Interview with Elliott Murphy: Broken Poet

Elliott Murphy kindly answered some questions on the making of film Broken Poet and its’ accompanying soundtrack.

Poetic Justice: You wrote the screenplay for Broken Poet with Emilio J. Ruiz (who also directed the film). How did you meet Emilio, and when did the idea for a film start?

Elliott Murphy: The film Broken Poet was a confluence of two branches of the rock ‘n roll river that has carried me for over forty years: the documentary film The Second Act of Elliott Murphy (which told the story of how I moved my life and musical career to Europe thirty years ago) and my short story “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (which kind of predicted that move before it happened). I first met Emilio Ruiz at a concert Olivier Durand and I played in Buitrago where he was then living in northern Spain because he was friends with Jorge Arenillas, who conceived and directed The Second Act of Elliott Murphy. Soon afterwards, Emilio read the Spanish translation of my collection of short stories “Paris Stories” and quickly suggested that one story, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, could be made into a good film and he would like to direct it. Emilio had a good working relationship with a Spanish producer and so things started moving very fast after our initial meeting. But a film with the title The Lion Sleeps Tonight had been released the year before and so we decided our film would be called Broken Poet as this was part of the title of my album Party Girls and Broken Poets and seemed to fit the story perfectly.

Poetic Justice: How did you write the screenplay together? Was it difficult to write a film script?

Elliott Murphy: We went through many stages of writing the screenplay. First, there was turning the original short story which was written in the early 1980’s into a screenplay. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” told the story of Jake Lion, an American rock star of the 1970’s, who disappeared in Paris after jumping off a bridge into the Seine, an apparent suicide. However, a few years later his former roadie is in Paris and hears someone singing in the Metro who sounds exactly like Jake so he returns to New York and talks Rolling Stone magazine into sending a journalist to investigate.

Emilio’s idea was always that I would play the principal role in the film and so instead of the story taking place in the 1980’s we moved it to the current era and so Jake Lion (if it really is him) would be around the same age as I am now. Then we wrote a backstory to Jake Lion’s life when he was growing up on Long Island in the 1960’s. All in all, the script went through at least three or four revisions until we were all comfortable with it and ready to start casting and eventually filming

Poetic Justice: Over what period did the filming take place?

Elliott Murphy: Emilio came to Paris for pre-production and casting and I arranged a meeting with the cinema department of the Paris Hotel De Ville who were very helpful and gave us permission to shoot in the Metro which was a key element of the film. The actually filming was in October 2018 – three weeks in Paris and one week in New York. I brought Michael O’Keefe into the film and Emilio brought Marissa Berenson so we kind of shared the casting duties. Joanna Preiss was very enthusiastic about playing Meg and had spent time in New York so she was a good fit as well. My wife Françoise Viallon-Murphy played Christine, the mysterious French lover of Jake Lion.

Poetic Justice: There are some well know locations used in the film. Did you encounter any problems when filming?

Elliott Murphy: Well, we were allowed to shoot the Eiffel Tower only during the day but not at night which was interesting. And Pere Lachaise cemetery was closed during time of the shooting because it was a religious holiday, so we had to find a similar cemetery just outside of Paris for the final scene. Almost all of the film was actually shot on the streets of Paris and New York so of course we had problems with a police siren passing by during soft dialogue or some homeless folks wanting to get into the film! Everybody wants to be in show business!

Poetic Justice: Do you enjoy acting? Did Gaspard enjoy playing the young Jake Lion?

Elliott Murphy: I did enjoy acting very much although at first, I was quite anxious about remembering my lines until I was actually on set and in character and then my lines would flow quite naturally. Remembering dialog is much more challenging then memorizing lyrics to songs because there is no music to guide you. But my wife Françoise (who also plays a major role in the film) is a graduate of the French Conservatoire and also a professional actress so she was very helpful in preparing for my role and then when Michael O’Keefe (who had been nominated for an Academy Award) came to Paris we also worked on the emotional side of Jake Lion and he had great insights. I do think Gaspard enjoyed playing young Jake Lion although it was definitely a “dream sequence” because he is quite a bit taller than me.

Poetic Justice: How did Françoise help you prepare?

Elliott Murphy: Françoise was very helpful in creating the physical aspect of my character as I walked with a limp during the entire film and that was a very important clue to the story. We had worked together in a French film La Ligne Blanche a few years before and she really helped me look at my part from a theatrical dimension and to understand how I should react to other characters. My most intense scene was in a guitar shop in Paris where I had to speak an important monologue right into the camera as Joanna Preiss had left to play in a theatre that night. Ah the tricks of cinema!

Poetic Justice: Who is your favourite actor and what’s your favourite film?

Elliott Murphy: Oh…I have so many favourite actors and films. There is a little-known film The Swimmer starring Burt Lancaster that is based on a John Cheever short story that has always touched me very deeply. And, of course, Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep – I can watch almost anything they are in. And Steve McQueen, even though he made some mediocre films has such charisma in everything he does. Lately, I really enjoyed Once Upon A Time in Hollywood and thought both Matt Damon and Brad Pitt were at the top of their game. Actually, my dream is for Broken Poet to be remade with a Hollywood budget, star and director. Anybody listening?

Poetic Justice: How did you choose the music? My understanding is that there are some new recordings and also some new material?

Elliott Murphy: Emilio had made a list of my songs that he wanted in the film and I only made a few changes in that original selection. With a few exceptions these were mostly songs from the last twenty years of my career and not so much my early ‘70’s and ‘80’s albums. But we needed to re-record “Lost Generation” because unfortunately we didn’t have any budget to get the rights to the original. My friend Kenny Meiselas who is a renowned music business deal maker helped us to get the rights to the original recording of “Last of the Rock Stars” which was very important for me and that’s in the film at a very important place. And finally we needed a title song so with the help of my son Gaspard Murphy (who produced the soundtrack album and wrote all the incidental instrumental music) we wrote and recorded “Theme for a Broken Poet”.

Poetic Justice: Are there any plans to put out a physical release of the soundtrack?

Elliott Murphy: Yes and no…we did have plans but now the Covid-19 pandemic has closed down record stores all over Europe, so I think we’ll hold off on that for a while. In the meantime, I have released another album The Middle Kingdom which is my first spoken word project that consists of eighteen of my poems together with music created by Olivier Durand and is doing very well on Spotify. The fan favourite Is “Like Gerard Depardieu Do”!

Poetic Justice: Seeing you against the backdrop of the Eiffel Tower and listening to the soundtrack (particularly “Tell Me” and “A Touch of Kindness”) made me wonder if you think your music has become more European because of your life in France. Do you think this is the case?

Elliott Murphy: I think I was more European even when I was living in America! The French call me the most Parisian of American singer-songwriters and I don’t even know what they mean! When I first came to Europe in 1971 it changed my life, that’s for sure, and it was relatively easy for me to feel comfortable here when I moved here in 1989. My French is far from perfect but I enjoy the weight of history in the old world and the quality of life. Perhaps my music has become more European because the concept of a rock singer-songwriter has almost disappeared in America. Luckily we still have Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello and a few other “Ancien Combattants” who are still fighting for the right word with the right music to show us the way.

Poetic Justice: Do you listen to French music, and have you ever considered recording an album in French (that Serge Gainsbourg cover album)?

Elliott Murphy: I do listen to French music and especially Francis Cabrel and the late Alain Bashung who are among my favourites. I was a fan of Johnny Hallyday because for me he was the link between American and French rock and Serge Gainsbourg because he was so unique and unbelievably talented. I don’t know about recording an album of me singing in French and I’ve always hesitated – I think I would have to write the songs in “Murphy French” which I the way I speak French. I hope listeners would understand!

Poetic Justice: The film suggests that “success is nothing but freedom”. Is this your own philosophy, and does this mean that artistic merit counts more than financial success?

Elliott Murphy: I think Emilio came to this conclusion after looking at my own career here in Europe. Every artist dreams of fame and riches and if you can do that while at the same time keeping your integrity that’s the trick. Is one exclusive of the other? Ask Jake Lion …

Read our review of the soundtrack and film here

Listen to Broken Poet soundtrack here

Watch Broken Poet here

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Murphy on location in Paris (Photo: François Vila)