When Paul Thomas Anderson agreed to direct his first music video in more than a decade, the filmmaker reached out to his friend and most trusted collaborator, Philip Seymour Hoffman, to recommend a producer. Hoffman told him to call Sara Murphy.
Murphy had previously worked with Hoffman before going off on her own. "I had done a bunch of smaller independent films, with relative success, I guess," Murphy tells A.frame. One of those movies was the 2014 comedy Land Ho!, which premiered at that year's Sundance Film Festival and went on to win the John Cassavetes Award for Best Feature under $500,000 at the Independent Spirit Awards.
"With that in the back of his mind, Paul called me and said, 'You know how to make things with no money, right?'" Murphy laughs. "I was like, 'Yeah, maybe. What do you got?' That launched my music video producing career, which, as many know, does not come with hefty budgets."
A pair of videos with singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom begat videos with Radiohead, which ultimately led to their first collaboration with Haim in 2017. Six videos in, it was safe to say that the director had found a trio of muses in the sisters who, like him, hailed from the San Fernando Valley, a Los Angeles suburb. So, naturally, he wrote a movie for Alana Haim to star in: Licorice Pizza.
"I remember I was getting my hair done, I had on all these foils in my hair and he wanted to talk about it. I was like, 'I'm going to step outside for a second,' and I stepped out on the street with all the foils in my hair," Murphy says. "He's always writing multiple things, and I think he thought he was going to go do this other project. And this one sort of took him by surprise and overcame him."
Licorice Pizza, in some ways, has been a lifetime in the making for Anderson. Mixing stories from his own childhood with those that former child actor-turned-producer Gary Goetzman has told him over the years, he penned a '70s-era coming-of-age story about Gary, a 15-year-old hustler, and Alana, a 25-year-old young woman reluctant to grow up. And he wanted Murphy to produce the film with him and his longtime producing partner, Adam Somner.
Murphy never set out to be a film producer. "I was studying engineering at school. This was not my path," she confesses. At the time, she was dating Hoffman's ex-manager's assistant and heard that the actor was looking for a new assistant. "I had just moved to New York City. I needed a job. I went to the interview, and we were wearing -- unfortunately for me -- the same outfit. And we just hit it off."
"I did not know anything about the theater world, but what an incredible education that was for me to be working with somebody who was in all of it and gave me access to all of it," she recalls. She earned her first credit as an associate producer on Hoffman's directorial debut, the 2010 romantic drama Jack Goes Boating, followed by a co-producer role on the 2014 crime drama God's Pocket, both starring Hoffman. Murphy remembers one piece of advice in particular she took from him: Which is, 'Don't tell me no until you have to.'"
The way I fell in love with movies was through Phil Hoffman and watching Phil Hoffman and working with Phil Hoffman.
And so, it was something of a kismet moment when Anderson eventually cast Cooper Hoffman, the late Philip's then 17-year-old son, to play Gary in Licorice Pizza. Hoffman had given Murphy her first job, and here she was producing the first film that the younger Hoffman would be starring in.
"The way I fell in love with movies was through Phil Hoffman and watching Phil Hoffman and working with Phil Hoffman," she reflects, "and I very much was aware of the responsibility of shepherding [Cooper] through this first process. The funny thing is that Cooper and I -- because of the bubble and because of the pandemic -- we were together all the time. It was like living with my little brother, and we carried each other. We both had rough days. We talked through it every day."
"He's one of the most empathic, smart, kind, considerate humans. Seeing Cooper grow up is magical. I think he's magical," Murphy adds. And, as a producer observing the work of the film's lead actor, she found herself in awe of his raw talent. "He not only has the DNA, but all the makings of it. I am excited to see how that grows and develops. But I mean -- it's just in him to be a very good actor."
All of Anderson and Murphy's music video collaborations had felt "sort of off the cuff and a little spontaneous," and they hoped to capture that same feeling, albeit on a larger scale, and in tandem with the director's chosen film family. (And, in fact, with actual family, as two generations of Haims and Anderson's partner, Maya Rudolph, all have roles in the film.)
Murphy's job became to facilitate that freewheeling-ness while filming Licorice Pizza in the Fall of 2020, during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, on location, featuring large crowds and a cast of child actors. Through it all, she found herself falling back on that old advice from Hoffman. "I have employed that many times," she chuckles. "My go-to is how to make something work. And I'll try it until I can't."
At the 94th Oscars, Licorice Pizza is a three-time nominee, marking Anderson's third Best Picture contender, his third Best Director nomination and his third Best Original Screenplay nomination (and fifth writing nomination overall). The film's Best Picture nomination marks the first nomination of Murphy's career.
"It feels like a great honor to be recognized, especially amidst producers that you have idolized and looked up to -- and still look up to," Murphy says, then pauses. "I don't know how to say this eloquently, because I'm sort of getting emotional, but you kind of have to just chase your instincts sometimes. This feels like a culmination of all the work since I started in the business with Phil. And it makes me feel happy that it's getting the recognition it's getting, because I think it's a wonderful film. I'm so proud."
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