Harold Ramis is the comedy writer and director everyone's cribbed from, from Sandler to Apatow. After leaving "Second City TV," Ramis went on to write, direct, and occasionally star in comedic touchstones like Animal House, Caddyshack, Stripes, Groundhog Day, and of course, Ghostbusters, which have starred a slew of loveable losers fighting to get their sh*t together in the army, on the golf course, or in the middle of a war with supernatural beings. After taking a few years off, Ramis is taking it back to the beginning with this summer's Year One, which stars Jack Black and Michael Cera as loveable loser cavemen who, when Black's Zed accidentally burns down the village, find themselves in the middle of a very familiar holy war. Read on and find out what the big daddy of buddy movies had to say about evolution and self-improvement, male full frontal nudity and the lack thereof, and what the heck is up with Ghostbusters 3.
Year One opens nationwide this Friday, June 19th.
Cinematical: How much more stressful is it to deal with marketing a summer blockbuster and competing with the other movies that are out?
Harold Ramis: You know, it's the same level of stress every time you make a movie, because you've pinned all your hopes and dreams on it and you've fantasized what success will be like, but at the time you can't escape fantasizing what failure will be like. [laughs]
I conceived this movie on a big scale, to do a Biblical epic comedy. I knew it was ambitious and when the studio said "Yes, we'll do it," and it became real, I thought, "Oh my God!" [laughs] It's one thing to fail small, but to make a big movie that doesn't work is so risky.
It is of Biblical proportions. How did your cavemen wander into the Old Testament?
Ramis: How'd they get there? I've been kind of thinking about religion a lot, and I guess some people think as you get older, you get more religious, but it's not that I've gotten more religious, I just think more about religion itself philosophically and historically and stuff. And I met a rabbi I really liked, and interestingly enough, it was right after 9/11, and he was saying things that really resonated for me because I thought, it seemed on the surface just like we were starting a new Crusade, that the Judeo-Christian world was going to war with the Muslim world, and that seemed insane to me. I'm so political. I couldn't believe, I couldn't accept that these were just religious differences. It's about culture and politics and economics. And I wanted to understand it better. And then I wanted to do a comedy about it.
Did the ongoing discussions about evolution also have anything to do with it?
Ramis: Creationism, yeah... I mean, it seemed to me that fundamentalism and orthodoxy, [they're], as my psychiatrist would say, are overdetermined. [laughs] That people who need to believe so strongly, there's something psychological driving it. I've also been kind of an existentialist and I started things about religion in those terms, and a lot of complicated thoughts about that. About that religion arises as a response to our despair and the uncertainty of life. [laughs] People long for certainty. They dream of paradise. There are two paradises people dream of: the one we came from and the one we're going to, and everything in the middle is terrible. [laughs] So I wanted to address that and addressing it through these characters, through Michael and Jack, was really fun and interesting -- one character who believes and one who can't believe.
They're a lot more likeable than some of your previous underdogs that we've seen in your movies. Jack Black is maybe like a cuddlier Bill Murray type.
Ramis: Yeah, he's so much more gentle and loveable. People, I think, admire Bill and admire his courage, [but] he's a little scary. He has a lot of edge. He has the power to hurt, and his comedy can be very sharp. And Jack is like, he's the Kung Fu Panda. He's just the sweetest guy in the world. There's nothing dangerous about him. He can be crazy, but he's only a danger to himself and maybe some collateral damage around him, which is sort of what happens in the movie. But he's so sweet and well intentioned, and he's just, you know, his characters, maybe they're a little too lazy, maybe they're a little too self-indulgent, but they're never mean or cruel.
In the same vein, you're the originator of these buddy comedies, and in a way Judd Apatow and his circle are your progeny. Obviously, there's a ton of crossover in your movie, especially with Judd as a producer and your cameos in his movies. How did you guys get hooked up?
Ramis: I just started noticing as he came into public consciousness that he kept referencing films I'd worked on, and then more specifically, just mentioning me as a big influence, and I thought, "Well, that's cool." I'm happy to be associated with his work in any way. He claims that he'd stalked me at the Deauville Film Festival in France but really he and Seth Rogen were there with The 40-Year-Old Virgin and I was there with The Ice Harvest, a film I did with John Cusack and Billy Bob Thorton, and they called me at the hotel and said, you know, can we have a drink, and I wanted to meet him. And I guess to them, it was like I was the Babe Ruth of comedy or something [laughs] but we had a great time. They came to my film and then we had dinner after, and then the next night I went to The 40-Year-Old Virgin, we had dinner after, and then Judd very generously volunteered to come to Austin, Texas, to present me with an award for screenwriting, and he was great about it. And then he put me in Knocked Up.
Judd's a big advocate for male frontal nudity in the movies, and I'm wondering if that had anything to do with initially the R rating that Year One got.
Ramis: No, no. I'm not a believer in male frontal nudity. [laughs] Jack is a very brave actor, and I've seen his ass in movies but uh, [laughs] uh, never his frontal. [laughs] I'm embarrassed by it myself, in films, and it's funny, you know, I thought it was funny in [Forgetting] Sarah Marshall.
So what was cut?
Ramis: Oh, we didn't come close to that. We were contractually going to be a PG-13, so it would have been pointless to go that far with anything. You know, with the movie set in Sodom and with all the talk of circumcision, we were always right on the edge, so it was more about sexual references and language than... We never showed anything. The movie's very tame in terms of flesh. For a movie where the whole last act takes place in Sodom, there's no female nudity.
I was rewatching several of your older movies, and I was like, wow, there are a lot more breasts in here than I remember.
Ramis: You know, it was almost obligatory. I was told I had to in Caddyshack. And I backed away from it -- the actress wasn't comfortable with it, and I said fine, it's fine with me, and the producer wouldn't allow it.
Can you give me any juicy new details about Ghostbusters 3?
Ramis: Nothing that juicy. Just that there's finally a group will. I mean, I think it's a... Dan Ackroyd has always kept the flame burning, but I think the rest of us have come to believe there is a public appetite for it. People want to see it. But no one wants to do a bad sequel. We're cautious. We're very cautious. And there will be a first draft coming from Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, who were my writing partners on Year One.
Dan seems to be really interested in Alyssa Milano and Eliza Dushku.
Ramis: He mentioned names. Yeah, he's named some names. We've never discussed any of it. No one knows who's directing the movie. There's no casting. You know, it's just easy to imagine certain people being really good in it.
Can we hope for an all-girl Ghostbuster team?
Ramis: All girls? Yeah. [laughs]
That would be awesome.
Ramis: With frontal nudity. [laughs]
No. Well, I mean you could. I'm not averse to it. Whatever you guys like.
Ramis: Yeah, I don't know. I'd love to see a girl Ghostbuster, but I'm not saying that there will be or, you know, it's not an announcement.
The Ghostbusters game is getting really good reviews, which is pretty unique for a game based on a movie. What made you decide to get involved?
Ramis: The game designers came to us and they were so into it. They were such huge fans. We really felt like they would protect the franchise and honor it, as much any comedy movie deserves to be honored. But they were very serious about it, and they showed us very convincing illustrations and they had a really good kind of layout for the game and a rough story, and we thought, well, why not? It looks like it's gonna be a first class exploitation of it, and certainly our core audience is into video games. I watched my fourteen-year-old play it the other day. I can't play complicated games. He got into it... The disc starts with a story. It's like you're watching a film. And [my sons] kept saying -- and they've played a lot of games -- they said, "Wow, this is like a movie. This is really cool."
Is there going to be a Meatballs remake?
Ramis: [laughs] I noticed that that popped up on my IMDb profile. I don't know where that comes from, I don't know whoever said it. I never said it. I was so tangentially involved with Meatballs. I get a lot of credit for very little work.... Things happen on IMDb all the time like that. Things pop up. I don't know who posts these things.
I've read in interviews that you have a screenplay kicking around about your work in a psych ward, and I'm really interested to hear about some of your darker ideas for movies.
Ramis: Yeah, that's one of them. That one is... No one likes existential comedy. People like a nice happy ending, and I didn't have any happy endings for my psych ward experience. The movie was really about suffering on three levels. I was doing that job while the Vietnam War was raging, and I had gotten involved with my first wife at that time who was really -- she suffered deeply, both personally and for the world. She had a great kind of, I heard the phrase once, "altruistic panic." People who are so distressed with the human condition that it puts them in a frenzy or makes them terribly sad. So there was the global suffering represented by the war, and then the suffering of these patients that I had to deal with eight hours a day or more, sometimes two shifts. And I was put on suicide prevention one on one with people who had made sincere attempts, and spending eight hours a day protecting someone's life, you know, you can't not talk to them. And I'm not a therapist; I was 21 years old, 22, trying to tell them why they should live from my point of view, from the perspective of a 22-year-old. It's ridiculous. I had nothing but platitudes and false hope and no real help.
And it sounds like a movie, but the woman I spent the most time with was beautiful and in her later 20's, had a child, and seemingly everything to live for, but she kept making attempts and then wanted me to get more personally involved in her life. And that's where the screenplay went.
That sounds like it would be a really good book.
Ramis: I could make it as a small movie. The reason it can't be a big movie is 'cause I'd have to make it a happy ending, those crazy patients at the psych ward. I don't want to turn it into a sitcom, and I didn't want to put a false happy ending on it. So that dictates a much smaller movie.
How do you choose your projects?
Ramis: Truthfully, I've never been driven by any commercial concern. I want my work to be popular, and ideally I want it to be profitable for the people who invest in it, but I've never been able to do anything that I couldn't believe in in a bigger sense. If it's something I'm given, I have to find something that feels important to me, that it touch on some area of human life or experience that is meaningful. And if it's something I'm creating, I work from a place of meaning, not just from a place of comedy. You know, what's on my mind, what's affecting the people around me, what needs to be pointed out somehow.
All of your comedies have self-improvement as a theme in them. Even the most unlikeable characters learn something eventually.
Ramis: I'm both a realist but I'm an optimist. I believe people can change, but I believe it's a difficult process and it takes getting past yourself, often. We're so self-defeating and self-limiting. It's the story of Groundhog Day; he's basically got to kill himself before he can become a real person.
Year One ends happily.
Ramis: We had two endings. We had the George Bush ending, where Sodom was destroyed [laughs], bombed, you know, from the air by God. [And then] we had the Obama ending.
How did you decide which to choose in the end? Was it affected by the political climate?
Ramis: It was affected by the climate, and by the audience response to both endings, it seemed like people needed to hear "Yes, we can" more than they needed to hear "Let's bomb the shit out of our enemies." [laughs]
So are you feeling more optimistic?
Ramis: You know, I'm neither. I believe that... part of the point of Year One is that things have always been the same, and I guess you can project forward and say they will always be the same, but by the same [token], that means that incredible goodness and opportunity for goodness can coexist with all the so-called evil we see around us. You can't change the world, but you can certainly be responsible for what you do in it.
How much was that informed by the actors you chose? Did you start off with this feeling or did it evolve with Michael and Jack?
Ramis: They are sweet, and we intended them to be sweet. With different casting, it could have been more romantic. Jack's could have been more lecherous or lascivious or more driven by lust, but he's driven by appetite. The real point was something I'd been thinking about for a long time, based on... The Dalai Lama summed it up, not to me personally, but I did put it on my Christmas card, he said that even if there was no God, no Jesus, no Buddha, no Allah, we would still want to do the right thing because it's the only thing that makes sense. So to me that speaks to personal responsibility, doing the right regardless of your belief, [or] in spite of your beliefs often, to exercise a kind of personal responsibility in the world. And that's what happens. Jack and Michael argue about whether God exists or doesn't exist. In the end, it doesn't matter whether you're thinking God exists or not; you still have to act.