How Groundhog Day Changed Dramatically During Development

Groundhog Day was nearly a $3 million independent movie. And a much darker one, with a big twist ending...

Groundhog Day (1993) Poster

Spoilers lie ahead for Groundhog Day.

Groundhog Day, directed by the late Harold Ramis and starring the peerless Bill Murray, was a solid hit in 1993, but crucially, it’s been a film with staying power. It’s one of the few movies that you can legitimately say is enjoyed just as much today as it was on its original release. 

But as with pretty much every film, it all could have been very different. In the case of Groundhog Day though, we’ve got an idea as to just how different. That’s because the man who came up with the idea for the film, Danny Rubin, penned a fascinating book where he detailed the genesis and development of the film. And in doing so, he’s revealed that the movie was originally a much darker beast than the one we got.

Not that it’s already shy of darkness. The theory is that Phil Connors in the film lives February 2nd at least 10,000 times before he eventually gets it right. But still: Rubin has a few more revelations.

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Note that all quotes are taken from the book How To Write Groundhog Day, from Triad Publishing, that’s highly recommended and available to buy now. In it, you’ll find the full original screenplay that we’re going to be discussing, and plenty of annotations as to why certain decisions were made. This article will give you just a flavor of some of them.

The Anne Rice influence

Phil Connors in the bathtub with a toaster

To go back to the very beginning, in the mid-1980s, Rubin had a two-day intensive brainstorming session, to come up with 50 movie ideas, that he’d whittle down to ten. His aim was to interest a new union of the Illinois Film Commission and the founder of The Second City comedy club. They wanted to make films, and they wanted to use Chicago talent.

Tenth on Rubin’s ultimate shortlist was a project called Time Machine, about, in his words, a guy “stuck in a time warp that commits him to living the same day over and over and over again.” His further note read that “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?)”

The project went nowhere, but fast forward a few years and Rubin found himself mulling Anne Rice’s book, The Vampire Lestat. It set in his head the idea of how someone might act if their life had no end.

Considering how he could take a “self-centred, adolescent-like adult protagonist” to live life forever and see if he changes, he came up against the brick wall of the complications of putting across eternity. How could that work in a film? But then he had his eureka moment: a story of a man who repeats the same day over and over again.

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“My funny movie idea about repetition and my human experiment about immortality had become one,” he noted. Groundhog Day was born (and Rubin quickly settled on February 2nd as the perfect holiday to set his film around).

The core idea would sit at the heart of the movie, right through its development.

The Offers

The first draft of Groundhog Day took Rubin four days, but that was after he’d put together a full outline, that he’d spent a month or two developing. After a polish or two over the coming weeks, he was ready to send it off.

Needing a new agent, he sent the screenplay to the huge CAA agency, specifically to Richard Lovett. This was a wise move. Lovett would explain that CAA couldn’t take Rubin on as a writer client at that stage, but offered to send the script to some of his existing producer and director clients. One of whom was the late, great Harold Ramis.

Ramis would be at the heart of one of the two offers Rubin got for the film, the one from Columbia Pictures that was ultimately accepted. The other came from a smaller independent company, IRS Pictures, who promised to honour Rubin’s screenplay pretty much as it was, and assign a $3 million budget.

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Rubin bit the bullet, and took the Columbia option. He did so knowing that the film would change a lot, and that he’d relinquish some control as a consequence. This would all prove to be the case.

Draft One

Phil Connors and Ned Ryerson

The first draft screenplay for Groundhog Day cuts out the beginning of the film as we know it and basically starts in the middle of the story.

Here, Phil Connors – played, of course, by Bill Murray in the movie, although there’s little sign that Murray was in mind at this stage – is already in Punxsutawney right at the start of the film, and it kicks off with him being woken up at 6 am with the conversation between two DJs on the clock radio. Sonny and Cher are indeed playing.

The setup of the film, where Phil and Rita – ultimately played by Andie MacDowell – are sent to cover the Groundhog Day festivities, is instead covered in voiceover as Phil leaves the boarding house on the morning of February 2nd, and heads to the town center.

read more – Nothing Lasts Forever: Bill Murray’s Lost Sci-Fi Movie

We quickly learn too that he’s already in the midst of repeating the same day over and over. Ned Riersen, for instance, is punched just a few pages in with no overt explanation as to why. One page later, Connors is already chatting up Nancy on the way to his coverage of Punxsutawney Phil’s weather pronouncement.

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In fact, the original script is frontloaded with a lot of the darker moments. For instance, after we’ve seen him cover Groundhog Day on the television just once, we get the moment where Phil has kidnapped the groundhog, gets into a police chase and ultimately crashed into a car parked as a road block. He has basically committed suicide before we’ve really got a handle on what’s happening.

It’s only then that we get the digital clock radio for the second time. Phil’s voiceover fills in the blanks – and it’s a very voiceover-heavy script – as he walks to Gobbler’s Knob again, and more through telling than showing, the audience learns what’s going on, some 15 or so pages in.

Early Changes

While the original script has lots of sequences that form the guts of the finished film, there are a few additions. There’s an early scene at a YMCA pool, for instance, where he gets annoyed as he can’t swim past an elderly man. Later in the script, he tries again, deciding to dive into said pool naked, whereby the aforementioned elderly man promptly swaps lanes.

Not long after, Phil stands in the middle of the crowd at Gobbler’s Knob, ‘guessing’ the middle name of a lady when challenged. “Being a mind reader made me very popular,” Phil says, in voiceover. Then the story cuts to a nightclub, where he talks of having his way with 49 of the 63 eligible women in Punxsutawney. “The last few are proving more of a challenge” he says, again in voiceover.

The nightclub scene, though, is an early mirror of the sequence in the final movie where the Connors acquires knowledge as to what the other person wants – their favorite drink, poetry – and we quickly cut to see him using said knowledge the following day here, just in a different context.

High Noon

Phil Connors wakes up

Phil also acknowledges overtly in the original script that he’s keeping deliberate track of time by reading one page of a book a day. We learn that he’s been stuck in the day for 365 days and counting thus far. As the story progresses, Phil returns to the bookshelf again, and we see that lots of time has passed.

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Considering the final film makes barely any reference to how much time is involved – short of the alarm clock every morning! – it’s notable that there’s something of a ticking clock constantly in the background here. The end point is set as the last book on the bottom shelf of the final bookcase. When Phil ultimately goes all the way back to the very first book on the shelf near the end of the script, it’s very much a low point for the character.

Time is very much overt in draft one. At one stage, Phil says that “I’ve been living in this town for sixteen novels, twelve books of poetry, nine history books, twenty romance novels, the Time/Life series on home improvement, and Holly Lancaster’s high school yearbook, and still nobody seems to know my name.” He later reckons he’s been stuck for 70 or 80 years – closer to 30,000 days than the 10,000 day approximate span of the final film. Either way, he’s been there a long time.

Further Differences

We also learn fairly early in the original draft, via voiceover, that he’s attracted to Rita. “It was clear that Rita wasn’t just another one night stand,” he says in voiceover. “I was in love. And you may think this was just the thing to make life everlasting a nice place to be.”

Phil also overtly recognizes how he’s tied to the groundhog, and here, it proves the turning point of the story. “I am the groundhog, and he is me. I am Punxsutawney Phil, and forever shall my fate be linked to his. Whatever happens to him, happens to me. I finally saw a way out of this cruel existence,” he laments.

read more: In Defense of Ghostbusters 2

Eventually, as the movie heads into its final act, he plans his own birthday party, complete with a big cake and all the people he’s met during his time in Punxsutawney (he says in the script that it’s his 263rd birthday, although it’s written more as a joke to my eyes). And then when that doesn’t break him out of Groundhog Day, he takes a flight to visit his mother.

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There’s a dog poo joke in the first draft, too.

The Tone

Phil Connors ice sculpting

It’s a tonally very different film, one far more concerned with loneliness. Whereas the eventual movie is more romantic comedy, as Phil – through Rita – learns to change his life, to be a better man, here he’s a lot darker, less likeable, and more obviously damaged. The final draft would bring out characters like Ned – although the “Bing!” is already in the first version! – and would flesh out Rita a lot more too. In the original version, they feel like very much background figures for much of the drama.

Phil ultimately finds his way out of loneliness in the first version then not by slowly learning to do right, but by chatting to a woman in an old people’s home, and then a teenager playing basketball. They both share their fears, their insights, their thoughts. And Phil realizes it’s not just him that’s alone.

It’s then that he realizes he needs to become “the invisible hand of Punxsutawney, quietly removing pain wherever I could find it.” He thus makes balloon animals for children in a hospital ward. He carries groceries for an old woman. And he’s described, in a lovely nod to The Apartment, as a “mensch.”

Finally, he shows Rita the marble sculpture he’s made of her, understanding that he was no longer driven by a wish for her to love him, but instead a desire to make her happy. She sees the statue, clutches his hand, and they walk off together.

Then the film would have cut to the clock radio on the morning of February 3rd.

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The Original Rug Pull

Which is where Rubin would have pulled the twist. For as Phil and Rita walk along the street, Phil would have declared his love – and Rita would have rejected it. The film’s voiceover would have switched to her, and she would declare that she doesn’t love Phil, and that “I’m not ready to love anybody.”

And in fact, now it’s Rita stuck in a time loop of her own.

Given that Rubin admitted he never originally intended the film to be a romantic comedy, that may well have fitted too. Had the film progressed as an indie project, that may well have been the darker ending we’d have got – and the film may well have been talked about as much as a consequence!

Development

Phil and Rita with a snowman

Why did it all change? That’d be down to the influence and work of the late Harold Ramis. Rubin wanted an original story, Columbia wanted a big comedy, Ramis wanted – and ultimately got – both. It was he who asked Columbia to option the screenplay, and after several meetings, Rubin rewrote his draft. Ramis zeroed in on the love story element, and bring the characters of Rita and Phil in some degree of tandem.

Lots of development time, too, was spent discussing just what caused Phil to be caught in the same day. Rubin had always avoided trying to explain this, but wary of Columbia wanted detail on it, Ramis and Rubin tried to come up with something. It’s unclear if they ever did.

In the end, Rubin delivered his fresh draft on February 2, 1991, that Ramis then took away and rewrote (the pair share screenwriting credit on the final picture). It was off the back of Ramis’ draft that Bill Murray signed on in the lead role.

Murray and Ramis then worked through the script again, tailoring it more for Murray. Rubin was then brought in again to work with Murray too, to put together another draft.

Even just one month before production was set to begin, multiple pages and versions were flying around. Ramis was keen to keep the story within the ballpark of the one Columbia had greenlit, while Rubin and Murray were polishing and polishing, going in turn a little back to the core of Rubin’s original idea.

The final shooting script eventually came down to Ramis and Rubin then going through all the material, dividing up the final writing tasks, editing one another, before Ramis locked himself away for a day or two to lock down the final version. And while Murray would improvise during production (the line he speaks to Ned – “I don’t know where you’re headed, but can you call in sick?” – is one of his), that final script was very much the foundation of the story. With the exception of a few scenes that were written, but never shot as they were deemed unnecessary (praying in church, winning bets in a pool hall for instance).

Even given the tonal differences, it’s interesting to see how much of Rubin’s original story made it into the final film in some form (Connors always got the chance to show off his Jeopardy skills!). And how the idea never veered from the eureka moment that set Rubin off in the first place.

It goes to prove that even classic films can have sometimes very different flavors during their development, though, and often very bumpy roads to the screen. And just think: what if Rubin had taken the other offer? Would we be celebrating the birthday of a classic now at all?

While you ponder that, I’m off to listen to Sonny & Cher again…