Director Ryan Murphy Sees The Normal Heart as a ?Call to Arms?
How did you become aware of The Normal Heart?
I first became aware of it when I was in college. I always loved it, and I thought it was an incredibly powerful piece of art about how we were all struggling with the epidemic back then. It never left my consciousness ? I thought about it a lot. I saw different versions of it performed.
What led you to make it into a movie?
It was in 2009 that I mentioned to my producing partner Dante Di Loreto, I couldn't understand how this movie hadn't been made when the issues discussed in the play are more modern and topical than ever before. So we tracked Larry Kramer down in New York. I went into that meeting with the mindset of not leaving until I get the rights. I think Larry felt my passion and love of the material. Also, I think he liked the idea that I wanted the movie to be made because A) I didn't want people to forget about these civil rights leaders and B) I wanted young people to know that story. Every generation has a plague, so to speak, and that kind of prejudice and discrimination could so easily happen again if we're not mindful and careful.
What was your relationship with Larry Kramer while you were working on the film?
It was a very passionate, three-year-long process. I felt my job working with Larry was somewhat of a historian. I would ask him to write scenes based on feelings that he had. For example, I wrote him one email exchange that said, "Were you ever afraid?" His response was, "I never had time to be afraid. I was literally too busy cleaning up people's shit." From that exchange came the caregiver montage scene with Mark Ruffalo and Matt Bomer's characters, where we see how difficult it was not just for the victims but for the people who were helping the victims of the disease.
Larry responds to ideas, and Larry is somebody who responds well to trying something. I've never had an experience where I worked so closely with someone on a project. He came to the set when he was in good enough health. Some days he would have to leave because he was overcome with the emotion of the ghosts of all his dead friends and loved ones. It was a very moving experience to be a part of with him. I feel like at the end of the day ? and Larry would say this too ? no stone was left unturned. We exhausted the potential of it, and that was a wonderful feeling.
What was the biggest challenge of The Normal Heart?
The part for me that was the biggest challenge was that I was terrified every day. It took 30 years to get this movie made. A lot of people were counting on it not just being made ? but it being good. I wanted to honor Larry and all of the people who died from AIDS. I felt the weight of history when I was making it, and that was an interesting, great place for me to be. The other thing I should say about the movie is that it's such an emotionally difficult piece, such an emotionally beautiful story; there were a lot of tears shed while we were making it. That was difficult and, yet also, incredibly rewarding. We finally found an amazing home at HBO with this amazing cast, it felt like we better deliver.
Do you see the film being used as an educational tool?
I have always felt this movie is more than a movie ? it's a movement, to a certain degree. It's a call to arms. That's how Larry wrote the stage play, and that's what the movie is. At the end of the movie, particularly, we use the statistic that 6,300 people a day are infected with HIV. I didn't know that when I went into the movie ? that was staggering. It remains a staggering epidemic. Many people will be galvanized to take some action ? if not in the world, maybe in their own private lives, maybe encouraging themselves or other people to get tested. So we can help eradicate this horrible plague in our lifetime. I have said it before and I'll say it again: I'm willing to go any place and speak to anybody about the message. Maybe I can help finish what Larry Kramer started ? that's very important to me.
Were there particular inspirations you considered while bringing The Normal Heart to life?
Along with our cinematographer Danny Moder, production designer Shane Valentino, and costume designer Daniel Orlandi, I set up a room in our New York office that was dedicated to the mood of the time ? of 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984. Not just clothing, but what was in pop culture. What did the city look like? What was the architecture like? What were the colors of time? It was a very exhaustive process. It was quite amazing and fun. So we drew a lot of inspirations from that. The thing we tried to do was make it as true as possible. You can do the '80s in a very big, loud, colorful, crazy way, but that wasn't my recollection of that time. It was a much darker, quieter moment, and I wanted to be true to that. So I opted for an understated approach, and that helped with the movie's vibe, so to speak. We worked hard, for over a year, to get that right. I am so proud of the work of the department heads, it's just extraordinary.
How did you land on this particular casting mix?
My rule at the beginning and the end of the day was I wanted collaborators on it who loved it as much as I did, who were passionate about telling that story. I was blown away by the commitment of the actors, because it was a lot to step into those roles and get them right. A lot of people had to go through not only weight loss and grueling sessions in the makeup chair, but learning about the period. That was my rule, and that's why we all became so close, because we all felt like we were in it together.
Any particular scene or moment from the movie that most affects you?
I love them all. But I find the ending of the movie to be incredibly poignant and amazing. You see the pain and the devastation of the AIDS epidemic, but you also see hope that things could get better, have gotten better, and will continue to get better. That was an important thing for me to put out to the world. I am very proud of that scene that Larry wrote and how Mark Ruffalo played that scene.
About the fight at the center of the movie, what do you feel has changed? Have battles been won while the war against AIDS still rages?
It's both. We have a lot of civil rights today because of the work of those men and women. They ushered in a feeling of acceptance, and I don't think gay marriage would have happened without them. Larry demanded that people speak up because, as he says, "Silence equals death." I was a young man 30 years ago, and I never would have imagined that I would live in world where I could be married and have a young child and be accepted in many quarters of society. There's still a lot of hate and prejudice in this world. Larry Kramer wisely realized so early on that to change the world, people have to know you. If they know you and see that we are all the same ? that we all have normal hearts ? that's the first step. I'm both amazed at the progress and amazed at how far we have to go.