By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com February 12, 2013 at 1:04PM
Murray & Ramis weren't just regular collaborators, they were also friends -- Murray is the godfather to one of Ramis' kids. But sadly, their relationship dissolved during the making of the film. Murray was in the midst of a divorce from his first wife, Margaret Kelly, at the time, and became obsessive over the role, ringing Ramis in the middle of the night to talk about it. Ramis, fed up, sent Danny Rubin to Murray's home to work with him in pre-production, the writer telling the New Yorker fifteen years later, “They were like two brothers who weren’t getting along. And they were pretty far apart on what the movie was about—Bill wanted it to be more philosophical, and Harold kept reminding him it was a comedy.” The difficulties continued on set, Ramis telling EW that “Bill had all these obvious resentments toward the production, so it was very hard for a time to communicate with him. Calls would go unreturned. Production assistants couldn’t find him. So someone said, ‘Bill, you know, things would be easier if you had a personal assistant. Then we wouldn’t have to bother you with all this stuff.’ And he said, ‘Okay.’ So he hired a personal assistant who was profoundly deaf, did not have oral speech, spoke only American sign language, which Bill did not speak, nor did anyone else in the production. But Bill said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m going to learn sign language.’ And I think it was so inconvenient that in a couple weeks, he gave that up. That’s anti-communication, you know? Let’s not talk.'"
But as funny as it can be to relate now, it made the atmosphere on set very difficult, as Ramis told the New Yorker. “At times, Bill was just really irrationally mean and unavailable; he was constantly late on set,” the director says. “What I’d want to say to him is just what we tell our children: ‘You don’t have to throw tantrums to get what you want. Just say what you want.’” Once filming wrapped, Murray stopped speaking to Ramis altogether, and aside from a few passing comments at funerals and the like, they continue to be estranged. Ramis tried to recruit Murray to play the part eventually taken by Randy Quaid in 2005's "The Ice Harvest," but Murray passed, and when asked to comment on a New Yorker profile, heartbreakingly commented, "I really don’t have anything to say.”
Contrary to its reputation these days as a classic, "Groundhog Day" was only moderately well-received on release, taking a solid but unexceptional $70 million in the U.S., and somewhat taken for granted by critics. For instance, the Washington Post's Desson Howe wrote that, while it was a relatively good vehicle for Murray "'Groundhog' will never be designated a national film treasure by the Library of Congress" (for the record, it was added to the Library of Congress only thirteen years later, deemed "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant"). But the film quickly found favor not just among movie fans, but also among religious types. After all, by dealing not only with a concept variously described as reincarnation or purgatory, and with the central theme of a man learning to become a better person, it's as much a parable as a studio comedy. Ramis told the New York Times a decade ago of the reaction to the film. "At first I would get mail saying, 'Oh, you must be a Christian, because the movie so beautifully expresses Christian belief,' he said. "Then rabbis started calling from all over, saying they were preaching the film as their next sermon. And the Buddhists! Well, I knew they loved it, because my mother-in-law has lived in a Buddhist meditation center for 30 years and my wife lived there for 5 years."
Ramis himself doesn't practice any religion in particular, but certainly acknowledges the deeper readings of the film. Christians, like Jesuit priest Rev. James Martin, sees Murray's character as a Christ analogy saying, "You very clearly see the deadness of his life at the beginning of the movie. What is reborn is this new person resurrected from his comatose way of looking at the world." But a Greenwich Village rabbi, Dr. Niles Goldstein argued that the films' worldview is more Jewish than Christian, saying that Murray's character is rewarded for his good deeds, rather than being returned to Earth. But there's also a Buddhist interpretation, Professor Angela Zito of NYU saying that the film illustrates the concept of samsara -- the continuing cycle of rebirth that individuals can break out of by performing good deeds. In fact, she argues that the film is closer to Mahayana Buddhism, in which, as she says "nobody ever imagines they are going to escape samsara until everybody else does. That is why you have bodhisattvas, who reach the brink of nirvana, and stop and come back and save the rest of us. Bill Murray is the bodhisattva. He is not going to abandon the world. On the contrary, he is released back into the world to save it." Even wiccans have gotten in on the act, as the real-life Groundhog Day on February 2nd shares its date with the first of the "greater sabbats" that divide the period between solstices and equinoxes.
While "Groundhog Day" has become synonymous with the idea of living the same day or event over and over again, it was far from the first film to take on the conceit, and far from the last. The film was preceded by Richard Lupoff's 1973 short story "12:01," about a New York executive who discovers that he's reliving the same hour of his life over and over again. The story was adapted into an Oscar-nominated short, starring Kurtwood Smith, in 1990, as well as a TV movie starring Jeremy Piven and Martin Landau that aired only six months after the release of "Groundhog Day." Lawsuits were mooted by Lupoff and the short's writer Jonathan Heap, but never came to pass. The film was also preceded by an episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" in March 1992, in which the cruise of the USS Enterprise are forced to relive their crash into another ship (captained by, of all people, Kelsey Grammer) over and over again. But "Groundhog Day" has been more consciously homaged after its release as well. Episodes of both "The X-Files" (season six's "Monday," which sees Mulder and Scully trapped in a time-loop during a bank heist) and "Supernatural" (season three's "Mystery Spot," with another time loop caused by a trickster god). The short-lived Taye Diggs ABC series "Day Break" also tried to stretch the premise over an entire TV series, but unsurprisingly lasted only six episodes before it was cancelled.
But so far, the only official spin-off is 2004's "E gia ieri," literally translated as "It's Already Yesterday," and also known as "Stork Day." The Italian film, directed by Giulio Manfredonia, and starring Italian TV comedy star Antonio Alabanese, is a officially-sanctioned, reasonably faithful remake of the film, with Alabanese as a bad-tempered nature documentarian who goes to the Canary Islands to report on a stork migration, only to find himself repeating the same day over and over again. Many elements of the film recur, including surrogates for Chris Elliot's cameraman and Stephen Tobolowsky's Ned Ryerson, but it looks to us to be pretty Italian in nature too. Watch both the trailer and the full film below. More promising was the mooted musical version of the film, floated by the great Stephen Sondheim. The composer was considering the idea of adapting the film as a "theme and variations" piece, which makes sense, but by 2008, had dropped the idea, saying that "to make a musical of 'Groundhog Day' would be to gild the lily. It cannot be improved." Most recently, Duncan Jones' "Source Code" gave a sci-fi thriller twist to the premise, and won the approval of writer Danny Rubin, telling The Guardian "I quite liked that. Every time it happens, my friends say: 'You just got ripped off. I hope they paid you.' I'm, like: 'No, it's an homage.' It's not like I'm being erased. It's an honour. I always thought the premise could be explored a million different ways. I welcome all of these explorations; it's fun for me because I like to see how other people play with the idea. Basically it shows how ubiquitous it's become in the culture. It's getting harder and harder now to find anyone who hasn't seen it."