MURF THE SURF is a documentary series focusing on Jack Roland Murphy (1937-2020), a man filmmaker R.J. Cutler describes as “television’s first true-crime celebrity.” Premiering on Sunday, February 5, on MGM+ and running Sundays thereafter, MURF THE SURF chronicles Murphy’s astounding history, from quintessential ‘50s/’60s surfer to museum jewel heist mastermind- he and his crew stole the fabled Star of India sapphire from New York’s American Museum of Natural History – to convicted murderer to traveling preacher.
Cutler directed MURF THE SURF, co-writing it with Ryan Gallagher, and serving as one of the executive producers, a group that also includes Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, who made the series through their Imagine Entertainment. The format incorporates animation and custom artwork, as well as interviews and archival footage.
“First of all,” Cutler explains, “we wanted the visual style to match the nature of this great yarn. We wanted it to be dazzling. We wanted it to compel you visually as much as the nuts and bolts of the storytelling itself, the epic nature of Murf’s life, the complexity, all of those things.”
Cutler previously won an Emmy for the 2000 documentary series AMERICAN HIGH. Some of his other nonfiction work includes THE WAR ROOM, THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE, LISTEN TO ME MARLON and BELUSHI. Cutler was also one of the executive producers and directors on the TV drama NASHVILLE, and directed the narrative feature IF I STAY.
Following a Q&A panel for the 2023 Winter Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour at Pasadena’s Langham Hotel, Cutler sits down for a one-on-one to talk more about MURF THE SURF.
ASSIGNMENT X: What brought Jack Roland Murphy to your attention in the first place?
R.J. CUTLER: I was approached by Justin Wilkes and Sara Bernstein from Imagine Documentaries. They are my good friends, and we had long been looking for something to do together, and they called, and asked what I thought about this. And I responded immediately. They had been drawn to it via a New York Times article on Murf, and the Star of India, and the Museum of Natural History, and they sent me that article, and I was very curious.
AX: You begin MURF THE SURF with footage from a documentary that Murphy had made himself, but that wasn’t what drew anybody to the project …?
CUTLER: Well, his efforts to sell his story to Hollywood evolved into the selling of this story to Hollywood [laughs].
AX: When you started work on MURF THE SURF, was Murphy still alive?
CUTLER: He was. He passed away while we were pitching it to buyers, but we were able to spend some time with him before that.
AX: So, the later interviews that you have with him are interviews that you actually got to conduct for the series?
CUTLER: Yes. Also, Domenic [Fusco], his business partner who is featured throughout the series, had interviewed him at length, and we had access to those interviews.
AX: If it’s not too much of a spoiler, what do you think Murphy believed about himself?
CUTLER: Well, I don’t know what he truly believed, and of course, we do our best to explore that in the series. I can only go on our evidence. Our evidence is that he was unwilling to confess to having committed the murders, and he felt that his soul had been saved by his faith in Jesus. I leave it to others to judge him in the series. He certainly committed the murders, or he’s convicted of them, and I don’t see anything persuasive about that narrative that he has presented to refute [the murder conviction]. It seems in fact at odds with all the evidence, and at odds with all the other facts that we know. So, there’s that. But I think there’s a real complexity around questions of faith, and what a woman or man believes.
AX: Do you have an opinion about whether the faith Murphy professed later in life was sincere?
CUTLER: I do my best to provide you with the tools to make up your own mind, but if the question is, do I think his belief in God was sincere, I have a hard time judging that. It’s like the question that Jon Krakauer raises in the introduction to UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN. If you believe in God, and if you have a direct relationship to God, and your God tells you to commit a crime, is the commission of that crime an act of faith, or is it a crime? These are complex questions. I’m not saying that Murf murdered in the name of God. I am saying that he murdered, and I understand, certainly, why people question his faith. It seems convenient. But we are doing our best, as filmmakers and storytellers, in enabling you as a viewer to be in the position for your opinion to be the opinion that matters, not mine.
AX: What part of this project was most interesting to you?
CUTLER: All of what we’re talking about [laughs].
AX: In addition to making documentaries, you also work in the narrative form. Do you have a preference for one or the other?
CUTLER: Yes. I certainly enjoyed my experiences working in narrative. Creating NASHVILLE with Callie Khouri and directing the first couple of episodes was a thrill and a great experience. I loved making IF I STAY, the feature film with Chloe Moretz. But my heart belongs to documentary filmmaking and nonfiction storytelling. It just does. There are so many things about it that I love, and I love doing, and I’m very deep in with my production company, This Machine, which specializes in nonfiction storytelling, and many wonderful nonfiction projects. So, this is where I am these days, and probably for several years, and then we’ll see.
AX: And what would you most like viewers to get out of MURF THE SURF?
CUTLER: Well, I want viewers to have a great time at the movies, always, and I want them to experience this incredible yarn as a well-made documentary, and I want them to experience the happy confrontation of all of these issues, questions, and themes. Because we worked very hard to create a multi-course meal that would enable them to feast.
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Article: Exclusive Interview with MURF THE SURF filmmaker R.J. Cutler on his new docuseries about TV’s first true-crime celebrity