An Interview Tab Murphy - Atlantis Screenwriter,

An Interview Tab Murphy - Atlantis Screenwriter
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by Rick West
June 14, 2001
Tab Murphy is the screenwriter behind Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Tarzan and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

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Tab Murphy: Creating a Lost Empire
An Interview by Rick West

Tab Murphy is rapidly becoming known as the screenwriter behind some of Disney’s biggest animated features in recent years. With an impressive list of writing credits to his name including Gorillas in the Mist and Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tab is perhaps best known for the screenplay he wrote for Disney’s Tarzan and now, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, which opens in theaters across the country tomorrow, Friday, June 15. Tab’s a wonderful talent, visionary writer and all-around great guy; a true writer’s writer; someone I look up to and appreciate.

On the eve of his newest film’s opening, I had the opportunity to talk with him and let him reflect on what went in to creating this new, "un-Disney" Disney film. We’ve all seen the previews, toys and marketing behind this highly-anticipated movie. Before it all comes to a head in less than 24 hours, I would like to take a moment and bring you a personal conversation with my friend, Tab Murphy…

Rick West: Tab, it’s fantastic to speak with you, as always. You’ve enjoyed quite a run with the success of Tarzan and now, it looks like Atlantis is going to be a major success for The Walt Disney Company. How long ago did you write the screenplay and how did that project come about?

Tab Murphy: I wrote Atlantis about four years ago. The project evolved simply out of my desire to work with Kirk [Wise - Director], Gary [Trousdale - Director] and Don [Hahn - Producer] once again. I'd had a great time on The Hunchback of Notre Dame and as that production was winding down, I called them up and essentially begged them to let me write their next movie!

Atlantis sprang from a collective desire on our part to tell a story that was a tip of the hat to the great adventure movies we all grew up with, such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and so on.

We wanted to take audiences somewhere they had never been before while at the same time, stepping out from the Disney formula that had pretty much been in place since The Little Mermaid. We had a mandate for this movie early on: no singing, no dancing; just explosions!

West: So, did you write Atlantis before or after Tarzan?

Murphy: I wrote Atlantis after my stint on Tarzan. Frankly, if Kirk, Gary and Don came to me and said they wanted to make an animated feature out of the phone book, I would write it for them!

West: You’ve got some great titles to your credit. What makes working with this certain group of people so enjoyable for you?

Murphy: What makes this particular group so fun to work with is that we all grew up watching the same movies, so our sensibilities are well matched. Not to mention that they are all talented artists in their own right. The amount of fun and creativity that flows from story meetings is unbelievable.

West: So going back to the beginning, how did this particular story of Atlantis come about? Did the guys give you free reign and say, "Go for it," or did everyone kind of brainstorm and come up with the basic plot and then you filled it in?

Murphy: The genesis for the story really started over chips, salsa and margaritas at a Mexican restaurant in Burbank back in ‘96. During that lunch, Don, Kirk, Gary and I decided on the kind of movie we wanted to make; an all-out action adventure that harkened back to the days of yore and the kinds of movies we all enjoyed as kids. During that lunch, ideas were tossed onto the table from all quarters and I remember coming away knowing that everyone had pretty much signed off on a story about explorers going into the earth in search of something. At that point, the guys pretty much turned me loose. I came back at them with about half a dozen story approaches from which they cherry picked ideas that they liked.

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Right around then, Atlantis solidified into the object of the explorers’ quest. From there, I wrote a treatment; the first attempt which was a total misfire. I set Atlantis at the bottom of the ocean, had bad guys riding horseback on Great White sharks, etc; a whole underwater saga that the guys respected but were like, "We want to make a movie about explorers going into the earth, remember?"

That’s when things really kicked into gear from a creative standpoint. I brought them back a treatment that, in broad strokes, is essentially the movie that got made. At that point, Visual Development artists were brought onboard and artwork was developed concurrently with the writing of the script. Both Kirk and Gary encouraged me to put all of our ideas into the first draft which ended up being 155 pages long! That’s almost twice as much material than ended up in the finished film. I didn’t envy their process of deciding what sequences eventually had to be jettisoned.

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