Danny Rubin wrote the hit movie and then…
A terrific Vulture feature on Danny Rubin who came up with the idea for and co-wrote (with director Harold Ramis) the classic comedy movie Groundhog Day. His is a most interesting story because… well, read on:
It's still the film he's still best known for; in fact, to this day, it's the only film he's known for. If you look him up on imdb.com, there are just four writing credits to his name. One of them is the story credit for the Italian remake of Groundhog Day ("Stork Day"). Two others are screenplays for a 1993 Marlee Matlin thriller and a 1994 film called S.F.W. that enjoys a solid 12 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The fourth credit is Groundhog Day — a film so beloved, idiomized, and dissertated about that it's passed into English vernacular. For almost 25 years, that lone film has remained, for good or ill, his calling card.
"I'm the guy who wrote Groundhog Day," he says now. "I'm not the amazing screenwriter who's had this long and storied career. I'm not Tom Stoppard." But if you have to be stuck with one movie, it could be a worse movie than Groundhog Day. "It's delightful to be so associated with something so well loved," Rubin says. "You could break your heart thinking you're the victim of this amazing life you've got."
How could someone who wrote what is arguably one of the best comedies of all time not have a Hollywood career with one hit movie after another?
It didn't help that he'd moved his family to Santa Fe, New Mexico, before Groundhog Day had even finished shooting. At first, L.A. tried to woo him back, regularly flying him into town. Rubin's brother Michael, who also worked in Hollywood, knew how this was supposed to go: "They want to meet you for lunch at the Ivy and they want to think you're a totally fun guy," he says. "You get in the door because you wrote a hit movie, but they want to see you as a guy they can play with." But Rubin wouldn't play.
"It would be like, Goldie Hawn has a dysfunctional family, none of them get along, so they go camping and in the end they all learn to love each other," Rubin recalls. "Typically I would say, 'Okay, I am going to tell you your movie.' " He'd lay out a perfectly respectable studio picture, with a three-act structure and a conventional conclusion. "And then I'd say, 'Under no circumstances am I going to write that movie.' " He sighs. "It took me years to understand that's why the business started disappearing."
I remember back when I was first starting to work in Hollywood, a writer advising me, "You can make a lot of money as a screenwriter as long as you keep saying 'Yes'". Evidently Rubin kept saying "No".
I say that to his credit because (A) clearly he knows his own tastes, (B) he would prefer to write original material, and (C ) a lot of movie projects back in the 80s and 90s were pretty crappy, dumb high concept stories with little to no originality.
And then there was the growing legacy of his brain-child:
The letters and phone calls and emails would reach a crescendo every February 2, a day when Rubin would hear not only from strangers and fans but from his own friends and family. Someone — he never found out who — for years left him little presents, balloons or candy or a toy groundhog, on his porch in Santa Fe. "It's like my birthday," he says.
You could imagine a version of this story in which Rubin is bitter. "He's got every reason to have an antagonistic relationship with this beast," says Matthew Warchus, who directed the musical. Minchin agrees: "One can assume that, Groundhog Day being so far and away his greatest success, it would cast a huge shadow over him," he says. Rubin himself will concede only the slightest negativity. "I was always thinking, I'm not a one-hit wonder, I'm not a one-hit wonder!" he says. Then he laughs. "But even if I am — okay, that's more than most people get."
And now his brainchild has become a Broadway musical.
Over the years, Rubin has been a teacher and lecturer at a number of universities. Currently per his Wikipedia page, he is a "Briggs-Copeland Lecturer on English at Harvard University". He even wrote an eBook on screenwriting, called How to Write "Groundhog Day." I'd say Mr. Rubin is doing all right for himself.
If there's a takeaway for aspiring screenwriters, it's this: Know thyself! Are you one of those writers who will happily say 'Yes' to writing assignments which are more about the paycheck and less about the creativity. Or like Danny Rubin, are you prepared to say 'No' and stick to your inspirational guns?
Oh, and also this: If you are going to take the creative high road, try to come up with as great a story concept and execute the hell out of it like Rubin did with Groundhog Day.
As a reminder how special the movie is, here are some of the best Bill Murray clips:
For the rest of the Vulture article, go here.
Anybody a fan of Groundhog Day? What's your favorite scene? And are you a 'Yes' or 'No' screenwriter?