Bad santas

John Cusack and Harold Ramis talk about making movies without selling your soul -- or dressing up -- and their very dark holiday comedy.

Published November 22, 2005 12:45PM (EST)

When you spot a 6-foot-tall green reindeer waving at you from the roof of a building on the weekend before Thanksgiving, does it fill your heart with joy, or do you cringe? Are you among the millions of Americans who welcome the holiday season with open, loving arms -- or among those who flinch at the sight of tinsel and groan at the sound of the first dippy Christmas carol? Recognizing that the holidays aren't a holly, jolly time for everyone, filmmaker Harold Ramis teamed up with John Cusack to create a comedy so dark, it could make even the sourest of Grinches curl his toes.

"The Ice Harvest" follows the exploits of Cusack's Charlie, a mob lawyer in Wichita, Kansas, who spends time at strip bars and dives instead of with his kids; his sneaky, scumbag friend Pete (Oliver Platt); and Vic (Billy Bob Thornton), his nonchalantly soulless co-worker. With so many vile miscreants in the mix, how can we tell who's remotely worth rooting for?

Or maybe the better question is, how can we not root for Cusack? Whether he's playing lovestruck Lloyd Dobler of "Say Anything" or hapless puppeteer Craig Schwartz in "Being John Malkovich," Cusack has an uncanny knack for winning audiences' sympathies with a few hangdog looks and aw-shucks shuffles of the feet. Ramis, whose film résumé reads like a classic comedy top 10, from Second City TV to "Animal House" (co-wrote) to "Ghostbusters" (co-wrote and starred in) to "Caddyshack" (co-wrote and directed), explains that this quality made Cusack the perfect guy for such a shady part -- that and the big ideas floating around in Cusack's head.

On a Saturday morning at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons, Ramis and Cusack sat down to describe the process of collaborating, the hollow nature of strip bars, and the challenge of sorting through 31 flavors of evil.

What was unique about your experience working together?

Ramis: Well, you don't get a lot of actors who want you to read a book on the lies of modernism in postwar Europe.

How did you like the book?

Ramis: It was interesting. Actually, we're both probably screwed up in the same way. We actually have discussions about character and the movie and the philosophy of the film and the sociology and politics of it that derive from big, serious ideas.

You're both big serious-idea guys.

Ramis: Yeah. Well, you know...

Cusack: My ideas are kind of smaller and less serious than Harold's. Mine are medium-sized.

Ramis: I think they're pretty big. I think we both like to be as fully engaged as we can be. It would be enough to be working professionals in the industry -- that would be enough. But to be working professionals and get to do what you want to do? Even better. And then to do it with your full intelligence, energy, spiritual commitment, that's what we're all about.

At what point in your careers did you shift and start to do exactly what you wanted? When do you get the luxury of doing that?

Ramis: I think it's harder for an actor. Not having worked as an actor, what looks harder for me is that actors have less control over what they do because they have to wait for something great to come along, or take something that they consider less great and try to make it great, or worse, settle for doing stuff that they know isn't great and won't be great, which would be a little, I think, soul-destroying in the long run. As a writer, you can write whatever you want and no one can stop you. That doesn't mean you're going to sell it, but you have your own authentic voice and you can express it. Directors are kind of in the middle. You have to sell what you're doing, you have to convince actors, you have to work with writers. But whatever you're doing, you accept in the beginning that it's not your full vision. It can't be and probably shouldn't be.

As a director, you mean.

Ramis: Yeah.

Cusack: I don't know anybody who gets only their vision into the film. It's always a collaborative process. You need people to be involved. You need a lot of people to support the film.

Ramis: I don't even think of it as compromise, because to me the word "compromise" implies giving up something you really wanted to satisfy a situation. I think the challenge is, if I'm not getting exactly what I thought I wanted -- and I might be wrong -- the challenge is to find something we all want to do and believe in. And that's not a compromise, it's a new vision. And probably it's better than my original vision because now it includes the vision of other creative people.

Cusack: Yeah, so if Harold and I are doing something and if I'm doing exactly what he wants, then I'm not expressing myself. It doesn't work. That's the collaboration. I think when you work on films, you can get leveraged moments where you can get a little film and do it just the way you want to do it. With "The Ice Harvest," the budget was low enough, I think, where you don't have anybody telling us what we couldn't do. Whereas if you do a movie for a bigger budget, like 60 million dollars, then you start to deal with corporate interests -- a marketing plan, a marketing committee and people you have to satisfy.

"The Ice Harvest" is a pretty simple story, but you say you talked about big ideas. What are some of the big ideas of this movie?

Cusack: One thing that kept springing to mind for me was something that Arthur Miller wrote, that an era can be considered over when its basic illusions have become exhausted. I just always thought that at some level, Charlie and Pete have created their own illusions, they're custodians of their own reality. They're responsible, but in another sense they're living this sort of American suburban life and their version of the American dream. When Pete says, "There's nothing left for men in this world, nothing but money and pussy," it's like they were playing by the rules, they were really ambitious, they went for the pussy, they went for the money, they went for the American dream, and it didn't give them any pleasure. So, those were some of the ideas, those were some of the rivers we were swimming down.

Why didn't it give them any pleasure? Because they both married that horrible woman?

Ramis: I don't think you can blame others. Michael Parks had a line when he was a young movie star. He said, "I've come to the end of me." You know, Charlie, he's come to the end of him. For Charlie, he has nowhere to go. He's tried it all, and it's not worth it. I think it's almost embarrassing to say this because it sounds like a religious thing, but it's not -- it's the search for meaning in life. People attach significance to certain kinds of goals and the society reinforces it every minute of every day: to be rich, to be famous, to be handsome, to be slim, to be popular, to be Christian. Whatever it is, people attach value to certain things that don't inherently make them happy because they don't necessarily mean anything -- as in the big, deep meaning of things, the kind of meaning that nurtures us. Or terrifies us or really connects. Anyone who's been to a strip club, you know, it looks good on paper. I mean, the idea sounds great. But what could be more demoralizing ultimately, or worse for your soul, than sitting on a bar stool handing money to a woman who couldn't care less about you who you're not gonna get? It will just make you feel worse about yourself in the long run. That's as far from real meaning in life as you can get.

Cusack: But it ties up the time!

Ramis: I remember in the cocaine days when cocaine was all the rage, but people would do so much, there weren't enough drugs in the world to get off on anymore. They'd been so overstimulated. And you see it with people who pursue any kind of addictive behavior. There isn't enough of that thing out there to ever make you feel good enough. So it just starts contributing to the problem. The more you take, the worse you feel.

Cusack: I think Charlie is so lost in this spirtual and moral twilight and he's so numb that everything sort of has the same moral weight. There's no difference between any action anymore.

Ramis: Even love. When Connie says, "You do love me, right?" he says, "Yeah, I guess, sure, whatever."

Cusack: I don't think he can really feel anything. So the illusion of the American dream is all gone. He's not going to have the trophy wife or the Mercedes, his family hates him, so the American dream is gone. So what does he do? He and Vic cling on to the dream of the outlaw making the last score and hitting the road. I mean, what's more ridiculous than that? That's just out of the frying pan, into the fire. Where's he going to go? That's what I thought was so funny.

What made John right for this part?

Ramis: I think because people perceive John as a good person --

Cusack: Which is a tactical error on their part.

Ramis: But I think that because they perceive him as a good person, as long as he's alive [as a character], there's the smallest glimmer of possibility for redemption there. This guy could find himself, could discover something better than he had back then.

Charlie isn't the greatest guy, but he's surrounded by all these awful people. Everybody is so rotten, how did you ever sort out or differentiate all of these different varieties of evil?

Ramis: Well, there's bad and there's badder. Charlie is like the good kid who wants to do something bad. You know, he's going to steal the candy bar, but he ends up having to kill the clerk to get the candy bar. But it's not that he's bad. He's stealing from someone who's in the mob and so much worse -- you can make a moral justification for that. On a deeper level, he's drawn to these bad people for self-preservation. We talked about this. The two things every person wants is to feel unconditionally loved and to feel safe. As children, we long for that, it's hardwired into us ... he's going with the queen of all the strippers, the worst woman in the world. So that's where he goes for love. And for safety he goes to Vic. That's why guys join gangs. You find the toughest guys and you hang out with them, and if they like you, they protect you. So this kind of natural, almost childlike innocent longing in Charlie to be loved and to feel safe, he just invests it in the two worst people you could find in Wichita.

All of his choices are pretty horrible, when you consider his awful wife, and his sneaky friend. Was it to separate this mire of evil into its parts?

Cusack: ... [The film has] just the worst portraits of white American men I've ever seen. And at first I read the screenplay and I thought, Oh god, it's so dark. And then I got it - -Oh right, right -- it's funny! But when I first read it, the first 23 pages I thought, Oh my god, this is just so dark. And then somewhere it kicked in that I was supposed to laugh ... I think that no matter how low a character goes, characters always have -- good ones, I think, anyway -- they always have this intense instinct for redemption, no matter where they are. Even if you see violence out on the street, or wherever it is, as soon as it's over and the adrenaline starts to wear off, you can see the regrets flash over those faces and eyes, you know? And everything isn't just good and bad. I think there are complicated trains going one way or the other, you know?

Ramis: And I think because it was so rich and complicated, like Oliver [Platt's character] being such a buffoon but having so much soul at the same time, it gave everyone so much to click into. Billy Bob [Thornton] did not care. Billy Bob never wanted to analyze a single moment in the movie, unlike John, Connie [Nielsen] and Oliver, who were all over that -- just, Let's talk about it, let's figure it out, you know, what are we saying? who are we?

Cusack: He's probably closest to a sociopath ... I mean Vic [Thornton's character].

Ramis: And in a way, the most integrated, the most sure of who he is without regret and confusion. And you know, Billy Bob, he said this amazing thing. We went over the script a lot before we shot, but Billy Bob came and said, "I just have to tell you I didn't read the script." He said, "Well, I mean, I read it before I took the job. Of course I read it, I love it. But I'm not going to be reading it again before we shoot, because my character doesn't care what anyone else is doing."

In one way, it's him not doing his homework, but in another sense, it was true. His character was so self-involved and so self-centered, it doesn't matter what anyone's motivation is, they're just objects to him.

You [Cusack] have a pretty huge fan base among people in their 30s, almost like a cult following.

Cusack: Really?

I don't want to scare you or anything.

Cusack: That's OK!

Ramis: Is there one particular bar he could go to?

Well, let's see, we meet on Wednesdays ... But "Say Anything" is one of those movies that people my age still reference all the time.

Cusack: I was only 19 or something when I made that.

What kinds of things do people want you to do because of your early career?

Cusack: I remember when we were making that film, and Jim Brooks, the executive producer, said, "We want you to come and do this thing," and I went to this huge compound in Hollywood. The book is all centered on the girl and her father, and my character was lovable, but he didn't really have anything [that strange about him]. I said, "I want him to have some shadows, some darkness, something real that I can use," because I really didn't care. It turned out to be the smartest thing I ever did, and of course I was working with great people, but I started to evolve the character with Cameron [Crowe, who wrote and directed the film], and we worked on it together. It turned out so well that I thought, "Oh wait a minute, that works out pretty good."

So, have you always had input in your characters in films you've done since then?

Cusack: No. With this one, we didn't even touch the script, because it was so precise. And Cameron -- that was a great part, don't get me wrong, but by following some of my instincts and working with him, it worked out great, so I thought, "I've got to follow my gut here."

[to Ramis] At what point in your career do you feel that you learned to follow your instincts and to trust your instincts?

Ramis: From day one. From college, from realizing that there was no map out there. You know, we're raised to think that school is going to prepare us for something, or that someday, someone's going to tell us what to do, and we have this permanent record that's going to go with us, that we've been building. And when we take our little permanent record and someone's going to give us the career.

Cusack: That goes all the way up to heaven, right?

Ramis:Yeah, absolutely. I went to college in '62, so everything exploded, the '60s happened when I was in college. I came out in '66 and went to San Francisco, and suddenly...

Cusack: Which was when I was born.

Ramis: So you missed San Francisco.

Cusack: Are you kidding me? I grew up in '80s America. That's why I have that Nietzschean blackness that I can access so well. I mean, you were in the Summer of Love and I was in a mall.

Ramis: We were expanding our consciousness, we were realizing, "Hey, there are no rules to this. There isn't even any reality. Forget rules, reality doesn't even exist. This is all a big projection, and that means that, God, I'm actually responsible for what I do. No one's gonna tell me what to do, because by the way, when you're 18 -- well, I was 21 -- are you going to Vietnam or not? Are you gonna go in the Army? That was a big watershed moment where I had to say, "No, I'm not gonna do what they're telling me to do, I'm not going to become what society expects me to become, I'm even gonna break the law if I have to."

So that was big. It was real big. And once I made that decision, once I burned my permanent record, I thought, "All right, I'm on my own." And that's very liberating. "I'm actually going to do what I want to do." And from that moment on ... And I had an ally. Michael Shamberg, who's a major film producer to this day, we were friends from the time we were 18 years old. We went through college together and toward the end of college we looked at each other and shook hands and said, "Let's never do anything we don't want to do, and let's never take a job we have to dress up for."

Cusack: Now you've done both. And so have I! But in general, you adhere to these things. I think the way to think of it is dealing with control, it's about meeting with like-minded people and having a collaboration that creates something better than something you could've done on your own. It's such a collaborative thing. So if I can work with great people, that's kind of as good as it gets.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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