Saturday, September 21, 2013

i really feel weird

Subtitle: one lingering detail that wasn’t all in voiceover.

Just after Phil was “learning how to listen” in Rubin’s original, there’s a scene at a Basketball Court. Phil plays one-on-one with “some TEENAGER.” In the direction, “Phil steals the ball and does a good lay-up. The Teenager calls it a “[p]retty good move for an old guy.” Phil says he practices a lot.

(Six months, four to five hours a day, and you’d be an expert.)

So, the Teenager says he’s going to practice a lot, too. And, Phil asks him, “Aren’t you supposed to be in classes now?”

(Nevermind that in Punxsutawney, they probably get the day off school… despite the frog prince scene as well.)

The Teenager responds: “You wanna be my daddy or you wanna play b-ball?”

(There’s already some things going on on Groundhog Day regarding parenting and parental roles, but they’re worthy of a separate entry.)

Then, it’s the Teenager’s turn to do some exposition, while dribbling:

Everybody worrying about my future. I say, “Hey! Don’t worry about my future. I’m gonna buy a big car and wreck it. I’m gonna date every pretty girl in Pennsylvania. I’m gonna make lots of money. And I’m gonna live forever.

I’d point out the deliberate similarity to Phil’s “adolescent” phase, but the voiceover has it covered:

How far I had come. To see myself in this boy, and that old lady [i.e. Lady Geezer], and the other people of this town, I could leave my loneliness behind. We were of a species.

Regarding this scene, Rubin told Ryan Gilbey in an interview:

I don’t know why it didn’t make it… I like how you could see in this 14-year old kid pretty much the same person Phil was at the beginning of the movie. And through that encounter he understands how far he has come. I thought it was an important realisation [British sic] that really wasn’t made in any other way in the movie, but what can you do?

Maybe Rubin’s just too close to the material, because this, like most of the voiceover, is entirely unnecessary because it is too on-the-nose. But, we must keep in mind that Rubin was not a practiced screenplay writer. He just happened to be “writing local TV, stage plays, industrial films, and sketch comedy” in Chicago when “[t]he head of the Illinois Film Commission and the founder of the The Second City comedy club had just joined forces to form a film production company, with the intention of introducing Chicago talent to Hollywood.” And so, he decided to write a screenplay. As he explains in How to Write Groundhog Day, Rubin brainstormed ten ideas, of which Time Machine would later become Groundhog Day. He pitched all ten to the Chicago producers and go nothing but “a smile and a cup of coffee.” Still, Rubin explains, “this had somehow put me into the mind of pursuing screenwriting.” His lack of knowledge on the format, he admits:

I didn’t know how to write a feature film but figured I had seen enough of them to have the general idea. All I needed was someone to show me what to capitalize and where to put the margins. There may be a little more to screenwriting than that, but this was my thinking.

One of his notes after the screenplay is that he learned from Harold Ramis that “you don’t need to put a character’s name in caps all the way though a script—only the first time the character is introduced.” He explains:

In the version of this draft that I sent around Hollywood, the character’s names are in all caps throughout the script, but I changed them here so that I don’t spread any bad habits.

So don’t do it in your own script—they’ll know you don’t know what you’re doing.

Rubin notes that he had gotten his hands on a copy of Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. In the chapter on “Screenplay Form” Field does point out, “New characters are always capitalized.” But, to Rubin’s credit—especially considering how much he clearly enjoys having everything spelled out—Field does not specify that you shouldn’t capitalize characters when they’re not new.

Rubin wrote screenplays for two other ideas on his list before he got to Time Machine. The first one “was basically a children’s story that was way too gross and strange for kids.” The second one, Silencer went on to be adapted into the film Hear No Evil released in March of 1993. Groundhog Day in February 1993, Hear No Evil in March, then S.F.W. (not from one of the brainstorm ideas) the next year. And, those are all of Rubin’s feature film writing credits… unless you count Stork Day aka È già ieri, the Italian-language remake of Groundhog Day a decade later.

There one idea on Rubin’s brainstorm list that intrigues me. See one of my favorite films is Adaptation. and one of Rubin’s ideas made me think of that. Number 6 on his list:

How To Write A Movie. Students at a city college get lessons in screenwriting, as their lives gradually become the movie they are learning how to write.

Like a lot of Rubin’s brainstorm ideas, there’s a distinct incompleteness here. There’s no notion of what the film is about. And, Rubin probably would have included far too much voiceover even as—I hope—the students learn they should not use voiceover so much. It could be pretty clever if done right. But, we’ve got Adaptation. so we don’t need this one.

Rubin, smartly, realized that Time Machine just “wasn’t about anything. Not yet.” He continues:

The premise was fun, and it clearly had comedic and even some character growth potential, but at this point it was only a gimmick. In fact it was less than a gimmick; it was a situation without any idea which gimmick had produced it! If I had committed to the idea, perhaps I would have come up with an approach that meant something to me, but at the time those other ideas just felt more clear and inviting.

Like many a Phil Connors voiceover block, there is a great nugget in there. Calling it “a situation without any idea which gimmick had produced it!” is a great line. By the way, Rubin’s original brainstorm for Time Machine was this:

A guy is stuck in a time warp that commits him to living the same day over and over and over again. But each day he can behave differently and the world and people will be different accordingly. (How do you enjoy yourself? How do you get laid? What are the different ways you can spend the same day? Will he become wiser? Sadder? Cynical? Adventurous?)

Rubin’s thoughts turned to immortality later when he was going to read Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat. He explains:

I tried to put myself into the situation. It felt to me that a life that long would proceed in stages. A person might long for companionship and activity for a while, but eventually tire of it and live in isolation and simplicity. There would be periods of self-improvement and periods of destruction, all according to some natural psychological progression.

I’ve mentioned before how Rubin wanted to deal with immortality without “the complications of eternity”—researching historical events and maybe creating “some future civilization” seemed “unfocused and like endless work” to Rubin—and that’s how his thoughts on immortality looped him back around to his old Time Machine concept. And, thus Groundhog Day was born.

Much of Rubin’s meandering in the screenplay was probably fixed by Harold Ramis, but I wouldn’t say—despite the last few days of complaining—that Rubin is a bad writer. The voiceover, of example, might have been the wrong choice and easily removable, but he chose it for a reason; he wanted the story to be personal, “a young man’s journey though life, like Siddhartha.” And, it makes sense for a young writer to invest in a personal story. A writer just starting out (at least in a new format, anyway) probably only has two options: tell an entirely impersonal story or a wholly personal one. I imagine the impersonal version of Groundhog Day and I imagine a story without heart, without soul. While so much of Rubin’s original had been altered or removed by the time they had the shooting script, I think the heart and soul of the piece were still the same.

Rubin just needed to be reined in just enough that he wasn’t constantly tearing open the chest of the piece to show off that heart. I think maybe Rubin understood one fundamental human trait and ignored another. He realized that someone like Phil, stuck in that situation, would want to explain it, would want to share it. But, he didn’t realize that the audience, also human, didn’t need it all explained. We know heart when we see it. We know when a story rings true. We recognize change. Often we long for it. So, we certainly recognize it.

There is a time and place for overt displays, for tearing open one’s chest and letting everyone see your heart and your soul. But, mostly, you don’t need to go big as long as you can go true.

As I write this, Phil just started his speech to Rita while she’s sleeping. It isn’t big. It’s quiet, it’s still—though it’s only still because they hadn’t shot any other angles. And, it rings true because the scene is not explaining anything to us. Phil might be explaining a little, but not to us. Instead, it plays like we are witnessing a truly private moment. It’s intimate and maybe we’re not even supposed to be there. If Phil had jumped in with voiceover, or if the speech had existed only in voiceover, then it would have felt wrong.

If the basketball scene had simply ended with Phil eyeing the kid, Phil noting the similarities, but not telling us all about it, it would also have rung more true.

Today’s reason to repeat a day forever: despite a bit of what I just said, to go big, because I don’t do that often enough.

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