Capturing the enigmatic essence of Bill Murray on-screen proves to be a formidable task. His exuberant personality radiates so intensely that attempting to encapsulate even a fraction of Murray in one’s imagination feels akin to dedicating an entire mile of one’s time. Whether you label it moxie, chalk it up to the x-factor, or attribute it to star power, Bill Murray possesses it abundantly. However, securing his presence for an extended period to create a film poses a considerable challenge.
This predicament became evident to Sofia Coppola when she embarked on casting for her latest movie, Lost In Translation. Murray’s elusive nature made it challenging for Coppola to engage him long enough to bring her cinematic vision to fruition.
It’s hard to quantify the impact of the film, not just in the directorial career of Coppola — giving her a truly great movie to stand up to the family canon — but in the growing career of Scarlett Johansson and, the somewhat flailing acting resume of Bill Murray. It was a short in the arm for all three pivotal members of the creative process and kickstarted the latter parts of their individual careers. However, trying to pin Murray down to actually be a part of the movie was more difficult than one would expect.
Coppola had enjoyed some indie success with her movie The Virgin Suicides when she took on Lost In Translation, it would become a movie that would break into the mainstream and catapult Coppola onto the world stage. It gathered four nominations at the Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director and took home the gong for Best Original Screenplay. “I was in this stage where I wasn’t sure if I’d made the right choices or what I was doing in the post-college beginning of my adult life,” Coppola told Litlle White Lies. “Brief Encounter was in my mind while writing, but I was looking a lot at the idea of being connected because, at that moment, I wasn’t.”
Singing up the prodigious talent of Scarlett Johansson was a cinch for Coppola. Having seen the young actor perform in Manny and Lo, Coppola knew she was the perfect fit for the naive college graduate who is reevaluating life as the trophy girlfriend of a famous photographer. “She was like 12 years old, and I just loved her,” Coppola said of the moment she first witnessed Johansson’s talent. “She had that husky voice even then and seemed mature beyond her years. There was some quality about her that stood out, and I connected with. She’s able to convey a lot without saying anything. I had a feeling about her. I wasn’t surprised she went on to do lots of different things after, but I’m surprised when I look back at how young she was. She was only 17.”
The role of Bob Harris, an ageing movie star who is only in Tokyo to sell what’s left of his soul to a whiskey company, was a little more difficult to cast. however, it wasn’t because Coppola was unsure of Murray for the role, far from it, the entire project hinged on Murray agreeing to play the part Coppola had written for him. The director even endured the “nerve-wracking” experience of pitching for finance meetings with Murray falsely attached to the project.
“We went to Tokyo and were spending money in the hope that he would show up,” Coppola said. “I don’t even know how we got our financing without a contract. I was determined and probably spent a year trying to track him down. People were trying to give me other options, but I was set that I wasn’t going to make the movie if he wasn’t doing it, and I really wanted to make this movie, so I had to find him.”
The trouble is, Murray is notorious for being difficult to reach. The actor not only doesn’t have a regular agent but also no regular telephone number to be reached on. In 2014, director Ted Melfi suggested that Murray had installed a toll-free number that agents, directors and other parts of the showbiz machine could call if they needed him. “I had a house phone, and it would just ring and ring,” Murray said in a past interview with IndieWire. “Finally, I’d pick up the phone, and I’d say, ‘Who in the fuck is calling me and letting my phone ring like that?’ The agent would say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I’m calling for so-and-so.’ I’d say, ‘Look, you can’t do this. This is my house. If I don’t answer the phone, don’t do that because you’re making me not like you.’”
Despite the frustrating annoyance, the ever-understanding actor could sympathise with the callers: “Their job is, ‘Get me Bill Murray on the phone.’ They have nothing else to do,” he said before confirming the rumours about his toll-free communication: “I just unplugged the phone, and then I got this 800 number, which is very handy,” he said. “I’m not very disciplined anymore. This was a way you could not answer any phone, and whenever you felt like engaging, you could check to see who had bothered to call and what the message was. It just freed up my life a whole lot.” He concluded: “It’s not like at 11 o’clock it’s time to check the messages. Sometimes I go days or weeks. Sorry, I’m busy living.”
It was this Bill Murray that Sofia Coppola had come up against when casting for Lost In Translation. Thankfully, the director and Murray shared a friend in common, and Murray eventually got his hands on the script. The Groundhog Day star signed up almost immediately, “He brought so much,” Coppola said of Murray. “I was having a hard time at that stage of my life, and I’d wish Bill would show up and take me on an adventure…A lot of it was just found moments with Bill improvising. The scene in the sushi restaurant with the black toe? That was just Bill riffing on the situation.”
The truth is, Lost In Translation could well be considered Murray’s defining role. When you consider the vast depth and artistic breadth Murray has travelled in his career, that truly is something special. And to think, he nearly missed out on it all.