Danny Rubin on “Groundhog Day”

“Groundhog Day” screenwriter Danny Rubin. Courtesy of Francis Donald.

“Groundhog Day” screenwriter Danny Rubin. Courtesy of Francis Donald.

Since its release in February of 1993, Harold Ramis’s comic masterpiece, “Groundhog Day,” has proven to be the sort of cinematic treasure that reaps bountiful rewards on repeat viewings, thus causing cinephiles to revisit it again and again…and again. The film showcases a career-defining performance from Bill Murray as Phil Conners, a narcissistic weatherman cursed with reliving the same day over and over. The worse news is that the day of choice happens to be Phil’s coverage of the thoroughly inconsequential Groundhog Day festivities in Punxsutawney, PA. Conners goes through various stages of grief before deciding to use his cosmic imprisonment as an opportunity to better himself, and possibly win the heart of a sweetly alluring news producer (Andie MacDowell).

Writer Danny Rubin dreamed up the film’s original concept, and co-wrote the script with Ramis, which subsequently won the BAFTA for Best Original Screenplay and has inspired legions of filmmakers (David O. Russell told The Guardian that he would’ve given his left arm to have written it). In addition to teaching screenwriting at various universities, Rubin is currently writing the book for a stage adaptation of “Groundhog Day,” with songs by Tim Minchin. Stephen Sondheim was originally attached to the project and has given it his blessing.

On the eve of his appearances at the Groundhog Days events held this weekend in Woodstock, IL (which portrayed Punxsutawney during the 1992 film shoot), Rubin chats with Indie Outlook about his classic script. When I warned him that Woodstock is still frozen in 1992, he replied, “They’ll find out that I’m frozen in 1992 as well.”

Q: What was the germ of inspiration and how did it blossom into the film’s ingenious structure?

Danny Rubin (DR): I swear that it just started as a brainstorm. I was looking for film ideas and came up with a whole bunch of them. That was one of them, and it took me about two or three years to get to it. My agent asked me to come up with something kind of quickly so that I could have something to show people. I started to invent this story about immortality that asked whether one lifetime was enough for the people who just can’t quite grow up. I thought that I would give a character more than one lifetime to live and see what happens. Then I saw how cumbersome of an idea that was, but I realized that you can have immortality if you just kept repeating the same day. That’s when I knew that I had a movie.

Q: I’d put your film in the same league as “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “A Christmas Carol” and “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Did any of these serve as influences?

DR: When I was coming up with what movie should be showing at the local movie house, the movie that I chose in the original script was “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It wasn’t a self-reflexive choice in any way. I noticed that the film happened to be on every time you turned on the TV, particularly around Christmas time. It struck me as funny that the only movie playing in Punxsutawney would be one that the characters had seen a million times already. When we were going through production rewrites, it became clear that our film actually did have some similarities to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and we didn’t want to draw too much attention to them.

Q: It makes sense for “It’s a Wonderful Life” to be playing on a loop in the Punxsutawney of your script, since it’s the sort of small town that Frank Capra would’ve loved, whereas Phil Conners sees it as the seventh circle of hell.

DR: That is exactly why that choice made so much sense.

Q: How did your vision of Punxsutawney match with Woodstock, IL?

DR: I think in the end, it all came down to having a town center with a square and gazebo. If you’re at the center of town, it feels like a contained space. In order for Phil to feel like he’s exhausted this town very quickly, you need to feel that sense of exhaustibility. We already see the main sites early on, and it’s easy to see why Phil would get sick of them. That makes it much more claustrophobic, which is important. The real Punxsutawney is set up on a main street, and doesn’t have that same sense of enclosure. Gobbler’s Knob is off on a hill, and it’s not even at the center of town. It made much more sense for it to be a town like Woodstock.

Q: Was the character of Phil Conners tailored to fit Bill Murray’s comic persona, or did that occur during your collaboration with Harold Ramis?

DR: That happened through my collaboration with Harold and also through the casting of Bill. I had imagined the original character as a little bit younger, maybe in his mid-20s rather than his 40s. He would have that young man arrogance at the beginning as opposed to being stuck in his life. He was a very similar character, but I think he was a little bit closer to an Englishman—not really English, but he had that certain sense of polite detachment instead of a full-on engagement. It was a slightly more polite script. [laughs] It was a little more whimsical and a little less comedic.

Q: I think the film’s restraint is part of what made it such a hit with British audiences. Hollywood would force a supernatural explanation upon the premise, but you resisted it.

DR: When I was writing the film, I figured that we would need some sort of explanation, and I was picking through all the ideas: a machine, a curse, an atmospheric anomaly. There are all sorts of Hollywood-type tropes that could’ve been used, but when I was picking through them, I realized how stupid and arbitrary it all was. I asked why we even needed one at all, and that [absence] really appealed to me. In a way, it totally reinforces our experience of waking up every morning and going through the same routines.

No one is telling you what the rules are, you kind of have to figure it out, and that lack of an explanation seemed to parallel our own situation a lot more. I think that’s part of what gave the film its resonance and existential flavor. It also kept it from being a trivial Hollywood movie. If there were a device that had gotten him into it, it would’ve been necessary to have the plot be about Phil having to overcome that device. It makes the film be about the plot, rather than something much more interesting. What would happen to someone if they were stuck in the same day? It’s not about how it happened, it’s about, “What are you going to do now that it’s happening?”

Q: What responsibility do artists have to their audience? When I interviewed Harold, he told me, “The danger with all popular entertainment is that it’s trivial and forgettable, and has no real reason to be there, other than to waste your time.”

DR: [laughs] That’s so right! We see how much money and time and expertise and brilliance gets put into every piece of s—t that comes out of Hollywood. It’s a little depressing, and I think that people get cynical about movies because there doesn’t seem to be any necessity to have anything interesting to say. After a while, it just becomes numbing. Having a respect for the audience is a good place to start. You also have to consider how much time and energy it takes to write one of these things. If that’s how I’m spending my life, I personally want to be involved in something that’s enriching my life as well. I want to be investigating issues that are of interest to me that I hope will be of interest to someone else out there.

Q: Your film has often been compared to the work of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who believed that change can arise from repetition. Could that same philosophy be applied to screenwriting?

DR: Absolutely. It’s also true regarding the rhythms of writing a screenplay. It’s like taking a journey and it goes through certain passages that become familiar. Here’s where I’m very excited and I’m sure this script will be a hit, and here’s where it all falls apart and I wonder if I’m ever going to be a writer again. It goes through these different phases that become more manageable once you’ve been through them before. You recognize them and realize that you will be able to get through them. That act of rarefaction—getting everything finer and more economical and closer to the core of truth—is definitely what screenwriting is about.

Danny Rubin will introduce “Groundhog Day” at The Woodstock Theatre, 209 Main Street, Woodstock, IL, before the 10am show on Saturday, February 1st. Rubin’s eBook, “How to Write Groundhog Day,” is currently available for purchase. For more info on Rubin, visit his official site.

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