Groundhog Day

groundhog day 1Today’s script reinforces two of my central beliefs about the comedy genre. Every good comedy I’ve ever read features these two aspects of our craft at an expert level.

1. Structure. We are talking clockwork. It is a kind of mechanical precision that would make an ordinary linguistic engineer shudder.

2. You have to know the minutiae of your protagonist’s habits. If you don’t know what brand of detergent your comic lead puts in the washer, and why, then your script probably won’t make an audience laugh.

Comedies don’t monopolize these elements, it’s just that other genres allow more breathing room in these areas. Since I’ve never [ever] thought of myself as a funny guy, I never bothered to ask why comedy requires a disproportionate focus on these two elements of our craft. After reading today’s script, I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer to my unasked question is… obvious.

Comedy is harder to write than other genres.

[All the comedy writers out there can take a moment and be self-congratulatory.]

In drama, the goal is to tell an interesting story. The same with science-fiction, horror, thrillers, bio-pics, and histories. The conceit at the heart of any of these genres naturally relates to the elements of a good story.

A horror-story involves taking a “protagonist” and subjecting him/her to a “horror”. Thrillers involve manipulating the facts of your story to keep their deeper meaning hidden until as late in the script as possible. The characteristics of every genre, except comedy, support the story that houses them. Comedy just doesn’t have this property.

If I asked you to name your favorite horror movie, I might get a thousand different responses but there will be copious similarity between all the choices. Namely, they will feature a “horror” that menaces a human [or humans] until the horror or the human(s) are eliminated. [Pending the greenlighting of the sequel.]

What if I asked you to name your favorite comedy? There would be no identifiable pattern to the stories at all. The responses could range from There’s Something About Mary to The Big Lebowski to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. [Those are three of my favorites.]

Comedy isn’t a convention, or a tool; it’s dead weight—added to a story after the fact. This is why the two elements highlighted above are so important. Your story has to be zealously lean to survive the infusion of all that comedy gristle. I don’t envy the comedians out there their albatross either.


Can “we see” the description in Groundhog Day?

Here are our opening images:

HIBERNATING GROUNDHOGS

A family of groundhogs is nestled together in their burrow sleeping off the end of a long winter.

ROLL CREDITS AND THEME MUSIC

DISSOLVE TO:

EXT. A FOREST CLEARING – EARLY MORNING

The crust of an old snowfall still covers the frozen ground, and the bare, icy branches of the trees glisten dully in the early morning light.

CUT TO:

INT. TV STUDIO – SAME TIME

PHIL CONNORS is standing in front of a blank green wall
gesticulating animatedly at some invisible images on the wall, talking a mile a minute (MOS) . He looks completely crazy as hepoints at nothing and winks to an unseen audience.

I know it’s a small thing [I believe the repetition has a cumulative effect, like rain.] but isn’t the first sentence actually better without the passive voice?

A family of groundhogs nestles together in their burrow sleeping off the end of a long winter.

I am a fan of the second sentence. I think it sets a zirconium tone that matches the character of the protagonist. The description is pretty and natural, but almost in a fake way. It matches Phil Connors who is likeable in a decidedly unlikeable way. My only complaint is with the trees which:

glisten dully.

If you want to use an oxymoron to set a tone and give us a “phonetic” grasp of the protagonist of your script, I think the words you use still have to mean something. “Glisten” is so highly opposed to “dully” that the expression can’t signify anything at all.

The last two sentences have several issues for me:

PHIL CONNORS is standing in front of a blank green wall
gesticulating animatedly at some invisible images on the wall, talking a mile a minute (MOS) . He looks completely crazy as hepoints at nothing and winks to an unseen audience.

I would redo like this:

PHIL CONNORS stands in front of a blank green wall
and gesticulates at invisible images.

Insincere manic energy radiates from him as he points at nothing, winks to an unseen audience, and talks to himself in rapid-fire bursts (MOS).

To me [although I may be biased because I’m responsible], the revision is easier and clearer to read than the original. Regardless of whether my ten minute attempt at revision is better, the larger point stands. There are real issues with the description that can be solved by increased effort on the writer’s part.

The rest of the description mirrors this initial example. It doesn’t contribute to what makes the script a success, but isn’t enough of an impediment to prevent the script from being enjoyable to read.


Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character.

Part A) There is some exposition in the set-up of Phil’s character during the opening pages. The following from pages 7-8 is a great example of this:

PHIL
(kindly)
You didn’t do anything wrong,
Stephanie, and I ‘m not tired of
you. It’s just that I don’t have
time for a real relationship
right now. I told you that the
first time we went out.

STEPHANIE
(getting close)
Everybody says that at the
beginning of a relationship.

PHIL
(gently pushing her
away)
I’m different. I really meant
it! Things are really starting
to move for me now. I ‘m not
going to be doing the weather for
the rest of my life. I was just
talking to the CBS guy about a
network job. I want that. This
is just the beginning for me. I
can’t waste any more time.

STEPHANIE
Are you saying our relationship
was a waste of time?

PHIL
Our relationship? We went out a
total of four times! And only
twice did anything happen. It
was fun but I don’t see that as
a big commitment.

STEPHANIE
(closing in again)
I had our charts done. My
astrologer says we’re extremely
compatible. There may even be
some past lives involvement here.

PHIL
See? So we’ve already done this.
Let’s move on. Next case.

STEPHANIE
You know what’s wrong with you,
Phil? You’re selfish. You don’t
have time for anyone but
yourself.

PHIL
That’s what I’m trying to tell
you. You don’t want to be with
me. You can do better. Look,
Stephanie, if I ever said or did
anything to mislead you I’m sorry
for that, but right now I have to
do this groundhog thing and I
don’t have a handle on it yet.

The author uses Stephanie to tell us what’s wrong with Phil. That’s exposition, telling not showing, etc. I chose this example because I think it works because of an interesting technique that’s worth emulating.

The author has the challenge of introducing us to a character who, other things being equal, we ordinarily would hate. But, he is working in the realm of romantic comedy and can’t allow the audience to hate his womanizing, deliriously selfish, protagonist. What does he do?

He has Phil own up to himself in a way that shows he knows he is a bad person without taking responsibility for this fact. A character like that is worth rooting for.

Part B) I think the passage cited above for exposition also illustrates the beginning of the dominant subtext that deepens as it flows through this story’s theme:

Real love only happens for decent People.

I capitalize people to give it the strong sense the script requires. Stephanie’s curse is broken NOT BECAUSE Phil learns to love Rita (he actually loves her form the opening scenes onward) but only because he finally learns to participate in human community. This is in express violation of everything Phil says at the beginning of his story. Look at this from page 4:

PHIL
Many people are morons.

Or, this from page 5:

PHIL
I think I’ll take my own car.
I’ m not that fond of my fellow
man.

Or this from page 13:

CHUBBY MAN
Think it’ll be an early Spring?

PHIL
I’m predicting March 21st.

Or, really, any occurrence where Phil meets someone from Punxsutawney for the first time. Each instance shows him incapable of treating his fellow humans as worthy of his respect.

C) Obviously, Phil has a unique voice, but what about Rita?

In truth, Rita struck me as a pretty stereotypical fairy-tale princess waiting to kiss the frog and turn him into a prince. Her lines about the nurse’s strike, her love of French Poetry, her desire to toast to world peace, and her eating the fudge even though she doesn’t like it, remind me of a three dimensional collage with nothing inside.

I do think Andie MacDowell made this collage believable in the movie, but we are only rating the script so…

This is the first opportunity I have to mention how this script does something which has become a bit of a buzzword in screenwriting circles. It fulfills the promise of its premise.

If you are going to create a situation in which your character gets to be a…

PHIL
…a god.

RITA
You’re God?

PHIL
No, I’m A god. Not THE God— at
least I don’t think I am.

RITA
That’s reassuring. For a mintute
there I thought you might be
crazy.

PHIL
No, it’s true. It’s the only
possible explanation. I’m a
supernatural being.

…then please be sure to give us the comic set-pieces that support this premise. This script mines every ounce of the potential in its premise.

Is there a hook in the first two pages?

Hmm… The first page is interesting in the way that it intersperses cuts to Phil in his job, with the gradual move from the rustic, peaceful, setting to the urban, frenetic, setting. I like this and think it is intentional symbolism about what makes for a good life.

The second page, though, is just okay for me. We find Phil sleeping at his desk (another bit of intentional symbolism since it parallels the foundational plot device of him waking up at 6:00 am to start the Punxsutawney days). His producer tells him it’s February 2nd. Time for a field report.

This is okay. I would have kept on reading, but I wouldn’t have been convinced.

Is the hook effective (the next 8 pages)?

Phil’s unique sense of humor begins to kick in after the second page, and this does liven things up quite a bit. We meet Rita and Stephanie, hear both sides of a debate about whether an impending blizzard will only hit Harrisburg, and end with Phil making his first (incomplete) pass at Rita.

The comedy is there, but I do want to be farther into the story. We don’t actually get to Stephanie’s curse until page 24. That is a bit of a lengthy wind-up. I imagine this has something to do with the preferred spec length at the time this was written, so I won’t be as hard as I might otherwise be.


Are there enough reveals to maintain the initial hook?

This script has an incredible structure. Lets look at it in terms of page numbers.

1. Pages 1-11 thoroughly introduce us to Phil, what his problem is as a protagonist, and demonstrate how this problem causes his superficial life.

1A. Pages 11-24 introduce almost all the characters and situations which will pop up over and over once the time loop begins.

I count this as one section and see it as a set-up for the two things I singled out in the introduction. Phil’s character and the looping structure of his story.

2. Pages 25-36 house the first repetition of the day. Phil can’t come to terms with what’s happening to him and is, mainly, confused.

3. Pages 36-48 contain the second repetition of the day. In this sequence, Phil begins to experiment with the environment. He’s testing the boundaries of the premise that subsumes him.

4. Pages 49-71 take us from one playing of Sonny and Cher to the next. In between this sequence (which is twice the length which the script has used so far) we get several demi-sequences.

4A.) 49-53—one repetition—Phil accepts his world and decides to use it for his selfish desires.

4B.) 53-55—one repetition—Phil seduces Nancy. At this point, he has decided to be a hedonist.

4C.) 56-60—211 repetitions combined—Phil pursues hedonism to its logical conclusion, boredom.

(Notice that combining these three mini-sequences forms the same page length as all the prior sequences, and that these mini-sequences are undergirded by the same idea—hedonism.)

4D) 60-63—one repetition. It ends with this line of description:

Phil stares out the window, more” determined than ever to win her over.

4E) 63-64 is one day, but now we’re not starting over fresh each time. Phil is using his situation to gain Rita’s trust. We get sluglines like this from 64:

SAME SCENE – ANOTHER DAY

Phil walks in and sits next to Rita.

This SAME SCENE technique carries us to the end of Phil’s first attempt to win Rita’s love and it ends on page 72. Another sequence of the same length and it ends with Sonny and Cher.

5. Pages 72-83 have the “end the day by killing the groundhog responsible for the day” mini-sequences. It finishes with the two Phil’s driving a truck over a cliff, and sums up with another playing of Sonny and Cher.

6. Pages 83-84 are various scenes of Phil killing himself. This is also the shortest distance in the script before “I got you babe” repeats.

7. Pages 85-98 contain Phil convincing Rita that he is “a god”. He realizes that she is what will really make him happy. She plants the germ for the next sequence when she says this on page 95:

RITA
Sometimes I wish I had a thousand
lifetimes. One to be a great
journalist. One to, I don’t
know, go back to school, study
art, or auto mechanics. One just
to take care of all the busywork,
you know, pay the bills, get my
car tuned up. One to be the wild
woman of Borneo. One to be
Mother Theresa. Maybe it’s not
a curse, Phil. It all just
depends on how you look at it.

The things on this list which Phil hasn’t already done are the things he spends these 12 pages doing.

8. During pages 98-122, the song never plays again. A 24 page sequence that mirrors the opening 24 pages exactly.

24, 12-12-12-12-12-12, 24 with a remainder of 2 pages. That’s our two page suicidal sequence and I am guessing it was owed to a producer’s notes.

The structure is extraordinary. I could go on for another thousand words about how well it suited this story.

Instead, I’ll just consider myself humbled.

I love how the meticulous structure of this script fulfilled the promise of its premise and paid off thematically.

Why does Rita finally fall for Phil? Because he became a good person? I don’t think so. To me, Rita fell for Phil only after Phil fell for the rest of humanity.


Rating: Highly Recommended

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