Conducted ~5/2004 / ~11/2005
Animal House. SCTV. Stripes. Ghostbusters. National Lampoon’s Vacation. Groundhog Day. Ghostbusters.
Whether as an actor, writer, or director, Harold Ramis was a comedy legend.
I’ve known for a while now that Ramis was seriously ill and would soon be leaving us, but his loss is still a terrible blow, not only for the absence of his keen comedy mind, but also because he was a genuinely decent guy in an industry where such a thing is a decided rarity.
Over the years, I only had the chance to chat with Ramis on two all-too-brief occasions.
The first was in conjunction with the DVD release of Analyze That - the sequel to his hit Analyze This.
KEN PLUME: You’ve been involved in quite a few successful films as a director…
HAROLD RAMIS: Yes.
PLUME: But you’ve tended to avoid doing sequels when those films went on, such as with Caddyshack and Vacation…
PLUME: So what led to the decision to finally direct a sequel?
RAMIS: Well, I think with these characters the subject is so rich. I think with both Caddyshack - and I was involved a little bit in the early writing of the Caddyshack sequel - but with both Caddyshack and Vacation, it’s not like the subjects were serious enough that they engaged my interest for another round. I love the characters, and the actors were great, but I didn’t see the need to make another Vacation movie. But here, you have the world of psychology and these characters were so rich, and we really left their story, I felt, at the end of Chapter One - we left with De Niro saying he was quitting the mob - and it seemed like a natural springboard for, “Well, gee… Then what does he do? If he leaves the mob, what kind of life does this guy lead?”
PLUME: What reservations do you normally have when approaching something like a sequel? Because you’ve been involved on both sides, as a director and as an actor…
RAMIS: Yeah, I acted in the Ghostbusters sequel, obviously, and wrote that one with Akyroyd. I think we kind of faced it on the Ghostbusters sequel, too - is how do you give the audience enough of what they liked the first time without just slavishly repeating what worked. I remember when we were writing the Ghostbusters sequel, I said to Ivan Reitman - thinking of the Marshmallow Man at the end of the first movie - I said, “Does something have to get big at the end of this?” And he said, “No, no, no, no, no… We don’t have to repeat that.” The longer we worked on the script, finally Ivan said, “Yeah, I think something should get really big.” So there’s that tendency - “Boy that joke worked so well in the original”, you think to yourself. Is there a way to have De Niro shoot a pillow, or do something that he did in the first one that really worked… The challenge really is to remain true to the characters, remain true to the situations that we’re setting up, and then find new jokes that are just as good - that seem equally honest, but try to be fresh.
PLUME: Were there any lessons that you learned on Ghostbusters II that you applied to Analyze That?
RAMIS: Uhhh…. Well, we should have had something get big at the end of it. Cathy Moriarty…
PLUME: Three stories high, it would have been the perfect capper…
RAMIS: True. Well, you know, it’s true, actually - we have a big action climax to this movie. It turns out to be a ruse - a decoy. It’s like the old rule - if you introduce a gun into the first act of a play, it’s going to be used in the third act. So if you do a movie about criminals, you have to accept there’s going to be a big crime. There’s going to be some gunplay. Some action, if not true violence.
PLUME: When you’re planning out your course of attack on a given project, how do you gauge the X factor of audience reaction?
RAMIS: You really can’t. You just can’t. You don’t have the audience. You have your own taste and judgement, you have the people around you, you have great actors with real taste and intelligence - but what you don’t have is the audience. First and foremost, you have to make the movie for yourself. And that’s not to say “To hell with everyone else”, but what else have you got to go on but your own taste and judgement? Then you realize, “Well, that’s why they hired me - because they like my taste and judgement.”
PLUME: In what areas does the audience reaction tend to surprise you the most?
RAMIS: Sometimes it’s not surprising at all - you have what you know to be a great joke or a great moment, a great situation. You just make sure you don’t screw it up. It’s going to work as long as you don’t mess it up. Hopefully you have plenty of those moments in a big comedy. Then there’s always things we call “mystery laughs” - where the audience laughs really hard at something you didn’t think they’d get, or that you didn’t even know was funny. There’s just something about it. There’s always a couple of those… I can’t remember what they are in this particular movie. I also had a great comedian in Billy Crystal, who knows how to make people laugh. He’s got 30 years on stage… there’s no telling him what’s funny. It comes down to good, healthy, mature collaborations.
PLUME: I know this is often a contentious issue for many directors, but how important to you is the preview process?
RAMIS: Oh, very important. For better or worse, that’s the audience, you know? You tell the studio what audience you want recruited, and they recruit half men/half women from 18-40. If they don’t like it, you get another audience. If they don’t like it, you get another one. And if the third one doesn’t like it - as someone once said, “If six Russians tell you you’re drunk, you’d better lie down.”
PLUME: And then open in France.
RAMIS: Well, yeah. As much as we’d like to believe that our work is great and that we’re infallible, we’re not. Hollywood movies are made for the audience. These are not small European art films we’re making.
PLUME: Which of your films would you say was shaped the most by the testing, or post, process?
RAMIS: The movie Vacation had a whole different ending. They never even got to the amusement park, Wallyworld, at the end of Vacation. The last almost like 20 minutes of the film was entirely different - and bombed so badly that the audience was laughing for 80 minutes and then just stopped cold.
PLUME: What was the original ending?
RAMIS: It was the original ending of John Hughes’s short story. They find the amusement park closed, and they practically killed themselves getting there, so he buys a pellet gun - which we kept - and then he goes to the home of Roy Wally, the Walt Disney character, takes him hostage along with several of his executives, and makes the Walt Disney character perform for him. “I want my dime’s worth of entertainment.” And it just was lame… it fell really flat.
PLUME: So it just wasn’t the Marshmallow Man…
RAMIS: No, no… it was nothin’! It was really disappointing.
PLUME: This begs the question - will we see this ending on the upcoming special edition DVD?
RAMIS: That ending? I hope you’ll never see that ending! It forced me to sit back and look at the film and think, “Well, why did they hate it so much?” Well, it wasn’t that funny. I thought, beyond that, the next question is, “What do we do about it?” So the studio said, “You shoot something.” So do you go back and reshoot what you had and try and make it better, or is there some conceptual flaw? In that case, I thought, “People have waited the whole movie to get to Wallyworld, and we’re going with the joke of frustration. Alright - we’re telling the audience, ‘Well, you waited the whole movie for it - you’re not going to get it.’ ” And I thought, “Oh, that’s wrong. That’s really wrong…”
PLUME: “We really shouldn’t slap them like this…”
RAMIS: That’s like telling the kids, “Kids, by the way, we’re not going to Disneyworld.” So I said, “Well, what if he hijacks the park?” You know, instead of hijacking the Disney character. Much better.
PLUME: So if it weren’t for that testing process…
RAMIS: We wouldn’t have found that out, no. In the movie Bedazzled, we had a sequence that audiences were really not liking…
PLUME: Was this the “Rock Star” sequence?
RAMIS: Yeah…. It really made them uncomfortable.
PLUME: Even watching it on DVD, it made me uncomfortable.
RAMIS: Yeah, it’s raw. It’s really out there. Brendan loved it. It was some of his favorite work… I mean, he really enjoyed doing it, but the audience did not want to get in touch with his dark side. And they told me that very clearly. And we went and shot the Abe Lincoln sequence.
PLUME: Speaking of Bedazzled, what are your thoughts on the influence of the internet on the filmmaking process?
RAMIS: I didn’t read anything on the internet. The print critics were, like, really nasty. Nasty in a way that didn’t seem to me related to the movie. In this case, we were tremendously encouraged by the testing of Analyze That. Audiences loved it. They were telling us that they liked it as much as the original and - in many cases - better than the original. The numbers were great… as good as any comedy that I’ve ever worked on. And even anecdotally, we recorded the laughs in the theater. They were huge laughs, and they were consistent through the whole picture. So we went into the opening process thinking, “Boy, people are going to love this movie.” And then the critics - it felt to me that they weren’t reviewing the movie, they were reviewing the showbusiness aspects of the film… what De Niro got. Whenever a critic mentions the salary of an actor, I’m thinking, “He’s not talking about the movie.”
PLUME: And then they pull out the “Sequels Stink!” boilerplate…
RAMIS: Oh yeah! I thought, “this is not a fair shake for this movie.” It seems to me they’re working off some kind of residual resentment - either they’re tired of Bob doing comedy… Maybe there’s some kind of puritanical streak in the critics where they just want him to go back to being the distinguished American actor that they’ve put on a high pedestal.
PLUME: Or they’re exorcising leftover pain from Rocky and Bullwinkle…
RAMIS: Yeah - that it was cute the first time he did a comedy and, okay, it was cute the second time, but enough. Let’s get him back into Travis Bickle mode.
PLUME: Before he becomes Leslie Nielsen…
RAMIS: Yeah. So I though there was a fundamental disrespect in that aspect of the reviews.
PLUME: Which affected the box office?
RAMIS: Well, I think the critics hurt us, and the box office was kind of lackluster. There was kind of a doldrum period in there, and it wasn’t until after the movie opened that the studio told me that, traditionally, that was one of the worst weekends in movie history. That that’s traditionally an awful weekend. Truthfully, I think I’m still gun-shy about the marketing process in general. I don’t want to know too much about it. But even prior to the reviews, we weren’t tracking that well. The tracking was telling us that people had reservations about going to the sequel, or that they were more interested in other movies that were coming out around the same time.
PLUME: Just a confluence of bad events…
RAMIS: Yeah… and I’ve seen that kind of train wreck before. Multiplicity was a movie that tested really well. People seeing the movie really liked it, but then the studio couldn’t market it. We opened on a weekend with nine other films. We never tracked better than the Shaquille O’Neal movie Kazaam.
PLUME: A bit of a black mark on the career there…
RAMIS: I know! But, you know, you’re tracking along with Kazaam - it’s not a comment on the work, it’s a comment on the marketplace.
PLUME: But now, with the afterlife of DVD…
RAMIS: That’s the good news, is that people who I think shied away or were skeptical of the sequel, but liked Analyze This, I think now will get a chance to see that this is, indeed, a really good sequel, and really worth it.
PLUME: So what’s next up on your plate?
RAMIS: I’m looking for something that I care about, you know?
PLUME: So it’ll be Ghostbusters 3…
RAMIS: Oh yeah! But I never work just to work. It’s some combination of laziness and self-respect.
PLUME: Is there any one project that you’ve personally wanted to get off the ground?
RAMIS: Actually, there’s a personal story of my own that I will write at some point, and it’s a film that I will happily make. It could very well be the next thing I do, unless someone shows me something great. It’s a personal story of a time in my life, in 1967, and it’ll be funny and poignant, and really good.
I also had a chance to chat with him about his film The Ice Harvest, a darkly comedic noir starring John Cusack as a mob lawyer who rips of his boss (Randy Quaid) with the aid of Billy Bob Thornton - which means they’ve got to get out of town, fast. Unfortunately, an ice storm hits - making for a complicated night, to say the least.
KEN PLUME: It’s interesting to note the reaction that Ice Harvest is getting…
HAROLD RAMIS: I haven’t read any… I’ve only read one rave review - and that’s how I’m keeping it!
PLUME: It’s seems that people are surprised by how dark the film is…
RAMIS: I’ve been hearing that a lot, yeah…
PLUME: But looking back over the films you’ve done, there’s always been an edge to the comedy…
RAMIS: Yeah, well, for me, the best comedy - if it doesn’t have an edge, then it’s not for me. I see a lot of sweet, family comedy out there, and I’m not going. I’m not interested. Life is interesting *because* it’s light and dark, you know?
PLUME: Do you think that, in some ways, people misunderstand the films you’ve done in the past, in treating the tone of Ice Harvest as a surprise?
RAMIS: Well, the most extreme example is there are people who saw Groundhog Day and immediately recognized what the movie was about - that it was kind of a very thoughtful exploration of the meaning of life, in a certain way. And there’s no answers for this, but it was a thoughtful film. But there were others who came away, having just enjoyed it as a comedy, and then several days later came up to me and said, “You know, I think there was something else going on in that film”… You know? So much about what’s important to one person is just not important to someone else, and what’s insightful to one person is just patently obvious or pedestrian.
PLUME: Is there a difference between what attracts you to a project as a director, as compared to what attracts you to actually sitting down as a writer to craft a script yourself?
RAMIS: Well, the investment that a director makes in a film is huge in terms of time and energy and commitment, so I really have to believe in something if I’m going to work on it. I’ll throw writing in there, too. It’s not that I’m so rich that I don’t have to work, but I don’t have to work on stuff I don’t want to do. And I don’t have to work at my “craft” to make a living, so I only do the things that deeply interest me… Because I just can’t seem to find the energy to do things that I’m not really committed to.
PLUME: Do you feel that there’s a perception within the industry of a “Harold Ramis” type of project that is brought to you?
RAMIS: Well, you know, it took a long time for my agents to kind of get it - I’ve had only two agencies in 20 years - and eventually they kind of figure, “Okay, this project will interest Harold, because there’s something going on…” Something more than what’s on the surface, or there’s some big idea kind of at stake in the script. It doesn’t mean that because the ideas are big that the movies have to be serious - but if there isn’t an important idea behind it, then I kind of lose track of why I’m doing it.
PLUME: Is there any film that didn’t have that important idea, that you regretted doing after the fact?
RAMIS: Well, I mean, sometimes it’s a bit of a stretch… They’re not films that I’m responsible for - but even having worked on the Caddyshack sequel was a big mistake… (laughing) I worked on the script when Rodney Dangerfield was going to do it, because Rodney was a friend and really wanted to do it. And we did a movie called Armed & Dangerous, which I produced, which… you know… no one would have cared if it hadn’t gotten made. At least there was kind of a news event behind that story…
PLUME: And it had a good cast…
RAMIS: Yeah, with John Candy and Eugene Levy…
PLUME: You don’t seem to have had the greatest of luck with sequels…
RAMIS: Well, actually, the two big ones - Ghostbusters and Analyze That - were both driven by what I thought were worthy follow-up ideas to the original movies. To some extent they got a little twisted in the execution. Ghostbusters II I didn’t direct, so I was a writer in service of the director, Ivan Reitman, and the actors. Analyze That got bashed a little bit, and it got a little out-of-hand in the last act, but I actually thought that that movie was driven by something really interesting and important.
PLUME: When you come to a project like The Ice Harvest, that has a strong script behind it, what component do you bring to the table that makes the project your own? Specifically in this case, what did you do to personalize the project for you?
RAMIS: For me, a movie is a set of opportunities… And I don’t mean that in any kind of - there’s no false humility here. You’re working with other people - you’re working with other writers’ ideas - and in this case, I feel an obligation to the writers to make the movie that they envisioned. Especially when the writers are this good - especially when one of them is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and the other has 3 Academy Awards… And (Robert) Benton, himself, has directed some great, outstanding movies. So I wanted to make a movie that they’d be proud of, and that they thought reflected what they were going for in the script. And then you have actors you’re responsible to, to make them look good - and you can’t do that by dominating them or forcing them to be something they’re not. It’s a series of agreements that you make, all along the way, with everybody. And sometimes it’s purely your vision, and sometimes it’s a vision you’ve adjusted to accommodate someone else’s visions - and sometimes it’s something that you never would have anticipated, that resulted from just the reality of doing it… the existential circumstances around it.
PLUME: Being both an actor and a writer, how much of an influence do you think that has on you as a director, in both how you interact and the choices you make?
RAMIS: I’m probably more solicitous of actors than some directors might be. I both love them and fear them…
PLUME: In what circumstances do you fear them?
RAMIS: Well, I fear conflict and disagreement, you know, because in one way you’re at the mercy of the actor. If he’s angry or pissed off or doesn’t feel he’s being heard, he can really kind of sandbag the production, you know?
PLUME: Where does conflict generally arise, do you find?
RAMIS: Truthfully, I think it happens when the actor doesn’t trust the director, or doesn’t feel like he’s being well-served in some way, or he feels manipulated. I start out by making an alliance with the actors - I want them to know that my only interest is in making them look good. Because actors - they’re very vulnerable. They take a huge chance. They expose themselves in public, and they know they can look bad - it’s always the possibility. They rely solely on the director, when they’re doing it, to tell them if it’s working or not - and if they don’t trust that *you* know if it’s working, then you’re going to have some conflict… they’ll stop listening to you, they’ll start asking other actors on the set… they may find passive-aggressive ways to just start sabotaging the production. Because if they think it’s going to be bad, then they just start distancing themselves right away, you know - like, “I’m not going to take this seriously, because it sucks,” and they’ll start denying their own work, in a certain way. So you want to keep actors engaged and believing that what they’re doing is valuable and good - and I know what that feels like, having been an actor, and I know what that requires.
PLUME: What’s been the biggest confidence curve you’d had to overcome with an actor on a given project?
RAMIS: Well, usually they’re trusting me… ummm… Maybe it starts early, maybe it’s something in my demeanor - I’m kind of like part-shrink, part-rabbi, you know? I remember I was doing Multiplicity with Michael Keaton, and I didn’t know Michael really well. Before we started shooting the movie, we were going to do a test on the very complicated compositing effects - because he was going to be playing multiple clones of himself. So for the sake of the effect that we were testing, I asked Michael to get up and walk across the stage, and he said, “Why would I do that? Why would my character get up on that line?” And I thought, “Oh boy. This is like a test, right now.” And I said, “No… All right. Don’t. Don’t do it.” I said, “I’m never going to ask you to do anything you don’t want to do - because my job to convince you that it’s the right thing, and if I’m not convincing you, I’m not doing my job. So if you don’t want to do what I want you to do, and I can’t convince you to do it, we’ll find something that you do want to do, that I like.” It just kind of tumbled out of my mouth, you know? But I believed it, as I said it, and I never betrayed him - for 100 shooting days. He never had to do anything he didn’t fully believe in. And that’s a big confidence builder -then you’re the ally of the actor, not the enemy of the actor.
PLUME: You’ve had this experience with a few actors - is there a difference between the rapport you have with an actor when you’re acting alongside them, as opposed the rapport when you’re directing them?
RAMIS: Well, for better or worse, I try to be the same person - no matter what I’m doing. And I mean no matter what - whether I’m talking to my kids or talking to the president of a movie studio or the president of the United States, you know?
PLUME: But when you send the studio head to their room…
RAMIS: (laughing) I don’t send my kids to their rooms! Reality is hard to know sometimes, especially in entertainment. It’s so easy to delude yourself. Paul Shaffer - the bandleader of the Letterman show who used to work with us at the Lampoon and stuff - but Paul was the first among many people that got famous… Paul went to LA to do a pilot, before any of us went - before Belushi or Gilda or Chevy or Chris Guest, or anyone, got well known - and when Shaffer came back, everyone was asking him, “What’s Hollywood like?” And he said, “Well, it’s like people on either side of you whispering bulls*** into your ears at the same time.” So it’s very hard to come by the truth. No one wants to tell you bad news, everyone wants to flatter you, and you could really delude yourself, you know? It’s like, when you’re in the meeting with the executives or the producers, you know - “You’re a genius! What a genius! Oh, this is going to be so great!” And then the meeting breaks up and they say, “Oh, you go ahead - we’re going to stay and talk for a minute.” And you know what that meeting’s like.
PLUME: Was there any point that you fell under the Hollywood delusion, or have you always kept a level head about the business and exactly what you’re dealing with?
RAMIS: Well, I came into it strong. We came into the film business with Animal House. We came right from new York with a script that turned into the biggest comedy ever, so we were, in a way, writing our own ticket. I was able to say, “I want to direct the next movie I write.” Which was Caddyshack. So all that was solid - we weren’t asking for favors, we weren’t depending on anybody. To the extent that I’ve always just taken the approach that, “I’m gonna do what I wanna do, and they’ll get on board or they won’t. Or I’ll find a place that will let me.” Of course I want to hear legitimate feedback and intelligent responses to what I’m doing - and it’s they’re money, of course, so they can always say no… But they can’t make me do what they want me to do.
PLUME: I was speaking to Rick Moranis a few weeks back, and it seems like there’s a definite independent streak to the performers that came out of Second City and SCTV and made their way to Hollywood - performers like you, Rick, Dave Thomas, Martin Short, Eugene Levy, etc. It seems you’re people that aren’t easily pushed into doing a project if it’s not something you don’t want to do.
RAMIS: Well, Second City… I don’t think Rick did the stage show, but he did SCTV… and in almost every case, anything associated with Second City - we had directors, but we were responsible for generating our own material. And we also had a rule - “Always work from the top of your intelligence. “So there was kind of an autonomy that developed. We became self-validating, somehow, and that’s real important. It’s hard enough being a performer or being in showbusiness, because our success is dependent upon the approval of others. But the approval of other people can be a very hollow thing if you’re not self-validating at the same time. If I like what I do, then I’m fine, for the most part. Of course I want other people to like it - but if they don’t, it doesn’t make me question my own taste or ability… It just tells me what’s real - not everyone gets this, not everyone likes this. And it’s very hard to do something that everybody’s going to like. So if you live and die based on other people’s approval, your life can be a roller coaster of illusory pain, or of illusory grandiosity. I just try to trust the people around me that I really trust, work for the smartest, most tasteful 5% of the audience, and hope everyone else comes along.
PLUME: How would you compare the director you are today to the director you were 25 years ago?
RAMIS: I feel like I’m the same guy, with a lot more technical craft experience. The man I am today versus the man I was 25 years ago - life is the great teacher, obviously, and experience has taught me a lot of things about being a person. And it’s not that what was important to me when I was starting out - those things are still important, but just developmentally, other things become important… as you age, as you have children of your own, I’m in a long-term committed relationship with my wife… all these things change you from when you’re 21 and starting out. As Oliver Platt says in our movie, “The only thing left for men is money and p***y.” Well, when you’re young, that’s all you’re working for. If you’re still doing that when you’re 60, you should probably see a therapist.
PLUME: Or get a smoking jacket…
RAMIS: Right! That’s true…
PLUME: And I hope we eventually see that film you were talking about a few years back, based on that even in your life, from 1967…
RAMIS: That would be cool… Somebody asked me about that recently. I’m looking at it again and seeing what I would need to do to turn it into a film.
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