The Accidental Swami


DISCUSSED: Impeccable Sourness, Eternal Recurrence, A New Idiom, The Guest of Honor, Interest from Stephen Sondheim, Super-High-Def, Infinity in a Bottle, An Existential Flavor, The Buddhist Path, Limestone Chips, Sir Walter Wally, A Very Lucky Cowboy

The Accidental Swami

Michael Schulman
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In April 2013, Robert Black, a grad student at California State University, moved into a small apartment in South Pasadena. He and his wife of ten years had decided to split up, and he found himself spending much of that summer alone. He missed his kids: Hayley, Kieran, and Saer. “I needed something structured and regular in my life,” he recalled. On August 2, Black wrote a blog post entitled “On me in 3… 2… 1…” It was a line from the 1993 film Groundhog Day, which he had vowed to watch every day for a year.

The movie, if you’ve managed to miss it, follows a Pittsburgh weatherman named Phil Connors, played with impeccable sourness by Bill Murray. While reporting on the Groundhog Day festivities in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, Phil gets trapped in a mysterious time loop that forces him to relive the same day over and over again. By the end of the film, he has learned to embrace humanity and the charm of small-town life, and has won the affection of his producer, Rita (Andie MacDowell).

“Phil Connors,” Black wrote his first post, “is not only a great central character for a good comedy like this—not that there are many comedies like this—but he works as an everyman and he goes through all the emotions we all do every day of our lives. There is time in the film (not to mention the many parts of his journey we don’t see on screen) for joy, for sadness, for arrogance and humility, silliness and seriousness, flippancy and philosophy.”

As Black watched and rewatched the film, mirroring Phil’s repetitious existence, he found endless strands of interpretation. On August 11—day 10 of what he called “The Groundhog Day Project”—he presented a study of gender roles. On September 10 (day 40), he discussed Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence. He offered disquisitions on Carl Jung, Phil as Christ figure, and the color blue. On December 2 (day 147), Black took an online dating quiz and concluded that he was in a relationship with Groundhog Day.

He’s not the only one. In the two decades since the movie was released, it has become a philosophical touchstone, dissected by comedy nerds and PhDs alike. Religious scholars have cast Phil’s predicament as a metaphor for Christian purgatory, or the Buddhist concept of samsara. Military theorists have used it as an analogy for endless war. An economist at the Ludwig von Mises Institute once posited that the film “illustrates the importance of the Mises-Hayek paradigm as an alternative to equilibrium economics.”

The title has become an idiom for futility, deployed on the evening news to describe the Middle East or Congressional gridlock. In 1996, President Clinton told the US troops in Bosnia, “Some of you have compared life here with the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day, where the same day keeps repeating itself over and over and over again.” So far in 2015, it has been used to describe the Democratic leadership (Salon), the Paris terror attacks (Bill Maher), and men’s fashion week in London (the Independent).

When Harold Ramis, the film’s director, died, last February, obituary writers hailed Groundhog Day as his crowning achievement. Jezebel ran a post called “Everything I Know About Life I Learned from Groundhog Day.” The Daily Beast called it “about as perfect as a movie gets,” ranking it alongside It’s a Wonderful Life in the category “Great Movies Driven by Gimmicks.” And yet few people could tell you who came up with the idea.

On January 31, 2014—day 183—Robert Black flew to Woodstock, Illinois, the town where the film was shot, to attend its annual “Groundhog Days” celebration. Though he had never been there, he had the eerie sensation of knowing his way around. Like his fellow Groundhog Day fanatics, Black was on a pilgrimage to see the weekend’s guest of honor: Danny Rubin, the man who wrote the screenplay.

At 5 a.m. the next day, February 1, Rubin woke up in Woodstock in a small-town bed-and-breakfast, not unlike Phil’s lodging in Groundhog Day. Actually, it was the same one: he was staying at the Royal Victorian Manor, whose exterior is featured in the film. His wife, Louise, was already up reading in a corner. He peeked out the window and saw the snow still falling from the night before.

A nebbishy fifty-seven-year-old, Rubin lives near Cambridge, Massachusetts, where until recently he taught screenwriting at Harvard. Adenoidal and polite, he has spent the years since Groundhog Day, in his summation, “living my life, raising my family, and writing movies that tend not to get made.” His last produced screenplay was S.F.W., a Stephen Dorff vehicle released in 1994.

Having written a film about a man experiencing the same thing over and over again, Rubin now lives in a kind of Groundhog Day of his own devising. In 2012, he published an e-book called How to Write Groundhog Day, which includes the original draft of the script and has sold about a thousand copies. In 2013, he spent Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, where he was celebrated at a dinner attended by the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania. Currently, he is working on a Groundhog Day musical with Tim Minchin, the Australian comedian who wrote the score for Matilda. (Stephen Sondheim once expressed interest, but dropped the idea.)

Though he presides over a one-man Groundhog Daycottage industry, Rubin is ambivalent about it. “I don’t want it to be the only thing on my epitaph,” he said. When people approach him with theories about the movie, he usually shrugs. Most interpretations baffle him, like that of the homeopathy student who wrote her thesis on the movie’s “reductive qualities,” or that of the amateur numerologist who thought that the figures on Phil’s alarm clock were a reference to the age of the Biblical Noah. “Of course!” Rubin said. “That’s exactly what I was thinking.”

First on his agenda in Woodstock: introducing a free 10 a.m. screening at the local movie theater. He was greeted there by Mitch Olson, a member of the event’s planning committee. Olson, who wore a bright green hoodie, runs an online doctoral program and lives in Rockford, Illinois, “about a mile from where Phil drove his truck into the quarry.”

He introduced Rubin to a packed house. “I think you’re in for a treat,” Rubin said, wearing a black baseball cap. “It’s in super-high-def, so you’ll get more meaning out of it than anybody has ever gotten before.”

An audience member asked, “Where did the original idea for the movie story line come from?”

“From me,” Rubin deadpanned. Roll film.

The longer answer goes like this: in the mid-’80s, Rubin was thirtyish and living in Chicago. A native of Gainesville, Florida, he was writing for a sketch-comedy troupe and, for money, scripting industrial-training films for companies like Wickes Lumber. One day, he heard about an initiative to direct Chicago talent to Hollywood. He brainstormed fifty movie ideas, mostly high-concept elevator pitches like “Nuclear explosion in space destroys television.” He narrowed them down to ten, including Silencer (murder in the deaf community), We Love Our Idiots (an idiot is elected president), and Time Machine, in which “a guy is stuck in a time warp that commits him to living the same day over and over again.”

The initiative didn’t pan out, but a few years later he sold Silencer (which was released as Hear No Evil) and moved to Los Angeles. He was hired to write for Walt Disney Animation Studios but was fired before his first day. His agent told him he needed a new script, fast. As he waited for the lights to go down at a movie theater one afternoon, he flipped through his paperback copy of Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat. “I was thinking about immortality and wondering if one lifetime was enough for some people to develop fully,” he recalled. But eternity sounded daunting for a two-hour screenplay. Then it hit him: combine the immortality idea with the repeating-the-same-day idea. It was like infinity in a bottle.

Next, he had to figure out which day the guy was repeating: Christmas? His birthday? Rubin flipped through a calendar: the first holiday he saw was Groundhog Day, which seemed enticingly banal. In his first draft, he channeled the “tongue-in-cheek outrageousness” of old Ealing Studios pictures like Kind Hearts and Coronets, in which an Edwardian heir murders his way through a line of aristocrats. He began with a thought experiment: if a guy were reliving the same day, how would he use his omniscience to pick up women? The ending was Twilight Zone–esque: Phil escapes from the time trap on February 2, blissful and in love with Rita, only to discover that she is stuck in February 3.

The script had two bidders: an indie company called IRS Pictures, which promised to stay faithful to Rubin’s screenplay, and Columbia Pictures, a major studio. Columbia’s director would be Harold Ramis, who was already known for Caddyshack and National Lampoon’s Vacation and for his role in Ghostbusters. Rubin knew that Ramis would likely revamp the script as a broad studio comedy (they ended up sharing the screenwriting credit). But the paycheck was bigger, and there was a greater chance the movie would actually get made.

In their extensive rewriting sessions, Ramis fixed Rubin’s rookie mistakes (no more voice-over). But he also knew how to keep the studio happy while preserving what was unusual about the script. Rubin had refused to explain what caused the time loop in the first place: an ancient artifact? A black hole? “By not having an explanation, it gives the whole movie an existential flavor,” Rubin said. When Columbia demanded an inciting incident, Ramis cajoled Rubin into inventing one—a gypsy curse—but never even shot it.

Rubin had envisioned Phil as “a young Jimmy Stewart”; Ramis went with his frequent collaborator Bill Murray. If Rubin gave the movie its concept and Ramis gave it its heart, Murray supplied its antic humor. The shoot was cold, and Murray and Ramis sparred throughout over the tone: was this a romantic comedy or a bleak philosophical fable? When it came time to shoot the final scene, in which Phil wakes up on February 3, Murray obsessed over his costume: should Phil be wearing pajamas or his dress shirt from the night before? The question was put to a vote (the dress shirt won), and Ramis shot upward of thirty takes. After Groundhog Day, Ramis and Murray never worked with each other again.

Rubin left the shoot midway through. He had just moved his family to Santa Fe and felt homesick. Leaving Los Angeles was professionally risky, but he was tired of it. “After that first year, it’s like, OK, vacation’s over,” he said. “The weather doesn’t change. Everything stays the same.” One day in LA is like the next day and the next day and the next day.

At noon, Rubin walked to the Woodstock Opera House to judge a chili cook-off. He was joined by some friends he had made at the B&B, including a professor of nineteenth-century American history who said that Groundhog Dayreminded him of the “Puritan order of conversion.”

Some sixty towns were considered for the stand-in role of Punxsutawney, after the production team determined that the real town was too remote. Though a few Woodstock locals were initially peeved by the Hollywood takeover, the town has since embraced its cinematic destiny. It began celebrating Groundhog Day soon after the movie came out; it is now a six-day affair drawing hundreds of visitors.

The 2014 attendees fell into roughly two categories. There were the locals, many of whom were around during the shoot. Susan Kazmierski, who handed out spoons at the chili tasting, had been an extra in the prognostication scene. “They warned us ahead of time: if the groundhog gets loose, do not touch it,” she recalled. (It famously bit Bill Murray’s hand.) And there were the superfans. Kyle Sweeney, a thirty-year-old from Chicago who works in real estate, wore a plush groundhog hat and claimed to have seen the movie more than 175 times. “It really teaches me how to live my life,” he said.

After the cook-off, Bob Hudgins, the film’s location manager, led about a hundred people on a walking tour. The crowd snapped photos: here was the bowling alley where Phil meets the town drunks; there was the corner where he trips into a puddle. (A plaque on the sidewalk reads BILL MURRAY STEPPED HERE.) Robert Black, who had come with a binder of detailed maps, introduced himself to Rubin and handed him a postcard for his blog. “He was friendly but a little standoffish,” Black said later.

If Rubin was hesitant to play swami, it was perhaps because his mind was elsewhere. His father, in Florida, was in bad health. (He died three weeks later, on the same day as Ramis.) Having finished his contract with Harvard, Rubin was feeling untethered. He had spent the year “not really sure where to focus my attention and priorities,” he said. “It wasn’t nearly as tough as my first year out of college, which had a similar feeling, but then I had no love life, skills or portfolio, all of which I now do have.” Still, he felt out of sorts, unable to match the fervor of the Groundhog Day aficionados. Lately, he’d been craving the daily rhythm he’d had at Harvard: “I want to be in more of a routine.”

The group filed into a bar on Main Street, where Rubin was to lead the annual Groundhog Day symposium. Mitch Olson, who was moderating, had printed a list of thirteen questions, covering everything from the influence of Peter Barnes’s play The Ruling Class to the popular theory that Phil exhibits the five Kübler-Ross stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). Rubin admitted to starting that theory himself. When writing the movie, he envisioned Phil going through seven stages, including hedonism, seduction, and suicide. “Not the same as Kübler-Ross’s phases,” he explained, “but in a similar manner.”

A man wearing sunglasses raised his hand. “The other idea that comes out of this is redemption,” he said. “I think everybody’s looking for redemption in bits and pieces in their own life, whether it’s out in front of you or buried deep inside of you.”

Rubin was noncommittal. “I didn’t set out to write a redemption movie,” he said. “My background is in science. I was a biology major, and I’m used to a certain clarity of the scientific process. And in my mind, I set the ball rolling: OK, this guy repeats the same day over and over again. What happens next? And what happened was redemption.”

Rubin is not religious, but his following spans faiths. One of his earliest fan letters was from a German monk. Another was from a rabbi who used Groundhog Day in a Yom Kippur sermon. In 2003, the Museum of Modern Art held an exhibition called The Hidden God: Film and Faith, and a squabble broke out. “Everybody wanted Groundhog Day,” Rubin said at the symposium. “I think the Buddhists won.”

In 2009, Rubin appeared at Harvard’s Barker Center with Angela Zito, who teaches religious studies at New York University. Zito showed the film for many years in her Introduction to Buddhism course. “It illustrates the idea of the bodhisattva,” she explained recently. In Mahayana Buddhism, bodhisattvas are “former humans who come back to help the rest of us who are still stuck here to achieve enlightenment.” The most famous is the Dalai Lama.

“To even get on the Buddhist path, the first thing you have to figure out is that there is a path,” Zito said. “You have to have the insight that you are repeating.” Repetition is endemic to earthly existence. “The resolution comes with Phil’s acceptance of the whole picture: understanding the repetition, understanding that the repetition is going to be endless unless he figures out how to manage it. He cannot simply end it. And to manage the repetitious nature of our suffering is what Buddhism offers.”

How long does that take? The question leads to another question, one of particular interest to Groundhog Dayscholars: how long, exactly, is Phil trapped in February 2? “It’s become a parlor game on the internet,” Rubin said. Using a number of factors, including the time it takes to learn to play the piano and ice-sculpt, the website What Culture calculated the total time to be 12,395 days, just short of thirty-four years. Rubin imagines it to be longer than a lifetime, possibly one hundred thousand years. Ramis estimated ten years. The studio thought it was two weeks: enlightenment in Hollywood time.

After the symposium, a long line formed, and Rubin signed DVDs and posters. A man who identified himself as a Messianic Jew handed him a manila envelope containing a nine-page tract on Groundhog Day and reincarnation. (“I hope the guy doesn’t have my home address,” Rubin said afterward.) As he greeted fans, Olson walked up and down the line, handing out limestone chips from a ziplock bag. “This is from the quarry where Bill Murray killed himself!” he said.

Before dawn the next morning, Rubin woke up in the same bed-and-breakfast in the same small town. It was February 2: Groundhog Day. Despite the seven-degree weather, hundreds of people had gathered in Woodstock’s town square, crowding around the gazebo where Bill Murray once slow-danced with Andie MacDowell.

The holiday first took root among Pennsylvania German farmers, who adapted it from the Teuton tradition of Candlemas. In Punxsutawney, the ceremony was recorded as early as 1886. Today, tens of thousands of people attend the festivities at Gobbler’s Knob, and Punxsutawney Phil has cousins: Staten Island Chuck (who last year slid from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s arms), Sir Walter Wally (of Raleigh, North Carolina), and, here in Illinois, Woodstock Willie, who was wheeled onstage in a fake tree stump.

Robert Black was recording the proceedings on his smartphone. He had photographed every film location from multiple angles, like a J.F.K. conspiracy theorist in Dealey Plaza. “I have to go on the walking tour one more time, because I have to correct the location of the snowball fight,” he said, pointing to the northeast corner of the square. “It’s on that side.” The trip had only reinforced his mission. A few days later, he wrote on his blog: “The story is at once a link to ongoing religious mythologies and something far more universal. This is why it is a classic. This is why Woodstock should be proud. This is why Danny Rubin should expect to be recognized for his contribution for a while longer.”

Rubin sat in the gazebo, bundled in a scarf and a North Face jacket. “It’s like an out-of-body experience,” he said, observing the crowd. “It’s hard to believe that it’s me that anybody’s interested in.” The next day, he would return to Boston to continue work on the Groundhog Day musical and on a new screenplay, Lucky Star, which he described as “a Western about a very lucky cowboy.”

A polka band played, and then Craig Krandel, the cochair of the event’s planning committee, brought up Rubin for “a couple quick words about his thoughts about Groundhog Day.”

Rubin looked out onto the shivering faces. “Somebody just mentioned to me that if it weren’t for my script, you’d all be in bed this morning,” he said, to laughs. “I’m really sorry about that, but I am so gratified. I’m so grateful to this town. Look what you’ve done to sort of keep the dream alive.” You could almost hear the underscoring as he continued: “I’d say, if you want to know what it all means to me, this is what it means to me: to see you all reacting to it this way. It’s a great gift to a screenwriter. We never get this. Never. So thank you. Happy Groundhog Day, everybody.”

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