Longtime readers of this blog know that today we traditionally celebrate the classic American comedy Groundhog Day, but this year is... different. Today (cue jazz band and break out the ice sculptures), screenwriter Danny Rubin is publishing his new e-book, How to Write Groundhog Day.
Yes, that's right: Long-awaited even if you didn't know you were waiting for it, this is the book that tells you everything you've ever wanted to know about how this beloved masterpiece came to be. The book is full of insightful info, it includes a masssively annotated version of Danny's original draft (differences between his version and the finished film are a fascination in itself), and it is, of course, funny as hell. Questions about all things Phil are answered, so hie thee to this link and get yourself a copy - especially because February 2nd, it's on discount sale. Today is The Day.
Ever since writer Rubin, director Harold Ramis, and star Bill Murray created what's now generally acknowledged as one of the great American movies of all time, February 2nd has become synonymous with romance and comedy. In fact, when people ask me to name a couple of my favorite romantic comedies, this one invariably comes to mind.
What, you've never thought of this cinematic classic as a romantic comedy? For shame. I have it on unassailable authority that the film qualifies. For starters, it says so right on the DVD box's cover ("A romantic comedy fantasy that is Bill Murray's best screen performance" -- Gene Shalit). But look up the definition of romantic comedy in the definitive text on same, and you'll find (p.12) that "a romantic comedy is a comedy whose central plot is embodied in a romantic relationship" and that (p.13) "the central question posed by a romantic comedy is: 'Will these two individuals become a couple?'"
As you well know, when TV weatherman Phil Connors (Murray) gets inexplicably trapped in the same repeating February 2nd, his sole recourse to getting out of it becomes the object of his affections, producer Rita (Andie MacDowell); his salvation lies in the answer to their coupling question. (Screenwriting theorist sticklers may point out that the story's central question is really, Will Phil ever get out of February 2nd? To this I say, also true, because the movie is a rom-com hybrid -- ibid, pp.21-28 -- a romantic comedy/high concept fantasy, and thus the couple/escape conflicts are intertwined. But let's stop boring our civilian readers, shall we? Thanks.)
Strange but true, there still exist deprived people who have not seen the movie Groundhog Day. If you are one of those poor souls, what better opportunity to improve the quality of your life, than to view it on the official Day itself? And even if you're one of the many enriched individuals who's seen it, this is a movie that you can watch over and over, and over, and over...
Major Groundhog Day fans might even consider journeying to the scene of the crime: the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania is having its annual celebration, and it promises to be quite a hoot. Such a trip was actually enjoyed by Day's writer and star before the movie was made, and therein lies a tale that speaks, I believe, to the true spirit of romance, or as we might say, what love's got to do with it.
Danny Rubin recounts the following in his illuminating interview accompanying an early draft of the screenplay in Scenario (Spring '95 issue, regrettably out of print). He talks of having been hired, fired and re-hired to work on the script, and when he, his wife Louise and kids were preparing to move from Los Angeles to New Mexico, getting a call from Bill Murray:
He says, "Do you realize that the day after tomorrow is Groundhog Day?"--"Yep."--"And do you realize that between the director, the producer, the star and the writer of this film, nobody has been to the festival at Punxsutawney? Doesn't that seem wrong to you?" And I said, "Absolutely. And I think you should go, I think that will be a great thing." And he said, "I think we should go." And I said, "Bill, that's a really nice offer, sounds like fun, but I'm moving, I'm moving my family, we're up to our necks in boxes, I can't just abandon them and go off to Punxsutawney." And he said, "Well, think about it and call me back. Here's my number." When I got off the phone, Louise asked who it was. "Bill Murray," I said. "He wants me to go to Punxsutawney tomorrow." And she said, "Cool." And I said I'd told him I couldn't do it. She said, "Are you nuts?" So I talked to [the studio] and they said, "We'll pay for the move, we'll get someone to help pack, we'll fly out a friend of your wife's to help her move in so you don't have to be there."
This level of support was very nice, and I embarked on the most surreal adventure of my professional life. All of a sudden I'm flying in a private plane from the middle of nowhere to the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night with Bill Murray and we're talking about the script. We landed somewhere near Punxsutawney at 2:00 in the morning. And there were fans out there waiting for him--it was supposed to be a secret...
Rubin goes on to say that he used a lot of what he saw there in the script. He'd originally spoken to the town's Chamber of Commerce and looked at their literature, but:
After we actually saw it, there was a whole different feel to it than we had imagined. It was delightful, really delightful--a wonderful civic event. We incorporated a lot of that into the movie... Everyone there knew it was a goofy ritual--it was almost sophisticated in its hickyness. What was so much fun about the festival is, it's the middle of the night, zero degrees, they've got bonfires going--and they're playing Beach Boys music.
Sometimes I read this excerpt to a screenwriting class when I'm talking about the inestimable value of research, to illustrate how really being there can make all the difference in writing a given project. But I quote it now in this pre-Valentine's Day context to highlight my favorite moment in Rubin's story, which is when Louise says, "Are you nuts?"
I just love that! Gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling every time, because it seems to me that Danny Rubin's wife is the hidden heroine of the Groundhog Day saga. Love doesn't mean never having to say you're sorry. It means having someone be able to say "Are you nuts?!" to you at a crucial moment. Love is sometimes about saving loved ones from themselves -- which come to think of it, is kind of at the core of what the movie ended up being about, don't you think?
Go watch it again, again, and see if you agree.
Spending my days believing in impossible things and chasing them towards an inner truth, now that's a pretty good gig.