Phil’s walk on the Dark Side November 14th, 2007

In my blog entry on Chumps and Jerks, I got into a discussion with Al of Wisconsin about balance and weave – but Al also offered this:

“Phil has his dark moments in the film. Many of them. Yet he has a core of decency. Many a lesser man might have gone on a homicidal bender in those darker moments. Ned or the fellows on the radio or even whoever was playing “The Pennsylvania Polka” might have set off an otherwise normal person stuck to deal with them over and over and over. Phil only tried to bump himself (and to be fair, the groundhog) off.”

So far as you know, Al. So far as you know. The movie did not show every moment of Phil’s life on that repeating day.

When I first got the idea for this movie, there lay before me a major fork in the road – what would be the tone of the film? To look at it now it’s almost impossible to see the film unfolding any other way than how it did. But it occurred to me almost immediately that this would have made a terrific David Lynch film.

Think about it. Give a human the chance to do whatever he wants, to indulge his greatest fantasies or his darkest desires, with absolutely no consequences for his actions. No legal repercussions, no social repercussions – only Phil will know what he has done.

We did see Phil doing things that were illegal. And we saw Phil do things that were immoral. He lied and he manipulated and he took unfair advantage.

Harold went so far as to write a scene that showed a kind of ultimate debauchery – what amounted to a depraved frat party with naked girls tossed in the air and goats running through the scene, and all that implied. Not exactly dark, always comedic, and ultimately not necessary to the telling of the story, which is why you never saw it.

I knew that a David Lynch movie would indulge our curiosity about the dark side of human nature, and maybe even reveal devastating insights. It could have been terrific, and, frankly, it still could be terrific if anybody wanted to do it.

But here comes the relationship between the writer and the written. At the time I came up with this idea I was new to Los Angeles. New house, new baby, new career. All was happy and hopeful. I was facing new frontiers left and right, and I knew that every movie project I pursued would give me an opportunity to explore in depth subjects and worlds of interest to me.

The dark side of human nature was one potential frontier. Many writers take that step sooner or later. I chose later.

I already knew that there was no such thing as putting work away. Once I get into a screenplay, I’m thinking about it all the time. In the middle of dinner or walking or shopping or anywhere, Louise would frequently catch the blank look in my eyes and guess where I was, which project, which scene. And the dark side was not where I wanted to be living at that time, not even remotely.

So I took the left fork: the story of a man repeating the same day became a comedy and a romance, a happy feel good story because I was happy and I felt good.

That perhaps explains the overall tone of the movie and the parts of the story I chose to tell. But does it tell the whole story?

We definitely saw a phase of Phil’s development when he was filled with boredom, invincibility, and self-hatred. He later turned to suicide. Between these two phases, is it so hard to imagine that Phil would have at least considered crossing a moral line, broken all taboos? He could have done terrible things. He could have wiped out the whole town. Even now I find it difficult to articulate all of the horrific things he could have done, just to have that experience, just to see how it felt to him. How many people get that opportunity? Given that opportunity, how many people would take it?

Al suggests that Phil not only didn’t do these things, but that he wouldn’t do these things.

This is a good question for me to ask Phil himself. But before I do, I leave it to all of you: did Phil take a walk on the dark side?


Comment by Al Long
2007-11-16 05:30:49

Very interesting. There is a restraint to an even darker walk. What if Phil finally gives in and knocks off the whole town–and the following morning is the one that changes?

I’m glad you wrote the movie you did, but there could be some interesting remakes….

Comment by Patrick Murphy
2008-01-16 23:17:22

It is interesting that your screenplay could have gone darker/Lynchian, but instead you chose happiness (or perhaps it chose you…).

I half-believe a weird theory that when a fiction writer kills a character, the writer in some small way bears responsibility as if it were a real life. Therefore, any such fiction killing should be essential to the story.

Of course, it is not that the writer has committed murder, or has even committed a “thought crime.” It is more that the writer had the choice of not killing — perhaps the character could be removed from the story, or the situation resolved, by some other mechanism. In this view, any type of killing or suffering really has to have a deep justification in the story.

James Cameron reacted to critics of the first Terminator by having the Terminator in the second movie only shoot to wound, not shoot to kill. It is this kind of conscious decision that “I am not going to add to gratuitous carnage” that I’m thinking of.

And this does not limit itself to killing characters, of course. If a screenwriter puts a child character in peril, or if he writes a car chase scene involving innocent drivers sustaining major damage,or he destroys a building full of people as a secondary plot device — he bears some fraction of the responsibility as if he had done it in reality.

Movie makers spend small fortunes and energize small armies to try to realistically create a world that viewers can enter with their suspension of disbelief. All this effort, and all these millions of dollars do have an effect on the audience. While some movies reflect the dark side of life, I’m afraid other movies are creating their own dark side which serves over time to “pull down” reality to its level.

Your version of GhD is more upbeat than, say, a David Lynch version, partially because you chose — consciously or subconsciously — to create a world which showed the better angels of our nature. And in turn, this consciously or subconsciously helps steer viewers to attain their own enlightenment — hopefully faster than Phil did!

Comment by danny
2008-01-17 08:42:48

I agree with you, Patrick, and appreciate the entry. I do believe that a writer has to take responsibility for the world he creates as well as the effect of that story on the viewing public. Even so, I think the writer needs the freedom to pursue a story honestly, no matter who gets hurt. In the end he doesn’t have to publish – that’s why we invented “drafts.”

I do however feel that quality trumps all. I remember being at a screening at Sundance of the film “Fresh,” a wonderful little film. When the filmmakers took the stage after the screening to bask in warm praise for their excellent labors, they were instead met with an audience uprising.

“Yes, it was good, but do we really need another film depicting blacks as ghetto-bound violent drug-infused poor people?”

The thing is, I had been thinking exactly that thought around that time, believing that filmmakers have a moral obligation not to perpetuate stereotypes such as these.

However, after seeing the movie, I totally didn’t care about the larger societal issues. The main character in Fresh was a brilliant complex tragic character of Shakespearian proportions. To deny this excellent piece of drama a stage would have been the greater evil.

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