It took three years for Ryan Murphy, the out creator-writer-director of the cable TV show Nip/Tuck, to bring his vision of Augusten Burroughs' bestselling memoir Running With Scissors to the screen. The movie, Murphy's first, tracks the coming of age ( during the mid-'70s ) of the teenaged Burroughs ( played by Joseph Cross ) , whose narcissistic mother, Deirdre ( Annette Bening ) , allows her psychiatrist, Dr. Finch, and his family to adopt him. Burroughs then shares a series of adventures with the family and has his first gay affair with one of the doctor's patients, the schizophrenic Bookman ( Joseph Fiennes ) .
Murphy, dressed in a form-fitting black dress shirt and black jeans, and his young star Cross, also in black and wearing tennis shoes without socks, sat down to talk with Windy City Times about the film, which is drawing heavy Oscar buzz for Bening's performance. Highlights of the conversation follow:
Windy City Times: I read on Augusten's blog that you basically got him at a lunch and said, 'I'm not leaving until I get the rights' and, even though you hadn't done a movie and this was before Nip/Tuck, something about what you said to him convinced him to say yes.
Ryan Murphy: I just think that I had a similar childhood in many ways. Obviously it wasn't that ridiculous, but we had the same point of view and I said, 'I really see the compassion in these people. They do monstrous things but I want to show you the reasons why they do them so you can understand their choices.' He liked that.
WCT: How did you find Joe?
RM: I looked at like 400 people and couldn't find anybody. I was in despair until finally there was Joe; he looked like Augusten and Annette [ Bening ] and then he read and he was the only one who made me cry of all the people, so I just knew he was it. He got it. He had such great empathy and sincerity as a person. It's a hard part but his chops were so great that I knew he could hold his own opposite that cast and he did.
WCT: What was it about the character of Augusten that made you understood him so immediately, Joe? Did you have some kind of childhood empathy for him?
Joseph Cross: I didn't have a childhood anything close to this. My parents have been together for 28 years and the whole family's really close. But I'd just gone to college and I'd just broken up with a girl and it was sort of a very lonely time for me. When I read it what really spoke to me was the loneliness and isolation in the midst of the chaos which college was and which the Finch house was for my character.
WCT: Did you have any hesitation about playing a gay character? That's the standard questionfrom both the straight and gay mediaby the way.
JC: [ Laughs ] Yes, I know.
RM: He only wants to play the gays now. 'Oh, the character's straight, huhpass!' [ Laughs ]
JC: No, I didn't. I think I was more nervous about playing a real person than I was about playing a gay character and also the sexuality is not the defining aspect of the character.
WCT: I know that Augusten was quite involved during the whole process, right?
RM: I talked to him every day. You know, we've been sort of connected at the hip for the past three years on this. He was very involved. He had approval of everything. I wouldn't do anything he didn't like because I said, 'This is a movie to me but it's your life to you.' I really wanted him to love it.
WCT: And out of 400 people, did he look at Joe's audition tape and say, 'This is the one.'
RM: No. By that point I had cast everybody so he knew my taste was impeccable.
WCT: [ Laughs ] Only a gay man would say that.
RM: Thank you.
WCT: And when did you meet Augusten, Joe?
JC: I met him actually a week before we started shooting. I wasn't doing an impression of him but I needed to meet him so I could interpret what I thought he would have been like as a child.
WCT: Can we talk about Annette Bening? This is an amazing performance.
RM: It is.
WCT: How was it directing your first movie with her and such a stellar cast?
RM: It was easy because almost everybody in the movie did it for scale as a labor of love. They loved the script and what it was aboutwhich is survival. I worked the hardest with Annette because I think her part is the most complicated. When you first meet Annette, of course, it's terrifying. She has three Academy Award nominations and she has a ferocity to her but then you get to know her and she's so funny and a pussycat and we became very close in making the movie.
WCT: The scene between her and Kristen Chenoweththe kiss that Augusten interrupts ... Was there more lesbian content that might be turning up on a DVD at some point?
RM: Well, in the book it was very graphic. It was never written that way and, first of all, you're not going to get Annette Bening to do that even though she'll do just about everything. Secondly, I just didn't think that it needed it. To me, the truth of the scene was about the betrayal of the mother and the fact that she didn't tell him and the shock of it. Not that you want to water it down but you can't win with something like that. Some people will see the movie and be like you: 'It's not graphic enough.' I can only be true to what I wanted to do.
WCT: I don't think I felt that it wasn't graphic enough. I definitely got it and, certainly, what's going to be graphic after Shortbus?
RM: Is that sex scene in that really crazy? Is there a gay one?
WCT: Big time. It's funny and hilarious and some of the sex scenes go all the way to money shots. John Cameron Mitchell has definitely raised the bar past Nip/Tuck, boy. [ Laughs ]
RM: Yes, it sounds like it. I should start putting money shots in Nip/Tuck. If I could I might.
WCT: Joe, you went from shooting Scissors to Flags of Our Fathers. What was it like to go from this very gay-friendly sensibility picture into this testosterone-heavy Clint Eastwood movie?
JC: They were very different parts in very different movies and it's great to be able to go from one extreme to the next as an actor. It was a tremendously overwhelming experience. It went from Ryan talking about Manolo Blahnik shoes to being in Iceland with these other guys shooting a war movie.
WCT: What are you going to do next?
JC: I'll probably spend some time in school.
WCT: And what's up next for you Ryan?
RM: I'm doing a movie with Meryl Streep and Annette and then I'm doing a movie with Julia Roberts. The one with Meryl is called Dirty Tricks and it's about women in Watergate; it's based on the play. The movie with Julia is based on the book Eat Pray Love, which is fantastic.
WCT: Have you seen any kind of difference working in Hollywood because you're openly gay?
RM: Noare you kidding? It's the best thing that could have ever happened to me. I recommend being gay to everybody. It's like the best thing that could ever happen to you.
WCT: On that side of the camera.
RM: Well, maybe if you're an actor, yes. Yes, that's hard, very hard but for what I dowriting, directing, producingit was never an impingement on anything I've wanted to do. What people want in actors is somebody who is authentic and has a sense of self. I think when you're in the closet or when you're hiding, people can sense something in you.
WCT: Could you work with an actor that was closeted?
RM: I have, sure.
WCT: So, has that been difficult, given what you just said?
RM: No. I don't judge anybody. Everybody comes to their own conclusions on their own time. I try not to put my philosophies on anybody.
WCT: Well, to have an openly gay man who is a writer-director and creator of one of the hottest TV shows sitting here talking about his first featureand to see so many gay characters on television and in the movies that are shown in a positive lightis wonderful.
RM: It is. It really is.