EXCLUSIVE: Inside the Hot Business of 'Glee'

 Joe Pugliese

That means the Finn masturbation scene that somehow got past broadcast standards earlier this season won’t fly, either. “I personally did not think it was too much, but I immediately heard from parents and even my gay friends who were like, ‘I wasn’t comfortable knowing that my 8-year-old niece in Maryland was watching that,’ ” Murphy says. “From now on, I will sweat every single word and how we’re presenting it.”

Ask what Murphy is like to work with, and you’ll hear an array of adjectives ranging from “challenging” to “professional” to “no-nonsense” to “mercurial.” He sees himself as “hard and encouraging” but also giving.  “It’s very important to me to bring people up, to get more women and minorities Directors Guild cards,” he says. “When I started, it was all straight white men. It’s not that way anymore. I’ve been so lucky, but if you don’t give back, you’re just an asshole.”

And there’s one unspoken modifier, too: Murphy is vital. He plays an integral role in nearly every phase of production but especially in setting Glee’s tone. For that, he’s given a far longer leash than most showrunners. Still, there was a moment when it almost snapped.

It was August 2009, and Murphy, who had directed the 2006 film Running With Scissors, received the offer of his dreams: the movie Eat Pray Love, with Julia Roberts in the starring role. Just one problem: He and Glee co-writers Brad Falchuk and Brennan were only a few episodes into Season 1, and the trio was committed for 13. To do Love would require three months of shooting on three continents, not to mention the consent of his studio bosses, who were getting ready to launch his new show on the back of Idol. 

“It was tense,” Murphy says. “It was a very weird period in my life. Everything happened at once. I was finishing Nip/Tuck, Glee was greenlit and in production against all odds, and Julia Roberts — the most famous, highest-grossing female movie star in the history of the planet —  said yes to the movie that I believed in. I wanted to do it, and it was very difficult because they never said no to me. Fox, Amy Pascal at Sony, Dana — none of them wanted to take someone’s dream away, so I really had to make some promises.”

The decision to let Murphy embark on his Love adventure was “highly unusual,” Walden recalls. “It involved a huge leap of faith on our part and a huge degree of trust in Ryan. To say no would have been the end of our relationship with him and the wrong decision in a partnership.”

As Glee legend goes, Falchuk and Brennan flew around the world to write with Murphy whenever he could spare the time. The Madonna episode, in fact, was conceived beachside in Bali on a 110-degree day. “I really did admire how everybody handled it,” Murphy says. “I feel very loyal to that group of people now because they believed in me.”

It does, however, point to an uncertain future. With Murphy’s Glee contract up at the end of Season 5 and the cast due to graduate at some point (“just because they leave this school doesn’t mean they can’t go to another one,” he hints), can the show continue to churn out stars, ratings, quality music and good stories without him? As much as he can, Murphy is working to ensure Glee’s longevity by setting up story lines and the constant introduction of new characters.

Chord Overstreet was new and really caught on this season, and Darren Criss has become one of our biggest recording stars ever,” Murphy says. “Next year, we’ll add two to four new people and every year as the show continues. I won’t be doing it forever -- or past my agreement. Then it will become somebody else’s dilemma.”

With that admission, the Fox credo of gleeful optimism fades as Walden contemplates life without her friend and collaborator.  “The pop culture magic that surrounds this show, Ryan brings,” she says. “The character development, the story lines — Ian and Brad can do those parts ultimately if they had to. But I don’t think I would want to do Glee without Ryan altogether. I’d hope he’d have some minimal involvement.”

Adds Newman: “I think a creator like him has to be handled really carefully by a studio. But, the last thing we’re worrying about is some post-Ryan era.” Murphy shares that sentiment: “I’m just trying to get past the Super Bowl,” he says.

Besides, Fox might have a bigger Glee headache to deal with: the imminent salary renegotiation with members of its ensemble cast. “With a series that’s this successful, it’s not unusual that people would have to renegotiate contracts,” Newman says. “My guess is over the course of the next year, we’ll be having those conversations with representatives of the cast and hope that we can find areas of agreement to increase their compensation and get what we need in terms of additional services.”

Those services include participation in the tour, recording obligations, options for three movies at Fox, promotional appearances, press, attendance at Fox events, charitable endeavors and, of course, all that merchandising. On the actors’ side, several are juggling solo music careers and movie offers. To shoot Garry Marshall’s New Year’s Eve, co-starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Halle Berry and Ashton Kutcher, Murphy is writing Michele out for several days in February and March, “so she can go back and forth and do the movie,” he says. “We’re doing that with Darren, too, who has an existing movie career. In success, you should have more success.”

At the same time, they’re mindful of not hijacking their actors’ time so much that they make a Friends-like pact and revolt. But if it happens, that’s cool, too, Murphy says. “I expect and encourage it. I think everybody should do whatever they can so they feel happy and taken care of. I don’t want anybody to come to work feeling like: ‘F--- you. You don’t care about me.’ For the first 13 episodes, all of us were like, ‘whatever it takes,’ including those kids. Then we got successful, and they were like, ‘OK, a little less what it takes, a little more, ‘We wanna go home and have a life.’ A lot of companies might be like: ‘Go screw yourself.’ We realize that it’s a little different now, and we’re starting to reach out to different actors and representatives and come up with pay raises and movie outs.”

Whether those pay bumps end up on the level of The Big Bang Theory will depend largely on Season 2’s numbers, which should get a substantial Super Bowl spike, but one thing’s for sure: It will be an awfully long way to come in a short amount of time for such Broadway stars as Morrison and Michele, who both earned union pay of $1,800 a week, by Billig’s estimation, while they starred in Tony-nominated shows. “The jump from stage to TV is astronomical,” she says. 

Glee has yet to hit its peak, and the frenzy will only intensify during the coming months. “I think these kids have handled fame very, very well, but it’s hard for a lot of them,” Murphy says. “Like Chris Colfer. I’ve seen it where he’s at a party and every gay person within a three-mile radius is suddenly up in his face. … At the same time, I tell them: ‘This will not last forever. You will not be on TV forever. You will not have the opportunity to perform in the 02 Arena forever. You will not be going to the Golden Globes forever. Try to enjoy it.’”

It’s advice the poker-faced Murphy might want to take himself and smile every so often. He’s earned it.

-- Additional reporting by Marisa Guthrie

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