Emmys: Ryan Murphy on Bringing 'Normal Heart' to the Screen: 'Everyone Cried Every Single Day'
Murphy talks to THR about the tumult and joy of successfully adapting Larry Kramer's AIDS play after many others before him had tried and failed.
This story first appeared in the June 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
It isn't as if Ryan Murphy has a shortage of work, as he juggles running Fox's comedy contender Glee, wrapping a six-season run next year, and FX's miniseries entrant American Horror Story, set to enter its fourth season in the fall. Yet he was passionately driven to do what others -- including Barbra Streisand -- couldn't before him: successfully adapt Larry Kramer's autobiographical, Tony-winning AIDS play The Normal Heart for the screen. The HBO film premiered May 25 to rave reviews, with original-film Emmy buzz for its A-list cast, which includes Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer and Julia Roberts.
A lot of time has passed since The Normal Heart became a stage sensation in 1985. Yet it wasn't until you bought the rights from Kramer in 2009 that it was adapted. Why?
This was one of those things in my life where I felt like a warrior with the material, and I did it because I simply said: "This message needs to be heard. This movie needs to be made." And I do think it's something young people need to see, that it can change hearts and minds. That's honestly why I did it. For 30 years this movie had tried to get made, and the list of people who at one point said they were going to make it is astounding. The fact that I was the one who was finally in the right place at the right time, well, I feel very privileged. The reason Larry Kramer gave me the rights to this is, he said, "You have to promise me you will get it made." And I said, "I will."
How closely did you work with Kramer, who has been in poor health lately?
Very. I worked with Larry on the script for three years, but it was always Larry's script. I think it has been a remarkable experience for me to be almost like the father of it who birthed and pushed it forward. But every day while we were shooting it, I was terrified I was going to drop the ball in some way, and I am so thankful that Larry Kramer got to see it while he's alive. He has watched it now three times, and every time he watches it, he writes to me or we talk. That was all I wanted. Everything else is just gravy.
How did the project land at HBO?
They were the only people who would step up and really put their money where their mouth is. A lot of doors slammed in my face, which has always been the arc of the project. I knew that going in. People were like, "Isn't it too soon to tell the story of AIDS? No one wants to see a movie about AIDS." On and on.
Did you find that people now think of the AIDS crisis as a period piece rather than an active pandemic?
Oh, no question. But it remains the exact same story today; the victims of the disease have just changed. Back in the '80s, it was largely gay men getting infected, but now it has become a disease of people of color and women. More than 6,000 people a day are newly infected with HIV. So it's hardly over. In many ways, it's only beginning.
How did making Heart change your life?
I think it's the most important thing I've ever been involved with. The experience of making this has made me not only a better artist but a better person.
Where do things stand on a sequel?
It's in the works. Larry is currently working on writing the next chapter that takes place in the mid- to late-'80s. All of the actors whose characters survive, as well as HBO, are committed to keeping Larry's legacy front and center for as long as we can. And I'll direct. Larry's plan is for a trilogy. We hope it happens.
An armful of Emmys are sure to greet the film in a few months.
That would be amazing icing on the cake. But truthfully, I have no expectations about that at all. What would be wonderful is if people see the work of our technicians, our actors and everyone associated with this film and found them worthy. I've never been involved with something where everyone cried every single day. Everybody was so careful and loving with the material and went beyond normal human hours to make sure it was presented authentically and beautifully.
Were you surprised by HBO's decision to enter True Detective as a drama rather than a miniseries? Did it make you question the way you entered American Horror Story?
Nothing happens unless it's done with 100 percent of the support of the person who created the show, so I wouldn't say it's HBO's decision. I remember when American Horror Story first went into the miniseries category, it was ultimately my decision. It was something I felt strongly about, and [FX chief] John Landgraf supported me. A miniseries is what we are. Every year it's a different story with a beginning, middle and end. If you look at things that have traditionally won that award, like Prime Suspect, that's what they are, too. So I feel very confident in our choice.