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Make no mistake, Harold Ramis is in the franchise business. His comedies Ghostbusters, Caddyshack, and Analyze This—which Ramis variously directed, wrote, produced, or acted in, or some combination of the above—laid sufficient groundwork for direct (and in one case, very unsuccessful) sequels. Then there’s his work on Animal House and Groundhog Day, prequels to a big fat hunk of recent comedies. And now, after directing The Ice Harvest and a handful of killer episodes of The Office, Ramis is planting fresh ground while getting back to his roots. In the former case, it’s a recent collaboration with Judd Apatow: Year One finds Jack Black and Michael Cera, hunter-gatherers living in the time of Genesis, getting mixed up with some of the Bible’s early hits. (In spite of the posters, there are no cavemen; no caves, even.) The latter is Ghostbusters III, which Ramis recently announced has been slated for 2012. The day after Year One premièred at the inaugural Just For Laughs Chicago festival, where Ramis received a lifetime-achievement award, The A.V. Club sat down with him to talk about Noah’s Ark, the themes in his writing, and Bill Murray—whom Ramis hasn’t been in contact with since the pair allegedly had a disagreement about Groundhog Day.
The A.V. Club: First things first: Where are all the cavemen in Year One?
Harold Ramis: We did a photo session when we were still in New Mexico with Jack and Michael, in each of the wardrobes from the worlds they venture into—them as hunter-gatherers, them as Hebrews, them in slave wardrobe, them in Sodom armor. The heroic images of the armor were great, but it was funnier to see them in their hunter-gatherer gear. I always point out that it’s not a caveman movie. There are no caves in the film. They’re Stone Age hunter-gatherers. It’s a big difference. I’m very specific. I try to work from the real world. In doing a historical film… They found the Iceman, a frozen, mummified corpse found in the Alps. A glacier melted, and they found a guy wearing skins, carrying gourds and Stone Age tools. And I thought “Well, that’s the guy, and where was he going?” [Chuckles.] “Well, he was crossing the Alps, maybe going to go to Italy, who knows, coming from Italy, going into Yugoslavia, the Balkans?” [Then,] as I started lining up the ascent of man with Genesis, I thought, “Adam and Eve left someplace and went someplace, and who are these two guys, and what is the place they left, and what is the world they went into?” So I had [Black and Cera] leaving southern Europe, crossing some mountains, and coming into Turkey. Cain and Abel could be in Turkey, and then they take a boat and they’re in Lebanon, Israel, I don’t know, that seemed like a realistic progression I could justify.
AVC: What made you decide to use the Bible as a guide for this, as you said, “historical film”?
HR: Well, it was confusing, because at first, it was actually going to be historical. When the studio said, “Well, what is the movie about?” I said “The movie tracks the psycho-social development of civilization.” And they said, “Uh, that’s not going to be too good on a poster.” [Laughs.] I read Adam and Eve as hunter-gatherers when they’re expelled from the garden; I had them meet Cain and Abel because it’s the second story in the Bible. I always had that part in there, even though I didn’t intend to track Genesis. I just thought it’d be funny to have them meet. The first civilized people they meet are Iron Age farmers, and one kills the other. That became irresistible. So we all thought “More Bible stuff, it’s going to work!” We even had some Noah’s Ark in there. There was a scene where they escape with Cain, and he says they’re going to the coast, and at the coast where they go, it’s been raining for 39 days and 39 nights. There’s a huge tsunami, they’re washed out to sea, they’re hauled aboard the ark, and they deal with Noah.
AVC: Why cut it out? Evan Almighty?
HR: Exactly. It not only stole our thunder, but it fizzled miserably. The scene would’ve cost… [Pauses.] Our jokes were much better than theirs. We had Stanley Tucci reading for Noah, and he’d say “God has saved me for my righteousness and ordered me to build this ark and bring two of every animal.” And they’d say, “Really? You have two of every animal? You’ve got rhinoceroses?” And Noah’d say, “Well… we don’t have rhinoceroses, no. But every other animal.” And they say, “So you don’t really have two of every animal?” Noah freaks out and goes, “No, I don’t have two of every animal, but if you’d rather I throw you in the water and you wait for an ark that really does have two of every goddamn animal…” Noah was wacky and excitable.
AVC: Was the difficulty you had in securing a PG-13 rating due to the film’s religious content?
HR: Not remotely. They’re probably not more or less religious than the people they feel they’re representing, which is some imaginary demographic from the American heartland. Look at Barack Obama: He talked about how more than 80 percent of Americans believe in a God and identify as religious. To deny that and act as if they’re idiots is suicide; not only is it political suicide—he didn’t say it in such a calculated way—but he said you have to respect that, embrace it, and deal with it somehow. The ratings board, they’re not fools—they liked our movie, they just thought it was too crude, and certain jokes went too over the top. Like one much more explicit bestiality joke, although they allowed Oliver Platt to say, “The sheep’s rectum was absolutely pulverized, not unusual for a sheep from this region.” Not sure what they thought that meant, but… There’s a moment where Adam’s son, Seth, has multiplied with the sheep, and he’d say, “My thingy smells like lamb chops,” and then he’d go, “Smell this,” and put his finger under Michael’s nose. They thought that was a little too explicit.
AVC: Parts of the film are reminiscent of your previous work. There’s the whole rising-against-convention angle like Stripes, and like in Animal House, the story of guys trying to get laid.
HR: Well, even Freud thought that’s what drives us. [Laughs.]
AVC: After writing so many screenplays, how often do you find yourself falling back on your strengths?
HR: I don’t think I approach things in those terms. Even if these films are similar, it’s not because I’m trying to make them similar, but because they come from similar thoughts, ideas, personality quirks, my passions, my fears, my weaknesses, my addictions, my lust, whatever. So to the extent I’m still working off the same problems, and my shrink will agree… [Laughs.] And to the extent that they’re universal, or at least affect other people, they’re successful or not. Films are big hits when they touch a lot of people. Things are not funny in a vacuum, they’re funny because we respond to some personal dislocation, some embarrassment, some humiliation, some pain we’ve suffered, or some desire we have.
AVC: What are the challenges associated with making a comedic film as universal as possible? Comedy is notoriously subjective.
HR: That raises the question of, “To what extent do you start shaping the movie for the audience?” There’s a natural audience. Comedy is essentially made by young men, or older men with some form of arrested development [Laughs.], for young men or immature older men. Naturally, certain themes are going to come up. A lot of it’s going to be dealing with authority, realizing personal ambition in the world, or the struggle to do so, making it, and getting laid, substance abuse—these are the issues of young men. What was different with this movie was that we were doing a youth comedy. I deliberately sought out younger writers, I deliberately made an alliance with Judd Apatow, hired the best, young comedy actors we could find, and spent a lot of money. Inevitably we want, and expect, a young audience for this film. That’s the comedy audience.
AVC: What’s it been like working with Judd Apatow, who—like you—has been praised for ushering in a new kind of comedy film?
HR: Well, he grew up on a lot of my stuff, and I became a huge fan of his stuff as soon as I started seeing it. I started noticing, as he got famous, that every time he was interviewed, he’d reference something I’d worked in. I don’t take credit for all the films I’ve been involved in, but he’d say those are the films that made him want to do comedy. The New York Times Magazine did a profile on him, and there was a picture of us he took when he was 16. He had a radio program in high school, and he’d call up and interview funny people, and then he made some road trips to visit funny people. I guess it had to be somewhere between [National Lampoon’s] Vacation and Ghostbusters, because there were still photos of Vacation on the wall behind me in the photograph. I’m sure he knew then he’d be doing what he’s doing now. He claims he and Seth Rogen stalked me at the Deauville Film Festival in France. I was there with The Ice Harvest and he was there with The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and we had a drink. They came to my movie, and we had dinner after; then the next night, I went to their movie and went to dinner after. I got a lifetime-achievement award for screenwriting at the Austin festival in the fall. Judd volunteered—I didn’t even ask him—to come and be the moderator of the Q&A and present the award. We did a panel together, so we were bonding during that period. Then he asked me to be in Knocked Up, and I got to the point where I really wanted an alliance for Year One, so I asked him.
AVC: Going into a new project, how important is it to have an established rapport with the people you’re working with?
HR: Some of them I knew [on Year One], most I didn’t. I got Jack in the film, and then Judd suggested Michael Cera and showed me scenes from Superbad to prove it. I didn’t know David Cross, but I knew his work and wanted him. Brought in Bill Hader… All these people wanted to do it. I bet if we just put the word out, a lot of them would’ve come in. The whole cast of Saturday Night Live auditioned for very small roles, they just wanted to pop up in cameos. Hader, Paul Rudd, Chris Mintz-Plasse all just seemed natural. Hank Azaria was my thought, but I didn’t know him. Stanley Tucci was going to be in the movie, and I knew him a little bit from the Sundance Directors Lab. It was a mix. Everyone kind of feels like they know me, because they all know me through the films they grew up on. When someone’s an actor and you’re an actor, you meet them and you feel like you know them. We’re in the same business, and we all speak the same comedy language. There was a familiarity and a family feeling, anyway.
AVC: You’ve said in the past that you would only make a new Ghostbusters film if you felt there was something new to add. Now that the film is in the works, what will be new this time around?
HR: Well, we wrote a story. The trick with sequels is, you have to give people what they liked before, yet be innovative enough so they don’t feel like they’re seeing the same movie. I was a big fan of The Bourne Identity, and then I really liked The Bourne Supremacy, and now The Bourne Ultimatum is on TV—but if you strung them all together, they’re pretty much the same movie. [Laughs.] The Matrix… the first one was great, like a revelation. I loved it, everyone loved it, it kind of defined a whole new thing. Then the second one was like, “Uh, what?” And the third one: “Whaaa?” [Laughs.] You don’t want to do that. At the same time, we’re doing comedy, so it has to be funny. The comic edge of Ghostbusters will always be the same. It’s still treating the supernatural with a totally mundane sensibility. In the world of ghostbusting, there are certain givens. You’re always going to have some new invented technology, some pseudo-science that sounds right because we drop enough familiar terms from physics and engineering, and pseudo-methodology, something that people will think they may have read something about before. People may have actually thought there was a Zuul or a Gozer. You say “ancient Sumerian deity,” and that’s enough, people will think you read a book and you know something. The new Ghostbusters will still have all that. We will introduce new Ghostbusters, which will be the new real innovation. There will be personal stories that are different—their ambitions, why they’re involved, who they are, and some other surprises I won’t give away.
AVC: It’s been a few years since you’ve worked with Bill Murray. What do you think the experience will be like, working with him again on that film?
HR: I have no idea. We have no social relationship whatsoever, it’d be hard to predict. But you know, the encouraging thing is, he’s very elusive… I didn’t realize he’d pulled out of James Brooks’ new movie recently. They couldn’t nail it down, but I think he took them pretty far down the road before he disappeared, so now Jack Nicholson’s going to take the part. But he’s famous for that. He’s very elusive.
I’m the only one who talks about [our relationship]. He won’t tell you… [Pauses.] He’s a very private person. He doesn’t do serious interviews. Once in a while, but he’s not self-revealing. The most self-revealing thing I ever saw was never in the press or publicity, it was in Lost In Translation or Rushmore. [Laughs.] Those movies kind of defined a side of him the public is not aware of. I think if you looked at his career, he got tired of being the crazy, life-of-the-party guy. That’s quite a load to carry, and he carried it a bunch of times so successfully, and he just didn’t want to do it anymore, and started exploring this more adult, serious side of himself. That’s fine, I’d admired and respected it, and like his work in those films. I just had so little social contact with him that I don’t have any perspective on anything he does, thinks, or feels, and he gives no clues.
AVC: Do people often try and use you as a conduit of info on Murray?
HR: No, they know I’m no conduit. I don’t look for him and he doesn’t look for me. There was a big New Yorker profile on me when I was doing The Ice Harvest, and I decided “Well, people are asking me all the time… what secret am I keeping here? Who am I protecting? I’ll just talk about it.”
AVC: In the profile, you describe a dream you had, where Murray was cast in The Ice Harvest, and you felt relieved about the whole project.
HR: I’ve had many dreams about him, that we’re friends again. There was a great reunion feeling in those dreams. Bill was a strong man. [John] Belushi had that before, too. He was a rock for us. You’d do a movie with Bill, a big comedy in those early days, just knowing he could save the day no matter how bad the script was, that we’d find something through improvisation. That was our alliance, kind of, our big bond. I could help him be the best funny Bill Murray he could be, and I think he appreciated that then. And I don’t know where that went, but it’s there on film. So whatever happens between us in the future, at least we have those expressions.