I interviewed Bill Murray at South by Southwest in 2010. Though I almost didn’t. The interview was with Murray, Sissy Spacek and Robert Duval for their movie “Get Low.” It was one of only two times I was truly intimidated on the job. Spacek and Duval arrived on time but Murray was held up by a horrible Northeastern storm. I was almost done with about a half-hour interview, breathing more easily that I had made it through.
I was just about out questions when the door swung open. It was Murray, wearing a floral pattern shirt, carrying a Bloody Mary with a celery stalk the size of a Louisville Slugger and smelling like aftershave and relaxation. Murray sat down and regaled us with stories of a nerve-jangling departure from the East Coast, blending seriousness with humor. Even though he was intended to be there, I was still surprised. The others seemed unsurprised but charmed nevertheless.
This is what Murray does, he appears and charismatically sweeps up everyone around him. Just by being himself. Even the unflappable and poised Spacek had a gleam in her eye as she watched Murray captivate the room. Later that night I saw Murray turn from Eighth Street down Red River, pulling his hoodie’s hood over his head as he drifted into the morass. No telling how many people he surprised that night, leaving with them stories they would never forget. It was this same trip to Austin that Murray, after drinking in the bar earlier in the day and befriending an off-duty bartender, showed up at East Austin’s Shangri-La and served shots to riotously joyous patrons. That story has become legend in some Austin and SXSW circles. It is one of dozens that exist, all with a similar theme: Bill Murray casually interjects himself into the lives of ordinary non-movie stars and touches their lives with his magical blend of absurdity, revelry and joy.
Filmmaker Tommy Avallone’s documentary, “The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned from a Mythical Man,” which made its world debut Saturday night at South by Southwest, traces the origin stories of the many legendary tales of Murray popping into other people’s lives, sometimes for five minutes and sometimes for five hours, rearranging the molecules in the room and disappearing just as mysteriously as he appeared.
There is the couple in Charleston that ended up having Murray sit in on their engagement portrait session; the house party band in Austin that had Murray sit in on tambourine after springing for a beer run; the college basketball fan and who ended up having Murray sing “Happy Birthday” to his grandmother; the house party in St. Andrew’s, Scotland, where Murray did the washing up. You get the idea.
Avallone begins his documentary as a quest to track down the star of “Groundhog Day,” “Caddyshack,” and more using the enigmatic actor’s famed 800 number voicemail, but the film ends up being (fortunately) less a journey toward Murray himself and more an examination of the various ways Murray has surprised and thrilled people. And Avallone, using some journalists who have written definitive Murray pieces, also explores the why of Murray’s mission: Does he do it for himself or the people he’s surprising or both? At the root seems to be an expression of Murray’s love of being in the present moment, of keeping himself excited and alive and vital, while also bringing an incredible joy to those whose lives he touches, as he eliminates the wall between celebrity and those who love them. It is what makes Murray our zen spirit animal in a post-modern world. Murray keeps being here (and there and there and there) now, shaking people and himself up, savoring the present moment and finding delirious peace in the raucous and mundane.
I imagine the rest of the world will soon get to tear up with joy as they watch Murray’s method; the documentary seems perfectly suited for a Netflix release.
“The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned From A Mythical Man” screens again Monday at the Vimeo Theater at 4 p.m. and Thursday at Stateside at 6:30 p.m.