Why We Write

January 15, 2008

Why We Write – Number 18: Danny Rubin

Number 18

Today’s piece is written by Danny Rubin, writer of “Groundhog Day.” 

 

I once wrote a screen adaptation – true story – of a novel written by Bill Maher.  Ben Stiller was the would-be director of the film.  The subject matter was Bill’s recollection of his first year as a stand-up comic.  Every part of this project was fantastic and, as I always do before embarking on a writing-for-hire cruise, I vowed not to fuck it up.  I would listen well, be aware, and be worthy.  I would bring this ship to port.  It was the voice of Dan Hedaya running through my head, asserting repeatedly (as he did in Joe versus the Volcano): “I know he can GET the job, but can he DO the job?” 
 


My experience after Groundhog Day was that everybody kept hiring me to write another Groundhog Day.  That’s what they asked for.  And somehow these movies never materialized: the ship wasn’t getting to port.  I seemed to be getting something wrong.  Clearly nobody was asking me to write another trapped-in-time in Pennsylvania story, so what they were asking for, I assumed, was another innovative humanistic comedy with a surprising and unconventional structure.  Bad guess. They in fact really did want another trapped-in-time comedy, or something similar.  It didn’t have to be in Pennsylvania, of course.  We could set this one in, say, Ohio.  Think outside the box, they told me.   
 


Be all that as it may have been, I was determined that my writing on this Bill Maher project would be as normal by Hollywood standards as it could possibly be, no matter how crazy they asked me to make it.  The out-of-the-box strategy was not working well for me, even though that is exactly why I was being hired. Anyway, I took the novel’s jumble of characters, locations and time frames and I straightened it all out.  I gave the script a clear central character and a clear central story that led to a clear climax, and I included as much dialogue and comedy material from Maher’s book as I could. 
 


To skip to the ending: Bill thought my script was too normal.  “Why do you hire the Groundhog Guy to write a script that anybody could have written?”  
 

So, here’s a question: if the summary of my career so far is a repetition of some variation on that sad scenario, then what the heck is the allure?   
 


By the way, True Story is the name of the funny and interesting novel I was adapting.  The title refers to the line frequently spoken by stand-up comics, usually to sucker the audience into the funny lie they are about to be told.   
 


If you think about it, the very phrase “True story” helps in the dramatic process known as “Suspension of disbelief.”  No matter how outrageous the story being told, the audience will go along with it – at least for a while – simply because the narrator has told us it is true.  
 


In a film such as “Groundhog Day,” suspension of disbelief is absolutely crucial.  If the audience is spending the whole movie thinking, “That’s stupid – days don’t repeat like that,” then they will never be able to enjoy the entertainment, to connect to the emotions, and for some, to even conclude that days really DO repeat like that.  None of the clear-ringing truths revealed to many by the movie would be audible were it not for the audience’s original commitment to believing in something impossible.   
 


In order to write the thing, I, too, had to commit to the reality of this unreal world.  How would Phil react to this situation?  How would his life proceed?  I couldn’t look to any research to tell me what would happen.  Facts couldn’t tell me the answer.  Like Luke Skywalker, I had to search my feelings.  To this science-trained east-coast guy, that phrase even now sounds stupid, but that’s what happens when you write a fantasy, or any drama, really.  To search for truth in a world that can’t exist, a person needs to rely on intuition.  What FEELS true?  Writing seems to be a constant search for an inner resonance, a true-ringing singularity.     
 


In Hollywood neither logic nor intuition have served me particularly well.  Luck seems to be the most reliable guiding force, with maybe a modicum of talent and goodwill thrown in.  Figuring out the Byzantine logic involved in pleasing Hollywood is not, believe it or not, the best part about doing this for a living.  Spending my days believing in impossible things and chasing them towards an inner truth, now that’s a pretty good gig.

 

WHY WE WRITE is a series of essays by prominent – and not so prominent – TV and Film writers.  Conceived by Charlie Craig and Thania St. John, the campaign hopes to inspire and inform all writers.  If you’d like to comment, or tell us why you write, visit the Why We Write WordPress site or contact us at whywewrite@gmail.com.

5 Comments »

  1. I love that your experience writing for Hollywood has become your own personal groundhog day. What a great essay. I love this series and I love this essay.

    Comment by A fan — January 15, 2008 @ 8:26 am | Reply

  2. “Writing seems to be a constant search for an inner resonance, a true-ringing singularity.”
    So Why do We Write:
    Believing in our own words and having the faith to move forward without hesitation to find a place inside our heart where we may feel we can make anything or everything possible.
    Bless You!

    Comment by Ana — January 16, 2008 @ 8:07 am | Reply

  3. We really are all nuts for doing this, aren’t we danny? Thank you for such an honest and wonderful look in the mirror. I couldn’t help but see myself in the reflection.

    Comment by eric — January 21, 2008 @ 2:58 am | Reply

  4. This, THIS is why I love the blogosphere. Because writers ought to have a place to throw their words up in the air and have them land where the rest of us can find them and connect with the truths therein. And when the best of those writers’ voices are being stifled by a bunch of $$-in-place-of-pupil types, the kind of soul-feeders (can’t bring myself to call ‘em people) who — well, who would do all the things they’re currently doing, paying zilch for the best liquor on the shelf and then backhanding the one who made it –

    at least those people can come here. And their best stuff will be given its proper due, in accolades if not dollars.

    Thanks for your essay.

    Comment by lildb — January 23, 2008 @ 2:46 pm | Reply

  5. [...] the essay by Danny Rubin, writer of “Groundhog [...]

    Pingback by mental_floss Blog » Why We Write — June 22, 2009 @ 12:29 am | Reply


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