In the mid 1980s, when Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue were asked to write an updated version of A Christmas Carol, they knew they had a chance to make something special.
“The source material was so great. It had three ghosts and the great redemption, and it had a really beautiful structure to it, a proven structure, that Michael and I both loved,” Glazer said.
So they began digging into their own, modern experiences. At the time, O’Donoghue was head writer of Saturday Night Live.
Glazer began his career as a rock journalist, writing for Crawdaddy, Rolling Stone and Playboy. In 1977, he published the first-ever cover story on John Belushi.
“No one had really picked him out of that group. It was all Chevy Chase at that point. But I did. I fell in love with him, and apparently likewise.”
Their friendship kick-started Glazer’s career as a screenwriter when Belushi and Dan Aykroyd asked him to write a movie for them about a pot smuggler. Six years later, Scrooged came along — Glazer’s first produced script.
From SNL to Rolling Stone, the duo had enough experience, and bad bosses, to craft the selfish character of television executive Frank Cross.
“We both knew Bill Murray’s voice: Michael from SNL, I through Belushi. Both of us found it easier to imagine him in the role.”
For six months, the two would walk the six blocks to visit each other in New York, and write.
“We read [Charles] Dickens’ book a thousand times and annotated it. We also watched the original David Lean film and just started talking back to the screen.”
From the get-go, their knowledge of SNL and Studio 8H made the TV world a natural place to set this film.
The final story follows the ambitious curmudgeon Cross on Christmas Eve, as he is visited by a series of ghosts who open his eyes to his past wrongdoings.
But even with solid source material and a clear setting, the script when through “a million drafts and iterations.”
“One time, we had a Ghost of Christmas Present who was a huge biker guy with a big white beard. We had realized that Santa Claus always wears biker boots, which is a huge epiphany.”
To this day, Glazer is proud of the script they produced.
“All the things that people remember from it — the lines, the TV show within the movie — it was all scripted.”
“Bill added inspired icing throughout, because he’s a genius. There were often moments of dialogue or moods that he would build on. But the script existed and was wonderful — which was why he signed on to begin with.”
It was summertime when Glazer and O’Donoghue reached the ending, overheated and ready to be finished.
“We were at the place where we had to have his redemption,” Glazer recalled. “We looked at each other to try to figure out what to say that would be honest. We were pretty cynical and it wasn’t Hallmark.”
“How can you distill down and say something that is true?”
Glazer had been living in New York for 18 years, and O’Donoghue even longer. One thing they noticed about the holidays in the city was that, every year, on December 24, “you walk down Fifth Avenue, or anywhere, and people are happier — and that’s a miracle. That’s a miracle we can stand behind.”
And so came the line that’s recited all these years later:
“It’s Christmas Eve! It’s the one night of the year when we all act a little nicer, we smile a little easier, we cheer a little more. For a couple of hours out of the whole year we are the people that we always hoped we would be.”
“I still hear it and I remember how great we felt having actually written it,” Glazer said.
The film stays true to its 1980s SNL edge, but manages to convey a true sense of holiday spirit. And it didn’t come easily. “We were really hard on ourselves to not get sappy for the sake of it,” Glazer said, “which is why it doesn’t feel like a lie.”
“I think it’s held up because it’s honest.”
Scrooged celebrates its 30th anniversary this year and remains a holiday season staple. So when asked what makes a great holiday movie, Glazer immediately replied:
“Heart and humor.”
“I think it’s fair to be emotional in them. The genre almost demands it,” he said. “And I think Dickens set the table for that: you build to an emotional redemptive ending in any Christmas movie.”
On the other hand, “the ones that don’t work are the ones that seem manipulative,” he added.
“I hate when we’re taken by the back of the neck and shoved into sentiment.”
Instead, the great ones that live on—Glazer cites It’s a Wonderful Life and Bad Santa, among others—have an edge and a truth to them.
Years after Scrooged — in which director Richard Donner insisted that the writers make appearances — Glazer found himself on set again with Murray, this time for Sofia Coppola’s A Very Murray Christmas, a musical set in New York City during a snowstorm.
“The whole time I kept looking at Bill and going, ‘We’re back in Christmas.’”
This time around, the crew shot in March, during a series of actual blizzards, singing holiday songs in a hotel with friends and family.
Both on set and on camera, “it was magic.”
The Academy celebrated 30 years of Scrooged with a screening and conversation at the Metrograph Theater in NYC. For upcoming New York events, follow us on Facebook.