Starburst Memories: How To Write Groundhog Day by Danny Rubin

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The rumor is that I wrote Groundhog Day very quickly. That is entirely true, if you don’t count most of it.

‘How To Write Groundhog Day’ by Danny Rubin is part screenwriter’s manual, part personal film-making memoir, and part treasure trove for fans of the 1993 comedy sensation featuring Andie MacDowell. GROUNDHOG DAY was Danny Rubin’s first professional screenplay and the book documents his process, from brainstorming to dealing with writers’ agents, to negotiating with studios on rewrites. Early on in the process with two offers on the table he has to make a decision between a small independent producer and Columbia Pictures backed up by half the cast of GHOSTBUSTERS.

I tried to keep this decision in perspective throughout the script’s development. I chose my creative battles carefully and accepted from the get-go that I had chosen the studio movie and so had to accept the transformation of the screenplay.

howiwrotegroundhogday

In a way he got lucky as director Harold Ramis liked the first draft so much he invited Rubin back for rewrites, when he was under no obligation to do so. So begins a to-and-fro series of revisions between Rubin, Ramis and the studio. The book includes the entire spec script which got him the gig, which is well worth reading in full. Most interesting for Groundhog enthusiasts are the story elements that get dropped, and the ones that Rubin and Ramis fight to keep till the bitter end, for instance:

Begin the begin

Rubin’s early drafts have the film starting somewhere in the middle of the time loops. To the audience, Phil would seem to have gifts of telepathy and foresight, and he’d do inexplicable things like punch Ned Ryerson in the face with no provocation. The explanation for his behaviour would gradually emerge over the first act of the story. As intiguing as this idea sounds, it was pointed out that this structure would rob the audience of the “Day 1” reveal: Phil’s reaction to waking up on that first morning wondering whether the whole town has decided to play a practical joke on him or if he’s just having a nervous breakdown. With Bill Murray in place, these scenes are some of the most fun in the finished film, so it’s difficult to argue with the shift. Also under the original structure the explanation of the loop was largely left to…

Voice-over

…and God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help you. That’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write a voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character.
Brian Cox as Robert McKee, ADAPTATION

Personally I’m almost never a fan, but I don’t want to reawaken the notorious BLADE RUNNER debate here. One interesting thing Rubin’s spec script does with it though: at the very end of the film when Phil is freed from the loop the voice-over is transferred to Rita, indicating that she has become trapped in her own loop centred on the following day. This ending almost entirely ignores Phil’s euphoria and plunges straight back into Rita’s nightmare of waking up with the same guy saying the same irritating things every morning, which fits the more downbeat atmosphere of this version but clearly wouldn’t have sat well in the final film. The decision to start the film at the beginning of the time loops means Rubin and Ramis can scrap the voice-over.

Escape from Punxsutawney

In the final film Phil and his TV crew are forced back into town by the blizzard which has forced the police to close the main road. This is on the very first day, and he makes no attempt on subsequent days to find other means of escape. Realistically this seems strange when Punxsutawney is supposed to represent Phil’s personal idea of hell. In Rubin’s first draft, Phil tries every method and every route to escape. With practice he can find a way to a nearby airport and even manages to make it his mother’s house in Cleveland. While this sequence makes logical sense it doesn’t really seem to add anything. It seems neater to keep Punxsutawney as a self-contained universe.

Explanation for the loop

This is something that apparently the studio pushed hard for, so much so that Ramis had Rubin add a “gypsy curse” flashback to the shooting script to placate them. Thankfully Ramis seems to have never had any intention of shooting it. It is dreadful. Of his own volition, Rubin initially has Phil keep an exact count of the number of days he spends in Punxsutawney by reading one page a day from the bookshelf in the bed & breakfast. He abandoned this idea when the studio balked at Phil spending longer than about two weeks in the loop because “it was just too much for the audience to handle”. The easiest way to win this debate was to get rid of any definitive calendar, although clearly to get good at piano playing, ice sculpting and French we’re talking decades rather than weeks, as per Rubin’s original estimates.

The style of the book shares the considerable charm of the film, and is more revealing than a whole extra disc of DVD extras. You can download it now on Kindle for around a fiver.

2 responses to “Starburst Memories: How To Write Groundhog Day by Danny Rubin

  1. It sounds like a fascinating read (I’ve downloaded it to the kindle).

    Groundhog Day Week has been great! You’ve even inspired Dom to rethink his Bill Murray aversion.

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