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A maternal bond brought them together

Director Ryan Murphy had to convince Augusten Burroughs that they had a lot in common to adapt his `Running With Scissors.'

October 22, 2006|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

RYAN MURPHY was on a mission. But so was Augusten Burroughs.

"Running With Scissors" had been on the bestsellers list for weeks, and Murphy, the creator of FX's acclaimed and provocative "Nip/Tuck," was determined to adapt it for his first film. Burroughs was just as resolute about never selling the rights to his book. He feared his tragic yet humorous coming-of-age memoir would surely be interpreted by the Hollywood studio system as campy and quirky.

But Murphy insisted on a meeting in New York and Burroughs relented, figuring he would have lunch with the journalist-turned-TV producer and let him down easy. Burroughs had never seen Murphy's work.

Over the course of a five-hour meal, the two men jabbered about their mothers, growing up during the '70s and '80s, their homosexuality, and their predilection for all things glam. They also swapped tales of their highly unusual childhoods at the hands of dynamic women who desperately wanted to become famous. Murphy's mother was a beauty queen who yearned to be an actress; Burroughs' mentally ill mom was an unaccomplished poet who longed to be published. Both were temperamental artists caught between two revolutions -- feminism and psychotherapy -- that encouraged them to question choices, express rage and turn away from their families to find themselves.

"I realized then that we had the same mother," said Burroughs, 40. "And that's why he had such an enormous understanding of the book itself. Even though he didn't have the same literal experiences I had growing up, he had many of the same emotions. And we also share personality traits. My gut instinct told me to do it because even though the movie tells my story, it also tells his story."

Murphy's childhood in Indiana was not harrowing in the way that Burroughs' was -- Burroughs was abandoned by his divorced mother and forced to live with her unorthodox psychiatrist and his family in their cluttered pink Massachusetts house. But both men were burdened at a very young age with their mothers' innermost desires, frustrations and roller-coaster emotions, which inevitably left them feeling helpless.

"Like Augusten, I grew up with this idea -- a mother who was aspiring to be something that she did not have and wanted: fame, stardom, glamour, a way out, to be seen by the world," said Murphy, 41. "And I was very moved by it, even as a child. I was my mother's hope and confidante in that way, which is a lot of pressure when you're a 4-year-old kid. I always felt that Augusten was a creative soul mate, and I thought this was a way for me to tell my life story without having to shoot my life."

Murphy left Indiana when he was in college and was offered an internship at the Washington Post. He completed his education in the nation's capital and later moved to Miami to write for the Miami Herald. When he was 22, he relocated to Los Angeles to form a bureau for the Herald. In 1999, Murphy co-created "Popular" for the WB, and four years later, he created what would become basic cable's No. 1 series, "Nip/Tuck."

For most of his adult life, Murphy was estranged from his family, distancing himself from a mother he competed with in the performing arts and a hockey-playing father baffled by a 5-year-old son who requested a "Vogue" subscription, watched R-rated movies with his mother and ironed his own clothes.

"It was a rocky road and I take responsibility as well," Murphy said. "I really related to the idea that Augusten felt like he was plopped into this world from aliens. He looked up and saw the obsession with shiny things and television shows and movies and fashion. I had all of that. I think that's in my DNA. But the movie to me is really about the journey, that you have to leave [home] to find yourself."

Starring Annette Bening as Augusten's mother, Deirdre; Brian Cox as the eccentric Dr. Finch, who divines the future from his bowel movements; and Joseph Cross as the adolescent Augusten, the film opens in 1972 and establishes the mother-son relationship immediately with Deirdre subjecting Augusten to one of her in-home self-aggrandizing poetry readings. It moves swiftly through the '70s to the day when Augusten was left in the wacky Finch house while his Valium-ridden mother stayed in a motel.

"While very specific to his life, I thought the story had earmarks of bigger themes and ideas that I think are really relevant today," said Dede Gardner, president of Plan B Entertainment, which produced the $12-million film with Murphy. "Because of the vile obsession with celebrity and fame, I think this story suggests the collateral damage of such a pursuit -- in this case, this child who is being overlooked by a mother who is obsessed with being known for her art and is largely being overlooked by a physician who, I think, becomes equally obsessed with his own legacy."

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'This film hits a nerve'

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