Our epic interview with Ivan Reitman looks to the past and the future for ‘Ghostbusters’

07.17.16 1 year ago

When I first met Ivan Reitman, I was warned to be on my best behavior. I was an employee at Dave”s Video, a laserdisc retail store, and Reitman was one of the store”s most important customers.

He, Steven Spielberg, and Danny DeVito all had a standing order. They wanted one of every title. Everything. If it came out, they owned it. Reitman”s assistants picked orders up frequently, but every now and then, he”d be the one that came in, sometimes with his teenage son Jason in tow. When he did come in, it was important that we keep him happy. He was one of the guys keeping the doors of that business open, and we absolutely went out of our way to make sure he got anything he wanted.

He turned out to be far less scary than he'd been described when I finally helped him one afternoon, and what I liked about Ivan immediately was his obvious rabid love of movies. Browsing was basically an excuse to just talk about movies, both older and new, and he seemed to enjoy having a conversation about other people's films instead of his own. It”s something that is evident in the way he supports the Toronto International Film Festival and the Toronto film scene in general, and he”s passed it along to his son as well. Jason Reitman”s live read series strikes me as something that would be created by someone who was raised in a film nerd environment.

Over the years, I”ve run into Ivan repeatedly, whether on the set of Evolution or when I was researching a book about the Ghostbusters or just being at TIFF each fall, and he”s one of those guys who can be fairly intimidating when he”s not in a great mood. I”d heard rumblings about turmoil behind the scenes on this film, and there were things leaked during the Sony hack that helped foster the impression that Reitman might not be the biggest supporter of the direction the film eventually went. Because I”ve had that twenty-five-year history of dealing with him, I feel pretty secure in saying that Ivan Reitman was in rare form on Friday afternoon when we sat down to talk about the new movie, as happy and as outgoing and as open as I”ve ever found him to be in a conversation. It was amazing, and he seemed to actually have fun having that chat.

I had my boys with me on Friday, and they were bouncing off the walls. They”d had a great time at the film the night before, and Toshi is a fan of Reitman”s because of Meatballs and Stripes as well as the 1984 original. When we walked into the room, they both told him that they”d enjoyed the new film, and then Allen doubled down. “I like everything about the new one more than the old one!” To his credit, Ivan”s smile stayed fixed in place, but I think I actually heard his heart break from across the room when Allen continued. “Except the siren of the Ecto-1! That was better in the old one.”

Ivan asked them who their favorite Ghostbuster in the new one was, and they both replied instantly. “Holtzmann.” Ivan told them that everyone seemed to be feeling the same way.

As they settled into a nearby seat, I sat down across from Ivan and began. “So the first thing I wanted to ask you about is one of the things that you can't help but notice at the start of the film, the Ghost Corps Logo.”

“Yes.”

“What is the overall plan for Ghost Corps?”

“It's to, you know, take advantage of this wonderful idea, the whole Ghostbuster idea as it originated from all of us back 32 years ago and see what else we can do with it.”

“I've always loved that you guys built in, in that scene where they're leaving the bank in the first movie, the greatest franchise hook I've ever seen in a film, where you just lay it on the table with Bill”s dialogue. ‘The franchise rights alone will make us rich beyond our wildest dreams.” It always felt like other offices were such a natural extension.”

“Yes.”

“Now it feels like we've kind of caught up technically with some of the things you guys wanted to do but couldn”t, because that first movie, it's held together by love. It really is. You guys pushed the envelope of what was possible in 1984 and I feel like it's one of those films where you look back at the physical effects and the optical stuff you guys did, and you were inventing how to do that.”

“And we were working really fast. The whole movie from conception to delivery in theaters was like 13 months.”

“That's insane.”

“I”m sure you've heard those stories, and we put Richard Edlund into business literally. I mean, he was working as a consultant and I told Columbia Pictures, ‘Look, ILM is the only other place that can do this and they're booked, and so we have to set up our own company, and we have to advance this guy enough money to buy the basic equipment and especially if we're going to deliver in 13 months. I don't know how else we're going to do it.” We hadn't designed any of the effects, any of the creatures, except for the concept of the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man, which was in Aykroyd's original treatment as an idea, and it didn't work the way it works now, walking down Fifth Ave. or Columbus Circle. We didn't know what we were going to do, so there was an enormous amount of design work being done as we were arriving, as he was building his effects company, and as I was casting and getting ready to shoot and finding locations, and the great thing was, I was really working with brilliant people from top to bottom. So somebody like John DeCuir Sr… he was then either 82 or 85 years old. He was our production designer.”

“His work is so amazing in the first film, so amazing, the sets and the way he builds New York into your world…”

“Yeah. He would come in every day with a new painting larger than a television, and he said, ‘So, I was working on this thing last night and I just fell in love with this, man.” And he would always take out this big bunch of keys and rattle them around. He said, ‘This is the secret of my life. I've got props stored from Cleopatra, from Hello Dolly,” and he had different rooms all over the city. ‘It costs me a fortune to maintain them.””

“But what a great thing to have in your hip pocket to walk around with. I mean, my God…”

“I remember he drew these doors on top of Dana's building and, you know, I didn't even know how I was going to stage this scene that we were just starting to shape out and when I saw this beautiful design, because he was a great artist… I mean he was fast. He told all these great stories about Cleopatra and how fast he would be doing these amazing concept drawings so that they”d have a sense of how to build those scenes. And so he did that for me, and I said, ‘Okay. I saw these doors and these steps going up to these glass doors with light shining through.” I said, ‘That's what we're going to do.” And we started using that as the portal. It seemed like such a clear idea, and it's so kind of goofy and funny at the same time. It seemed to be very much in the spirit of where I was trying to go with the film. There were all these different examples throughout the making of it where everybody contributed to the conception. It was my job really to sort of keep things totally unified and be the arbiter of, ‘Well, that fits, that doesn't fit, that's going too far, that's too goofy,” you know?”

“Because you were working so fast, there's an intuitive feeling to the first Ghostbusters. I can't imagine you guys had a lot of room to second-guess stuff. You had to just make a decision and move, and there's something about that…”

Suddenly, my phone (which I was using to record the conversation) erupted. I have a pretty big library of film clips as audio files on my phone, and several of my friends have their own ring tones. In this case, Ron Burgundy cheerfully began to bellow, “Go f**k yourself, San Diego! Go f**k yourself, San Diego! Go f**k yourself, San Diego!” Reitman looked startled by the ringtone, then burst out laughing, as did my kids. He looked over at them, shaking his head, and said, “Who do you think that might have been, guys?”

Mortified, I turned off the ringer, and Reitman kept laughing as I tried to remember what I”d asked. “The thing I”m most interested in with Ghost Corps moving forward is the idea that, having set the stage with Paul's film, which pays tribute to your movie but which has its own energy at the same time… will more filmmakers get to play with these toys?”

“Yeah.”

“It's really interesting to watch somebody react to your movie because that's what if feels like. Paul was a kid in the '80s at the right time to internalize your movie the way so many of us did, and now he has had his chance to react to it. And that feels like that's the table that's been set now for other people who have the same experience to be able to also come play in this larger world you guys have started to build again.”

“The set up to all this was my decision not to direct them, not to direct any more Ghostbusters. I do want to continue to direct, but not Ghostbusters. I felt, and I've been pretty public about this, that the combination of Harold's death and the fact that I've done two of them and that Bill was always a reluctant participant in any further Ghostbusters work… it was done. It was over. I mean, it had nothing to do with being against the whole idea. Bill loves them, you know. It was actually more how much he loved the other movies.”

“Which I understand, I can see how going back would feel wrong now. You see these 20-year-later sequels, and they're either Mad Max: Fury Road or they're Independence Day Resurgence, and there seems like very little middle ground.”

“I mean, the script that we were working on was this kind of traditional sequel, a passing of the torch. But it had some really unusual ideas in it. I did kill Bill off in the first five minutes of the movie and then he becomes a ghost. He was a very funny character and very, very present in the movie, and the leader of this new young group was Oscar, his son from Ghostbusters II. All grown up and now working with a bunch of other kids at Columbia University. It was a mixed gender group, just coincidentally it involved several women, so when people talk about, you know, all that stuff, we were planning that already. It was a shame. It was a very funny script. Harold Ramis worked on it, Aykroyd worked on it, Etan Coen worked on it and, you know, Eisenberg and Stupnitsky are very funny writers from The Office. The studio greenlit it. It was there to make. But Harold got sick, you know? Right in the middle of all that, Harold got really sick, and we kept putting off the start date and I could never get Bill on the phone about sort of really committing to it.”

“I hear that's a magic trick, getting hold of Bill.”

He nodded, and I have to say, there was such a sense of regret in the way he was talking about this moment in the development history. I think he would have liked to have had that one last shot at it, and more than anything, this is why I”m glad Paul Feig didn”t use the original cast as the original characters. I think they belonged to Reitman as much as anyone, and if he didn”t do it, then I think they should have been retired. I can”t imagine he would ever feel great watching someone else”s movie with Venkman, Stantz, and Zeddmore back in the saddle.

“I couldn”t get him, and so I couldn”t get him to really commit to it. I would see him out, and we would  hang out, but he would just not talk about it. I knew him well enough by this point to know you just can't push. He”s either going to get there by himself, or he's not going to get there.”

We talked for a few minutes about a long day I spent on the set of Year One, and how kind Harold was to me that day, how open he was, and how many great stories he shared. Just talking about Ramis seemed to snap Reitman back into a more celebratory mood, his easy smile back as we talked about what a gracious host Ramis could be. “Talking to him about Ghostbusters, the sense of love was still very active there, and the thing that I've always loved about the early Aykroyd scripts, about the conception is that it was such a giant idea, and then you guys honed it back and made it more real and kind of grounded it, but that mythology and all the stuff that Dan so clearly believes in and, and loves… it's part of his world. It set the stage for larger stuff for you guys to play with. So now with Ghost Corp, does it feel like some of those original ideas are still on the table, like you can come back to use them now? One of the things I love when they did Force Awakens was they went back to early drafts that had been abandoned, and there were ideas in there that they have now poached and played with or that they're going to, and even visual stuff from “76 and “77 is being brought to life now for the first time. You guys have this wealth of development that you ended up not using.

Reitman nodded. “We talked about it. But Aykroyd's original 70 or 80 page thing is missing.”

“Wait, what? Really?”

“It”s sad. I was looking for it in my archives and I couldn't find it, and I said, ‘Danny, I can't find it. Do you have it?” And he said, ‘I got it. I got it somewhere.”” Reitman started laughing, shaking his head as he did. “He comes back a month later, and he says, ‘I checked, I checked the big bin. I couldn't find it.” And I said, ‘Jesus, how did we lose it?””

“Wow. What an artifact now.”

“I went to see if CAA had it because that was the agency that represented both of us, and it'd be great to look at it again because Dan and I remember it differently now. I said to him recently, ‘It took place in outer space,” and he said, ‘No it didn”t.” I said, ‘Yes, it did. It took place in outer space and there were lots of different Ghostbusters.” And I actually brought forth a couple of different men like our mutual lawyer who had read that early draft, and he said, “It was in outer space and there were lots of different Ghostbusters.” So you see how all great mythologies get debated as time passes. But, yes, I do think there's a remarkable opportunity. Many of the things that we sort of talked about in the going into business story of the first movie will play out sooner than you'd expect.”

I pointed at the boys as I continued. “I really liked it. Even last night, I was trying to explain to them the idea of the other offices and as soon as I said you can open a Hollywood office, they were like, ‘Oh, like Marilyn Monroe or old movie stars,” and I'm, like, ‘Exactly, like any place you go, you suddenly have this wealth of different things you can tap into or different casts you can bring onboard.”

“Yes! And there's also an international mythology of ghosts in different traditions. The Japanese have ghosts for everything, but there”s this huge thing where China doesn't believe in ghosts, you know, or at least not officially, so it's complicated as well.”

“It also feels like right now studios have this hunger for just this one thing, and you've seen a massive shift in terms of the studio system between when you started and now.”

“Oh, yeah.”

“And you guys, kind of like with X-Men, have this very limber franchise idea where it's not actor dependent on a permanent basis. You can almost re-cast eternally. You can keep re-inventing.”

“I like that word. Limber. But it's not as easy as you think, and that's what's so wonderful about Paul's movie. It was really effective about looking at it through that gender shift, and he was able to find four women who had extraordinary chemistry together, and really represent, each in their own way, sort of the very best in comedy, especially as spoken through a female voice. That's what I love. When I watch it now with audiences and see them respond to the four women, it was very reminiscent of people's discoveries of my four guys.”

“I think if audiences fall in love with one, it”ll be because of the cast and how they play together.”

“Everybody's got their guy, and they often look like that person. I remember Harold saying, ‘I get these people coming up to me saying can I have an autograph, and I love you and I love Ghostbusters, and they always kind of look like me.”” He laughed at the memory. “He would lament, ‘Where are the hot girls?” He would have a lot of Egons rolling up on him in public.”

“You clearly love comic performance and part of what I think any good comedy director does is you have to be a good audience. You have to have a real ear for their best work.”

“And you have to have an appreciation of it time and time again. In other words, it's very easy to lose perspective and to give up on something because it doesn't seem funny anymore. I must have been mistaken..”

“And the danger is for you guys, especially in a film where you have a lot of alternate takes and you have a lot of choices, when you've heard a joke 50 times and you know it works, but that 50th time it's not making you laugh anymore, but you know you have an alternate take that kind of does… it's got to be hard to know when to stop tinkering and let the scenes be what they are.”

“Yes. And you have to determine what is the best route. Which one was the freshest and realest? I have this thing where I can laugh on the 50th time.”

“That's good.”

“I'm not quite sure what that is, but I found it very useful. And also, you have to be able not to get seduced by what I used to call the set laugh, where suddenly everybody on the crew really breaks up. What I realized is, that's only because it's different from the good ones. You need the context of all the other takes so you can see it's not really particularly a good one. It's just a different one.”

“But when you see something like Kate McKinnon's work in the movie, to me that's a lightning bolt moment where you look at her and you're like, ‘Giant movie star, and I've never seen what she's doing right now.””

“One of the wonderful things about her doing it is she's doing it for the first time here. I mean, sure, she's done versions of this on Saturday Night Live and probably she's done it in the other parts of her career, but it all sort of came together in this movie, and it is.. it is a lightning bolt moment. I totally agree with you.”

“And finally, today, when you see the way Ghostbusters remains a force in pop culture, and you see how excited people still get about it, is that an affirmation for you of what you guys did in '84?”

“Well, it's a monster thrill. Certainly the concept of Ghostbusting even as a kind of job, and the iconography… it”s deeply ingrained now. Certainly the no-ghost… we call him the Moogly, by the way, that little ghost. That's a term that Aykroyd and I came up with, and very few people know that, so there… run with it.”

“There we go. I love it.”

“That became one of the best-known trademarks in the world.”

“Yes. No argument.”

“It ranks in the top five today, you know, 32 years later and you look at how endearing the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man is. And it”s funny because that character in our original film was where I was really concerned about it being that one thing that steps over the line of my domino theory of reality. And Slimer gets used everywhere. As you can see, both these characters end up getting used and that really makes me proud.”

“How do you feel about Paul”s nods to the original here? Some of them are really lovely. The Harold one especially kind of got me.”

“About half the audience misses it because they're just getting involved in the storytelling, and there's so much going on, and then for the half that do catch it and say, ‘Oh, wait a minute, that's Harold, it really is kind of heartbreaking.”

“Well, our audience flipped when Ernie showed up. When Ernie shows up at the end, it's such a great shoe drop finally, and you're like, ‘Yay. Finally! There he is.””

“They didn't forget about him. Yeah. Paul did a lovely job at that.”

As I stood up and we said goodbye, he was in the single best mood I”ve ever seen him in, and the boys shook hands with him, excited and vocal about how much they enjoyed it, too, all the way out the door.

Ghostbusters is in theaters now.

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