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The Misfits 

Four killer producers on the cutting edge of independent film

Wednesday, Nov 13 2002
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Producers are very misunderstood. Of course, there‘s a lot of pigs -- I won’t mention names -- who sit in New York and buy every piece of literary property they can and get a studio to pay for it. But people like Don [Murphy] and Chris [Hanley] are really struggling, because they have to do things on a very small level. Those guys are the lifeblood of this industry, the fertility. So more power to them. We need them.

--Oliver Stone,

interviewed for this article

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It‘s about people who sell their work, but won’t sell themselves. Anybody who holds out is a misfit. If he loses, he is a failure, and if he is successful, he is rare. This movie is about a world in change.

--John Huston, from The Making of The Misfits

One lasting effect of the independent-film boom of the ‘90s is the perception that all the interesting American films come out of New York. Here, rather than being a Trojan horse that subverted Hollywood from the inside, the indie cycle became a pretext for Hollywood proper to do and say what it wanted, no matter how crass or commercial the effort. American Pie? Freddie Got Fingered? XXX? Why not? There would always be some Harvey Weinstein or Scott Rudin or Ted Hope or Christine Vachon back East to uphold standards.

And yet, interesting, oddball, even outre films still get made -- in Hollywood, within the shadow and amid the crushing machinery of the studio process. They always have. And for every director or writer or actor who lends his or her talents to big films that wind up smart, or to little films that turn out edgier or more subversive or less programmatic than might be expected, there is inevitably an independent producer, toiling in obscurity, who actually makes it happen. These figures, surreptitiously or flamboyantly, inhabit an ill-defined purgatory between management and labor: They impose parental controls on wayward talent from above, while soliciting creative concessions from skeptical studio heads from below. Depending on the day, they’re the nudges at the party, or the sore thumbs in the boardroom. But they rarely belong.

This is the story of four of them: Don Murphy, who, with partner Jane Hamsher, discovered Quentin Tarantino and brought his script, Natural Born Killers, to Oliver Stone, and who now has a studio deal at Sony; Chris Hanley, who has cobbled together foreign financing and “found money” to produce some 20-odd eclectic projects featuring micro-budgets and top-shelf talent; Stuart Cornfeld, who ushered David Lynch into the studio system and put David Cronenberg on its map, and who now runs Ben Stiller‘s company, Red Hour; and Steve Golin, who, with ex-partner Joni Sighvatsson, founded Propaganda Films, a TV-commercial, music-video and management company that launched many of today’s top directors, and who would like to do more of the same with his new company, Anonymous Content. Between them, they have produced some 70 movies, more often than not on a wing and a prayer. And they all agree it‘s getting harder.

These people are misfits -- mavericks, visionaries, savants, bullies, cardsharps, egomaniacs -- who follow in a tradition that stretches from Samuel Goldwyn to David Brown to Ed Pressman and Keith AddisNick Wechsler. They do it to get made the movies that nobody else will make, or that they want to see made.

But still, given the odds and the obstacles -- to say nothing of the seat at the big table they’ve given up for the sake of tilting at windmills -- it‘s an odd way to spend one’s life.

THE SCRAPPER

Don Murphy and the Angry Smiley Face

[FILMOGRAPHY]

Monday Morning(executive producer, 1990)

Double Dragon (1993)

Natural Born Killers (1994)

Permanent Midnight (1998)

Apt Pupil (1998)

Bully (2001)

From Hell (2001)

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)

Don Murphy is industry point man for the geek Zeitgeist. Walk into his office on the Sony lot, and you‘re overwhelmed by toys and tchotchkes: Gigantor, a life-size Astroboy, Iron Man and Spawn and Star Wars figurines. Accompany him to Meltdown Comics on Melrose, and it’s like Elizabeth Taylor strolling into Harry Winston -- staff and management stiffen and enthuse, clearly in the presence of a preferred customer.

So it should come as little surprise that following a string of outsider opuses chronicling opera-buffo mass murderers, comical junkies and dueling Nazis (Natural Born Killers, Permanent Midnight and Apt Pupil, all with former partner Jane Hamsher), his current slate should be focused almost entirely on the worlds of comics, horror, science fiction and cult cinema. His last film, the Jack the Ripper story From Hell, and his next, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a Victorian sci-fi opus, are based on graphic novels by Alan Moore. Meanwhile, he and partner-fiancee Susan Montford are producing an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft‘s At the Mountains of Madness with Guillermo del Toro, and an update of the Lee Madden biker saga Hell’s Angels ‘69, called Speed Tribes, re-purposed for the phenomenon of Japan’s underground motorcycle culture.

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