I had trouble reading the Script Notes bit in the eBook of How to Write Groundhog Day before—it’s not Rubin’s notes typed up but scans of the original typed pages. Full page images are not the easiest thing to navigate (and text in them is hard to read) in the nook app. Then, I forgot about the section until recently, and finally read through it yesterday.
Most of the Script Notes seem to have been written before Rubin even completed a draft of the screenplay. Then, there are some check marks next to each of them. Not sure if he was checking them off as he put them into the screenplay or what… not even sure all of these things went into the screenplay. But, it’s interesting to see even more of the process not just in Rubin’s head but what he put to paper before he even sat down to write.
The first note kinda gets the movie totally, so really, I could just cover it and call it a day. But, of course, I won’t do that. Anyway, the first note: “If there are no consequences for actions, then what gives life a thrill?” As an example of what he’s getting at—Rubin’s notes, like Phil’s voiceover, overexplain a bit, especially considering these were presumably only written for himself—Rubin’s next note expands further:
At first robbing a bank is a thrill, just as a game, to see if you can pull it off. But once you’ve done it a thousand times, and all the scenarios have been played out over and over, is there any thrill to it?(Note: the underline is handwritten.)
There’s a couple nice bits that would have only fit in voiceover (though, then they would have been lost later anyway): regarding traveling, “If you’ve only got one day to live, how much of it do you want to spend on a bus?” and a line that would have gone straight into voiceover: “I’ve tried going west to pick up a couple hours a day, but apparently it doesn’t work that way. I only get 24 hours. I live by the clock on my bureau. That’s the only one that matters.” I love the idea of heading west to try to extend the day—though that would actually have Phil headed directly into the blizzard. But, then, in a note here and a couple notes later, Rubin obsesses a bit about that clock at the bed and breakfast. He considers the idea of that clock being the key to everything; if Phil destroys it, he’s free, but “It’s a huge responsibility. So huge, maybe he won’t break the clock. Maybe I need some time to figure it out.” It’s interesting here that Rubin’s notes switch from first-person (arguably Phil (though he doesn’t have a name until later in the notes) but also, in this particular case for example, maybe Rubin dealing with his own ideas) and third-person. I can understand another reason beside the personal story that Rubin would have used a lot of voiceover. It came straight out of his notes.
Rubin listed his themes explicitly (though, keep in mind, this is before he wrote a page of the screenplay):
-Immortality, death and dying
No challenge to death
Fear of death
-Morality and accountability
Only immediate consequences
-Relationships, lonliness [sic]
Only fleeting. Nothing longer than a day.
At one point in the notes, Rubin implies that the narrator won’t be Phil. In one of his notes about how Phil picks up new skills (including “to get chics [sic]”), Phil (still just “he”) offers $500 to a guy at a piano store to let him sit there and play. “The [sic] the narrators says, ‘Buying a piano and having it delivered took up too much time.” It’s interesting how Rubin is figuring out his character as he goes, he doesn’t even have a name yet, but he’s already getting into his motivations and specific acts he might undertake. I have the opposite happen to me a lot. I have a character in mind, I know what he or she does, what he or she likes, what kinds of hobbies he might have, what kind of people she spends time with, and then I insert them into a story and let them have the reins. When one of my characters—who I really wanted to use again in another story because he amused me—sacrificed himself at the end of one of my novels, I was actually a little surprised. Not because it didn’t make sense, but because at that point, it did make sense for that character. I think that might be an issue I have with Rubin’s attempt to structure the story in seven acts—which I’ll get into below, as far as what he’s got in his notes—he’s got a structure and themes before he’s got his main character, so that’s why so much of it just seems like meandering, filling time.
In a single note—much like the first one—Rubin gets the idea of what he hasn’t yet created, which is remarkable. That note:
Maybe this guy carries with him the goals from his former life. It takes some kind of breakthrough to ralize [sic] that he doesn’t need the same goals. Maybe those goals weren’t even worthwhile. So, whjat [sic] kind of goals are worthwhile?
That right there has been the topic of numerous entries in this blog and gets at all the interest in the film from religious groups (as I mentioned yesterday) as well; it’s why we can all relate with Phil Connors; none of us really know (all the time, anyway) which goals are really worthwhile.
So, about the seven-act structure, Rubin’s first note is this: “Think of it as seven acts. Maybe even begin each with “Act 4 In Which I Kill Myself.” I’m not sure yet what I think of the titlecard idea. It makes for a very different film than the one that exists, and is also quite different from Rubin’s screenplay, given the voiceover playing things like a mystery then explaining everything anyway; titlecards like the example would spoil events before they happen, which alters our experience of the structure and our experience of the film. And, for some reason it reminds me of Clerks and I imagine Phil (film Phil, not Rubin’s original Phil) saying at least once a day as he gets used to the resumptions, “I’m not even supposed to be here today.” Not that there would be anything wrong with that. The more I look at Rubin’s original again, the more I’m amused by Phil constantly dealing with people asking, “Phil? Like the groundhog, Phil?” It only happens once in the film, but it’s in the original script several times.
The next note on the seven-act structure seems to imply that structure fits a TV movie. I don’t know if that’s true. I know hour-long dramas have six acts. I don’t think I’ve actually watched a TV movie with commercials in a long time. Anyway, the note:
ACT ONE 21 (21) 20
ACT TWO 36 (15) 14
ACT THREE 50 (14) 14
ACT FOUR 62 (12) 14
ACT FIVE 78 (16) 14
ACT SIX 90 (12) 14
ACT SEVEN 109 (19) 20(Note: the third number in each line is handwritten)
He hasn’t written a page of script yet at this point and he’s not only breaking down his structure but trying to formulate specific lengths of time for each act. While I don’t often outline prose stories or screenplays before I write them, I have had reason to do so at least a few times. But, never so specifically with lengths. I mean, with my first attempt at a novel, I knew I wanted each chapter to have a minimum length, but other than meeting that minimum, I didn’t care if some went longer. One of my later novels had a specific 25-chapter structure, each with its own theme, built around Norse runes, but the individual chapters varied from 10 to 40 pages. Sure, Rubin is specifically trying to write a screenplay (and considering one note that comes later, maybe he was specifically wanting it to be a TV move at this point) so there is time to factor in. But, that seems like something to work on in a rewrite more than something to shove a first draft into. But, maybe that’s just me.
Rubin breaks down the “progression” of Phil’s journey, this time with only five parts, then another five he labels “try again.” I won’t bore you with this entire list (mostly because I am going to paste his second seven-act breakdown below). And, in at least one of his notes, Rubin considers what so many people take as the throughline of the film, Phil’s pursuit of Rita (though neither one has a name yet):
Maybe he falls in love, and spends the entire movie wooing this woman, until at the end he gets it right. He will never forget the day that they met. Or she will never forget the day that they met.
Rubin isn’t suggesting it as a driving force, or even the main story. But, it’s in there already.
Rubin’s got notes on “adolescent” things Phil could do when he’s playing with his circumstance. Then, he’s got another breakdown of his intended seven-acts (and I should keep this breakdown out sometime and reread the screenplay to see if it fits it or really just meanders):
Act One: “GROUNDHOG DAY”
He behaves irrationally.
He only has one day to live.
Every day is the same one day.
Act Two: “IN WHICH I FALL IN LOVE”
He falls in love.
Act Three: “IN WHICH I CONQUER FEAR AND IGNORE SOCIETY”
Plays with his “powers.”
He becomes totally anti-social.
Act Four: “IN WHICH I DIE”
Very fast at sculpting.
Act Five: “IN WHICH I TURN 200”
Looks for others of his kind.
Develops fascination for minutiae.
Tries to discover religion.
Act Six: “IN WHICH I LEAVE TOWN”
He visits his Mother.
He realizes that he can continue with his life by smashing the clock. He almost does it.
Act Seven: “IN WHICH I WATCH THE SUNRISE”
He falls into state of non-action.
He sorts out his goals.
He chooses a day and breaks the clock.
He finds his love, and remembers why he slugged that guy.
I’ve already complained about the meandering nature of Rubin’s original script, and here it becomes clear that he meant for it to be. He doesn’t include here the idea of Phil trying to escape town, a plot point that would have to come early in the story (and does in Rubin’s script), but does include as late as Act Six Phil visiting his mother. Death gets a titlecard but seems like an afterthought to an act about learning new things. Sorting out goals somehow comes at the end of the story and inaction begins the final act, both of which need to come far earlier. Storywise, inaction is death, which is why the film’s three-act structure works much better. The “adolescent” phase culminates in Phil manipulating his date with Rita, this ends badly and we get depression, inaction and death. It works because it follows smoothly. Then, just as the “adolescent” stuff got old, so does death. And Phil moves on, “sorts out his goals” and acts on them. Rubin’s plan might be realistic as far as how Phil’s journey might go, but it just doesn’t work as a story. At least not as well. I must reiterate, I liked Rubin’s script when I read it. And, it’s appropriate that Rubin overthought it even before he wrote it because now, more than 20 years later, I’m overthinking it all over again.
And, like my previous dealings with screenplays, this one will not be in just one part.
So, today’s reason to repeat a day forever: to see what I could write in 24 hours, then perfect it day after day until I can recite it by heart and have it with me when I get out of the cycle.