Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Thursday, May 13, 2010

"The Lunch," or, How I Became A Professional Filmmaker

My Towson State ID photo featuring my college hair.

Let me take a little break from the history of my first feature and tell the story of "The Lunch" -- and how it made me a professional filmmaker.  Whether I liked it or not.

I always wanted to be a writer.  But who could actually make a living writing?  Journalists, of course.  And, after Watergate, everybody wanted to be a journalist.  So, when I arrived at Towson State University, which the previous year had been named by Playboy as one of the Top Ten Universities for Hot Girls (not that it did me any good), I began a Mass Communications major with a concentration in journalism.

That didn't last long.

What soured me on journalism?  Two things.  First, one of my instructors, Professor Kim, brought in a bunch of his success stories -- his former students who were now professional journalists.  I was appalled by how little money they were making.  One of them was actually making less money working for a major daily newspaper than I did as a busboy at Thompson's Sea Girt House.  If those were the success stories, I was afraid to hear about the failures.  I was an idealist, but one of my ideals was to be able to eat.

Secondly, I took a course on Persuasion which literally changed my life.  It turned me from a idealist to a skeptic in one short semester.  It taught me to think critically and doubt everything and everyone.  Particularly psychiatrists and journalists.  The course taught me to read newspaper stories and discern between fact and opinion.  I found very little fact.  It revealed that the whole concept of Objectivity was BS.

No more journalism for Sean.  So now what?  Hmmm.  I always loved movies.  So I changed my concentration to filmmaking.  I started hanging out at the film lab and learned that "Film is truth at 24fps."  Or so I was lead to believe!

However, I knew there was no way you could make a living as a filmmaker in Baltimore, so I decided to get a minor in Computer Science.  I started taking a ton of computer courses.  Most of them, quite frankly, were easy, but they got progressively harder the higher I went.

I had a pretty high grade point average heading into my senior year.  I was on the dean's list quite a few times, but, since I never actually got to meet him, I put an end to that.  Now it was crunch time.  I piled up a number of high level computer courses with my high level film courses.

Now let me tell you something.  My wife and I have gotten into heated discussions about our respective college GPAs.  I like to point out that mine was higher.  She likes to point out that I was merely a film major while she was taking incredibly difficult chemistry and biology courses.  Big deal.  She wouldn't talk that way if she had to sit through as many Godard films as I did.  Chemistry would start to look pretty inviting after that!

So there I was.  Senior year.  Tons of high level computer and film courses.  On top of that, I decided to break up with my longtime girlfriend.  (Okay, okay, actually, she broke up with me, but let me hold onto at least a semblance of pride in my own blog.  Plus, if you don't think she had a good reason, look at the hair in the photo above again.)  My life was starting to look like a train wreck.  And that brings me to "The Lunch."

I was partnered with my friend David Butler during the advanced 16mm filmmaking class.  The final project was to be a finished 16mm sound film with a sync audio track.  I thought I was going to ace the class right from the beginning.  The first week, our instructor David Berger, gave us each a 16mm camera and told us to experiment.  I made a short film with a friend Jim Jackson.  It was about an auto mechanic who has a run-in with a serial killer and was called, naturally, "The Maniac and The Mechanic."  Jim was the only actor I had so he had to play both roles.

I was editing the film on the Steenbeck the day before the next class when David Berger came in.  He asked to see the film.  I showed it to him.  He was very complimentary, telling me how he liked this framing, and that shot, and that lighting.  Fabulous.  And it got even better.  The next day at class we had to show our films.  One by one the students projected their films and one by one David Berger tore them apart.  Mercilessly.  I couldn't wait to show my film, because I already knew he liked it.  Dream on.  When I finally showed it, he tore it apart without saying any of the nice things he had said the day before.  I couldn't believe it.  After class, I asked him why he didn't point out any of the good things.  He said I already knew the good things.  I wouldn't learn unless he pointed out the mistakes.   Thanks.

(Actually, Mr. Berger was a great guy who soon left Academia for Advertising.  We managed to work on quite a few projects together over the years.  He remains one of the true characters in the local film business.)

Back to "The Lunch."

David and I were talking about what to do for a final project.  I believe I was the one who said we should do a spoof of the film "My Dinner With Andre."  Neither of us had seen the film, but I had seen Siskel and Ebert talking about it on "At The Movies."  I would write the script and David would direct.  Ultimately, I don't know how much of the script I wrote.  David probably wrote as much as I did.  If not more.  Plus, every actor in the film threw in some dialogue and got credited as a writer.  Somehow I ended up being one of the two leads.  Timothy Ratajczak, who would later write many movies with me, was also cast as the other lead.  David Butler himself made an appearance as the Rod Serling-esque narrator.  (BTW, I have written some screenplays with David Butler as well, but none of them have been produced.  Yet.)

I don't remember much about the shoot.  I was too preoccupied with my computer classes and mourning the tactical retreat of my girlfriend from my life.  However, I will happily report that practically everyone who worked on that little film is still involved in the film or communications business in some way.  We had a really strong class.  Quite a few talented people.  It may not show in the film but it's true.

The film did, however, have the obligatory men's room scene.  Some how for some reason, every film I shot on campus had a scene set in the men's room.  (Usually, fourth floor, Cook Library.)

I didn't become fully engaged with "The Lunch" until post-production.  That was when I learned how much I loved editing.  And, kids, editing was a tad more difficult when you worked with film itself and not just digital files.  I loved the edit, but it was taking a lot of time.  More time than I had.  I had to make a decision:  The film or the computer courses.  I chose the film -- essentially dropping out of the computer classes.  Since I had been such a "good" student up to that time, I never realized you could simply withdraw from a course!  Instead, I failed three of them.  And, because of that, I became a professional filmmaker.

How?  Let me tell you.

My late father was a brilliant computer programmer who worked for the Social Security Administration.  Six months had passed since college and there was no prospect of a real job on the horizon.  He recommended that I take the computer programmer test at Social Security.  It was essentially a logic test to see if you had the proper mindset to become a computer programmer for the United States of America.  I took the test and aced it.  I think I scored a 98.  Unfortunately, the government was in the middle of a hiring freeze.  They could only hire people who had a 3.0 GPA or better.  I would have been an instant hire if I had a 3.0.  But I didn't.  Because of the failed classes, I had a 2.98 GPA.  As Maxwell Smart would say, "Missed it by that much."

My father, Douglas Ernest Murphy, Sr.

My father told me not to worry.  I could take the test again in a couple months and he would put the fix in for me.  Before that happened, I ended up in the mailroom of Smith Burke & Azzam.  I was on the road to filmmaking.

If it hadn't been for "The Lunch," I would probably be working for the Federal Government now.  My 401K would have benefited, but I'm not so sure I would have.

It's been a pretty good ride so far!

Here's "The Lunch."

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