The list of films Harold Ramis has acted in, written, co-written, or directed includes some of the funniest comedies of the past 20 years: His success began in 1978 with Animal House and continued with Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes, Vacation, Ghostbusters, and Back To School. (He even made a cameo appearance in 1997's much-lauded As Good As It Gets.) Ramis, a veteran of National Lampoon and Second City, might have made his most well-realized film with 1993's Groundhog Day, his seventh collaboration with Bill Murray, but Ramis hasn't been above the occasional slip—Club Paradise or Armed And Dangerous, anyone? The Onion recently spoke with Ramis, whose new film is Analyze This with Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal, about his creative roles, his flops, and the place of his movies in American culture.
The Onion: Now is as good a time as any to talk about Bill Murray. Have you seen Rushmore yet?
Harold Ramis: Yes, twice.
O: A lot of people think his performance was overlooked by the Academy. Obviously, some actors care more about that stuff than others. Do you know how Murray feels?
HR: He would pretend not to care, but I think he would care. Sure. But he won [other awards], right?
O: Yeah, but why now? His work in Groundhog Day was just as praiseworthy. Why don't people take comedy seriously?
HR: Well, that's the sentence. They don't take comedy seriously because it's not serious. And Rushmore… Would you call that a comedy? It's more than a comedy, which makes it "okay." Annie Hall was a little more than a comedy. I think Groundhog Day could have fit in that niche and, in fact, to the extent that it did have some more serious underpinnings, we did finally get some critical awards. We got a British comedy award, which you might expect, but we also got a British Academy Award for the screenplay, and we were runners-up with Schindler's List for the New York Film Critics Circle's screenplay award. So it was taken more seriously than, obviously, Caddyshack. But most comedies… Why aren't they valued more?
O: Isn't it just as difficult, if not harder, to make a good comedy than to make a good drama?
HR: One would think. But it's also true that most comedy is not very ambitious. You probably can't name more than a handful of comedies that would qualify for Best Picture. I can think of a lot of comedy screenplays; Woody Allen has had numerous nominations for his screenplays. But most comedies are calculated. They tend to pander. They're not about anything important. What was the most popular comedy of last year? There's Something About Mary. Can you imagine mentioning that in the same breath as the Academy Award nominees?
O: Though Cameron Diaz did win the Best Actress award from the New York Film Critics Circle.
HR: Did she, for that? Well, that's pathetic. She did very little.
O: You mentioned that Groundhog Day won a comedy award, and that film will always be considered a comedy. But all those great Billy Wilder films, for instance, are also comedies with serious underpinnings, yet they're considered classics bar none. Is it just that modern comedies have too much scatological humor and easy toilet jokes?
HR: Groundhog Day was pretty clean. It may have to do with some puritanical feeling that comedy is a forbidden pleasure in a certain way. They make you laugh, and laughter is somehow an inferior emotion to tragedy. Maybe that's it. But in the real world, Groundhog Day got exactly the sort of reaction I would have hoped for: a really tremendous outpouring of support from what I call the spiritual community. People of every religion and spiritual discipline wrote me saying, "This movie expresses the philosophy of yoga better than any movie ever," or the philosophy of Zen Buddhism. Jesuits were writing me, Rabbis were preaching sermons on the High Holy Days about it, psychoanalysts were saying the movie is about psychoanalysis. So everyone got it, you know? It's interesting that everyone tended to think that they got it exclusively. The Buddhists would say, "Well, no one else would understand it, but this a really Buddhist movie. You must be one of us."
O: Ironically, Multiplicity was criticized in many circles for being New Agey.
HR: I don't think so. There's a critic that I love, Manohla Dargis of the L.A. Weekly. I like the underground point of view; it's my old radical sympathies. Maybe I like her because she likes my movies. She said that Groundhog Day, Multiplicity, and Stuart Saves His Family—which was widely reviled, though cherished by some segments of the audience—were exploring what it means to be a good man in the '90s. That's not New Age. That's true at any time. It's sappy to say it, but It's A Wonderful Life is a great movie about what it is to be a good person. Who doesn't respond to that, if it's genuine and real? I met someone who said they'd figured out my genre: "madcap redemption comedy." I'll buy that.
O: You have a unique position as an actor, director, and writer. Which element do you think is most important to the success of a film?
HR: I can't imagine a successful comedy movie without a successful comedy performance at the heart of it. Analyze This is a good movie because Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal are really good. But without the material to put on the play, of course, they couldn't be good. For me, it starts with the writing. I always think that the writer is doing the vast majority of the director's work, in a sense. If you're a writer who is also going to direct, you're doing all your preparation: You're already visualizing everything, you're imagining how the lines are going to be read, you see the blocking in your head, and you know the rhythm and the pacing. Then it's a question of communicating it. It's a great luxury for me to be able to write on the films that I direct, and kind of a nice thing to be able to write enough to get credit, which is difficult for a director. When you're a big enough part of the process that the Writers Guild gives you a lot of credit, that's a good thing. It tells me that I've had a significant impact on the film as a writer. But selling that to the actors… When I've written for Bill Murray—I've written six films for him—people would read it and say, "Oh, that's so perfectly Bill." He'd read it and say, "Are you kidding? I can't say these words." So it's all about perception. At a certain point, you have to convince the actors that you've done the right thing. The way I work, if I can't convince them, I've got to move on. I can't coerce them or browbeat them. I've got to find a compromise where I don't feel compromised. I've got to find something equally good that they don't feel uncomfortable with. At a certain point, it's no longer about what I thought was right, but it's about this new discovery that happens with the actors. It's nice when the actor is also a writer. Billy Crystal was able to sit at the table with us and make real contributions. De Niro doesn't contribute in that way. De Niro will do it by expressing doubt about certain speeches or certain moments, and then I'd rework them to a point where he did like them.
O: Was it imposing to work with De Niro? He seems like a pretty good comedian.
HR: He didn't approach this like a stand-up routine. He wasn't delivering jokes. Everything came from a genuine place, a real character. He's totally convincing, because he's totally convinced himself. He never had to say a line in the movie that he didn't believe in, or do anything that he wasn't behind 100 percent. The idea of working with him was intimidating, but the reality of working with him was never intimidating. It was, in fact, completely exhilarating, and a great relief to have someone that strong. It's like having Mark McGwire on your team. [Laughs.] It feels pretty good having a player that good. You know it's going to make you look good as a director. He took both me and Billy Crystal places with his courage and his ability to invent. I don't mean words, but emotions. He took us much further than we would have gone.
O: Does De Niro apply the same sort of method-acting vigor he's known for to a lighter role?
HR: Yeah, but he's not the kind of method actor who has to be his character from the moment he arrives on the set. It's not a dark, moody, leave-me-alone kind of thing. I found that he actually uses the method to get what he wants, but it doesn't color his whole life. It's a set of tools that he uses to get the performance he wants. He's too good to have to overdramatize this process. When he had to "up" for a scene, we had a workout pad, like they use in karate or boxing, and he would put on some gloves and just get pumped up physically, get his adrenaline going. But punching a bag has nothing to do with it. It's not a psychological process. He knows that if you get yourself physically "there," it's going to affect everything you do. At other times, and this is a little bit intimate, in the scene where Billy Crystal is trying to get him to emotionally recall his father's death, Bob said to Billy, "When you're [talking to me from] off-camera, don't call me Paul"—which is his character's name—"call me Bob." He wanted to go to a place in his own, personal history. By having Billy call him Bob, stuff comes out from his own life, and it's fascinating to see him use that.
O: You mentioned that you feel it's a luxury to be able to write and direct. When you're writing for a film that you're not going to direct, at what point does your involvement end?
HR: A lot of those films I've written for Ivan Reitman, and it stops at the point where Ivan goes, "Get out of here! Stop talking to me!" [Laughs.] There's the possibility that you're usurping his real authority. But Ivan met all of us as a group. Ivan Reitman was desperate to produce a movie for the National Lampoon when I was touring Canada in The National Lampoon Show with people like Gilda Radner, John Belushi, and Bill Murray. Ivan experienced us first as writer/actors. He's a smart man, and he realized that rather than try to stifle that, he should encourage the process. After he produced Animal House, he realized he really wanted to direct and not just produce. I came in as a writer with Meatballs, and after I directed Caddyshack, they gave me Stripes to write and play in. Ivan was comfortable with the idea that we were going to write the last draft right there on the set. Like I said, writing is directing to a certain extent. As I would help Bill shape up these grand improvs that are in Stripes—and, well, every movie we've done—Ivan didn't want to stop that process; he wanted to facilitate it.
O: Because you often were working with people from an improv background, were the scripts used more as outlines?
HR: No, everything is fully scripted. You hope you have the sense to hold on to written lines that are great. If you have a really funny line or a nicely written speech, you want to do it as written. If a speech is essentially neutral or just exposition, why not do it six different ways? If you're doing six takes, instead of doing six variations on the same words, why not just throw out the words and make them up as you go along, if you're comfortable with it? It gives the movies a slightly rangier feeling, and more of an accidental feel, but it also makes them edgier. There's something very edgy about Bill Murray out there improvising. In Caddyshack, he had one scripted speech. The rest of that is improvised, so it makes his performance very edgy. But we always start with a script, then realize, "Oh, we can do better."
O: As a director, though, you have more responsibilities than as a screenwriter, in terms of business and time-management. Is that at all stifling?
HR: Well, look at it this way: It's always stifling, but it stifles the writing process, as well. I've never taken a script to the stage or to principal photography and said, "This is perfect. This is as good as it can possibly be." It's not Shakespeare, you know; you know it can probably be better. But the reality is, from a business point of view, if you're going to do reasonably 2 to 20 takes a speech or scene or line, what is the point of doing 8 or 10 takes on a speech that isn't working? You owe it to your producers or whoever financed the film to make it better, right? It doesn't take any longer to improvise 10 takes than it takes to shoot 10 takes of the same thing. It turns out to be just as responsible from a business point of view as anything else.
O: Is Analyze This the first movie you've received writing credit on since Groundhog Day?
HR: Uh, I think I… No, I didn't get credit on Multiplicity. When a director writes, there's a compulsory arbitration. You have a right to challenge any of the arbitrators, but they pick three of four arbitrators who read all the drafts with no names attached and then allocate credit. So the rule of thumb for a director or producer—which prevents them from just sticking their names on everything—is that you have to contribute substantially more than 50 percent of the character dialogue and story. That's a tough criterion. With Multiplicity, with writers like [Lowell] Ganz and [Babaloo] Mandel, I might have contributed… 40 percent? I certainly did my share, but not enough so that the Writers Guild would say that I did more than they did put together. So I probably just narrowly missed it on that one. I think I really deserved it on [Analyze This]. I think of myself as a real writer, not just someone who dabbles in it, so I deserve some credit.
O: Do you work on other projects while you're busy directing something specific?
HR: Developing other projects, but not writing. I may do story meetings. One of my [current] projects is a remake of a Stanley Donen picture called Bedazzled, which we optioned the rights to. Fox got the rights for us, and we hired Larry Gelbart to write, actually. He started on the old Sid Caesar show, wrote for Woody Allen, Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks. Created the M*A*S*H television series. So he's been writing the script for us, but I have story meetings with him all the time. And, in fact, I think I could say that I've co-written the story of this movie. Whether I write actual drafts of the script or not remains to be seen, but at some point I'll probably end up doing that.
O: In terms of your work as a screenwriter and an actor, you had a great run up until Club Paradise, Armed And Dangerous, and Caddyshack II.
HR: [Laughs and groans.] Club Paradise I wouldn't class with those two. No one went, but it's a much better movie than those. Armed And Dangerous was a project that had died a quiet death, and then was resurrected by Brian Grazer, the producer. And Brian said, "If I can find a director, can I make the movie?" And I said okay. So then he finds a director—and I mean, literally, he just found a guy—and it was not good. I tried to take my name off it. I took my name off in one place. I was both executive producer and screenwriter, and I can't remember which name came off. [He was billed as a screenwriter only. —ed.] But I gave up one credit! With Caddyshack II, the studio begged me. They said, "Hey, we've got a great idea: 'The Shack Is Back!'" And I said [moans], "No, I don't think so." But they said that Rodney [Dangerfield] really wanted to do it, and we could build it around Rodney. Rodney said, "Come on, do it." Then the classic argument came up which says that if you don't do it, someone will, and it will be really bad. So I worked on a script with my partner Peter Torokvei, consulting with Rodney all the time. Then Rodney got into a fight with the studio over his contract and backed out. We had some success with Back To School, which I produced and wrote, and we were working with the same director, Alan Metter. When Rodney pulled out, I pulled out, and then they fired Alan and got someone else [Allan Arkush]. I got a call from [co-producer] Jon Peters saying, "Come with us to New York; we're going to see Jackie Mason!" I said, "Ooh, don't do this. Why don't we let it die?" And he said, "No, it'll be great." But I didn't go, and they got other writers to finish it. I tried to take my name off that one, but they said if I took my name off, it would come out in the trades and I would hurt the film.
O: It couldn't have hurt it any more.
HR: No, it was terrible! I went away. I had a big, huge change in my personal life on Club Paradise. I ended my marriage and began a new relationship, which became my new marriage. So I didn't do much in those few years beyond those things and writing Ghostbusters II, which ended that fallow period.
O: So can you tell when you've written something that's not funny, or something that won't be successful?
HR: We thought Club Paradise had a good chance. But we were the fourth Caribbean comedy out that year , and none of them did any business. The casting ended up being diametrically opposed to what was intended. It was intended for Bill Murray and John Cleese, with Bill as the laid-back guy and Cleese as the over-the-top guy, and we ended up with Robin Williams and Peter O'Toole, with O'Toole as the laid-back guy and Robin the over-the-top guy. The polarities shifted, and it was probably not as interesting or as solid as it might have been if Bill and Cleese were there.
O: Are you surprised that so many of the films that you've worked on have entered into the permanent cultural milieu? Just Animal House, Vacation, Stripes, Ghostbusters…
HR: You know, because Animal House was my first commercial screenplay, it introduced to me very early in my career the idea that, working with the people I knew, we had the potential to have that kind of impact. These guys… Doug Kenney, coming from the Lampoon, was nothing if not confident. He had taken the Harvard Lampoon, gone national, and made millions of dollars in the process. So we believed that we had a commercial instinct even though we were considered sort of cutting-edge. When Universal read the first drafts of Animal House, [executive] Ned Tanen said, "Wait a minute, these guys are the heroes?" He didn't get it. But we knew that our generation would get it completely. We represented something that was going to happen, and Animal House kind of verified it for us. We kind of took it in stride. You know, "Of course these movies are successful. We know what we're doing." Doug used to believe, when we were writing Animal House, that we were writing the most successful comedy ever. When we were doing Ghostbusters, Dan [Aykroyd], Ivan, and I had the feeling that this was going to be huge. People were going to love it. We had a great sense of each other and what we could contribute. It feels great. I'm sorry if it sounds arrogant to say that it wasn't a surprise, but it's really satisfying because it didn't feel that surprising.
O: I bet the studios were surprised. On paper, something like Ghostbusters is just bizarre.
HR: They were delighted. [Ghostbusters] was Aykroyd. Reading Dan's original drafts, no one would have thought [the film would be a big hit], because Dan's writing tends to be very technical. It was really smart, but very obscure in a certain way, so it didn't feel commercial. But Ivan and I had a real strong sense of how popular it could be.
O: Since you had so much involvement in all these films, and since they became so popular, there must be all sorts of stuff that you kick yourself for doing, or not doing.
HR: Oh, yeah. We call it "the cringe factor." I don't know. All the movies have some moments like that for me. The other side of this is which things I enjoy the most, and I think I enjoy some of the most obscure things that an audience would never laugh at. Just some of the expressions on someone's face—not the obvious moments. I'm more critical, obviously, of the ones I didn't direct, and with the ones I did direct, I'm very aware of why everything is the way it is. I may say, "Gee, I wish that was different," but I can remember exactly why it is the way it is. I either couldn't get the actor off a certain thing, or we never got a certain shot, or we're missing a shot.
O: Looking at that era, why were there so many great comedians coming from the Midwest who seemed so similarly aligned?
HR: Who's in that group? [Laughs.] Well, the Zuckers came from the Midwest but had nothing to do with Second City. There's the two Second City families, the Toronto family and the Chicago family. Then there's the Saturday Night Live influence, which really tapped into Lampoon, Second City, and the Groundlings for its genesis. It's got to come from somewhere. For me, Second City is a great training ground. It's one of the few places where you teach people how to do this thing. Stand-up is every man for himself; you learn from hanging out at these clubs and watching other guys, and then trying not to be like them. Canadians are always asking me why so many Canadians have been successful in comedy. I don't know.
O: Well, improv was very much a Midwest thing.
HR: Yeah, it's the modern jazz of theater. It came out of that beatnik time in the late '50s, when the University Of Chicago people tried to free up theater by improvising.
O: Just a cultural shift?
HR: Yeah, combined with the zeitgeist, whatever else was going on in the world. Lenny Bruce was incarcerated and hounded to death for swearing on stage. John Belushi screamed "fuck" at Second City, and everyone fell over laughing. There weren't that many years in between. So the times change, and to the extent that comedy captures the spirit of the times, it will enjoy success.