Harold Ramis: 'I Think Anything Can Be Made Funny'
Harold Ramis has a busy weekend coming up: First, the veteran actor-writer-director will uncork his latest comedy, the historical Jack Black/Michael Cera farce Year One, in multiplexes nationwide. The following day, June 20, Ramis goes a little more micro at the Nantucket FiIm Festival, which will honor Ramis with its Screenwriter's Tribute and a 25th anniversary screening of Ghostbusters. (He'll also participate in a comedy roundtable with Ben Stiller, Peter Farrelly and John Hamburg the same day.) The comic maven spoke with Movieline recently about looking back in time -- from 25 years to two millenniums -- as well as his most underappreciated films and what he absolutely doesn't want Ghostbusters 3 to be.
Year One seems like an unusual direction for you: A period comedy, as much as something like this can be considered "period." What inspired you to follow that angle?
I was a huge fan of Mel Brooks's 2000 Year Old Man. I just thought it was so funny to take a character who had a contemporary consciousness -- the persona of an old Yiddish man -- and look at history from a very mundane point of view. It seemed funny to me. And then years later, seeing Holy Grail and Life of Brian, I thought Monty Python really did well in period. And it seemed like a way to say a lot of things about our own world. And then, post-9/11, I started thinking about fundamentalism and orthodoxy and the origin of religion. I'm a history buff anyway, so I started putting things together: Early man, and I started reading Genesis, but putting a historical and psychosocial interpretation to it. It started to feel like there was a comedy there.
What was funny about it?
Well, one way I always work is to project myself into a situation. So I think how I would have behaved in the Garden of Eden. Would I have eaten that fruit? And I thought, "Why would I? In order to get laid? Well, yeah, I'd do that." And then I started thinking about the implications of that, and I thought, "What kind of hunter-gatherer would I be?" Would there be lazy hunter-gatherers among the tribe? There had to be some slackers. All that started to seem very funny to me.
What other historical periods or events provoke that kind of consideration for you?
I think anything can be made funny. I truly believe that. So rather than starting with, "What could be funny?", I always start with, "What do I want to say, and what am I interested in?" I don't know what that thing is yet -- what the next big idea is. But I certainly thought that the big, basic life questions -- if there's a God or not, is life purposeful or not, does life have inherent meaning -- whether we know it or not, we wrestle with these every day of our lives. If I had something great to say about the medieval period or about the American frontier... Actually, I did have an idea for a Western that I started developing in the '80s, but I kind of let it languish. It's still a good idea; I'm just not sure its relevant.
Year One features a newer generation of talent than that which you've generally worked with. How do today's newer batch of comic stars match up with guys like Bill Murray, Billy Crystal and others with whom you've made hits?
They're great. And Jack's been around. From the first time I saw him in High Fidelity, he was so good and so convincing that I wasn't even sure he was a real actor. I thought, "Who is this guy? And how can he be so funny and seem so convinced himself?" And then to hear him play his music at the end of the movie? "Wow, he can sing and play?" Like everyone else in the entertainment word, I started tracking him and was just amazed at how winning he is and how much fun he is to watch. And now he's done more movies than I have. And Michael, I started noticing him on Arrested Development -- he came to that show when he was 13 years old. And I thought, "This kid has a seamless acting style. He's totally convincing; he's a total natural. And also funny." He's like a grown-up in a teenager's body.
But when you work with your contemporaries, you tend know their sensibilities and what they're good at. When you have actors like this, do you find yourself adapting more to their style, or the opposite, or both?
Well, they have this kind of thing where my movies to them were legendary in some way. And I don't say that in a grandiose way; everyone kind of cherishes the media of their youth. So these guys have this reverence toward those early films, but in the end I'm a person, and they're people, and their reverence would evaporate really quickly if we were doing a crappy job while we were shooting. So my take is that, as a director, I just have to remember that every actor speaks a different language. It depends on their training, their intellect, their psychology. So many actors are just not introspective. There's no point in talking to them in a deeply psychological way. Others are completely introspective and require a lot of psychology. Others are completely mechanical; I've had some actors say to me, "I only need four directions: Bigger, smaller, faster, slower." And that's all they want to hear. Others are very political, and they want to talk about the sociology and the politics of the film and their role in it, or what it represents. I have to be able to speak in all of those modes, and that's true of any generation.
You're receiving a screenwriting award this weekend at the Nantucket Film Festival. In what ways has that prompted you, if at all, to reflect on your last three decades of work?
[Laughs] I'm forced to reflect all the time. There isn't a thought in my head that's new to me, because I'm thinking all the time about what this means, and I'm forced to talk about it, too. I've received similar awards in the past, and I just feel lucky that people are still thinking that way about my work. But they're going to show Ghostbusters on one night, and then Year One on another night. I'm much more interested, obviously, in the response to Year One. The past is the past; people like it, but there's not much more I can say or do about it. I'm looking at the present and future in terms of my work.
As such, there's a lot of talk about a third Ghostbusters film. Dan Aykroyd has said publicly that it's closer than ever. How close is "close"?
Well, there will be a script. I worked with my co-writers on Year One to hammer out a new story for a sequel. From there it's anyone's guess. If the script is good, maybe it'll motivate everybody and there could be a movie in which we would play mentors, kind of passing the torch to a group of new Ghostbusters.
Of course, there are so many reboots and reimaginings and the like these days. Considering that mentor role, do you consider this more of a reboot, or something more in tune with the original films?
You have to approach these things conceptually, for sure. You're not thinking about it abstractly in terms of the times we live in and the audience. But then I think that if I take those first two movies for real, it's not so much a reinvention of the old Ghostbusters. It's, "Where are they now? What have they been doing for 20 years?" In asking those questions, it also begs the question of what happens to the audience in the last 20 years. What do they now believe about the supernatural? Is there more or less evidence for paranormal activity? I have to think about what's credible, what's believable, what new information does the audience have. And that's interesting for me. It means we have to revisit the pseudoscience of Ghostbusting. It also means we have to revisit the spiritual and psychological content to see where we are.
But wouldn't you need to revisit it in part with a more cynical era in mind? The younger actors to whom you're passing this torch have a totally different audience.
The problem with any sequel is that you're using the original as a template, and no one would be doing a sequel if the audience didn't love the original. It's good news and bad news: It's good marketing news, and bad news for the creators. How can we capture what people loved about the first movie without being the first movie, or just being a rehash of it? The Star Trek reinvention worked great because they able to project back in time. We're not going to tell an origin story of who the Ghostbusters were before you met them in the first movie. But I would hate to do Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull. It didn't seem like there was a lot new going on there -- just more of the same and not as interesting.
Are there any of these younger stars we were discussing -- like a Michael Cera or maybe a Seth Rogen -- whom you'd be interested in involving in the franchise?
Any of these guys would be great. I kind of resist speculating, because almost anything that any of us say turns into an Internet rumor. I saw Seth Rogen interviewed because someone believed he was committed to the new Ghostbusters. Someone heard Judd Apatow was directing the new Ghostbusters. Anyone can imagine who would be good in a new Ghostbusters movie, and it's pretty much the same list we would make.
Reflecting again, is there any one film of yours that you think was particularly underappreciated in its time?
I don't think they're going to show Club Paradise, but that had some funny stuff in it. Stuart Saves His Family was so underappreciated; I thought that was a really good movie. The others were well-known, they were just more or less well-attended. Bedazzled has a lot of people who like it. So does Multiplicity. But it didn't move the needle in a big way.
Did you broach the idea of maybe reviving some of those titles when you're honored at Nantucket?
No, you know, it seems people just want to see the same ones. They want to see Groundhog Day or they want to see Ghostbusters or Caddyshack or Animal House.
Are you cool with that? Do you ever resent that to some degree, or feel inclined to get these other films recognized more?
Well, I kind of trust the audience. We had a less-than-satisfying first preview of Year One, and my co-producer said, "I hate that audience." And I said, "It's not the audience! Never blame the audience." Everyone won't like everything. If I make a movie that 90 percent of the audience likes, well, that's great, you know? But if I make a movie that only 60 percent of the audience likes, that doesn't mean it's a failure. It just means it was better suited to that 60 percent. They just got it a different way. ♦