Howard Franklin: '[Bill] was at the height of his powers and this was his passion project'
Everybody has a favorite Bill Murray movie. For me, it’s not Ghostbusters or Stripes, Groundhog Day or Rushmore, or the exquisite Lost in Translation. Murray has played a lot of clowns in his day, but his “crying-on-the-inside” Bozo in Quick Change is the performance that feels more and more perfect to me with every passing year.
Murray plays a fed-up New Yorker named Grimm who dresses up as a harmless-looking clown to rob a bank with his gal (Geena Davis) and slow-witted childhood friend (Randy Quaid). The plan works perfectly — the three thieves walk freely out of the bank and the befuddled police haven’t a clue. All they need to do is get to the airport. But as some New Yorkers can attest, getting to JFK can be a real adventure.
Though Quick Change was not a box-office success when it opened in theaters 25 years ago today, it’s an important film on Murray’s resume. For one, he co-directed it with Howard Franklin. It’s the only film Murray ever directed, and if it’s not a personal film, per se, it’s one of the best and fullest examples of his unique comic sensibility — perhaps the best. It makes you wish he’d direct again.
There’s one amazing scene where the three fugutives duck into what seems to be abandoned building to avoid the police, but instead walk right into a mafia hideout. Terrified, but thinking quickly on his feet, Grimm pretends to be a money-man for the reigning mafioso — “Mister Lombino!” — and walks away $6,000 richer. It’s a marvelous scene, in part because fans can imagine the real-life Murray pulling off a similar stunt as part of his everyday shenanigans in the public eye.
Back in 2010, EW published a story about Murray and the unconventional way he maintains his career — without an agent or publicist, but with a 1-800 number that he uses to occasionally field movie offers. Several of his colleagues and collaborators chimed in, including Franklin, who went on to work with Murray again on Larger Than Life and The Man Who Knew Too Little. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Quick Change, which opened July 13, 1990, this is Franklin’s five-year-old interview about working with Murray and how that film holds a special place in both men’s hearts.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Does your relationship with Bill predate Quick Change? Was he someone you already knew?
HOWARD FRANKLIN Well, yes and no. There was a period right after Ghostbusters where he left the country, to assimilate the whole thing. I think it was rather overwhelming. He took his family to France and went to the Sorbonne and the Cinémathèque. At that point, we were both with CAA, when it really was the whole Mike Ovitz thing. They were dying for him to get back to work but he’d sort of fallen out of the rhythm of it. So they convinced him to meet with two or three people, which he did. He was staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I rang his room, he came down. He was kind of nervous because he wasn’t sure he was ready even to do any of this. We spent a great day together. We just hit it off, love at first sight, whatever you want to call it. He said, “Do you have any stories for me?” and I said, “Well, I have one that might be pretty good,” and I told him that. Then I went on vacation with my family to Santa Fe, and when I got back to the hotel at the end of the day, there were like a thousand messages from CAA, saying you must call immediately. Bill had said he’d kind of like to do something “with that tall, intelligent guy,” and they somehow deduced — I’m 6’4″ — that that was me. I started writing another project that I had pitched to him, and in the midst of it, he said that Helen Scott — someone he’d met when he was in Paris who had been a protégé of Truffaut — she told him about this book, Quick Change. He read it and he said, “This is what I want to do. So stop writing that other thing, let’s do this instead.” And that’s what happened.
It’s so fascinating that Bill went from being away and kind of dragged back to the table — to go from that state of mind to suddenly, like, “Hey let’s co-direct this.” That’s quite a leap.
Well, it took longer than that. The first movie he did when he came back was Scrooged. I was probably still writing Quick Change when he did Scrooged, and while we were prepping Quick Change, he was doing Ghostbusters II. I can’t remember the exact chronology, but I wrote another movie that I was going to direct, that Bob Zemeckis was a producer of, and I don’t remember how it came about, but basically, Bill just said, “Oh, why don’t we [both] direct this,” and so we did that. But that was later. It took him a while to warm up.
I think you’re credited as the sole screenwriter, but did Bill collaborate on the script? Or was it something that you kind of went away with and came back with pages?
No, I don’t think I’ve ever really collaborated on a script. I do write alone. But I’ll tell you one funny story about it, for instance: there’s a scene in the bank vault where the yuppie guy tries to bribe him with his watch. I had written a slightly different thing, and that very expensive watch that’s in the movie, that Audemars Piguet whatever, was Bill’s watch at the time. And they had this thing where it’s a self-winding watch, but if you don’t wear it for awhile, you have to take it to the Audemars Piguet store on Fifth Avenue or whatever for them to wind it. And they charge you $150. And Bill was really pissed off about this because every time he did a movie, of course, he’d have to take it off for a few months. And then he’d have to pay this $150, so he said, “I’d really like you to write this watch into the movie.” [Laughs] There were always things like that that would give me ideas.
As a writer, how did you make Jay Cronley’s book a Bill Murray vehicle? Did much have to change or was a Grimm always a very Bill Murray-like guy?
No, not to that degree. The biggest change I made was that in the book, the characters are small-time criminals. The people who come after them are other criminals who recognize their fingerprints all over the [robbery]. I wanted to make it more relatable, so I made it this kind of everyman New Yorker guy, and not a criminal. And for some reason, I could always kind of channel his voice. As I said to somebody recently, my epitaph may as well be “The crying on the inside kind, I guess,” because that is the No. 1 question I always get asked: “Did you write that?” That’s definitely the most famous line I’ve ever written.
Of all his characters, Grimm is the one that stands out to me that has the most Bill Murray in it—
Right. A lot of people will say, if you really want to see where the turn came, the turn where he became the guy in Rushmore and Lost in Translation, it’s Quick Change. I agree with that.
What does co-directing movie really mean?
We truly cast it together, but what we decided was I was the director on the set if [any of the actors] had any questions. But at that time it was considered this really bizarre thing. And the DGA had a lot of problems with it. We had to go through to this kind of tribunal at the Directors Guild and they were incredibly histrionic. I remember Stanley Kramer was on this committee, and he was old even then. He gave this very melodramatic speech where he said, “I’m going to go along with this because you seem like nice boys, but I fear for you in my soul. I fear for one of you when one of you wants to use a 75-mm lens and the other wants to use a 50.” So, Bill and I remembered that, and when we were on the set, which was a very harmonious set, any time Bill would say, “Really? That’s what you’re going to do?” we would say, “It’s a 75/50 situation.” That became our code-word for when it was really going to go off the rails.
Am I correct to assume that it was filmed mostly if not entirely in NYC?
Absolutely. But unlike most Hollywood movies that come to New York, it was all in the outer boroughs — other than the sequence outside the bank which is obviously right next to Grand Central. We were sort of in the Archie Bunker New York, not the Sex in the the City New York. The crew we had were almost to a man Woody Allen’s crew, because the producer was [longtime Allen collaborator] Bobby Greenhut, and it was a summer when Woody wasn’t shooting. So we had everybody, his A.D.s, his camera operators. All these guys were so fascinated to see this New York because Woody would always shoot on the Upper East Side, the Village, and the Upper West Side exclusively. So they were seeing all kinds of things that they’d never seen before. We were always kind of eating at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Queens or something like that. It was a New York that, especially in those years, before everyone migrated to Brooklyn, that a lot of New Yorkers didn’t see.
I love that irony, because so many of Woody’s films are poems to New York City, and Quick Change is, in some ways, a middle-finger to New York.
Right, although many critics said at the time that only somebody who loves New York could really appreciate the movie. I think there’s some truth to that.
Does it surprise you at all that Bill never directed again?
Everything about Bill and nothing about Bill surprises me. I don’t think anybody really knows why he decides to do what he’s going to do, including himself probably, until the 11th hour. It may just be that directing requires too much lead-time. I’m sure you’ve heard the stories of people looking at their watches 10 minutes before he’s supposed to show up to do a movie and he hasn’t really called the production office to get airplane tickets or whatever and “I don’t think he’s coming!” and then he strolls up and says, “Okay, where do you want me to stand?” He’s very spontaneous. And there’s really nothing spontaneous about directing. So much of it is prep-prep-prep-prep. I think it’s really a commitment issue, probably.
Was there any of that during Quick Change?
Absolutely not. I spent a whole year with Bill every day. He was very much into this. He was at the height of his powers and this was his passion project. I remember the night before it opened, we were all in New York because we were doing some publicity — Bill and Bobby and I — and we were about to go into a restaurant, and he said, “I just want you guys to know, whatever happens tomorrow, this has been the best experience of my life.” I think we all felt that way. It was a good time.
I was tempted to see parallels to see how Grimm viewed New York and how Bill views Hollywood. Did anyone see it that way at the time?
No. But I can see what you’re saying: He’s sort of the outsider-insider.
And he’s kind of fed up with the day-to-day and he’d rather just get away and do it his own way.
Right, and I think in many ways, that’s the essence of Bill’s appeal — he’s doing and saying things which we all would like to do, but don’t quite have the courage or intelligence to pull off.
He still has the 1-800 number and the P.O. box, and it seems like there’s always a great story behind every movie that he chooses to make these days.
There’s only one person in the world right now who can feel confident that Bill will do his movie and that’s Wes Anderson. I think the rest of us, in a way, it’s just too hard. You never know how you’re going to reach him. I was at a read-through of Ruben Fleischer’s new movie, and [getting Murray for Zombieland] was totally beyond the 11th hour. They were hoping to get Jean-Claude Van Damme, and instead they got Bill Murray!
And that film captures how so many feel about Bill Murray. We feel like we know him.
It’s obvious, but compare where he is with anybody else who was on Saturday Night Live. There’s an impossible gulf, and he’s still at the center of things — as much as he chooses to be. And he turns down so much stuff. I’m still getting calls, like, “Can you help me get this to Bill Murray?” I honestly don’t know if there’s method to his madness. It’s just him. But it seems to work.
I asked him why he didn’t work more and he’s like, “I’m just lazy.”
He had the greatest quote at the Quick Change junket. Someone had asked why he’d taken so much time off between Ghostbusters and Scrooged, and he said, “Well, because I have a lot of other interests,” and then he said, “Dot-dot-dot… sleeping and watching TV.”