Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Comedy Theme Week - Groundhog Day

It’s Comedy Theme Week everyone. For a detailed rundown of what that means, head back to Monday’s post, where you’ll get a glimpse of our first review, Dumb and Dumber. Yesterday, I took on the best sports comedy ever (yeah, I said it), Happy Gilmore.  And today, I dissect a classic, Groundhog Day. 

Genre: Comedy
Premise: A weatherman being forced to cover a puff piece on Groundhog Day finds himself stuck in a continuous time loop in the town, having to live the same day over and over again.
About: So how long is Phil really stuck in Groundhog Day? The original writer, Danny Rubin, stated that he believed Phil was stuck there for at least 10,000 years. Harold Ramis, who directed the film, believes it’s somewhere in the vicinity of 40 years, but has told others estimates that range much higher. Speaking of, Ramis and Murray had a huge falling out behind the scenes during the filming of Groundhog Day, a spat that would not be repaired for another ten years. Steven Tobolowsky recalls the shooting of the last scene in Groundhog Day: “He [Bill Murray] said, “I refuse to shoot this scene until I know how I am dressed. Am I wearing the clothes I wore the night before? Am I wearing p.j.’s? Am I not wearing that?” That is, what happened that night between him and Andie [MacDowell]? So, he refused to shoot it. Harold Ramis, the director, had not thought of this question, and he didn’t know. So he took a vote from the cast and crew as to what Bill was wearing. Is he wearing the clothes from the night before, or is he wearing pajamas? And it was a tie, a tie vote, so Bill still refused to shoot the scene. Then one girl in the movie—it was her first film—she was assistant set director. She raised her hand and said, “He is absolutely wearing the clothes he wore the night before. If he is not wearing the clothes he wore the night before, it will ruin the movie. That’s my vote.” So Harold Ramis said, “Then that’s what we are going to do.”
Writers: Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin

I know this script has been analyzed to death, so I’m not sure I can bring any new insights to the table. But since an argument can be made that Groundhog Day is one of the top 10 comedies of all time, and because it also happened to be on Netflix Instant, well, the choice to include it in Comedy Week was obvious.

What’s cool about analyzing this movie now is that Groundhog Day is the prototypical script that would’ve landed on the Black List, had there been a Black List back in 1993. It’s quirky, it’s different, it explores deeper themes, it’s dark. But the final film is just a fraction of how dark and different the original script was. In fact, the script’s evolution happened in almost the exact opposite manner as the much talked about Scriptshadow favorite, Source Code.

Ben Ripley has talked openly about how the first draft of Source Code followed all the right Syd Field (or Blake Snyder) beats. A train gets bombed. The police come in. They don’t know what to do. An advanced government technology division arrives on the scene. Our hero, who’s part of that division, uses new technology to jump back onto the train two hours previous to try and find out what happened. Ripley says it was so boring and predictable that he lost confidence in the idea. It was only once he came up with having Colter and the audience wake up on the train together, unsure of what was going on, that the idea took off.

So I thought to myself, “Hmmmm. This is a great lesson here. Look beyond the Syd Field/Blake Snyder formula in order to make your idea unique and fresh. Be wary of traditional structure in many instances.” Ehhhhh…not so fast. With Groundhog Day, the exact OPPOSITE happened. You see, the original script started with Phil ALREADY STUCK IN THE TIME LOOP, similar, in some respects, to how the current Source Code starts. So we’d wake up with Phil, watch how he’d say what the people on the radio were saying before they’d say it, watch how he'd anticipate everything that everyone at the Bed and Breakfast would say to him, and wonder, “How is he doing this?” The studio decided that the audience would be too confused by this though and decided to, you guessed it, create a more structured “Syd Field” type narrative, where we set up Phil’s life and how he got pulled into the time loop in the first place. Ahhh, just when you think you’ve got it all figured it out. It changes on you again.

Anyway, Groundhog Day is quite different from the two comedies I reviewed already, mainly in how it handles its protagonist. In both Dumb and Dumber and Happy Gilmore, the writers work hard to make you love their characters. In Groundhog Day, they want you to hate their character. And this is always the most dangerous line to walk as a writer, when you center your story around an unlikable hero.

On the plus side, you’re going to get more actors interested in the part. Actors LIKE playing unlikable people. However, producers HATE this. They can’t stand when the lead character is unlikable because they assume the audience will hate him. So you’ve already put yourself in a no-win situation by even flirting with an unlikable protagonist.

Yet here’s the thing with the unlikable or “anti” hero. It offers the best opportunity for character exploration. A character can’t change for the better if he was never worse. So if you want any sort of character depth, you have to give him a flaw. But since most writers and producers are chickens, they choose a flaw that’s still likable. Something like “lack of confidence.” Rarely does anyone have the guts to make their hero a selfish asshole and when they do, it’s usually for a supporting character, so they can safely tuck him off to the side. Obi-Wan and Luke are model citizens. Han Solo, our supporting character, is the big jerk.

This brings us back to Groundhog Day, and our selfish-assholish main character. How do we keep our audience on board with this “jerk” until he starts to change? That’s the big question. And that’s a science I don’t think anyone's figured out in the screenwriting world. You can try balancing it out with “nice” traits, but if you go too far (he volunteers at a children’s cancer hospital) we see through it and stop believing in your story. It requires subtlety. Give us just enough to stay on board, but not so much that it compromises the character. And I think Groundhog Day does that about as well as anyone. They only use one balancing trait. Phil’s kinda funny (we like funny people). But it doesn’t violate the character because a lot of that humor comes at the expense of other people. I think the only other element you could argue that draws sympathy is his situation. Once we realize this loop isn’t going to end, we begin to become worried for Phil. We want him to find a way out.

This leads us to the central goal of our main character, which is a strong one. Phil must find a way out of the loop. I can’t remember a character goal in a comedy that’s this strong. And the fact that it’s unique (not another "needs 20k by the end of the week") gives it an extra kick.

But the real reason this comedy works is that it’s not about time-looping as much as it’s about a flawed man needing to learn the power of selflessness. Groundhog Day is a character study well before it’s a comedy, and that’s why it still holds up 20 years later, whereas we barely remember comedies like Anger Management and Bruce Almighty even a couple of years after they came out. This is what screenwriting is about. It’s about looking deep inside a person, figuring out what’s holding them back from obtaining true happiness, and putting them in a situation that forces them to address that flaw. And Groundhog Day is one of the best comedies – or even movies for that matter – at doing this.

It’s also a good reminder that one of the most powerful flaws to explore is selfishness. You could write your next 20 screenplays exploring this issue and it would never get old. It’s a timeless flaw in that we all wish we were more giving and caring of others, as opposed to so self-involved. It’s one of the reasons I started this site actually. Before this is was all about “me me me” and how do “I” become a better screenwriter. It’s only when I focused on trying to help others that I really began to learn (as cheesy as that sounds). So this theme is going to resonate with audiences no matter what package you wrap it in.

Another important lesson Groundhog Day reminds us of, is that concept is king. If you come up with an interesting high concept, you make things so much easier on yourself. I mean, when I watch Groundhog Day, I’m constantly putting myself in the role of Phil. I’m asking, “What would I do in that situation?” That’s when you know your concept is really working. Because once your audience is asking questions like that, you’ve got’em wrapped around your finger. You can do anything. Because now they themselves are incorporated into the story.

And, you know, just like Happy Gilmore, it’s a movie that takes advantage of its premise. The repeated encounters with Ned Ryerson. The repeated dates with Rita. Phil’s hilarious news lead-ins to the Groundhog event. Phil trying to kill himself. And that brings this into a whole nother territory. Dark humor resonates longer with audiences because it hits you harder. And Groundhog Day is dark. Mortality is a theme that’s explored repeatedly throughout the story. And seeing Bill Murray’s corpse after he’s killed himself…you just don’t see that kind of thing in your run-of-the-mill comedy.

To this day, there isn’t a comedy quite like Groundhog Day. It walks that fine line between broad and dark better than almost anything out there. It’s a great character piece. It’s a great thematic piece. And I didn’t even get into the love story (although I admit that Andie McDowell elevated that character beyond what was written on the page). This is just a golden comedy, and the definition of a genius script.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[x] genius

What I learned: If you want your comedy to stand the test of time and be taken seriously, you need to focus on some sort of universal theme. Not only does Groundhog Day tackle selfishness, but it also looks at love and mortality in a much deeper way than they’re usually explored in comedies. Your comedy is going to have far more layers, and have a much better chance with a reader, if you embrace a universal theme.