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How to Write Groundhog Day -- Danny Rubin's Wild Ride

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Imagine, with no prior experience, jotting down 10 ideas for a feature film on a piece of paper, and then two of them becoming major motion pictures.

Screenwriter Danny Rubin not only hit that daily double, but his second script, Groundhog Day, has become an existential comedy classic, the un-holiday holiday film that brought an American-born writer with European comedic sensibilities; mainstream Hollywood comedy director Harold Ramis, seeking to stretch out of juvenile comedies; actor Bill Murray, looking for quirkier, richer parts like What About Bob?; and Columbia Pictures, a studio looking for a big fat hit comedy, into a partnership almost as improbable as the time-warped film that it created.

Rubin's new Kindle and Apple eBook, How to Write Groundhog Day, is less of a "how-to" and more of a look into how those cosmic tumblers dropped into place and turned Rubin's concept, and brilliant writer's draft of the screenplay, into a big-budget Hollywood film, with all of the good, bad and challenges that come with it.

It is one of the most honest looks at the challenges of writing a great screenplay since William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade.

The eBook is prefaced by the story of how the script came to be, and how Rubin decided to launch off into the screenwriting business. Danny had been working in Chicago doing commercials, stage plays and industrial films. Then after a founder of the Second City comedy club who took over the Illinois Film Commission suggested launching Chicago as a film center, Rubin started mulling over feature-length story ideas that he could sell.

His 10 script ideas included Silencer, a thriller about murders in the deaf community starring Marlee Matlin. Danny received a story credit, along with Randall M. Badat, for that film.

His first "Written by" credit, what became Groundhog Day, started its life as a notation about a time machine. Rubin's original premise for the film could be summed up in its core existential dilemma: "A man repeats the same day over and over again."

The premise was rich with possibilities: What would he experience? How would he change?

The eBook approaches Rubin's writer's draft of the script in an equally existential way. It's one of the first non-linear books in the eBook world.

As you read the script, it is very important to click on the footnote numbers to get the full flavor. Each one takes advantage of the electronic book form, popping you back and forth from the script to Rubin's comments about the part of the script that you're reading. You can read the footnotes as one long chapter, but without the context of the screenplay, both the script and the notes would come off a bit flat. You'll also need to jump past the footnotes chapter to the final chapters of the book, which are amply worth your read.

That first thing that strikes you about his script is that it is no wonder why so many of the agents and producers in its early stages said that it was the best first-draft script that they'd ever read.

Danny writes with a marvelous brevity. His strong character development rolls mostly out of picture-perfect dialogue and no-nonsense scene descriptions that directors and producers love. He didn't have the film-school-induced control issues that drag many a first screenplay down.

He delivered a taught framework upon which could hang the myriad hats of the dozens of contributors who flesh out the written word to what you see on screen.

His script stands up well against the more weighty techniques of other screenwriting standard-bearers whose books on writing movies have become film school standards.

The footnotes are the best part of the book, though. Rubin's notes aren't just glib, goofy riffs, or insider dish on the actors behind the scenes (Although he recalls one envy-making moment when Andie MacDowell was sitting on his lap. Possibly one of the few great perq moments of a screenwriter.).

His commentary is an adventure through both his personal process and the screenwriting process. Rubin does one of the best jobs of narrating the twisted, pothole-filled road to Hollywood, from the string of agents, to the doors to deals at places like Disney that magically opened and mysteriously closed, all of which, in their own way, lead to Groundhog Day.

As he tells you about all of the pieces of Groundhog Day coming together, he weighs his own desires and concerns to protect his more cerebral brand of comedy, against the studio's desire to protect its investment, and Harold Ramis' desire to put his own imprint on the movie. He acknowledges Bill Murray's wild-card comedic genius that gave the film its final over-the-top spark that made the film the big box office hit that kept everyone happy.

Within the eBook, we learn:
    • How Bill Murray brought him back into the revision process, and made him one of the rare writers to have a more collaborative experience on a big-budget movie.
      How the script evolved from the character Phil's personal journey into a quirky love story.
      How the tug and pull of the process made the movie better, and made him a better writer responding to the challenges before him with an open mind.
  • Rubin also provides some great looks into things added and dropped from the film.

    There was a cut scene that the studio had wanted, to "ground" and explain Phil's time loop as a gypsy curse that proved that Rubin could set aside his singular creative vision and knock out a genuinely funny "patch" to keep the studio happy.

    One of Danny's "Post Hog" reflections discusses the phenomenon of the reaction that people had to the film, from priests and monks to psychologists to someone who called it the "best Buddhist movie ever." Here he shares his actual influences with us, and his fascination with the audience's reactions to his creation.

    For those who dream of seeing their name up on the big screen, Rubin's world view of Hollywood and the movie business is balanced, sober and real.

    Danny's "Post Hog" candid takes on the often frustrating reality of many a working professional screenwriter are the kind of brutal honesty that most in the Hollywood system are loath to acknowledge.

    Do they want Danny Rubin, the screenwriter, or the name of Danny Rubin, the guy who had the hit Bill Murray film, attached to a new project? As he points out, there is a difference.

    Just as Groundhog Day found a funny way to challenge our perceptions of humanity in space and time, Rubin's How to Write Groundhog Day challenges our perceptions of the Hollywood system, great screenwriting, and that fine line where screenwriters bend to the will of the money and the other creatives, and where they stand their own ground.

    His narration of his own life, from moving to Santa Fe, where I first met him, to teaching screenwriting at Columbia and Harvard University is as wonderfully quirky a tale as his most celebrated feature film.

    If you're a more than mildly obsessed Groundhog Day fan, you'll find plenty of anecdotes about the movie to make this a great read.

    If you're an aspiring writer or filmmaker, it's truly one of the best and most honest books about Hollywood screenwriting that you'll ever read.

    If you're Pathé in France, you should be sending Danny a copy of Rosetta Stone French and trying like hell to get him to translate his other scripts. America's satiric screenwriting Sartre should have more of his bright, introspective comedies hit the silver screen.

    My shiny two.