Prior to 1993, it might have been hard to describe a time loop to someone in the general public. Now, you just have to say 7 little words: “It’s a Groundhog Day type of situation.” On its surface, a goofy 90s comedy where Bill Murray drives a truck off a cliff might sound like a good bit of mindless fun, but it’s so much more. It’s a sweet romance. It’s an understated exploration of morality, death, and spirituality. It’s a brain-bending science fantasy. But considering the love behind the making of this movie, it’s not hard to see how it came to do all those things.
Danny Rubin was a struggling screenwriter in the early 90s, never quite picking up the momentum he needed. Left to pursue his own projects, he developed an idea that had been kicking around even before he left Chicago for Los Angeles: “If a person could live long enough, would they ever change?” He fell in love with the script he wrote, and eventually, it attracted the attention of Harold Ramis and Columbia Pictures. Ramis, for those not familiar, was a big name in comedy, directing Caddyshack and National Lampoon’s Vacation in addition to appearing as Egon Spengler, Ghostbuster.
However, Rubin’s script, though very clever and funny, was an awkward fit for a mainstream comedy. Phil Conners, the protagonist, very clearly spent tens of thousands of years in the time loop, enough time to make him more than a normal mortal man and leave him icily isolated from the rest of the world. The script had no setup, instead plunking us years into the time loop and leaving Phil’s narration to catch us up. Maybe most difficult was the darker ending, which saw Phil freed from the time loop, but trapped Rita in an endless cycle of February 3rds. The overall effect was something much darker and more contemplative.
Ramis, and once he was cast, Bill Murray, worked with Rubin to retain the special aspects of the script while making it funnier and more heartwarming. They played up the romance with Rita, and made the length of the time loop more unclear but definitely shorter- Harold Ramis said he wanted it to feel like 10 years. Bill Murray’s inclusion also made Phil’s character crustier, but more charismatic, and a lot of Phil’s lines ended up being improvised (because of course, Bill Murray). The studio also asked Rubin to provide a reason for Phil’s day to be repeating over and over again, but he felt this would ruin what was special about the story and was better off unexplained. Ramis agreed, and never shot the explanation scene Rubin was forced to write.
This kind of collaboration carried to the set, where Ramis worked to keep everyone involved and dedicated to making the movie better. Stephen Tobolowsky, as the unstoppably annoying Ned Ryerson, had to shoot his brief scenes several times for weather-related reasons, so he kept Bill Murray on his toes by improvising a different monologue every day. Andie MacDowell asked to speak in her natural South Carolina accent. Most famously, in the penultimate scene where Phil finally wakes up on February 3rd, in bed with Rita, the major creatives could not come to a decision on whether they would be dressed or not. Harold Ramis put the choice to a vote amongst the entire crew, a strong tie that was finally broken by the impassioned plea of a set decorator- they would be chastely clothed.
The film was a success on release, ranking in the top 15 movies of 1993 and getting a generally good critical reception. Time has built Groundhog Day into a special American treasure. It’s movie that, not surprisingly, rewards a lot of rewatching; and like Phil Conners, the more you put in, the more you get out. Philosophers and religious writers of all stripes have embraced the movie and used it to illustrate their beliefs about humanity. Some mushy-gushy romantics (among which I number) look to the Phil-Rita relationship as a charming but realistic love story that shows that attraction is part science, part hard work, and part magic. And of course, the movie is really damn funny. Every other phrase out of Bill Murray’s mouth is worthy of quotation.
But most of all, I think the unending fascination with Groundhog Day comes from its empowering message about life. And since I’ve been singing his praises all article long, I think I’ll let Danny Rubin have the last word on that: “The absolutely worst day of Phil’s life took place under the exact same conditions as the absolutely best day of Phil’s life. The best day and the worst day were the same day… The only difference was Phil himself, what he noticed, how he interpreted his surroundings, and what he chose to do… Phil has the power to change other people’s lives. It’s not just whether or not he catches the kid falling out of the tree. A smile or a kind word and a sense of excitement… all can effect the people around him and change the nature of his own environment.”
“His existence isn’t neutral in the world… The world changed because Phil changed. That means the difference between a good day and a bad day may not be the day, but the way we approach the day.”
“Through The Projector Lens” is a feature celebrating classic, unforgettable movies that have stood the test of time. If you would like to see a film featured, let us know in the comments! If you’ve got any Groundhog Day memories, we’d love to hear those too! (Oh, and if you want more stories about the writing of the movie, look up Danny Rubin’s fantastic e-book How To Write Groundhog Day.)
All images credit of: Sony Pictures