Behind The Bill Murray Stories with Tommy Avallone
Updated: Aug 24, 2019
Tommy Avallone is both a director and producer who has worked on films such as I Am Santa Claus (2014) and Ghostheads, (2016) among other films. In 2018, Avallone released The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned from a Mythical Man which is now available on various digital platforms, as well as on DVD.
“It did well on its small theatrical run and it did well on iTunes, but Netflix is a different animal where so many people are checking it out. It’s very awesome!” Tommy explained. The film was screened in various theatres around the world, including The Hyland Cinema in London, ON. However, the director admitted, “We had to Google the fact that there was a London in Canada.”
The Bill Murray Stories sent Tommy and the film crew all around The United States and over to Europe in order to track down the people who had their own Bill Murray stories. Over the last few years, many websites, especially, theChive, have reported that the famous actor has randomly appeared in people’s lives by joining them in various activities like kickball, karaoke, house parties and more. But could these stories be true? That’s what Tommy wanted to find out.
Through his connections in the film world, Tommy discovered that he could call a 1-800 number in order to reach Bill Murray directly. He made several attempts and eventually asked his mom to call on his behalf: “I just thought it was funny, having your mom call and tell him that you’re a good guy. It’s funny, when I first called, I hung up. Then ten minutes later, I had a call from an unknown number and I was like, ‘Oh my God! This is Bill!’ But then, it was like, this random telemarketer. I was so upset. I started calling more during Ghostheads and at one point, the voicemail was full and I don’t believe it was all from me. He was supposed to take that summer off and wasn’t checking voicemails at all. What made me think he actually did check it was, in October of that year, it kind of opened up again, so I guess he does check it,” Avallone recalled.
Not being able to reach the star by phone seemed to be discouraging; however, Tommy said that was not the goal of the film: “I never wanted to meet Bill. Our approach to the movie was a Bigfoot documentary. Bill wasn’t Bigfoot. The stories were Bigfoot. Bill Murray’s obviously a real person. The stories could have been made up.” The team decided that if they were to make an actual Bigfoot documentary, the film would lose its enchantment factor if they were to meet the legend and ask him, “So, what’s with going into the woods?”
“It would destroy all of the magic!” Tommy exclaimed. “Our intentions were never to sit down with [Bill] 20/20 style to ask him the question, ‘Why do you do this?’ He knows it’s this magical thing and the fun of keeping the joke alive. We tried to respect that and keep that magic and wonder. We had a couple of ideas to involve him in the movie, like if he could just walk by a shot. Like, ‘was that Bill that just walked by?’” Ultimately, as a director, he said that it “was just about collecting all of the stories”.
Filming of The Bill Murray Stories began in 2015 while Tommy worked on another film: “I just finished Santa Claus and I wanted to make a Bill Murray movie and we started filming a couple of things…. I filmed the karaoke story, the kickball story and this author. It was all New York based. It was only a two hour drive for us. During the Santa Claus movie we went to New York Comic Con…. So we started interviewing Ghostbusters fans, getting their opinions on Bill and I stumbled upon this guy from Canada who was making this documentary about Ghostbusters fans called Ghostheads. I really identified with a lot of the characters there because I felt like they were a lot like our Santa Claus guys.”
Being that the Ghostheads director, Brendan Mertens lived in Canada, Tommy thought it would be best if the Canadian crew could track down Dan Aykroyd and Ivan Reitman while he filmed Ghostbusters fans in his area. They agreed to swap questions and footage. “That was kind of the plan, but then I found this one Ghost Head and I really liked his stories… so I told Brendan, ‘I think I’ll come on and produce and edit this movie. I think if we follow these guys here, we’ll have a good story.’ So I got sidetracked and made Ghostheads ….” The film had successful Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns which caught the attention of Old Lime Productions. The film company became interested in what Tommy was doing next. “So I had these tapes of the kickball story and the karaoke story, and they were like, ‘Great! Let’s do this! So we started filming it again back in November of 2016. So we started in 2015 and had a little bit of a hiatus, making Ghostheads, and then went right into Bill Murray.”
One of the final steps of filming The Bill Murray Stories included an interview with Bill’s brother, Joel Murray: “Joel was actually one of the last interviews we had…. I met him at a bar and we kind of talked and I explained what we wanted to do and he thought it was a fun project. So, the interview with him was great! He’s known Bill his whole life! .... It was a weird thing. We didn’t even know the movie was done until one day, I was like, ‘I think we have enough footage, guys!’ Towards the end was when we got Joel and I knew there was never going to be a story in which we had Bill in the movie, but having Joel in there gave us a little bit of validation that the family was okay with the movie. So it wasn’t like we were capitalizing on Bill or anything like that.”
Although Avallone never intended to talk to Bill, the crew did have an endgame in mind for the film, which was to have it premiere at the SXSW Film Festival: “That was our goal the whole time. These movies are such a gamble [whether or not you get into a festival].” As a bit of trivia, Tommy revealed that the original cut of the film included footage of SXSW that they found on YouTube. So when The Bill Murray Stories played there, they created their own establishing shots at the festival, which can now be seen in the movie’s current form.
When asked about how he got into the film industry, Tommy replied: “It’s a weird answer. I had a video camera when I was like, 11 years old and me and my friends would just videotape ourselves wrestling, with like, wrestling dummies— they were called ‘Wrestling Buddies’, rather. They were like, these pillows. I’m a huge wrestling fan. We had characters and all that sort of stuff and then we just started redoing skits we saw from MADtv you know? Then we started making our own skits and then tried to make movies and you know, it was a process, but we would do scripted things from time to time. Right around the tail-end of high school, like, going into college, we made these sort of ‘Kevin Smith’ movies—Dazed and Confused kind of movies. I would know some of the popular kids from all of the other schools and we’d put them in these small roles, and when the movies would come out, with flyers in the schools, we’d be like, ‘Hey, you know that popular kid from your school is actually in this movie? Check it out!’ …. So we just had a snowball effect. We went from filming each other being wrestling characters, to doing other people’s skits, to making our own movies and then I kind of stumbled into making these documentaries…. In high school we went into local movie theatres, playing movies there. I got a job there as a projectionist and I had an ‘in’ to play the movies and I got midnight screenings and stuff.”
“I watched movies that interested me, and I and I listened to the commentary tracks and I kind of just tried to learn from what they did. I went to college—kind of. I went to a community college and eventually I dropped out. I just started doing these things and teaching myself. I remember watching commentary tracks for American Beauty and movies like Fight Club and I was like, ‘I want to see how they do!” In American Beauty’s commentary track, they’ll talk about stuff like lighting and the score. That’s truly how I feel like I learned how to do what I do.”
Avallone also credited “old CKY videos with Bam Margera and all of his friends before they did Jackass” as some of his early influences: “There was really good editing. They edited in a way where everyone was familiar with his friends and you felt like you were watching these home videos of your buddies. I could always identify with how he made people care about these weirdos.”
This way of storytelling can be seen in Avallone’s documentaries today: “…There’s a good level of heart in the movies. I love when—whether it’s the Santa Claus movie or the Bill Murray movie—that it’s not what you were expecting. Whether it made you cry or evokes emotions that people weren’t thinking [of], you know? Like, to see a movie about Bill Murray, maybe you don’t expect to feel the way you feel at the end of this movie. With our Santa Claus movie, you know, it’s not about Santa. It’s about these people who portray Santa. It makes you rethink all of these people who you see at the malls every year, and I think it’ll make you rethink Bill Murray. I think we pay attention to characters and heart and hopefully you’ll walk in not expecting what you’re going to watch, but you walk away with something.
2019 is gearing up to be another big year for Tommy Avallone with the release of his next film, Waldo on Weed. “It’s a little bit more serious,” he explained. “My friend’s son had eye cancer at six months old, and they started using cannabis oil to counteract the results of chemotherapy. He filmed the whole thing on a flip-cam… and he had all of this footage and we shot the interviews and all that sort of stuff. I’m not a marijuana user of any kind, but to me, it’s like, what a father would do to save his son. My son is two and a half years old, so it’s something I identified with and I just felt we had a good story. Whoopi Goldberg is our executive producer, so it’s completely different! I’ve never had to follow one person’s story before. You know, with Santa, there were five different Santas. With Ghostheads there were like, four different people and Bill Murray had multiple, multiple stories. This is one person’s story about his son. I think it’s turning out good….”
Finally, on a lighter note, Tommy is also looking forward to a trip to Disneyland. As an avid fan of Donald Duck and his family, Tommy plans to attend a special event which will feature some of the classic characters from DuckTales! “I’m a huge, huge fan of Scrooge McDuck! I love Darkwing Duck! I love the new DuckTales show that came out! It’s so good! I don’t even know if the old DuckTales holds up to me right now, but the new one is so, so good! I love how they incorporated Darkwing Duck in there and the TaleSpin characters, and the Gummi Bears! ….They’re finding these rare characters and making stories out of it! I love it! There’s this thing that Disney’s doing—I have an annual pass—they’re doing a ‘90s night in March at Disneyland. I’m going to go and—I know they’re people dressed up, technically. I understand that reality, but I like to believe—and I’m going to meet Scrooge McDuck for the very first time! I’m very excited! I met Darkwing when I was a kid at Disney World, so I hope I get to see him again!*”
For more information, please visit the following links:
Photo courtesy of Tommy Avallone.
*Tommy said he is “not actually crazy”.
If you liked this story, please consider making a donation here.