Playwright Gregory Murphy is accusing Oscar-winner Emma Thompson of stealing his idea for a film about the life of Victorian philosopher John Ruskin and his wife Effie from a screenplay he sent to Thompson's husband, actor Greg Wise. Murphy penned a lengthy account of his legal wranglings with Thompson and producers over the proposed film, 'Effie,' and its similarities to 'The Countess,' Murphy's play and screenplay about Ruskin.
Murphy contends that Thompson and Wise, who co-wrote 'Effie' with the actress, were sent copies of his play and screenplay through a mutual friend -- the casting director for the West End production of 'The Countess' -- before their screenplay was written and that despite denials, both have read his script. According to Murphy, there are slight differences between the two films, particularly surrounding how the Effie character is portrayed, but they share "time-frame, character development, structure and tone" so closely that it cannot be coincidental.
In the article, Murphy recounts a positive meeting with Thompson at her home in London followed by nearly two years of brokering between lawyers over whom should receive credit for 'Effie''s screenplay. The negotiations recently fell apart, and the parties are now stuck in a protracted legal battle that has 'Effie''s producers seeking to have the screenplay's originality adjudicated by a court in New York so filming can begin this summer.
Murphy says that Thompson's official stance on the similarities between his screenplay and hers are "the result of the fact that both screenplays are based on real events."
The playwright became aware of Thompson and Wise's project in April 2009 when the director of the off-Broadway and West End productions of 'The Countess' contacted a film producer in London to pitch Murphy's screen adaptation of the play. Following a conversation with the producer, the director informed Murphy, "They said they're already doing a film on the subject, called 'Effie,' written by Emma Thompson."
Murphy alleges he had previously sent Wise, though a mutual friend, a copy of his screenplay in hopes that Wise would star as Ruskin.
The playwright met the actress at her home nearly two years ago to discuss the issue. Murphy says he hoped to avoid any sort of legal mess by offering to collaborate with Thompson, who he says was responsive to the idea. The actress, however, told Murphy that she had never seen his play or screenplay for 'The Countess,' a stance she upholds to this day.
After the meeting, lawyers on both sides attempted to negotiate a truce. The first offer was to pay Murphy $10,000 and offer him "special mention and a thank-you in the credits at the end of the film."
Murphy did not respond to the offer and after two months, lawyers for 'Effie' allegedly asked what it would take to settle the case. The playwright wanted paid in the "low six figures and a screenwriting credit." Lawyers for the production at first called the request "quite unacceptable" and "difficult to take seriously"; however, a few months later, Murphy received further correspondence asking how he would like to be credited -- "Screenplay by Emma Thompson, Greg Wise and Gregory Murphy" or "Based upon the play 'The Countess' by Gregory Murphy" -- and making a slightly lower six-figure offer.
His demands met, Murphy believed the experience was behind him until his lawyer informed him that he would not be paid a cent until the film began production. This is not customary in the film industry; writers are typically paid 50 percent at the time of signing and the rest when filming commences.
When Murphy declined the offer because of this, lawyers for the production walked away from negotiations entirely, disavowed all previous negotiations and sought a court order against the playwright.
The case remains open, and Murphy will now have to prove in court that Thompson's film 'Effie' directly plagiarized his play and/or screenplay for 'The Countess.' "I can say from her court papers that she firmly contends that 'Effie' is a fiction created from her imagination and is based on real people and actual historical events," Murphy writes.