The Magic of Friendship January 29th, 2008

I’m going to say something provocative and see if my friend Paul can be provoked.

Paul is Paul Hannam, author of the just released blockbuster book The Magic of Groundhog Day. In the book Paul talks about such things as whether it is possible for people to break out of their unwanted repetitive patterns, and whether change is possible for the rest of us in the way it worked for Phil Connors.   

I have read the book and, to sum up (spoiler alert!!!):  yes. 

So, here is my provocative challenge to Paul:  Is one lifetime enough to change a repetitive pattern?  To be truly honest and to accurately follow the model suggested by Phil’s journey, a person may have to live longer than one lifetime in order to transform.

This may be a good time to inject one of the questions I often get from the movie’s fans:  how long was Phil stuck in time?  How many days?

This question may seem a little “’fan’ is short for ‘fanatic’”, but it actually became important in the development of the film.  

My original intent was that the length of time needn’t be specific, just terribly long, and in my mind, more than one lifetime.  That was in fact the whole point of the original experiment, the one I hoped to play out via comedic dramatization: if a person could live long enough would that person fundamentally change?  The clarity of the experiment would come from the huge exaggeration of time.  He would have to live longer than a person is supposed to live, more than one lifetime.   The repetition part was how I got to the immortality.

I know that I have been quoted as having originally intended for Phil to have lived “ten thousand years”, a time-frame with Buddhist overtones.  I find that so incredibly cool that I put no effort into disputing it.  But it’s not true.  For me, any lifetime for Phil longer than one would have sufficed, and even so, that statistic never had to leave my head.  As long as the audience understood it to be a very, very long time, it never had to become specific.

In my original draft I had created a device to help audiences feel the massiveness of time on Phil’s shoulders. It was my version of five-bundled hatch marks on a prison wall, which of course would not work for Phil as each morning the marks would be gone.   My solution was a wall-length bookcase in the Bed and Breakfast.  Every day Phil would read a single page from a single book.  Every now and then we would see him finish the first chapter, then the whole book, then the last book in the row.  On one sad day we see him finish the last page of the last book in the bookcase – only to then have to walk back to the very first book and begin again. 

The studio had a note: He’s there too long.  He can’t repeat the day so many times. Peoples’ heads would explode.  The studio solution:  Two weeks.  

Now it comes to Harold, who must play director, philosopher, and politician, and make a decision.

What he ultimately did was take out my bookshelf and leave the time-frame as ambiguous as possible.  People can still read into it whatever they wish.  But in his mind – and I think the movie reflects this – it lasted about ten years.

Harold also created that one amazing iconic slo-mo shot of the giant clock flipping over to the next moment, thus communicating in an elegant few seconds the eternal weight of time on Phil’s shoulders.  Truly in the movie world there are good ideas and there are even better ideas.

I brought all of this up so that Paul, who is very sharp, will not waste your time splitting hairs over how long it took Phil to change.  I want to know why he thinks Phil’s journey can be your journey.

Okay, Paul.  Come out, come out, wherever you are!   And let anyone else who wants to jump into the mosh pit feel welcome.


Comment by Paul Hannam
2008-01-29 13:56:10

Yes we can change – I have changed in my life and I know others who have changed. I don’t know how long Phil was trapped but I like to think it was getting close to 10,000 years. It would certainly take me that long to play Rachmaninov proficiently.

And I like to think it is 10,000 years because I can then believe that Phil represents the zenith of a self-actualized, mature adult. That he is someone who has tried every form of life strategy and found, like the great spiritual masters, that love, connection and service are the ultimate principles to live by. He is the proof!

Then the question is how we can apply this wisdom in our own lives, and try to change within a normal lifetime. We need to consider what has changed, how deep is the change and how enduring is the change?
When we think of personal change we need to be clear what we mean. A personal change can mean altering a simple behavior whether it be taking coffee with our milk or commuting a different route to work. Or it can mean changing a more complex patterned behavior like avoiding confrontation or constantly seeking approval.

These are far more difficult to change These more complex behavioral changes involve changing our conditioned responses, our attitudes, our values, our emotions and our very sense of self. In the movie Phil changes his core identity, and this would normally be a lifetime’s work – maybe more, as Danny suggests.

Certainly such profound change can happen through ageing or it can happen in response to a trauma like a near-death experience. What is interesting is why some people have heart attacks and change their lives, and others go into denial and revert to type.

So why did Phil change? I think that the uniqueness of his predicament, his experimentation and the catalyst of his relationship with Rita accelerated the change process. Yet there was something more. For me, the turning point of the movie is when he accepts that he cannot kill himself. The constant suicides literally destroy his old self, and the pain of being the old Phil becomes unbearable. He has nowhere else to go and gradually reconstructs his life based on a whole new identity.

This reveals something I have found to be true about the process of change – that we tend to make the big changes when we have nowhere else to go, when we face great adversity. After training thousands of businesspeople and students, I can think of very few examples of intentional, positive change in the way a weekend self-help course promotes.

Change is hard, very hard. Phil is following the ancient tradition of the hero’s journey, and spiritual rebirth. The question is whether we can replicate such a shattering experience in our own lives? Do we have to face our own mortality and go beyond it?

In my book, I suggest a process for such change and I think it can help us break out of the ruts we often get trapped in. How long it will take depends on our determination and resilience, and maybe a large dose of luck. The biggest challenge is not to revert back to our old ways, and let the gravity of our conditioning restrain us.

Then there is another more complex question. What happens to Phil now after enlightenment? Is this a permanent state or the upside of a cycle which will swing back again? Is there an end to this journey?

I cannot answer this, yet I feel that there are lessons we can all learn from this wonderful movie. One lesson is that we should always retain hope, that we can make tomorrow better than today. And, as Phil discovers in Punxsutawney, we have everything we need today to either create the worst day of our life or the best day of our life. Phil creates both days by simply changing his perspective, and reveals that this is our greatest gift of all.

Comment by danny
2008-01-31 09:39:37

Great answer, Paul. I think, of all of the things you referred to, the persistence of optimism seems to be of critical importance. It is difficult to change when you don’t even believe that change is possible. The movie does show us that an infinite number of worlds are available to us on the exact same day.

On the other hand, Phil had no hope of changing, nor does he even have a goal of changing. He accomplished his changes without intentionality. The process of repetition drove him through a series of stages.

We can look at those stages and analyze them and perhaps think that because we see how Phil ended up we can skip directly to the final stage – the one where he is happy and in love with his life. So, mon ami, is it possible to skip the steps? Can a child observe an adult and simply decide to be one, or does he have to go through certain stages?

Comment by Paul Hannam
2008-02-06 07:20:12

I believe a child can mimic an adult, and that a teenager is convinced that they are already mature adults. This is not the same as being an adult. I know of no other substitute for the experience of going through the stages. I find the best model for understanding this process is Erikson’s Life Stage Cycle which shows how we get stuck at different stages, and how we can skip stages but then be forced to address what we skipped. Much of Phil’s struggle is based on the fact that he has skipped earlier stages of development like learning trust and intimacy. Trapped in the time loop all these flaws are magnified and Phil is forced to confront what Erikson calls the choice between stagnation and generativity, the big issue in our middle years, that is dramatized as the choice between Phil flicking cards or helping others and serving the community. He comes through in the end, though it is a close call and takes a very long time!

Comment by A Long
2008-01-31 04:53:12

“…The studio solution: two weeks.” Thank you Harold Ramis for at least suggesting a longer time frame. Maybe the film’s subtle approach was appropriate, but I like your bookcase idea. I must admit I didn’t immediately pick up on the passage of extensive time aspect of the film. I had to watch it a few times and start thinking about Phil’s experiences before that became fully evident. The bookcase scenes would have helped a plodder like me.

Comment by danny
2008-01-31 09:44:34

Isn’t that “Two weeks” comment revealing? In the television comedy world, all problems are solved in 22 1/2 minutes, the length of a half-hour sit-com without commercials. Only to studio executives or to children would it seem plausible to solve insurmountable life problems in a mere two weeks.

Comment by Johannes Labusch
2008-02-02 04:28:16

To me, the measure of “how long he was in the loop” was always the amount of time it would have taken Phil to learn to play the piano that well. Of course, it’s not completely understandable why the piano teacher was so proud of having transformed an already great piano player into an even slightly better one, which is all she could have accomplished in the one day she remembers. But by then, we were all heading for the rush of a well deserved happy ending.

I always thought the movie was unthinkable with any other lead actor. Bill Murray had the cynicism right at the beginning, yet underneath you already felt the gravity of his disappointment, the sadness which had turned him into such a grumpy person, even someone who got a sadistic kick out of being such a jerk. It’s almost as if, in the beginning, all his emotional abilities were trapped in the joy of being an ass. That is the very definition of a cynic.

It makes sense that it would take such a person an additional lifetime of failing to find happiness, to start subtle attempts at changing his ways. I wonder how many people still have that tiny spark of hope in them, and at which point in a life it is too late to believe in change. Because, let’s face it: If you go through the transformation, you may find happiness, but you pay the price of becoming sort of goofy. It’s also important to notice that Phil’s change of heart and mind only occurs after dozens of suicide attempts. He was beyond giving up by the time he started to change. I always found that aspect of the movie very dark, but also strangely satisfying.

The cynic in me was disappointed to lose the early version of Phil. The sunny happy-ending-Phil was certainly not the kind of person you would like to discuss Dick Cheney or Celine Dion with. He was much more of a realist than the “healed” soul who embraced Andi McDowell in the end. And certainly more fun. Then again: Embracing Andi McDowell might be worth it. This cynic won’t find out; not in this lifetime.

Comment by Johannes Labusch
2008-02-02 04:41:22

oups, wrong sentence in the last paragraph. Tomorrow, right after listening to Bonny & Cher, I’ll post this:

The cynic in me was disappointed to lose the early version of Phil. The sunny happy-ending-Phil was certainly not the kind of person you would like to discuss Dick Cheney or Celine Dion with. The nasty guy we meet at the top of the story was much more of a realist than the “healed” soul who embraced Andi McDowell in the end. And certainly more fun. Then again: Embracing Andi McDowell might be worth it. This cynic won’t find out; not in this lifetime.

Comment by Danny
2008-02-02 12:11:51

I have in fact actually embraced Andie McDowell and it is very nice; however, worth waiting several lifetimes for? Worth giving up my fun boyish cynicism for?

By the way, let me tell you something about my enlightened Phil in relation to Harold’s enlightened Phil.

It comes down to this:

My enlightened Phil would still slug Ned Ryerson. And have a good time with you over a beer kicking around Dick and Celine. Some of the mean edge might be gone from Phil’s otherwise spirited invective, but for Phil or the rest of us, enlightened or not, in the end we are all still human.

Comment by Johannes Labusch
2008-02-02 15:25:49

I’ll drink to that.

Comment by mike
2008-02-02 20:42:38

“To me, the measure of “how long he was in the loop” was always the amount of time it would have taken Phil to learn to play the piano that well.”

That, and the ice sculpting. This is why I’d think it is longer than 10 years , especially considering that he didn’t start playing piano until after he had become a master ice sculptor.

Some people could have twenty lifetimes and never learn to do either of these things, but assuming Phil had the capacity to develop both talents, and that he doesn’t start either on day one, I would venture to guess it was far more than 10 years. I’ve always guessed at least 100.

2008-02-03 18:44:19

[…] screenwriter of the original script, Danny Rubin, has a blog post covering this very topic, in it he […]

Comment by Eric Marcoullier
2008-02-05 22:20:17

I can’t wait to read this book, but I have to say that I don’t believe he would have become a better person over time. Unlike the audience, he would have had no reason to believe that the day would ever end.

As a result, there would be a feeling of absolute disconnection with the rest of the humanity. Couple that with absolutely no repercussions for his actions (tomorrow it just all goes away) and he would have gone mad. And once he’d gone mad, I think spiritual rebirth goes out the window 🙂

Comment by MattC
2008-02-05 23:47:20

I agree that he wouldn’t have thought the day would end, but disagree completely on the rest. It wasn’t until then – that he no longer cared that the day was going to repeat itself – that he was able to naturally change himself and become a “better” person. He was stuck, he probably read all the books in Pux. regarding quantum physics, and figured he was in some kind of time loop.

One of the big character flaws Phil had was that he was a chronic manipulator. The biggest hurdle he faced was to quit manipulating the people and events around him – how many times does he furtively save the homeless man’s life? – and to live life for exactly what it was. Yes, by the 100th year he had learned a lot, but also by the end was when he was most selfless in sharing his gifts. When he finally gets over that – ending with the Andie McDowell character falling in love with Phil for who he is rather than what he does – does his life start again.

Mr Rubin, you wrote a fantastic story, by the way. Thanks.

Comment by Kelvin Davie
2010-04-06 07:27:10

My problem with the movie is the old man dying in Phil´s time loop. If nothing changes for the citizenry of the town, why did the old man not die on the first day of Phil´s dilemma? Why will the nurse tell Phil that the old man died because his time had come? In Phil´s and the town world time is stagnant. If it is not, then why are people not getting older in the town?

Comment by danny
2010-04-06 07:36:57

I think the implication is that the old man did indeed die on the first and every subsequent day. Phil is so into his own thing that he doesn’t notice anything about any of the lives around him. It’s only when he’s developed a sense of empathy that he begins to notice anything about anybody else’s life, including the fate of the old man.

Comment by MattC
2008-02-05 23:49:02

doh … Futilely, not furtively ….

Comment by Sean P. Aune
2008-02-06 00:40:26

I’m not sure the length of time Phil is there is as important as the journey itself. The book case would have been a lovely touch, but in some ways it would have detracted from the story. The journey is where everyone should focus their thoughts, not some quibbles over how long it took. The clock device, and the quality of his piano player, were a good enough gauge for the average movie-goer to be satisfied with “he was there a mighty long time.”

Either way, thank you for giving us such a delightful little movie that actually provokes the audience to some real thoughts.

Comment by bobbyfiend
2008-02-06 09:21:57

I stumbled into this like a little piece of Nirvana. Thanks for the post. I have wondered about Phil Connors’ time frame for years.

As for whether he could change, I have a perspective born of providing a bit of psychotherapy and teaching grad students (from books written by people smarter than me):

My opinion is that yes, he could have changed, but there’s no guarantee that he would have. As others here have pointed out, being “stuck” might provide some of the preconditions for meaningful change, as Phil was forced to confront himself, flaws and all. However, how many people do we know who, one way or another, should have been forced to confront themselves over and over, and still manage to avoid any kind of “enlightenment?” This can go on for years, and (I think) perhaps even lifetimes. We have a nearly infinite capacity for self-deception in protection of our sense of self.

To badly paraphrase Irvin Yalom (and Harry Stack Sullivan), it isn’t experience, or even emotional experience that changes us — though these can leave us with an illusion of change — it’s *corrective* emotional experience. And I would add that, even then, we still have the ability to resist our epiphanies.

Again, thanks for this blog post. Sweet like candy!

2008-02-06 17:28:36

[…] Blogus Groundhogus > The Magic of Friendship – Ground Hog day, how long? 10 years it seems Tags: movie trivia groundhogday Tags: groundhogday, Links, movie, trivia […]

2008-02-07 08:17:05

[…] on Groundhog Day & life changing by its writer (tags: groundhogday movies time life film lifetime patterns) […]

Comment by Ravi Athale
2008-02-07 16:10:21

I remember one point in the movie where Phil is teaching Rita to toss cards in the hat. She asks “it must take long time to get this” and Phil replies “6-7 hours a day 6 months tops” to which Rita replies “Is that what one does with eternity?”

I am really curious to see the book. I have watched the movie at least a couple of dozen times, which ironic given the treme of the movie.

2008-02-09 22:38:05

[…] There is this manual assesment of the film’s timeline as well as the definitive response from the writer Danny Rubin. […]

2008-02-10 23:19:00

[…] The guy who wrote Groundhog Day has a blog about the movie. Seriously. He recently wrote a post about how long Bill Murray was stuck in that day. […]

2008-02-18 02:47:49

[…] of them was, I think, the result of my subconscious having its way with this. (Via […]

Comment by paul littler
2008-04-28 06:17:09

wonderful movie and site
living in fantasy hollywood life escape i couldn’t calculate time spent/lost,
but figuring piano, ice sculpture, and breaking into Andie would probably
take me 10 lifetimes at a small calculation of 50-100 years each
so Phil was stuck at least 500 to 1000 years
thanks again – but this great movie couldn’t impress me with this
maybe needed some storyline over the screen

Comment by peterfny
2008-06-12 11:01:13

I’ve always gotten the impression from watching the movie that what initially drives Phil to better himself is the unspoken idea that maybe that will help him to move on to the next day. In other words, I’ve always felt that he started the whole self-improvement thing for selfish reasons, but by the end the personal rewards began outweighing the need to escape his permament stay in Punxatawney.

Comment by Danny
2008-06-13 09:10:53

Let’s say Phil did begin his self-improvement only for selfish reasons – because he was utterly bored and needed to try something, anything, new. Whether his mind was opened to the world of culture, the greater contributions of civilization, and the needs of other people by his own selfishness or by some new hunger for altruism, I’m not sure it matters. Once his eyes opened to these possibilities he certainly pursued them with growing interest in a life-changing way, and if they weren’t organic to his nature in the beginning, I think they became part of nature by the end.
I do disagree with the notion that he selfishly pursued these new interests as a potential way to escape from his predicament. I don’t know how you could have gotten that impression. Phil pretty much gives up on the idea of escape early on in the progression of things. Finding himself unable to even escape by death clinches it for me and for most viewers. If your perception that Phil was trying to improve himself in order to escape were true, I don’t think the movie would work – and for you, perhaps, it didn’t. Hope you got a couple of good laughs out of it nonetheless!

Comment by rhecker
2008-09-07 01:36:48

I am confused by some of the comments above, and the blog posting generally, because it goes against what I always thought was the major theme of the movie: a critique of the purely materialistic, man-is-central life, and the acceptance of an objective truth.

I always believed Groundhog Day was more a development of the spirit and Phil’s final recognition of an ultimate truth, rather than some decision to “change” habits. His biggest sins are his oversized ego, his view of himself as the center of the universe, and his materialism. This is all based on his cynical atheism/agnosticism about the world. He believes, at the beginning of the movie, that he can reach fulfillment through the material world only.

The movie can thus be broken into three parts: (1) egotistical man realizes he can do whatever he wants and fulfill any material desire, and thus is very excited;

(2) in failing to bed Rita, he suddenly realizes that he can’t have everything and that all his rampant crimes/materialism/sexual exploits are meaningless and worthless. As he still remains purely materialistic, he sees no point to life and tries killing himself many times.

(3) After his one day with Rita as a friend, he realizes what he’s missing. The fact that he tells Rita he is a “god” reinforces this ultimate egoism, but also reflects that he is beginning to think about more than just himself, and trying to understand, finally, his role in the universe. This is also seen in the fact that he is reaching out to Rita in the first place. He realizes that pure materialism is meaningless and true happiness can only be achieved through accepting the Ultimate and to live by Truth. It’s this realization that leads him to “change,” In other words, I always understood Phil’s change to be based less on psychology/need, and more on a greater philosophical understanding of the universe and his place in it.

Maybe I’m misunderstand Danny or Paul or maybe I misunderstood the movie.

Comment by danny
2008-09-07 06:00:06

I don’t think you misunderstand the movie at all, but I don’t think your understanding precludes any of the others suggested above.

Psychological needs and spiritual understanding are all intertwined. Phil clearly has a psychological need to love and be loved, and his egotism and materialism are getting in the way. He also clearly has a spiritual need to understand his place in the universe and to ultimately find that place, to connect with it, to become part of it. You called this “The Ultimate”, or “the Truth”. People also describe this place as pure love and compassion. So I see the psychological and the spiritual as two prongs on the same fork.

I also tend not to see Phil as moving himself toward either of these goals. He did not decide to change. Changing himself wasn’t anywhere on his to do list. But rather he was pushed by the waves of repetition. Something about repetition itself necessitated the changes of perception and attitude within Phil, bit by bit, as we saw reflected by his journey in the movie.

I hope this addresses your consternation somewhat. Please feel free to clarify further if I’m missing something, and in any case you shouldn’t stop loving the movie just because the author doesn’t know what he’s talking about. There are some very serious people in the world of criticism who suggest that the author never knows what he’s talking about.

Comment by Dianne
2008-10-08 14:57:19

I try to enjoy movies for their own sake, but this is one that got me and my kids thinking. 🙂

Our take on the film: Phil was a selfish, egotistic, cynic. God said to himself “he needs to learn a lesson” and trapped Phil in order to let Phil work out his many problems. Once he FINALLY showed maturity (after a very long time), he was again allowed to get on with his life. The length of his entrapment was his own doing, his own immaturity is what kept him there. No one could have pulled off the lead role any better than Bill Murray. He was the perfect choice.

Both my sons love this film and watch it at least twice a year. Especially when they feel that they need a “wake up call” and need some motivation to head off in the right direction.

My thanks to all those involved with the story, its development and ultimately into the film it became. Fantastic job everyone! 😀

Comment by Michael
2009-02-01 21:59:05

Just a reflection on my life, I believe there is a small but fundamental change in the way I think and my outward approach to life about every three years. It has been a constant my whole life and somewhere in my early twenties I began to actually use it to help plan out the rest of my life, of course this outlook may change in a few years 😉 And this is one of the greatest movies of all time!

Comment by Robert
2009-02-04 08:30:07

A great discussion.

@Dianne: Its funny, but in wondering just how Phil comes to be stuck in the time loop, I never considered God in the commonly understood sense. In my mind, Phil incurs the wrath of the Ground-hog, a sort of pagan deity, and thereby manages to get himself cursed.

I’m glad its ambiguous, though. It could have easily gone down the route of “Phil seeks out crazy old pagan” who gives him the key to his predicament. Which would have in turn sullied the redemption he eventually achieves.

Comment by Annette
2009-03-22 23:51:54

I, too, have always enjoyed the movie and have reflected on how many years transpired to reach the happy ending. What I did not see mentioned above was the comment by a wife at the party thanking (Dr.)Phil for fixing her husband’s back, also his fluency of french and even the implied italian on the stairs. Add some level of medical knowledge to the other accomplishments of piano playing, ice sculpting, memorization of poetry, and mastering other languages…oh, and card tossing. That’s more then ten years, folks.

Also, I always figured that working on all these talents was a form of escape for Phil. When one is deeply involved in perfecting such activities time slows down, speeds up, or is of no consequence. That means a lot if you are stuck repeating the same day over and over; a sanity preserving reprieve for the prisoner of a time-loop. The escape is creating a bubble inside the loop where, at least, his mind can be free.

Comment by Dianne
2009-08-18 14:06:58

I agree, Annette, that Phil was there a lot longer than 10 years. Even to be proficient at the piano takes many more years, especially for an adult, as they have greater difficulties with learning the dexterity needed.

But, in keeping with your comments, to learn everything that the film implies, I venture to guess that Phil was there for several hundred years (he knows every person in the town down to the last intimate details.) He would have to read every book in the library, and that’s no mean feat. 🙂

Comment by Summer Lewis
2010-06-21 19:52:51

for me, the greatest movie is non other than War of the Worlds.:,~

Comment by Acne Remedy `
2010-10-11 20:18:27

in my opinion, the greatest movie would be Somewhere In Time -“~

Comment by Buck Teeth %0B
2010-12-13 11:22:39

i am a movie addict and i watch a lot of movie in just one night, the greatest movie for me is Somewhere In Tome *,”

Comment by Jeffrey Eric Grant
2015-05-10 18:09:18

I was just interested in counting the number of days portrayed in the film, rather than what it meant for Phil. Although an interesting question, I am still trying to count the number of days shown. When I finally figure it out I will be able to answer the trivia question correctly!

Comment by bigmike
2016-02-04 13:28:40

“Of course, it’s not completely understandable why the piano teacher was so proud of having transformed an already great piano player into an even slightly better one, which is all she could have accomplished in the one day she remembers. But by then, we were all heading for the rush of a well deserved happy ending.”

I choose to believe that each day for however many years Phil is in his loop, he goes through the effort of convincing his piano teacher that he is new to the instrument and that she is the key to his success. This seems implausible given his skills relative to hers in the final day, but it speaks to the selflessness with which he was conducting himself by the time of his full enlightenment. Somehow, some way, he is able to make her understand the truth and take pride in his ascendence.

Comment by Anavar
2017-08-03 04:11:39

Paul Hannam brings out the depth that I had not seen in this movie. What I used to see as a light little comedy has become an instruction manual for living a full and rewarding life. I am now leading group discussions about this great film and seeing lives and communities transformed in a positive way. I am constantly asking myself whether or not I am being the “old Phil” or the “new Phil” in various life situations. That alone has provided me with greater clarity and understanding of who I aspire to be in life.

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