Big Think Interview With Danny Rubin

A conversation with the “Groundhog Day” screenwriter.
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Question: How did you come up with the idea for “Groundhog Day?"

Danny Rubin:
There's so many parts to answering that question.  I think the big idea, if there is a - the big think or the accidental happenstance was when I was trying to solve a story problem.  If a person could live forever, if a person was immortal, how would they change over time?  I was curious about whether one lifetime was enough for somebody.  There are some people, those arrested development type men who can’t really outlive their - out grow their adolescence and I thought, well, maybe one lifetime isn’t enough.  Maybe you need more.  

So, I was just thinking through if a person could live long enough, how would they change and that seemed like a cumbersome experiment because of having to deal with changing history.  So, I was trying to solve the problem how you can have a person be immortal without having history change from underneath him so that the movie would not - the story of the movie would not have to deal with the French Revolution and with the future and things like that. 

And then, to solve that, I remembered an idea I had had about a year or two before that about a guy repeating the same day and I realized that having a person repeat the same day turns an eternity into a circle and that’s when all the dramatic possibilities came and the comedic possibilities and all the resonances with repetition.  So, that was the idea like that. 

I was actually getting ready to read one of Anne Rice’s novels about vampires and I was sort of thinking about why I thought that was interesting and the most interesting thing to me was that it was a different class of people.  They were just like people except some of the rules were different and the most interesting one being that they were immoral and that’s what got me thinking about immortality.  There, that’s all of it.

Question: Did you always conceive of it as a comedy?

Danny Rubin: Yeah, well I thought of the funny things first.  The very first thing I thought of was the date scene, being able to use your superior knowledge to pick up women.  As soon as I thought of that I knew I had a movie.  That just seemed to me so extraordinarily interest and fun and funny.  So, I guess I was approaching it in a comedic way, but it wasn’t a genre comedy.  I was thinking of it more as just a whimsical entertainment.

Question: Did it have to be Groundhog Day, or could it have been another holiday?

Danny Rubin: This is one of those things that just kind of fell together.  When I got the idea of a man repeating the same day over and over again, it was January 30th or 31st and so the first thing I thought of is, I’ve got to think of which day he repeats.  Which day is it?  And so, I just opened up the calendar and the first holiday day I came to was two days later, Groundhog Day and I was thinking about that saying, “Well, this is perfect.  It’s a completely unexploited holiday.  We can play it on TV every year like the Charlie Brown specials.”  But, other things started to make sense immediately too, like I wanted him to be a character who went somewhere and was in unfamiliar territory.  If he was on his home turf with his family and friends, it would be a completely different story.  And, by making it Groundhog Day, I thought, “Okay, so maybe he’s a weather man and he comes from Pittsburgh and he drove to Punxutawney for the ceremony and the groundhog’s name is Phil, so I named him Phil and a bunch of things just started falling together in that way.

Question: How long did it take to write the script for Groundhog Day?
 

Danny Rubin: As I recall, it took me about seven weeks to brainstorm and figure out what the rules were and what I wanted the main characters to be in the story and the flow of the story and how I wanted it all to come out and after I’d figured that out, then I just sat down and wrote it and that took me about three or four days.

Question: What were the reactions to the script?

Danny Rubin: I had written one screenplay already and had sold it and that was the sum total of my Hollywood experience up until then.  I had gone to a lot of meetings and my agent had pretty much said, “You really need to write something else and get it out there quickly before people tire of you,” and I had had this thought and I decided, you know what, I could write that one quickly.  That’s a really good one.  It’s a little movie.  I can write it quickly and get it out there and use it as a writing sample just to show people when I walk in the room, here’s my latest script.

So, that was the purpose of it and then after it went out, I got a ton of meetings off of it because people liked the story and they liked the writing and I counted 50 different meetings and that’s what really got my feet wet in Hollywood.  I got to meet a lot of these producers.  I got a couple of jobs off of it.  Nobody wanted to make Groundhog Day.  In fact, kind of strangely, I was new to L.A. and I was going to these meetings and people would say, “Danny, glad to meet you.  I loved Groundhog Day.  Of course, we can’t make it,” and I would say, “Of course.”  And nobody ever explained to me why and I didn’t ask why not because I was trying to just go along, get along to accept the industry on its own terms and they’d say, “Well, but what else have you got?” or, “We’ve got this list of ideas.  See if you like any of those,” and then I got a couple of jobs and I was on my way and it wasn’t until my agent quit to become a school teacher, that I found myself without an agent, but I had this spec script that I was sending around to try and get a new agent and that’s how that script wound up at CAA with Richard Lovett.

He called me and said, “I love Groundhog Day.  Of course we can’t represent you.”  And I said, “Of course,” and he said, “But I have a client who I think might like this.  Can I give it to him?” and he sent it to Harold Ramis and that’s how the movie got set up.

Question:
How did the film change from the original script?

Danny Rubin: One thing that occurred to me is I wanted to do something fun with the movie and the first thing I thought was, “You know what?  I don’t want to have to deal with how he got into this situation.  I don’t want to deal with some kind of supernatural reason that he was stuck in the same day because then the movie becomes about the plot of his getting out from under it instead of about that existential quality of how does he just deal with it.”

And so, I thought, “Well, I know how I can avoid that.  I’ll start in the middle.  The first things that happens is you hear the clock radio come on with the “I Got You Babe” and then the DJs come on doing their little shtick and Phil is able to sort of mouth the words to what they're saying when he wakes up before he even knows what they're saying and the audience is thinking, “Huh, that’s strange.  How does he know what's playing on the radio?”  And then he goes downstairs and he knows what Mr. Lancaster is going to say before she says it, so he’s anticipating and the audience is thinking, “Wow, this is weird.  How does this guy know what’s going to happen before it happens?” 

Then he goes outside and this geeky goes, “Phil?” and Phil goes up to him and takes off his glove and he slugs him and we have no idea why that happened.  And so, I set it up by beginning in the middle with this mystery.  How does this guy have this supernatural ability and we go through meeting, you know, going through the Groundhog report and setting up the day and then he repeats the day and that’s when we know how the movie is set up and we understand how he knows what he knows.

That was the way I set it up and from the very beginning, they were - the studio was a little antsy about that.  Harold Ramis, the director, said that he liked that.  He tried to keep it, but eventually there was just this weight of convention where they really wanted to just establish who he is, set it up and then have this thing happen when he starts repeating the day.  And so, I’d say that was the biggest thing that changed, was when the movie opened, the beginning of it.

And also, as part of having the movie start in the middle, I had a voice-over.  Phil had a voice-over sort of leading the audience along so they wouldn’t feel too disrupted or too disoriented and kind of helping them bond with Phil and as soon as we straightened out the timeline to where it began a little sooner, that became unnecessary.  So, on the face of it, the very two biggest changes were that it began soon, before the repetition and that there’s no voice-over.

Question:
How did “Groundhog Day” become a classic film?

Danny Rubin:  Well, it wasn’t an overnight success in that way.  I mean, I think when it first came out, generally the reviews said, “Another comedy by Harold Ramis.  It’s kind of cute.”  Two, two and half star kind of reviews.  But there were other places where people seemed to dig it right away.  I was getting letters from Germany and from England.  A lot of fans in England who just thought it was an extraordinary movie and my feeling was I felt justified.  I was like, “Yeah, that’s what it was supposed to be.”  And it was just very slowly that people realized that everybody was sort of saying, “Oh, have you seen Groundhog Day?  It was really good.”  And it was just sort of a buzz started developing and then little things started happening.

Like, there was a big Buddhist convention in San Francisco and somebody delivered a paper about Groundhog Day and Buddhism and people realized that people were - psychologists were showing it to their patients, prescribing it and all kinds of different religious disciplines were embracing it and giving sermons and lectures and writing important papers based on the philosophy of Groundhog Day.

And Harold Ramis was also getting letters and notes and the two of us would compare things and say, “Wow, this is really interesting.”  And then, at some point, I guess Roger Ebert wrote, not a retraction, but a new review that sort of said, “I think we should revisit this movie.  I think this is a little better than I thought.”  And I know at the end of the year that it came out in’93, William Goldman, the screenwriter, was reflecting on movies of the past year and he was the one who wrote, “I think Groundhog Day is the one that will be - of all of the movies that came out this year, it’s the one that will be remembered in 10 years,” and perhaps that gave it some street cred or got some people thinking.

But, I don’t know.  I think people just like it and a little bit at a time, it started to develop this, not exactly a following, but an awful lot of people who identified with it.

Question: What makes people identify so strongly with the movie?

Danny Rubin:  I haven’t thought a lot about that, but everybody seems to have their own reason and that’s what makes it so remarkable.  Everybody seems to bring their own way of thinking and their own discipline to bear on the ideas within it and would express this is absolutely describing the essence of Judaism.  This is the essence of Nietzsche’s philosophy.  This is the essence homeopathy.  I mean, I’ve seen all of this.  I think there's something about - I think we understand how people grow and develop.  Okay, I have a few answers.  I think I understand how people - we understand how people grow and develop in a linear time fashion.  How you have an adolescence at a certain age and you start to develop adulthood and you start to mature.  But, I think the movie shows that it is the repetition of days itself which pushes us forward in our own maturation as we start to encounter the same things over and over again.

And so, there's an element of truth to the fact that we are repeating the same day over and over again.  But, I think the biggest thing that affects people is the fact that Phil is presented with the exact same day and the very first time he’s presented with it, it’s probably the worst day of his life.  And, by the end of the movie, we see that it’s the exact same day but somehow this is probably the best day of his life.  It’s the day he fell in love and she fell in love with him and everybody loves him and he was living a fulfilling life pursuing culture and things that he loved and appreciating the day and doing good works and contributing to society and it makes it very clear that we are in control of our day.  We can control our future.  There's something very empowering about it and Groundhog Day, it’s almost an experiment that says, “See?  Here's a guy who is having a terrible day and he’s kind of a horrible person and just through the act of repetition and paying attention and remembering, he is forced to change who he is and by changing who he is, he changes the life that he experiences the world around him.  That, I think, is the main thing that gets people very excited about the movie. 

Question: How did you get into screenwriting?

Danny Rubin: I’ve always done writing as part of everything that I’ve done in the past, just various creative enterprises.  I write songs and do music and write essays and short plays and sketch comedy and all these things and during my 20’s, I was living in Chicago and probably pursuing everything creatively that I could think of all at once and waiting for something to choose me. 

I got a job right out of graduate school working for a local television show in Chicago and so I was doing writing for that, but I was also writing music and I was doing a little bit of performing.  I was writing plays and also performing on stage and doing the music thing and playing coffee houses and blues clubs and, ultimately, I was just waiting for something to choose me and what happened was somebody suggested, “Well, why don’t you write a screenplay for a movie?” and I thought, “I like movies,” and so I wrote one and l looked at and said, “That was fun.”  I didn’t like that particular screenplay and didn’t do anything with it, but then I wrote another one and sent it out and somebody bought it and all of a sudden I was screenwriter and I thought, “That was easy.  I’ll do this.”  And so, I just kept doing it and I haven’t had any reason to do anything else since. 

Question: What’s the hardest part about writing a good screenplay?

Danny Rubin:  Making it good, that good part.  Writing a screenplay is not so hard.  That’s all about knowing where the margins are.  Writing a good screenplay is almost impossible.

I think it - part of it has to do with being original, trying to do something that feels fresh when there have been so many movies made and also particularly in Hollywood, a tendency to try and remake the same movies over and over again.  So, it’s writing a movie that’s original that becomes really difficult and there's something very formal about the enterprise of writing a screenplay.  It can’t be longer than two hours.  So, the kind of story you tell, whatever it is, it has to be as engaging and as exciting as possible within that one and a half to two hour period and that forces certain kind of conventions on you.  Places where we really want to have them gripped in the story by here or else they’re going to leave or change the channel or walk out of the theater.

There's a certain kind of efficiency built into screenwriting that’s very elegant, but that makes it as hard to craft as a very finely crafted piece of sculpture, furniture, something like that.  And making it all come alive when you just start putting together all the pieces of things that you visualize that would wonderful.  It all seems in your mind to be wonderful, but then when you look at what you’ve created on the page it’s like a Frankenstein’s monster.  You’ve got a head, you’ve got the hands, you got the feet, you’ve got the body.  You’ve thought of everything and when you look at it, it’s still just a bunch of dead meat lying there on the table and you're trying to get a pulse to go through the thing.  What makes it real?

It’s complete artifice.  It’s completely made up.  It’s all these things from your head and your desires and dreams and it isn’t real yet and somehow, something has to spark off the page that makes you to join the life that’s going on in this world that you’ve created.  And to make that smooth life feel real when the whole thing is artifice.  It all has agenda.  It’s all people you’ve created and worlds that don’t even exist.  Making that feel real, that’s the absolute impossible thing.  Being original, making it feel real and making it all fit.  It’s the easiest thing in the world and it’s absolutely impossible.

Question: Do you consider screenwriting an art form?

Danny Rubin:  Screenwriting is an art form, but it’s also a craft.  It’s both of those things.  It’s a commercial art and both of those things you need to be good at.  If you just know the craft and you don’t have any sense of the art, that means you don’t have anything to say and you don’t have an interesting way to say it. 

If it’s all art and no craft, then you’ve got these great ideas, but you aren’t able to articulate them in a way that makes it all work out as a good blueprint for building a great movie.  So, I definitely think there's a great deal of artistry involved.  I’ve never seen a good screenplay that was nothing but craft.

Question: Do screenwriters have to choose between writing either an indie passion project or a shallow blockbuster?

Danny Rubin:  Yes and no.  It’s a false choice because you never know what's going to work.  Trying to guess what will please the industry, whether it’s the indie industry or the commercial industry is almost impossible and trying to do that is a fool’s errand.  So, in the end, you should just do what you want and see who salutes it. 

On the other hand, it’s constantly a choice.  You're seduced by wanting to write a very blockbuster hit.  The kind of thing that would have mass appeal and would be most likely to be accepted by the studios because that’s where most of the money is and the biggest chance of getting a thing produced.  But, that’s not necessarily going to work.  And same with going the indie route, the indie market is very particular.  If you’ve got a story with a dysfunctional family or drugs or some weird kind of sexual relationship, you're in.  That’s the indie world.  If you're just trying to do a particularly intelligent commercial studio film, that’s what - I had a manager who called those the tweeners.  The sort of between indie film and Hollywood films and it’s - nobody wants it.  It’s going to be difficult to place.  It all comes down to luck.

But, if it’s written skillfully, it all comes down to luck anyway.  That skillful thing has a chance of making it and it might never be noticed at all.  I’m constantly trying to figure out how to be as commercial as possible and still be original.  Those are movies that I like.  It’s not just because I’m trying to please some market.  But, those are the movies I most enjoy and so that’s what I’m trying to create and it’s not - the other method that some writers take is one for me, one for them. 

Okay, this is my heart project and I’m going to make it very true to myself and consistent with my beliefs and my artistic sensibilities.  Maybe someone will make it, maybe someone won't, but I will feel good writing it and then I’ll finish that and then I’ll write a vampire movie.  And so, one for me, one for them and you can write a screenplay quickly enough that that is an acceptable way to go through your professional like.  You can get through year after year like that. 

Question:
What current trends in moviemaking do you dislike?

Danny Rubin: It does seem that it’s all about style.  There's very little substance.  It’s telling the same old stories, but with a new kind of visual panache and that’s okay, but that’s seems to - it’s like candy and that seems to be the tendency.  Not to even attempt anything more ambitious content-wise, but they're always trying new ambitious things in terms of style.  So, that’s kind of fun, but I’m tired of it and kind of like many people, growing cynical about movies and would like to see more movies of substance that have stories to tell that affect my life in some way.

Question: What are common mistakes of novice screenwriters?

Danny Rubin:
The biggest mistake is over-reliance on dialogue.  They remember their favorites lines and come into the enterprise thinking that it’s about writing lines of dialog for the actors when, in fact, it’s really about the structure.  It’s about setting up the visual scene.  It’s about putting the scenes together in what order actually tells the story and really taking advantage of the visual medium and the dialog often comes after that.  It’s - the beginning writer will rely very heavily on dialog to give you all the information you need.  So, characters are constantly telling each other things.  “I think this, I intend that, I like that.” 

Where it’s much better to find a visual way to get that idea across.  It’s more elegant and it’s more filmic and it’s very, very obviously amateurish to an experienced writer to look at a screenplay that is all reliant on dialog.

Question: Does the development process tend to help or hurt a script?

Danny Rubin:
  In my experience, I’ve spent a lot of time in development on various projects and I’ve seen screenplays get worse and I’ve seen them get better and it’s the structure is the thing that usually has to change and when you change the structure you wind up having to change everything else too because what would happen in a scene changes, so the dialog changes.  Everything does. 

Sometimes it winds towards the juicy center and the notes you're getting are helping it become the screenplay it need to become.  But, there's some point where it becomes like a hail Mary and it just has become very jumbled and messed up and mixed up themes and different peoples’ stories and you wind up with everybody looking at it.  It’s not just you anymore.  It’s you and a room full of people and everybody has a different opinion and sometimes they just say, “Well, try this,” because they just don’t know and then you realize the project is gone.  It’s somehow gotten away from everybody.

And that’s not unusual and it’s not too hard for that to happen and it’s not really the fault of anybody.  I found that development executives and producers are actually very smart and although there are have been many, many stupid and clueless and difficult and impossible notes I’ve gotten that I had to somehow solve, more often the notes are quite good and make a lot of sense and have been helpful.

Question: What’s the worst advice you’ve ever been given as a screenwriter?

Danny Rubin:
I don’t know.  I don’t know that I can think of anything.  Quit?  Give up?

Recorded on May 12, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman