Going Back to ‘Groundhog Day.’ Again.


Of course, “Groundhog Day” has become a beloved classic, even earning a spot on the Library of Congress’s 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 Mr. Rubin and Mr. Albert as well as the film’s co-stars Andie MacDowell and Stephen Tobolowsky about its making.

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Groundhog Day

A cynical weatherman finds himself living the same day over and over when he reluctantly travels with his crew to Punxatawney, Pa. to cover Groundhog Day festivities.


By Sony Pictures Home Entertainment on Publish Date December 23, 2014.


Photo by Columbia Pictures.

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A first-time screenwriter, Mr. Rubin had written a script about Phil Connors, a grumpy weatherman assigned to cover the Groundhog Day festivities in Punxsutawney, Pa. While there, he becomes trapped in an inexplicable time loop and relives the same day over and over. Mr. Albert recommended the script to his producing partner, Mr. Ramis, and they tried to persuade Mr. 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 L.A. 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, “O.K., 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 skeptical.

Photo

Andie MacDowell and Mr. Murray in the movie.

Credit
Columbia Pictures

While Mr. Ramis was in preproduction in Illinois, Mr. Rubin was sent to New York City to work on the script with Mr. Murray.

ALBERT It felt like it needed to be bigger and broader, with a little more weight. Turning a screenplay into a $30 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 Ms. MacDowell cast as Phil’s love interest, the news producer Rita Hanson, and Mr. 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.

Mr. 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.”

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Stephen Tobolowsky, who played the insurance salesman Ned Ryerson.

Credit
Columbia Pictures

ALBERT I don’t recommend people get groundhogs as pets. They’re not warm and cuddly.

Mr. Murray and Mr. 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.

Mr. Murray’s feelings about Mr. 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, Mr. 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 realized people were actually getting it, and then the fan mail started coming in. I was like, “O.K., 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.

Photo

Mr. Murray and friend behind the wheel.

Credit
Columbia Pictures

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 realized 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 Mr. Ramis died of autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis, Mr. Murray visited his old friend, with whom he’d barely spoken in two decades. What was said has not been revealed. But after Mr. Ramis died, Mr. 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.

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