Documentarian Mary Murphy ’81 Talks Wes, Journalism, and the Magic of Harper Lee
Mary McDonagh Murphy ’81 is certainly a Wesleyan success story—in fact, her career could justify our liberal arts education. After graduating from Wes, she became a print journalist, writing for publications such as Newsweek. She then made the jump to television, working at CBS for 20 years and winning six Emmy awards in the process. Now she heads her own production company called Mary Murphy & Co., producing anything from full-length documentaries to long-form news pieces to book and author videos. And she wasn’t even a film major!
This Monday night at 8 p.m., her documentary, “Hey Boo: Harper Lee and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ ” airs on PBS in its television debut as part of an “American Masters” special on great American novelists. Murphy took some time to talk to The Argus about her documentary, her professional life, and her time at Wesleyan.
The Argus: What does your documentary focus on?
Mary Murphy: The documentary is called “Hey Boo: Harper Lee and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ ” It was actually released in theaters last May and it played in twenty different cities in movie theaters, so this is the TV broadcast version of it. It basically deals with the impact that the novel had on generations of readers and also on the civil rights movement. I looked carefully at the context of the country and the culture of the year that “To Kill a Mockingbird” appeared, which was July of 1960. It deals with the power and the enduring appeal of one book that continues to sell nearly a million copies a year, 50 years later. To the extent that I am able to, given the fact that Harper Lee hasn’t given an interview since 1964, I used whatever first hand reporting I did and tried to piece together a little bit more about her life at the time she was writing the novel and her life since it appeared. I got rare exclusive interviews with her sister Alice and her closest friends in New York City, Michael and Joy Brown, who actually gave Harper Lee the money to take a year off from her job as an airline ticket reservationist and work on her writing full time.
A: Aside from the documentary, I understand that you wrote a book on the same subject. Why did you do both?
MM: What happened to me was that I had so much great material, and once I had a 20-minute cut of my documentary, I took it to an editor at Harper Collins who is actually Harper Lee’s editor—if she had a second novel or anything she wanted to publish she would be dealing with this guy. I had been talking to him already in the course of my research, so I brought him a 20-minute cut of the documentary and said, “These are the people I have.” The movie features civil rights people and also people like Oprah Winfrey and Tom Brokaw and other novelists like Anna Quindlen and Richard Russo and Wally Lamb. I said, “I really think I can do a book based on all these interviews; I have so much more that’s not going to make it into the documentary.” Happily he agreed, so I took all the interviews and put them in a book and wrote a lot to go with it. The book came out in time for the 50th anniversary of the novel; it’s called “Scout, Atticus and Boo: A Celebration of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ ”
A: So the book was just a by-product of your documentary work?
MM: Yes. And frankly, one of the reasons I was motivated to get a book done was that I wanted the advance from a book so that I could keep shooting the documentary.
A: As far as final product, are you looking to elicit different reactions in the audience or highlighting different things in the book versus in the documentary? Is there a fundamental difference in motive or subject matter?
MM: That’s a hard thing to answer. The movie tells the story from start to finish. It begins in New York in the mid-’50s and it paints the context, and it shows you the South in the 1960s. The book is more of a complete recording of what everybody has to say about the novel and its contribution to either their lives or to history. In the book, I was able to write much more about things I knew. For instance, I interviewed Harper Lee’s sister Alice for five hours and she told me everything about Alabama history and soil and politics and many, many anecdotes about Harper Lee growing up. Miss Alice was 98 when I interviewed her, and she’s deaf, so you have to sprinkle her appropriately through a documentary, but you can let her rip on the page.
I also did a lot of work in some archives trying to figure out the context of Harper Lee’s last interview, and whether there were any clues about why she never did another one. Which is mainly just speculation on the part of others. I tried to do as much first hand research as I could, and I got a lot more of that in the book.
A: What led you to research this subject so extensively?
MM: I re-read “To Kill A Mockingbird” as an adult, and my adult rereading of that novel had a far greater impact on me than my adolescent reading. I began to wonder if I had actually even read it before. I was blown away and, like Scout, decided to go exploring. I began collecting all kinds of information and reading everything I could about the novel. I kept a file, doing research just to satisfy myself. I worked as a producer, senior producer, and executive producer at various times at CBS news for twenty years, and from time to time I would pitch this as a story idea. Mostly the answer was, “There’s no news here; if you got Harper Lee that would be news.” Since Harper Lee hasn’t given an interview since 1964—she turned down Oprah Winfrey, as Oprah says in the documentary—I certainly didn’t think she’d be opening her door to me, Mary Murphy. So, when I left CBS News to set up my own production company, I read the novel for a third time and sort of went back over all my research and did a lot more reporting about its impact on the Civil Rights Movement. I knew the 50th anniversary was coming, and I began to think about it differently. I saw very clearly that the story I could tell was about the novel, not even the novelist: that it was born out of all this perseverance and writing and repwriting and years of one person just trying to tell a story that has this dramatic impact for generations. Once I saw that that was the way to do it, I started interviewing. I still wasn’t sure that I could actually do that, but that’s how it started.
A: You have also produced many other documentary films and long-form news pieces through your own production company and CBS news. Why did you go into documentary filmmaking in the first place?
MM: It’s just what I love to do. I was a print reporter. I moved to television as a writer, and I found my way there. I’ve always found that taking an issue and finding a personal story that’s emblematic of it is the way I like to do my reporting and the kind of journalist that I am.
A: How did you make the move from print to film?
MM: A really fantastic editor of mine called and said, “I’m going to CBS morning news, would you like to come and be a writer?” So I was an Associate Producer on the CBS morning news and went from there to being a producer. Making the words go with the picture was a very big adjustment because I was used to going places with my reporter pad and my pencil and ordering it how I wanted it. But once I really got going, I felt that my TV work was so much more powerful then it had been in print.
A: So, judging from the trajectory of your career, I’m guessing you were not a film major at Wesleyan.
MM: The huge sorrow of mine is that I never took [Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies] Jeanine Basinger’s classes. I really should have tried harder, but I was very involved in being an English major then. It’s a great regret of mine. Just that I didn’t take that class. For who I was, for what I was doing, being an English major was the way to go. I just wish I’d taken that class. She taught an amazing history of film class. Honestly, the coolest people I knew were all doing that and I sort of wasn’t even sure I was in that league.
A: Since you became a journalist, did you work on The Argus while you were here?
MM: I didn’t. My housemate did, though. I used to sort of comment on what he was doing. I loved listening to what he was up to. I don’t think I’d ever get into Wesleyan now. I feel very fortunate I got to go there, and I think anybody who’s thinking of plying their trade at a newspaper should work on The Argus.
A: What did you do?
MM: Truthfully, I spent a lot of time having a really bad boyfriend. I’m not sure you can use that. I played lacrosse. I can’t say I did a ton of extracurricular stuff: I just had to work hard to get what I needed to get done done.
A: How did Wesleyan influence you?
MM: You know Wesleyan—I think everybody’s college experience was a time of great expansion. For me, I became a more critical thinker at Wesleyan. The sense of community that I felt at Wesleyan, the people that I knew and hung around with, and what we discussed late at night smoking cigarettes and drinking was very valuable to me. I think it also helped me tremendously as a journalist.