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Published:July 8th, 2010 11:50 EST
Getting The Low Down From Bill Murray

Getting The Low Down From Bill Murray

By H.B. Forman

The unpredictable comic genius known as Bill Murray, who is known to make producers and directors jump through many hoops before he will work for them, has a soft side.

When a writer told Murray that her comedy loving husband was extremely ill and that his movies Groundhog Day and Caddyshack not only made him smile but laugh, he did not hone in on the compliment.

Bill Murray

Instead, he started a serious conversation about the illness and gave a heartfelt wish for a speedy recovery. In other words, he hoped the man wouldn`t need his antics to cheer him from his bedside in the near future.

Murray can be quite impossible to track down. Several years ago, tired of the relenting phone ringing for various film projects, he literally cut the cord. He parted ways with his agent, never had a publicist and didn`t want to be managed. His philosophy simple put: "They will find me." And if they don`t then he can continue living in personal life.

Today, he is starring in /Get Low,/ a beautiful, quirky film, with an amazing bluegrass and Olde Country soundtrack, from Sony Pictures Classics with Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek.

The film, an American folk tale, which will be released on July 30, is about a backwoods recluse named Felix Bush (Duvall), who everyone is scared of. They believe he killed in cold blood, dances with the devil and has done other unspeakable acts. They avoid him like the plague.

Get Low is a magical and moving blend of folk tale, fable and real-life legend. Spun in the Southern storytelling tradition, it is about the mysterious 1930s Tennessee hermit who famously threw his own rollicking funeral party . . . while he was still alive.

Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek and Lucas Black form an ensemble of unforgettable characters who bring to life the surprising last act of Felix Bush, a life-long maverick and misfit who has been nearly swallowed up by the power of his town`s sinister myths about him - until he sets out to make a shocking confession in front of his own memorial service. The result is a comic, poignant, at times haunting tale about the snowballing nature of secrets, stories, heartbreak and the desire for redemption.

One day Felix rides into town with a shotgun and a wad of cash and asks the local undertaker (Murray), to make him a funeral. But not the usual kind of a man has passed away, Felix wants "a living funeral" where anyone can come and tell stories about him and he can be there to take it all in. Murray`s character senses a big payday in the offing and enlists his young apprentice Buddy (Lucas Black), to win over Felix`s business.

The film was an eight-year labor of love for producer Dean Zanuck (Road to Perdition), and is directed by Aaron Schneider, a first time feature director who won an Oscar for his short film, Two Soldiers.

During a recent chat on an early summer day in Manhattan a rather rumpled Bill Murray talked about Get Low, not working too much, and staying elusive. He was easy-going, thoughtful and gracious throughout this chat.

We were just talking about the way you do business; through your lawyer instead of an agent or manager. What are the advantages of doing it that way?

BM: Well, when I had an agent they have people there whose job is to reach you on the telephone. I never had an answering machine in my house or anything like that so if someone would say. "Get me Bill Murray on the phone," that person would dial my number and let the phone ring 90, or 100 times.

During dinner?

BM: During any hour of the day. You think, `I`m not getting that and the phone would just keep ringing for minutes.` And you`d think why would I ever want to talk to anyone that would let the phone ring that long? So first I got this 800 number and that was really the key to it; it just eliminated that completely.

Can you talk about your process of actually signing on? I`d be interested to hear your version of the story.

BM: I got a message that this fellow was going to write me a letter, and it was a letter from [the movie`s producer] Dean Zanuck. And I thought that`s kind of interesting. Zanuck; I know who their family is but I don`t know this guy. So I call him on the phone and had a wonderful talk with the guy. He`s not like other people in show business; he`s a really real genuine wonderful guy. He turned out to be a fantastic producer; just consistent and constant, didn`t get emotional. I got a letter from Aaron; I mean you probably got the same stupid stuff.

This is interesting. Then what happened?

BM: I got a letter from [the director] Aaron Schneider and then he sent this DVD of his movie that he made that he won an Oscar for. He made a short called Two Soldier that`s a really great thing. I thought it was going to be five minutes long; its 40 minutes and you go this guy`s good, this is good. The key was I watched on this DVD, they have the making of, behind the scenes stuff, and that`s really interesting because then you can see what these people are really like. Watching him behind the scenes with all these people he made this little movie with. He was really kind and genuine and I thought well, all right.

How bad could it be?

BM: How bad could it be? And then I didn`t know Sissy was on until after I was already doing it. I figured well, no one ever asked me to work with Robert Duvall before; that would be swell. And then I said okay and then they said Okay, and Sissy going to do it too.

What about this character? Yours and Sissy`s characters seem to be like the proverbial fit like a custom made leather glove or something. It just seems shaped and I understand they weren`t.

BM: Well, that`s the deal. I think I speak for any good actor, or one that thinks that he is or she is, and you get the script and your job is to do it every day and make it better than the script. So that`s what you do. It`s like a winning streak; you do it every single day. But the writer, this Charlie Mitchell, and Chris Provenzano did the original; he was there every day, always really encouraging. His writing is really, really fine; really fine writing.

You were pretty dapper there.

BM: We had a great costumer on this movie, one of the best I`ve ever worked with, named Julie Weiss. Everyone`s clothes; Bob`s clothes are unbelievable. Everyone had amazing clothes.

In all the comedic things that you`ve done have you ever done standup comedy?

BM: No.

Was it ever interesting to you?

BM: No. When I lose my mind I will do standup comedy.

Why is that?

BM: Because they all just seem so unhappy; they seem miserable. We used to go to the clubs and see them and they all just seem miserable.

That is true.

BM: It was like golly, I`m glad I don`t do this. But I mean if you were at the end of your life and you couldn`t move or you were immobile, they could roll you out in Vegas and you could do a show. I don`t think it`s that impossible. It`s really about hating the audience. It`s weird. It doesn`t suit me.

So you just went right into improv? That was your start, improv comedy?

BM: It wasn`t just comedy; you learned how to improvise in any sense. Even comedy is playing straight so you learned how to exchange and you learned a lot about rhythm. You always had to be available and don`t try to do the same thing twice.

I saw you on David Letterman recently and you called Ghostbusters 3 your worst nightmare. I was wondering why.

BM: They started saying "Ghostbusters," they want to do it. And it`s really the world of sequels and bringing these things back again. And then some wiseacre had Hey, we`ve got a couple of new writers that are going to write something. And I thought well, maybe there will be some writers, and there was always this joke, half-truth, half-joke thing of well I`ll do it if you kill me off in the first reel. That was my joke. So supposedly someone was writing a script where I actually got killed in the first reel and became a ghost, and I thought that`s kind of clever anyway. But then these guys that were supposedly the writers who were going to do it, they wrote a film that came out and people saw the film and went we`re not going to do it after all, are we? So it`s just kind of a dreamy thing. They want to create a new generation of Ghostbusters; they`d just like us to pass the torch.

If it happened it wouldn`t actually be a nightmare for you right? It`s a great thing in your past.

BM: Well, it`s true. We made a great movie and then we made another one. We went to the well twice and it`s almost impossible to do the second movie as well; only horror movies get better as they go along, because they have more money to spend on crazy effects. I actually thought the other day, it`s become so irritating, but I actually heard young people that saw the movie when they were kids, and I thought maybe I should just do it; maybe it would be fun. Because the guys are funny and I miss Moranis and Annie and Danny. I miss Moranis; he was a really big part of it.

Were there improvisational opportunities or moments in this film that you guys were able to employ at one time or another? Did Aaron allow that to happen given how much you enjoyed the script?

BM: The script is in two dimensions and it doesn`t take into account the third dimension, so when you actually do it in space there`s a different thing that happens that you can`t write on a page. So that`s what being trained in improvisation does for you; it enables you to go from this is happening in space now, how do I get from this moment to this moment? And it`s physical as much as anything else and its being able to go like now this is how we resolve this scene. It`s usually audio, it`s usually a word or something, but most scenes end on a noise, on a sound. You just have to figure out the sound, the pitch that ends that scene.

Rarely do I leave a screening where everyone loves the film, and that was with this film here. While you were doing it did you get that feeling that this was going to be something great?

BM: I`ve developed this mantra where I say I`m not a worrier so I don`t worry about it. As far as the jobs go, I sort of realized a long time ago that I`m just going to do the ones I like and one of them is going to hit. People feel like I`ve got to have great success to pay for my house or whatever, you`ve got to have this success thing rolling, and I just said I`m going to do the ones that I like and something is going to hit, and they do. You always know it`s pretty good; I don`t think we do bad ones anymore. We`re sort of through the reef in a way; we sort of broke through the reef. You know the difference and you sort of know what`s good.

Can you elaborate on that?

BM: Now whether or not a movie is financially successful you can`t have any control over, and that makes a career. You make a movie that`s a good movie and no one sees it; it happens all the time. You make a movie with a studio and everyone quits or gets fired six weeks before it gets out, so the movie doesn`t happen. Or you can make something that everything goes well and it`s a big, big thing. But as far as knowing it was good; we knew the script was really good and we knew the other guy, the old guy, his thing was ridiculous.

Go on, please.

BM: Yeah it`s really kind of mesmerizing because he`s so powerfully present. It really touches the walls. It`s really powerful; it passes through your body.

When you get in the funeral parlor and when you start seeing I think he`s the one that`s really controlling it; the hermit has got this whole plan.

BM: Well it`s really good writing and the guy is so good. He really has that effect because he knows what the intention of every line is; he knows that script inside out. It`s like a radiant heat; you just get this heat of it all in your body and he really informs you and you really get the information physically. It`s a really powerful thing working with the nut.

Did you guys talk about it or did you just go in and do it?

BM: Talk is for losers. Shut up and work. Turn the camera on; let`s go. Just hit your mark and show up on time.

What was it like driving those old cars?

BM: Driving the old car was really fun. It`s about an 8,000-pound Hearse and when you got going like 40 it was like a train; it would take you 300 yards to stop the thing. It was kind of scary. We did a little stunt driving and the guy who owned the car would run after us. He`d really say "Not through the woods!" He thought we were going to go really just into the woods.

Do you keep souvenirs from a movie like this?

BM: That`s a good question. I wanted Robert`s clothes. I may have gotten something but I don`t know, I didn`t check. But those pieces were really rare.

What do you mean?

BM: They were all rare. And I told you, we had this great costumer, and she like traded funeral plots to get that stuff. That was all going right back to her; there`s nothing like that. Although I did get some T-shirts out of the deal.

Do you know what you`re doing next? Any projects lined up?

BM: I have things that are in the pipeline that are sort of done.

There was an interesting point made that you`re superstitious about signing things, especially contracts. How did you handle that earlier in your career? Now that you`re who you are I can understand how people would go along with you. But when you`re just starting out how do you get people to agree to you not signing stuff?

BM: They just want you to work. It`s not superstitious, there`s just a bunch a bureaucrats going "sign your contract," and I`m like "Sign your contract? You have me confused with your mother or something like that okay. I`ve got to go to work tomorrow; I don`t have time to be reading this stuff." I just show up and work; my word is my contract.

What do you think the most significant motivation is for his quest? Is it about life and death?

BM: I`d say that`s right. He didn`t know how to do penance; he couldn`t get it out of himself, he couldn`t speak the words. So he went off and became a hermit for 40 years.

Go on, please

BM: And now that anger and that toughness about him, he was so angry that even flagellating himself like this and doing his penance, it still didn`t feel good. He wasn`t over it yet and all he could think of was what if everybody said horrible things to him. As far as my guy goes, well Frank gets to see, and I think all the characters in the film and even the audience get to see, what if this were myself? This is me; I`m going to be there, he`s just ahead of me in the row. What have I done with my life and what about my regrets and how can I change the sort of behavior that`s made me the kind of guy or girl who would take a long car ride with all the money in the car and think about maybe not coming back, and yet I can`t up on myself yet, I`m going to come back and try again.

So he does change? Frank really becomes a nice guy due to this?

BM: Well I think everyone is affected by this; I think Felix is affected and I`m affected. Certainly Sissy`s character has this staggering revelation, which is really the news, and is probably most devastating to her more than anyone else. And do have to come to some sort of peace with that, even though the pain of it is jarring and disturbing and everything, the idea that some mystery, some question that you never had answered was answered.