Press & Publicity
Rolling Stone Magazine
Article by Timothy Crouse
Photographs by Dilip Metha / Contact Press Images
Published - August 16th 1984
THE HIT MOVIE Ghostbusters had just opened when I did the first of several interview sessions with Bill Murray in early June.
The week before, entertainment reporters from all over the country had been flown into New York, and Murray had done his conscientious bit to publicize the picture, doing at least seventy-five interviews in two days. He was exhausted. He was also very happy. The film had opened to generally enthusiastic reviews, grossing over $13 million in its first weekend. The critics had consistently singled out his performance as the film's strongest asset He had starred before in summertime comedy hits - Meatballs and Stripes - but this was something else. Overnight, a consensus seemed to have formed, not just in the movie business, but in the publics mind as well, that Murray had joined the ranks of those stars whose presence in a film makes all the difference.
The first of our sessions took place on an oppressively humid day at the house Murray rents at Sneden's Landing, on the Hudson River, a short drive from Manhattan. The house is a rennovated green barn, with additions. A white gallery running across part of the second story gives it a Russian look. When I arrived, Murray was off attending a birthday party with his two-year-old son, Homer. I walked over to the party with Murray's wife, Mickey, who used to work as a talent coordinator for The Dick Cavett Show and is now a full-time mother. Mickey took charge of Homer, and Murray and I got into his Wagoneer and drove to a roadhouse he likes on the Hudson, He bought me lunch, When I tried to pay my own way, he checked me with a favourite dictum of Dan Aykroyd's: 'You don't pull coin in my town, After lunch, we dropped in at a local garage to see how repairs on Murray's old Rambler were coming along, and then stopped by the post office and the library. As the afternoon progressed, Murray occasionally lapsed into brooding silences, This sombre side of his personality was a revelation, and it has since occurred to me that it may provide a bass line against which his comic improvisations seem all the more spontaneous and abandoned.
Back at the house, Murray took a shower and emerged with slicked-hack hair, suavely smoking a pink cigarette with a gold filter. He jumped on the powerfully built Homer and pretended to eat him. Homer squealed, "Enough! Enough!" We went outside and sat down under some walnut trees to begin the interview. Homer came out and aimed a squirting garden hose at some bed sheets hanging on a clothesline. The Jamaican housekeeper, Eda, yelled at him to stop, but it didn't really matter - it had started to rain. We then retired to the second-story gallery. No sooner was the tape recorder turned on than the sky exploded with a resounding peal. The interview was shouted over a thunderstorm out of the Catskills that would have awakened Rip van Winkel. The other two sessions were conducted on the terrace of Murray's sunny, sparsely finished penthouse on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. During the first session, when the sun grew hot, Murray bunched up his aloha shirt and put it on his head like a hat Before the second, he fortified himself with his favourite sandwich: peanut butter, lettuce and mayonnaise on pumpernickel.
At the time of these interviews, I had just finished
reading Wired, Bob Woodward's book about John Belushi, and I
He's interested in spiritual disciplines, and they seem to have had a salutary effect on him. One senses that he's achieved at least the beginnings of an inner balance and is not easily thrown By outside events though he still does get upset when the housekeeper shrinks his good socks). Seeing him deal with fans in the street (who accost him about once every five yards). one gets the impression that Murray has learned the ancient trick of watching himself with amused detachment. He now possesses the only magic that can protect a pilgrim passing through the flames of Hollywood - a genuine sense of humour.
Let's take a big jump over six comedy movies, to the present, Now you're doing your first straight role in 'The Razor's Edge' - and not only is it a straight role, but it's the story of a man on a spiritual quest How did you get into that kind of a project?
Well, I'd become friends with John Byrum, the director and writer [Heart Beat and Inserts]. We wanted to do something together because we got along. I liked the way he talked about Hollywood. He says terrible things about Hollywood and everything in it and he used to make me laugh talking about that, so I figured that he knew what he was talking about when it came to movies, We grew up about a mile apart from each other, so we had a lot in common without ever talking about it. He had a couple of projects I didn't particularly want to do. Then he sent a book to my house, and it was The Razor's Edge. I'd never read it, and I read about fifty pages or so, and I said, 'This is great, this is what I want to do." I called him up, and I called up a guy at Columbia Shel Schrager, and said, "I'd like to do this." And he was encouraging. John said he'd been planning to do it for ten years. He said that he wanted me to work with him on the screenplay, and John had a reputation for not letting anybody change a word of anything he wrote. So we started talking about it, and I suggested that we should work under the most difficult conditions we could find - like bars and places where there was a lot of activity.
Why did you suggest that?
Well, I believe that good things come from difficult conditions, and I thought that no matter how badly we did, at least we'd have the experience of trying to concentrate on one thing while being distracted all the time. So we would work in bars where the jukebox would be on, and places where there were a lot of people. We were constantly being interrupted by people coming over and saying, Hey, aren't you on Saturday Night Live?" and stuff. We travelled around. We went to practically all the restaurants and bars in the Tri-State-Area-Manhattan, New Jersey, upstate, southern New York - and we'd try to work. Then, after a while, it got so we couldn't work at home; it was too distracting. So we would take trips, We both had to get in shape.
I weighed about 205 pounds. So we went to spas like Calistoga, above San Francisco, and we'd sit in the mud baths, and then we'd get a massage. and then we'd work. It got so we could work any time in the day or night. And the finish to it is that we finally ended up in India; we were in a gompa - a monastery - in Ladakh, at 17,000, 16,000 feet. And it was chaos, absolute chaos. There were all sorts of Englishmen running around screaming and monks saying, "You can't do this, you can't do that." There were Moslems. We were in the middle of a religious war. John and I just sat down on the bottom step of this place and talked like there was nothing going on at all. And I said, "You know, we're the only people here that are prepared for this." It was great. We ended up not being taken by all the distraction.
How many times did you read the book?
We kept using it as a reference. I probably read it twice, three times maybe. I carried it around with me for a few months, and sometimes I'd just open it the way you open some sort of mystic book - just open at a page and read. I got the story right away, I think.
What was the story that you got?
Well, the story I got was of a guy who sees that there's more to life than just making a buck and having a romantic fling. I'd experienced that, and I knew what that was, so I had my own ideas about how it played. We wanted to update it, make it more modern in attitude, if nothing else, even though it is a period movie. There are things in it that came from our own lives or that were happening to us while we were doing the movie.
Like it was very easy for us to substitute [laughs] our wives in the role of Isabel, who's the girl who's driving Larry nuts.
Now Isabel is a girl from a well-to-do Chicago family who has known Larry Darrell since childhood and loves him, and wants to marry him. Larry comes back from the First World War, and he stills loves Isabel, but he doesn't want to get married anymore. He wants to go off and "loaf", as he puts it - that is, to study and think. How do your wives fit the part of Isabel?
[laughing] Well I'm on dangerous ground here, but at moments they demand regular, socially acceptable behaviour. Just at times. Those times really glare, especially when this is what you're thinking about all day. You're thinking about the story when someone says "We have to go to Such-and-such's party because she invited me.)' And if you say, 'Well, but don't like her; I don't like her - what are we going there for?" all of a sudden, that's why the lady is a tramp.
In the book, at least, Larry goes first to Paris, and then to the north of France, and works in a mine where a fellow worker introduces him to mystical books. He ends up going to the Far East, and, finally, in India, he has a spiritual experience of a high order. Did you go to the same parts of India?
No. I don't know why we didn't want to go down to the lowlands, where Larry went I think we just sort of saw the mountains all the way, you know.
All right, then, what was your Indian experience about?
We went over there first on a reconnoiter to see what it would be like to shoot there. We went to Bombay, and we went to Delhi, and we went to Kashmir, to Srinagar - which was really interesting. The British lived in houseboats on the lake there, because they weren't allowed to own land. We didn't go to Ladakh, in the Himalayas, because we couldn't get in - the weather was bad.
John went back later, with the production manager and the producer and the set designer and the cinematographer. They got into Ladakh that time, and they said, "This is it; this is definitely the ticket. We don't need Bombay; we can double the same thing in Srinager." A few months later, we went back to shoot we spent a week in Delhi and then got on a charter for Srinagar. It was my birthday. As we took off, I was sitting in the back screaming, 'Yeaug, yeaugh' just whipping this jet to go. I was so excited that we were actually going up to the mountains on my birthday. I've always, always, loved the mountains. I didn't see my first one until I was eighteen, and then I wanted to see them all. But the biggest moutain I'd ever been on was 14,000 feet, and when I read that a base camp in the Himalayas is at 14,000 feet that's when I realized that this would be the mountain experience.
So what was Srinager like?
It's a beautiful place on a mountain lake. The architecture is straight out of The Arabian Night. They sell rubies and silks on the street. They're strong people up there - Moslems - with blazing blue eyes. The local production guys had gotten us cars to drive us to the locations. They were old things that looked sort of like Ramblers. There was one car that said Director" another that said 'Producer" and my car said Hero." And all the kids would run after, going, "Hero! Hero! Hero!" And there would be women leaning out of windows from the third or fourth floor going, "Hero! Hero!" They also built me a trailer, which they were proud of, 'cause they knew movie stars sat in trailers. So they built one on the back of a flatbed truck, which was basically a plywood doghouse, with no windows. There was no air in it, The one time I went in there, all the Indians were sleeping in it, cause they got used to me not being there, so I just stretched out on the floor.
You next went up to Ladakh.
That's a great flight. You realize just how big the mountains are: you're not flying over them; you're flying between them. Coming in to land, the plane goes between two mountains and there is about forty feet of clearance on either side, When the wind comes up, the planes don't go there, because you can lose forty feet in half a second. You've never really lived until you've landed a plane in that shoebox there.
At the airport, we were met by a fleet of black jeeps driven by Tibetan Mongols who drive like cowboys. A big chain of black jeeps set out and headed toward the monasteries, where we were going to shoot. In sixty miles of the Himalayas, I saw about all the spectacular things I ever saw in the Rockies. It was like a hall of fame of mountain majesty. There were Stupas everywhere - these big reliquaries - and monks walking on the road. Then we came over a rise and saw the first real mountain. It wasn't Everest or anything, it was just one of the boys, and it was much bigger than the biggest mountain I'd ever seen.
Anyway, we kept driving up, and we started to go past abandoned, fortresslike monasteries. The first one I saw, I thought, "Nobody lives there now, hut people did live there for 850 years." It looked kind of frightening. Then I thought, if that one frightens me, what about the ones that have people in them?" Well, we finally arrived at our monastery the one we were going to stay at. All the equipment trucks were already there - big trucks with crazy paint jobs and horns and spangles and reflectors and lights all over them.
It looked like the circus had come to town. You had to walk up a steep path, and you were exhausted, breathing like a dog when you got there, and there were all these monks staring at you. There's a big open courtyard surrounded by a wall painted with creatures from the Buddhist scriptures. They were all painted by the uncle of the man who owned the Yaktail Hotel, where we stayed, in the nearby town of Leh. There was a giant prayer wheel about five feet tall, and there were two sets of giant steps on opposite sides of the courtyard, one leading into the shrine of the giant Golden Buddha, and the other leading to the prayer room where they would do the tea service.
It soon became clear that no one on our side was really talking to the monks. In fact, I had the impression that we'd come unannounced. Pretty soon, difficulties began to arise, and nobody seemed to know how to address them. The crew spoke Londonese or Cockney, we spoke American, the production manager from India spoke Hindi, his assistant director spoke some sort of curds and whey, and it was like the tower of Babel. Nobody on our side spoke Ladakhi, which is a language that's spelled exactly like Tibetan but pronounced differently. We were always looking around over our shoulder like, "They're gonna kill us" and sure enough, things got out of hand right away.
We had these young boys to play junior monks. We'd hired them in Srinagar. Typical movie stuff: "Can we have your son for two weeks, madam? We're gonna shave his head." So we put these kids in monk's robes, shaved their heads and gave them cute little prayer wheels, and we set up to shoot them walking across the courtyard of the monastery. The monks were watching from the upper window, checking us out. Whoever was in charge there had obviously picked out the number-one zealot and told him to keep an eye on the movie crew, because suddenly this insane Buddhist monk, who couldn't have been more than twenty-one, started screaming and yelling and coming down like a fighting cock on this completely stoned-out Indian assistant director. (Our A.D.'s were basically stoned on hash the whole time, which was disconcerting.) Then more of their guys got into it, and more of our guys, and pretty soon it was screaming all-out war.
It turned out that our little monks were turning their prayer wheels the wrong way. It was a major thing to them, like, "Just a second, Jesus is supposed to be right side up on that crucifix, you know." The monks were going crazy. And then one of the guys, who could speak almost every language ever invented, said, "Well, what do you expect, these kids are Moslems." Which was like, "I'll throw a little gasoline on the barbecue." They went really crazy. That was when Byrum and I were just sitting on the steps like nothing was going on at all. It was our English A.D - who eventually snapped and completely lost his mind - who found a way to settle this thing with the monks. "Do you have any young boys who would be interested in being in the movies?" he asked them. So we hired four Buddhist kids from the neighbourhood, and they spun their wheels the right way.
We also needed an older man to play the high lama. They were reading actors for it in London, and I said "Look, we're going to find the guy over there; don't worry about it". We're not going to hire Ben Kingsley to play this part; we're going to find a real guy to do this." Well, we found the guy - he was the uncle of the owner of the Yaktail Hotel, the same guy who did the paintings - but he didn't speak a word of English. So we then needed a Ladahki who spoke English, to teach him his lines, but we couldn't find anyone. But the hotel owner had given me the address of this monk who worked up at some school centre and spoke English.
He turned out to be younger than me, and his name was Chiptan Chostock, but we called him Tip. Tip spoke English, Hindhi, Ladhaki, Tibetan, Kashmiri - you name it. He would huddle together with the old guy and repeat the line "You are closer than you think," over and over. They did it for hours at a time. Once Tip arrived, we had no more problems with the monks. It was like "Hey, he's one of our guys". It was like having an Indian scout. All of a sudden, we had somebody who spoke all of the languages, and the unspoken too.
Anyway, he became my partner. He was just so interested in everything. He loved riding in the jeep and looking through the camera. And we put him in the movie. Here's this incredibly spiritual guy who walks 200 miles back and forth between this monastery and the school where he teaches. And these A.D.'s are saying, ''Can we get Tippy-Tip in here, please." "Does he need any makeup?" "No, he's very dark already, he'll be fine."
The last night I was there, he said, "I want you to come over to my place." I thought, okay, I'll see where he lives, meet his family; I'll probably have to sign a lot of autographs, have my picture taken with the sisters. So we drive to Tip's father's, which is on the outskirts of Leh, a big house with a garden. We go inside, and I'm thinking that we maybe should have asked the driver in. Tip said, "I did ask him in, but he wouldn't come in because he's a Shiite, and Shiites won't take anything from Buddhists."
By this time, Tip's father had appeared, and he said, "but we Buddhists take everything from them" At which point I realized that Tip's father spoke English. Now Tip had gone to a school where he learned with a lot of English people - he learned English from me as well - but there was no explanation for his father's English, because he'd lived in this place for his whole life, and anyone who spoke English had only come but recently, and he didn't have any truck with anybody. He just sort of knew it, intuitively. Which was real spooky cause you got it real clear that this guy spoke the language and wasn't trying. We sat down and started making buttered tea, and Tip's mother came with various desserts made out of butter. So, after about a gallon and a half of buttered tea, all twelve courses of buttered desserts, they said, "Would you like to stay for dinner?" I thought that was pretty good considering that these people all weighed about 105 pounds apiece. I said I really had to go back. So they showed me the house, they took me to the kitchen. It was a dark room, and there were all these Asian faces, and the walls were full of these copper pots covered with carbon, and there was a hole in the ceiling where the smoke went out, and it looked right up to the stars.
The stars were very bright, they lit up this room
and everybody's faces and all the pots on the wall. And all of a sudden,
all the children - there were twelve - sort of materialized out of the
walls, The father looked like Fu Manchu - he was the only man I saw
over there who was over six feet tall - and I was attacking him and
tickling him, and hitting myself on the head with pots, and showing
him my stomach, and stuff like that. We were all laughing and all the
sound was going right up through the skylight.
One of the things that makes Maugham's novel so interesting is the very convincing picture it gives of a man who's had some kind of spiritual experience.
Yeah, I'm just thinking you're going to ask me what kind of spiritual experience i've had. Well, I didn't go to Woodstock. I saw a poster for it. I don't know. I had more powerful spiritual experiences back a few years ago, when I had my first encounters with the mountains and the oceans. It was just a matter of being high and seeing a different order as opposed to whatever the hell I knew when I was - eighteen years old. School and lunch and beer. Aside from those three, I didn't have much experience. And girls. So there was just something different happening. I saw there was something else to see. I can't describe it. It's just a better feeling than usual. And yet it's perfectly ordinary because it's intended to be perfectly ordinary. It's not like lightning bolts hitting you on the head. It's not flying. It's just different.
I heard that you had to agree to do Ghostbusters in order to get the backing for 'The Razor's Edge.' is that how it worked out?
What happened was, John Byrum and I had The Razor's Edge in a developmental stage at Columbia - they'd given us a little dough to write the screenplay, but nobody was getting into work early to find out how the rewrites were going. Then Dan Aykroyd called me up with this Ghostbusters idea, and I said, "Yeah, this is great." He sent me about seventy-five pages, and within an hour there was a deal. They had a producer, they had a caterer, they had a director, they had everything. But it wasn't at any particular studio yet; it was just a project floating in space. Then all of a sudden, all of the studios found out about it, and they all wanted it.
So Dan said "Well we gotta get going on this." I said, "Well, you know, I'm really trying to get this other thing done. I'm trying to convince the studio to give us the go" And he said, 'Well tell 'em they can have Ghostbusters if they do The Razor's Edge." So, another forty-five minutes later, we had a caterer and a producer and a director for The Razor's Edge. We went out and shot it last summer. Columbia started getting impatient about Ghostbusters. All the time we were in Ladakh we'd get these messages that were like three days old, saying, "Is Bill finished? He's supposed to be doing Ghostbusters on the twenty-fifth" I made the mistake of calling America from Agra, that white building - you know, the Taj Mahal. There's a phone booth at the Taj.
They said, "You gotta get right back." I wanted to take ten days off. I was so tired that I couldn't even get out of the hotel room in Delhi for four or five days. I didn't really do anything except sleep. Then I found out that they were going to have the rough version of The Razor's Edge ready by the end of the week, so I decided to fly to London and see it. Flew to London, saw it. The next day I got on the Concorde, flew to New York and went from the airport to the set on Madison and Sixty-second Street. I weighed about 171 pounds, I think. I'd lost 35 pounds. So I started eating right away [laughing]. A production assistant said, "Do you want a cup of coffee?" And I said, "Yeah, and I want a couple of doughnuts, too."
For the first few weeks, I was getting beaten to go to work. It was like, "Where's Bill?" "Oh, he's asleep." Then they'd send three sets of people to knock on the door and say, "They really want you." I'd stumble out and do something and then go back to sleep. I kept thinking to myself; Ten days ago I was up there working with the high lamas in a gompa, and here I am removing ghosts from drugstores and painting slime on my body" It was kind of tough to get into it for about a month. I thought, "What the hell am I doing here?" I mean, you'd look around on the set in Ladakh, and there were thirty-five monks looking at you, just looking at you. And you realized that they were looking for a reason. It was a reminder all the time.
A reminder that you're a man and you're going to die, so you'd better not waste this time here. So when I got to New York, I would be sitting there looking across the street, and there'd be the entire staff of Diana Ross Productions waving out of the window, then coming over to get autographs. That was the first day on the job. All of a sudden, it was like a whole different world. But after a while it became nice, working on the movie, and I sort of got into the rhythm, of Hollywood again, as opposed to Ladakh. It was fun being with Dan and Harold Ramis. Acting-wise, they're fantastic. But also, they're very much aware of the situation, that you are just a guy, and then for thirty seconds or a minute and a half you're a movie star, and then you re a guy again. And then you're a movie star again. They know the difference, and they see the hilarious things that are happening all around, while you're supposedly being a movie star.
What sort of things happen to the movie star?
Well, I don't know, people coming up to me and saying, "Dan, I think you're the greatest; you're the best one on the show." [Laughing] So I would sign Dan's name. Then people would ask him, and he'd sign my name. And all that goofiness. People screaming at you on the street Like, we were walking down the street in our Ghostbusters outfits, and this black guy looks at us and says "Hey, the wrong stuff!"
Had you had time to think about your part in Ghostbusters at all? I mean, there you were, wham off the Concorde onto the set.
Not a bit I just did it. Harold and Dan wrote the script wherever there wasn't a line, they'd say, "Well, we gotta have a line here" We just made stuff up. When I saw the movie the other night. I realized more of it was improvised than I thought especiallv the action stuff. I'd never worked on a movie where the script was good. Stripes and Meatballs, we rewrote the script every single day. I think most movie actors change their lines nowadays. I didn't use to think so. Then I worked for Dustin Hoffman [in Tootsie]. Dustin changed all his lines a lot of the time. He gave a different performance every single take. He shot five different movies. Even if he didn't change the lines, he would change the meaning. How they cut that movie, I don't know. I think it's the only way to work. I don't believe that you can give the same performance every take. It's physically impossible, so why bother? If you don't do what is happening at that moment, then it's not real. Then you're holding something back.
Are you fed up with comedy?
I think all the comedies that we all do, they all get better. And even though they're not perfect or maybe silly to some people, we learn each time about how to do it. People don't expect master carpenters to get it right after they do six chairs, and we've only done six movies. You've got to do a lot of them and it takes time, there's just so much pressure because the money is so big. There's only so many movies made a week. I mean in the old days I would have made fiftY-five movies by now, and I'd have worked with a lot of people and learned a lot. As it is I've worked with six directors, seven directors, eight directors something like that. You know that's peanuts compared to what the old guys did. And I'd like to work with a lot more actors too, though it's the directors that really teach you something, and cinematographers. Those are the guys that know. There's like a pure knowledge there; there's no clowning around. They either know it or they don't. You can't lie about it.
Are you expecting to do more serious parts in the future? Does that depend on whether 'The Razor's Edge' is a success?
Well, to a certain extent, it does depend on whether The Razor's Edge is a success or a failure, because if directors see it and they say "That guy can act a little," then I'll get offered jobs from serious directors. As it is now, I'm in the phone book under K for Komedy.
The Razor's Edge Film Site