After three decades of futility, The Normal Heart figures to be at the center of the Primetime Emmy Awards. It received 16 nominations, including one for its director Ryan Murphy, and for the performances of Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, Julia Roberts, Joe Mantello (who starred in the original play), Jim Parsons, and Alfred Molina. And one for Larry Kramer, who turned a roman a clef version of his fight against indifference to the AIDS crisis into the play on which the movie is based. Between The Normal Heart and his series American Horror Story and Glee, Murphy’s productions racked up 34 Emmy noms, more than some networks. Here, he discusses the groundbreaking movie, the long battle to get it to the screen and how Barbra Streisand helped keep The Normal Heart beating all those years.
DEADLINE: For me and anyone else in their 50s who lived in a city like New York, The Normal Heart brought back that Twilight Zone nightmare period when we watched friends die and were powerless to help, amidst rampant political apathy because most of those stricken were gay. Larry Kramer’s refusal to go quietly made him a true screen hero, though he was equally vocal that his heartbreaking play took three decades to get made. How long did this movie burn in you?
MURPHY: I was in college when the play came out and had seen productions of it through the years, and I always deeply admired it. I grew up in that era where things were very scary. I lost 10 friends to AIDS and so it was always an important piece of art in my life. I followed the project’s trajectory starting in 1987, and was always very sad that it was not made into a movie. I always felt that the current generation, so many young people, didn’t know what happened, was unaware of the nightmare we lived through back then.
DEADLINE: How did that translate to action?
MURPHY: It was pretty simple. I woke up one day in 2009 and thought, why has this movie not been made? My producing partner Dante Di Loreto knew Larry and called him. The rights were lapsing and Larry agreed to meet with me. He didn’t know who I was, or any of my previous work. I think he was taken by my passion.
DEADLINE: He was outspoken when the world did little about AIDS, and when Hollywood did nothing with this project even though Barbra Streisand sure tried. What about you made him trust he wouldn’t have his heart broken again?
MURPHY: I met Larry before the revival on Broadway when he really thought this wasn’t going to happen. I had a plan. Listen, he wanted a lot of money for the property because to be blunt, it was the thing that sustained him and his family for years. I did not want to put him through another script development hell situation where he could have his heart broken. I wanted him, with me, to really control the trajectory of what was going to happen. I told him, “If you give me the rights, I swear to you on my life, I will get this made.” I meant it, I put my money where my mouth is and broke into my IRA account and bought the play outright, so he and I could just work on the project until it was right and then make it. That was always my plan. I wanted to give him freedom and financial confidence.
DEADLINE: How did that go over?
MURPHY: He was astounded that I did that. I don’t know why I did it, other than that I felt so strongly in my gut, perhaps more so than anything I had ever been involved with, that I was getting this done. For him, and hopefully in the right way.
DEADLINE: When you start with a fine play, how long does it take to get it right for the screen?
MURPHY: We worked three years and felt the script was as good as it could be and then we met Mark Ruffalo and Julia Roberts. Before I went out to the town, I had a general meeting with Michael Lombardo and Len Amato at HBO, I mentioned it and they snapped it up with an offer I couldn’t refuse. Both Larry and I realized it was the right home for it, because all we ever wanted was to have people not forget these men and women who died. HBO has that kind of platform.
DEADLINE: You’ve made studio and indie movies and seen the benefits and limitations of each to reach audiences. Why did Mike Lombardo’s pitch make the most sense?
MURPHY: The draft that Larry had written, the one I was very passionate about, was not an inexpensive indie movie. We had offers, $4 million to $7 million, but our budget was higher. Partly because I was adamant we needed a four-month shutdown so that Matt Bomer could lose the weight for the last segment of the film. Shutting down is a very expensive proposition, and Mike never blinked at that. The budget of the film ended up being around $18 million, which is a medium-sized film in today’s landscape, and those are very hard to get financed. But it was more than that to me. More people would see it and I thought it’s such a harrowing story that maybe the safety of your living room was an easier place to watch it. Larry agreed. This is a guy who stood outside the Broadway performances, passing out literature to young people. Larry has always stated that young people don’t know what it was like. Young gay people, in particular, don’t know their history, and he felt very adamant they know, that perhaps it could save lives but more than that if he could find a young Larry Kramer to create a new generation of activists, it wouldn’t have to just be about HIV and AIDS. There are other issues worth fighting for. The reaction from young people in particular to the movie, has been so moving. They admire Larry’s activism and his refusal to not give up in the face of extreme despair. Larry has incited and encouraged a whole group that was not familiar with the material.
DEADLINE: You’ve had great success and grown more ambitious. What in your life or work gave you the confidence to take this on as director?
MURPHY: I was never confident about it, cautious every day of shooting and aware of my promise to Larry and the people who died. I don’t recall being nervous in my other work, but here there was a sense of obligation to history. I was scared shitless. I storyboarded the movie twice and in prep made sure I had a historian or doctor on set who’d been through it so everything was medically accurate. I got an ulcer at the start of the shoot. I was so worried that I was going to screw it up, I worked myself into a frenzy, couldn’t sleep. I was just consumed with getting it right and not letting Larry down. It was such an emotional time for me. I had lived through that period, and been part of many of those scenes, losing so many people in my life. I didn’t forget it for one second. Bryan Lourd, one of my agents, said something profound when I was working on the script and got stuck on whether I could do this. He would say, “Do it for the boys.” All the fallen boys taken too soon in my life, in Larry’s life. I cried every day on the set, along with everyone else. Looking back I wouldn’t change a second of all that because it made me a better person, a better father and a better artist. It taught me so much about empathy, compassion and courage.
DEADLINE: It had commonality with movies like Schindler’s List, Roots, the Jackie Robinson movie, and about trying to be on the right side of history and being unable to comprehend such things could happen in a civilized world. Through his alter ego played by Ruffalo, Larry got into ferocious fights with his cohorts who were just as dedicated but devoted to working politically to get things done. They accused him of egotism and destroying their efforts to help in the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. Were they angry over that or because they couldn’t summon anger like he did and be brutally honest about how a whole segment of the population was suffering from a deadly plague and nobody was helping?
MURPHY: It was never just a movie about AIDS to me, it was a civil rights movie, and I think that gay people would not have the rights they have today without Larry Kramer. I don’t think there would be gay marriage or that climate for tolerance would be the same. What happened to Larry was, the person that he loved the most in the world was dying, and he was tired of lying, of pretending that he was something he was not, and he felt the way to get people to listen was to just hit them with the truth. Many in that organization couldn’t do that. All except two died of AIDS, but some were in the closet with their families and co-workers. Mark Ruffalo and I always talked about how, even when Larry was in a fight with these guys, he always loved them. They were his family. I think they didn’t see that. In the heat of battle, they were confused by his toughness, but it was tough love. And the thing about history is, it has proven Larry Kramer right. The most thrilling moment of my career was him living to see the movie at the premiere, and getting a standing ovation when I said, “You were right.”
DEADLINE: There is a scene where Ruffalo’s character Ned Weeks is called to the White House, thinking he is finally going to be helped by the Reagan administration. It becomes clear the staffer who summoned him (played by Corey Stoll) simply wanted to know if one of his hooker encounters could have infected him with the disease. Did that really happen?
MURPHY: Larry maintains that it did. He kept extensive diaries and documents of meetings. That was an amazing scene in Act Three, where our hero is going to the White House, and you think he has found somebody who’s going to help him. Finally, the White House, our nation’s leader, is going to help, that they finally understood. Larry maintains that he went to that meeting, and that’s exactly what happened.
DEADLINE: The indignities shown dying victims were bad enough, but then survivors had to pay to have corpses of AIDS victims smuggled out of a morgue in a hefty bag because they would not handle the corpse. What other indignities did he tell you about that you didn’t include?
MURPHY: There is more he is putting into the sequel he’s writing that we’ll make in the future. I haven’t seen the pages yet but the two that moves me most was Albert, being carried out in the hefty bag, and the scene in the hospital bed where Stanford’s character dies, in his own urine and feces, with no one attending him. It was a dark period, a national nightmare. As many as Larry told me, I tried to put in the film, to capture the horror. Far worse happened. There were many cases also of loved ones dying and mortuaries not knowing where to take the bodies, and on, and on, and on. It was just a horrible period.
DEADLINE: A few years ago, you planned a series where Joseph Fiennes was going to play a father, a sportswriter who decided to live as a woman and it would play out over the period that sex changes happen in stages. It always seemed a long shot, even with your FX success on Nip/Tuck. TV has come a long way. Could you do that series now?
MURPHY: I think TV has changed the world in many ways. There are a lot of wonderful gay and lesbian characters now, that people consider part of their family. We now live in a world where the president of the United States called me on the phone after watching The Normal Heart to say, great job. It’s astounding to me, I never thought I’d see that in my lifetime. Particularly when you look at The Normal Heart, where the president of the United States at the time would not even say the word AIDS. There is work to do, but I remember when I first started out in 1999, I would do a lot of notes about gay characters and gay situations that were very benign, but the idea was like, no, we can’t show that. I don’t know how it happened, but I recall a moment where I said, No, I can’t accept this, I am going to fight back because it didn’t feel right. A lot of people did that, showrunners in particular, and collectively, we moved the bar. You referenced Pretty Handsome, which I was going to do right before Glee. I was passionate about it and so was John Landgraf. But I felt advertisers would not support it back then. I think they would now. I am glad Larry Kramer is here to see that kind progress and got to feel that reception. He was shunned and fired from organizations left and right. To finally have a moment where he can feel his work and sacrificed mattered. Wow.
DEADLINE: He was very tough on Barbra Streisand when she was unable to see this through. How did you see that?
MURPHY: Larry’s thing with her is his thing. To me, there’s no denying her great passion for the material, that the public readings she did and her talking about it kept the play in the forefront. For that, I think she should be commended. I’ve never said it before publicly, but I’m very thankful for what she did to keeping it afloat. She kept the idea alive, that is a strong thing.
DEADLINE: Has she told you if she has seen or liked it?
MURPHY: No. I have not heard from her. I would love to reach out and talk to her and I hope she liked it. I’m too shy to ask her.
DEADLINE: You? Shy?
MURPHY: She is Barbra Streisand. This cause is so near and dear to her heart. I had some rough patches with Larry, but my experience was overwhelmingly positive. He would write me, with an IV in his arm, at 3 AM. I’d say, you should rest and then I’d wake up and there were pages in my inbox. Larry’s heart was in the right place, but so was Barbra’s, and I have nothing but good feelings about her, and about it all.