Wednesday, 3 February 2016

I'm With the Groundhog - Umberto Tosi


I might still be trapped in a Groundhog Day loop as you read this post on February 3, but at least I will have gotten out a message. Lately, I keep rewriting the same passages over and over, only to find myself back at the beginning like a monk on an M.C. Escher staircase. My inamorata says I'm probably rushing the process. By her – and any other sane person's – reckoning, I've only been at this particular work for a few months, but I'm convinced it has been years, maybe eons. She reminds me that I've complained about being looped before. Maybe it's a nice way to tell me I'm loopy, but it kind of makes my point. “It happens with my paintings too,” she says. “You'll break through. You always do.” I'm not so sure. You never know what's going to work until it does.

The late Harold Ramis who produced and directed Groundhog Day, was all over the place about how many years Phil Connors, the hapless cynical weatherman played by Bill Murray, spent reliving February 2 in Punxsutawney, PA. He once said 10,000 years and other estimates have ranged from ten to thirty-three. It takes a lot of practice for a mere mortal to play piano with style and become real mensch as Murray's character eventually does – also to write compellingly. The film has been hailed as a spiritual metaphor by Buddhists, Jews, Christians and atheists – and, of course, representing the stages of creative process. “I get it everywhere,” Ramis said, “but the movie is what it is, a movie.”

Ramis was a Chicago boy, as are Danny Rubin who wrote the original screenplay and Bill Murray. The trio had interwoven histories with the Windy City's legendary improvisational theater and sketch comedy groups founded by Paul Sills, including Second City and the Story Theater. Ramis went to Stephen K. Hayt Elementary School a few blocks from where I live in Rogers Park on the North Side. An Abbott and Costello Who's-On-First routine pops into my head whenever I walk by it, and I wonder if it did the budding the comedic genius, being as he was of my generation.
“What school do you go to?”
“Hayt school.”
“Yes, well, I did too, but I mean, where do you go to school?”
“Hayt.”
“I mean, what's the name of the school where you go...”
“Hayt...”
… And so forth.

Ramis, Gilda Radner, John Belushi
with the old Second City.
funny, but not yet famous.
My longtime friend and San Francisco improvisational theater coach and jazz musician Doug Kassel came up with that same Chicago crowd – as a young performer under Sills and the godmother of improvisation herself, Viola Spolin. Doug remembers Ramis in “the first SC hippie cast with John Belushi, the Murray Brothers, Joe Flaherty, Gilda Radner and Eugenie Ross-Leming. This was just before Ramis and Flaherty joined SCTV in Canada” with Catherine O'Hara, John Candy, Andrea Martin, Rick Moranis and others. “It's hard to stand out when you're surrounded by people like that, but I think that he (Ramis) thought of himself as a writer rather than as a comedian.”

Danny Rubin, now a Harvard professor living in Brookine, Massachusetts near where I was born, says it took him only four days to write the first draft of Groundhog Day's original screenplay and about 10 days more to refine it. However, it took him three years to formulate the concept, characters, locale, storyline and other specifics needed to start the actual writing. Rubin has authored a delightful e-book on the process – How to Write Groundhog Day. It's part tutorial and part breezy inside story about the screenplay's inception, development and production, which he breaks into: “Pre-Hog,” “Hog” and “Post-Hog”. It's only available as an e-book, he says “because paper doesn't do hypertext.” The e-book includes an early draft of the actual screenplay with hypertext annotations and author comments. With finger-touches, the reader gets notes on the evolution of pickup scenes between Phil and Rita, why they chose Sonny & Cher's “I Got You, Babe,” as Phil's endlessly annoying 6 a.m. clock-radio wakeup number, reminding Phil he doesn't got Rita, or anybody.

The revision process went on right through filming in Woodstock, Illinois, a town 50 miles north of Chicago that was made to stand in for the real Punxsutaney, PA, which was deemed too rural. Ramis revised Rubin's script once Columbia bought the rights, tailoring it more to the comedic talents of Bill Murray, with whom Ramis had made Ghostbusters I and II and Meatballs. Murray – said to have been going through personal troubles at the time – wanted something darker than their previous hit comedies. He argued with Ramis so much that the two had to use Rubin as their intermediary. Their friendship damaged, Ramis and Murray quit speaking to each other for more than twenty years until just before Ramis' death of a vascular autoimmune disorder at age 69 in February, 2014.

Every writer of note who opines on the writing, counsels patience and persistence, and especially, remembering that the writing part is only one stage of the process, more often a means to greater ideas than it is an end in itself. An actor mouthing a snappy comeback on screen can make a character and the screenwriter to invented it look like geniuses, said Rubin in a 1999 essay, Time Thinking. But that one line might take weeks, months or even years to find, he adds. “Writing allows me to be a kind of time bank. I can store up thousands of potential moments until just the right one is called for. That's when I make a time withdrawal.”

Makes sense to me. I was pretty self-satisfied that it took me a scant eight months to write the 500-plus pages of Ophelia Rising. That is, until I remembered that I had spent years modeling and researching the idea for a novel re-imagining Shakespeare's fair maid. Writing is a time loop, and the writer, like Phil Collins, can get even more stuck trying to find a quick way out instead of letting the solution come to him or her. Sometimes it doesn't even help to remind myself of that – only to keep going. There's one catch that addes urgency, however: unlike Phil Collins, we mortal writers don't have an unlimited number of Groundhog Days to get it right. That can be a curse, or a blessing that helps us get things done.
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Umberto Tosi is author of Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review, where he is a contributing editor.  
He studied improvisational theater and played onstage with three groups in Northern California, where he was editor of San Francisco magazines and wrote extensively for newspapers and periodicals nationally.

5 comments:

Mari Biella said...

This sounds about right to me, Umberto. When I'm writing, I'm often circling repetitively over the main ideas and concepts, constantly seeing new depths and new possibilities, and discarding others. It can be a strange, dreamy state - and, infuriatingly, it's not always amenable to deadlines.

Susan Price said...

Another great post Umberto. And you and Mari are right - it's a weird existence. I pressed 'send' on my Sterkarm Tryst yesterday after working on it concentratedly for most of every day for three weeks... And now I'm wondering, where did all this time come from? I'm disorientated, adrift...

Lydia Bennet said...

You always give us such interesting new stories about well-known people or books or films Umberto! You must be a positive library all on your own! I love Groundhog Day, Ramis, and Bill Murray. And the groundhog of course. Time is certainly strange stretchy stuff!

Umberto Tosi said...

Many thanks, Mari, Susan and Lydia, for your generous and intriguing comments!

Reb MacRath said...

Fine post, Umberto. Love the idea of time withdrawals.