Harper Lee: Hey, Boo illuminates the phenomenon behind Lee’s first and only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, and the 1962 film version, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Offering an unprecedented look into Lee’s mysterious life, Emmy winning filmmaker Mary McDonagh Murphy (author of Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of To Kill a Mockingbird) interviews Lee’s friends and family, including her centenarian sister Alice, who share intimate recollections, anecdotes and biographical details for the first time: her rise from small-town Alabama girl to famous author, her tumultuous friendship with Truman Capote, and the origin of her most memorable characters: Atticus Finch, his daughter Scout, her friend Dill, and Boo Radley. The documentary also explores the context and history of the novel’s Deep South setting and the social changes it inspired after publication and through the film starring Gregory Peck. Tom Brokaw, Rosanne Cash, Anna Quindlen, Scott Turow, Oprah Winfrey, and others reflect on the novel’s power, influence, popularity, and the ways it has shaped their lives. Lee gave her last interview in 1964 and receded from the limelight.
Bijan Tehrani: My first question one is about your involvement with the series. How did you get involved, and what originally interested you in the film? I recall that you actually wrote and directed as well, is that true?
Mary McDonagh Murphy: I did everything accept the camera work and some of the editing. My adult re-reading of Harper Lee’s first and only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, was a far greater experience than my adolescent reading of the novel, and the book had a much greater impact on me the second time. Even though the film had a great impact on me in my younger years where Scout became a hero of mine, it was really my adult re-reading that pretty much blew me away and I decided, like Scout Finch, to go out and find everything that I could about the novel. Of course when you do that, you find out a lot about the novelist, so that is how it all started. I kept a file and reported, and it was just kind of my curiosity being satisfied. I worked for many years as a producer at CBS news, and I sometimes pitched this as a story. “What about Harper Lee?” I would ask, “She only wrote one novel and it is a classic that continues to sell!” I would suggest doing a story on To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye, two great novels for young readers where both novelists had never published a second time. The answer always was: if you don’t have Harper Lee, then you do not have a news story—which was fair. When I left CBS news to start my own production company, I read the novel again and I began to see that I could do a documentary about the novel—not the novelist— its impact and how it came to be, and that could be the documentary. So from there, I just started reporting, writing, and shooting, and five years later I had a movie.
BT: This book has such an international impact. For example in Iran, I know that it is a book that many people have read. What do you think it is about this book that has kept it relevant after so many years?
MM: I think that there are a couple of things—I can’t think of another novel that has these kinds of indelible characters, this much suspense, this much courtroom drama, and it has an important social message. It is a message that comes across without being preachy, which I think is very important. To Kill a Mockingbird, I believe, still tells a story that we all know is true, and truth and honesty is what generally draws old and young readers to a novel. So anytime there is any kind of intolerance—not just racial—this novel is going to speak to generations of readers.
BT: How much did you research this project?
MM: I had done a fair amount of research in my spare time and I had gathered a file of stuff, which included the work of people who had written about it and other stories about the novel, and then I began to try to piece together a medley of people who could talk to me about the novel’s impact. What I did the most research on was the impact that the novel had on the civil rights movement in this country. The novel appeared in 1960, and that was years before some of the biggest explosions in the civil rights movement. It the lone voice of a young white woman from the Deep South that gave people there a way to question the system and a new way to think about things. It was not a campaign speech and it was a popular book told by the narrator who was, of course, a young girl. So I think it was important, and it can’t be underestimated in terms of the hope and feel that it gave to the civil rights movement. I worked hard to show the context of the country in the year that the novel appeared, and I talked to lots of people involved in the civil right movement and found what I think are the right interviews that made that era come to life.
BT: Some of the best interviews belong to the author’s sister, Alice. How did you go about interviewing the family?
MM: That was really very remarkable that both Harper Lee’s sister Alice and her closest friends in New York City gave me an interview, because they have never sat for a full blown interview, and that was the result of a long period of me sending them samples of what I was doing. Alice Lee is 100 years old now. She is the oldest practicing attorney in the state of Alabama and her life is remarkable and in many ways. I think you could write a book about Alice, and maybe in the second chapter you could start saying, “Oh, by the way, she had this very gifted younger sister…” because her life has been so remarkable on its own. She tutored me on Alabama history and politics; she is a voracious reader and it has been an extraordinary experience to get to know someone like Alice.
BT: The book was like a character in the film, was this intentional?
MM: It wasn’t intentional at first. It is very hard to make a movie about a book, but I wanted the book to be shown and treated with the love and respect that it deserves. I also think that my movie is about the transporting and empowering force of reading.
BT: The film keeps the audience entertained, while it can be challenging for a lot of documentaries to keep audience interested the whole time. How did you go about doing this, and would you explain how you came upon the visual style of the film?
MM: I can’t thank you enough for saying that, because I worked very hard at that. The storytelling and the structure for the film were the most difficult and important parts of what I did and, as you say, when you do a film or a program about a book or an idea, you run the risk of there being a kind of sameness to everything you are doing. I knew I was making a movie and I had to tell a story, so I just divided the film into these sections. Sometimes I wasn’t always sure if they would stack up with one another, but each section told a story and each section had a personal story to go with it. One example is the Hollywood section where we learn about the casting director who has never talked much about it, but in each case you had a central character telling you a personal story. That was also something that I worked very hard on because there were times when I thought that the structure was going to kill me.
BT: What is the next project that you are working on?
MM: I am paying down my debt right now and so I am working on some assorted producing projects. I also work for NBC news occasionally and do magazine pieces for them and I do videos, but my next documentary—once I get out of debt—is going to explore another person who has led a quiet life, is not coming up on 80, and is ready to sit down and leave behind a record for posterity. I am happy to say that it is because she liked this movie so much that she wanted to tape conversations so that they could be left behind.
BT: In many European countries, there are government institutions that give money to filmmakers without them having to pay it back. This makes it possible for them to make projects like this without inheriting immense debt. Don’t you think we should have a system like this here in the states?
MM: There are grants given by some institutions: the National Endowment for the Arts, for instance, funds the Masters Series, which is showing my movie. So, those grants are available, but the process of getting those grants is long and difficult. Unfortunately, even though there are grants available, I just did not happen to get any.
BT: Regardless of that, you made a fantastic film. Thank you for your time!
Watch Harper Lee: Hey, Boo on Monday, April 2 from 9-10 pm on PBS.