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The Year ‘Groundhog Day’ Became a Thing

Danny Rubin, the writer of the groundbreaking Bill Murray comedy, talks about how it felt to see his concept executed in three different films in 2017

Columbia Pictures/Ringer illustration

When Groundhog Day was released in 1993, it was considered high-concept. Film critics often referenced The Twilight Zone when explaining the comedy’s plot: a condescending weatherman named Phil Connors (played by Bill Murray) is forced to relive the same day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. The original screenplay was written by Danny Rubin, who further refined it with the movie’s director, Harold Ramis.

Rubin says that he has a whole shelf of untraditional scripts that he wrote over the years that were optioned by studios but never made. In a profile of him that ran in New York magazine earlier this year before the opening of the Groundhog Day musical on Broadway, his daughter Maida said, “It seemed true of all his projects that they would take out the part he found interesting. They just wanted it to be more like something they already knew.”

But in the nearly quarter century since Groundhog Day arrived in theaters, it’s title has become cultural shorthand for any time you’re stuck in a bad situation. It even played a part in a bizarre press conference with Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano at the end of November. The time-loop concept has become so popular for television shows and movies that it’s now a cliché. And while some treatments have been pulled off well (Tom Cruise’s sci-fi blast Edge of Tomorrow probably being the best), 2017 saw three films utilize the Groundhog Day concept across three different genres: Netflix’s broad Marlon Wayans comedy Naked, the teen drama Before I Fall, and Happy Death Day—Blumhouse’s PG-13 horror flick the reached no. 1 at the box office in October.

In a year when many Americans felt like they woke up every morning to find more bad news on their phone instead of Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe” on the radio, I spoke to Danny Rubin on the phone from New Mexico about Groundhog Day’s adaptability and where else the concept could go.

Were you aware of these three new films that used the Groundhog Day device this year before they came out?

Well, usually somebody calls my attention to them, and they are usually indignant on my behalf, even though I don’t feel indignant about it at all. I find it all kind of flattering. I haven’t actually seen those most recent movies. I just haven’t felt compelled to, but I’d be perfectly happy to see any of them. I’m always delighted to see all the different ways that the time-repeating premise can be spun out. I knew I couldn’t do everything when I came up with the Groundhog Day idea, [but] I knew it had tons of potential.

What was the first one that was brought to your attention?

I guess the first one was 12:01, and the ones after that it were television episodes—X-Files, and then there was Xena: Warrior Princess. A friend of mine works on TV series—I’ve never done that kind of work. He said that after a few seasons, you really run out of original ideas and they have a handful of these [concepts] that they pull out of their ass. One of those now is Groundhog Day. We’ve invented a new one for them to put in the quiver.

Do you think it’s just a coincidence that there were three new movies this year that did it?

I have no idea. To get a movie made, you need some extra kind of oomph, and a lot of the industry seems to rely on familiarity. Groundhog Day has emerged from being kind of an outlier that isn’t really part of the system into something quite well known and central to people when they think about movies. It might be safe to say, “It’s Groundhog Day and a train with a bomb.” Now people don’t go, “That’s edgy. That’s crazy.” They go, “Oh, I see it. That’s fun.”

I saw that there were, over the years, some little things posted on YouTube—like people would take the footage from a movie, including Groundhog Day, and show how they could cut it with different music to feel like a horror film. I swear, whoever did the most recent [Groundhog Day–inspired] horror film probably pointed at that and said, “See? It could work.”

What is it about the premise that works across genres?

I haven’t put any thought into why it works in different genres, particularly. I know why it worked in our film, because I thought about that a lot. There’s something about having a repetitive life experience and being able to use what you learn in different ways that is a relatable human experience. Even though it feels like a fanciful, magical premise that doesn’t really exist, our sequences of days do add up to us in that same way a lot of the time.

And then there’s the superhero thing that we’re all attracted to. The character who gets to know what’s gonna happen, when nobody else does, has been given a superpower. We’re always attracted to see how somebody uses that superpower. That can be used in any genre.

Everything is getting turned into a TV show now. You could do Groundhog Day as an anthology series, where every episode is a different take on this idea.

Oh, absolutely. Even just within Groundhog Day itself, you could have an infinite number of stories of things that [Phil Connors] did on any given day. Each one can be as poetic, or as funny, or as outrageous, or as dark as you want it to be, because it could be from any different point in his progress.

[Groundhog Dog] is like a TV series, really. Everyone sort of starts over every day. But [in real life] actors age, people get pregnant, people get in ski accidents. I mean, it would be hard to keep the show going without something happening. I had thought if anybody ever wanted to do something like that, they should do it as an animation, because then it can last forever.

I don’t know if you’ve revealed it, but do you have a sense of how long Phil Connors was trapped in the time loop?

No. I mean, I do have a sense of it, I don’t have a number. For me it was always an experiment to see what would happen if a person had more than one lifetime. Would that be enough for them to grow up? That’s where the whole thing started for me. When I came up with the idea of having an infinity of days in a circle, as opposed to in a line, I realized it didn’t have to actually have a specific number of days. It just seemed to me it needed to be more than one lifetime.

Harold Ramis, when he was trying to figure this out, had to deal with the studio, who couldn’t hack this length of time. They said people would go nuts—it could only last for like two weeks. Harold and I were like, “You know there’s no way it’s a credible adventure in two weeks.” Harold solved it by taking out any references to how long it is so that anyone can use their imagination, and that sounds about right to me.

Harold gauged it at about 10 years, I think. I am always quoted as saying, “Ten thousand years,” because that’s a Buddhist thing, but I never said it. [Ten thousand years] is fine with me, but it doesn’t have to be that long. That would be too long.

Even though it’s become such a prevalent reference in our culture, when people say something is a Groundhog Day situation, do you feel like they’re actually using the reference correctly?

People use it to describe a negative, repetitive situation that they feel stuck in. The people who reference it that way don’t then turn around and say, “OK, in the movie, he actually got out of it.” It was his worst day, and it was his best day. He figured out how to change it. What if we applied some of the same ways of thinking that Phil did to his problem to our situation and actually turned it around?