From 7-11 To The Oscars, A Washington Screenwriter’s Journey
Tab Murphy is the screenwriter behind Disney animated classics like Tarzan, and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. He also wrote the celebrated Diane Fosse bio-pic, Gorillas in the Mist, for which he was nominated for an Oscar.
Tab's journey to Hollywood success started right here in the Northwest, and has all the ups, downs, and wrong turns that make a great story. I had the chance to speak to Tab at Lilac City ComiCon, where he shared that story with me and an audience of his films fans.
Tab Murphy was Born and Raised in Washington State
Tab: I'm a hometown boy. I grew up in Washington state and Olympia. I went to WSU. And Go Hawks! ‘Cause I love the Seahawks.
Dan: So how does a young fella’ from Washington state end up doing screenwriting for big blockbuster movies?
Tab: (joking): Because I was a failure at everything else. No. Because when I came out of high school, as you know, if you're from Washington, everybody tends to choose from two major colleges, UW or WSU. And I was like… Husky? Or the Cougars? I like cougars. I'm going to WSU.
Dan: Sound decision making.
Tab: That's how I made my decision. Plus I also thought I wanted a Forestry degree. I wanted to be a Wildlife Biologist; a Park Ranger. I wanted to work in the outdoors. So that's why I came to WSU.
Dan: What changed your mind?
Tab: Biochemistry 101 changed my mind. And the fact that I knew that there was something deep down inside that I was kind of squashing down, and just going for what I thought I should go for. And that something was this idea that from a very early age, I loved movies and I loved writing and I loved creative writing. But it just had never crossed my mind that I could do what those people were doing on the big screen. And so I remember specifically the day I came back to my dorm room at Rogers Hall at WSU, and I was not feeling it. I wasn't happy. And I looked in the mirror and I just said, what do you really want to do with your life? And I was surprised at what came out of my mouth, which was, “I want to go to Hollywood and get into the movies.”
Dan: How did your parents react to that?
Tab: Well, it's funny because I called them and they said, “well, what do you want to do?” And when I said, “I want to go to Hollywood and get into the movie business,” there was dead silence on the phone. I might as well have said, “I want to fly to Mars and become an alien,” you know?
No Plan B
Tab: Here's the thing… Parents, in a well-meaning way - being protective - can talk us out of our passion, can talk us out of our dreams. And my parents were like, "we don't know anything about Hollywood. But if that's what you want to do, we'll support you. Go for it."
Dan: They didn't give you the Plan B speech.
Tab: No, they didn't say, “you need a safety net.” And I thank God every day for that. Because when you don't have a safety net, you have to succeed, you just have to.
Dan: I had a friend tell me, “I think you'll always find that you will get by.” Sort of a Yoda like sentiment, but I think it's true. You're going to fight for you, what you want, and fight to survive.
Tab: Part of that thrust into young adulthood, and just kind of going for it, is inevitably you're going to fall down. And what you find out is that, "well, I didn't die. And there's only one way to go, and that's up. Right? So here we go." And I also trusted in my decision that I knew I had to do this. So fortunately it worked out.
Good News, Bad News
Dan: How long did it take from making that decision to selling a screenplay?
Tab: I made that decision in 1976. And I went down to LA in 77. And I didn't sell my first script till 1984.
Dan: What was that script?
Tab: I wrote a script called My Best Friend is a Vampire. And that's the first movie that got made. And I went to the opening night in L.A., and as I walked in…These were the days where they had somebody take your ticket and tear it, right? Oh my God, this guy… He's telling a couple about all the movies playing in the theater and he goes, “and then there's this real dog playing in theater four.” And I'm like, “oh my God, I wonder what that is?” And he goes, “My Best Friend is a Vampire.” So I go in there and I am one of three people on the opening night of my movie. And I sat there and two of them left. So by 20 minutes in, I'm the only one at the opening night of my movie in L.A. And I'm like, “well, it can't get any worse, right?” Six months later I was redeemed, because that's when Gorillas in the Mist opened. And that was a whole different story. The point is, oftentimes how you deal with failure is as important as how you deal with success.
Dan: There's a narrative now that's really healthy, that I don't feel was around for me when I was in my twenties, which is, you know, fail fast, fail often. Failure is just a lesson. “Okay, I'm not doing that again. Let's try this maneuver.”
Tab: And I think in terms of Hollywood, I think Hollywood puts up a lot of hurdles. And they won't even invite you into the club unless you've failed at least six times. “Let me see your battle scars. Raise your shirt. Okay. Yeah. We broke your heart three times. You're welcome.” I think they make it extra hard because if it was easy, everybody would be doing it.
Lucky Number 7-11
Dan: And another hurdle, you put in place yourself. You dropped out of film school at a certain point, right?
Tab: I did.
Dan: And then went to work for 7-11. So the sales of screenplays were coming from the guy at the 7-11, right?
Tab: Here's what happened… I went to USC film school, I took a screenwriting course and that's where it all kind of came together for me because I loved writing. I loved writing stories all through middle school, and high school, where most of my friends hated it. But I took that screenwriting class and the teacher said, “Tab, if you want to be a director,” which I did in those days, “learn how to write a great script because that's the quickest way into the director’s chair.” And he said, “I think you've got something, and I really think you should pursue screenwriting.” And I said okay, and I literally dropped out of USC a week later. And he’s just like, “I didn't mean for you to drop out of school,” but I knew what I heard. And I knew guys that had graduated and gotten their MFA in film and had a nice reel under their arm, but they were tending bar, man. They were tending bar and I thought, “film school is so expensive. I'm just going to go to work at 7-11 and start writing screenplays.” And that's what I did.
Dan: As much talent, and skill, and work that you put into it... There's still an element of luck, too.
Tab: Oh yeah. Work hard, be productive, and have a little luck on your side, for sure.
The Big Break
Dan: You couldn't escape hearing about Gorillas in the Mist when it came out. What was that like for you?
Tab: Well, when you think about what I wanted to do initially at WSU, which is to be a wildlife biologist and work in the wilderness, and all that stuff, when that story was offered to me, it was like, this is so in my wheelhouse. I could write it with my eyes closed. I wrote that script in two and a half weeks. I was so pumped up. I was so pumped up! And that script sort of launched me into a different chapter in my career, for sure. It got an Academy Award nomination. Suddenly I was going into meetings, and meeting people that could say yes to the movie in the room rather than three executive levels down. So it was great. It was terrific.
Skipping the Oscars
Dan: So of course you're nominated for an Oscar, you put on your tux, you sit next to Sigourney Weaver, and life is great. Right?
Tab: No. You must know what happened. (laughs) This is such a setup. Okay. So I'm going to admit, that there is nothing really in my life that I regret.
Tab: Because I don't believe in regret. You know, even bad choices end up having meaning in your life, ultimately. But I got nominated for an Academy Award and I didn't go to the Academy Awards. I decided to go fishing instead.
Dan: Fishing. (teasing): Did you confuse the dates?
Tab: No. First of all, I knew I wasn't going to win. I knew it because our category was adapted screenplay. I knew that Christopher Hampton had written Dangerous Liaisons that year. And he was the odds-on favorite. And this buddy of mine said, "there's a hot Yellowtail bite in Baja. Let's go!" So I skipped it.
Dan: Was it at least a great trip?
Tab: I caught a lot of Yellowtail. And a little too much tequila too, I might add. But you know, I should have gone, but that was the hubris of youth.
What Happened Next?
Since Gorillas in the Mist, Tab Murphy has had an extraordinarily successful career writing animated films for DC/Warner Bros, Disney (he's also a consultant on the upcoming live-action remake of the Hunchback of Notre Dame), and even directed his own live-action feature, Last of the Dogmen.
Tab lives in Los Angeles, where movies are made, but visits the lush greenery of Washington State frequently.