Harold Ramis chats with Capone about YEAR ONE, the Dalai Lama, and those pesky GHOSTBUSTERS III casting rumors!!!
Published at: June 19, 2009, 10:47 a.m. CST by Capone
Hey folks. Capone in Chicago here.
This has been a really good week for me. As you know, I'll drop the name of my fair city pretty much anywhere I can, but I especially like to do so when I'm talking about either a film that was shot in large part in Chicago (thank you DARK KNIGHT) or a filmmaker who is a native. This week, I got to interview two of my all-time-favorite Chicago-born directors. I'll have my talk with Michael Mann for you closer to PUBLIC ENEMIES July 1 release date. But I also spoke with Harold Ramis, a National Lampoon, Second City, SCTV alum who went on to be one of the most successful writers and directors of comedy the world has ever known. His films as writer and/or director and/or actor include (stand back, this might get big) ANIMAL HOUSE, CADDYSHACK, STRIPES, MEATBALLS, GHOSTBUSTERS I & II, VACATION, CLUB PARADISE, BACK TO SCHOOL, GROUNDHOG DAY, ANALYZE THIS/THAT, STUART SAVES HIS FAMILY, MULTIPLICITY, and the wrongfully overlooked THE ICE HARVEST. If you had only half of these films on your résumé, you'd have something to brag about.
His influence can be felt quite deeply on the current crop of Apatow and Apatow-like movies dominating the comedy film scene; it's no coincidence that Apatow cast Ramis as Seth Rogen's father in KNOCKED UP. Ramis is capable of writing a scene about oil wrestling with the same passion and conviction that he constructs a film that honors the Buddhist belief in reincarnation.
Somehow in the 11-plus years I've been writing for AICN, I've never met Harold Ramis. I've sat in the same room with him on more than one occasion, usually at a lecture for film students. Sample advise: "Identify the most talented person in your class; if it's not you, go stand next to the person it is." Sound words of wisdom from the man whose latest film as director and co-writer is YEAR ONE, starring Jack Black and Michael Cera, along with a veritable who's who of great comic actors. I'll give you thoughts on the film later today, but for now, even those of you who can't stand the film, I think will be thoroughly entertained by Ramis, the great and generous conversationalist. He began right off the bat by telling me that he digs AICN and that one of our writers (I'm guessing it was the late Moriarty) came to visit the set during shooting last year. Ramis has just delivered this shocking bit of news when I finally got my recorder running.
Capone:…Is that true? I didn’t know that.
Harold Ramis: They came to the set. Yeah, I forgot who came. I can’t remember his name, but I’ll tell you my Ain't It Cool story.
HR: I met--I forget, what’s his name?
Capone: Do you know Harry?
HR: I had met Harry at the Austin Film Festival. He’s a trip. It was like when I met Larry Flynt--wheel chair moguls.
Capone: [laughs] Yes, just like that.
HR: Yeah, anyway, so…Someone came to the set--I wish I could remember his name, it’s disrespectful not to remember…
Capone: There’s only a couple of choices, so…But, unfortunately, we all kind of look the same, so you couldn’t describe him to me.
Capone: Well, knowing his relationship with Judd Apatow [producer on YEAR ONE] it was probably Drew.
HR: Last name?
Capone: McWeeny. He wrote under the name Moriarty
HR: He was a big guy.
Capone: That doesn't really narrow it. It was probably Drew.
HR: He came to Santa Fe. Really nice guy. Big fan.
Capone: Yeah, that’s probably Drew.
HR: I had the habit, during production, the editors would send me back cut footage within a few days of shooting a big sequence. And, I had big blocks of cut footage, and he happened to be on the set when I got a DVD with the last 20 minutes of the movie, roughly cut together.
And, I always used it to kind of keep the cast enthusiastic. I would say, “Hey, guys, you want to see some cut footage?” “Yeah!” And, everyone would gather around the monitor, cast and crew. So, I forgot he was sitting there, and I showed, like, 20 minutes of the movie, while we were still shooting it. And, I thought, "Fuck, Ain't It Cool is here." And, I turned to him, and I said, “Omigod, what the hell am I doing?” I said, “You may not write about this,” you know. He said, “Don’t worry. I won’t, and I love it.” He said, “I think it’s incredibly good.” And, he didn’t write about it. But, he wrote a really favorable, nice thing about me. I think we had Internet spies a couple of times. I think we were reviewed twice, or maybe even three times, on Ain't It Cool at different times during the tuning up period of the film. I think two of them were good, and the one in the middle was not.
Capone: Speaking of the end of the film, I thought I knew what my lead-off question was going to be, but then, after seeing YEAR ONE, I wanted to ask about the two songs that you have in the end credits…
HR: I can’t even tell you the names of those songs…Oh, “Message in a…”?
Capone: "Message in a Box." I know them. They’re on my iPod. I know and love those songs. That was the second song, by World Party. And, then, Cracker, “I See the Light.” I was really hoping you had picked those songs, because I wanted to pick your brain about why you chose those two. “I See the Light” actually seems most appropriate to the story, because it’s really about going for this sort of transcendental moment or spiritual moment in your life, and then, actually the light at the end of the tunnel is a train coming right at you. That’s what the song’s about, so that seemed fitting. I just love both of those songs, so…
HR: Yeah, well, here’s the thing…You try to go out on something that will characterize the movie and have a good feeling. And, people’s taste in music is even more diverse than their taste in films, right? So, you ask 20 people for their ideas for what would be a great ending song, and you get everything, you know. I mean, it’s so wide.
So, I was, like, trying Bob Marley in there, I was trying Traveling Wilburys--“It’s Alright,” you know, some feel-good songs.
Capone: What’s that…“End of the Line,” that song?
HR: “End of the Line,” yeah, yeah.
Capone: Yeah, that’s the one.
HR: And, I’ve been trying to use [Bob Marley's] “Coming in from the Cold” on every movie I’ve ever made, I think. But, in the end, because I don’t listen to contemporary music and have not for decades, literally decades, I usually delegate some younger people to start making lists, and then we just listen to songs, one after another.
Capone: Those songs are 15, 20 years old, so it makes me feel much older than I usually do.
HR: They pretty much came from the Judd camp, though, I think.
Capone: Okay, okay. They’re great songs. I mean, I just kind of wondered if they were inspired choices, or you just sort of said, “Eh, that sounds good.”
HR: They inspired somebody--I'll put it that way--and they sounded good.
Capone: We’ve actually been in the same room before. I’ve just never been able to sit down and talk before. I saw you do the Q&A after THE ICE HARVEST screening at Columbia a couple of years back, and you kind of had the germ of the idea for this film. I remember you talked about it in very loose terms. Where did this idea start? Where did you kind of get this--other than the bible?
HR: Yeah, well, so, so long ago, I mean, when I look at the whole gestalt of it now, you know, I can go back to probably things I don’t even remember from my childhood. I’m sure Abbott & Costello did something in the ancient world or Roman soldiers somewhere, I don’t know. But, the first really memorable thing to me is Mel Brooks’ THE 2000 YEAR OLD MAN. My college roommates and I memorized every word of it. And, to this day, if someone…if I hear a certain phrase or word, you know, the whole Mel Brooks routine will come back to me. I did a pilot for Paul Reiser that he wrote and produced, and Paul, same thing, loved Mel Brooks. We would just trade 2000 YEAR OLD MAN stuff. So, that was it--someone with a contemporary consciousness talking about the ancient world. Funny.
And, then, I did an improv with…We were putting a National Lampoon show up in New York--Bill Murray, John Belushi, Brian Murray, me, Joe Flaherty, and Gilda Radner. And, we worked through improv, we just brought our Second City style to the Lampoon. And, I’d been watching a documentary about CroMagnon and Neanderthal, and I didn’t realize that they coexisted on the planet. So, I imagined a meeting between CroMagnon and Neanderthal, with Bill playing CroMagnon and John playing Neanderthal. It seemed like a natural, you know? And, Bill played him like a contemporary street hipster, and it was very funny.
I filed that away. We never got a scene out of it, but I filed it away, and then came LIFE OF BRIAN, HOLY GRAIL--just doing comedy in a convincing historical period, they really went out of their way to give it a convincing feeling--something Hollywood movies didn’t have, you know?
Capone: It does feel like a Mel Brooks movie that Mel never made. It does have that quality to it, which is very different than what you’ve done before. It’s more of just the traveling guys. It reminded me a little bit of HISTORY OF THE WORLD and sort of going from place to place.
HR: Yeah, HISTORY OF THE WORLD didn’t have continuity, though..
Capone: True enough.
HR: It was a sketch movie, and we were dealing with the fact that the Old Testament is episodic by nature. So, by conflating the time span of Genesis, I was able to actually turn it into a road trip.
But, there’s the picaresque novel as a model for that kind of journey. I thought, rereading Genesis, it’s one epic journey after another, because people were in movement, crossing throughout the Near East and the Middle East at that time. So, it seemed appropriate to the literary basis of it, the book of Genesis, and to the actual anthropology and history of it.
So, I wasn’t thinking of anyone’s movies in particular, but I looked at every movie for a style, for a tone. I looked for lighting. I mean, I looked at every Cecil B. DeMille movie and went and looked at Pasolini’s THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW, just everything, John Huston’s movie THE BIBLE. So, just want to see what’s out there, you know, what are we doing. And, in the end, I thought, alright, we’re going to make it look like an illustrated children’s bible.
Capone: You’ve cleverly put some very interesting little messages in the film. I actually wrote them down, because they kind of threw me. Right at the beginning, Michael Cera says, “It’s not about the fruit. It’s about doing what you’re told.” I mean, that’s religion, and then there’s talk about maybe God doesn’t exist, and there’s the big speech at the end--maybe you don’t need to follow anybody, maybe you should think for yourself. I mean, these are kind of heavy-duty issues that you’ve tucked away in this film.
HR: Yeah. Well, in fact, it’s why I made the film.
Capone: I remember you talking about that aspect to it back at Columbia a couple of years back.
HR: My rule of thumb--and I may be wrong--is that we can be funny about anything, I mean, any subject, any period, any place, any person, any situation. And, you can find people who will give you a good…a funny script about it, and the right actors will create enough shtick and physical business, you’ll laugh. So, the real burden I feel as a filmmaker is, Why am I doing this? That becomes the big question.
I’m done just kind of, forgive me, jerking myself off by pleasing other people. [laughs] I’ve had the rewards, you know. I kind of knew what it all was by the time we had finished GHOSTBUSTERS. Well, alright, this is what that is, you know. This is what big fame and big success and big money feel like. Alright, so I’m still miserable, so what now? [laughs] And, then, I made a film everyone responded to spiritually, you know, GROUNDHOG DAY. Alright, now I’ve got another kind of respect, you know--psychiatrists, Buddhists, the religious people. It was so embraced by the thinking audience that…Alright, now I’ve got that. Now, they think I’m real smart, okay. So, I have money, I’m smart, I got laid, I’m famous. Alright, now what? So, for me to do a movie now, I have to find something I actually believe in passionately enough to sustain me for a few years. I started this in ’05.
Capone: A friend of mine who is a long-time practicing Buddhist gave me a copy of Shambhala Sun. What a great piece. I learned a lot about you, about other things. I was not aware--maybe because I was just too young when GROUNDHOG DAY came out--that the spiritual community had embraced that film until many years later.
HR: So totally, I mean, it was amazing. But that Shambhala Sun piece, I have to say, it proves to me that even Buddhists are capable of hype. There’s Buddhist hype in that thing. [laughs]
Capone: Yeah. Well, in CADDYSHACK, when Bill Murray says that he caddied for the Dalai Lama, did you ever realize so many years later you’d be sponsoring a visit of his to Chicago?
HR: Well, it was so funny, my wife…as a 50th birthday present, my wife said, “This year, I want to meet the Dalai Lama.” So, she pursued it--a present to herself. We connected with some people who said, “Oh, we can make that happen.” So, we went to Washington, and we did have a private audience. We saw him at a big public gathering where he spoke. And, then, we saw him at a smaller benefit dinner.
But the Buddhists started saying to me that they all loved GROUNDHOG DAY, because of its spirituality. But, they all started saying, “And, what’s this CADDYSHACK thing? His Holiness doesn’t play golf.” I said, “ I…I…I know, I know he’s not a golfer, but…that was just an idea we had.”
Capone: Has the Dalai Lama seen GROUNDHOG DAY, do you know?
HR: Sounds crazy…The morning after his Grant Park talk here, my wife said, “Get up. We’re taking the Dalai Lama to the airport,” which really meant that the friends of ours were going to see him off, the people who really sponsored the event. And, they were inviting us down to the Palmer House to come up to the suite and say ‘goodbye’ to him. And then, they said, “Do you want to ride to the airport in the motorcade?” He had a Secret Service motorcade. So, we rode with his translator, who we’d seen every time the Dalai Lama spoke, he speaks for the Dalai Lama. He is himself a trained Buddhist monk, but Oxford educated. And, I said, “So, does the Dalai Lama see movies?” And, he said, “Oh, yeah. I love movies.” And, he was a fan of GROUNDHOG DAY. And, he said, “His Holiness enjoys movies, but he prefers nature films.” He said the last film he saw was MARCH OF THE PENGUINS. That’s very sweet, picturing the Dalai Lama looking at nature.
Capone: So, you’ve sort of now with this film become, I think, fully incorporated into the sort of Apatow group of players and filmmakers. But, clearly, his career owes a lot to the path that you paved. Has he ever mentioned that to you?
HR: That’s how we came together, I mean, his acknowledgement of that got my attention in all his interviews and stuff, as he came to prominence. And, I thought, Well, that’s so nice. The guy’s mentioning me specifically in big interviews. Then we met at a film festival in France, the Deauville, and, we bonded. He went out of his way to be nice to me, and then hired me to play Seth’s [Rogen] dad, and I was developing this. And, after we had a draft, I thought, Well, it’s crazy not to make this alliance. Judd can bring me back. It’s not like I’d left the business; I can still get projects going virtually whenever I want to, someone will buy my stuff. Comedy always happens in groups, you know. It’s a group experience, and I didn’t have a group anymore. I’m not at Second City or Upright Citizens Brigade or the Groundlings or SNL.
And, Judd is in that world. He’s totally wired into it. He’s one of the hubs in that world. So, I thought…And, he had tremendous credibility with the studios. I thought, Well, this is an alliance that will be so beneficial to me. And, in a way--I swear--I became his student. I mean, he’s doing something so right. And, he has powerful gifts of character--determination and courage, and clarity. He’s less fearful than I am and more energetic. I kind of drafted off him in a big way.
Capone: That was another question I had, about working in groups. You have done that over the years. Are there any pitfalls to that? Or, do you think that the benefits outweigh whatever the pitfalls may be in working with a lot of the same people from film to film.
HR: Well, for me, there are two models. Woody Allen is the comedy auteur. He can go up and write a script by himself--he collaborates sometimes, but we know he’s fully capable of generating a beautiful screenplay that is actually a work of literature. He’s a brilliant filmmaker. He surrounds himself with the best designers and cinematographers, and his films are…they’re artful. Some of them don’t work, but, for the most part, when we look back at that body of work, I think, he’s a genius, he’s a master.
Capone: Oh, sure. I’m going to see his new film [WHATEVER WORKS] right after I leave here.
HR: Yeah, and I’ll love it, I know I’ll love it. And then, there’s the rest of us, who do…For us, comedy is hanging around with a bunch of goons and trying to make each other laugh, and people getting loaded on whatever, and watching TV until something strikes us as really funny. That’s how comedy gets written, funny people sitting around together. That’s not Woody’s experience, although he did it to some extent, very young, I guess, on “Your Show of Shows.” But, most people now have grown up "in the room," either in an improv club or on a TV staff, writing staff, sitting around in a room being funny with other people.
Capone: Speaking of writing with other people, your cowriters on this film obviously have a script--that other people are talking about as well--for GHOSTBUSTERS III. Where is that now? Do you know about where that is?
HR: Yeah, we wrote a story together. We hammered out the story together. I’ve been their supervisor. Ivan Reitman and Dan Aykroyd consult. The studio has approved the story, and they’re writing the script in their hiatus from “The Office.”
Capone: They’re still writing, okay. So, we’ve been hearing all sorts of wild casting rumors about younger…
HR: No, none of that’s real. There will be young ghostbusters, but no specific casting is real, and no director is committed.
Capone: And, for the four main cast members…
HR: Everyone said they’d be in it.
Capone: Okay, it’s strictly a verbal thing at this point?
HR: Yeah, because there’s no…The studio does not want to commit to us at this point. It’s very…When everyone says ‘yes’ that will trigger a very expensive deal for the powers that be.
Capone: Right. It’s interesting that this week, the BluRay of the first film and the video game are hitting, so for a lot of younger people the first time they are exposed to this material. Is that sort of terrifying and exciting?
HR: Well, I gotta say, parents go out of their way to show their kids GHOSTBUSTERS as soon as they’re old enough to watch it, seven, eight years old. I hear this anecdotally everywhere I go: “I just showed my kid GHOSTBUSTERS.” Or, the parents will say, “That’s him! That’s Egon from the movie you saw.” And, the kids will look at me and go, “No.” [laughs] And, I have to tell the kid, “Look, come on, kid, I gained 50 pounds. What’s the problem?”
Capone: I’m sure you’ve commented on this before, but I’ve never read it. What did you think of Michel Gondry’s ‘sweding’ of GHOSTBUSTERS [in BE KIND REWIND]?
HR: [laughs] I just saw a little bit of that, well, because…it’s funny, Jack [Black] was in that movie [BE KIND REWIND]
Capone: That’s right. I was going to ask you if Jack had brought that up.
HR: I didn’t watch the whole movie. I like his work, but I haven’t seen the whole show.
Capone: But, have you seen that segment of it?
HR: Parts of it, with them running around in their aluminum foil suits.
Capone: Is YEAR ONE only the second time that you’ve worked on a period film, outside of ANIMAL HOUSE?
HR: I didn’t direct ANIMAL HOUSE.
Capone: Right, but I mean in terms of just any film that you were involved with.
HR: There was a period segment in BEDAZZLED. Brendan Fraser wishes to be president of the United States, and the devil makes him Abe Lincoln on the last night at the play at the Ford Theater. And, that was fun, re-creating that. That was great.
Capone: It just struck me as I was watching YEAR ONE that you always seem to work in the here and now.
HR: Yeah. No, I don’t think I’ve done any period film.
Capone: It looks like they're cutting us off. Thank you so much for talking to us.
HR: Nice to talk to you, take care.