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A film about a man condemned to live the same day over and over again doesn't exactly sound like a premise for a box office smash but with Bill Murray in front of the camera and Harold Ramis behind it, anything is possible. Murray plays grouchy weatherman Phil Connors in Groundhog Day (1993), serving out his karmic sentence in the epicenter of the February 2nd festivities in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Andie MacDowell costars as his love interest, with Chris Elliott, Stephen Tobolowsky, and Brian Doyle-Murray appearing in supporting roles. Based on a story by Danny Rubin, the script written by Rubin and Ramis featured some key changes from the original version. For example, the original story starts with Connors already in the middle of his time warp; Ramis insisted on creating a backstory to open the film so that Connor's character is established before the strange occurrence, a move designed to minimize the confusion of moviegoers. Also, Rubin originally envisioned that Connor's same-day experience actually happens for thousands of years, but the film drastically reduced the dj vu quotient!
Some viewers may be surprised to learn that there was no major reason why Groundhog Day was the holiday chosen for the film's backdrop. In an online interview with writer Rubin, he explains: "There were many reasons that Groundhog Day was a good arbitrary choice. It was a good choice because it's in the dead of winter. That made good sense for the story since the main character was stuck in his darkest day. It made sense that the character would come from out of town, and that the character was predicting the weather....It's also an 'unexploited' movie holiday. The reason it became Groundhog Day was that I got the idea right around that time, and I happened to be one of the few people outside Pennsylvania that knew about it." Rubin also didn't see Murray as a good fit for the lead role at first, explaining that, "I wanted a Kevin Kline - someone like that. The studio wanted a big comedian in the center role. I was skeptical. I like Bill Murray's work, but I didn't think he had the acting chops to make it work. Harold [Ramis] told me that [Murray] would be right for the part, and he was right. At that time Bill was starting to take on more meaty roles as an actor, and it came at a good time for him."
The film represented a reunion for Murray and Ramis, who worked together in Caddyshack (1980), Stripes (1981), and Ghost Busters (1984). Apparently, however, there was little love lost between them; Rubin recalls being sent to New York to work with Murray on the script: "...when Ramis phoned him to check in, Murray would shake his head and mouth the words 'I'm not here.' They were like two brothers who weren't getting along, and they were pretty far apart on what the movie was about--Bill wanted it to be more philosophical, and Harold kept reminding him it was a comedy." After filming, the two parted company and - reportedly - haven't spoken since except for incidental exchanges.
Ramis regards Groundhog Day as a pivotal transitional point for Murray as an actor and a person; in a Time magazine article, he states, "In that role he actually got at the edge between the better, higher, gentler Bill and the bad, cranky, dark Bill. He figured out how to project the entirety of himself through character. When we were making the film, I'd launch into some explanation of the scene we were about to do, and he'd say, 'Just tell me-good Phil or bad Phil?'"
The mood between Murray and MacDowell was much more positive by comparison, with crew members recalling their positive chemistry, despite what Ramis called a "strong beauty and the beast quality." In an interview he explained, "She is kind of luminous, you know, I mean she has this perfect skin and a lovely, natural quality, and Bill is, you know, a few miles of rough road there, and yet they looked great together and she seemed to really enjoy him so much."
Playing the hilariously annoying Ned Ryerson, memorable character actor Stephen Tobolowsky remembers that just before filming their scenes together, Murray exclaimed, "The town needs a danish!" and ended up buying hundreds of danish to feed the huge crowd of townspeople watching the filming. The townspeople, incidentally, were not from Pennsylvania at all: the town of Woodstock, Illinois, was used for the shoot instead, due in part to its scenic town square and downtown surroundings. The street spot where Murray repeatedly steps into the puddle actually required the removal of several bricks and is now commemorated by a plaque that reads, "Bill Murray Stepped Here." "Ned's Corner" decorates the area where Phil and Ned first meet. Again. And again.
Displaying other talents, Ramis wrote the lyrics to the song "I'm Your Weatherman," that plays over the beginning and ending credits, and Murray learned enough piano during production to do his own playing.
Additional trivia: MacDowell's character's favorite drink, a sweet vermouth on the rocks, is also the favorite drink of Ramis' wife. And in a fitting display, the actual groundhog used in the film ended up biting Murray. Not once, but twice.
Producer: Trevor Albert, C.O. Erickson, Harold Ramis, Whitney White
Director: Harold Ramis
Screenplay: Danny Rubin, Harold Ramis
Cinematography: John Bailey
Film Editing: Pembroke J. Herring
Art Direction: Peter Landsdown Smith
Music: George Fenton
Cast: Bill Murray (Phil Connors), Andie MacDowell (Rita), Chris Elliott (Larry), Stephen Tobolowsky (Ned Ryerson), Brian Doyle-Murray (Buster Green), Marita Geraghty (Nancy Taylor).
by Eleanor Quin