I recently got to sit down for an hour with a very talented man, someone who worked multiple Disney films released in the mid-late 90s to the early 2000s. Adapting classic literature from Victor Hugo and Edgar Rice Burroughs to all new adventures discovering lost cities and what it means to be a “Brother”. We talked about the films he wrote, how he came to being attached to them and how all these years later people still love the work he’s done. He is none other than the talented and charismatic Tab Murphy.
Interviewer: So first question is what made you want to get into filmmaking?
Tab: I had an interest with creative writing from a very early age, that combined with the fact that I loved movies growing up. I had a lot of access to movies growing up because I grew up in a big family. My parents were big movie and TV watchers, “go to the theater watchers” and “go to the drive through at summertime” watchers so I think there were a couple of influences on me. It wasn’t until my first year of collage that it all sorta came together for me and I recognized that getting into storytelling and film making was something that I wanted to pursue.
Interviewer: What would you say was your “big break” when getting into the industry?
Tab: I get asked that a lot from people looking for some magic formula but there is no magic formula. If you ask any writer or director in Hollywood they’ll say “you’ll see there’s certain similarities but you see everybody’s path is different.” So mine was that I simply went to USC Film School, I dropped out because I couldn’t afford to go to school beyond a couple of years. I did a screenwriting class and I realized that was probably the best chance for me to break in without knowing anybody or knowing anything about the business at that point.
So I dropped out and went to work at a Seven Eleven and I started writing screenplays in my spare time. I eventually met other like minded guys that were also trying to be screenwriters at that time and so we sorta formed a little wolf pack and would meet for burgers and beer every week and discuss projects and go to movies etc.
I wrote a script and someone in the group had a contact or friend at Paramount back in those days, and he showed it to him, and that’s how I got my first meeting. But, even with that introduction and sitting down at Paramount, it was still about a year before I got hired and paid to write something. It’s a process and you have to be patient and determined. I kept saying in my mind when I felt low “Somebody’s gotta write these f*cking movies. Why not me?” and that’s what kept me going. So that’s my story.
Interviewer: So what lead to you writing for the Hunchback of Notre Dame?
Tab: So, what sort of lead me to working for Disney at all was another kind of story. I was very focused on live action. I had already gotten an Oscar nomination for Gorillas in the Mist and there was a script I wrote called Last of the Dogmen that I was trying to get off the ground as a director.
I had written the script and I wanted to direct it. I had a producer and we were trying to get meetings. At the same time some of the executives that I had worked with at Paramount had shifted over to Disney and one of them was Jeffery Katzenberg, and he was heading up the animation division. He and some of the other producers kept trying to get me to come in and see what they were working on and see if there was something we could do together. I guess you can say that in my sort of naivety. Not only was I busy trying to get a movie made that I wanted to direct, but I also wasn’t interested in sort of writing what I thought were just cartoons in those days.
This was right when Little Mermaid had come out and Beauty and the Beast had yet to come out. So the Renaissance of Disney 90s animation was just getting started. But I still looked at them as kids’ movies and I didn’t want to write kids’ movies. I wanted to write adult dramas, adventures, this and that, more along the lines of what I was nominated for and the movie I was trying to get made. So, it was easy for me to continue to say “No” for that reason.
But, as these things happened, I ended up getting my movie financed. I was gonna direct. We had a star in Tom Berenger, but he had like two other movies he had to make before mine. So, I had this time where I wasn’t doing anything for 8 months, and just like everyone else, I had bills to pay. So, I had to find a job to get me through that 8 months. So, low and behold, Jeffrey and his producers reached out yet again to see what they were working on and I said “You know f*ck it. You know, why not? Maybe they’ll have something I can do quickly and make a bit of money”. That was sort of my original thinking because I was gonna direct this movie etc.
So I went in, without any expectation whatsoever, and had a very nice meeting with a few really cool executives and they went through all the projects they were working on or wanted to develop. Everything that they were eventually going to turn into movies was on the table at that point, but nothing really peaked my interest. Toward the end of that particular meeting they said “Oh we’re also trying to figure out if there’s a movie in this”.”This” turned out to be The Hunchback of Notre Dame. A book they set on the table.
What they didn’t realize was that I grew up a monster kid of the 60s, so I was very aware of Hunchback and Quasimodo’s story because, in those days, he was sorta lumped in with all those Universal horror monsters. You know, like Dracula, The Wolfman, and The Mummy. So Quasimodo, even though he was human he was sorta part of that canon of monsters. I was well aware of that story and I was all over that, I immediately said “I’m in, I wanna do this, I was born to do this.” And so that’s how Hunchback came about and I went away and wrote a treatment and they loved it and we were off to the races.
Interviewer: When adapting such a “dark” story for Disney, how difficult was it to be like “This is Disney it’s got to be rated ‘G'”?
Tab: Well, very early on, I was concerned. It was good news and bad news. The good news was they wanted me to write it. The bad news was that they wanted me to write it. I suddenly had this apprehension that they were gonna turn this world class peace of literature into this bunch of singing and dancing, light and fluffy. You know, and then I was like “Oh my Gosh”.
So very early on I expressed my concern about that aspect of adapting Hunchback, but, I have to say Disney was really cool. They were like “Look, we know that the book and movie adaptations in the past have dealt with some very adult themes. We don’t want you to shy away from that” so they gave me a lot of freedom. They said “Look, you write the story that you see. Our concern is, whether or not, there is an animated version of this movie in this book. You know how we work. You know how we operate. You know the boxes we need to check off. But, one of the things we don’t want you to do is censor yourself. You write the story you wanna write knowing full well who our audience is and, if you go too far in one direction, we’ll reign you in. But do not write something just because you don’t think this won’t go well in a Disney movie.” That was the best news as a writer that I could have gotten at that point because it allowed me to explore a lot of scenes that otherwise I think I would have self censored.
I give Disney a lot of credit for having the balls to tackle a project like that. But, it was like a perfect storm. It was a perfect time because they were really trying to do something outside the box and that continued on with Atlantis. There was a real effort in the studio during that five year period where they were trying to spread their wings and try new things. They had done the musical fairy tale to death so I give them credit for tackling material that at first glance wouldn’t shout “Disney”, and in many ways, I don’t think Hunchback would get made today in the current climate.
So it just was a freakish time when people were willing to take risks and it’s not the kind of risk I thought Disney would ever take. I was happy to be the one writing it I’ll tell ya that.
Interviewer: So what was it like working on all of these characters like Quasimodo, Esmeralda, Frolo etc.?
Tab: Well it was a dream because they’re all very different. From the writing standpoint, I had a great time. It was awesome and I understood all of these characters. But I also think that everybody that worked on that film were going through their own sort of catharsis, in terms of working on so many sweet and fluffy fairy tales and musicals that they all saw this as an opportunity to explore a little more of their artists darker sides, and boy did they.
I mean you really just saw an explosion of things that had been pent up in a lot of these artists over the years and it was to our fortune on the movie that they brought all of that pent up artistic expression that lends itself more to the dark side. They brought their A-Game to that movie.
It was a huge combination of everyone’s efforts, but from the beginning there needed to be animated characters that would justify this story being told, aside form the gargoyles that were needed for comic relief. But, for the most part, when you look at some of the darker aspects of the film, I mean just look at how the movie opens dude, just look at how the movie opens. That’s about as dark as it gets. It sets a tone for the entire movie that has sporadic scenes of levity in it which is the opposite of what Disney usually does, which is have lots of levity with sporadic scenes of darkness. So they completely reversed their tone in Hunchback, which for me was awesome.
Interviewer: How did you feel when the film was finally released in 1996? Were you happy with the overall product and how it was received?
Tab: Oh yeah. Listen, I was thrilled!
I was very proud of, not only the work I did on that movie, but of everybody’s contributions to that movie, Kirk Wise, Gary Trousdale, Don Hahn, I was thrilled!
I had been to screenings and seen some scenes that had been partially animated but I was knocked out because I looked back at myself and was embarrassed that I would have passed on any project just because it was animated. What I saw in the theater was an amazing work of art that had been worked on by 300 people, all of that coming together to create a story, and the originations were the seeds in my brain about how to tackle that big book. It was awesome! I was proud of that movie and I remain proud more than any other of the Disney films that I ended up writing.
Interviewer: So, after Hunchback, was of course Tarzan. What made you come back to making another film at Disney?
Tab: Well, I had just an incredibly rich and creative experience on Hunchback. The difference between animation and live action is that you aren’t sitting in a meeting with a bunch of “suits” at the studio making decisions on your movie. You’re sitting around with a bunch of artists and creative people and you feel like there’s just such a synergy that occurs when everyone’s coming together to reach the same goal. Everyone’s opinion is valid and everybody is fearless in their approach to sharing. It was just a great experience.
I didn’t expect to be asked back but when Jeffery called and said “I want you to do Tarzan, so here you go” I was handed one great peace of literature for the first time, and on my second outing I was handed another. So, you can’t say no to that. Having been though the process, and knowing how high the bar was set, I knew they were going make a great movie.
So, again, I was asked early on to find that movie within the Burroughs books and stories. I think they talked to me because of the experience they had on Hunchback and I like to think they had a good experience with Tarzan as well.
Interviewer: What was it like working with all of these characters like Tarzan, Jane, Clayton, Kerchak?
Tab: It was great! In all fairness, you know a lot of that good stuff was woven into the story for the two to three years it took to make that film. I had a very talented pair of writers that followed me off of Hunchback and onto Tarzan, Bob Tzudiker and Noni White. My job was to picture myself as the starting pitcher at a baseball game. My job was to get to the 7th inning with a lead and then all of these other “closers” would come in.
What I focused on was story and character. Some of the little gems that everybody points to in Tarzan were actually sort of written after I left the project to work on Atlantis. That was the great part of what I did and the great part of why I liked doing what I did was that I knew that, if I brought my A-Game with the characters, the sequences and the story that the animators could turn into something magical and make the movie awesome.
Interviewer: So when Tarzan finally released in 1999 how did you feel with the overall product?
Tab: Well, because I was busy with Atlantis and other projects, I didn’t get to see any of the early screenings, so the next time I saw Tarzan was at the premier, and that f*cking movie knocked me out! I was so excited with what they did!
Interviewer: Did you see any of the “Legend of Tarzan” Saturday Morning Cartoon series that they did?
Tab: No. Although, weirdly it shows up on my IMDB page. Maybe because it’s based on characters I created. But no I didn’t even know I existed to be honest with you.
Interviewer: So moving on from Tarzan we move onto Atlantis. How did you get involved with Atlantis?
Tab: So when we had finished Hunchback, Kirk, Gary, Don and I were like “Let’s keep the team together”. They wanted to do something very different with their next film. We had a couple of meetings where we batted a few ideas around like “Let’s do a Pirates of the Caribbean Animated film” and they were excited for like two seconds before finding out about the live action film already in development. Which, of course, became a whole franchise.
We were trying to figure out what that movie was going to be, but something everybody agreed upon was that we didn’t want to do another musical. We wanted to try making it a young boys’ adventure movie like some of those old 50s and 60s Disney adventure films like Swiss Family Robinson and Treasure Island. But, we really didn’t know what it was going to be until we had lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Burbank. By the time that lunch was over, which lasted like 2 hours, we had a pretty solid idea about explorers who wanted to go to the center of the earth in the 1914 World War I Era. We didn’t really know what they were going to find at that point.
Atlantis was something that we talked about but we talked about a lot of different things. Like in an Indiana Jones movie. We were like “What could these guys and gals be looking for?”. So that’s when I went off and began to write and write ideas, and the guys kind of cherry picked this idea and that idea. So, I would write more and then start to work on characters. It was a whole process.
What was different about this process is that this wasn’t based on any preexisting IP. It wasn’t based on a novel or any of that stuff. It was something that we were dreaming along. At that point I was like the head dreamer because I was the one writing a bunch of sh*t and saying “What about this? What about this?”. So it was a lot of fun, and that’s what distinguishes Atlantis from the two preceding movies. This was a movie where the four of us, in its infancy stages, dreamed it up on our own. It was so cool that once I wrote a treatment that encapsulated all the ideas that we loved. Nothing ever happens easily in Hollywood, but in this case, I remember Peter Schneider and Tom Schumacher walk in having read the treatment over the weekend and they were just buzzing and they were like “We’re making this”. We were thrilled that all the effort we put into making an original story was getting a chance to get off the ground.
Interviewer: So this film has Joss Whedon credited under “Story”. Did he actually have any involvement in this project?
Tab: That’s a misnomer. Joss was never involved with us or our story at all. Joss had apparently, this is what I was told, a couple years prior had written an idea for Disney with Atlantis in it, but it was nothing like out story.
Gary had a story when he went to the premier and he saw Joss’ name in the story credits and he thought “What the f*ck?”. And that’s really what it was about. I think it was Disney trying to make nice with Joss or his agent or his lawyers or whatever. Joss had nothing to do with this movie.
Interviewer: So it’s a big misconception that Joss was ever involved with the film?
Interviewer: So, this was Disney’s first animated feature since The Black Cauldron to be Rated ‘PG’ versus the usual ‘G’ rating. What was it like writing two movies that were ‘G’ and then going to ‘PG’?
Tab: * Laughs * Well in all honesty, Hunchback should have been PG-13 so I had already been through the fire. I still marvel at the fact that Disney had gotten a G rating on that. I mean holy sh*t, what were they thinking?
But I think the PG rating was something we embraced early on because it allowed us to have explosions, to have people in sequences die, and none of it was going to be graphic but there was going to be loss of life and explosions and guns. We knew going in it was going to get a PG.
It’s okay. It’s an action-adventure film and I think Disney at that time, especially after I had written that treatment, saw and agreed that, yeah this was going to be a PG.
We were just encouraged to write and to make the movie we wanted to make. So that was, again, Disney not standing in our way. Not cutting us off at the knees creatively. They were just like “Okay guys, we get it, you took a left turn into Adventureland and that comes at a little bit of a price with regards to the rating system. So, go for it”.
Interviewer: When working on all of these great characters like Milo, Kida, Vinny, Helga, Mole, Rourke etc., what was it like working with all these different characters from different backgrounds?
Tab: Well, I think what differentiated Atlantis from the others was that very early on we wanted to have an international cast of characters. It wasn’t a calculated thing. We just had this idea that this billionaire that brought together the best of the best from all over the world to embark on this journey to Atlantis. That freed us up for the first time to create characters, who were in some cases, not cookie cutter Disney characters.
So we knew early on we were going to have a Latina with Audrey. We had Kida as one of the first Princesses of Color. But, we knew ultimately, that was where we were headed. I dreamt up characters like Vinny and Cookie because of the time period. It was just such a rich stew of character choices that we had at our disposal. I think we did a pretty good job of coming together and creating a team of memorable characters.
Interviewer: Could you tell me about some of the cut content and characters that were going to be in this film at first but were scrapped from the final film?
Tab: You know, in a very early iteration, there were a couple of scrapped characters. Mr. Whitmore originally had a grandson who came along on the expedition who was a petty little thing that came along on the expedition but was dropped. Zoltan was a more interesting character. He was a kind of medium. We modeled him after Edgar Cayce and he was a medium who claimed to be able to kind of be able to speak to Atlantians in a telepathic way which is why he was included. I’m sorry that he didn’t make the final cut.
I do understand that we had a lot of story. We had a lot of monsters. We just had so much that something had to go ultimately. In an early screening when it was just reels, I don’t think the group of explorers got to Atlantis until the end of hour one. That first hour was just a “Monster Parade” that had a lot of really cool stuff which I really liked writing. But at the end of the day, the story is what’s really important. Disney was always great with the story and let the story determine if you keep something or let it go. So, you know they were right. The real story of Atlantis really begins when they arrive at the city. There were some tough decisions when you are making a movie and sometimes you have to let something go, but that’s the process of filmmaking.
Interviewer: Just a question I wanted to ask out of curiosity. Is it true that Helga in early versions of the script was meant to be Milo’s love interest before Kida was introduced?
Tab: Certainly, in early drafts I created kind of… well, Milo was kind of young and naïve and his whole journey was about growing up a little bit and being outraged by what he was seeing. By the end he’s leading the charge to right a wrong that he was a participant in.
But, amongst all that, Helga always kind of teased him in a sexual way, which always flustered him. Which was kind of the joke because she was a very attractive woman and kinda teased him. But, in an early draft, she did get kind of jealous when Milo started hanging out with Kida, so there might have been more than meets the eye. But, we realized that Milo’s relationship with Kida was sort of key to to Milo’s connection to Atlantis and him sorta saving this world. So, there wasn’t enough room left over for the Helga part of it all.
Interviewer: So, when Atlantis was released in 2001, what did you think of the finished project?
Tab: I was very proud of it. I thought it was very cool. I thought we had successfully made a movie that, going all the way back to that Mexican restaurant, was the kind of movie we all wanted to make. I thought we were successful in making that.
The first time I saw the film was at a cast & crew screening and everybody was tired after working on it for four years. But, then I remember, I didn’t go to the premier. I was out of town in Canada. I took my youngest son and three or four of his friends at a local theater in Calgary on opening weekend and sat down with an audience. It was fun seeing all those boys shoving popcorn in their mouths and their eyes were as big as moons seeing something they saw was cool. So, that was the best way for me to have seen the movie, with an audience. So I loved the film. I was very proud of the film. It was awesome.
Interviewer: So when the film came out, what was your reaction to the mixed reception at the time?
Tab: You know, Disney they kind of see their movies, for the most part, as critic proof. They don’t really give a sh*t as long as people show up to see the movie and it makes a hundred million dollars and everybody is having good time. But, in the case of Atlantis, it was a bit of a double whammy because, not only was it not critically received in an overwhelmingly positive way, but a lot of people just didn’t show up for the movie. There are many reasons why, in hindsight, Atlantis didn’t catch fire at the time and make a lot of money for the studio.
But, yeah of course, it was disappointing and it remained disappointing for about 20 years dude. I took responsibility for it and I felt responsible for it to a degree and for the longest time I was convinced that I had written one of Disney’s biggest flops in terms of their animated movies so that was not a pleasant feeling.
Now I may have felt that way but I still loved the movie. You know, over the 20 years since it was released, it kind of faded from my consciousness and the sting of it not being wildly successful goes away. When I thought about it I thought “That was a good movie”. Everybody worked hard and made a really cool and different Disney animated movie. At the end of the day, you have no control over how many people are going to go see it or what anybody else is going to think of it. You make the movie for yourself. You please yourself first and then just hope that it pleases everybody else. That was kind of what we thought when making that movie.
Interviewer: I do apologize if this question irks you a bit, but, what were your thoughts on the accusations of plagiarism? people saying that Atlantis “Stole” from things like Nadia: Secret of Blue Water and Stargate?
Tab: First of all, “stealing”, is a very powerful word, but I guarantee you nothing was stolen. Now this doesn’t mean that I didn’t see Stargate. I was actually on set of Stargate. I hung out with, and knew, those filmmakers. Now does that mean that subconsciously things worked their way into my brain when it came to conceive Milo and this journey to Atlantis? I don’t know. I mean I never saw Nadia. I was never a big anime fan so that was never on my radar. I know Kirk and Gary have said they never saw that. Does that mean that any of the artists on that film may have seen it and were inspired by it? I don’t know. But, at least, at the level we were working on, there was no stealing outright from other movies. But, there was inspiration form other movies.
If you decide to sit down tomorrow and write a movie about explorers going to the center of the earth, there are certain story tropes to that idea and that setup that you would probably use. The key to that is to use them in a way that’s fresh and we haven’t seen before. So when I wrote the crystals, for instance, to me that was cool. That seemed like a legitimate power source and they could use them. I didn’t have them hanging necklaces around their necks in my script. That was something that the artists came up with. I know that image exists in Nadia. I still haven’t seen it, but I am familiar with some of the images people say were similar to Atlantis.
But, you know there’s so much cross pollination. You can look at Stargate and find the inspiration behind that movie in other movies. If you have a bunch of geeks, who are movie lovers of course, they’re gonna write what they loved as kids in story elements. But as the writer for at least, how many drafts before I went on to do Brother Bear, I can unequivocally state that I did not consciously steal anything from any other movie. We were constructing a story that was influenced by other movies. I was never on the set of Stargate and was like “I’m gonna steal that for my movie”. You know, a lot of those things are just tropes man, and you dress them up in different clothing.
Interviewer: So after Atlantis you went onto Brother Bear. How did you become involved with this film?
Tab: I was asked to come aboard Brother Bear by Tom Schumacher at Disney Animation. They had a concept they liked but not a fully fleshed out story. Since they were making it at the animation studio in Orlando, it meant a lot of cross country trips to Disney World.
Interviewer: What was it like working on this film and working on all the different characters like Keani and Koda?
Tab: I had a great time working on Brother Bear. I bonded with the director, Aaron Blaise, immediately as we shared a passion for wildlife, wilderness and native culture, all of which influenced the story of Brother Bear.
Interviewer: When the film finally came out in 2003 what did you think of the finished product?
Tab: I loved the finished film. And still do. Of the four Disney animated films I worked on, this one felt like it was made more for a younger audience, although it had some pretty emotional scenes. My favorite part of the movie is the first 20 minutes, right up and through the transformation scene.
Interviewer: Some people are gonna want me to ask this, have you seen any of the direct-to-video sequels?
Tab: No. That was Disney taking over trying to make it more “Disney”. I wasn’t involved with any of those sequels, I did write a draft for a “Tarzan 2” but they opted for a different direction which I understood why. I didn’t have anything to do with any of the projects they did for Hunchback 2 or Tarzan 2 or Brother Bear 2 or any of the episodes they were doing for that canceled Atlantis show.
So once the feature came out, all the sequels were relegated to the TV division. I’m not saying that division works at a less artists scale, but they don’t have as much money because they mostly made shows. They don’t pump $120 Million into direct-to-video sequels. Everything appeared less than desirable with things like Hunchback 2 because the budget and animation wasn’t there. I was just always happy to work on movies that were getting the A treatment at the feature division.
Interviewer: So looking back at all the films you made all these years later how do you feel that it impacted so many people when they were kids or teenagers and are now adults? How do you feel that millions of people enjoyed your films and have gone memories of them or were perhaps even inspired by them?
Tab: It was kind of an amazing surprise. You know, I had kind of been away from those movies for a while and I wasn’t aware of this fanbase for all the movies. I knew there were people who probably grew up with these movies as kids and looked at them like I had looked at movies I grew up with and thought of fondly. But, I had no clue at the passion.
You know the Facebook pages and the continued enthusiasm of these films from people who are in their 20s and 30s. So it’s just another reason to feel proud that I was able to work on these Disney films that had an impact on young people. I can’t tell you how many people commented or messaged me telling me their stories and that’s gold man. So I was walking around for like 20 years, not knowing that people were so influenced by these movies. That’s been the greatest thing that came out of this. To discover that there was such a huge fanbase for these films. It’s been great interacting with fans. I was a kid once and I would have died to talk to my favorite director or ask them a question, and that’s awesome.
Tab Murphy is still in the writing business today, having worked on the 2011 Batman: Year One film, the 2011 ThunderCats animated series and more, aid is currently working on a project called Galaxy Gas with Kirk Wise. He continues to inspire other writers and loves interacting with his fans. It was fantastic to sit dow with him for a brief time and I wish him the best of luck going forward.
Pirates & Princesses (PNP) is an independent, opinionated fan-powered news blog that covers Disney and Universal Theme Parks, Themed Entertainment and related Pop Culture from a consumer's point of view. Opinions expressed by our contributors do not necessarily reflect the views of PNP, its editors, affiliates, sponsors or advertisers. PNP is an unofficial news source and has no connection to The Walt Disney Company, NBCUniversal or any other company that we may cover.