Bill Murray could have woken up on Groundhog Day in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, not Woodstock.
The town came close to becoming the film location for Murray’s iconic 1993 film, “Groundhog Day.” As anyone with any knowledge of either the film or Woodstock knows, Murray’s character ended up repeating his day in Woodstock.
And Woodstock landed a reason to celebrate annually – with its Groundhog Days celebration growing from a simple breakfast in 1995 to today’s slew of activities beginning Feb. 1, 25 years after the filming.
You’d think Woodstock always was all about “Groundhog Day.” But that’s not necessarily the case, said Bob Hudgins, the location manager for Columbia Pictures at the time who worked closely with the film’s director, Harold Ramis.
Similarly to Murray’s character, Hudgins has repeated his Woodstock days since Groundhog Days began, returning to lead walking tours of some of the film’s most memorable sites and telling behind-the-scenes stories.
Now retired from the film industry (most recently working on “Chicago Fire”), living in Texas and trying to stay healthy after suffering two heart attacks, Hudgins has declared this year his last.
He looks back with pride on the relationship he developed with Woodstock and the example “Groundhog Day” set. He knows both sides of filmmaking – the pitfalls of moviemakers coming in, not paying bills and creating poor atmospheres and experiences like “Groundhog Day,” in which towns rejoice annually.
“To have a town like Woodstock actually invite us back just to be a part of the day… I feel very lucky I’ve had that in my life,” he said. “I just want to be able to walk away with my head held high. Luckily, the city of Woodstock has been very generous giving me that gift.”
When Hudgins and others involved with “Groundhog Day” first came to town, though, their presence wasn’t seen as a gift at all.
A second look
Hudgins already had been to Woodstock to film a scene from 1987’s “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” starring John Candy and Steve Martin, near the Old Courthouse on the Woodstock Square.
He’d also worked on 1989’s “Field of Dreams” with Kevin Costner – another film with a famous location often visited by fans, this one in Dubuque County, Iowa.
Pictures of Woodstock were among the first set of photos of potential film locations sent to Ramis by Hudgins. With family in Chicago, both Ramis and Murray wanted to film near the city. Yet, the goal was to find a film location that looked like Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, known for its annual Groundhog Day celebration and prognostication – a ceremony recreated in the movie.
Woodstock immediately was dismissed.
“Woodstock, being a town square, had a very different look than the original Punxsutawney,” Hudgins said.
So he kept looking, scouting locations in Wisconsin, southern Michigan, Indiana and Iowa. They’d nearly settled on Mineral Point, Wisconsin. While scouting through central Wisconsin, Ramis joined Hudgins and production designer David Nichols for a breakfast stop in Baraboo, Wisconsin, which also has a town square.
They soon talked about how a town square could serve as a metaphor for Bill Murray’s character being trapped.
“It was, ‘Why doesn’t Bill start walking out of town and leave? He doesn’t feel trapped.’ In that moment, Baraboo changed the whole narrative of the film,” Hudgins remembered.
The next question became, “Is there a town square closer to Chicago that looks this good?”
The following morning, they were in Woodstock.
They’d been in a town a few minutes when Ramis turned to Hudgins and said, “This is it. This is the town.”
The director had no recollection of the initial photographs of Woodstock Hudgins had sent. “I allowed him to discover it for himself,” Hudgins said.
“That’s what I love about filmmaking. My part of the mechanics of making a film actually played a role in the way the story ended up being told. That’s rare. Most of the time it’s pretty perfunctory. ‘We need a house to blow up,’ " he said.
Convincing a town
Then the hard work began as Hudgins began working with city leaders and business owners, many of whom didn’t want filmmakers coming to town. A group of 27 business owners even had buttons with the number 27 on them that they wore to town hall meetings to block the filming. He knew he was headed in the right direction when the buttons went down to 14.
The initial plan was to film only a few days in the square, with Gobbler’s Knob – the site of the Groundhog Day ceremony – created in a park elsewhere, likely Moraine Hills State Park in McHenry. But Nichols walked out of the Opera House and said, “We need to do Gobbler’s Knob here.”
That turned into six weeks of filming, to “no one has ever take over a town like this before,” Hudgins remembered. “It turns from reasonable to monumental.”
He and his crew basically moved into the town, with Hudgins living in an apartment over a Square business for nine months and others renting houses. The crew became close-knit, playing Crazy Eight every weekend, hanging out what was then Uncle Dan’s bar.
They spoke with business owners daily, touched literally every building on the square in one way or another, whether it was through renovations or installing cables on rooftops.
“This wonderful thing happened,” Hudgins said. “People kind of got it that we were going to be a very big presence. We did things I don’t think any other picture had done to promote it.”
Most film locations aim to keep the public out. On the set of “Groundhog Day,” the public was invited in, even encouraged to participate.
‘Redemption movies have legs’
And every year, even 25 years later, they still want to be part of it, whether that means watching it again, attending the prognostication ceremony or taking one last tour with Hudgins.
They want details. Real or fake snow? The only scene with real snow is the final scene. “Everything else was fake snow we made on the Square,” Hudgins said.
Who’s the girl piano student kicked out when Murray wants piano lessons? Angela Gollan, who most recently has worked on “House of Cards.”
Did Hudgins imagine he’d still be talking about the film 25 years later? No, but “redemption movies have legs… That movie has worked its way into people’s lives," he said.
“There are people that have seen that film I don’t even know how many times, but a lot more than I’ve watched it, that’s for sure,” said Hudgins, who estimates he’s seen the movie about 15 times. “It’s touched them in a way that that’s a special film to them.”