Friday, 30 May 2008


Warren Murphy is one of the most brilliant and prolific American writers. With Richard Sapir, he has created The Destroyer, a best-seller series of books that contains everything a reader can dream of to enjoy great moments of adventure, action, humor and clever social satire. As a screenwriter he has given to Clint Eastwood the script of The Eiger Sanction, a definite masterpiece of the thriller genre on-screen.

How did you meet Richard Sapir and how came the idea of The Destroyer?

Warren Murphy : I had been a newspaper writer and editor but in the early 1960's, I was working in politics in City Hall in Jersey City, New Jersey, as the mayor's personal secretary. Dick Sapir was assigned by the local newspaper to cover news in City Hall and that's where we met and became friends and drinking buddies. We both had been writing fiction - unsuccessfully - for a long time and we decided one late drunken night to collaborate on a book.

It was probably Dick's idea to write about an assassin hired by the U.S. government to preserve the country's freedoms, but it was a long time ago and I can't be sure. I named the characters, Remo, Chiun, the House of Sinanju, and came up with the first title: Created, the Destroyer which is a paraphrase of a quote from the Bhagavad Gita.

Richard Sapir and yourself sold Created, The Destroyer to Pinnacle Books in 1971. Did the publication of Don Pendleton's The Executioner have an influence over the launching of the character from Pinnacle's point of view?

Warren Murphy : We finished the manuscript on June 25, 1963 - I remember the date because my son, Brian, was born that day - but we were ahead of our time and no one would publish it. This manuscript sat in an agent's cabinet for almost eight years until one day, a young secretary from Pinnacle Books, was having her mouth worked on by a New York dentist named Joseph Sapir, Dick's father. He found out what she did and said « My son wrote a book like that once », and she answered (with a drill in her mouth), « Have him send it to me and I'll show it to an editor ».

Pinnacle had by this time begun to publish the Executioner series and was looking for other series books. We had our agent send the book to them and they bought it three days later. So, yes, Don Pendleton's Executioner success opened the door for us - but we had, in truth, written our book many years before his first Executioner.

The first two Destroyer books are two excellent thrillers but don't have the distinctive trademarks of the series: humor, social satire, parodies and references to news of the moment. They appear with the third, Chinese Puzzle.

Warren Murphy : Remember, we wrote the first book in 1963 and got published and became « overnight successes » eight years later. When Pinnacle Books wanted a second book in the series, we didn't really know what we were doing so we did the best we could.

The first two books are okay, but just okay. It was only with the third book, Chinese Puzzle, that we decided that we would write satire and humor, and along the way, we came up with our overriding mythology: the brash young westerner trained in the secret arts by an aged, inscrutable oriental master.

It worked for us because, honestly, we feared we would be bored to death, writing the same book over and over again, the way Pendleton had to do. The head publisher hated Chinese Puzzle but our editor, Andy Ettinger, knew it was something new and different and he stuck to his guns and got it published.

You wrote the script of The Eiger Sanction. How were you involved on the movie? Was Clint Eastwood a reader of The Destroyer?

Warren Murphy : Despite his « public image » at the time of being a taciturn, minimal talent, Clint Eastwood has always been a very complex, highly intelligent man. It turned out he read some Destroyers and also some of my Razoni and Jackson detective series books.

Out of the blue one day, he called me from Hollywood and asked me if I had ever read The Eiger Sanction. I told him no. He asked me if I had ever written a screenplay. I told him no. He said, « We're doing really well, aren't we? » Then he asked me if I could write a screenplay. I said yes, and he said, « Read The Eiger Sanction and see if you can write a script for it ».

During this conversation, he was very laid back, almost to the point of coma. Only later did I learn that his option on the book was expiring; he had not been able to get a screenplay written, and he called me as an act of desperation. I found the book, read it; thought it was useless but pleasant dreck, and told Eastwood that I could write the script.

Can you explain us how you worked on this adaptation?

Warren Murphy : My first mission was to go to the public library and get out a book on how to write a screenplay because I had not only never written one but I had never even seen one. I read that book and then wrote the script in eight days. Clint took my first draft to camera. Later I went out to Hollywood to meet with him and do some final tweaking of the screenplay. Clint put me in for solo writing credit on the movie, but the Writers' Guild gave me shared credit with two others - including Trevanian [Rodney Whitaker, author of the book] - whose scripts Clint had found unuseable.

Clint has become known now after many years to be very intelligent and focused; he knows exactly what he wants, and he gets professionals to give him that kind of work. He is a marvelous man to work for and the truth is, he spoiled me for Hollywood, because I thought everybody there was like him - bold and unfraid to make a decision. I learned later on how wrong this idea was.

How did you work with Richard Sapir on a Destroyer book? How did the ideas emerged? (the intrigues, Chiun's addiction to soap operas and being the perfect « Jewish mother » to Remo...)

Warren Murphy : Dick and I worked in a curious fashion. We would kick around an idea that interested us, usually over a lot of vodka and tonics. We would also fool around with the characterization stuff - the Jewish mother, the addiction to soap operas, the references to Remo being the avatar of Shiva, the Destroyer... all that kind of brainstorming.

And then Dick would start working on the first half of the book, write his half, and send it to me to figure out, without an outline. I would figure out where the story had to go, write my half of it, and then rewrite the whole book so that it was seamless.

The producer Larry Spiegel bought the adaptation rights of The Destroyer in the beginning of the eighties and Remo Unarmed and Dangerous was shot only in 1985. According to you, why did it take so long to adapt The Destroyer on screen?

Warren Murphy : Movies take forever to make. Look at Lord of the Rings, how long it took to finally get someone interested enough to do it right. So I don't think it took inordinately long for The Destroyer to be made into a film. And we were kind of a « stealth book », selling millions of copies a year, but generally under the radar of the big reviewing newspapers and organizations.

The only people who seemed really to know about us were all the screenwriters who were stealing our stuff for their own movies.

What were your relationships with the production from the development of the project to the shooting?

Warren Murphy : Dick and I wrote a script, actually several, but the problem was they were different from what everybody else was writing. So they wound up getting another writer to work on it. His script was pretty good, but the fatal flaw was that he had a junk villain. You can't have a great hero without having a great villain. Think of James Bond: his villains are guys who want to blow up the world or steal Fort Knox's gold but the The Destroyer movie had as a villain a guy who was selling cheap rifles to the government!

So the movie was good but only a fraction of what it could have been. Dick and I tried to explain the flaw to the production people but they were all geniuses and wouldn't listen to us.

Can we consider the subsequent TV pilot has been a nail in the coffin of another attempt?

Warren Murphy : The TV pilot was okay; in fact the story was better because it came from a novella that Dick and I wrote. There is continued interest in TV or film adaptations of the series, but one of the problems now is that so much of it has been ripped off in other movies that some people can be forgiven for thinking it is « old hat ».

Still I imagine it'll be made again one of these days; and we're working now on comic books and there is video game interest.We'll see what happens.

As a talented novelist and an efficient screenwriter do you think an adaptation can be at least 60% faithful to the original?

Warren Murphy : Movies and books are different art forms, and even when one thinks that a movie has been very faithful to the book it came from, the fact is that the movie is only a fraction of the book. What a good movie adaptation has to be is faithful to the « intellectual dress » of the underlying work, ala Godfather or Field of Dreams or On the Waterfront, etc.

In your books the late Richard Sapir and yourself have often targeted with great humor the Entertainment industry. What is your feeling about the Hollywood system?

Warren Murphy : Dick and I were frankly appalled that there were so many dumb people in Hollywood, charged with the responsibility of spending scores of millions of dollars of other people's money. I think we've reflected upon that in some of the books we later wrote.

You are the creator of an other important series of books called The Trace , totally unknown in french-speaking countries except for a forgotten tv-series called Murphy's Law (1988)...

Warren Murphy : The Trace series of books which I wrote were quite different from The Destroyer and, of course, I'm proud that I wrote seven books in the series and they won seven national awards, including an Edgar. The TV series was very good, but it had only very little to do with the books.

In that day and age on television, the censors ruled supreme. Trace in the books was an alcoholic with a hooker girlfriend, an ex-wife he hated, and two children - « What's-his-name and the girl » - about whom he couldn't care less. This was too gamy for network TV... Don't forget this was the age before NYPD Blue and The Sopranos. So they fudged up the series to make it sweet rather than tart. It was well written, well acted and Maggie Han was beautiful, but it wasn't really close to my books.

Starting 1982 Richard Sapir and you started to work with other writers on The Destroyer. Sapir died in 1987, then you gradually stopped working on the title and hired « Ghost writers ».

Warren Murphy : I began working with ghost writers after Dick and I had been doing the books by ourselves for 5 or 6 years. Both of us had other projects and sometimes we just couldn't get the time to work on a Destroyer. So I picked young writers I knew and had them do me a first draft and then I rewrote it, to try to keep the Destroyer flavor.

It was later on, when Dick was working on big novels and I had a number of series going, plus Hollywood work, that I hired Molly Cochran - who eventually became my wife - as a full time ghost, and Molly did some 15 books or so in the early 80's. Molly was a terrific writer and her books were right on target, but I should point out that I always tweaked what a ghost wrote to try to keep it consistent with what Dick and I did.

Toward the end of the 80's, Dick and I were so busy with other work that we decided we would end The Destroyer. But then, tragically, dick died, leaving behind a one-year-old son, and I was faced with a dilemma. Writing the series without Dick Sapir would not be fun anymore, but I wanted to keep it alive for his family. So I contracted it out to various publishers.

Those publishers - first Signet and then Gold Eagle - selected the ghost writers, but I was fortunate in that I had at first Will Murray, a serious Destroyer fan, and then Jim Mullaney, another fan, and both were terrific writers and maintained a very high level with the series. Mullaney left several years ago and since then the longtime fans of the series feel that the quality of the newest books has been spotty.

You keep an eye on The Destroyer. What is contractually your level of control with the different publishers?

Warren Murphy : Contractually, I have very little control now over the series content; that's a bad mistake I allowed myself to make and if there's ever a new Destroyer contract, it won't happen again.

You co-wrote the script of Leathal Weapon 2 with Shane Black. How did you work on this movie?

Warren Murphy : Shane Black, a very talented screenwriter, wrote the first Lethal Weapon. He was a fan of my books and he invited me in to work on Lethal Weapon 2. While I have great regard and admiration for Shane, it soon became apparent that we did not really work well together. My way of working is to make sure the story is absolutely in place before I write even the first word. My feeling is that Shane works more by « the seat of his pants », writing right from the beginning.

So after we managed to cobble together a first draft, both of us by mutual agreement left the project and it was finished by others but let me be real clear: Shane Black is, a major screenwriting talent, far better than I am... but partnerships have to work on a lot of different levels and ours didn't. More's the pity.

Apart of The Destroyer and The Trace your books are well-known and appreciated in english-speaking countries but unfortunately unknown by most of our french-speaking readers. Can you talk to us about the rest of your litterary work.

Warren Murphy : Apart from The Destroyer, both by myself and in partnership with Molly Cochran, I have done a large body of varied kinds of work - ranging from locked room mysteries (Leonardo's Law), to big suspense novels (The Ceiling of Hell), to fantasy (World Without End), horror (Destiny's Carnival). Among many others. With Molly, I wrote Grandmaster - an epic spy novel - which won an Edgar, and also we wrote The Forever King, a modern-day Arthurian legend.

My books have won more than a dozen national awards including two Edgars, two Shamuses, many more nominations, and a lot of lifetime achievement awards. I am most proud though, I suppose, of my reputation as a teacher of writing.

The litterary work of Master Chiun is unfortunately unknown in France. The Assassin's Handbook and its sequels have no french edition and are quasi-mythic amongst loyal french fans. Are you aware of what becomes of your creation world-wide?

Warren Murphy : France has been the most consistent country of all in reprinting The Destroyer; at one time or another, we've been published in a dozen different countries, but that is arranged by the publisher's rights department and writers have very little control over that. Eventually, the two versions of The Assassin's Handbook and the book of Chiun's wisdom, The Way of the Assassin, will be published in France and other countries when I get a good publishing staff working on the projects.

You have created a website company, you are very active on The Destroyer creating spinoffs, on re-gaining the total control of the title and you work with your son, Brian. How did you start these operations?

Warren Murphy : One of the reasons I created my website publishing company, Ballybunnion Books, was because Gold Eagle clearly was not interested in promoting The Destroyer or any kind of spinoffs. So I felt it was important to get it started on my own. Sadly, some dark spirits have gone out of their way to hinder the success of Ballybunnion but eventually, I'm sure, it will all work out.

On what are you working currently and what are your projects?

Warren Murphy : I'm working right now on several different series: one about a private detective agency; the other about a secret group which fights religious extremists. When I'm done with those, I'm going to take time off and work on improving my golf game.

(Interview done in 2005)

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