Moriarty’s One Thing I Love Today! Meeting Harold Ramis!
Published at: April 4, 2008, 6:21 p.m. CST by Moriarty
Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here.
I owe you guys two of these today, thanks to some unexpected travel yesterday. Since that was the cause of the delay, let me explain why I missed posting anything yesterday, and why I was so damn happy to do so.
All films fans have their particular fetishes or interests or likes and dislikes, and the process of coming to those beliefs is a lifelong one, an evolution that begins as soon as we’re old enough to process whatever it is that we’re watching. As I was first immersing myself in the world of film, it was just as the first cast of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE was starting to make its presence felt in films. I remember seeing FOUL PLAY theatrically and wondering where Chevy Chase came from, since my mother already seemed to be a fan. That led me to SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, which was on the list of banned comedy in my house that also included MAD magazine, Monty Python, and NATIONAL LAMPOON. All of those things automatically became more interesting as soon as they were forbidden, and I found myself drawn to this Second City generation of writers, actors, and directors.
Harold Ramis cuts as large a figure in that movement as anyone else, and it’s hard to argue his place in the film comedy firmament. When your first film as a director is CADDYSHACK, it’s safe to say that you’ve made your mark. When you add in the screenplay for ANIMAL HOUSE, MEATBALLS, and STRIPES, as well as his work on SCTV, there are few people in film comedy who have ever had such a strong start. By the time he directed VACATION in 1983, I was a full-blown freak for his work, and VACATION was one of those movies I saw the way only a 13 year old can see a film: several thousand times in the space of a few months. I find I can still quote that movie almost in its entirety, and I haven’t seen it in at least a decade. None of that compared, though, to the reaction I had to GHOSTBUSTERS when it arrived in the summer of 1984. By that point, I was already horror-crazy as well as comedy-mad, and to find a film that mixed the two with such aplomb... it felt like someone out there was making films specifically for me. Sure, the film went on to become a pop-culture phenomenon that year, but it couldn’t have been an easy sell. It feels like the kind of film that could have only been made after a string of hits.
Sure, Ramis has had some years in the commercial wilderness. But I still say STUART SAVES HIS FAMILY is underappreciated. It’s a really ugly portrait of family life that never goes for the easy laughs, and it digs deeper than you’d expect from a film spun off from a sketch on SNL. GROUNDHOG DAY is a modern classic, as great a commercial comedy as BACK TO THE FUTURE, and it’s a film that people seem to love more with each passing year. THE ICE HARVEST was a solid, dark adaptation of a solid, dark novel, and if more than 40 people had seen it, it might be better-loved. And no matter what you think of ANALYZE THIS or ANALYZE THAT or the misbegotten remake of BEDAZZLED, Ramis remains a towering figure in film comedy. Even when he just shows up for a few scenes in a film, he can steal the whole thing a la ORANGE COUNTY.
All of this is preamble to explain why I leapt at the chance to fly to New Mexico for about 24 hours, just so I could watch Ramis at work on his new film, THE YEAR ONE.
I’ll write more about the film itself later, and about what I saw while I was on-set. All I want to talk about today is the actual experience of meeting Ramis face-to-face for the first time. So often, when you meet someone you respect, someone whose work has been so influential for you, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Time and again over the last 17 years, since I first moved to Los Angeles, I have had my impressions of people shattered by my personal encounters with them. I think Albert Brooks is a towering film comic, one of the best comedians to ever write and direct his own material, but every single personal impression I have of him is awful. Doesn’t change my respect for his work at all, but it is a reminder that the art and the artist are often very different. I remember a chance meeting with Barry Levinson that was so skin-crawlingly awful that it took me a few years before I could watch his movies again. In some ways, the impersonal robot thing that so many people use when meeting people in town is worse. I’ve been introduced to Steven Spielberg at least a half-dozen times at this point, and I’m absolutely sure he has no recall of any of them. It’s not his fault... he’s just gotten very good at protecting himself and keeping people from reaching in to get any piece of him during casual encounters.
And don’t get me wrong... when I visit a filmmaker on their set, I’m operating under no illusions. I’m not there to become their new best friend. I’m there to write about my impressions of how the set works, of the chemistry I observe between the people making the film. I’m absolutely on the outside of that, and that’s fine. Yesterday, though, my expectations were more than exceeded by the simple, friendly welcome I received from Ramis when I arrived at the day’s location. He talked to me a bit about meeting Harry in Austin, and about his first encounter with Ain’t It Cool (an early script review for ANALYZE THIS) back in 1997 or so. He didn’t go overboard or anything, and I didn’t feel like he’d been coached. He just seemed like he had the same relationship a lot of filmmakers do with the site... there are times he’s enjoyed being mentioned, and times he hasn’t, and he’s smart enough to know that both will happen over time.
As the day wore on, I tried to stay out of his way. He had a number of other visitors, personal guests who he was obviously busy with, and since I was only on-set for six hours or so, I wanted to watch as much of his process as I could. Still, late in the afternoon, he ended up walking over as they were re-lighting the set, and he started chatting, obviously in the mood to talk a little. I couldn’t help myself, and I finally let out all the geek energy I’d been building all day.
“You know, I have you to blame and/or thank for my very first job when I was fourteen.” He looked worried by this until I explained that CADDYSHACK had made that job look so good that I had gone out and become a caddy at a local course in Tennessee.
“Good. I’m just glad it wasn’t STRIPES.” He told me that Army enlistment actually skyrocketed after STRIPES was released because of guys seeing the movie and thinking it looked like fun. Ramis looked equal parts guilty and amused at the thought of a generation of guys realizing that they all couldn’t be Bill Murray. This led to us talking about the way ANIMAL HOUSE almost single-handedly revitalized the Greek system on college campuses across America. “At first, I think the fraternities were happy, but then when they realized that everyone wanted the Animal House experience, it turned out to not be such a good thing.” A rise in binge drinking, date rapes, and academic failure... what a legacy.
I realized that Ramis had given me the opening to talk about his whole career, and that’s exactly what we did. We had that conversation you always hope you’re going to have when you’re talking to someone who has been involved in almost 30 years worth of classics, where we managed to drift from memories of Doug Kenney to the way the CADDYSHACK script was altered while they were shooting to the new GHOSTBUSTERS game that’s coming out this year to Rick Moranis and his country music career. And as we were talking, all that intimidation I almost always try to hide while talking to people I admire just dropped away. He stopped being HAROLD RAMIS COMEDY LEGEND and just became Harold Ramis, filmmaker, and that’s not an easy jump to make. I may interact with more filmmakers than the average film fan, but I still come to this as a fan first. I am in Los Angeles and working because of the films and the filmmakers who influenced me. I am who I am because of what I have watched. And in some cases, because of what I have rewatched again and again. And to finally be able to talk to him about the Chevy Chase/Bill Murray scene in CADDYSHACK and how hard it was to wrangle the two of them into a room together, or to be able to hear him talk about his original dream casting for ANIMAL HOUSE, or to be able to just talk about MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN with him and why it is the one truly great Biblical comedy (if you don’t count De Mille films) was uncommonly enjoyable. Here’s a guy who could easily have been courteous but distant, and I never would have said a bad word about it, but he went way above and beyond. He didn’t put on an act, either... he was just approachable and normal, able to talk about his past without acting like it was a chore, but also obviously able to look at his body of work with real perspective and a clear eye for why it worked.
I’m hoping I’ll actually get a chance to do a formal interview with Ramis for the site once the publicity machine for THE YEAR ONE kicks into high gear sometime next year. For now, I’m just pleased that I can include Ramis on the list of people who actually exceeded my expectations. He’s a class act, and that was obvious not only from my own talk with him, but from the way everyone on that set talked about him. The last two days may have been hellacious for travel, but in the end, it was completely worth the headache.
Thanks to Sony and to Kym and Andrew for making the trip happen, and to Harold Ramis for being a decent, normal, approachable human being. It’s sad that those characteristics make you the exception rather than the rule in this town, but it’s nice to know that the size of someone’s ego does not have to be dictated by the size of their influence on the industry.