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Director R.J. Cutler on his documentary series 'Murf the Surf'

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

What happens when a golden boy, in the case of Jack Murphy, a hunky surfer, loses his way after his surfboard business fails? Well, here's how he put it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JACK ROLAND MURPHY: When I got back to Miami is when I met the rascals, and these were all buddies of mine, but now they were dressing pretty sharp. Now, a couple of them had some nice cars. And a couple of them - they had some nice jewelry, and I said, what's going on? Well, we've changed lanes. These guys were all beach boys - guys who worked on the beach, but somewhere along the line, they became jewel thieves.

RASCOE: And so did Jack Murphy, but this isn't some lighthearted 1960s caper. Things get dark - like, murder dark - and then kind of plain weird. "Murf The Surf: Jewels, Jesus And Mayhem In The USA" is the story of Jack Murphy, that surf star who turned to a life of crime from the small-time to - well, look. You going to have to watch it. The documentary series is streaming on MGM+, and we're joined now by director R.J. Cutler. Welcome to the show.

RJ CUTLER: Thank you so much for having me.

RASCOE: So OK - so we have to know, like, what brought Jack Murphy, aka Murf the Surf, and his absolutely wild story into your life. Like, how did you decide to tell this story?

CUTLER: Well, I got a call from my good friends over at Imagine Documentaries, where they had just acquired the rights to Jack's life story as a result of having read an article on the front page of The New York Times that reported that the jewel of India, the fist-sized diamond that he had once stolen from the Museum of Natural History, was going back on display at the museum, and it told the story of what I quickly realized was the very first true crime television superstar in American culture. And this was a story that was on the front pages of the newspaper every day. Everybody knew that Murf and his friends had stolen these diamonds, but the cops couldn't pin it on him. The FBI couldn't pin it on him. And he would thumb his nose. He became an outlaw celebrity. It was crazy, but the other thing was when I read this article in The New York Times, about 20 paragraphs in, it said, oh, and by the way, Murf the Surf was also convicted of murder later on in his life. And I was like, whoa, whoa, wait. Wait, wait, wait. How did that journey happen? What is that story? And so I decided we would make the series. And, boy, the things that we discovered.

RASCOE: Did you know the story of Murf the Surf before you got into this? Like, were you - do you remember some of these things that may have happened with the heist and all that stuff?

CUTLER: I really don't. The jewels were stolen. The Star of India was stolen in the early months of 1964. We just, as a country, started to recover from the assassination of JFK. And I think, in large part, that's why the country was taken by this handsome young gang of thieves. There was - it was a crime we could kind of get our head around in the moment after a crime that was unfathomable.

RASCOE: How did you get Murphy to participate? Because he participates in this - how did you get him to talk to you guys? And, I mean, he says that this documentary isn't a crime story, but it seems like this is a lot of crime.

CUTLER: Oh, there's a lot of crime, and he doesn't want it to be a crime story. He wants it to be a story about a jewel heist and a handsome young guy who found salvation through the Lord. He likes to tell the story in a way that he liked during his lifetime. And he hoped that we would tell this story in a way that skipped the murders in the middle of it. He would say things like, sure, I went bad for a couple of years, but look at my whole life. And it's an interesting spin on events. By the time I met Murf, which was in the final weeks of his life, he was fully on board, but man, he was intent on putting his full spin on the narrative. The results of the series, I think, are something different.

RASCOE: One of the fascinating things about this story is, like, nowadays, when people think of a big heist, they think about, like, hackers and laptops and crack the safe and do other stuff, but this one with Murf the Surf - it really called on the thieves to be athletic and not necessarily, like, breaking through technology.

CUTLER: It's a little bit like "Mission Impossible" and Tom Cruise coming down from the ceiling. That's what these guys were doing. And Murf was a world-class athlete. He was a champion surfer. He was the first person to ever receive a athletic scholarship in tennis to the University of Pittsburgh. He was also going up against the opposite of world-class security.

RASCOE: Yeah.

CUTLER: I mean, it's 1964, and nobody really expected that a bunch of guys would try to climb in through a fifth-story window and rappel down, so security was lax. And there wasn't even an inventory at the museum, so for weeks, they didn't really know what had been stolen.

RASCOE: What did you learn about Jack Murphy? A lot of people who end up doing these sorts of things - they usually have troubled childhoods. And, generally, like, you can almost bet that the father's probably not a very good guy.

CUTLER: Isn't that funny?

RASCOE: Yeah. That's part of Jack Murphy's story, right?

CUTLER: It sure is. You know, we say it's all about daddy. It seems to be the case in all the stories we tell and not just in stories about people who have committed gruesome crimes or people who are larger than life. It often or always goes back to the relationship with the father. And for Jack, there was a deep hole in his heart. And he couldn't get enough, but he also couldn't stay on the right side of the law. But he was charismatic to the point where he could compel followers who, as I say, maybe didn't even think that what he was telling them was the truth. You know, later in his life, he became a man of God. That's how he got out of prison. And he was going to be there longer than you could imagine. The judge wanted them to throw away the key. But he found the Lord, and he started a ministry, and he was released from prison on parole and was a free man. This is such a perfect story for our times. It raises questions about the very nature of truth itself. You know, it - on one hand, we're asked, who are we to doubt this man of faith who was devoted his life to helping so many others? But on the other, it can't help but ask us why we so desperately need to believe in people like Murf, even when we know that they've been looking us in the eye and lying to us.

RASCOE: Ultimately, what you're describing is - once again, it's this kind of classic American outlaw story because there's this mystique, but then there's this idea of redemption. And I guess I do want to ask you, what did you personally make of Murphy's professed spiritual awakening? What do you think of that?

CUTLER: I can't sit in judgment of another man and his faith. It's a deeply personal thing. And Murf helped many, many people through his ministry, and that's part of what makes this so complicated. When you have that power, what do you do with that power? At the same time, he never admitted that he had committed these gruesome, gruesome murders. It's a complicated question. And we aim to kind of look at all the complexities in this series. And also, we aim to look at who it is that receives redemption in our culture and society and how that happens.

RASCOE: That's R.J. Cutler, director of "Murf The Surf: Jewels, Jesus And Mayhem In The USA," streaming on MGM+. Thank you so much for joining us.

CUTLER: My great pleasure. Thank you, guys.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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