Going back to ‘Groundhog Day’... again
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NEW YORK, March 20 — Bill Murray was in one of his moods. It was 1992, and he was shooting the comedy Groundhog Day in Woodstock, Illinois. To keep people from talking with him between takes, he blasted music from a boombox he carried around; that day’s selection was Talking Heads. A young actor making his movie debut, Michael Shannon (now a two-time Oscar nominee), made the mistake of saying to Murray: “You like Talking Heads? They’re my favourite band.”
Murray told him in no uncertain terms that yes, he liked Talking Heads, and that he wouldn’t be playing Talking Heads if he didn’t like Talking Heads. Crestfallen, Shannon became convinced that he would be fired from his small role. The film’s co-writer and director, Harold Ramis, took him aside and shot pool with him, reassuring him that was just Bill being Bill.
“Bill is a bit like a wild animal,” Trevor Albert, a producer of the film, said in a recent phone interview. “You don’t know what you’re going to get from him when he comes into a room. That’s part of his genius.”
Groundhog Day was Ramis’ sixth film with Murray, following hits like Caddyshack, Stripes and Ghostbusters. It would also be their last film together, as it created a rift between the men that would last more than 20 years. The origin of Murray’s bad feelings remained unclear to Ramis. “With no feedback or clue from him, it’s this kind of tantalising mystery,” Ramis said in 2009. (He died at 69 in 2014.) “And that may be the point.” The elusive Murray, as is his custom, did not respond to an interview request.
Of course, Groundhog Day has become a beloved classic, even earning a spot on the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2006. Now it has been turned into a Broadway musical (in previews March 16), with a book by Danny Rubin, a co-writer of the film. To mark the occasion, I spoke with Rubin and Albert as well as the film’s co-stars Andie MacDowell and Stephen Tobolowsky about its making.
— A first-time screenwriter, Rubin had written a script about Phil Connors, a grumpy weatherman assigned to cover the Groundhog Day festivities in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. While there, he becomes trapped in an inexplicable time loop and relives the same day over and over. Albert recommended the script to his producing partner, Ramis, and they tried to persuade Murray to take the lead role.
Trevor Albert: Bill’s reaction was positive, but he is whimsical and challenging. He came into our office in LA to talk about it. He got up and said, “Guys, walk with me.” We walked out to the parking lot, and he got into his Maserati. He started the engine and slowly started to drive away. He finally said, “OK, I want to do it,” then drove off into the night.
Danny Rubin: When I heard Harold had cast Bill, my thinking was, “Oh, they’re not taking my movie seriously.” I was already 30, and the films Harold and Bill had made together were for younger people — sort of adolescent, popcorn-chomping Saturday-afternoon comedy. Everyone around me was excited for me. I was just sceptical.
— While Ramis was in preproduction in Illinois, Rubin was sent to New York City to work on the script with Murray.
Albert: It felt like it needed to be bigger and broader, with a little more weight. Turning a screenplay into a US$30 million (RM133 million) movie, you can’t just make it for yourself.
Rubin: I knew there was tension between Bill and Harold. Whether it was creative wasn’t clear. Harold would call to talk to him, and Bill would look at me and mouth the words, “I’m not here.”
— With MacDowell cast as Phil’s love interest, news producer Rita Hanson, and Tobolowsky as his foil, the annoying insurance salesman Ned Ryerson, the movie went into production during the bone-chilling Midwestern winter.
Andie MacDowell: Brian Doyle-Murray (Bill’s brother, who played the town’s mayor) and I put a little peppermint schnapps in our hot chocolate. Not enough to get drunk but just enough to warm us up.
Stephen Tobolowsky: It was so cold, it felt like we were in an Army experiment. Bill was not a happy camper, especially when he had to keep stepping into an icy puddle.
— Murray became an even unhappier camper after shooting a driving scene with a groundhog, which took a bite out of his hand. “The groundhog hated my guts from Day 1,” he later said.
Tobolowsky: It was the talk of the town. Various people were pro and con. Some said, “Serves him right.” Others said, “Gosh, that’s horrible — they ought to put it down.”
Albert: I don’t recommend people get groundhogs as pets. They’re not warm and cuddly.
— Murray and Ramis often didn’t see eye-to-eye. Before shooting the movie’s last scene, which begins with Phil and Rita waking up in bed after a romantic night, the star instigated a debate about what his character should be wearing.
Tobolowsky: Harold said, “That’s a great question — why don’t we put it up to a vote?” He asked everyone on the crew, “Is Phil naked or wearing his clothes from the night before?” It was a tie, and it came down to the vote of an assistant set dresser working on her first movie. She said: “He’s absolutely wearing his clothes. If you do anything else, you’ll ruin the movie.”
MacDowell: Harold preferred to think it was unimportant whether we slept together. It was more important that we had feelings for each other.
— Murray’s feelings about Ramis weren’t evident to everyone on the set.
MacDowell: If there was something going on, I was completely unaware of it. It was always very pleasant. It’s probably more myth than truth, I hope. I would hate for them not to be friends.
Tobolowsky: A lot of times, Bill was a tough customer. He was difficult and thorny, but only in support of his character and how the scene was being shot.
Albert: The conflicts between Bill and Harold were creative. I don’t think it was personal. Bill had to play a nonlinear, complex progression of his character. That was not easy. The movie is all Bill in many ways. So the pressure was on him — and on Harold to make sure it worked.
— Despite (or perhaps because of) their clashes, Groundhog Day emerged after its February 1993 release as a widely acclaimed and instantly popular movie. Upon first viewing, Rubin wasn’t sure it would be.
Rubin: I didn’t feel like they had nailed the originality I was going for. Seeing it for a second time with an audience, I realised people were actually getting it, and then the fan mail started coming in. I was like, “OK, Harold didn’t kill the goose.” In fact, he quite brilliantly satisfied the studio, himself and me. To do those three things is no easy task.
MacDowell: Sometimes you have conflicts on a movie like this, and it makes it what it is. One person fights for one thing, and one person fights for another thing, and it gets there.
Albert: In the heat of the creative process, people are passionate. Both Harold and Bill had very strong feelings about what we were doing. We all realised the movie had great potential. Whatever the conflicts were in the creative process, they got worked out.
Tobolowsky: All I know is the movie got made — and made well. There didn’t seem to be any compromises from Harold’s point of view.
— More than just a critical and commercial success, “Groundhog Day” grew into a film that fans watch over and over, finding new and deeper meaning with each viewing.
Rubin: The letters I would get weren’t just, “Thank you for a very funny movie.” They were, “I’m a priest from Germany” or “I’m a psychologist” or “I teach philosophy, and this movie sums up my belief system.”
Albert: Buddhists saw a lot of Buddhism in it. Jews saw the spirit of mitzvah. It had a broader appeal than just entertainment.
MacDowell: It gives people the idea that you can learn lessons and get better. All of us would like to live days over. It’s on the level of It’s a Wonderful Life.
Tobolowsky: It’s the new Wizard of Oz, the film about the human condition that makes us laugh while telling a very profound story.
Albert: It’s set in a time and place nonspecific enough that it still feels relevant now. We wanted it to have a fable quality. Maybe that’s why it has sustained itself.
— Not long before Ramis died of autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis, Murray visited his old friend, with whom he’d barely spoken in two decades. What was said has not been revealed. But after Ramis died, Murray released a statement: “Harold Ramis and I together did The National Lampoon show off Broadway, Meatballs, Stripes, Caddyshack, Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day. He earned his keep on this planet. God bless him.” — The New York Times