I made plans late last week to feature Groundhog Day as my next Commentary Commentary title, and immediately discovered that I didn’t own a copy of the film. A quick trip to a nearby video store graced me with a used Blu-ray which I brought home, watched, and fell in love with all over again. It’s that rare, near-perfect movie where everything seems to fall beautifully in place, a film that never weakens on repeat viewings, and one that says more about humanity than many examples of far more serious cinema.
Harold Ramis died this past Monday, and while it’s a tragedy for his wife, children, and friends, it also leaves a void for the millions of fans who’ve loved much of his work over the years. Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Ghostbusters, Back to School, Groundhog Day, The Ice Harvest… all fantastically fun films that wouldn’t have been the same without his involvement as writer and/or director.
Keep reading to see what I heard on Harold Ramis’ commentary for Groundhog Day.
Groundhog Day (1993)
Commentator: Harold Ramis (director)
1. The opening scene with Bill Murray doing the weather was actually a reshoot done months after the film wrapped. “Bill had a lot of fun with the chroma key stuff.”
2. They toyed with the idea of explaining how the time-warp happens, namely via a curse put on him by someone he’s verbally harangued, but they wisely thought better of it.
3. Groundhog Day didn’t actually film in Punxsutawney, PA because the town didn’t have a town center that looked good on camera. They shot it in Woodstock, IL instead.
4. The B&B where Murray stays is actually a private house, but the interiors were constructed on a sound stage.
5. Screenwriter Danny Rubin’s script came to Ramis as a spec, but he avoided reading it because the concept didn’t sound all that interesting. He was convinced otherwise by his producing partner who told him the story was far deeper than the logline implied.
6. Murray apparently divided his performance into “good Phil and bad Phil” and would ask Ramis before each scene which one he was at that point.
7. First AD Mike Haley “was fanatic about making sure that the background extras, the cars going by, that everything matched perfectly as Phil progressed from day to day.
8. Ramis says the town of Woodstock was very welcoming to them and the production, with the sole exception of a store called Lloyd’s that tried to charge them hundreds of thousands of dollars for lost business. “I don’t think they make that much money in a year.”
9. Woodstock has since added plaques and signs identifying various spots around town that were seen in the film. The example Ramis shares is “This is where Bill Murray stepped in the puddle.”
10. Punxsutawney sent representatives to Woodstock to ensure the filming was done accurate to the real event. “They were very jealous that the movie wasn’t shot in Punxsutawney,” he recalls.
11. The big square scenes were filmed in very cold weather, but the production kept the crowd of 400–500 people strong by offering prizes every hour. The $100 prize was especially effective.
12. Rubin’s script originally didn’t include scenes where Phil discovers he’s trapped in a loop. Instead, the script opened with Phil punching Ned Ryerson (Stephen Tobolowsky) and included voice-over telling the audience what had led up to this. Ramis felt that cheated viewers of seeing it unfold. “Of course I’d actually told Danny Rubin that I loved the fact that he just started right in the middle with the device already occurring, that it was one thing I would never change. I promised him that. Of course it was the first thing I changed.”
13. The scene where Phil snaps the pencil to confirm the next morning that everything is normal originally started much bigger. They had shot him destroying the hotel room, slashing pillows, spray-painting the walls, etc, with the plan being to pull away from his face to reveal that everything was back to normal. “Well, when we shot it, it didn’t look like anything was the same. Things had moved, we couldn’t do this matched dissolve we had planned to do.”
14. The Tip Top diner was created in an empty storefront, and the town wanted to keep it as a real diner once filming concluded. “And actually tried to make a go of it, but it didn’t stay.”
15. Ramis and company were concerned with the film’s foreign roll-out as most countries don’t know what Groundhog Day is and may not even know what a groundhog is, but the film found a way. Ultimately those releases provided additional fun as the film was re-titled elsewhere. “In Brazil it was called The Black Hole of Love.”
16. Ramis was surprised to see the spiritual community react so positively to the film. He first heard of it when he was told Hassidic Jews were picketing a screening. They weren’t protesting against the film though, they were holding signs saying ‘Are you living the same day over and over again?’ He then started getting letters from zen Buddhists, fundamental Christians, and psychoanalytic community with “everyone claiming that this was their philosophy and that I must be one of them for having made this movie.”
17. Murray was offered a spit bucket for the diner scene where he gorges himself on pastries and other breakfast foods, but he refused. The angel food cake in particular caused him to feel sick soon after.
18. Rubin’s script originally had the duplicate day go on for 10,000 years. Phil marked time by reading a single page in one of the B&B’s library books per day, eventually reading through all of the volumes multiple times.
19. Ramis told the kids throwing snowballs at Phil and Rita (Andie MacDowell) to aim hard at Murray. “That kid almost took his head off. Bill threw really hard back at him.”
20. Phil’s depression stage includes his on-camera statement that Groundhog Day used to mean something in that they used to eat the large rodent. “That’s a true fact regarding the origins of Groundhog Day in that it was more of a groundhog hunt.”
21. The scene where Phil abducts the groundhog and lets the animal drive took several takes. The animal apparently grew tired of the process, and “one frame after we cut away he turns and bites Bill really hard on the finger.”
22. The idea of Phil speaking to Rita while she sleeps came from Murray. Apparently his wife drank too much champagne on their wedding night and fell asleep early, so Murray read aloud to her until he too fell asleep.
23. Studio reps were apparently not fans of the segments featuring the old, homeless man who dies no matter what Phil does to prevent it. Ramis rightfully felt that it was integral to Phil’s development and realization that he’s not a god. He’s not even the god.
24. The end party scene took place at a wedding in the original script, and Ramis cried when he read the sequence of people thanking and appreciating all that Phil had done for him. He cries again while watching the scene here.
25. Rita’s best line, where she tells Ned “Oh let’s not spoil it!” was scripted as “Oh let’s not ruin it!” They changed it because MacDowell’s accent prevented her from being able to say “ruin” properly.
26. The Journal of Object Relations Therapy featured an article where a psychologist argued Phil had not progressed because he still felt he needed a woman to complete his life. “I thought that was hair-splitting,” says Ramis, “but you be the judge.”
27. The final scene with Phil and Rita waking up on a brand new day required 25 takes. There was debate over whether or not the two had sex, should they be dressed or undressed, etc. Ramis had everyone on set, cast and crew, vote as to how it should be played, and the final tally came down on the side of the the couple still being in their clothes as they in fact had not made love yet.
Best in Commentary
- “George Fenton is an Academy Award winning British composer, he did the score for Gandhi so we thought he’d be good for this because of the obvious connection between Gandhi and Groundhog Day.”
- “There is a nasty side of Bill that he wasn’t afraid to reveal in this film, and there’s a tremendously generous and wise, knowing side that he comes to later which is as genuine in Bill as the nasty guy.”
- “I love this dialogue here. Probably because I wrote it.”
- “And that’s the Pennsylvania Polka you’re hearing which really became annoying after a while.”
- “I thought Bill did this so well. I saw him on an interview with Larry King and Larry said ‘Bill, Groundhog Day.’ And Bill said ‘Well, probably the best work I’ve ever done, and probably the best work Harold will ever do.’ Not only put the cap on his own career but on mine as well.”
- “As I get older I cry more in movies. I cried in X-Men.”
- “To me it always looks like Andie’s [MacDowell] twelve years old in this scene. Not when she’s kissing of course, that would be really perverse, but she looks really sweet.”
Ramis isn’t very talkative at first with minutes at a time passing without his commentary. He soon warms up to it though showing great affection for the film, his cast, and his crew. His love for Murray is especially clear, and while he makes no reference to their infamous falling out he presents a fair appreciation for a man he clearly respects and loves. It’s a strong commentary, filled with anecdotes and making-of tidbits, but there’s at least one bittersweet moment to be found as well. The scene where Phil uses trial and error to woo Rita leads Ramis to explain why the drink in question is a sweet vermouth. “Because that’s what my wife drinks,” he says.