention in school. But I originally wanted to be a filmmaker. When I transferred to USC film school, I took screenwriting as an elective and really everything dovetailed from there. I realized I could write myself into the director’s chair of a movie by writing a decent script.

Q: How is screenwriting different than other types of writing?

A: It’s a weird kind of writing in that it’s the only writing where you are dependent to realize it into a different art form — which is film. Everyone judges it on the movie. It’s the only kind of writing that no one knows you as a writer but from images on a screen. Someone once told me early in my career, if all you want to be is a screenwriter it’s going to kill your soul. I think what that person meant is that all your work will be filtered through someone else’s vision. It’s why people drift to directing. A writer-director is the purest form of getting your vision onto the screen. But usually the painful part of screenwriting is it gets butchered by someone else or it doesn’t sell or go anywhere. In my opinion, some of my best work has never seen the light of day because it’s just a script that is collecting dust on the shelf that no one wants to make into a movie.

Screenwriting is also a really economical style of writing. A screenwriter must have a really strong grasp of language in putting words together that create an image in a director’s mind. A novel can bring you to an emotional moment, but it’s a moment that is earned through all this work — backstory and getting to know characters. To create an emotional moment in a screenplay, it’s about economics. That’s good screenwriting when you read a script or see the movie and feel all those emotional ups and downs without reading 600 pages. In screenwriting you have to create characters you immediately care about within the first five or 10 pages.

Q: Are you interested in other types of writing or only screenwriting?

A: Novel writing. It’s like anything else in that it’s different than what I know, so that’s intimidating. I’m really comfortable as a screenwriter. I write with visuals. I can see the movie as I’m writing. I don’t know what that would look like as a novel. When I write a movie, it doesn’t take me long. Once I start writing, it takes about six weeks with a first draft. The idea of spending a year or two on one story — oh, my God. Am I going to get bored of it? Or am I going to hate my characters after six months and think, like, “Why did I invent you guys” But never say never. I do like a challenge.

Q: You’ve done a lot of writing for animated films. Is that different than writing for live films?

A: It was a big transition for me. I had come crashing into Hollywood with this idea about how I was going to be the next Steven Spielberg, doing live action films. I also really have to have some sort of connection to the material so I can bring the passion I need to bring when it comes to fingers on the keyboard and all those dark days, and wasn’t sure I could find that with animated films at first. But I did.

A big difference between animation and live action is that they slow the process way down. You don’t go off and write a screenplay. The first thing I had to do when I started with Disney is to determine if there was a Disney movie in Victor Hugo’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” which is a very dark and adult story. I also didn’t want to make it a singing and dancing animal movie. To Disney’s credit, they said, “You write the story you want to write and you let us worry about our brand.” Even though “Hunchback” is a musical, it is still a very intense story. Every time I thought they were not going to go for it, they went for it. I did so much writing on that thing.

You don’t start with a screenplay. You write an outline and then you refine that outline and refine that outline. Then you do a treatment and refine that and refine that, and finally you get to write a screenplay. It also was one of the most creative fertile experiences I’ve ever had. Instead of sitting in rooms and getting notes from suits, I was sitting in rooms with artists and animators and talking about how to bring it to life, and it was magical.

Q: What will you be talking about specifically at the Jackson Hole Writers Conference?

A: Pages 1-20 as the most important part of your screenplay. I’ll talk about as a writer of a screenplay you have to hook the reader in the first 10 pages or your script or it gets tossed aside by the executive who brought 40 scripts home to read over the weekend. It’s about grabbing the reader and engaging them in a story where they can’t guess what is going to happen in the next moment. You’ve got to be fresh and engaging and make them want to turn the page. I’ll be talking about how to do that. 

Contact Kelsey Dayton via 732-7078 or entertainment@jhnewsandguide.com.

Since moving to Jackson Hole in 1992, Richard has covered everything from local government and criminal justice to sports and features. He currently concentrates on arts and entertainment, heading up the Scene section.

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