by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
The entertainment industry is filled with legends about the process for casting Bill Murray in a film. It’s no secret that the comedic genius is choosy about the stories he agrees to inhabit. So what can we learn about the cinematic choices he’s made? Here are five lessons in storytelling we can take away from Bill Murray films.
1. LOVABLE LOSERS ALWAYS WIN US OVER
Many of Murray’s characters are down on their luck, socially awkward, or overly confident in their abilities, and in a word, losers. Murray knows that audiences identify strongly with characters that wear their flaws on their sleeve. In his most recent film, Rock the Kasbah, Murray encounters terrorists, arms dealers, and rogue prostitutes. While the setup creates an environment fit for James Bond, BM portrays Richie Lanz, an over-the-hill rock promoter who hasn’t had a successful client in years. Lanz talks a big game, but is never able to actually deliver on his aspirations. It’s only at the end of the story when Lanz admits that he’s not all he claims to have been that he can rise to the ranks of a real hero and make the difference in people’s lives he’s always longed for.
2. CRANKY CHARACTERS CARRY POTENTIAL
Bill Murray is the master of the cranky character. He doesn’t have to utter a word of dialogue to convince us of the chip on his shoulder. Murray has figured out the key to why cranky characters work so well in stories. The explanation lies in that audiences respond so strongly to seeing a cranky character find even the slightest bit of joy, which Murray’s characters always seem to do by the end. When we see cranky characters find some delight, we believe that it might exist for us as well.
In Scrooged, Murray portrays Frank Cross. Cross is a cranky boss who makes his employees work late into the night on Christmas Eve. When Cross learns the true meaning of the holiday season at the end of the story, we find ourselves celebrating right along with him. Murray pulls a similar transformation in St. Vincent. Vincent is the quintessential cranky character, but eventually finds a small amount of satisfaction in befriending a young boy and his mother. Audiences don’t often learn to love mean characters, but will usually end up giving a cranky character a chance.
3. HELPING HELLRAISERS IS A WORTHY CAUSE
Murray has long realized he doesn’t have to be the star of the show in order to steal the show. Many great stories walk us through the journey of a disruptive protagonist trying to find their way in the world. BM has recognized that the character that helps that protagonist find their way becomes instantly lovable to audiences. In Rushmore, Murray’s Herman Blume helps Max Fischer with every project the boy can dream up. In the process, we end up loving Murray for it.
In Lost in Translation, he walks beside Charlotte through her “lostness” without ever using her weakness to his advantage. As a result, we are so thankful for the Bill Murrays in our own lives. Characters who must face internal maturity or change over the course of the story usually need a catalyst, in the form of a person, to accomplish such a feat. Murray understands the need for subtlety that these characters require. We need these characters in our stories, and we need them in real life.
4. TENACITY TICKLES AUDIENCES
We can’t help it. We love to see a character persevere until they reach their goal. Just like in dramas, the more difficult the situation a comedic character finds themselves in, the more we like it. Watching Murray face impossible odds never gets old. But this method doesn’t just work because we’re watching Bill Murray. It works because it’s good storytelling. It can work in your story, too.
In Groundhog Day, we watch BM wake up to the same impossible situation every day. How will he ever stop the cycle? The solution to the problem in the story is not nearly as satisfying as the process we experience with Murray in trying over and over again, eventually embracing his situation, and then finally learning the secret to overcoming the insufferable. In Quick Change, Murray’s character has a simple goal – get to the airport. The comedy doesn’t lie in how many obstacles lie between Murray and the airport. The comedy lies in Murray’s reaction to each obstacle and his ability to somehow keep trying without giving up. We love to see our hero win in a story. We will empathize when they don’t. But we insist that they try with all their might.
5. COCKY CHARACTERS ARE FUN, BUT STILL MUST LEARN LESSONS
We’ve all wished for just the right zinger to sling at the person who cuts us off in traffic. People who always have something clever to say intrigue us. We occasionally want to be them. But we also recognize the need for these folks to be put in their place. Bill Murray understands this. He makes us laugh by allowing his confidence to exceed his abilities. But he also keeps us on his side when he inevitably must be humbled. Well-written characters will do the same.
In Ghostbusters, Murray’s Dr. Peter Venkman always has a clever word at the ready. His comical dressing down of his fellow Ghostbusters for their glaring shortcomings makes us snicker. But the real laughs come when we see Venkman slimed in goo by a ghost. We know the universe has balanced when BM is taken down a notch, where we can continue to root for him. In Stripes, Murray goes from taxi-driving smart-ass to the army’s funniest soldier, but the story only works because his drill sergeant puts him in his place whenever the character’s swagger bumps into his barrack mates.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.