In Memory of HARPER LEE * May you fly and rest in peace
Mary McDonagh Murphy is an independent documentary director and writer whose work has appeared on PBS. She was a producer at CBS News for 20 years where she won 6 Emmy® Awards.
She has written for Newsweek, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Post and Publishers Weekly. A native of Rhode Island, Murphy is a graduate of Wesleyan University and was a John S. Knight fellow at Stanford University.
Reading To Kill a Mockingbird is something millions of us have in common. Filmmaker and author Mary McDonagh Murphy explores in her documentary-film HEY BOO the novel’s enduring power and popularity, in interviews with Tom Brokaw, Wally Lamb, James Pattterson, Anna Quindlen, Oprah Winfrey and others. With rare cooperation from Harper Lee’s family and friends, and never-before-seen documents and photos, Murphy tells the story behind a novel that became an American classic and made Harper Lee immortal.
WONDERLANCER: Mary, thank you so much for participating in this interview. Before Your Eyes, one of your CBS News primetime documentaries, chronicled the choice faced by three women on the deportation proceedings against their respective husbands for being former members of the IRA.
Did any of the insights from these families’ particular perspectives, during the making of the documentary, surprise you at any point?
MARY MCDONAGH MURPHY: The three American women at the heart of that story married Irish men with criminal backgrounds. They came to their own conclusions about what happened and why. When I travelled to Northern Ireland and interviewed the victims of the crimes, two of the American wives, Colleen Gaynor and Patricia Megahey, were furious. I had to absorb their fury and explain why I pursued the interviews. My job was to tell the story. Their job was to win an argument and keep their husbands and the fathers of their children in the United States. I think it’s good for any journalist to have to confront what his or her reporting does to people.
WONDERLANCER: Cry for Help, which aired nationally on PBS, tackled the important issue of the proliferation of cases of depression and anxiety in adolescents, leading to alarming statistics of suicidal youths every year. You wanted to give a voice to the youth and let them be the ones that told us about their feelings and struggles, and their perspective on mental illness. From their accounts and your own perspective, would you be able to pinpoint the main causes to this proliferation of cases in so many countries?
MARY MCDONAGH MURPHY: There are many different causes. I think teenagers need to be heard
and know they have adults they can confide in.
WONDERLANCER: You have also worked on projects for the Associated Press, such as the documentary Digital Day, narrated by Tom Brokaw, which analyses the Internet’s impact on the newspaper industry. Do you foresee an end to printed press? What’s your opinion on the proliferation of new independent digital media worldwide and the few countries that “regulate” internet access?
MARY MCDONAGH MURPHY: While it seemed unimaginable ten years ago, I now think it is entirely possible there will not be printed newspapers, or only a few. I also think there’s still the need for good reporting, no matter what the delivery system.
WONDERLANCER: In HEY BOO: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird you delve into the importance that this Pulitzer Prize novel has had, for generations of Americans, on the subjects of racism, prejudice and injustice. Author HARPER LEE did not do another single interview since 1964, but through your research and the rare interviews with the author’s sister and friends, you have managed to re-create the scenario surrounding the writing of the novel, its characters, and the facts that inspired it.
To Kill a Mockingbird was published just before the biggest explosion of the Civil Rights’ movements and the story itself was set around three years during the Great Depression. More than 50 years later the novel is, sadly, still relevant. In your opinion, what parallelisms could we draw between Lee’s world and our current world?
MARY MCDONAGH MURPHY: If tolerance of people or persuasions is absent, then To Kill a Mockingbird tells a story we know is true. I expect it will be read for quite a bit longer.
WONDERLANCER: Indeed. As your documentary-film explores, To Kill A Mockingbird transcends racial and prejudice issues, for it also serves, through Scout’s very personality, as a reflection on the inequality raised between sexes throughout history. Women of great influence nowadays, such as Oprah Winfrey, also interviewed in this documentary-film, was deeply touched by To Kill a Mockingbird and all the ideals the novel stands for.
From your own experience, what has it been like to be a woman during your producing career in News and why are so many women still fighting a battle for their equality in most societies?
MARY MCDONAGH MURPHY: I am fortunate to have an Atticus-like father who was accepting and encouraging of who I wanted to be and so I did not spend a lot of time thinking about what girls were supposed to be doing. I’ve had my fair share of skirmishes in the news business and I support all independent thinking women, wherever they are.
WONDERLANCER: The public is going to discover a great deal about this classical novel and its author, as well as the true scope of its influence, through Hey Boo, but we’d love to know how and why you chose to work on this project and in what ways you think it has shaped your own life.
MARY MCDONAGH MURPHY: To Kill a Mockingbird’s narrator, Scout Finch, is a big hero of mine. In the 30s, she had more freedom than most women in the 60s. She wore pants, played with boys, swore and spoke her mind. She knew exactly who she was and I was sure she’d grow up to be a writer. All of that made a big difference to me.
WONDERLANCER: Gregory Peck will always be remembered as Atticus Finch, won’t he?
MARY MCDONAGH MURPHY: Yes. It is a magnificent performance in a magnificent movie.
WONDERLANCER: Again, thank you so much for your time.
- Below, the link to purchase HEY BOO and other DVDs and books by Mary Murphy on Amazon and iTunes with discount, for all the fans of Harper Lee’s work out there.