Before Filming Scrooged, Bill Murray Tore The Script To Shreds

One of the many pleasures of 1988's "Scrooged" is how it figuratively goes off the rails by the end, all while being a pretty darn faithful modern retelling of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."

While the first two acts of the movie run through the expected beats of Dickens' tale — three ghosts haunt a miserly Yule-hating grumpus in order to teach him humility, empathy, and the spirit of giving — the third act sees TV executive Frank Cross (Bill Murray) hold his live broadcast production of "Scrooge" hostage with the help of one of his prior victims, lowly network employee Eliot Loudermilk (Bobcat Goldthwait), so that he can impart what he's learned to an attentive audience. During these final scenes, Murray and director Richard Donner capture the spirit of a live broadcast gone awry, all the awkwardness and improvised dialogue of such an incident included.

Given the authenticity of these moments, it may not be shocking to learn that there was a lot of truth to their improvised nature. "Scrooged" was not a movie written and constructed in the usual way — in fact, Murray insisted that the initial script be thrown out. After Murray and writers Mitch Glazer and Michael O'Donoghue "tore up the [original] script so badly that we had parts all over the lawn," as Murray colorfully put it, the film was put back together by the three starting from scratch, enhancing various elements and allowing for as much improvisation and reinvention as possible.

'Here's the kind of thing I would have done' — Murray shapes Scrooged into a classic

One of the reasons Murray gave such consideration to "Scrooged" was due to his taking a break from starring in movies for long enough that he wanted his comeback film to be of higher quality than normal. The "Scrooged" idea was first pitched to Murray in the mid-80s, but it didn't capture his interest during his self-imposed break. When the actor sought a new project to star in around 1987, "the scripts were just not good," including "Scrooged."

Yet the kernel of the idea eventually proved irresistible to Murray, the actor explaining that "the idea of making a funny Scrooge was an inspired touch," even though he admitted that "there was a lot I didn't like" about the original script. Once Murray went to work with Glazer, O'Donoghue, and eventually Donner, the filmmakers attempted to "remake the story." The subplot involving Frank's lost love, Claire (Karen Allen), "existed in the script's original version, but we had to make more out of it." Thus, Murray and company "took the romantic element and built that up a little more." The filmmakers also took a look at the various other characters in the film, including Frank's brother James (John Murray), Frank's Bob Cratchit-like secretary Grace (Alfre Woodard) and her Harlem family, finding that "the family scenes were kind of off, so we worked on that."

Taking such an open approach to the material early on resulted in that climactic scene becoming so freewheeling. According to Dennis Perrin's book "Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O'Donoghue," Murray deviated from his pre-planned marks when shooting the finale and improvised much of the final speech, resulting in the crew spontaneously applauding the actor when he'd finished. Donner rolled with the actor taking the reins, observing that "you don't direct Billy, you pull him back." He was impressed with Murray's improvisational way of working, explaining that "you give him a platform, make him as comfortable as possible, and he comes at you from every direction. He did for me."

'There are people who are having trouble making their miracle happen' — the aftermath of Scrooged

In the time immediately following the completion of principal photography on "Scrooged," Murray was left still feeling uncertain about the film. In the process of tearing the script to shreds and attempting to reconstitute it through improvisation and reconfiguration, the filmmakers "shot a big, long sloppy movie," according to Murray, leaving "a great deal of material that didn't even end up in the film. It just didn't work."

Murray's fears seemed to be founded upon the film's release, when notable critics such as Roger Ebert gave the movie a withering one-star review. In an interview with Ebert in 1990, Murray explained that he'd had a bad time making the film, lamenting that it "could have been a really, really great movie. The script was so good." He claimed that "There's maybe one take in the final cut" that was his, and that "We made it so fast, it was like doing a movie live."

Yet Murray, ever the mercurial enigma, didn't completely write the film off in his estimation. During the same interview with Ebert, the star encouraged the critic to take another look at the movie, saying "It wasn't that bad. It had some good stuff in it." During the 34 years since the film's release, a variety of critics have reappraised the film, calling it everything from prescient to one of the best adaptations of Dickens ever made. It even ended up at #3 on /Film's "20 Favorite Holiday Movies of All Time." As more critics and audiences discover, revisit and enjoy the movie every holiday season, it continues to validate Murray and company's hard work.