Some men hunt for buried treasure or wild game. For Philadelphia documentary filmmaker Tommy Avallone, his search is for something far more elusive, yet, weirdly hidden in plain sight: Bill Murray, the subject of his upcoming film “The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned from a Mythical Man.”
“Who he is in real life, and how—and why—he just pops up out of thin air to surprise unsuspecting victims intrigues me,” the director-producer said with a laugh while on location for a Murray moment in Los Angeles.
This isn’t the first time that the (mostly) comic actor from “Saturday Night Live,” “Lost in Translation,” and director-writer Wes Anderson’s most inspired works (e.g. “Moonrise Kingdom”) has inspired Avallone.
The Phiadelphia producer-director’s 2016 documentary “Ghostheads” is all about the loud cult of intense fandom for Murray’s 1984 “Ghostbusters.”
Avallone chuckled just thinking about his favorite Murray moments in films such as “Scrooged” and “What About Bob?”
For all those, however, it is the near-mythological tales of Murray sightings, real and imagined, that got to him.
“It was after we wrapped shooting on “I am Santa Claus” (2014’s doc on a-year-in-the-life of five professional bearded Clauses) and before “Ghostheads” that I began hearing these stories about Bill Murray just … appearing,” Avallone said of a first, famed Philly visitation at Oscar’s Tavern in Rittenhouse Square on leave from his son’s wedding. “That drop-in seemed unlikely; but then again, why not?”
From there, the tales came fast-and-furious: Murray visits Austin during South by Southwest and hits up a handful of house parties. Murray sends a plate of wild rice to a Charleston restaurant table filled with women with the caveat, “Don’t gobble it.” Murray crashes an engagement party and gets his photo taken with the betrotheds. Murray hangs out with Scandinavian students in Scotland and washes dishes.
“This thing where Bill Murray would just walk up behind strangers, put his hands over their eyes and whisper, ‘No one will ever believe you,” before disappearing,” Avallone said. “Whether that’s ever happened or not, true or not, that’s the mythology we wanted to capture. The story was the point.”
Like following the trail of the rumored legendary Bigfoot (“That’s why that image is on our poster – Murray is our Bigfoot”), Avallone and his small crew have, so far, filmed over 20 interviews between Philly, Austin, Charleston and – not so long ago – London and St. Andrews, Scotland, the home of the late-night dishwashing escapade.
“I’ve never had the opportunity to travel to Europe. Hunting down the myth of Bill Murray gave me an excuse,” Avallone said.
Though a goodly portion of post-production is at hand, Avallone continues to look for the least-known Murray meet-and-greets, “the ones that didn’t go viral, and maybe didn’t have accompanying photos or videos,” said the producer, referring those with tales to TheBillMurrayStories.com and firstname.lastname@example.org, through Oct. 7.
As for the elusive white whale that is Murray, Avallone is ready for that guy too. “I always loved his movies, but it’s him – a character beyond his flicks – that would be fun to hook up with.”