MARRAKECH — “Bill,” I call out. “Bill. Can we follow you?”
Bill Murray is having an Arabian Nights moment. He is walking through the lobby of La Mamounia, one of the most opulent hotels in Marrakech, Morocco (and the world). An oriental mist wafts from the dazzling décor in this richly ornamented oasis that houses the plethora of stars that descend on the city for the annual Marrakech International Film Festival each December.
Looking somewhat dazed and confused but entirely unfazed that, in the midst of such grandeur, he’s wearing a casual, summery outfit of slacks and a wrinkled shirt, like a long-lost desert explorer holding court with his acolytes upon returning from his latest expedition. Murray turns affably and says, “Sure,” before the first in a string of fans asks him for a photograph.
“I’m Bill,” he says, shaking my hand and giving me a warm smile.
He’s got this curiously fascinating off-kilter face and crop of comically disheveled gray hair. He looks unique.
“Do you write for The Daily Beast?” he asks.
“I do,” I say. “I’m Liza.”
But I’ve got competition. Murray turns and grabs the name card of a Dutch journalist in hot pursuit of the actor and tries to pronounce his name—as we amble through the beautiful gardens where the Ghostbusters star is going to be doing a round of interviews. The sun sets in pink splendor somewhere beyond the palms and lush foliage.
We walk and talk with no one interfering. The encounter brings to mind a romantic bygone era that I’ve never experienced, but have heard of from veteran critics and reporters: the old days of film when, at festivals, there were no boundaries and no barriers like there are today, and a writer could engage in a Linklater-like stroll with one of the world’s most famous people.
It might be the fabled garden—or the Dutch journalist—but as we walk, Murray’s memory turns to his first trip to Europe and the Dutch city of Utrecht.
“What is the name of that famous painting and the painter?” he asks, before answering himself with Hieronymus Bosch and The Garden of Earthly Delights. “A friend insisted I come with him on a trip to Europe. He had this genius way of taking images of the painting. I had a great time in Utrecht,” he says fondly. “A beer by the river.”
“It is Boosh,” says the Dutch journalist, correcting his pronunciation. Murray nods in agreement, before revealing that he lived in Paris and does at least speak French, if not Dutch.
This will be proven a short while later.
Then along comes an acquaintance who whisks Murray off to the television crews. We watch as the comedy god sits propped on a table like a floppy puppet, oh-so-relaxed but ready to burst into a routine at any given moment. He answers his TV questions just so, as we swig back mint tea like shots of vodka before wandering off into the garden.
Murray is here at the Marrakech International Film Festival to both receive a tribute honor, and because his latest film Rock The Kasbah opened the fest the night before. Set in war-torn Afghanistan, it is one of an increasing number of Hollywood films that have been made here in Morocco, which boasts the world’s largest film studio.
In director Barry Levinson’s film, Murray plays a music manager in the twilight of his career who takes his client on a USO tour of Afghanistan, only to become separated from his crew. Dazed and confused, he happens upon a young Afghan girl singing in a cave, and becomes reinvigorated, coaching the angel-voiced gal all the way to Afghan Star, the country’s version of American Idol.
So Murray is no stranger to Morocco—or the five-star hotel.
Rock the Kasbah is a comedy, but given that he is a guest in the Arab world, the continued American military presence in his film’s setting of Afghanistan, and the lingering shadow of terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, his function has shifted to that of American comedy ambassador.
And Murray has a wealth of upcoming credits: a new Ghostbusters flick, a Wes Anderson reunion, and the Netflix Christmas special A Very Murray Christmas, shot by his Lost in Translation director Sofia Coppola—who also happens to be here at the festival since her director-father, Francis Ford Coppola, is serving as this year’s jury president.
Coppola and his fellow jury members have spent much time addressing the aforementioned recent tragedies, with Coppola citing lines from the Quran, complimenting its beauty. Murray, too, is in a somber mood in the wake of the horrific attacks.
In French—and with a serious grave air about him, like a president delivering a wartime speech—he explains to a handful of reporters why he is late. He wouldn’t be hurried, instead taking the time to speak in-depth to an Egyptian television crew about world events, as he explains politely.
He continues in French before there is a request for English.
“I speak a little bit better English,” he quips, saying he learned French at the Sorbonne. “I speak French like a schoolboy,” he adds.
Murray transitions seamlessly from gravely serious to witty comic to New Age sage, at one point uttering, “I’ve got nothing planned. I need to take some time to work on myself and my family.”
He shares his conversation with the Egyptian crew: “He said educated people in Egypt said, ‘People in our country think it is an economic decision for the Americans to fight wars,’” Murray says.
He pauses for a moment. “I do not know. I didn’t want to bring everyone down.
“I think normal people hate all this fighting,” he adds. “People think we made this movie to brush up the American image. It might or might not need brushing up, but that image is very different from what it was when I was a child. Now there is brand confusion with Afghanistan and Iraq. I think many Americans do not know what is going on, but the fact that we are now seen as bullies and not do-gooders is of concern.”
He gamely plays the part of peacekeeper before he says, comically: “These are questions fit for someone far more intelligent than I.”
But Murray is here for a reason.
“I really wanted to see how this film would be received in the Muslim world,” he says. “I’m awfully curious to see that. In America, as far as we know, the Muslims liked it.”
He fields a serious question about being an American, and gives a candid answer.
“It is not difficult to be proud to be American,” he says. “Do I have self-respect as an American? Yes. Do I respect everything I do? No. Do I respect my country? Yes, I do. Do I respect my people? I do. Do I respect everything my country does? No. Not every country is perfect. We are an economic engine. There are people with money that just want to make more money. You have got them here. You have them there. The pursuit of money is complicated.”
The comedy legend then acknowledges that he’s an actor and is here, like many other foreign guests of the festival because, despite widespread fear following the Paris attacks, he does not want fear to rule his life.
“I know what a failure I am in so many ways as a human, so I can’t claim to save the world,” he says. “There is no halo here. I’m just an actor with a capability of telling a story. I’m maybe a more skilled storyteller, like a better than average plumber, but it is just because I have done it for a while and I try to put as much of myself in my work as I can,” he says.
Then comes the kicker: “I probably should have stayed home,” he quips.
Murray talks about working with a Palestinian actress in Kasbah and the situation in the Middle East. Does he have a solution? “It should be solved by the end of the week,” he jokes.
“There is a phobia about what Muslims are like,” he continues. “I have known about two-dozen. I went to school in Paris with Muslims. Most were from Iran. I found them much to be like friends back home. I was raised as a Catholic. It was always Catholics against Jews. I’m in Hollywood. There are lots of nutty Jews and lots of nutty Catholics. Muslims are just as goofy, too. It is what makes the garden beautiful: Not every flower is the same.”
As for his future plans, Murray once directed a film with Howard Franklin and hints they may get behind the camera for another. “We have one that we might do again. I thought I would direct movies all the time then. I liked it.”
And his upcoming starring roles? “I'm playing a dog for Wes Anderson,” he says. “It is a Japanese story. I’m excited.”
Then he adds, wryly: “Sofia [Coppola] has been telling me she is writing something, and then if my behavior is good, Sofia had an idea she would like me to sing some place.”
He says he spent just one day filming the new Ghostbusters. “There is a new Ghostbusters. It is an all-female cast. I worked on the job with them for a day. I was reluctant. I didn’t really want to do another one but I’ve worked with those girls. They are all funny,” he says.
And the film, he says, carries an even deeper message.
“In Ghostbusters, what comes to destroy New York is a giant marshmallow,” explains Murray. “If you face your fears, they are all giant marshmallows. There were people that were afraid to come here to come along for the ride. That thought came into my mind. A friend said we just made a film about a girl that couldn’t sing. Are we going to be afraid to go back? Fear is negative imagination. Do I think these events have been terrible? Are they horrible? Are they dreadful? Yes. But I can’t live a life of fear like that. If I’m going to go, I’m going to go living. Here we all are and we are okay, aren’t we? As soon as I saw the cars and walls, I was like, ‘I’m so glad I’m here. I’m glad I came.’”
He pauses. “Fear is human malfunction.”