A favorite trivia questions is, what are the only three films Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker (also known collectively as “ZAZ”) directed as a team? People (who are film nerds) get Airplane! pretty quickly, and seem aware the trio did not return for Airplane 2. After a couple moments, most people get Top Secret!. (A movie I love and wrote an oral history of with Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker and Val Kilmer a few years ago.) It’s that third movie people have difficultly naming. Was it The Naked Gun? No. Though the trio wrote it, only David Zucker directed it. Hot Shots? No, that was Abrahams on his own.
The answer is Ruthless People, a — at least comparatively — more straightforward comedy that Jerry Zucker says is the reason the trio split up. The thing is, Ruthless People – a movie about a botched kidnapping starring Danny Devito, Better Midler, and Judge Reinhold – was a pretty big hit and got excellent reviews. But after, Jerry Zucker didn’t want to return to parody movies. At a fateful lunch with a producer at Paramount, he asked what good scripts were available. The answer he got was something called Ghost.
And as Zucker remembers, the writer of that script, Bruce Joel Rubin, wasn’t too keen on the idea of the director of Airplane! making his movie. Well, as you probably know, things worked out. (And the two are great friends today.) Ghost grossed half a billion dollars, became the biggest movie of 1990, was nominated for Best Picture, and won Whoopi Goldberg an Oscar, and Rubin won an Oscar for Original Screenplay.
But rewatching today, it’s almost like the phenomenon of Ghost is bigger than the movie itself. It gets remembered for the pottery scene with Patrick Swayze as Sam Wheat and Demi Moore as Molly Jenson set to “Unchained Melody,” yet the movie itself is an incredibly tight, funny, action-packed adventure loaded with characters with supernatural powers. It is remarkable how great Ghost still is today. (And a brand new Blu-ray is being released in honor of its 30th anniversary.)
Ghost was one of my first quarantine rewatches.
I’ll tell you, [laughs] I’d better start getting some more residuals from that, because now with the whole Coronavirus, people are at home watching these old movies.
I read that Bruce Rubin, the screenwriter, wasn’t totally excited about you doing this movie because of your comedy background.
Well, it’s funny because, yeah, that’s true. When Bruce Rubin first heard that Jerry Zucker, co-director of Airplane! and Top Secret!, was going to direct his beautiful, spiritual love story, he cried. But to Bruce’s credit, he called me and said, “Let’s have dinner, and just not even talk about the movie. Let’s just go out, get some food, and get to know each other.” We did, and I think he said he saw someone he could work with. I guess at least he saw, if I wasn’t Spielberg, at least I wasn’t an asshole or something. Or a crazy person, maybe. We’ve been friends ever since. I talk to Bruce all the time and we’ve done other projects together. Bruce and his wife were at our house the night Ghost came out. They stayed overnight, so we could get the grosses all together. Late at night and early in the morning. It’s been a lifelong friendship, and of course we always joke about that, that first moment. I also will say I gave Bruce much more access and input than writers normally would get on a movie.
I knew I needed it. This was his movie, and he wrote this. This wasn’t a clever contrivance. He wrote this from the heart and from his passionate belief in the spiritual world. And the importance of understanding death. We discussed everything. And he was there all the time. As I said, we became great friends.
One of my favorite trivia questions is to name the only three Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker directed movies, because no one gets Ruthless People.
But I am curious why, after coming off Ruthless People, did you want to do Ghost at the time? Ruthless People is a very different movie than Top Secret! and Airplane!. Was this, for you, the progression from that?
Yeah, that’s a good question. You’re right, it was very different. As a matter of fact, it’s part of why we split. I think that it was easier to direct Airplane! and Top Secret! and Police Squad! together because it was satire, and it was something we had done together for years. We invented a certain way, our way of doing it all together. We were just problem solving, trying to figure out how to get it how we all envisioned it, but we all had the same vision. Whereas Ruthless People was different. It wasn’t that kind of movie and there were a lot of different ways it could have gone. It was a little bit of a stray, and then after that I just didn’t want to go back and do another satire. I don’t know why. It just felt like I had done that. I could do that now again. And I loved working on The Naked Gun [as producer and writer], but at the time in terms of what I wanted to direct, I was just looking for something a little different.
I was having lunch with Lindsay Doran at Paramount, she was the executive on The Naked Gun, and I was asking her what Paramount had. She said, “Well, my favorite, the best script I think we have here is a script called Ghost, but it’s not a comedy.” I said, “Well, I’d be interested. I’m not necessarily looking even for a comedy.” Of course, it had comedy in it, which was great, but I also felt I got it. I loved the fact that it was fully off the ground. I don’t think I would have wanted to do a slice of life movie. At least it goes to the fantastical element of it that I felt more at home with, and so I said, “Yeah, I’m interested.”
Do you feel you enjoyed making Ruthless People more than Jim and David?
I don’t know. Actually, you’d have to ask David and Jim. I don’t know. I enjoyed Ruthless People.
It was a big hit. And it got great reviews.
Yeah, it was successful, and I’m very proud of it. But it’s hard to tell what I’m looking for. I’m just looking for something always that I feel at home with, that I’m comfortable with. As far as David and Jim go, I don’t know. Jim, the next thing he did was Big Business with Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin. That wasn’t a satire. That was almost closer to Ruthless People, so I’m not sure that we felt differently about that movie.
I’ve noticed if you ask someone what Whoopi Goldberg won an Oscar for, a lot of people will answer The Color Purple as opposed to Ghost. Rewatching, she’s amazing in this movie.
Yeah. She’s brilliant.
Is there a sense of pride at all for you there? As in, I directed someone who won an Oscar for this movie.
Sure, of course there is, but my pride is more I’m proud of Whoopi, because I think she’s what makes this movie work. A lot of people, when they read the script, said, “How can you combine this? There’s all this crazy comedy, but people are dying, and the tearful moments. I don’t know how you can do this in the same movie.” The reason it works is because of Whoopi, because she has one character throughout. In other words, she doesn’t all of a sudden start doing this crazy comedy and then go back to being poignant. She’s the same person. Oda Mae is the same in different scenes. When I say the same, she’s true to her character. She’s true to who she is, and Whoopi owned that character, and never wavered from it. But that character, that human that she was playing, could be funny and could be sad. Whoopi is completely believable in both areas. She never steps out of character to get a punchline, to hit a punchline. I think that’s why it works, and it’s hard to imagine anybody else being that good.
Obviously, Demi Moore is amazing in this. Swayze is like a god in this movie. Watching it again though, Tony Goldwyn as Carl really sells this. He is so important to this movie, because you really do think of him as the fun buddy at first, and then he’s so evil at the end. And he pulls off the, “Oh, let me casually take off my shirt” scene.
I think Tony is fantastic. And he also really plays that thing of, yeah, he’s a bad guy, but he also is in over his head. He’s not a villain; he’s a guy who wanted money, and he envied people that had stuff, and he wanted it. But then he just got in over his head. Tony was able to play him both weak and dangerous. I think that that’s how he always saw the character.
Yes, very desperate.
Yeah, and the nicest guy in the world.
I think I’m out of time.
It’s okay. Mike, if you have something else you want to ask, it’s okay. I don’t have another interview. I don’t know why they’re making things so short! Go ahead. Take another five, ten minutes, whatever you need.
Alright, here’s another thing. I forgot how scary the demons are. And this was before CGI. Now you can make anything, yet those things are terrifying.
Yeah, John Van Vliet made those. Those little devils were done by John Van Vliet and Kathy Kean. This was before CGI, so he just invented these things. It may even have been shot in those motion capture, when they were being pulled away? Maybe not, but they were on dollies and being pulled. He was able to design these things. I remember there were a lot of iterations of it. “Well, how about this? How about that?” Yeah, I think it’s great. What I always loved about that was that we get to kill the villains twice.
Oh, yes, rewatching it, what really stood out about that was after Carl dies, Sam has pity for him before the demons come. Basically, you’re in for a tough ride now. Which makes us like Sam even more.
It’s interesting. There are so many movies and TV shows where they’re asking the audience to feel great about a bad guy being killed. I get it, and I feel the same way when I’m watching these things. I see some horrible guy and he gets killed. I’ve seen a lot of movies where there’s just some guys, maybe it’s a movie about a hurricane or something. And they first show two guys who are bullies, so you don’t feel bad when the hurricane takes them and smashes them, or whatever. But that’s terrible when you think about it! That we should feel so self-righteous and gleeful about these guys being murdered, being killed? That’s why I love that idea in Ghost, that he just shakes his head. Also, as I said, Carl is the weak villain in over his head, and Patrick, as it goes down, understands it all.
Yeah. You can see it in his face. “You got in over your head, buddy.”
Right, right, like what did you do? Why did you do this? You messed up. But it isn’t like this is a satisfied licking the blood off his hands, tasting his own blood, that kind of thing and feeling like a hero.
The new 30th anniversary Ghost Blu-ray is available today. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.