Twenty years ago today, on February 12th, 1993, Harold Ramis‘ comedy “Groundhog Day” opened in theaters. Twenty years ago today to the day, on February 12th, 1993, Harold Ramis‘ comedy “Groundhog Day” opened in theaters. Twenty years ago today to the day, on February 12th, 1993, Harold Ra– sorry, we’re not sure what came over us there. The film stars Bill Murray as crotchety weatherman Phil Connors, forced to go to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the annual Groundhog Day celebrations — where, as legend has, a groundhog may or may not see its shadow, portending whether an early spring is coming, or if another six weeks of winter lie ahead.
The film wasn’t on the radars of many, thanks to an off-season release date, and was only moderately well-received on release (Roger Ebert later acknowledged he underrated it on initial viewing). But it did fairly well at the box office, and almost immediately, its cult began to grow. And rightly so. It’s a comedy of rare hilarity and profundity, a consistently sweet and funny film with a perfect screenplay, one of Murray’s best performances and a depth that’s almost unheard for a contemporary studio film (David O. Russell recently told The Guardian, “I would give my left arm to have written that fucking script… It makes me mad because I would so like to make a film like that. Oh man, I could go on for ever about that movie …”) As such, it seemed appropriate to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the film by gathering up five things you may not know abour Ramis’ classic. Check them out below.
1. Tom Hanks was the first choice for the main role
It’s almost impossible to imagine “Groundhog Day” — or at least the one we know and love — without Bill Murray in the central role of Phil Connors. But despite their five previous collaborations — on “Meatballs,” “Caddyshack,” “Stripes,” and the two “Ghostbusters” movies — Harold Ramis‘ friend wasn’t his first choice. While Steve Martin and Chevy Chase were reportedly considered for the part, Ramis revealed at a 2009 Q&A for “Year One“ that he’d offered the part to Tom Hanks at first. Hanks was otherwise engaged on “Sleepless In Seattle,” and later told Ramis that he was glad he’d been unavailable, hitting the nail on the head by saying, “Audiences would have been sitting there waiting for me to become nice, because I always play nice. But Bill’s such a miserable S.O.B. on and off screen, you didn’t know what was going to happen.”
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Ramis pinpoints the film as something of a turning point for Murray as a screen presence, telling Time Magazine, “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?'” Some other interesting casting notes: a British music magazine at the time pictured singer-songwriter Tori Amos with a copy of the script. It turns out she was being considered for Rita, the role eventually played by Andie MacDowell. Also, keep an eye out for the first screen appearance from Michael Shannon, who plays Fred, the young soon-to-be-married man whose bride, Debbie, is having second thoughts.
2. The earlier version of the script was much less accessible.
Screenwriter Danny Rubin spent much of his twenties in Chicago, trying his hand at various creative pursuits, before settling on screenwriting. He’d sold one script already when, inspired by Anne Rice‘s “Interview With The Vampire,” Nietzsche’s “The Gay Science” and William Dean Howell‘s “Christmas Every Day,” came up with the idea of a man forced to live the worst day of his life over and over again. Once he had that germ, Rubin related “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.” The script took about seven weeks of outlining, but was then written in an alarmingly fast three or four days. While studios originally passed on it, despite universally loving it, CAA managed to get it to Harold Ramis, who jumped right aboard.
But the script was in quite a different form back then. For one, it began in media res, as it were. Rubin explains. “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…”
Rightly, Ramis suggested that the script should set Phil’s normal life up first as well as cutting the original ending, which, as he told the New Yorker, saw Rita “reveal that she’s trapped in her own endless repetition, and that there’s no existential relief in sight.” The studio also tried to get the writer to add a scene that explained Phil’s predicament as the result of a gypsy curse put on him by an ex-lover, but Ramis refused to shoot it. One thing that Rubin was insistent on, as he told The Guardian recently, was scrubbing the script of any 1990s pop culture references, lending it the timeless quality that means it holds up as well today as it ever has.
3. Bill Murray & Harold Ramis fell out permanently on set.
Murray & Ramis weren’t just regular collaborators, they were also friends — Murray is the godfather to one of Ramis’ kids. But sadly, their relationship dissolved during the making of the film. Murray was in the midst of a divorce from his first wife, Margaret Kelly, at the time, and became obsessive over the role, ringing Ramis in the middle of the night to talk about it. Ramis, fed up, sent Danny Rubin to Murray’s home to work with him in pre-production, the writer telling the New Yorker fifteen years later, “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.” The difficulties continued on set, Ramis telling EW that “Bill had all these obvious resentments toward the production, so it was very hard for a time to communicate with him. Calls would go unreturned. Production assistants couldn’t find him. So someone said, ‘Bill, you know, things would be easier if you had a personal assistant. Then we wouldn’t have to bother you with all this stuff.’ And he said, ‘Okay.’ So he hired a personal assistant who was profoundly deaf, did not have oral speech, spoke only American sign language, which Bill did not speak, nor did anyone else in the production. But Bill said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m going to learn sign language.’ And I think it was so inconvenient that in a couple weeks, he gave that up. That’s anti-communication, you know? Let’s not talk.'”
But as funny as it can be to relate now, it made the atmosphere on set very difficult, as Ramis told the New Yorker. “At times, Bill was just really irrationally mean and unavailable; he was constantly late on set,” the director says. “What I’d want to say to him is just what we tell our children: ‘You don’t have to throw tantrums to get what you want. Just say what you want.’” Once filming wrapped, Murray stopped speaking to Ramis altogether, and aside from a few passing comments at funerals and the like, they continue to be estranged. Ramis tried to recruit Murray to play the part eventually taken by Randy Quaid in 2005’s “The Ice Harvest,” but Murray passed, and when asked to comment on a New Yorker profile, heartbreakingly commented, “I really don’t have anything to say.”
4. The film’s become an unlikely spiritual favorite across multiple religions.
Contrary to its reputation these days as a classic, “Groundhog Day” was only moderately well-received on release, taking a solid but unexceptional $70 million in the U.S., and somewhat taken for granted by critics. For instance, the Washington Post‘s Desson Howe wrote that, while it was a relatively good vehicle for Murray “‘Groundhog’ will never be designated a national film treasure by the Library of Congress” (for the record, it was added to the Library of Congress only thirteen years later, deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”). But the film quickly found favor not just among movie fans, but also among religious types. After all, by dealing not only with a concept variously described as reincarnation or purgatory, and with the central theme of a man learning to become a better person, it’s as much a parable as a studio comedy. Ramis told the New York Times a decade ago of the reaction to the film. “At first I would get mail saying, ‘Oh, you must be a Christian, because the movie so beautifully expresses Christian belief,’ he said. “Then rabbis started calling from all over, saying they were preaching the film as their next sermon. And the Buddhists! Well, I knew they loved it, because my mother-in-law has lived in a Buddhist meditation center for 30 years and my wife lived there for 5 years.”
Ramis himself doesn’t practice any religion in particular, but certainly acknowledges the deeper readings of the film. Christians, like Jesuit priest Rev. James Martin, sees Murray’s character as a Christ analogy saying, “You very clearly see the deadness of his life at the beginning of the movie. What is reborn is this new person resurrected from his comatose way of looking at the world.” But a Greenwich Village rabbi, Dr. Niles Goldstein argued that the films’ worldview is more Jewish than Christian, saying that Murray’s character is rewarded for his good deeds, rather than being returned to Earth. But there’s also a Buddhist interpretation, Professor Angela Zito of NYU saying that the film illustrates the concept of samsara — the continuing cycle of rebirth that individuals can break out of by performing good deeds. In fact, she argues that the film is closer to Mahayana Buddhism, in which, as she says “nobody ever imagines they are going to escape samsara until everybody else does. That is why you have bodhisattvas, who reach the brink of nirvana, and stop and come back and save the rest of us. Bill Murray is the bodhisattva. He is not going to abandon the world. On the contrary, he is released back into the world to save it.” Even wiccans have gotten in on the act, as the real-life Groundhog Day on February 2nd shares its date with the first of the “greater sabbats” that divide the period between solstices and equinoxes.
5. There is Italian-language remake of “Groundhog Day.”
While “Groundhog Day” has become synonymous with the idea of living the same day or event over and over again, it was far from the first film to take on the conceit, and far from the last. The film was preceded by Richard Lupoff‘s 1973 short story “12:01,” about a New York executive who discovers that he’s reliving the same hour of his life over and over again. The story was adapted into an Oscar-nominated short, starring Kurtwood Smith, in 1990, as well as a TV movie starring Jeremy Piven and Martin Landau that aired only six months after the release of “Groundhog Day.” Lawsuits were mooted by Lupoff and the short’s writer Jonathan Heap, but never came to pass. The film was also preceded by an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” in March 1992, in which the cruise of the USS Enterprise are forced to relive their crash into another ship (captained by, of all people, Kelsey Grammer) over and over again. But “Groundhog Day” has been more consciously homaged after its release as well. Episodes of both “The X-Files” (season six’s “Monday,” which sees Mulder and Scully trapped in a time-loop during a bank heist) and “Supernatural” (season three’s “Mystery Spot,” with another time loop caused by a trickster god). The short-lived Taye Diggs ABC series “Day Break” also tried to stretch the premise over an entire TV series, but unsurprisingly lasted only six episodes before it was cancelled.
But so far, the only official spin-off is 2004’s “E gia ieri,” literally translated as “It’s Already Yesterday,” and also known as “Stork Day.” The Italian film, directed by Giulio Manfredonia, and starring Italian TV comedy star Antonio Alabanese, is a officially-sanctioned, reasonably faithful remake of the film, with Alabanese as a bad-tempered nature documentarian who goes to the Canary Islands to report on a stork migration, only to find himself repeating the same day over and over again. Many elements of the film recur, including surrogates for Chris Elliot‘s cameraman and Stephen Tobolowsky‘s Ned Ryerson, but it looks to us to be pretty Italian in nature too. Watch both the trailer and the full film below. More promising was the mooted musical version of the film, floated by the great Stephen Sondheim. The composer was considering the idea of adapting the film as a “theme and variations” piece, which makes sense, but by 2008, had dropped the idea, saying that “to make a musical of ‘Groundhog Day’ would be to gild the lily. It cannot be improved.” Most recently, Duncan Jones’ “Source Code” gave a sci-fi thriller twist to the premise, and won the approval of writer Danny Rubin, telling The Guardian “I quite liked that. Every time it happens, my friends say: ‘You just got ripped off. I hope they paid you.’ I’m, like: ‘No, it’s an homage.’ It’s not like I’m being erased. It’s an honour. I always thought the premise could be explored a million different ways. I welcome all of these explorations; it’s fun for me because I like to see how other people play with the idea. Basically it shows how ubiquitous it’s become in the culture. It’s getting harder and harder now to find anyone who hasn’t seen it.”