Groundhog Day

Believe Care Invest: Groundhog Day

Why it might be hard to identify with Phil
  • He’s a depressed jerk, working a dead end job and deluded about his prospects for finding a better one.
  • The mundane reality of a weatherman, standing in front of a blank blue screen, make it feel real. Odd regionalisms like blood sausage make the setting believable. Phil’s got distinct language: As Larry says, “Did he actually call himself ‘the talent’?”
  • Just a bit, we agree with him that Rita’s perkiness is somewhat off-putting and identify with him for feeling like he wants something more out of life. We certainly share his exasperation with Needlenose Ned Ryerson. We identify with him when he steps in a puddle, all the more so because he was storming off in a huff when he did it.
  • Even though he’s clearly not very happy, he’s also clearly a good entertaining weatherman, blowing on the map to make the clouds move, etc. His main prediction will turn out to be wrong, but we don’t know that yet.
Five Es
  • Eat: He refuses to eat with his co-workers, then refuses breakfast as hit B&B the next morning, complaining that there’s no espresso and cappuccino. Later in the movie, he will eat ravenously.
  • Exercise: No. He walks around town a little.
  • Economic Activity: He’s doing his job, trying to get a better job
  • Enjoy: Not at all
  • Emulate: Not that I can tell.
Rise above:
  • Well, he wants a better job, but he’s not ready to rise above his current one. Later, he walks off the job, but that might be considered “sink below”, not rise above.
High five a black guy
  • No.

Rulebook Casefile: Psychological Arcs in Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day is a classic example of a movie that follows the general 14-point structure of most stories that are about the solving of a large problem…and it’s also an example of how to incorporate specific pre-described psychological arcs into that structure. Phil’s journey mirrors not one but two psychological models. The story as a whole follows Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief…
  • Denial: Phil thinks it’s all a dream
  • Anger: Punches out Ned Ryerson, blows off his broadcast.
  • Bargaining: Tries to take advantage of situation.
  • Depression: Attempts suicide many times
  • Acceptance: Tries to make use of this gift.
…but those last two steps can also be broken down further, because they mirror the “twelve steps” of Alcoholic’s Anonymous as described by that group’s founder “Bill W.”. We talked before about how Phil doesn’t have much chance to think about his past or make amends for past wrongs that pre-date what we see, but even within the movie’s narrowly-proscribed world, he pretty much manages to cover all 12:
  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol -- that our lives had become unmanageable: In this case, it’s not alcohol, it’s just selfishness. He hits rock bottom when he ends eight days in a row by getting slapped by Rita, then commits suicide for several days in a row, saying, “I’ve come to the end of me, Rita. There’s no way out now. I just want you to remember that we had a beautiful day together once.”
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity: Finally, he decides to just be honest with Rita and tells her that he suspects he might be a god, “Well, not the god, I don’t think, but a god.” After proving that he’s now almost omniscient, she agrees to spend the day with him. At the end of the day, she falls asleep on his bed as he reads poetry, and the only line we hear is “Only god can make a tree.” He realizes that he’s not god after all, because god is a greater power than him.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him: He pauses after reading that line and thinks.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves, and...
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs: He says to her. “The worst part is that tomorrow you’ll have forgotten all about this. And you’ll treat me like a jerk again. It’s alright. I am a jerk.”
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character, and...
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings, and...
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all: The next morning, he brings Rita and Larry coffee and muffins and does a much better job with his broadcast..
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others, and...
  10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it: He tries to save the homeless man who he refused to give money to before, but he finds that the man will die no matter what.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out: When the homeless person dies again, he gives up on saving him and looks up to the sky with a questioning look.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs: He helps as many people as he can in the town, doing good all day long, until the whole town is moved by his example, which finally allows him to break out of his spiral.
Of course, it could well be that neither of these arcs was conscious on the part of the screenwriters, and that’s the beauty of it.  These thinkers were describing the nature of problem solving, and any well-written story about solving a similar problem will make the same discoveries on its own.  Ultimately, self-help gurus and writers are doing the same job: identifying the universal human nature underlying our problems.

Rulebook Casefile: Asking the Right Dramatic Question in Groundhog Day (And Shutting Down the Wrong Questions)

Rewatching Groundhog Day, I realized a curious thing: I’ve always admired the ending for not explaining anything, and just leaving it as a metaphor…but why do I like that here when I hated it so much on “Lost”?

In the infuriating “Lost” finale, it felt like they were saying, “Whatever, dude, let’s just say it was god or something…It’s all just an allegory anyway, so what do you care?” Groundhog Day could be characterized the same way, but it’s a master class in how to do it right. It didn’t have to answer those questions because it never asked them. There’s only one question this movie wants to ask:
  • What should Phil do with his day in this town?
But there are a lot of questions they don’t want to ask. Most obviously:
  • Why is this happening?
But if you think about it, there are a whole lot more questions that could have distracted us:
  • What was the one mistake that Phil made that caused him to be punished in this way?
  • How did Phil become such a miserable person?
  • Will Phil make amends for his lifetime of wrongs?
  • Can Phil reconnect with his parents, lost loves, etc?
Compare this to a very similar movie, Scrooged, which was also about a jerk played by Bill Murray who is given one mystical day to make amends for a lifetime of being a jerk. That movie was all about facing his past, identifying where it all went wrong and reconnecting with his ex. How does this movie shut down those more traditional avenues of redemption?

A big part of the answer is the blizzard. What does the blizzard do for the movie? On first viewing, we only notice two things:
  • It proves he’s not a very good weatherman, since he failed to predict it.
  • It makes him even more miserable, by trapping him in a town he hates and downing the long-distance wires, so he can’t call and complain to anyone.
But we don’t notice all of the other things that it’s accomplishing.
  • He can’t go anywhere.
  • He only has access to one therapist, who sucks, so he only visits once.
  • He can’t visit any paranormal experts.
  • He can’t reach out to anyone from his present.
  • He can’t confront his past.
Crucially, the movie doesn’t ignore these possibilities, but it does blow past them, devoting about five minutes of screentime to the fact that the roads and phone lines are down and there’s no hope of useful therapy. Once that’s been established, the viewer unconsciously takes all those questions off the table, and naturally arrives at the one question Rubin and Ramis want us to ask: “Okay then, what should Phil do with his day in this town?”

The problem with “Lost” is that they spent six years teasing us with glimpses of a massive sci-fi backstory. Then they finally revealed the answer: “Eh, it’s all just a metaphor and they all got to kiss each other in heaven, so whatever...The End.”  No.  Just no.  If you don’t intend to provide any answers, then you have to take those questions off the table early on.

Straying from the Party Line: A Mood Disaster in Groundhog Day

Let’s just focus in on just one deviation from the norm:
  • Deviation: The mood is uneven at first, as exemplified by the terrible song that plays over the opening driving montage, which make it seem like this movie is going to be another “Caddyshack” (also by co-writer / director Harold Ramis). Later songs by Ray Charles and Nat King Cole set the right wistful mood, but this song, which Ramis himself wrote for the movie (“Predictions show / A heavy low / You’re feeling just the same / But seasons come and seasons go / I’ll make your smile again…I’m you weather man!”) sets entirely the wrong mood. It’s an upbeat party song.
  • The Potential Problem: This is usually the third rail of writing. It is extremely rare to see a movie recover from a mood problem.
  • Does the Movie Get Away With It? I’ve seen this movie dozens of times, and I hate that song more every time, so it doesn’t “get away with it”, but it pulls out of the skid very quickly.
It’s always very tricky when a movie has a shocking plot turn 18 minutes in that knocks everything into a completely different genre. Writers Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis made it even trickier by choosing not to foreshadow the turn at all, not even though the use of mood.

It seems like it would have made the most sense to use some scoring here that says “something mystical is about to happen” like this music that gets used in the trailer for every movie of that type:

I don’t mind that the filmmakers chose not to do that, but even if you’re not going to imply anything strange is coming, you at least have to make sure you don’t make any promises you don’t intend to keep, as this song does. It says, hey kids, we want to rock and roll all night and party every day! It creates false expectations. Basically, it just sounds dumb, and makes you expect a dumb movie.

Ultimately, this is a very daring movie that does a lot of re-writing of the audience’s expectations. For the most part, it gets away with it…once it regain its footing, after this major misstep.

The Ultimate Story Checklist: Groundhog Day

Updated to the sixth and final checklist!
Phil Connors, a frustrated weatherman desperate to ditch Pittsburgh for the big leagues, he has to go out one more year to do a broadcast of the groundhog seeing his shadow in the small town of Punxatawny. After he and his crew (cheery-cute producer Rita and sarcastic cameraman Larry) get snowed in, he finds himself caught in a bizarre phenomenon, repeating Groundhog Day over and over, hundreds of times. He tries every possible solution until he just gives up and uses this time to become a better person, which finally breaks the cycle (and wins the heart of Rita).

PART #1: CONCEPT 15/19
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
 A selfish weather man is mysteriously cursed to relive the same Groundhog Day over and over until he achieves personal grow.
Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
 A man who just wants to get his least favorite day over has to live it again and again..
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
 Very much so.
Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong story?
Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
 Plot and character are inextricable here.
Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
Does the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s daily life? 
 We get started quickly, then slow down to show two whole days, then move through hundreds of day quickly once he begins making incremental progress.
Does the story present a unique relationship?
 A weatherman and his producer.
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
 Hmm… It depends on his goal. Yes, when he wants a date from Rita, otherwise not really, just himself.
Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
 Greatest fear and ironic answer: The first line is: “Somebody asked me today, ‘Phil, if you could be anywhere in the world, where would you want to be?’” as his hand hovers over an empty greenscreen.
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
 …But it takes a while. He does everyman reactions as long as he can, until he finally realizes that this really is about him.
Does this challenge become something that is the not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?
 Very much so. He has to totally transform his entire personality.
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
Does the hero permanently transform the situation and vice versa?
 He brings his loop to an end and makes the whole town happy.  He is personally totally transformed
The Hook: Will this be marketable and generate word of mouth?
Does the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend this genre?
 Somewhat: Guys might feel it’s not quite raunchy enough for comedy or sci-fi enough for sci-fi, but seems too male-centric for girls at first glance. Of course, everybody loves it once they actually see it, but it’s a hard sell beforehand, and it had to build its own audience through word-of-mouth.
Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
 Somewhat with the groundhog, although it’s hard to visualize the predicament itself. The alarm clock to a certain extent. From looking at various awkward DVD covers, it’s clear that they never really found a compelling image to summarize the concept.
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
 Punching Ned, killing the groundhog, the suicides, the ice sculptures.
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
 Sort of: it turns out that it’s not really about getting the girl.
Is the story marketable without revealing the surprise?
Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?
Believe: Do we recognize the hero as a human being?
Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or kind, or oddball, or out-of-character, or comically vain, or unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment?)
 He’s a funny, friendly broadcaster onscreen, then he calls his co-worker “hairdo” off-screen, and we like both sides of him, at first.
Is the hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
 Entirely. We get no backstory whatsoever.
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
 The funny weatherman.
Does the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
 He’s bitterly depressed.
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
 Sort of meteorology: “Chance of departure today, 100 percent.” For the most part, he adopts phony personae, so he doesn’t have a real one.
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
 Even after he becomes saintly, he’s still mildly sarcastic about it. He has the piano teacher kick the girl out so he can learn, he gets exasperated with the boy he saves for never thanking him.
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
 Sort of: petulant complaining. He’s never very good at getting others to do things.
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
 He desperately wants to get out of the loop, since he’s in his least favorite place on his least favorite day.
Care: Do we feel for the hero?
Does the hero start out with a shortsighted or wrongheaded philosophy (or accept a false piece of advice early on)?
 Dozens: About Rita: “She’s fun, but not my kind of fun.” “People are morons.” Etc.
Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
 Get in and out of town quickly, get a big network job.
Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future, as well as a hidden, private fear?
 Open: That he’ll never get a better job. Private: That he’s a terrible person.
Is the hero physically and emotionally vulnerable?
 Even though he becomes functionally immortal for a while, he always feels physical and emotional pain.
Does the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with? (but…)
 Bitterness, passivity, bad predictions of future
Invest: Can we trust the hero to tackle this challenge?
…Is that great flaw (ironically) the natural flip-side of a great strength we admire?
 Sarcasm, wit, entertaining onscreen presense.
Is the hero curious?
 He investigates right away.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
 He comes up with a lot of clever solutions to his problems.
Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
 Sort of: Be funny, tolerate no sentiment, I deserve a bigger spotlight
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
 His co-worker and the townspeople all seem especially dippy, which makes us side with him at first.
…And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
Is the hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?
 Somewhat. He’s on his feet doing the weather report.
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
 Yes and no. With Rita, he thinks he can ride roughshod over her, but she’s actually handling him, and once he’s repeating the day, he can do anything, but only within big limits. Ultimately, this a movie about accepting powerlessness.
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
 No, he pretty much does what anybody would do.
PART #3: STRUCTURE (If the story is about the solving of a large problem) 20/21
1st Quarter: Is the challenge laid out in the first quarter?
When the story begins, is the hero becoming increasingly irritated about his or her longstanding social problem (while still in denial about an internal flaw)?
 He wants to escape to a network job, doesn’t know why he gets so little respect.
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
 He’s send to the town for a fourth year in a row.
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
 He ends up stuck in a loop, though he doesn’t see it as an opportunity for a long time.
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
 He refuses to believe it until it repeats twice.
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
 After two repetitions, he decides that this could be fun.
2nd Quarter: Does the hero try the easy way in the second quarter?
Does the hero’s pursuit of the opportunity quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
 The police, then Rita.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
 Yes, he tries to use this power for his advantage.
Does the hero have a little fun and get excited about the possibility of success?
 He gets in car chases, steals money, seduces his boss. He thinks he’s about to close the deal with her.
Does the easy way lead to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a safe space and/or sheltering relationship?
 She slaps him on eight consecutive days. He gives up and goes back to hating her, the town, and himself.
3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
 First suicide, then honesty with Rita.
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
 He realizes that he really loves Rita, and the town.
Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
 He realizes that he only has one day (over and over) to save the old man’s life.
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
 Very much so.
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
 He realizes that he’s a terrible person, and if he’s a god, he’s got to be a good god.
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
 Eventually: “No matter what happens tomorrow, or for the rest of my life, I’m happy now”
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
 He’s got to change as many lives as possible in one day. It’s a big job.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
 No, not at all. There is no ticking clock whatsoever. He literally has all eternity to get better, and won’t get better until he stops worrying about tomorrow entirely.
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
 He literally brings the whole town together.
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
 The same time.
Is there an epilogue/ aftermath/ denouement in which the challenge is finally resolved (or succumbed to), and we see how much the hero has changed (possibly through reversible behavior)
 Succumbed to happily: he says “Let’s live here.”
The Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?
Were tense and/or hopeful (and usually false) expectations for this interaction established beforehand?
 Not really. We jump right into it from the death sequence.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
 We cut straight to his reveal, after she’s been wondering and he’s been making small talk for a while.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
 Not intimidating, but yes, it keeps characters active.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
 She wants to get going.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
 The lives of the customers, the dishes dropping, etc.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
 He counts down to plates dropping, knows that he has to convince her before Larry comes in and takes her away.
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character through emotional reactions?
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
 We’re rooting for him to convince her, as opposed to the previous sequence where we were rooting for her to resist him.
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
 He wants to convince her he’s a god, she determined to reject that.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
 Not really. He no longer has a secondary agenda, nor does she.
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
 Not really. They’re pretty up front.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
 He traps her into saying things that will be disproved by his predictions. He predicts explainable things to lull her, so that it will be more shocking when he predicts unexplainable things. She tries to get him with logic traps.
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
 He drags her around the café.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
 He gives her a slip of paper that proves his point. It wouldn’t have felt undeniable to her if he had just said it, but now this is real proof in her hands.
The Outcome: Does this scene change the story going forward?
As a result of this scene, does at least one of the scene partners end up doing something that he or she didn’t intend to do when the scene began?
 She’s convinced that he has supernatural powers, agrees to go with him.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
 No, it’s pretty unironic. He does exactly what he sets out to do.
Are previously-asked questions answered and new questions posed?
 Previous question: Why doesn’t he tell anybody? New questions: Why is he telling her? Will this win her over?
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
 Will she go with him? We don’t find out until the cut.
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
 We’re happy that he now has a confidant and hopeful that she is about to help him figure his way out this.
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
 The townspeople are caricatures at first, but as he gains empathy for them so do we.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
 Less so with Rita, but yes, even her.
Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?
 All except Rita, who is fairly selfless, but at least everybody notices how weird that is, so we believe it.
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
 Very much so.
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things they wouldn’t do?
 She’s reluctant to give up personal detail until he weasels them out of her.
Do the characters interrupt each other often?
 Somewhat, some characters do, but Rita’s a great listener. Phil’s not bad either, actually.
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
Does the dialogue capture the jargon and tradecraft of the profession and/or setting?
Yes, of weathermen.
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default personality traits, and default argument strategies from the hero’s?
 Metaphor family: Rita: childhood, Default personality trait: Rita: optimistic. Larry: weasely. Mayor: booster., Argument strategy: Rita: listens to your concerns, then shuts them down sweetly.
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
 “Did you sleep well?” “I slept long.”
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
 “Don’t mess with me, porkchop.”
Are there minimal commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
 Phil = gut, Rita = heart, Larry = head (He’s dumb, but he’s the one who says things like, “we need to get going”, which is a classic head line.)
Strategic: Are certain dialogue scenes withheld until necessary?
Does the hero have at least one big “I understand you” moment with a love interest or primary emotional partner?
Phil keeps trying to engineer false “I understand you” moments with Rita, but ultiamtely they have real ones once he tells her.
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
 Curse is never explained. We don’t find out her history until he needs to know it to seduce her. We never find out his at all.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
 The end of the date sequence for her, the I’m a god scene for him.
PART #6: TONE 5/10
Genre: Does the story tap into pre-established expectations?
Is the story limited to one genre (or multiple genres that are merged from the beginning?)
 Sort of: It’s a romantic comedy until it becomes a sci-fi / metaphysical comedy 18 minutes in. That’s a little late, but the two are well-blended from that point on.
Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?
 No: It keeps jumping sub-genres: romantic comedy, black comedy, religious parable, etc. It’s extremely ambitious, and pulls it off.
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
 He gets the girl and finds happiness, but only through not wanting to have sex with her that night.
Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
 Eventually, but it has a tone disaster early on with a terrible upbeat-blues opening song that almost wrecks the whole movie. Later, we get appropriate music (Ray Charles and Nat King Cole, who are more timeless, emotional and contemplative)
Framing: Does the story set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
Is there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the story?
 The first shot after that: His hand against a green screen: “Somebody asked me today, ‘Phil, if you could be anywhere in the world, where would you want to be?’”
Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
 No. It’s actually pretty amazing that this movie doesn’t use voiceover. It’s a credit to Murray’s performance that he can convey what’s going just with his face.
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
 Phil keeps running into people he could be: Nice Rita, dopey Larry covering the swallows at Capistrano eight years in a row, the drunks at the bar, etc.
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
 Not really. There’s no foreshadowing that this mystical event will happen, and not much of where it’s going after that.
Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
 Lots: with the homeless guy, etc.
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
 “Let’s live here.”
PART 7: THEME 13/14
Difficult: Is the meaning of the story derived from a fundamental moral dilemma?
Can the overall theme be stated in the form of an irreconcilable good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
 Ambition vs. acceptance, quantity of life vs. quality of life.
Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
 Phil asks drunks, “If you only had one day to live, what would you do?”
Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
 There’s a lot of good vs. evil choices, but he also has to choose between goods (he can’t save everybody) and evils (chooses suicide over suffering)
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the story reflect the way the world works?
 Yes, on a strictly metaphorical level.
Does the story have something authentic to say about this type of setting (Is it based more on observations of this type of setting than ideas about it)?
 Yes, this is a very believable and empathetically-portrayed small-town.
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
 “He used to work at the mine before it closed down” etc.
Are these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
 This town isn’t idealized.
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
 Within each day, and even after: he never gets over all those suicides. “I’ve killed myself so many times, I don’t even exist anymore.”
Subtle: Is the theme interwoven throughout so that it need not be discussed often?
Do many small details throughout subtly and/or ironically tie into the thematic dilemma?
 The lyrics of “I Got You Babe”, the fact that Ned sells life insurance, the meaning of Groundhog Day itself, etc.
Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?
 Just slight: the pencil, the clock, the groundhog in one scene. The note he gives her about what Larry is going to say.
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimately irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
 It’s pretty definitive. Phil concludes that acceptance of one’s circumstances is pretty much entirely better than personal ambition.
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
 He finally figures out how to get out of there: by wanting to stay.
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
 Very much so. What caused this? We’ll never know.
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
 He doesn’t go back and figure out what was different about that last day.

Final Score: 98 out of 122

Storyteller’s Rulebook #139: Simplify It (Or They’ll Do It For You)

Ghostbusters was sold to the studio in the form of a 40 page treatment.  It was set in the future.  New York had been under siege by ghosts for years.  There were dozens of teams of competing ghostbusters.  Our heroes were tired and bored with their jobs when the story began.  The Marshmallow Man showed up on page 20.  The budget would have been bigger than any movie ever made, and far more than anybody was willing to spend.

So why did the studio buy it? Because they liked one image: a bunch of guys who live in a firehouse slide down a pole and hop in an old-fashioned ambulance, then go out to catch ghosts. So the studio stripped away all the other stuff, put that image in the middle of the movie, spent the first half of the movie getting us from a normal world gradually towards that moment, and spent the second half of the movie creating a heroic payoff to that situation.

When studios buy a high-concept story, more often than not, they’re just buying one element that they like from a big, weird sprawling mess, then they take that image out and plop it into an elegant, simple, pre-established structure.

A few years after the success of Ghostbusters, one of the writer/stars of that movie, Harold Ramis, signed up to direct someone else’s script. In the first draft of Groundhog Day, the weatherman had already been repeating the same day for 10,000 years. Everybody loved it, but most directors told screenwriter Danny Rubin that they would want him to rewrite it so that it started out with the origin of the situation. Ramis won the bidding war by promising Rubin that he would stick to the medias res version.
Guess what happened? By the time the movie made it to the screen, they spent the first half of the movie getting the weatherman into that situation, and spent the rest of the movie moving him towards the most heroic solution.

Can anybody dispute that the studios did the right thing in both cases? Would you really like to give up the beloved finished versions of Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day for those original versions?

This brings up the question: how did those scripts end up so overly complicated in the first place? Why start each script so far in the future, instead of starting at the beginning? The answer, I think, is that it seemed perfectly natural to the writers to write about heroes who already had been living with these situations for years, because, by the time the writers completed that draft, they, too, had been living with that situation for years.

If their process is anything like mine, they probably had the germ of the idea years before, then had a long time to get comfortable with it, so comfortable that the original idea didn’t seem novel enough anymore. Instead, they became interested in the permutations of the idea: What if there were lots of ghostbusters? How would the weatherman feel if he’d already been stuck in this loop for centuries? They’d forgotten just how strange the original idea was in the first place.

When your audience sits down to watch a movie, they’re at zero. No matter how hard you slam down the gas pedal, they’re going to take a while to rev up…so long, in fact, that by the time they’re at top speed, it’ll already be time to start looking for the off ramp. All you’ll have time to do, when all is said and done, is to get your hero into a strange situation and then have your hero triumph over it. If you want, you can compound that strangeness a thousand times over, but the studio is just going to strip all that away.