But after he read Augusten Burroughs' Running With Scissors in 2002, the writer-director found himself on a plane to New York. He was determined to get the film rights to Burroughs' memoir of life in a dysfunctional family – even though Murphy had never directed a movie.
The book's characters were “so much like my mother and very similar to me and my sensibility,'' says Murphy, a former newspaper reporter. “So I pursued him. I was prepared to mortgage my house – even though he didn't want to sell the rights to the book.''
“In the end,'' Murphy continues, “I think he saw that, creatively, we were on the same page.''
The same page, in this instance, is a modern American horror story about a sensitive boy, his mildly crazed mother, her truly crazy psychiatrist and the shrink's even loonier family that the boy goes to live with.
Murphy saw Burroughs' tale as a kind of exercise in emotional excess and a kind of examination of human extremes that has marked his own work on television's “Popular,” a wickedly satirical high school drama, and “Nip/Tuck,” set in the world of plastic surgery.
“I like really extreme behavior,'' Murphy says. “I've always been attracted to stranger-than-fiction kind of stuff.''
The characters who populate both the book and the movie certainly are strange.
Burroughs' mother Deirdre (Annette Bening) is a frustrated 1970s suburban housewife longing – and failing – to be the next Anne Sexton. She is constantly battling with her husband, Norman (Alec Baldwin), a drunken academic totally out of touch with his family.
When Deirdre seeks help in sorting out her life, she turns to Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), a quack who hands out pharmaceuticals like candy at Halloween and finds inspiration in a toilet bowl.
His freak show of a family includes an emotionally battered wife (Jill Clayburgh), two damaged daughters (Gwyneth Paltrow, Evan Rachel Hunter) and an “adopted” son (Joseph Fiennes), a pedophile who seduces young Augusten.
“What they do is so insane; their choices are so insane,” Murphy says. “But that's Augusten's life. I never looked at it as being over the top. I looked at it as extreme.”
Murphy says his problem in writing the film was that it was “sprawling and epic, and every chapter was a different emotional adventure. I really felt it needed an emotional spine – which was the love between a mother and a child, and also the love he got from the Jill Clayburgh character, Agnes.”
While the release of Running With Scissors marks the end of Murphy's magnificent obsession with that book, he is continuing to focus his work on the extremes of life, “the things we think will make us happy but ultimately don't.”
He is finishing up the fourth season of “Nip/Tuck.” FX recently picked up his new series “4 Ozs,” about a transsexual sportswriter with a wife and two teenage sons.
His next film will be Dirty Tricks , starring Meryl Streep as Martha Mitchell, Clayburgh as Pat Nixon and Paltrow as Maureen Dean. He also has signed to write and direct a film version of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love that will star Julia Roberts.
And in his spare time, he's starting to write a script about Alfred Hitchcock and the making of Psycho .
That's a lot for anybody's plate, but Murphy says it's the only way he can work.
“I just think you have to find the time,” he says. “When I was a journalist and I really wanted to do scripts, I would work all day and then come home and write every night from midnight to 3, every day. I always had that determination.
“If you want something badly enough, you'll find a way time to make it work.”
© 2006, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
Running With Scissors is currently in theaters.