Until recently, stories about the making of the Christmas classic Scrooged were mostly told by star Bill Murray and director Richard Donner. Murray and Donner famously fought during the making of Scrooged, partly because Murray was uncomfortable being the film’s star (Scrooged was Murray’s first leading role after The Razor’s Edge bombed in 1984; it was also his first film role since Little Shop of Horrors in 1986). Thankfully, time heals some wounds, and Murray and Donner now look back on the film — a snarky, loose update of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, starring Murray as heartless TV executive Frank Cross — with fond memories.
Still, Murray’s onscreen charisma isn’t the only key to Scrooged’s enduring success. Supporting actresses Karen Allen (as Frank’s love interest Claire) and Carol Kane (as the Ghost of Christmas Present) both ground Murray’s character and give viewers something to care about other than, well, Bill Murray. Vulture recently spoke to Allen and Kane about improvising with Murray and getting into their respective characters in time for the Metrograph’s upcoming screening of Scrooged, presented by the Academy Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
On improvising with Bill Murray:
Carol Kane: I rewatched Scrooged today and thought: it’s a bit like a tennis match, or volleyball, or something like that. I worshiped the film’s writing and I really, really enjoyed improvising on this film, too. The script, written by Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue, was great. Michael was a dear friend of mine for a long time. But on top of that, I really enjoyed doing these spontaneous moments within scenes that were kind of improvised, even though they were planned for, and are mentioned in the script. These moments weren’t in the script to the letter, but they were moments where we could add little things to a scene.
Karen Allen: I agree with Carol, I think the script was wonderful. As for improvising: I got into film after doing a number of jobs in the theater, where we’re taught to brush up on the writing of a playwright or screenwriter so that we can be word-perfect when we come to work. And yet, most actors are trained and love to improvise. So I thought that Bill’s improvising was his way of getting what he needed. He didn’t like to rehearse. He wanted things to stay very “for the first time.” So a lot of times, I feel like he used improvisation to find his way to enter scenes. I think Bill had a resistance to saying the lines that were written, but often he did know them. He had learned them. And sometimes, he would just need to improvise for a while to get to the place where he could actually say the lines. His dialogue came out of a more spontaneous place inside him. So he had his own kind of process.
Carol Kane: He also had worked with Mitch and Michael a lot on Saturday Night Live, so he really trusted them. He just needed to add himself into the mix.
Karen Allen: I have a beautiful image of, I think, the very first day I shot with Bill. We were in New York City during the winter, so it was bitter cold. And, because the days were so short, we were on set really early in the morning. Like we were in our trailers at 5 a.m., 5:30 a.m. Bill said, “I don’t know about the way this script is written.” Then Dick Donner comes into the trailer and says “What’s going on, Bill?”
Bill goes, “Well, I don’t really think that … I don’t know what this scene is about…”
And while we’re talking in the trailer, the crew’s standing outside, turning blue. Suddenly, there’s a little knock knock knock on the trailer door. Standing outside is Michael O’Donoghue in his bedroom slippers and cotton pinstripe pajamas, a coat thrown on…
Carol Kane: The most arrogant man who ever lived. [both laugh]
Karen Allen: He had this little ski hat on that looked something like what a fourth grader would wear. And he had literally — I’m not kidding — a notebook and a pen! He came inside and tried to work out Bill’s problems.
Carol Kane: Wouldn’t that make it a collaborative moment then? Did Michael come in and really work on it?
Karen Allen: I think so. I could never quite figure out Bill’s process, really, and I don’t even know if it’s something to be figured out. But I always sort of imagined him staying up late at night, ruminating about these scenes, and trying to figure out what they’re about. I think he would always try to mold and shape and perfect and find really interesting directions to take a scene. I’m sure he and Michael did work the scene in question out, because we did shoot it (whatever it was).
On “The Ballbreaker Suite”
Carol Kane: My scene features a ballet dance. I worked really, really hard for several weeks to learn this dance since I knew there would be a real ballerina to double me. So I wanted to make it pretty, right? And I kind of got to the point with my ballet teacher where I was proud of myself and thought I did the dance okay, like they could use parts of it what I did. I was careful: I’d never done a ballet dance before, but I was on point and everything.
We were at the dance studio and Michael Riva, the film’s art director, came to watch me dance. Michael died very young; he was a genius. But this dance number: my whole heart was in it, and I was trying as best I could. But when I started doing it, Michael started laughing hysterically. Believe me when I tell you, on my heart, I just wanted the dance to be beautiful. But Michael just couldn’t stop laughing because while I was trying so hard, I was also bad at it [laughs].
Michael, God bless him, went to Dick Donner, God bless him, and said, “I think we should just use it the way it is and not have a double, and not have it be pretty. Just show her character trying, because her character can’t do this dance.” So that’s what happened, and that’s what’s in the film. I think Michael and Dick were so courageous and creative to do the dance scene the way we did. My dance was such a mess, but it was the best I could do, and it was the best the character could do.
On the Meaning of Scrooged:
Karen Allen: I think both my character and the film are about love. The key to playing Claire, for me, is not to make her treacly sweet or too much like a goody-two-shoes. I feel like she loved [Frank] at one point when they were together. She really loved him, but then their paths diverged and she went off in one direction and did what she wanted to do with her life, which is volunteering and caring for other people. Bill’s character went off in another direction and became a person who sees the world in terms of his own ambitions and in terms of what he wants for himself. So when Frank calls Claire out when he’s appearing live on the television? I believe she was waiting for her to call on him on a level that she might not even be conscious of.
To me, Scrooged is a film about love, the redemptive power of love. I think that’s the story that Charles Dickens wrote as well. In that sense, these characters are not meant to be realistic, which is why it’s such a stylistically heightened film. So to play Claire and Frank, you have to find something that really grounds your characters. That was the key to it for me: Claire had loved Frank since she was a young girl or woman, and there was something that had never gone away even though he had kind of become another person.