In 1978, Ivan Reitman produced a low-budget film called Animal House—which, of course, became one of the most successful and enduring comedies of all time. As a director, he's been responsible for films that are beloved (Meatballs, Stripes, Ghostbusters, Dave), disliked (Ghostbusters 2, Junior, and Fathers' Day, which Reitman now admits is his worst), and forgotten (Six Days Seven Nights, Legal Eagles). As a producer, he's been behind such films as Private Parts, Beethoven, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, Space Jam, and the new Road Trip, a college comedy that brings him full circle to some of the territory mined by Animal House. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke to Reitman about his horror-movie start, political correctness, and more.
The Onion: It's interesting that you actually started out with horror movies.
Ivan Reitman: Yes. Well, actually, I did start out in comedies. Very, very early. My first student film was Orientation, which was basically the set-up for Animal House. There are a couple of scenes that we later borrowed in some form. Then my first film was something called Cannibal Girls, which sounds like a horror movie but was actually kind of a goofy comedy with horror elements. Like a horror spoof.
O: Sort of a precursor to Ghostbusters?
IR: It was more pure horror than Ghostbusters. I knew a bunch of the people who became the SCTV people, and I made it with them. We improvised most of it, and that's basically how I learned to direct. It was made for $6,000. Then, thinking I didn't know anything about directing, I stopped directing and produced those first couple of [David] Cronenberg movies [Shivers and Rabid], which were more pure horror movies.
O: The nature of the gross-out seems to have switched from gore to bodily functions. What do you think has accounted for the change?
IR: I'm not sure I agree with the thesis, because I think that even though something grotesque or gross has been part of film since way back, what we accept or what we can get away with on the screen is broader now. But not much broader than we could when we made Animal House. The first bunch of drafts of Animal House were grosser than the movie turned out to be when we made it—and much grosser than even this film [Road Trip] is, in any of its incarnations.
O: Do you think the grosser Animal House could get made today?
IR: It could have been made before, but it wouldn't have been as good of an Animal House. For me, I never think about, "What are the boundaries and how can I push them?" I'm thinking story, characters, plot. I'm thinking about the needs of the situation, what our characters are, what their problems are, and what their thinking is. What would a smart person do in this situation? How do we build comedy out of that? It's building comedy on comedy.
O: Comedy is extremely subjective. You can direct a drama and usually make people cry, but comedy really is a matter of taste. Or bad taste, as the case may be.
IR: It's just extraordinarily subjective, and you can't do anything about it. I learned that very early on. We got some devastating reviews on Animal House at the start. My movie Stripes—which is actually one of my movies that has held up the best over the years—just got dismissed. I remember Time or Newsweek giving it one of those one-paragraph condescending encapsulations, and I sort of quickly learned not to deal with that. Not even to read, just to deal with the movies and try to do the best I could.
O: That black-frat-house scene in Road Trip is similar to the bar scene in Animal House. Even though there are so many years separating the two films, do people still get touchy about racial humor?
IR: Well, I think it works. Black audiences whom we have showed this sequence just go nuts. They love it. I think it's one of the great things about Howard Stern. People ask me about "the line." "Did you push the line?" I don't think we pushed any lines, actually. I think there's a much more open public conversation about intimacy, things we used to consider intimate or taboo, that he's had a lot to do with opening. He's been talking about it for four hours a day, five days a week, for 12 years, and I think that's one of the shifts that started to occur through Animal House and continued through him and others. Cable television, the Love Line show… You can't believe what they're talking about! It all comes from this sort of openness. I don't even know if it's a good thing, but it has occurred. People are used to talking about bathroom habits, masturbation, gay relationships, anal sex, and other things you wouldn't imagine talking about publicly 20 years ago. The other thing that has changed—because people are asking me what's different now about college life, and I now have two children in college—is that I think women are much more open about their own desires for sex than they were 20 years ago. They're much more straightforward about it. I think one of the things that happens for women in this movie is that their characters are interested in sex; they are the aggressive party. She doesn't have her head chopped off at the end of the movie as a result of having sex. She's not a slut, she's very nice, and she ends up with the guy at the end. They're very basic, silly things when you talk about them like this, but they actually represent a huge change in thinking in terms of how women are portrayed sexually in movies.
O: Things do seem to have opened up, but do you think there is a backlash brewing against sexuality in society?
IR: Well, there's been an amazing backlash for the last decade in America: political correctness. In many ways, I think that, while we've been remarkably violent in our media, there's been a real schizophrenia. In private, on the Internet, and on public-affairs shows or talk radio, we're way more explicit than we've ever been. But traditional Hollywood has been much more frightened than it ever was in the '70s about presenting things that could be perceived as politically incorrect. I think it has to do with the Baby Boom generation. We're getting older and sort of becoming the status quo and—excuse the lefty comments—part of the ruling class, so there's always a fear, when you're the guy in charge, of being perceived by your peers as wrong. You get these strange ironies in public life all the time. If you happen to be the person in public office caught having an affair, or doing something relatively minor, it occupies the cover of the papers and national magazines for six months, where at the same time things much weirder and sleazier, or at least more intimate, are being discussed and done on a daily basis by the general populace.
O: Road Trip, and to a certain extent American Pie, features slightly less humor through humiliation than a lot of comedy these days. I've seen contemporary sitcoms described as 20 minutes of watching people insult each other.
IR: I hate that. I've never been a fan of it. And I don't think you'll find that in any of my films, whether it's today or 20 years ago. In fact, probably the opposite is true. I've always believed in populating my films with characters who we like, who we have some warmth for, who have warmth for each other, who we would like to hang out with, who we emulate in one way or another. It's not that they all get along, or that there aren't bad people or people we make fun of. But at the core, there's a kind of sweetness. There's a sweetness at the core of this film that allows it to connect.
O: Do you think that accounts for the commercial success of a lot of your films?
IR: I think it's part of it. God knows why films are successful, but people like them. People watch them over and over again. They have a kind of… People identify with the characters, I think, and get involved with the comedy of it, and, with a few exceptions, have liked the premise.
O: Do you approach $100 million movies the way you approach $15 million films like Road
IR: Yeah. In terms of the creative work, it's virtually the same. You can do certain things with an expensive movie because you can spend money, but you have to be more careful with a lower budget. That's basically it. When you're working with movie stars, part of the deal is that, if they have something to say, you'd better listen. You don't have to absolutely listen and not talk, but there is another creative force at work, and to be successful working with movie stars, you have to bring that force to work for you. You have to find something that's comfortable for them, and at the same time, that's in the parameters of what you're trying to do yourself.
O: Are big-budget films ironically more limited than low-budget films? You obviously have more creative freedom the less money is at stake.
IR: Usually, yes.
O: Ghostbusters must have been a tremendous risk.
IR: We didn't think so. Not even the studio, interestingly enough. It was risky in that it was so unformed as we went into it. Dan Aykroyd had written a 70- or 80-page treatment that has little bearing on the present movie. I read it and then met with him. It was set in the future, and there were many teams of Ghostbusters competing with each other. There was a lot of space travel and time travel and monsters. Of course, it would have cost hundreds of millions to make if we could even figure out how to do it. I just said, "I think this should be a going-into-business movie. Set it in today, a place we understand, like a university research laboratory. Have these people start there and then take it a step at a time, so by the end of the movie, maybe we can have a giant marshmallow man walk down a major thoroughfare. But you can't start there or you'll lose the audience." He bought into that, thank God. But he's a genius. Danny's one of the great comedy geniuses. Here's a guy who single-handedly created the Ghostbusters, the Blues Brothers, the Coneheads, and a dozen or more minor but colorful characters on Saturday Night Live.
O: And he got an Oscar nomination.
IR: That's right. He's a very good actor.
O: Comedic actors frequently aren't taken too seriously, but people seem to have finally caught up with Bill Murray's talents.
IR: Well, he was wonderful in [Rushmore]. But it's when you start to work less comedically that people tend to appreciate you. Both Aykroyd and Murray have been appreciated for their non-comedic work the most, which is ironic because what we love about them is their ability to do a movie like Stripes or Ghostbusters. The work they're doing in those movies is just as difficult, and just as precise, and just as rich as what [Murray] did in Rushmore. But it's like with me: I got more positive critical heat on a movie like Dave than I did on a movie like Ghostbusters. But Ghostbusters was a very tough movie to direct and a very tough line to walk. You're mixing genres, and there are genuine horror elements and genuine slapstick things. Dialogue things. You're playing with tone and pushing it around, juggling all this stuff at once. And that's basically ignored. But Dave—and I really like Dave, but it's very careful and narrow—was much simpler to make, really, than most of my other movies. It's so straightforward. It's basically a drama with a humorous underpinning. All the performances are careful, but I find those performances much easier to get than the performances I've gotten in the broader movies.
O: Again, comedy is in the delivery, even though there's no right way to read a line. Drama is more straight-ahead.
IR: Right. It's either truthful or it's not. It just needs to be honest to the situation, which is pretty damn simple. It's pretty easy to get an honest delivery. It may not be the most startling one, but if the idea is powerful—and if you have serious, cumulative honest performances—the whole thing is going to work. That's not necessarily the truth with comedy. You may just get a "So what?" You really have to go somewhere and find something new and fresh. And it has to be as honest and truthful as it would be in a drama. You have this added burden to work with.