This is an extract from an interview Bill Murray gave to Cosmopolitan Magazine in December 1984.
Bill Murray: More than just a Funnyman
Report by Chris Chase. Main photo by Dilip Mehta
“I wanted to do something different,” he says. “I didn’t think it was going to be such a big deal.” (Bill Murray)
Rob Cohen, executive producer of The Razor’s Edge, says that the story (based on a Somerset Maugham novel) “is about someone looking for values, asking, ‘is there a meaning to life?’. It seems at first that this is a bizarre thing for Bill Murray to be doing, but I think he has a specialness that has made him a wealthy man and a household word. And any comedic talent has to be somewhat bizarre, only because it sees life from an oblique angle.”
“Bill has had some growth experiences in the last few years. He got married, had a child. There were the deaths of some friends. All these things came up on him, and I believe he began to think a little more deeply about life.”
Actually, Murray always thought deeply about life, it was just he couldn’t make total sense of what he was thinking.
Bill: “I used to write a lot of poetry when I was a little kid,” he says. “And I started singing real early. I’d sing songs to God when I was alone. I’m definitely a religious person, but it doesn’t have much to do with Catholicism anymore. I don’t think about Catholicism much.”. Murray’s own duality-half clown, half mystic searcher after truth-has to be the reason he was attracted to The Razor’s Edge.
Rob Cohen remembers how it began. “John Byrum and I mentioned to Bill that we were doing The Razor’s Edge. We didn’t ask him to be in it. He read the book, called up and said, I’m Larry Darrell. And I’ve already called Frank Price and told him this is my next film. You two have a meeting with him at Columbia tomorrow afternoon at three.’
“John was confused, I was confused, but I thought, let’s analyze it. Obviously, on the film’s packaging end, this is important. But less obviously, what did Maugham want out of that character, Larry Darrell? He wanted a transition. Well, who can make more of an extreme transition, a Bill Hurt, who looks studious and intellectual to begin with, and will wind up simply a little more spiritual than he was in the first place? Or a Bill Murray, who can start as the ‘everything’s-a-joke-lower-middle-class-guy’?
“He goes off to war, has a set of traumatic experiences, and completely thrown off his world view, and starts to question. Now that’s a transition.”
John Byrum, who not only wrote the screenplay with Murray but also directed the picture, says he’d been trying to get Murray to do a film for six or seven years. “I spent six months of my life writing a script for him, and he read it and went, ‘No man, not me.’ This one, Maugham wrote, I didn’t.”
For Murray, watching himself in The Razor’s Edge was somewhat harrowing. “The first time I saw it, I said, ‘Am I gonna get out of this with my ass or not?’ Then I decided, yeah, I’m gonna get out of it.”
“I know it’s an odd picture for people to go and see,” he continues, “but then, all sorts of freaks went and saw some of the biggest downers of all time. I mean, you don’t really take the family to Silkwood, saying, ‘Hey, let’s go have some laughs.’ People went and saw it. And they went to see Sophie’s Choice.”
The Razor’s Edge was shot all over the world, and the Murray and Byrum wives and babies went along for part of the trip. “But nobody wanted to come to India,” Murray says. “They all thought it was pretty good to be in Paris spending money, but when we said, well, now we’re going to go eat dried dog and yogurt, they said no, we think we ‘ll go home.”
Unlike many actors, Murray is generous toward his coworkers (he says the reason he got the reviews in Ghostbusters was “they gave me all the lines”), and he praises Byrum as a director. “Since we’d written the script, we always knew what we wanted from a scene, and he just never bothered me unless I wasn’t doing it right. There were only a couple of times when I had any real acting problems, out of fatigue or just, you know, malfunction of the brain. There are days when you can’t figure out the most obvious thing. You show up on the set, and you might as well be a piece of summer sausage, and that’s when somebody has to think for you. Byrum was great.”
“I did Razor’s Edge and Ghostbusters back to back. Razor’s Edge was shot first, and when we finished I was too tired to leave my hotel room in Delhi. I stayed there for five days. Then I made the mistake of calling to ask when they needed me for Ghostbusters, and it turned out they needed me in seven days.
”It took me about a month to relax and get into Ghostbusters. I kept thinking, what am I doing this stuff for? I just did the heavy stuff, I proved I can do it, why aren’t I doing more?”
“It took me about a month to forget all that, and really have fun again. I mean, in India we’d been working in the mountains with a skeleton crew, and we helped carry the gear and stuff, and then I came to New York, and there were seventy-four Teamster drivers, and this huge production, and it was a different feeling, it was kind of fat, you know?”
Was he surprised by the success of Ghostbusters? (which Dan Aykroyd is reported to have written for himself and John Belushi)? Never for a minute, he says. “Dan sent me seventy five pages, and it was real funny, and I said, ‘I’ll do it.’ Part of it was sort of sentimental. About John, you know. Hey, let’s get back together, let’s not screw around, let’s not get so far apart any more.”
Columbia is obviously coming out alright with its investment in Bill Murray, and as far as Murray is concerned, money is for spreading around. “I grew up in a family where we didn’t have any, so I don’t feel a great attachment to it. I’m not really stuck on it, I love spending it.”
Watching him in a restaurant ordering the Armagnac of kings and the apple tart with creme fraiche, you know it’s true. His friend John Byrum sits with two wineglasses in front of him. “They brought me this Windex,” he says, pointing to the first glass. “Then Murray came along, and the real stuff started rolling in.”
Three years ago, Bill Murray said he didn’t want to be making movies when he was fifty. “I don’t think I want to be Charlton Heston. Why should I devote my whole life to this career which happened so accidentally?”
He still feels that way. “I don’t think I’ll be able to do this much longer. It’s too hard. Once you’re a success, too much of your life is shaking hands and signing autographs; it’s public relations. It’s as if you were a baseball player, and instead of playing baseball every day, you played a couple of games, and then for fifteen weeks you signed autographs.”
“There’s a leanness to wanting success, an aerodynamic quality that you don’t have any more after you become one. You get soft, you get fat, you’re wide, and you take a lot of wind. Success is much harder than you think it’s going to be.”