Shot in the dark

“All the people [in film school] were assholes.”

There are a few things you should know about Asheville filmmaker Rod Murphy: He’s pale. He’s funny. He’s loud. He was born in Boston, raised in Southbridge, and thinks Grady Little should have pulled the hook on Pedro Martinez in Game 7.

He loves Asheville. He hates Sting. He can get you a Schunterman potentiometer in a pinch. He wants to rehabilitate the expression “douche-bag.”

He did not get into Sundance.

He sings bawdy bar songs about breast implants, 900 numbers and getting hit in the nuts. He’s 33 years old, 34 if you ask his wife.

Oh, and he’s my drinking buddy.

It’s true: In the year or so since I first met him, Rod and I have cracked a few cold ones, and watched a few ballgames besides. We’ve swapped stories, broken bread and been two-fifths of a losing side of pickup hoops. Even so, I’ll try to step back, forgo the backslapping, forgive old debts and forget that his son once raked my son across the face in a fight over sidewalk chalk.

This is neither a fawning praise-song (though Rod is generous to a fault) nor a warts-and-blisters expose (he launches too many jumpers from the wing), but rather an honest profile of a fellow who gave up old doubts, ten grand and six years of his life to fling a dream up on the screen, and watched it come home with trophies to spare.

Out of the soup kitchen, into the streets

“I’d like to see his f••kin’ movie.”

Rod Murphy is reading the Feb. 4 issue of Mountain Xpress, and he is pissed.

Greater Southbridge, Murphy’s documentary about the dim and downtrodden in his Massachusetts hometown, has just been savaged in the letters page by a reader named Allen Thomas.

Calling Southbridge “a distracting incoherency,” Thomas accuses Murphy of exploiting his subjects, mining the sad underbelly of Southbridge in a misguided attempt at humor.

It’s a passionate letter, if off the mark; around a table at Westville Pub, Murphy’s friends try to soften the blow. Some feel that Thomas missed the point of Southbridge; others say that all good art provokes strong reaction; still others suggest that Murphy wrote the letter himself to keep his name in the papers.

The moment passes. Before long, the discussion has wheeled and tilted to other topics — DrugMoney, Rev. Al and the small, swirling joys of Gold Bond medicated powder — and Murphy is laughing again, pouring a fresh pint and telling salty jokes in his strong Boston brogue.

Still, the Xpress letter must stick in his craw. Allen Thomas is not alone, but he’s in a distinct minority. While a few viewers have aired similar complaints, many more have praised Greater Southbridge for its obvious heart. Far from exploiting his subjects, Murphy connects with them; rather than scorn or pity them, he gives them a voice.

His film is by turns odd, sad and hilarious, but it never feels cheap: There is more gritty dignity in Greater Southbridge than in most of the soup-kitchen sanctimony or averted-glance “I gave at the office” charity that passes for caring these days.

But don’t take my word for it. Westwood One/CBS Radio praised Greater Southbridge as a “triumph,” lauding its “pure generosity of spirit” in affording the down-and-out “an oddly sacred identity.” Arthur Bradford, who explored similar territory in the award-winning documentary How’s Your News, called Southbridge “genuine, funny, good-hearted, and bad-ass.” The scathing online forum Hollywood Bitchslap called it “very funny, very heart-felt, and as good a first-time directorial effort as you could ever hope for.”

The film has bagged a dozen noteworthy awards, including “Best Documentary” prizes at festivals in New York, Hollywood, Atlanta, Knoxville, Tenn., Kentucky, Michigan and Massachusetts. Building on that momentum, Murphy’s working to sell cable and video distribution rights. Last month, he wrangled some high-profile face time with a few industry suits in Park City during the Sundance craze, and came away encouraged.

This weekend, he’s heading up to New York, where he has meetings with the Sundance Channel, the Independent Film Network and High Times magazine. If the cards fall right, he’ll meet with HBO and Sony Classics as well. Rod Murphy may not be in the same league with the big boys, but in a few days, he’ll at least be in the same room.

A little help from his friends

“I can’t say it enough: Ken, Scott, Gina, Kate, and Ursula are big parts of the very meager success and vision we’ve got for 6:14 Productions.”

That’s an e-mail from Rod (6:14 is the name of his production company). Since I started this story, he’s been hammering me about giving props to his assorted partners in crime. He’s begged me to mention his editor, his producer, his wife, his garbage man, his plumber, his mortgage specialist, the sweet little lady who refills the moo goo gai pan at his favorite local Asian buffet, and the guy with the hairy back at the Y who boxes out well but gets a little aggressive on defense.

For a chap who’s spent an awful lot of time churning out press kits, harassing festival directors and cold-calling industry reps, Murphy’s surprisingly uncomfortable about his turn in the spotlight.

Not that he minds the glare — heavens no, ladies and gents, Rod Murphy is a veritable media whore — but he does want to share it with his deserving cronies.

As he reminds me often, independent means flat broke; if he had to pay all the folks who have helped along the way, he’d be in debt up to his ears. (As it is, he’s only in debt up to his knees.)

Despite his modest success, Murphy takes pains to separate himself from the film industry. He has no desire to be the cineaste, the auteur, the flighty film-school grad wearing smashing scarves and smoking French cigarettes. To hear Rod tell it, he’s a schmo, a shlump, an impostor and a rootless, bored vagabond who fell ass-backwards into film, and who made an award-winning documentary in spite of himself.

This much is true: Rod Murphy has never taken a film class. In college, Murphy says, he was a schemer, a drunk and a musician, but not a filmmaker. (He graduated from Fitchburg State with majors in history and political science, and a minor in philosophy.)

“I was around film a lot,” Murphy recalls, “but never had much interest in doing it, because all the people who were doing it were assholes, y’know? Pretentious douche-bags who thought they were real important, had some ‘vision,’ y’know? You’d see their friggin’ movie, and it’s some black-and-white thing that makes absolutely no sense. It’s six seconds long, and it took them all semester to do it.”

While he admits he could have used a little more technical know-how when he started Southbridge, he’s proud of its scruffy, DIY feel.

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