GITS Script Reading & Analysis: “Groundhog Day” — Structure

January 29th, 2013 by

This week we will be analyzing the screenplay for the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, screenplay by Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis, story by Danny Rubin. The movie received the BAFTA Award for Best Original Screenplay.

You may download a copy of the script here.

Today we discuss the script’s structure. How would you break down the story’s plot? What do you think are the major Plotline points? How did the story sustain its incredible narrative drive?

Our schedule for discussion:

Monday, January 28: General comments
Tuesday, January 29: Structure
Wednesday, January 30: Characters
Thursday, January 31: Themes
Friday, February 1: Dialogue

Here is an excerpt from a Big Think interview with Danny Rubin:

Question: Did you always conceive of it as a comedy?

Danny Rubin: Yeah, well I thought of the funny things first.  The very first thing I thought of was the date scene, being able to use your superior knowledge to pick up women.  As soon as I thought of that I knew I had a movie.  That just seemed to me so extraordinarily interest and fun and funny.  So, I guess I was approaching it in a comedic way, but it wasn’t a genre comedy.  I was thinking of it more as just a whimsical entertainment.

Question: Did it have to be Groundhog Day, or could it have been another holiday?

Danny Rubin: This is one of those things that just kind of fell together.  When I got the idea of a man repeating the same day over and over again, it was January 30th or 31st and so the first thing I thought of is, I’ve got to think of which day he repeats.  Which day is it?  And so, I just opened up the calendar and the first holiday day I came to was two days later, Groundhog Day and I was thinking about that saying, “Well, this is perfect.  It’s a completely unexploited holiday.  We can play it on TV every year like the Charlie Brown specials.”  But, other things started to make sense immediately too, like I wanted him to be a character who went somewhere and was in unfamiliar territory.  If he was on his home turf with his family and friends, it would be a completely different story.  And, by making it Groundhog Day, I thought, “Okay, so maybe he’s a weather man and he comes from Pittsburgh and he drove to Punxutawney for the ceremony and the groundhog’s name is Phil, so I named him Phil and a bunch of things just started falling together in that way.

Remember: Reading scripts is one of the most important single things you can do to enhance your understanding of the craft of screenwriting. So download Groundhog Day, read it, and join in the conversation.

For Part 1, a general discussion of the script, go here.

For all of the other screenplays and commentary in the GITS Script Reading & Analysis series, go here.


3 thoughts on “GITS Script Reading & Analysis: “Groundhog Day” — Structure

  1. Groundhog Day

    Structure Analysis – screenplay and film

    The Plotline of sending a cynical big-city TV weatherman named Phil out to the boonies – in the dead of winter – to cover a story on whether or not a groundhog (also named Phil, and who’s also a weatherman) sees his shadow or not, is a funny one.

    The Themeline of narcissistic, hyper-ambitious Phil Conners needing to learn compassion and how to treat his co-workers and everyday contacts with respect is a dynamic which the audience can relate to. Who doesn’t share an office with one of these personality types?

    But the screenplay conceit of trapping Phil Conners in Puxatauney, PA, reliving the same day over-and-over – kind of trapped in limbo until he learns his lessons – is purely Biblical.

    You can approach the structure of Groundhog Day from many different viewpoints:

    * An approach following Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”, including identification of the Ten Major Plotline Points, is probably the most conventional character-centered analysis of a mainstream Hollywood movie, and would appeal to film students and other film professionals.

    * Philosophers would advocate that the emptiness of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s doctrine of “Eternal Recurrence” is perfectly illustrated in this film, and therefore should be studied.

    * Political scientists might put forward that Phil Conners is the embodiment of Machiavelli’s prince – the end result for a society which suffers no consequences for its actions. “That’s the point”, they’d say.

    * Catholics would argue that the film is theirs: Is Punxsutawney not a metaphor for Limbo? Didn’t the character Rita attend Catholic school for 12 years? Is she not the main influence on our Protagonist?

    * Some Buddhists have claimed this as “the best Buddhist film ever”.

    * And the psychologists clearly see the work of Elisabeth Kϋbler-Ross’s “Five stages of grief” (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) throughout this film. Her heralded grief model was originally associated with death and dying, but it is also applicable and transferable to personal change and emotional upset from other trauma.

    A trauma such as an experienced Pittsburgh weatherman finding himself in an endless time-loop covering a news story about “a rat” who everyone fusses and fawns over in Punxsutawney (population 6,782) in the dead of winter, with apparently no way out.

    That last approach works for me.

    Therefore, I’d like to analyze the structure of Groundhog Day a little differently than we normally do. I propose listing Dr. Elisabeth Kϋbler-Ross’s (EKR) five stages of grief, followed by the experience of Protagonist Phil Conners as he moves through them. (Page numbers refer to the Second Revision of the script dated January 7, 1992. Time references are to the film. The times do not match up well, probably due to the many cuts in the script to speed up the film. Eg: Phil lands in jail after his drunken car ride @ 33:09 of the film, but it’s located on p. 48 of the script).

    Groundhog Day – structure analysis:

    * * Opening:

    Script pages 1 – 25

    Film time 00:00 – 17:36

    Protagonist Phil Conners travels to Punxsutawney, PA. Files his news story. Gets stuck in town overnight due to an unexpected winter blizzard. Ex-lover puts a curse on him, setting the spell for 5:59 am (script only).

    (note: under Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey” – once he enters the time loop, Phil is now thrust into his “New World”).

    * * EKR Stage #1 – DENIAL:

    Script pages 25 – 44

    Film time 17:37 – 28:36

    Phil can’t believe this is happening to him. Breaking his pencil in half (@ 24:11), he falls asleep. When the alarm clock goes off at 6:00 am, he finds that the pencil is whole again! Phil confides in Rita: “I’m asking for your help. I’d like you to spend the next 24 hours with me and don’t leave my side for a second” (p. 40). Has an x-ray exam with a neurologist (played by Director Harold Ramis). Lies on a psychologist’s couch. Speaks with a scientist. Listens in on a classroom discussing a fairy tale (script only).

    * * EKR Stage #2 – ANGER:

    Script pages 44 – 48

    Film time 28:37 – 33:09

    Phil gets very drunk with Ralph and Gus (p. 44). Drives drunk and angry. Runs over a mailbox or two. Local cops in hot pursuit. Phil drives along the railroad tracks, just missing the oncoming locomotive. Gets thrown in jail.

    (note: There are several parallels here between Phil Conners (“I’m not gonna live by their rules anymore” @ 32:27] and another, later Protagonist, named Lester Burnham, in the film American Beauty (1999). A light bulb goes on for each Protagonist, and suddenly they feel free and empowered).

    * * EKR Stage #3 – BARGAINING: (quoting EKR: “People facing less serious trauma [than death] can bargain or seek to negotiate a compromise”; “Bargaining rarely provides a sustainable solution”).

    Script pages 48 – 71

    Film time 33:10 – 54:50

    Phil quizzes Nancy Taylor about her personal info; picks her up; then they make out on his couch (36:32 – 39:23). With Rita present in the diner, he eats mass quantities of food without remorse. Steals money from the elderly bank couriers. Races his BMW 8-Series (only in the script) across town. Hits on Rita in the bar scene. They build a snowman together. Rita is slowly changing, but she resists Phil’s best advances – and won’t stay the night. But Phil only has one night – he has no tomorrows. Rita sees him standing outside her window, then pulls the curtains closed.

    None of these activities satisfies Phil. (Classic EKR Stage 3 methodology).

    In the film: starting @ 54:19 (in quick cuts) Rita slaps Phil’s face at least half a dozen times, launching him into depression.

    * * EKR Stage #4 – DEPRESSION:

    Script pages 71 – 84

    Film time 54:51 – 1:03:28

    Phil bashes the clock radio. Then strikes it again. Passes up an easy opportunity to hit on Nancy. Unenthusiastically answers “Jeopardy!” questions 100% correctly. Takes a shotgun into the library and tries to kill the groundhog (script only). Steals a pickup truck and kidnaps the groundhog; leads police on a wild chase; rockets over a cliff to an explosion and a flaming wreckage. Steps out in front of an approaching bus @ 1:02:46. Electrocutes himself in his bathtub. Leaps off a tall building. Rita identifies his body in the morgue @ 1:03:25.

    * * EKR Stage #5 – ACCEPTANCE:

    Script pages 84 – 121

    Film time 1:03:29 – 1:37:00

    In the diner, Phil correctly describes every single person’s story to Rita. He begins to accept his fate. Rita also begins to accept what she is hearing. She plays cards with him – in his bed. He gives all of his money to “the town bum” (1:12:30). An upbeat Phil arrives at the television shoot the next morning with hot coffee and Danish; then helps Larry lug heavy video equipment. Starts taking piano lessons from Mary. Stops to help “the town bum” get warm; then feeds him. On page 106: Phil quotes Anton Chekhov in his FIRST-EVER positive groundhog report. Then he does a string of good deeds around town: performs the Heimlich maneuver on a diner in a restaurant; catches a young boy falling out of a tree; repairs a flat tire; gives tickets to a young wedding couple he counseled; etc.

    At a charity auction, Rita gives everything she has ($ 339.88) “to buy Phil”.

    Phil has found Compassion and love, and is a changed man.

    Script page 120: “Rita and Phil walk down Main Street hand in hand”.

    Film time: @ 1:33:34 – Phil: “It’s so beautiful. Let’s live here”.

    * * THE END.

    Good film. I’d watch it again. And again. And . . . .

    John Agerholm

  2. pgronk says:


    Movies are…uh, movies, not psychology treatises. I’m chary of trimming and stretching them to conform to any one procustean bed, model of human behavior (or theory of dramatic structure including Campbell’s The Journey of the Hero).

    EKR Stage #3 – BARGAINING: (p 48-71)???

    I don’t see how Phil is bargaining in this sequence. Rather, it seems to me that he’s acting out his character flaw to the Nth-degree, to the point where he crashes into the wall of its limits. To wit, he can seduce any woman he wants except the one he wants most of all: Rita.

  3. pgronk says:

    That said, Phil definitely has to work his way through depression to finally arrive at acceptance.

    One interesting aspect is the symmetry of limits in the antipodes of his behavior: when he’s acting out his character flaw he hits the wall, can’t seduce Rita, no matter what he does. When he is acting virtuously he again hits the wall, unable to save the old man from dieing no matter what he.

    In the process of doing his worst and then his best, he was acquired the hard won wisdom and compassion to do his Checkov standup — and mean it.

    Altogether, I found the movie to be a wonderful example of how to structure the transformational stages and inflection points in a character arc.

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