'I saw him as one of those Western gunfighters who refuses to pull his guns out'

By Jeff Labrecque
Updated October 20, 2015 at 08:38 PM EDT
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  • Movie

Mitch Glazer was just a kid in his early 20s, but he was living the dream. He’d written a cover story on John Belushi in 1977 for Crawdaddy magazine and sparked up a friendship with the nascent Saturday Night Live star. Not long after, he found himself in the green room at Studio 8H, hanging with Belushi and the legendary cast. Introductions were made: “Mitch, this is the new kid, Billy Murray…”

“There was something intense about him,” Glazer says. “He could be insanely funny at will, literally for hours at a time. He was just insanely on. It was dazzling actually to be around him. But also, he was this big, imposing guy.”

Once, a few years later, Belushi and Glazer drove over to the hotel where Murray and Hunter S. Thompson were staying during the making of Where the Buffalo Roam, which starred Murray as the gonzo journalist. The two Thompsons were waiting outside, but as Glazer drove up the driveway, he watched as Murray held a huge trash can above his head and threatened to throw it at Thompson. “I remember John leaning over to me and saying, ‘Keep driving, keep driving!’ We looped around and went out the other way.”

Eventually, Glazer and Murray became collaborators and close friends, beginning with the 1988 Christmas movie Scrooged, which Glazer co-wrote with SNL‘s Michael O’Donoghue. They’ve worked together on all sorts of projects, with Glazer lending a hand on some of Murray’s movies and Murray returning the favor when Glazer needed a last-second replacement to play the villain in his directorial debut, Passion Play.

Over the years, Glazer’s become a Murray gatekeeper, one of the people way too many directors and producers solicit to get in touch with the unreachable Murray. In return, Murray and his brothers jokingly harass Glazer on the phone every time Road House is on, just to inform him that they’re watching his wife, actress Kelly Lynch, be intimate with Patrick Swayze.

Glazer and Murray (and Lynch) have teamed up again for Rock the Kasbah, which opens Friday. Glazer mined his memories as a rock journalist to write the story of a legendary rock manager (Murray) who gets dumped by his last client (Zooey Deschanel) while entertaining the troops in Afghanistan and stranded in a war zone. But his nose for talent knows no bounds, and he discovers a young Afghan woman (Leem Lubany) who might have the voice to rescue them both. Barry Levinson directed, and Bruce Willis, Kate Hudson, and Danny McBride costar.

Glazer spoke to EW in advance of the film’s world premiere in New York. Not only did he discuss the inspiration for the film and his fondness for its star, but he delved into their next collaboration, the Netflix Christmas special, A Very Murray Christmas.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You and Bill go way back, but do you dare write a script with him in mind, knowing that he may or may not be in the mood?

MITCH GLAZER: No, this was a leap of faith. But not hugely because I’ve written for him for so long. Aside from the movies, we’ve worked together and we’re friends. I love writing Bill’s voice. You know, he’s gone on record how he doesn’t like the idea of when people say, “You know, I wrote this for you…” But clearly I have. For good or ill, I hear his voice in my head. But I wrote it like seven years ago. I gave it to him on a Friday and the next day, Saturday, we were in New York, he called and said, “Yeah, let’s do this.” It just took this long primarily because the studios were saying at the time, they loved the script, they loved Bill, but it was the region. Doing a comedy set in the region they were nervous about, I guess. But times have changed.

Bill has proven he can do pretty much anything, but I’m excited to see him in this type of role. It’s nice to see him having real fun on screen and digging his teeth into the type of larger than life comedic character that I grew up watching.

That was the reason why I wrote this. I had the exact same feeling as you did. He had done three or four fairly somber movies in a row. I think the last one before I started writing was Broken Flowers, an amazing performance — but minimal in its way. If you look at it, he just really pared everything down to such a small range of what he can do. But I had the exact same feeling. I saw him as one of those Western gunfighters who refuses to pull his guns out. I mean, he’s the best comic actor of our time, to me, and he decided for awhile not to use that skill or gift. And he knew it. At one point, he said, “I think it’s time for me to be funny again.” And I was the fortunate beneficiary of that change in career direction.

And he was lit up on set. He was so happy for the entire seven weeks we were in Morocco. He ended up staying a week after we left, just because he was having so much fun. I met him 38 years ago, and we’ve worked together since Scrooged, and I’ve never seen this guy on set. I mean, he was unleashed. He was just really happy; he had two of his sons with him. The work experience was really just wonderful. The days would end — a long, hard, hot July work day in Morocco would end — with us singing Young Rascals songs in the hair and makeup trailers. Every night. So as a fan, which I am, I had the fortunate opportunity to manifest what you’re talking about, which is, “God, I would love to see Bill Murray go.”

I imagine you crossed paths with a few Richie Lanz type characters over the years.

Yes. I started as a rock journalist for Crawdaddy magazine in the ‘70s and Rolling Stone. My whole misspent youth was on tours and with these guys. I was with the Blue Brothers when they played the Winterland New Year’s show with the Grateful Dead. And I remember standing next to John [Belushi] when Bill Graham made a speech to all the New Yorkers at sound check saying, “Don’t drink anything that’s opened. Don’t even drink the champagne because they’ll inject liquid acid through the cork,” warning the entire band to only open their own beer if they didn’t want to trip. To be around Bill Graham and Ron Delsener and dozens of rock managers over the years, that part was research free. That was just memories. And the musical references in [the film], you know, at one point, I turned to my wife and I said, “I think I’m just writing for Cameron Crowe at this point.” An audience of one who goes, “Oh my God, the Bangles tour of ’85! That’s hysterical.” I have no idea who else will get it.

I loved that Bill went to Comic-Con for the film. Typically, that’s the crowd for the superhero and the tentpole franchises. But Bill Murray turned out being the biggest star there.

It was explosive. I think it rocked him. I know it did. He couldn’t believe it. It was like a rock star star entering into an area. Everybody on their feet and thunderous. He came up [on stage] in character in the beginning, with the bandana and stuff. but the guy sitting there in front of those fans is Bill Murray and the guy I’ve known for 30-somethng years. There’s no trying to shape or protect or create an image. I think that’s his power — as an actor, but also just when you see him out in the world. He answered the questions. He had such a good time that at the end of it, we were going to walk out through the backstage area but he insisted on walking back through the crowd to leave, which was terrifying. I just went, “Oh my God.” But he did it, and they were so affectionate, just as he knew it would be. He wanted to connect, and he had a great time. I don’t think there’s another actor — other than a rock star, maybe, like Mick Jagger — who could get that kind of reaction.

You’ve directed Bill in Passion Play and you watched up close as others have. Is there an art to directing Bill?

I don’t have a deep well of experience directing him; it was one movie. But what was interesting was that actors all have different preferences, as far something simple like number of takes. Bill likes to get warmed up. The first take is wonderful and all that, but I think if you would ask, his preference would be four or five takes. That way, he knows he’s done it as written and then can go his own way. One of the things that was interesting was I directed a scene with Mickey Rourke and Bill Murray together and they’re exactly the opposite that way. Mickey at the time was one take or two, and he wanted to be spontaneous. And then Bill would start to feel good with what he was doing after four takes. So juggling the two was kind of interesting.

One of the exciting things about working with Barry, besides the fact that he comes out of a comedy background and that he’s done Rain Man and Diner and The Natural and all that, was his blocking; the way he shapes a scene in the practical location was something that Bill liked a lot. Barry just has a lifetime of talent of doing it. He was so inventive and actor friendly. They were a great team.

The film is set in Afghanistan and you recently screened it for an Afghan Pashtun immigrant community in California. How was it received?

Kind of amazing. It gets emotional. One of the actors in the movie is a man named Fahim, who plays the father of the young girl that Bill Murray discovers in southeastern Afghanistan. He was born and raised in Afghanistan, and he did three tours of duty with the Special Forces as a translator and actually did his audition for us under fire in Helmand Province. He went behind a tent, and apparently, Barry told me, did the audition tape on his phone. You can hear bullets. So he’s familiar with the conflict. He sits right next to me [at the screening] and is a real champion of the film obviously. We did a Q&A after, and they have questions. As a nation, as an Afghan immigrant to this country, they’ve only seen themselves really portrayed as terrorists. So the chance to see kind of a human look at the country and the culture and the conflict is earthshaking for them. At least that’s what they said to me afterwards. A young girl in Century City came up and took my hand and said, “I’m a Pashtun girl from Kandahar and thank you for telling my story,” and burst into tears.

What was the audience’s reaction, in terms of when and what they laughed at? Was it different?

They laugh at the same places. They love Bill. As far as the ride of the movie, they seem to be like any audience. And that’s one of the points of the film. The fact that it focuses on what’s universal, which is fathers love their children and people everywhere love music and have senses of humor. There are things that unite as opposed to divide us. And I saw it in the screening. They laughed at all the same places American audiences would.

Your film arrives at a less than perfect time, in that it opens the same week that the Cubs are playing in the playoffs. Bill might be settled into the Wrigley Field bleachers by then. [Note: This conversation took place before Game 1 of the playoffs against the Mets.]

[Laughs] I see it as fate. He’s going to be in New York, when they’re playing Game 1 and 2 this weekend. Our world premiere is Monday, which is a dark night for the games. So hopefully for him, he’ll be two-up and in great spirits on the red carpet. But it must be out of body for him. He is a lifetime diehard Cubs fan. So this is just surreal, I think. Hopefully, it’ll be a good sign for us, one way or another.

The other thing you guys have coming out is the Netflix Christmas special. When I saw the short preview, I thought this is both the greatest thing for Bill Murray ever and it’s also the most unlikely thing for Bill Murray ever because he is notorious for being noncommittal and here’s a Christmas special built around his persona. Do you know how it all started?

Yeah, it was my idea. Someone had said to me awhile ago, “Would Bill be open to doing an hour on TV, if it could be anything he wanted to do.” This was four years ago. He and I talked for years about it, kind of moving it into the direction that it ended up in, which was this kind of variety show. Because Bill, he does sing. Obviously he did that lounge guy, Nick Winters, over the years. But he was in a band called the Dutch Masters in high school, and he was the lead singer. I’ve heard him over the years. He sang “Gloria” with Eric Clapton, which was hysterical. So it was something in his head, and we were talking about the shape of it. Then completely separately, Sofia Coppola called me and said, “Hi Mitch, I have this idea. I keep seeing Bill singing at Bemelmans like Chet Baker. Do you think we could do something like that?” It was literally synchronicity. So then, it became the three of us. At one point, Sofia and I went down to South Carolina and sat with Bill to kind of get more specific about it. He sat there on the couch and called George Clooney and Chris Rock on the cell, and literally before he could get past, “Hey, I’m thinking of doing this Christmas…” each one of them was going, “We’re in.” And that was the response from anybody that he asked.

Since it was going to be at Bemelmans, it’s all shot in the Carlyle Hotel. We never leave. It’s so perfect, and New York kind of elegant. So cozy. And it becomes like a family. What happens is this blizzard makes it impossible to do this cheesy live show Bill was going to do as himself, so he finds Christmas in the hotel with cocktail waitresses and the chefs and all the people who are kind of trapped by this blizzard. I just love it. But to tell you the truth, he’s very wary of the idea of playing himself in quotes, as most actors would be. But he embraced this. I mean, it’s not him. It’s our fantasy version of Bill Murray Big Star kind of thing. But it’s got real heart to it, and the music is amazing all the way through it. Sofia’s husband, Thomas, and Phoenix plays in it, and Maya Rudolph does a Phil Spector Christmas song that is spectacular. It’s just a big wall of sound coming from her and Paul Shaffer. Rashida Jones and Jason Schwartzman play a couple who are trying to get married in the hotel. And everybody came. Literally, overnight, some of them, just flew in on the red-eye and left at the end of the day, for him.

At the very least, seems like a great opportunity to just hang with really cool people.

It was amazing. It was five days of work at the Carlyle. It was the best work experience I’ve ever had in my life, the most fun, and there were two blizzards that week in March so we were virtually locked in to this beautiful hotel, living the film. You start singing those great Christmas songs with people you love, and Paul Shaffer is the musical director. I mean, my God, I would do that daily.

Do you think this could become an annual thing, or is this a one and done?

I was thinking this would be a joy to do again. I don’t know about yearly, but it was a great feeling. The three of us have actually talked about how cool it would be to do another one. Bill’s got some ideas that are great.

You’ve known Bill for 30-something years. Still the same guy or has he mellowed?

I don’t know if he’s mellowed, if that’s the right word. But he’s deepened. And that’s pretty amazing because he was pretty deep to begin with. He’s always been one of the smartest, best-read, most curious men I’ve ever met. That’s something I’m not sure the world got initially. I think they do now because he’s let more of that out. But anyone that knew him knew he was just wildly smart. I think he’s just really used his life to learn things. So the guy who’s now on set, he’s so thoughtful and has such a deep well of experience because he just squeezes so much out of life. He is really spontaneous and he’s lived his life consciously in a non-Hollywood Movie Star way. He loves working. He says often that that’s the best of him, is on a movie set. He loves what he does. We took side trips in Morocco to different places — to Fes and Rabat — we shot in, and the gift of being at his side while he moves through life is a treasure. People come up to him are so affectionate and respectful, and his response is likewise. You can feel the goodwill. It’s different than it was 30 years ago obviously, because at this point, he’s hit some kind of escape velocity of celebrity.

I was almost going to say there’s an art to it, but there’s really not. It’s almost just an essence.

I’ve been with people who fly with two assistants and only fly private, etc, etc. I’ve picked up Bill at airports on a JetBlue flight from New York to Burbank. He’s just different. And it’s conscious. It’s not like he’s a savant. He really does concentrate on staying intact. It’s not as easy as you would think. He has that famous saying that he said to me and in print that in his mind you have two years to be an a–hole after you get really famous. And then after two years, you have to get a grip or you just spiral into some show business hell. But he lived that. He has good friends, and a great supportive family. I think he’s got a real good life.

What are you writing next?

I adapted an Elmore Leonard book called Bandits for Bruce Willis. We have to come up with another name because he actually did another movie called Bandits with Barry, weirdly. That would be for the spring, and I’m trying to put together the financing for the Magic City film. We’re trying to work out where we’re going to shoot it, and the dream is for that to go in March. I have the original cast from the show, and I added Bruce Willis as a Jewish Chicago mob boss and Bill Murray as the Miami head of the CIA, based on a real character. It’s taken awhile because things do, but I think it’s imminent. That would be a dream.

Rock the Kasbah

  • Movie
  • R
  • 102 minutes
  • Barry Levinson