John Byrum Interview – Part 1

This interview is compiled from correspondence with the film’s Writer and Director, John Byrum.

John talks about the development of the script, the challenges of shooting in India and how he and Bill coped with the film’s critical and commercial failure.

He also tells a story of a chance meeting with David Lean who was shooting Passage to India. John also pays tribute to the composer of the film’s soundtrack Jack Nitzsche, who passed away in 2000.

John’s wife, Karin has also contributed some previously unseen photographs of John and Bill Murray taken during the writing and shooting of the film.

April 27th 2004

Can you tell me more about the writing of the script?

Bill and I took to the road to write the script over a year before we started shooting (Summer, 1983). Probably more like a year and a half. I lived then in Los Angeles, Bill in New York, so we’d fly back and forth for bits of time or meet in places like Denver or Northern California, or Chicago, where we’re both from . Near the end of that time I finally moved to Connecticut , and Bill and I drove one of my cars from LA to New York, all the way across country.

Bill Murray in Malibu, 1983

Bill Murray in Malibu writing The Razor’s Edge (Photo used with permission)

We’d stop in all kinds of weird places, I remember going to some town (Iowa City) in Iowa where Tootsie was opening, and stopping at the theatre where I think Bill saw it for the first time. When the lights came up in and the audience saw one of the stars of the film standing at the back of the theatre, all hell broke loose. I remember another time going to visit Hunter S Thompson, a good friend of Bill’s, in Denver. Writing this script took forever, but we finally got it done.

Where was the movie shot?

We did shoot in Paris, UK and India, but also in Belgium and Switzerland, where we did all the mountain stuff. We originally did it all on a sound stage in England, but it didn’t look right, so we re-shot it in the Alps.

What happened after shooting?

Literally the day after we took our final shot, Bill got on the Concorde and was literally driven from Kennedy Airport to his first shot in Ghostbusters, the movie that he only did to force Columbia to make Razor’s Edge. I stayed in England for six more months to cut our film. The irony: Razor’s Edge completely tanked while Ghostbusters, the film he only made to get our film financed went down in profit history.

The pre-release interviews with yourself and Bill show a great optimism about how the film was going to be received. Were you or Bill surprised or disappointed with the reaction from critics or audiences?

I think Bill was completely trashed by the film’s failure, it was his first serious film and he wanted to extend himself as an actor. The critics and audiences wanted him to be the guy in Meatballs for the rest of his life and didn’t want him in things like The Razor’s Edge. He dropped out of the industry and moved to Paris for a year after that.

Now nearly, 20 years later, he was nominated for an Oscar in Sofia Coppola’s movie and I’m sure he feels triumphant. As for me, the film was released at the height of the Reagan era, Yuppies ruled the culture, and I wasn’t surprised at all by the film’s failure.

Bob Marcucci (Producer) felt that Columbia could have marketed the film better. Do you think the film suffered by being released in the shadow of Ghostbusters?

Sure the film suffered by being released in the shadow of Ghostbusters, but that’s what got it made. That’s the American movie business! And I don’t think Marcucci’s right, Columbia put a lot of money and energy into marketing the film. Bill’s fans just didn’t want to see him in a serious movie. I remember arriving a few minutes late at the Ziegfeld theatre – the best movie theatre in New York – on the opening day , and they were streaming out of the theatre and shouting to people waiting in line for the next show “don’t waste your money, it isn’t funny!”

Do you have any particularly fond memories of the production?

About a week before the end of shooting in India – in Srinagar, to be precise – after a long day’s shooting, a bunch of us were having dinner in some 19th Century Raj’s palace that had been turned into a huge restaurant. Aside from the dozen of us at a table across the vast space – and not another customer in the vast, eerily empty place (a not uncommon experience in India). Our Sound Operator, Rene Borowizawitz, peered across the big room in surprise. One of the two men was an English film director he’d worked with years before – none other than David Lean.

I was on my feet so fast Rene looked frightened. “David Lean, here in the middle of India? Introduce me!” So Rene did and I sat down at Lean’s table for an hour. Bill Murray came with us, and to this day I don’t really know if he realized we were sitting with God or Shiva, or what you wanted to call him that night, but there I was in the middle of nowhere in India, with the great David Lean! I grilled him wide-eyed. “Tell me about Peter O’ Toole and your three years in the desert! …What was it like blowing up that bridge on the River Kwai? …What was it like directing Julie Christie?, Trevor Howard?…What was Noel Coward like?” Just gushing like the kid in film school I was twenty years before. Lean was polite and kept turning the conversation back to where I’d been in India, what I’d seen. Awfully polite in that English way, I thought at the time.

He was there scouting locations for Passage to India, his last movie. When I finally saw it, I saw that he’d shot five or six locations I’d told him about – while politely educating me on the history of the great David Lean, he’d been picking my brain apart for information about interesting locations in India. What he really taught me that night is that a really great film director never stops working, no matter where he is or what he’s doing – at least not David Lean.

And that is probably the fondest memory i’ll ever have of that movie, the night my brain was picked by God himself!

In the film, Peter Vaughan’s character (Mackenzie) quizzes Larry on his philosophical readings. Were any of these important or relevant to either of you? (particularly The Upanishads)

The books that Peter Vaughan’s character mentioned were all things either Bill or I had heard of or looked up. The Upanishads might even have been read by Bill, I just can’t remember. Bill is actually a very religious guy – educated at Loyola by the Jesuits, who are really kind of brutal about drumming it into your head. I think one of his main draws to this book was the religious theme.

You mentioned mountain scenes shot in the studio that were then cut. Were there any other scenes that were shot that didn’t make the final edit?

There is a sequence I cut that I have regretted cutting for years. The film was just running too long, and at the time I didn’t think the scene advanced the plot, but it was one that Bill was adamant about shooting. It’s just him and Catherine Hicks, strolling through a large church (supposedly Paris, but we shot it in a real church in England). He talked about how his quest for God had filled him with ideas, how they’d inspired him. He pretty much improvised the whole speech, which he gave while he and cathy walked through this cathedral. It was an enormous shot to light and shoot, it took all day, and every take was different, improvised by Bill, as though he were doing improv at Second City or Saturday Night Live, which is the kind of acting he’s always done best.

As our film was a huge flop anyway, I’ve always regretted cutting the scene. Bill loved it, it was kind of weird, and one of the great things about a flop is you couldn’t have saved the movie anyway, why not say and do whatever felt important to you when you shot it.

During the shoot in India, the crew fell ill and that you lost a lot of weight. Was that difficult to cope with?

We never had an ounce of meat the weeks we spent in Ladakh, the terrain was so mountainous and isolated, curried vegetables were basically what you could eat. One night though, we got a special treat – chicken. The next day, the entire crew came down with Ptomaine poisoning, but for me it was the worst.

John Byrum in Ladakh shooting The Razor's Edge

John Byrum in Ladakh shooting The Razor’s Edge.

I lost about 25 lbs and had to be followed by a guy who held a bottle of glucose that trailed a syringe in my arm, feeding me intravenously. I used to line up shots through the camera, then drop to my knees and vomit as the scenes were being shot. Once in a while, I’d pass out and dream of all those months we’d shot in Paris and then go to dinner at Le Dome!

After the movie, Bill famously spent time away from the industry to study in Paris. Did you have any particular projects planned?

After the movie, I almost immediately blundered into one of the other dream assignments of my life. J.P. Donleavy had finally agreed to make a film of The Gingerbread Man. The catch was, I was to direct, but he insisted on writing the script. I went to Ireland and stayed for a few weeks on his estate, then took him to London to finish the script. The film never got made, but what a trip that was.

Then Danny Aykroyd and I wrote a script that was to star him and Sean Connery, and I spent months commuting from Canada (where Dan lived) to Spain (where Sean lived). That was another one that never got made, and by then The Razor’s Edge got released and flopped, and I was back, as happens in the business, to square one, and had to direct a movie called The Whoopee Boys – but that’s a whole other story…

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