Embracing the Alligator December 14th, 2007

In my first draft of Groundhog Day I made a bigger meal of Phil’s need to escape and his inability to do so.  I wanted to show Phil going to the absolute limit.  He wasn’t going to be stuck in Punxsutawney without absolutely convincing himself that there was no other option.   So he took every road out of town going in every possible direction, leaving at every possible time of day.  He walked.  He skied.  He stole a horse.  He stole a truck with a snowplow carrying a snowmobile.  All of this was shown in montage, suggesting endless repetitions and a desperate commitment by Phil.  

I kept going with it.  The idea of the blizzard being supernaturally confining hadn’t been born, yet.  Phil eventually got himself to a snowbound regional airport.  He stole a small airplane.  He taught himself how to fly, crash after crash after crash, until finally he went…


He went to see his mother.

There are many obvious reasons that this sequence didn’t fit into subsequent drafts or the movie that was ultimately made, but I guess I was curious to see where Phil would go, what he would run to.

I was only thinking about that now because I just got back from a trip to my own hometown of Gainesville, Florida to visit my parents. 

The gag I led up to in the escape sequence was that when Phil at long last gets to see his Mom she always says the same thing, always reacts in the same way.  He and she fall into familiar roles and patterns, no matter what he does.  He knows exactly what to expect and it becomes tedious to him.  No matter where he falls asleep he always wakes up back in Punxsutawney, so he is still trapped in that town in addition to being trapped in a repetitive relationship with his mom.

So I ask myself, was my own trip home a repetition or a new experience?  Was anything different than what I have been led to expect from many many years of such visits?

Not really.  It was just another variation on the same visit.  But in a good way. 

The routine of my visits to Gainesville includes good food, good conversation, new people, art and movies and sometimes alligators, and I got all that.  What’s not to like?  (Phil: “THAT was a pretty good day.  Why couldn’t I be repeating that day?”) 

But parents are parents – no escaping that.  I can’t escape the familiar repetitive patterns of my parents and my kids won’t be able to escape those of theirs.

That familiar part became oppressive to young Phil, his mother’s voice a dentist’s drill.  It never again became, in Phil’s mind, worth the trouble for the arduous journey, so he never visited her again.  (My own journey was on Southwest airlines, which was actually not too bad).  If I had for some reason wound up keeping this escape sequence in the movie, I think I would also have had a return scene, where an older, wiser Phil would once again visit his mother. 

In that scene, the familiar and repetitive would not have changed, but would have been met with more acceptance by Phil.  It would no longer distract him from what is new in the repetitive, and indeed, what it is actually embraceable in the familiar.

My own trip home, by the way, was fabulous .  We all had a great time, and probably a better one because I am an older Phil.  I love my visits home, loving both the new and the familiar.  As a kid I didn’t always like Florida, but now I actually embrace the alligator.


Comment by Paul Hannam
2007-12-14 16:49:34

When we are adults, time spent with parents is bitter-sweet. So many of the old patterns kick in automatically as we go through the door, and step back into the twilight world between child and adulthood.

As though trapped in a Pavlovian experiment we switch rapidly between different roles, triggered by the tone of a phrase, a certain look and an always-present craving for parental approval.

We might kid ourselves that we are autonomous and independent in our own homes and offices. When we return to our parents we are reminded of deep, powerful repetitions just waiting to surprise and humble us.

It is our choice whether we deny or embrace them

Comment by danny
2007-12-17 12:07:23

Dead on accurate, Paul. I guess my querie is this: does the repetition of this experience with parents CHANGE anything?
I think what you have summed up is, basically, no. However, the repetitions can change what you expect to happen, and depending on how you deal with that expectation, your experience of “going home” can be anywhere from hellish to delightful.

Comment by Al Long
2007-12-15 05:12:45

Your first draft had some very funny stuff in it. I would like to have watched the montage you described. Bill Murray and some stunt men could have had fun with that.

You keep referring to tidbits from your first draft. Any way you could post your first draft of that movie? Or even segments of it?

I don’t think the scene with Phil visiting his mother would have been as appropriate. I think of Phil as a career-driven person. He seemed born clinging to the lowest rung of a career ladder. Family wouldn’t seem as important to someone like that. Phil might appreciate his family in time, but likely after years of neglect.

Still, I enjoyed your commentary about parents. Baggage accumulates and complicates those relationships. Time and perhaps distance calm things for some people. An angry teen seething at criticism from parents who are obviously not without their own flaws (the hypocrites) may notice a few years later that those same flaws make the parents human and even vulnerable. Anger can morph into concern.

Comment by danny
2007-12-17 12:19:21

Interesting how “time and distance” can change our perception of the same thing. What mechanisms are in place to do this? How does it actually happen?

I really appreciate your reaction to my first draft allusions. Here’s the deal: If I just publish the first draft, make it widely available to anybody, it will be perhaps appreciated by some, but overall it will be compared unfavorably to the final draft. This is natural. The form the movie eventually took will be perceived as the perfect version of the movie, and my original contribution, therefore, imperfect.
Unfair, but true. Fans are less likely to see the various potentials within the first draft, and are also likely to misunderstand how movies are made and how scripts become movies. I can’t possibly benefit from any of this.
In a perfect world, here’s what will happen: Harold and I will together publish the first and last drafts (and maybe even some of the betweeny drafts) with annotations by both of us. I think this would be wonderfully instructive to students of screenwriting, and pretty entertaining to everybody. In fact, there could be an online version where anybody can annotate, or we include annotation tabs and solicit comments from various walks of life – a religious/spiritual tab; a filmmakers tab; a psychologists tab.
Wouldn’t this be terrific? I’ll have to mention it to Harold.
Who would be interested in such a book? Anyone out there?

Comment by Al Long
2007-12-17 13:26:44

I’d sure buy such a book… or browse such a website… or do both.

You mentioned that fans “…are also likely to misunderstand how movies are made and how scripts become movies.” Could you share some of your experiences with that process? I may be an unsophisticated fan, but I bet I’m not the only one who would enjoy learning about your writing experiences.

Comment by danny
2007-12-17 14:22:32

I am happy to share my experiences in Hollywood and my knowledge of script development. I’m not sure, but I think I have so much to say that it may take a while to get to everything. All I can say is “stay tuned,” and if anybody has a specific question I’ll do my best to get to it sooner rather than later.

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