Being Bill Murray
From Caddyshack to Lost in Translation, Midwestern-born Bill Murray has created some of Hollywood's most idiosyncratic characters.
From the Print Edition:
Bill Murray, Nov/Dec 2004
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"But anyway, on Larger Than Life [a comedy in which he plays a motivational speaker who inherits an elephant], we were shooting this one scene on the Colorado River, and there wasn't much to do except go to the motel since it was kind of an impoverished situation—no restaurants or places to hang out. But it was this crazy place that was so incredibly beautiful. So I hired this raft-charter company to raft us up and down the river all day long. Someone said, 'How are you gonna do that?' And I said, 'Let's take one person from each department so everyone gets a turn.' "But no one wanted to go first, because it was one of those productions where everyone was determined to be much more professional than the guy next to him—because no one wanted to be less professional than the elephant. So I forced the head of every department—the director, the cinematographer—to take the first ride with me, while things were getting set up. It was only a twenty-five-minute trip, and afterwards, we all rushed back to work soaking. But by having the key person in every department go first, that made it cool for everyone else to relax and take their turn.
"To me, it was like this: I shot a movie on the Colorado River, and if I didn't experience it, just walk to work every day, it's like it never happened. You might as well fly over it."
It's important to Murray that his coworkers feel that they have a stake in the production. "Otherwise, you might as well just be washing cars in Manitoba," he shrugs. The recent death of singer Rick James reminds Murray of another instance in which he lobbed a cherry bomb at potential movie-set torpor. "When I was on What About Bob? [a comedy in which he plays a self-absorbed obsessive compulsive who undermines his rigid psychiatrist, who is played by Richard Dreyfuss], we were in the boondocks. On this man-made lake with nothing to do, and I mean, the middle of nowhere—not even much television. We were an hour from Roanoke [Virginia]; now, that may not mean much to you, but people in Roanoke know what I mean. And MC Hammer was coming to Roanoke. You have to remember what that was like when Hammer came on the scene, because that was a great song. Well, Rick James's 'Super Freak,' the song he sampled, was a great song, and when 'U Can't Touch This' played, you got up and danced. That was some groove."
He stands to demonstrate, humming the "Super Freak" bass line—doo-doo-doo-doo, doo-doo, doo-doo—and wiggling his hips, while maintaining a smiling concentration. "It got you sort of excited. So I chartered this old bus, and we went right from the set to the Hammer concert. We had a boom box playing all that music, and I think some moonshine, and made it a party all the way to the concert. I called my then agents and said, Get me tickets because I'm bringing a bunch of people to the show. And we get there, and [Hammer and his crew] were excited because they can't believe someone they know is coming, because they'd been playing all the smaller spots, like Allentown. And he says, 'C'mon backstage—how many are with you?' "
Murray shakes his head and laughs: "'All of them,' and I pointed to this line of people as far as the eye can see. They happened to have fifty-five extra seats on the side of the stage and we took 'em. I ended up joining Hammer on stage—this incredible, elevated stage that was filled with dancers and all of these musicians who weren't playing their instruments—and I did the dance. That's right, the Hammer dance. Surprisingly, I knew all the steps. But I learned why he wore those weird chef's pants, because I split my pants right up the back. And since it was the end of the month off on a remote location, all I had was my pants. I was going commando, if you know what I mean. I was working without a net, and stumbled to the side of the stage, and the costumer—who's now my wife—had these giant safety pins. She fixed me up, and I went out and finished the number. Later [Hammer] told me that professional athletes would come up and not be able to finish the number. I wondered if it was because of the pants, and he said, no, they didn't have the stamina."
"I know that 'U Can't Touch This' took on a new definition that night," he says, finishing his smoke.
It's that spirit of keeping himself open to things that led to his joining indie-filmmaking legend Jim Jarmusch, with whom Murray is working in pre-production for a film with an imminent start date. They met while taping a talk show in Manhattan and got together over dinner afterwards at Balthazar. To add to the synchronicity, Sofia Coppola's agent was dining at the same restaurant that evening; she called Coppola, who had been chasing the elusive Murray for months trying to get him to star in Lost in Translation, and alerted her to the sighting. Coppola viewed his meeting with Jarmusch as a good sign and she was proved right since he did eventually contact her.
Murray's nose for adventure made him want to work with Wes Anderson. "My agents kept sending me copies of Bottle Rocket, his first movie, and I never watched 'em. Still haven't seen it. Don't tell him. But I read the script and it was obvious to me he knew what he wanted, and that sureness, that precision, would pull in the right kinds of people."
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