PUNXSUTAWNEY, Pa.—Actor Stephen Tobolowsky, best known for playing the annoying Ned Ryerson in the cult classic Groundhog Day, was invited to Punxsutawney for Groundhog Day 2010 by its officiants, the group of top-hatted men known as the Inner Circle.
At Gobbler’s Knob on the frosty Groundhog Day morning, Stephen confided in the crowd of an estimated 15,000. For the first time, he said, he would share the details of how the final scene, when Bill Murray’s character finally escapes Groundhog Day, was decided upon.
Ned is the greatest thing in the world because Ned is that character, just like life, who keeps coming at you and keeps changing and makes you smile every time he comes around the corner. For me that was the experience of Groundhog Day.
Stephen Tobolowsky: He [Bill Murray] said, “I refuse to shoot this scene until I know how I am dressed. Am I wearing the clothes I wore the night before? Am I wearing p.j.’s? Am I not wearing that?” That is, what happened that night between him and Andie [MacDowell]? So, he refused to shoot it. Harold Ramis, the director, had not thought of this question, and he didn’t know. So he took a vote from the cast and crew as to what Bill was wearing. Is he wearing the clothes from the night before, or is he wearing pajamas? And it was a tie, a tie vote, so Bill still refused to shoot the scene.
Then one girl in the movie—it was her first film—she was assistant set director. She raised her hand and said, “He is absolutely wearing the clothes he wore the night before. If he is not wearing the clothes he wore the night before, it will ruin the movie. That’s my vote.” So Harold Ramis said, “Then that’s what we are going to do.” I’ve never told anybody that behind-the-scenes story, so keep that a secret now.
Following the revelation, Stephen went on to perform his character’s, Ned Ryerson’s, whistling bellybutton trick for the crowd. In the interest of good taste, I won’t share those details here—we’ll leave that for a much more sensational publication. It’s unclear if the bellybotton trick demo was indeed a true first, as Stephen has before shared with fans how the final movie scene was determined, but it all certainly fit well into the ethos of the Groundhog Day morning. Punxsutawney Phil is at least 124 years old, don’t ya know?
Later that day, Stephen managed to find time for The Epoch Times to answer some of the burning questions that remained in my mind. He explored some of the metaphysical underpinnings of the film.
Stephen: They [director Harold Ramis and writer Danny Rubin] used, I think, the list of Kübler-Ross, the seven stages of death and dying, a very popular book in the 70s. These [include] recognition, denial, depression, anger, acceptance. They used that as a framework, but Harold Ramis, who’s also a Buddhist, said that in Buddhism they say that it takes 10,000 years for a soul to evolve to the next level.
So he said that he felt that the entire progress of Groundhog Day covered 10,000 years, which depressed me. I’m working on the piano, and I don’t have 10,000 years. I always thought that there were nine days represented [in the film], and Danny Rubin, the writer, said that he felt something like 23 days were represented in the movie, [but they lasted] over 10,000 years.
If you take a look at the wheels [repeating storylines] within the wheel [story arc] of the day, the movie Groundhog Day is not only a repeated day, but it’s also based on Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3, on having the different sections of the day repeated.
In Act 1 of the movie, you have the morning repeated, when Bill runs into me in the street. When you get into Act 2, once Bill realizes that time has stopped, we move into the conflict area. We move into lunchtime, and the thing that is repeated is Bill in the cafeteria, in the diner, where he writes that great [note]. He has to get Andie [MacDowell] to believe in it too. …
Then in Act 3 we move into the night, and the night becomes repeated. I think one of the interesting facets of the movie, which I mentioned last night, is that Harold Ramis didn’t know what the day of the movie would be. He shot each of the scenes of the street in [sunlight], in snow, in rain, and cloudy, so he could piece together—because it had to be one day—it had to be consistent. And as it was, he made it a cloudy day. And when snow fell, time started again. So snow falls at the end, when Bill and Andie MacDowell [are involved in] a [snowball] fight over the ice sculpture. Then they lie down, and they kiss once, and snow starts to fall.
The Epoch Times: Very interesting. How long did the shooting take? It seems like you had to do a lot of takes. I mean, I don’t know how many days would happen in a typical film, but if you have to do all these takes on all these different days, how did it look?
Stephen: I’m trying to remember. I remember my first [stay on] the film [set]. I worked three weeks doing all the street scenes. Then I was home for three weeks, and then they brought me back for the party [scene]. So I would guess they shot about two months, probably about eight weeks. That’s not that out-of-the-ordinary. Groundhog Day was usually two, three, four takes, and then we moved onto the next shot.
[There’s] a story that Harold Ramis told when I wasn’t there, a day they were near the end of the shoot. It’s the very last shot of the movie. It’s when Bill runs out of the apartment with Andie and lifts her up over the front gate, and then they run down the street together.
The way they shot that … the original scene was supposed to be that they run down, they open the gate, they run out and through. But there was the snow. Every time you ran to the gate to shoot [the scene], you had to clean up the snow because you’d have … not only the footsteps of Bill and Andie, but also of all the crew people and the camera people ruining the snow.
Bill said, “I’ll run down and I’ll open the gate and we’ll do it in one.” Bill got down and saw, as he was running, that the gate was stopped by too much snow. So he didn’t even bother with the gate. Instead he lifted her [Andie] up over the gate. And it became like crossing the threshold into a whole new world. It was one of those lucky accidents. I think Groundhog Day had some of those lucky accidents, like that scene, where suddenly you had imagery that was more powerful than you could’ve planned. One take, one print—that was it.
[Stephen then spoke of another trademark scene when after repeated run-ins with Ned, Bill Murray’s character takes to embracing him, much more affectionately than Ned is comfortable with.]
Stephen: It wasn’t in script that way. When I came out, I said, “Phil, Phil? What are you up to Phil?” And he started hugging me and said, “What are you doing this afternoon, Ned?” He totally improvised that thing. We both just improvised that scene. And Harold Ramis said, “Cut, print—that’s it.” You know, it was too good.
Epoch Times: When you were offered this part [of Ned Ryerson], you gave an anecdote yesterday about that [see Stephen’s speech to the pre-Groundhog Day banquet later in this article]. Were you let in on the ethos of the film, on the concept?
Stephen: I don’t think it existed then. When I got the part, it was still kind of a mediocre Bill Murray movie; we’ve seen it before. You know, Bill Murray, with no consequences, in comic situations, where he goes to bed with different women, who don’t remember it the next day. He jokes on them, and he steals cars and robs banks, and it just goes on and on and on—the same beat over and over again. And I thought, OK, it’s a “B” movie. It’s kind of a comedy, like a rowdy comedy with Bill being rowdy. And we’ve seen it. It’s fine. You know, dopey. Not as good as Caddyshack but same kind of thing. It wasn’t until we got into the shooting that everything turned on its head. And it became not only a good movie, not only a great movie, but a classic.
Epoch Times: So what percentage of the script would you say was actually rewritten?
Stephen: I’m guessing 30 percent while we were shooting because [in] the original script, Bill’s suicide was at the end. Then he just gets bored of being bored and he changes his personality. [In the modified script] they moved the suicide up to about the 60 percent level. You know, it’s a little past halfway. … They added all that stuff at the end. So the boy falling off from the tree, the piano lessons, the women with the flat tire, the bum who keeps dying and Bill tries to save his life, and the mayor with the steak—all that was added.
Epoch Times: Was there a point in the film when you were realized you were going from this “B” movie into some great film?
Stephen: There was a moment when we were doing the street scenes. I’d been shooting for about 10 days. If you noticed, each one of those street scenes with me and Bill was shot with a slightly different script and slightly different camera technique. Sometimes they shot on a dolly, sometimes steady cam, sometimes handheld.
The entire progress of Groundhog Day covered 10,000 years, which depressed me. I’m working on the piano, and I don’t have 10,000 years.
I think about 10 days into the film, we were doing it, and we got a new set of pages. They handed them to Bill, and they handed them to me. I started reading that bit about [Bill Murray’s character saving] the kid falling out of the tree, and the whole section there. Then I realized … this whole thing is changing, right in front of my eyes! And I got the idea at that point, where we were going with the film. I got the chills.
Epoch Times: Ann [Hearn Tobolowsky, Stephen’s wife] tells me that you had a good luck streak in terms of picking films. For example, you did “Mississippi Burning.”
Stephen: It depends what you mean by good luck streak. When I did Groundhog Day, the producer of the movie, Trevor Albert, he called up after the first week to just say “Congratulations, we are a hit. The movie is a hit.”
I recognized at that point that there is kind of a triumvirate that you have to achieve to quote “be lucky.” You have to be good, in a good movie that people saw, if any one of those three things is not there, the stool falls over. If you are bad in good movie that a lot of people see, it is the end of your career. If you are good in a terrible movie that everybody sees, it really doesn’t matter. If you are good in a good movie that nobody sees, it vanishes.
Ann and I both come from theater, so we are used to reading really, really good narrative, dramatic literature. Whether it be from Chekov or Shakespeare, we know a good play when we read it. Movies usually aren’t that good when you read them. I remember when I read Sneakers, they said, here’s this movie Sneakers to read. [Initially] I thought, “What a stupid name.” And then I read it, and I [thought], Wow. Okay. I know what a hundred million dollars reads like now. That’s back when making a hundred million on a movie meant a lot. This was a perfect script.
When I read Groundhog Day, I thought this was going to be a crowd pleaser, a little movie. When it first came out, they gave Groundhog Day three stars out of four. And I remember I looked at it and saying, “What are they looking at?” If you could give this three, what are you giving four? I mean, this was as good as movies get. This was because Groundhog Day was able to transcend the medium. It was kind of able to become literature. And there are very few movies that are able to do that because it’s a visual medium.
So in terms of being lucky, I read a script and … I kind of at least know what I’m getting into. With Groundhog Day, I thought this would be a popular film, but Mississippi Burning, I thought this would be an important, good movie. With the Insider, when I read the Insider, Michael Mann’s film, I thought that this is one of the best scripts I’d ever read.
Memento, I read it and threw it across the room and said to Ann, “I could have read the best screenplay I’ve ever seen.” Because you cannot take away good writing. You could ruin it a little bit, but still the bones are going to be there. But it’s very hard to cover up bad writing.
Epoch Times: A lot of people around the world know the film. Apparently, many actually don’t believe that the holiday is a real holiday because it’s just so unusual.
Stephen: Not really. I just did an interview this morning in Ireland, and he wanted to know all about the holiday. So he believed it was real, but he didn’t know a lot about it. In France, we ran into a guy who loved, absolutely loved the movie. He was a ticket taker at one of those castles, and he told me all about it. But he said in France, the movie is called Day Without End because he said nobody would know what Groundhog Day meant there. It would be a title that would have no meaning. So it’s called Day Without End.
The Icelandic police came out with guns, their hands on their holsters. They came out, and one of the head policemen comes up to me and goes, “Put them away. It’s Ned.”
Epoch Times: The film is a ’93 film. It has been around for, what, 14 years now, and has developed quite a following. In what way has the legacy of the movie followed you around?
Stephen: The movie had several legacies. First of all, I want to address something you said at the beginning. It’s a 1993 movie. It has aged very well. It has aged well because not only the characters are good, but because it takes place in winter. So you don’t see clothes, all you see are winter jackets, and you don’t see a film that’s dated. When you see movies that are shot in the spring or summer, you get caught in the fashion. You start seeing the big shoulder pads or the bell-bottoms or these other things. [In Groundhog Day] because everybody is wearing parkas, it’s not dated.
Now on to your legacy question. I thought that was kind of interesting: Movies that take place in winter, if they are good, last longer. After Groundhog Day, I never had to walk into an office and have people kind of say to me, “Prove yourself.” Because, if you did a great play on Broadway, it’s gone, it’s done, it’s over. [A similar situation is] if you did a sitcom on TV that nobody saw, but was good.
This one man … loved the show I did, Dweebs. It ran 10 shows and got cancelled. Nobody sees it, [so people] think it’s a failure. I know it was a good show, but nobody saw it. But with Groundhog Day, the onus is on them if they haven’t seen the movie at this point.
It’s like DeNiro: “You talking to me? You talking to me?” Ned is there, that performance is there, as is Bill’s. Bill had tried several ways of establishing himself as a serious actor but was not enormously successful, like in Razor’s Edge. Here is one of the greatest dramatic performances ever, and it’s in a comedy. He was brilliant at it.
I just thought of this. [Earlier] we talked about drama at airports. We were in Iceland, and I went the wrong way through the security checkpoint in Iceland, and all the alarms went off. The Icelandic police came out with guns, their hands on their holsters. They came out, and one of the head policemen comes up to me and goes, “Put them away. It’s Ned.”
Epoch Times: Were you ever worried about getting typecast because of that role?
Stephen: Yeah, Hollywood is based on a system of saying no to you. And one of the corollaries of saying no to you is typecasting. If you do one thing that is successful, they run that into the ground until you have no career left. So after I did Ned, I did three or four failed sitcoms where I played zany characters. And since, I cannot do too many more of these zany kinds of characters because it’d run it into the ground. So then I had to switch venues, go do a play, go do a dramatic role, do something that totally breaks the mold.
But after I did Ned, it was scary because everybody wanted Ned-esque stuff. They always do the same thing. They always go like, “Do a lot of the Ned stuff that you did in the part.” So you start [in zany manner], “Hey! How are you doing? What’s going on.” And then they say, “You know, it’s a little too broad, can you bring it down?” And you say [toned down], “Hello. How are you doing?” You didn’t really want Ned at all; you wanted something different!
Epoch Times: Can you reiterate a little bit of your experience in Punxsutawney?
Stephen: When we did the movie Groundhog Day, everything was very festive. But when we [actually] did Groundhog Day here at Punxsutawney, there was an amazing seriousness about dealing with Phil, the groundhog. And there was a feeling in the crowd that we were really waiting to see what the weather report was going to be. That was missing from the movie. I think it was that little touch of seriousness that has really made this holiday endure because it isn’t just goofy. It isn’t just people putting on funny hats.
When I was a kid, my uncle Ben, in Throop, whenever he would scold me would say, “Stephen, if you act up, we’re going to send you to Punxsutawney,” and I never knew what Punxsutawney was.
Coming to Punxsutawney—the town is small enough—and the people are close enough, a little bit like saying that everybody is kind of on the same level. There aren’t a lot of really rich people. You feel like you are part of a family. They deal with you in a kind of singular way as you would treat a member of your family, which is very inviting, very warm.
Epoch Times: Any final words?
Stephen: I’ll bring this up because I thought this was really spooky when I was looking at all the ancient Celtic history of the pre-Groundhog Day celebrations [on this date]—that it involved weather prognostication, poetry, purification, and healing. Those were the elements that were in the ancient, and I’m talking about pagan prehistory, centuries ago, before this holiday existed on February 1 and 2.
And then I thought how amazing it is that in the movie, the lead character is a weather forecaster. He’s in love with a woman whose major in college was poetry. And throughout the movie, the thesis is purification and healing through time. I wonder if they knew that or it just worked out that way.
[Prior to Groundhog Day events, Stephen was a keynote speaker at the pre-Groundhog Day banquet organized by the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club Inner Circle. Addressing a crowd that was hanging on to his every word, Stephen confided that he grew up in Throop, Pennsylvania, not 200 miles from Punxsutawney.]
I don’t think I’ve ever told you this. This is especially fortuitous, being there in Punxsutawney, because when I was a kid, my uncle Ben, in Throop, whenever he would scold me would say, “Stephen, if you act up, we’re going to send you to Punxsutawney,” and I never knew what Punxsutawney was. I just thought it was a very scary place where a lot of bad boys went.
And then I was 10 years old, and in Mrs. Norton’s fourth-grade class—this was in Texas now—and we had the Weekly Reader. … They had an article about Punxsutawney and the groundhog, and then it all came together. I thought one day in my life I would like to visit Punxsutawney because it seemed like one of those exotic places like Istanbul or Albuquerque, and now because of everyone here, that dream, from fourth grade [has been realized], and maybe I’ve been a bad enough boy, but I’ve been brought here to Punxsutawney. So thank you for that. …
Punxsutawney was obviously going to be the place that the movie was going to be shot, but then the art director wanted a town square, so they opted for Woodstock, Illinois—it also was very close to [Groundhog Day movie director] Harold Ramos’s and Bill Murray’s Chicago digs.
But the thing I never realized until I did the movie [was] that the [production designer] on Groundhog Day was David Nichols, who was the man who directed me in my very first play in Texas when I was a child. I showed up on the set of Groundhog Day, and there was the guy who introduced me to drama. So in a way, it was coming around in a huge circle.
When I got the script of Groundhog Day, my first reaction was I was angry. I was angry because I had just been offered a student film called Fifteen Minutes to Noon. It was a film about a professor who was living the same day over and over again. Then he gets frustrated that he can’t make his life go on, and he keeps trying to relive the same day to get on, and always at 15 minutes to noon he comes back to the next day. Then, [eventually] he kills himself.
‘I didn’t know this at the time, but Harold Ramos apparently, after I auditioned, called Bill Murray and said, “I found Ned Ryerson. He’s the most obnoxious person I’ve ever met.”’
It was not a happy movie, and I thought, “Oh, I get it, these guys have stolen this Groundhog Day thing from this student film, and once again it’s big guys beating up on the little guys,” and I was angry.
[The prospects of not making ends meet that year, however, enticed Stephen to audition anyhow.]
So I auditioned for Groundhog Day and I had a great time. Harold Ramos actually said, because he was an actor, that he wanted to read with me. At that particular time, I was working on a movie called Calendar Girl, and my brother in that movie was an actor named Kurt Fuller. I auditioned for Groundhog Day, but then I went to start working on Calendar Girl, and as actors do, Kurt Fuller said to me, “What are you doing?”
I said, “Well, nothing after this,” and he said, “Well, I’m doing this great movie on Groundhog Day. Yeah, I’m playing the part of Ned Ryerson. It’s really hilarious.”
Then suddenly I [felt uncomfortable], and he said, “You see, Harold Ramos is a good friend of mine, and he wrote this part for me. In fact I’ve already done the reading with Bill.”
Now, I didn’t know what to do because I didn’t know whether I should say to him, “Well I just auditioned for this yesterday.” And I ended up going back, auditioning, and getting the part, and I still had to finish the movie with Kurt.
This was to me, if I could say, the metaphoric story for what Hollywood is like. Kurt was angry with me until he saw the movie and then he said, “Well, at least you did a good job.”
I didn’t know this at the time, but Harold Ramos apparently, after I auditioned, called Bill Murray and said, “I found Ned Ryerson. He’s the most obnoxious person I’ve ever met.”
The first day I arrived on the set I was first up in the morning, and I had been shooting Calendar Girl all day. I flew on a plane, I arrived in Chicago at 2 a.m., and they drove me out to the set, and I was first up at 6:30.
I was absolutely exhausted and terrified, and the first thing I had to do was meet Bill Murray [for the] first time. Bill said, “So what are you going to do?” and I said, “Well I’ll just kind of riiiiiaaaoooo, woohoo, bing, bing,” and he said, “OK you can do that, that’s fine.”
I said, “But these people look hungry. Let’s get them some Danishes,” so Bill ran into the bakery, pulled out a wad of money, and said, “I want every Danish you have in this store.” He bought all the Danishes in the bakery and started throwing them out to everybody who was there, to all the town people who were watching. It was a great moment when we started.
Whenever people ask me about Groundhog Day, they ask, “What was it like shooting the same scene over, and over, and over again?” but when you do a movie, you always are shooting the same scenes over and over again. The difference with Groundhog Day was that Harold Ramos did not know what day the movie was going to be because it had to be exactly the same day cut together.
[Writer Danny Rubin] said, “This is wrong, what happens if you have all the time in the world, and no consequences? What is this movie really about? This is about life and how people live and how you make your choices in life.”
He didn’t know if it’s going to be raining, snowing, overcast, or sunny, and so we ended up shooting the entire movie in all four weather conditions. All the street scenes were shot four different times, and then later he decided that the day that movie was going to [happen on] a cloudy day, and when the snow started falling, time would start again.
When I first read the script it was kind of mediocre; it was a Bill Murray-with-no-consequences kind of movie. [When] we got to the set, everything changed, and I guess [this is] why I think Groundhog Day endures because even though it is kind of goofy and silly, I think it hits people from the heart in some way.
The writer, Danny Rubin, threw out half the script [on the set]. He said, “This is wrong, what happens if you have all the time in the world, and no consequences? What is this movie really about? This is about life and how people live and how you make your choices in life.”
He threw out half the script and started writing while we were shooting. We were getting pages just hot-off-the-press while we were shooting this. The way the movie was originally was very much like Fifteen Minutes to Noon. Bill had a series of odd events, and then at the end he got bored and killed himself, and then woke up and time started again.
[Instead] they cut out the last third of the movie, moved the suicide up, and added the whole last part of the movie where he’s taking piano lessons, and he saves the woman with the flat tire, and saves the boy from the tree … and all that. That is what makes the Groundhog Day movie such a great film because suddenly it became about healing and making the choice to survive and to heal.
There was one scene in the movie that I wrote, the very last scene in the movie where I come in. We didn’t have a script for that. Bill had lost a friend of his and had to go to a funeral, and we were running out of [time at] our location, so I wrote it and showed it Harold Ramos. Then when Bill showed up, I said, “Is it OK if we shoot this?” We had about 30 minutes. We shot it and it’s in the movie. This is such a cool story, and to me it epitomizes so much of what happened in that movie.
There was a scene that we shot for three days at the very beginning of the film where Bill realizes that he’s stuck in time and he shaves a mohawk in his head and paints the room with different colors and wrecks it with a chainsaw—a very expensive scene, lots of sets, three days. Harold Ramos looked at it while we were rewriting the script and said, “No, no, no, we’re wasting way too much time with doing this. We need to do it in a simple way.”
Instead he threw that away and made it the scene where Bill breaks the pencil and puts it by the radio, and then when he wakes up the next morning, the pencil is there whole.
I remember the first time I saw that in the movie: The audience just kind of gasped, and that was the kind of experience Groundhog Day was to work on. It was kind of like guerilla filmmaking at it’s best. When we finished and saw it in the movie theater, we all felt that we were a part of something great.
I remember I did the Glenn Beck show, and Glenn asked me, “Aren’t you just tired of being Ned? Aren’t you tired all the time of being Ned?”
I said, “Glenn, Ned is the greatest thing in the world because Ned is that character, just like life, who keeps coming at you and keeps changing and makes you smile every time he comes around the corner.” For me, that was the experience of Groundhog Day.
It was a film about very much like this holiday—a film about healing and a film about renewal. I’m so thankful that you brought me here and made that first dream come true.
Additional reporting by Helena Zhu, Epoch Times Staff.