Times London Encounters Bill Murray

Welcome to the Times London Rushmore Academy.

Our parent company* recently sat down with Bill Murray to discuss Mr. Fox, Ghostbusters 3, and his working relationship with Wes and other directors. Full story after the break.

You don’t meet Bill Murray. You spend some time in his presence, and then try to figure him out when he’s gone. For the 59-year-old screen legend, star of Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day and Lost in Translation, is a man of many faces, all of which inevitably return to that famous default deadpan of hangdog eyes, flaccid cheeks and slightly protruding lower lip.

Right now, for instance, in a wildly ornate London hotel suite, and dressed down in crumpled black shirt and grey trousers, he has slipped into Zen Master mode. “People can say what they want about civilisation, but really we are all animals,” he muses, beginning a lecture on the bestial heart of man that is inspired by his new movie, Fantastic Mr. Fox, but encompasses all human spirituality and his personal desire to be available, present and honest in his own life. “Which is basically not the situation for me most of the time!” he jokes.

He plops back into movie star mode and speaks fondly of Fantastic Mr Fox, a beguiling stop-frame animated adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic that is directed by Wes Anderson and stars George Clooney as the eponymous poultry-pilfering hero and Murray as his friend and lawyer, Badger. He calls the movie “charming” and says that it’s really a film about freedom, but he talks mostly about his relationship with 40-year-old Anderson, who first directed Murray in 1998’s Rushmore. “We’ve done five films together now and we look out for each other,” he says. “There is a great sense of trust and loyalty between us.”

Of other directors, though, he is not so enamoured. Terminator Salvation’s McG (aka Joseph McGinty Nichol), for one, who directed Murray in Charlie’s Angels, recently claimed that Murray headbutted him on the Angels’ set during a creative dispute. “That’s bulls***! That’s complete crap!” says Murray, flushing slightly yet maintaining composure. “I don’t know why he made that story up. He has a very active imagination.” He pauses. The subject seems closed, but then a minor eruption. “No! He deserves to die,” he says, coldly staring, without breaking deadpan. “He should be pierced with a lance, not headbutted.”

On screen, strangely, Murray is like this too. The threat of sudden emotional violence is always lurking within. In his early movies, such as Meatballs and Caddyshack, he made this his shtick — witness his famously manic “It just doesn’t matter!” speech from the former movie, or the bursts of gopher-hatred in the latter. In later work, such as Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, though the performances are more restrained the threat is still there, simmering behind the impassive glare. Think of how he gleefully destroys schoolboy Jason Schwartzman’s bicycle in Rushmore, or how he humiliates Robert De Niro’s tremulous cop in the opening of Mad Dog and Glory with a genuinely terrifying stare and the viciously spat, “F*** off!”

Off camera Murray can seem intimidating and an entire genus of movie gossip has sprung up around his supposedly cruel behaviour on sets. Indeed, at a press conference for The Life Aquatic he was called a “bastard” by a former cameraman, who didn’t appreciate Murray’s on-set methods. While his spat with Lucy Liu on Charlie’s Angels has become part of Hollywood lore (he, allegedly, told her that she couldn’t act, while she, in return, allegedly, threw punches). “Look, I will dismiss you completely if you are unprofessional and working with me,” he says, defending a working practice that he admits is strict. “When our relationship is professional, and you’re not getting that done, forget it.”

He is, of course, enigmatic too and lives completely off the Hollywood grid. He has no agent or publicist and is contactable only through friends or a freephone answering service. It took Sophia Coppola, for example, seven months to track him down for Lost in Translation. He giggles at the thought and confesses that he gets insane messages on the answering service. Producers reading out entire scripts. Agents begging for work. “Endless crazy stuff.” He adds that “eliminating the agents probably saved me money, but mostly it stopped the irritation of just the endless phone calls and gibberish.”

Nonetheless, despite all this, and perhaps because of it, Murray is universally venerated as a screen demigod. He is worshipped by an entire generation of hipster directors, including Anderson, Coppola and Jim Jarmusch, who see in his features the deliciously modern combination of ironic distance and flat-out heartbreak.

Similarly, the normally suave George Clooney was reduced to a stuttering wreck when he first met Murray at the 2004 Venice Film Festival (“He’s the best comic actor in the world!” gushed Clooney). While the recent hit film Zombieland was built entirely around Murray-worship — that movie climaxes with hero Woody Harrelson standing in front of Murray in a Beverly Hills mansion and screaming with excitement, “Bill – f***ing – Murray!”

“I’ve really gotten a lot of attention in the past few years,” says Murray, with a who-would’ve-thunk-it shrug. “All of a sudden it’s like [points around the ostentatious hotel room décor], I’m getting treated like I dunno what. Handled with kid gloves.”

He says, naturally, that he doesn’t know where it began. He has theories that he started being funny because it made his strict Irish-American father Edward, a lumber salesman, laugh — he fell off the kitchen table doing a James Cagney impression, banged his head and noticed his father chuckling. He grew up in suburban Chicago among a family of nine children (six boys, three girls). He partially funded his high school education by working with his brothers as a caddy at a local golf club (his brother Brian would eventually write Caddyshack based on these experiences). Today, he says that growing up in a large family taught him tolerance, and to “understand a lot of human behaviour, up close”.

Murray studied medicine in Colorado, but left to pursue comedy with Chicago’s famous The Second City theatre group (two of his brothers were members). The story goes he left medicine because he was arrested for marijuana possession in college. The mere mention of it puts Murray on edge. “What is your question?” he says, coolly. If you hadn’t been arrested would you be a doctor now? “I just didn’t enjoy the people who were in pre-med,” he answers, explaining how money-obsessions among medical students turned his stomach. I tentatively joke that his answer has dodged the bullet nicely on the marijuana issue. He doesn’t reply, but instead fixes me a stare that is pure Mad Dog and Glory — the expletive isn’t there, but you can feel it.

The early comedy years seemed effortless, with Murray segueing from The Second City to TV’s Saturday Night Live to mainstream movie smashes. And then, in 1984, after shooting both Ghost Busters and the serious drama The Razor’s Edge, Murray fled the business for four years, moved to Paris with his wife and two sons, and studied philosophy at the Sorbonne. Today, he says that it was a simple decision. “I knew that Ghostbusters was going to be the biggest thing that ever happened and that being in the United States, with that level of fame, would be destructive for me at that time,” he says. “I knew that if I went to another country I would be able to hold on to what I value in myself.”

His return to the top spot was gradual and punctuated with some failures (Larger Than Life, Ghostbusters II) and some modern classics (Groundhog Day, Kingpin). While his relaunch as the melancholic poster-boy for middle-aged ennui began in earnest with Anderson’s Rushmore.

He thought about retiring in 2005, he says, after he made the Jim Jarmusch’s romantic road movie Broken Flowers (“I thought, ‘God, I really can’t top that! I should think about stopping now’”). But these days he says that he is recommitted to his career. “I feel that right now I’m assembling the kind of passion that I used to have,” he says, adding, “I’m taking injections of ambition.” He then bursts out laughing at his own pretensions.

He will be 60 next year, but this doesn’t bother him (“I felt worse about turning 30″). His marriage to the costume designer Jennifer Butler, whom he met on the 1988 film Scrooged, ended last year in a demolition divorce — she was granted custody of their four children (all boys), given two homes and a $7 million payout. I wonder would he contemplate marriage again. The question hits him like a hammer blow and he throws his head back and slowly rubs his face with his hands. “I dunno,” he says, seemingly lost for words. “I dunno. I’m going to have to. I’m not really, um. Interested. You know?” He pauses and, looking suddenly fragile, whispers: “I don’t know if I’d ever get married again.”

We finish on the future and Ghostbusters III. The news that there is third movie on the way has been chewing up the internet for months. Typically, Murray, who is next up in Jim Jarmusch’s fantastically droll assassin’s tale The Limits of Control, is not entirely enthusiastic about the idea. “What they really want from us is just to open the movie and then get lost after introducing a new generation of ghostbusters, who can start the franchise all over again,” he says with a shrug. “I’ve heard the script idea, and part of it is good but, ye know, it’s going to be tough to start again.”

I wonder then, to top it all, with new improved career injections, with demigod status, franchise reboots and Zen-like awareness, is Murray actually, well, ye know, happy these days? Now?

“Hmm, hold on a second,” he says, eyes cast to the ceiling, bottom lip protruding, affecting the pose of a thinker. “I’m happy!” he finally says, while he beams with unbridled joy. He holds the pose for a nanosecond, but then lets it drop duly back, purposefully, like punctuation, to the inscrutable, enigmatic default of deadpan Murray.

Fantastic Mr Fox opens on Oct 23

Bill Murray’s Role call

Caddyshack (Harold Ramis, 1980)
Fresh from TV’s Saturday Night Live, Murray steals every scene as Carl Spackler, a demented groundkeeper at a country club who wages war against a single destructive gopher.

Ghostbusters (Ivan Reitman, 1984)
The biggest blockbuster of the year, Ghost Busters married comedy and action, spawned a hit soundtrack, a theme park ride and would later inspire Men in Black. And it transformed Murray into a phenomenon.

Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993)
After a patchy time in the late 1980s/early 1990s, Murray returns to surer footing with this comedy classic from long-time collaborator Ramis. Murray plays a jaded TV weatherman who must make sense of his life while trapped for ever in one tedious day.

Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003)
Brief Encounter gets a 21st century update as drifting ships Murray (playing an actor) and Scarlett Johansson (a director’s wife) share a chaste affair in Tokyo. Murray’s portriat of a disillusioned A-lister is painfully poignant.

Broken Flowers (Jim Jarmusch, 2005)
Murray’s favourite performance is a portrait of another lonely man, this time the titter-inducingly named “Don Johnston”, who questions ex-girlfriends (Sharon Stone and Jessica Lange included) about the son he has never known.

*Kidding, obviously.

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