October 31, 2018

Director Tommy Avallone on Breaking Through the Enigma of a Star and Telling the 'Bill Murray Stories'

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For director Tommy Avallone, assembling 'The Bill Murray Stories' was a gradual process.

Almost more than it is about Bill Murray, The Bill Murray Stories is about people. Previously the director of I Am Santa Claus, a documentary about people who play Santa around the country, Avallone focuses on Bill Murray anecdotes in his newest film.
These anecdotes all involve instances in which Murray just sort of...drops in, out of nowhere, and acts naturally. One time, he poses for a photo with a couple of newlyweds. Another time, he does dishes at someone's house party. These episodes, often presented with on-the-spot footage, are juxtaposed with commentary from numerous Murray "experts." Viewers will find out a lot about what Murray means to his fans and about how much of an American comic institution he has remained over the years.

Murray is always two things: enigmatic and spontaneous. The stories collected here of his interactions with others do a lot to reinforce that impression, along with going a considerable distance toward explaining them. No Film School talked to Avallone recently about what went into the development and the execution ofThe Bill Murray Stories. 

No Film School: One question that I had initially was how you came to choose Bill Murray as the subject of a film?

Tommy Avallone: Well, I heard a couple of these stories, you know, about him putting his hands over someone’s eyes and saying no one will ever believe you, or going to a college party and cleaning the dishes. So I was curious why this is a thing. It wasn't like I was picking Bill Murray, it was just finding these stories and wondering what they meant.

NFS: I Am Santa Claus was a somewhat similar film (about individual stories)and I'm wondering how you chose what to include and what not to include.

Avallone: The big thing was that we wanted to make sure there was at least one picture. If they didn't have any pictures, it was kind of hard to make that stuff interesting. You put all these Bill Murray stories in a bin, and the best ones rise to the top. We just picked some of the ones that had more video, or pictures, where something kind of crazy happened. With the Santa Claus movie, Santa Claus is this person who kind of comes into your life, makes this magical moment, he just appears. I felt like it was very much the same game as Bill Murray.

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NFS: How long did this film take you to make?

Avallone: I'd say on and off, maybe a year and a half. After making Santa Claus, we wanted to make The Bill Murray Stories. We filmed the karaoke story and the kickball story—I was living in New Jersey at the time, so going to New York to film these stories was super easy. We then came across these Ghostbusters fans and were thinking, "Oh, we should interview them for the movie because they're obviously big fans of Bill Murray, and we'll see if any of them have a Bill Murray story or at least some sort of expert opinion on it." In doing so, I found these guys who were making a Ghostbusters fan documentary called Ghostheads. There was a lot of common ground there with Santa Claus.

We partnered up. I went on to produce and edit Ghostheads. It played Tribeca, a couple people put money into it, and a lot of people got money back when we sold it. But, what was next? We had this Bill Murray pseudo reel—if we hadn’t paid attention and made Ghostheads, we really wouldn't have been able to make the Bill Murray movie the way we did.

NFS: What was your work process like? What were the different stages of making this film?

Avallone: We knew some of the stories we wanted to get, and then we would pace ourselves. Sometimes we’d go, "Okay, well, we're going to go to Austin, Texas. Let's grab all the Texas people." We then did a couple of South Carolina trips, a couple of New York trips and Los Angeles trips. It was more or less just like this small little tour. We would stumble a little bit, do some more research, stumble a little bit, do some more research. I then started editing and chipping away at the story and seeing where everything would go.

NFS: How did you keep all the information together?

Avallone: I had a notebook and I'd write ideas down every time I would think of them. I had a big white board in my office. We'd write out things like "Okay, well, we filmed the SXSW house party. That's a scene. We filmed the kickball thing. That's a scene." Then we started talking to these experts. "Okay, what do these guys talk about? What are some of our questions?" And then it was, "Here's one on this, and here's one on that."

We were writing these scenes on the white board. We thought of them as puzzle pieces, putting them together and trimming them down. You have these stories as a sort of starting point. Once you put together a scene, you're like, "Okay, that's a piece." Once you have all your pieces in play, then you kind of scramble them together. I feel like that was the hardest part. You didn't want it to be too much of one thing.

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NFS: Do you think there was anything you learned about Bill Murray that you wouldn't have found out otherwise?

Avallone: The idea of living in the moment. It's sort of like the chicken or the egg. In my own life, I was starting to look up some of these things and read some books about them. That's why when I watched a video or internet post where Bill Murray does something silly, I could see some sort of meaning behind it.

"You have these stories as a sort of starting point. Once you put together a scene, you're like 'Okay, that's a piece.' And then once you have all your pieces in play, then you kind of scramble them together."

NFS: That raises another question: to what extent would you say this is work for him, when he drops in like this? It seems like more of statement than a stunt.

Avallone: No, it's not a stunt by any means. I also don't think it's work. I think it's just his play. I think if he's not out promoting something or out selling something or going to some sort of screening and he has time to wander and explore people and the area and what's really going on, he'll do that. I think it's a way to wake himself up and to enrich himself.

NFS: To what extent do you think this is a relevant theme for a movie at this point in time? Living in the moment and achieving some kind of sense of universality at this particular point in American history?

Avallone: I think a lot of times we do things just so we can post about it later on. There are times where you're in a place you've never been to, but you're online, you're checking something, or liking something. And I think there's a good practice—even if you can never do it all the time—of trying to put your cell phone down and actually exist in what you're doing right now, as opposed to just checking your update.

"I think it's a way to wake himself up and to enrich himself."

NFS: You were dealing with so much material in this film; how much did you keep in versus what you left out?

Avallone: Yeah, we did shoot a lot. We had 18 terabytes. It's more or less because we shot at 4K. Everything we shot is in the movie, but we just shot a lot more of those people. Let's take the kickball story. Their story is two minutes long in the movie, but we probably interviewed them for 30-40 minutes. Actually, for our DVD release, we put together this behind-the-scenes making of the movie featurette. We were able to put some of the extended interviews with Peter Farrelly and Bill Murray on there. That’s on the DVD out now.

NFS: Were there any really tough choices? Were there things you really wanted to put in the movie but couldn't because say, you couldn't find the place for them and they couldn't fit?

Avallone: Yeah, there was this party crasher tour. It was back in Phoenix and this guy made the whole thing up. He had this flyer that said, "Bill Murray will be in this city at this time. If you want Bill Murray to show up to your party, have a poster that says 'Bill Murray crashed here.' Make sure to have free beer and a karaoke machine." People across the country were having these parties, hoping Bill was going to show up. I mean, it never happened because this guy made it up, but we filmed a good amount of that stuff and it just didn't make the movie. It didn't seem honest. It was off from what the rest of the movie was.

NFS: What's the next project you're working on? What do you have coming up?

Avallone: It's called Waldo and Weed, and it's about my friend Brian. His son had eye cancer at six months and they tried using cannabis oil to counteract the results of the chemo. He's four years old now, and he's completely fine. Brian, the father, filmed all this stuff, not to make a movie or anything like that, just to get himself through it. We're taking that footage with some interviews and putting it together, making a documentary about what a father would do to save his son. Whoopi Goldberg's our executive producer.

NFS: Really? Now that raises another question. How did you assemble the funds to put the movie together?

Avallone: When we made Ghostheads, there were normal people who were Ghostbusters fans as well those who put some money into it. When they made the money back, they were like, "I would love to fund your next movie." That's what we did with that. I don't want to say it was luck because I don't necessarily believe in that, but if you make enough movies or meet enough people…We got into the position where we came across Old Lime Productions. They are awesome guys, Raymond and Kevin, and they funded parts of Ghostheads, the whole Bill Murray movie, and all of Waldo. It's just about doing it enough so that you find someone that can trust you and that you trust.     

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