Kurt Vonnegut once wrote about how perplexed he was that anyone would choose movie-making over writing. He pointed out that where writing is a completely self-contained venture inside the head of the author, filmmaking is a time consuming act that's not only horribly complex and involved, but really, really expensive. But maybe the idea that there's a choice, a simple either/or proposition, isn't the reality. Local Asheville documentarian Rod Murphy would probably agree — to a certain extent.
“It is not a growth industry, indie filmmaking,” Murphy tells Xpress. “No one gets into making feature documentaries to make money.” That being said, this bottom line doesn't dissuade the director. “It's an addiction,” Murphy explains. “For me, I just like doing it. You finish with one and you go through that whole 'Well, I don't know if I ever want to do this again,' and it comes up that you're already doing it.”
After two feature length documentaries — 2003's Greater Southbridge and 2005's Rank Strangers — Murphy is currently unveiling his latest to the world, Being the Diablo. The documentary is the story of Mickey Mahaffey, former evangelist, one-time politician and longtime homeless person, who found peace of mind in Mexico's Copper Canyon with the native Tarahumara Indians and their culture.
When Murphy set out to shoot Being the Diablo, however, the focus was never intentionally Mahaffey, even though the original seeds of the movie were planted a few years ago by the man during a chance encounter at the Asheville Film Festival. As Murphy tells it, “He came up to me, introduced himself, told me about his travels down there, their rituals, said, 'Why don't you come down?'”
Even then, Murphy never thought Being the Diablo would turn out to be a film about Mahaffey, but over the documentary's three-and-a-half years of production, Murphy soon learned otherwise. “It's a movie that I thought was going to be about travel and adventure, and these cool indigenous Indians at the bottom of this canyon in Mexico,” Murphy says. “I was up for adventure. It was an adventure, but a different kind.
“[He's] this All-American type of guy, had a wife and kids and was also a preacher and he just snapped,” Murphy says, describing Mahaffey. “He had a breakdown, a crisis of conscience, he started living on the streets, trying to rebuild the mess that he left behind and he eventually found his way down into that canyon and started living with those Tarahumara Indians for a dozen years and then came back up and face his past.”
But Being the Diablo is about more than just Mahaffey. Instead, the film examines the relationship between Mahaffey and his family, especially since he abandoned them in exchange for his search for happiness and a simpler life. The film is meant to be an examination of this complicated family dynamic, one that doesn't exist in black and white or right and wrong. “It's not this shining, back-patting profile of the guy, it's warts and all,” Murphy points out. “It was awkward at times. We just wanted to be accurate.”
At the same time, the film is strangely personal to the director. “This all happened to him when he's my age, midlife, kids the same age,” he says. “And I'm making a movie about a guy who went crazy doing something that he wanted to do.”
The film is just starting to make the film festival circuit, with showings at the San Antonio Film Festival and a recent engagement at The Atlanta International Documentary Film Festival. On the docket are festivals in Knoxville, Chattanooga, New York, Colorado and the film's Asheville premiere at the Ricochet Film Festival.
Don't mistake this as a time for Murphy to rest, however, as he's keeping busy with a number of projects. As of late, he's been working with Asheville actress Andie MacDowell, who's taken up directing for the first time. Working in association with Murphy and his company, 614 Films, her seven-minute long documentary “Before the First Pitch,” about the goings on prior to an Asheville Tourists game, recently premiered at McCormick Field.
And along with local filmmaker Paul Schattel (director of Sinkhole) and — as Murphy puts it — “other Asheville all-stars” — Murphy and MacDowell have also started production on a feature length doc about Asheville's Miss Gay Latina transgendered beauty pageant.
For Murphy, it's all cyclical. “You make a film, you get a little bit of buzz,” Murphy points out. “You get something out there, you can parlay that into something corporate or some music videos, editing work, whatever comes around. That's kind of how you have to do it in this town — you have to do everything.”
In a lot of ways, it's easy to get the idea that Murphy and his self-described “addiction” to filmmaking wouldn't have it another way.
— Justin Souther writes film reviews for Mountain Xpress.
what: Screening of Being the Diablo
where: The Carolina Asheville
when: Sunday, Sept. 19 (1 p.m., $8.)
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