‘Groundhog Day’ Hits 30: Comedy’s Team on “Tense” Shoot, Bill Murray Tapping Into “Dark Side”
When director Harold Ramis and producing partner Trevor Albert stumbled upon the screenplay for Groundhog Day, no one knew it would become a film that viewers would (voluntarily) watch over and over.
Having followed National Lampoon’s Vacation with 1986’s underperforming Club Paradise, Ramis wanted his next project to aim outside the box. CAA’s Richard Lovett tipped him off to Danny Rubin’s spec script for a philosophical comedy about jaded TV weatherman Phil Connors, who gets snowbound covering the Groundhog Day festival in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania; he soon finds himself unable to stop reliving the titular holiday.
“I don’t remember much about what I was doing 30 years ago — or three years ago — but I remember sitting down and reading that script, and by the time I got to page 20, yelling to Harold, ‘I think I have a script you’re gonna want to read,’” Albert tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And that’s how we found an unexpected gem.”
Ramis considered several stars for the lead, including Tom Hanks and Michael Keaton. Rubin explains that Hanks was one of his initial suggestions because he was afraid that a comedian type would “fall into their schtick,” but that the actor turned down the part. Ultimately, the role went to Bill Murray, Ramis’ longtime collaborator on such films as Caddyshack and Ghostbusters.
Albert recalls that Murray appeared to be in a tough place at the time, and a rift developed between star and director. “It was a tense shoot for a number of reasons,” says Albert, given the conflicts between the pair. “It was unfortunate and probably made the movie considerably less fun to make. But you can still make a very good movie when people are not in perfect harmony.”
Andie MacDowell, who played producer Rita Hanson, tells THR that it was the favorite of her films and praises Murray for delivering lines in ways that were “always fresh.” She adds, “He’s in touch with that dark side. He really used it to play this character, and he pulled it out in so many ways.”
The actress explains that she stands by her decision to not put a heavy focus on delivering laughs. “My job was to play it straight to Bill — that was my choice,” MacDowell says. “I wasn’t looking to make people laugh. I was always responding to him as, ‘This is earnest and believable, and this is who I am.’ My humor was playing it straight, and I don’t regret doing it that way.”
After the trying shoot that included bitterly cold temperatures, Groundhog Day impressed critics upon its release, with THR’s review touting “Ramis’ even-handed, smartly tilted direction.” Released by Columbia on Feb. 12, 1993, the film earned $70.9 ($143.6 million today) and won a BAFTA for original screenplay. The movie has become even more beloved over the years, with the title having entered the lexicon as a tedious sense of déjà vu.
Cinematographer John Bailey credits the director, who died in 2014, for its unique balance of heart and laughs. As Bailey, the former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, remembers, “The script is really wonderful, but Harold Ramis’ soul is guiding the film all the way through.”
Although he had no interest in working on a film sequel, Rubin wrote the book for the 2017 Broadway musical version of the same name that earned seven Tony nominations, including one for Rubin. “There was talk of a sequel from the moment it came out, but I didn’t want to have anything to do with that,” he says of the movie. “It seemed to me like we made the film that had to be made.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.