Ivan Reitman on directing the original "Ghostbusters" and why fans will be "very, very happy" with the female-centric reboot

Salon talks to the director of the legendary 1984 comedy about his original cast and the upcoming remake

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published October 27, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/Eric Charbonneau/Columbia Pictures/Salon)
(AP/Eric Charbonneau/Columbia Pictures/Salon)

In the early 1980s, Ivan Reitman was an ambitious young man in Hollywood, from Slovakia by way of Canada, whose career as a producer and director of low-budget grindhouse movies had taken a dramatic turn after he made a film called “Animal House.” That history-shaping frat-house comedy (which Reitman produced and John Landis directed) didn’t cost much more than Reitman’s usual productions – the previous year, he had made a softcore horror film called “Ilsa the Tigress of Siberia.” But its enormous success made John Belushi into a comedy superstar and introduced the anarchic, subversive National Lampoon/”Saturday Night Live” mode of comedy to mass audiences for the first time.

But “Animal House” was only the opening act for the strange and fantastical movie that Reitman began creating with Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis during the summer of 1983. Aykroyd had proposed an off-kilter blend of horror and comedy about a team of guys, something like paramedics or firefighters, whose job was to contain and defeat ghosts. Reitman proposed setting the story in present-day Manhattan, and making it a self-aware parable about entrepreneurship, marketing and the business world. If you don’t know what movie I’m talking about, or understand how much its level of crazy invention revolutionized the method, manner and tone of Hollywood comedy (if only for a while, and maybe not enough) – indeed, if Ray Parker Jr.’s irritating but irresistible theme song is not coursing through your brain right now – then you’re in urgent need of a remedial course in 1980s studies.

“Ghostbusters” is back, if indeed it can ever be said to have gone away. But can the Zeitgeist-shifting hilarity and craziness of that film actually be replicated? Reitman is serving as a producer of writer-director Paul Feig’s forthcoming and somewhat controversial female-centric “Ghostbusters” reboot starring Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy. When I get him on the phone in his Los Angeles production office, he assures me that any lingering uncertainty or resentment among the original franchise’s fanbase (he does not use the words “sexism” or “misogyny”) will disappear when they actually see Feig’s movie. In his introduction to a spectacular new coffee-table book of archival photos and production material from the original series, “Ghostbusters: The Ultimate Visual History,” Reitman answers the question everyone asks him first (so I didn’t have to).

Yes, Reitman insists, he actually did have an inkling on the set of the 1984 film that he and Aykroyd and Ramis and Bill Murray and Ernie Hudson were creating something unusual and distinctive. When he first saw the quartet “fully outfitted in ghostbusters gear, walking casually down Madison Avenue” for the first shot of the movie, there was something “iconic” about the image, he writes. “It sent a shiver up my spine, and I instantly felt that something special was about to happen.” A self-serving memory? Maybe; I wouldn’t know. But when you’re the freakin’ director of “Ghostbusters,” a movie whose bizarre blend of absurdism, social satire and scares has been endlessly imitated but never recaptured, I think you get to brag on yourself a little.

Ivan, Is it still fun for you to talk about the movie after all this time?

It’s actually more fun now. The fact that it has survived more than 30 years is always amazing to me. Not just that it survived but that it also seems to be loved. It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing, and I feel lucky.

Seeing all the amazing archival material that’s in this book -- I mean, I wasn’t involved in making this movie at all, and it made me feel intensely nostalgic. You guys were so young! And it looked like you were having such an amazing time. What were your emotions, looking through that stuff?

Yeah, I mean, I remember how it felt at the time, and what I love about the book is that it really captures it. By talking to all the department heads and getting all this historical material – which, frankly, I didn’t even know existed — I just thought they did an amazing job. And it’s a real fitting tribute to the film.

For anyone who loves movies, learning about how you guys did the effects for that film – which of course were all in-camera or in the physical world – and how different that is from the way movies are made today is such a fascinating education.

Yeah. I mean, when I got into discussions with Paul Feig [director and co-writer of the new “Ghostbusters”] about doing another one, I really recommended that he try and do a lot of things in-camera and do things live on stage and live on locations, because it really makes a difference to the performances. I mean, we’re talking about comedy performances, not dramatic performances. He was really taken with that, and he’s done a lot of it in the shooting. I mean, there’s this wonderful advantage now that there has been this extraordinary advance in digital technology. We can do things now that we couldn’t imagine doing before.

Right, of course. But digital technology can also be a double-edged sword, don’t you think?

Sure, but I think the combination should be very exciting. And also the opportunity to do the movie in 3-D. I think to do ghosts in 3-D – that’s really a cool thing.

Yeah, that wasn’t a realistic possibility when you were making the original film. Is that something you think you would have wanted to do?

Yeah, I mean, I was always interested in 3-D. I’d actually done a terrible movie in 3-D. I produced it and directed it a few years before “Ghostbusters.” It’s called “Spacehunter.”

I saw that! Molly Ringwald is in that.

[Laughter.] Yeah. “Spacehunter: In the Forbidden Zone,” or “Something something in the Forbidden Zone.” [The actual subtitle is “Adventures in the Forbidden Zone,” and Reitman is not the official director or producer of record.] We had to have two cameras. We just shot it in what is now called “native” 3-D, and it was hell. And there were no screens that you could show it in. That was not really a practical idea in 1981.

Just as a lover of movies and a guy who’s been doing this a long time, do you feel that 3-D has earned its stripes at this point, or has there have been enough good 3-D movies to make up for the bad ones?

Oh, sure. I mean, particularly the animated films. You know, particularly the ones from Pixar. They’re just spectacular. I mean, the screen image is still a little dark but they’re finally getting to solving all that. Now that we’re talking about switching over to 4K projection, that’s going to help 3-D more than anything else. With more light coming back off the screen, it makes the contrast that much better.

You’re right that in the last couple of years I don’t have that feeling anymore that every scene in a 3-D movie was shot at 6:30 in the evening.

That’s right. It was murky. I mean, I get it, it’s pretty tiring. But you know, it’s like everything else. Progress takes a few years. In fact, most movies should not be made in 3-D. It really does enhance certain films, and I think it will enhance “Ghostbusters.”

I’m sure everybody wants to ask you about this. There are some people in the fan base who appear to be irate about the way the new “Ghostbusters” has been cast.

Frankly, I don’t think very many people are irate about the cast. There had been some blowback in some sense that maybe there wasn’t enough homage to the original film. That said, the guys who see this film? They’re going to be very, very happy. Look, I produced this movie. I’m one of the inventors of “Ghostbusters” along with my colleagues Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis and Bill [Murray]. And you know, all of them took part in this one except for poor Harold [Ramis, who died in 2014]. I think everyone’s going to be happy. I think Paul Feig has done a great job and, you know, the new cast is in much the same position as the original cast was at the point in their respective lives. These women are extraordinarily funny and they’ve worked very, very well together. The film is very funny and very emotional, and has a lot to do with the original film.

Well, that’s a fascinating point -- the performers in the new film are at a similar point in their careers to where Murray and Aykroyd were in the early ‘80s. You know, I also just saw you in that new documentary about National Lampoon.

Did you? [Laughs.] I haven’t seen that yet. I’ve been told I’m in it, but I haven’t actually watched it.

Well, it makes the point, with both “Animal House” and “Ghostbusters,” that this style of comedy came out of the National Lampoon worldview to a large extent.

Well, when I talk about “Animal House” -- because I produced it -- I always start by referring to it as a new comedy language, really the comedy language of the Baby Boom generation. Which, at that point in their lives, we were in our 20s. So it had a different kind of energy than the comedy movies that were being made in the ‘50s and ‘60s. It seemed to be mark a turning point. Certainly movies like “M.A.S.H.” had a taste of it, but “Animal House” was really the first, 100 percent, top-to-bottom approach to it. And certainly, a lot of those things came from the Lampoon. But the Lampoon was really borrowing from other places as well, like Second City, where most of those performers got started. It’s an evolution of all of that. “Saturday Night Live” played into all that and, really, my first half-dozen movies all spoke that language.

That’s so interesting. We always talk about the big-name directors who broke into Hollywood in in the ‘70s: Lucas, Coppola, Scorsese, Brian DePalma, all those guys, as representing a new generation. What you guys were doing – you and Aykroyd and Ramis and these other guys -- was the same thing in comedy, in a different register. Do you buy that?

Yeah, absolutely. I always complain that comedy was never looked at as seriously, as hard as it is to make. It never got the respect it deserves. You know, people pay lip service to how difficult it is and how easy it is to fail. And frankly, it’s much more easy to fail in comedy than it is in drama. And so, I think now people are starting to look at it. They’re starting to miss the energy of those movies from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

I don’t want to oversell this angle, but part of this was about the energy of the counterculture of the ‘60s crossing into mainstream culture, right?

Well, the ‘60s is really the Baby Boomer generation turning 18. They’re all young adults, they’re all smoking dope – I should say, we were all smoking dope! -- and it was this enormous culture shift that happened in this country, and then in most of the Western world through those ten years. So, yeah, the ripple effect was huge.

And I imagine you had the clear sense on the set of the original film that the energy was much different from that of other Hollywood films at the time.

I was working with an extremely gifted group of actors/writers, and they were real writers. Not just the original three guys, but also people like Sigourney Weaver and Rick Moranis and Annie Potts, they all just had great writing abilities. So it’s not that we were just improv-ing our asses off. We were constructing it very carefully. And I guess it was my job to make sure that the construction was appropriate, whatever new things we were adding. And it was coming not just from the actors and writers. It was coming from the production designer, it was coming from the composer, it was coming from the costume designer. It’s not that they were pitching lines. But in their choices they were creating this very unique world that had never been seen before, and that’s what’s wonderful about the book. I think you get a sense of how that got put together and the collaborative nature of this film. And everybody sort of got into it like it was a very serious movie, and it is. It took an enormous amount of originality, at a level I had never really seen before.

When I was looking through the pictures I was so struck by what a distinctive visual world “Ghostbusters” is. It’s so weird and so funny, those are the dominant notes. But the movie also verges on being really scary at times. I imagine you were consciously trying to keep that in the mix.

You know, I really believe that it had to be a scary film. I mean, it was about ghosts, and that’s part of what makes it delightful. And you know, we scare the audience very early in the film, and it just establishes the chops of the movie -- you know, that whole librarian scene! From the very first screening, even before we had real effects in it, what would always happen is when the librarian transforms into that scary thing, the audience screamed -- and then they laughed. Then we’d go boom, boom – to the opening and the “Ghostbusters” title. And really, the film grabbed everybody.

I always believe in achieving confidence with the audience. With the audience is confident that the filmmaker knows what he’s doing, they tend to laugh more. And you have to earn that confidence very early on: “Oh, the tone is right. I like these people. This is not cheap. It’s all sort of working.” And I worked very hard to do that in all my films, and earn the respect and confidence of the audience.

Absolutely. I’ve been reviewing films for more than 20 years and what I always say to people is that within the first five minutes, I have a feeling whether this person can drive that bus. Whether that’s Ivan Reitman or Orson Welles or, I don’t know, Wes Craven. You want to feel that this person is in command of the instrument, whatever the instrument is.

It’s about establishing the tone of that particular genre. And it’s the reason that comedies are so hard to make is that it’s so easy to go off the track with a film. You get too silly or try too hard, or just, you know, the way that people are talking is not right. And you’re done. It’s very hard to win them back when they get that feeling.

In terms of what we see on the screen in your “Ghostbusters,” how would you say the balance worked out between what had been scripted in advance and what the guys kind of came up with on the set? Because those are some gifted improv performers.

Well, I never did a percentage. First of all, it’s all scripted, because these guys were all the writers. So even when we were improv-ing, we always thought about it as writing the last wrap, or the next-to-last wrap, while we were shooting. And sometimes it happened while we were shooting, and then it was my job to sort of pull and keep the focus, not just editorially, but even the subsequent shooting: “You know that new line? Please hold on to it -- it’s great,” or “Let’s junk all that extra stuff -- I don’t think we need that” or “It’s out of character.”

I instituted something that now comedy directors are doing a lot. I used to call it the “free one.” I would do a very strict take which was exactly as written, or with a couple new lines that we sort of came up with between takes, and then I’d say, “OK, I got what I need.” It was sort of a way of getting everyone to relax, and let’s just go for the free one, where anybody could do what they wanted. And because these guys had worked in Second City – see, they weren’t stand-up comedians, they were sketch comedians. One of the things that sketch comedians have to do is learn how to listen.

Because the art of great acting is about being honest in what you’re doing and listening to what everyone else is doing and reacting honestly to it. And so whatever came to them that somebody else pitched or improvised, that character would respond to it. So it was very usable, almost all the time. And it was very easy to direct and use again. It was just great fun. You create a vocabulary for directing that’s really different than directing drama.

Well, one thing that the enduring popularity of this movie, the love that people have for it, testifies to is the fact that so many comedies don’t get that balance right. And for whatever reason you guys did.

I guess. It could be “The Wizard of Oz” factor, you know. It’s just the strangeness of it and the uniqueness of it, the way that “Wizard of Oz” was not quite like anything else that anybody had ever seen. The difference was that “The Wizard of Oz” wasn’t that beloved when it first came out; it evolved over the decades. We were fortunate enough to capture the imagination of the audience from the start.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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