Danny Rubin is an award-winning screenwriter and teacher. His script for the 1993 classic Groundhog Day, co-written with director Harold Ramis, has been the subject of international acclaim and criticism since the film’s release. Several of his screenplays have been made into subsequent major motion pictures, including 1993’s Hear No Evil and S.F.W. (1994.) In late 2013, Mr. Rubin spoke with students at the University of Texas at Austin as a guest of the Michener Center for Writers and the Department of Radio-Television-Film. In support of his guest appearance at U.T., Danny Rubin spoke with Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism about his twenty-year career in Hollywood (and outside of it), the ramifications of philosophical comedy, and what’s driven him forward in the decades following the making of one of the most popular movies in history. This interview has been transcribed, edited, and compressed from audio for publication.
The editor would like to thank Mr. Rubin for buying him a truly delicious hamburger, the debt for which has yet to be repaid.
Sean Malin: There aren’t many questions I can ask you about Groundhog Day that you’ve not been asked before, so I’ll start with one that I just wonder about. Is the movie a comedy or a drama? It seems to be about a man who, upon realizing he’s living his days over and over again, decides to kill himself something like forty times.
Danny Rubin: That was always meant to be funny and heartbreaking at the same time. I imagined the movie as a whimsical comedy, like the Ealing Studios comedies with Alec Guinness, something like Kind Hearts and Coronets [Hamer, 1949.] But I approach all of my work as dramas that are funny – I’m not really a “genre comedy” writer.
SM: Yet the film is considered the paradigmatic “genre” comedy – it won a Saturn Award, you and [director] Harold Ramis were nominated for a Hugo Award, et cetera. So has it been misread as a comic fantasy?
DR: I don’t think it has been misread; I think that was the intent for it once it became a Hollywood studio film. I certainly helped developed the screenplay along, but Harold Ramis is the one who everyone needs to talk to about the craft of making it into a perfect genre comedy.
SM: Though you don’t think of yourself as a “genre comedy” writer, have you tried to venture into that category when crafting other scripts? Or has the line always been to write funny dramas?
DR: My head is split: the reality in Hollywood is that once you write a film like [Groundhog Day], they keep sending you to the comedy people. Of course, I’ve tried to take ideas that didn’t belong as genre comedies and make them into genre comedies, to some success.
SM: As a teacher of other screenwriters who aren’t yet mired in the Hollywood system, do you try to help them pre-escape those tight, studio-imposed confines?
DR: I’ve always felt more like a coach or an advisor than a teacher. I try to figure out what the students want and want to do, and then help them do it. By using the tools of screenwriting – which I’m very familiar with, having done it for so long – I can be helpful and tell them what they can expect from the industry. But I don’t direct them to make their work more like this or more like that; frankly, that’s their problem.
SM: There seems to be more independent film being made, especially for lower budgets, than ever more. Is that economic model of filmmaking attractive to you as an alternative to the big-wigs, who might insist on putting someone with Bill Murray’s or Andie MacDowell’s 1993-era popularity in your movie?
DR: While I would love to see some of the work I’ve done recently up on the screen, I tend to write middle-of-the-road, squarely commercial entertainment because that’s what I like. It’s what entertains me. I think that’s what makes my work stand out, actually, because even though I’m not interested in doing some exactly like the last thing – I’d rather do something clever and original each time, which confuses the gatekeepers by not looking exactly like what they’re used to – my work is still accessible. I like something that’s familiar, that will feel good, and that people can digest and enjoy.
SM: I read your article on adapting Bill Maher’s True Story: A Novel to a script to be directed by Ben Stiller. What I find most interesting about the post is that none of your major credits yet have included an adaptation of previous work, and in this case, the author – Maher – is an extremely divisive figure. But he’s funny enough that he has both his own show and managed to make 2008’s Religulous [dir. Larry Charles.] Does his success speak to money in new places for a unique vision?
DR: There is, but you’ve got to find the entrepreneurs who are going to back someone like Maher…
SM: Is it all about money people, even with someone as polemical as him?
DR: Of course – they have the power and everyone’s after them! The industry is about business, and the heads of corporate boards are not sitting there saying, “I love movies. Here’s an exciting one that might be good for the culture!” or “I’m a patriot, and I really want to see this movie out there.” No, they’re asking, “How much will this make for us and for me?” I do think that a lot of them also like movies, so they try to bridge that gap and bring audiences together with the money, but everyone has to play ball.
SM: So where does this reliance on money-making leave modern comedy after Groundhog Day? Could a movie with a dying hobo even get made in the current industry?
DR: It couldn’t even get made at the time that I wrote it *Laughs*. I went all over town, had my fifty meetings and they said, “Of course we won’t make this. Show us what else you’ve got.” I just saw James Toback’s documentary, Seduced and Abandoned , which is so accurate about this. It was a wonderful reminder that it’s not just the writers treated this way – it’s great directors, great actors…everyone from the bottom to the top-of-the-line Heroes of Cinema gets dissed.
It wasn’t until someone who happened to be hot at the time – that’s Harold Ramis – took it and said, “Don’t worry: I can tame this beast.” I’m sure he had his meetings, too, to convince the board members that he could make it into the type of commercial film they were familiar with. There are so many people who look at the “state of cinema now,” and say, “Oh god, it’s so awful, it’s just Marvel comics and superheroes!” But there are plenty of good movies coming out now; every year, there are a handful of excellent ones that manage to break through.
SM: As a current Radio-Television-Film graduate student, I’m inclined to go even one step further and call it a boom. Part of such a strong period in cinema is seeing dark, deep comedies that baffle as to how any of the money-people chose to make them, like Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York  or Bachelorette [Leslye Headland, 2012.] These sorts of movies make me feel like there’s no such world in which the writing of Danny Rubin doesn’t attract viewers or entrepreneurs.
DR: I have to agree, or I wouldn’t keep doing it – hope springs eternal, and you can’t write without a little hope. Oh, sure, you say, “Those bastards!” and “How could they?!” and “Why I oughta…” But then you start writing and you think, “This one’s going to be different.”
SM: Do you have people you rely on to bounce ideas off of for feedback, or any writing partners?
DR: Not really. I have people that, when they ask what I’m working on, I jump at the chance to say because every time you practice telling your story, you get some reactions. Those help you say, “Oh no, I’m approaching this wrong,” or “They loved that part – I have to remember that that’s great.”
SM: Does being a teacher and advisor to other writers help you with your own writing?
DR: Absolutely! I’ll say something outrageous and definitive to the classroom only to turn around to say to myself, “Wait, do I actually think that? Do I feel that?” *Laughs* After scratching my head on that, I’ll go back to see if I do [think or feel] that way, and I’ll be glad when yes, an idea kicks me in the butt as I’d thought.
SM: And what about their actual work – is that ever inspirational for you? Or is it all a let down?
DR: It’s always a delight to encounter a great writer, particularly when they think I still have something to offer them. It’s nice to just have to show someone a few small things so that they’ll be even better. It doesn’t help me learn anything new about the industry myself, but it does clue me in to what’s “hot,” right now, like Parks & Recreation, or who’s exciting to them. Comedy is interesting because it has gone through some phase-changes recently. I remember talking with a comedy producer who was coming off a wave of Saturday Night Live-type movies where you create a character and build this world around them. They made a lot of those and a lot of money from them at one point, and then Judd Apatow comes along right as this producer was making another one. He realized immediately that his project was basically dead in the water because it just was not cool by that point; things had changed, quickly. And things will continue to change – before the SNL wave there was the Harold Ramis type of comedy – and now we’re coming out of the “bromance” thing and moving toward women in comedy. These are similar types of comedy but what’s in vogue now focuses on women and women’s issues from women’s or a woman’s perspective.
SM: My next question switches gears to something a little heavier. You spoke in an interview about the Santa Fe level of consciousness, wherein events in time happen simultaneously with one another and we just experience them in a certain way. Without getting too deeply into it, I recall another comedy writer who was guided in his work by this belief in time: Kurt Vonnegut. When you’re writing “dramas that are funny,” do they come from a Vonnegut-like belief in a miserable world where ironies and funny things sometimes happen, or in a happy world where sad things sometimes happen?
DR: It’s interesting that you bring that up because I was just at the Michener Center [at the University of Texas in Austin on November 2013] amongst all these great novelists whose writing influenced me, and Kurt Vonnegut was huge, too. But I don’t see the world as a sad place, as he saw it – not even close.
SM: Speaking of the Michener Center as a place where your influences come together, do you actively incorporate place as a major theme in your writing? The impact that the novelty of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania had on Groundhog Day – and the impact that Groundhog Day has since had on Punxsutawney – is immeasurable. You’ve lived and worked all over the country, so I expect you’ve been to some underrepresented and underwritten-about places. Do they ever factor into your writing on a similar level?
DR: No – that’s my real life, so why would I write about it? *Laughs*
SM: Isn’t the screenwriter’s mantra supposed to be, “write what you know?”
DR: I was just speaking with the novelist Allan Gurganis, who always writes about place and tries to establish “place” in each of his novels. He told me he doesn’t understand how a person can write without that. It is a pleasure to be able to use little things from where you’re living in your work. Like I wrote a Western about a man who’s to be hanged, but rather than stage it in the usual places, I wrote for it to take place in Northern New Mexican, where I was living at the time. Little things like that can be great, but I can only write about what things I don’t know in order to learn about them and my relationship to them. For some reason, I find that more exciting, you know? But since you’re the second person to mention “place,” to me recently – and I’m a quick study; it only takes two – I’ve started to consider it. I’d like to write a spec script about the town where I grew up in Florida, in a time and a place that I find interesting. So let us see how that goes.