Bill Murray’s Long, Strange Trip Back to ‘Ghostbusters’: Legal Threats, Rejected Sequels, and More
The legendary Bill Murray will grace the screen in Paul Feig’s upcoming all-female reboot. But how he got there is a movie unto itself.
During a 2010 trip to the Late Show with David Letterman, the inimitable Bill Murray, wearing a fur hat, bedazzled purple shirt, and with his leg in a sling, regaled his pal Dave with tales of the doomed sequel Ghostbusters III, calling the project his own personal “nightmare” and saying, “I’d do it only if my character was killed off in the first reel.”Well, over the weekend various Hollywood trades broke the news that Murray would indeed be making an appearance in director Paul Feig’s (Bridesmaids) upcoming all-female Ghostbusters reboot, in theaters July 22, 2016. Whether Murray’s role extends beyond a mere cameo, and whether he’ll indeed be reprising his role as wisecracking parapsychologist Peter Venkman, has yet to be determined.
Feig’s reboot stars Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones, and Chris Hemsworth as their hunky receptionist, and by the time it hits theaters next year, it’ll have been 27 years since the release of Ghostbusters II. In the past, Murray’s said that he was reluctant to get involved in a third Ghostbusters film given the poor critical and commercial reception of the second installment, which had a domestic gross of just $112 million compared to the 1984 original’s mammoth $242 million ($555.8 million when adjusted for inflation). “What they really want to do is resurrect a franchise,” Murray told Variety. “The first one was a spectacular movie, one of the greatest movies. The second one was [Murray makes an unimpressed sound]… It had some moves. It had a few good scenes in it.”
Indeed, Ghostbusters III has been mired in production hell for ages. The biggest problem seems to have been nailing down a solid script—something that original scribes Dan Aykroyd and the late Harold Ramis had been attempting to do for over two decades. An early version had Murray’s Peter Venkman dying and returning as a ghost to haunt the three other Ghostbusters (Aykroyd, Ramis, and Ernie Hudson). “It was kind of funny, but not well executed,” Murray told Variety. Then, there was the wacky project Ghostbusters III: Hellbent. According to Aykroyd, it centered on a younger crop of Ghostbusters who take over after the older fellas (Ray, Egon, and Winston) struggle to keep the business afloat when Venkman leaves to be with Dana (Sigourney Weaver). What’s more, the new Ghostbusters would be transported to Manhellton—an hellscape version of Manhattan—where they’d confront the devil. None of the original actors were reportedly interested, and Murray, whose character was only scheduled in the script to pop up in a late cameo, said of it, “I read one that Danny [Aykroyd] wrote that was crazy bizarre and too crazy to comprehend.”
In 2004, rumors began circulating that all the other principals—co-writers Aykroyd and Ramis, producer/director Ivan Reitman, and Hudson—were interested in doing Ghostbusters III, but Murray was the lone holdout because he “didn’t like sequels.” Then, in 2005, more rumors spread that Ramis, Aykroyd, and Rick Moranis were attempting to make a third film, titled Ghostbusters in Hell, with Ben Stiller—whose plot sounded quite similar Hellbent—and no mention of Murray being onboard.“It was clear he just didn’t want to engage,” Reitman told Variety last year. “His head was in a whole different place as an actor. He wanted to do smaller roles where he didn’t have to take on the weight of the lead.”Since 2009, The Office’s writing-producing team of Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg had been working on a Ghostbusters III script with guidance from Aykroyd. In August 2012, Aykroyd gave an interview to Metro where he expressed dismay that Murray wouldn’t be involved in the sequel, saying, “It’s sad but we’re passing it on to a new generation. Ghostbusters III can be a successful movie without Bill. My preference would be to have him involved but at this point he doesn't seem to be coming and we have to move on.” But he soon changed his tune, and in the October 2012 issue of Vanity Fair, Aykroyd said, “I’m working on the script now and those two—Stupnitsky and Eisenberg, wrote Bill the comic role of a lifetime, and the new Ghostbusters and the old are all well represented in it...we have a strong first draft that Harold [Ramis] and I will take back, and I’m very excited about working on it.”
Murray stoked the flames when, in 2010, he showed up to Spike TV’s Scream Awards in full Ghostbusters gear and, while accepting his award for Zombieland, said, “I’m sorry. I don’t mean anything by this, it’s just all that was left that was clean.”
During last year’s Sony hack, The Daily Beast uncovered email evidence that Sony Pictures Entertainment, the studio that owns the Ghostbusters franchise, was planning “aggressive litigation counsel” to evaluate Murray’s reluctance to star in a new Ghostbusters film, but wanted to keep the situation very hush-hush so as not to harm the studio’s reputation by going after a beloved film icon like Murray. The email, dated October 31, 2013, was sent from David Steinberg, head of SPE’s legal department, to Leah Weil, SPE’s general counsel.“In order to more fully evaluate our position if Bill Murray again declines to engage on ‘Ghostbusters’, AG requested that we identify ‘aggressive’ litigation counsel with whom we can consult to evaluate our alternatives and strategize,” the email read. “[Harkening back to his prior employer, of course, raised the name of David Boies.] Personally, while I’m fine with aggressive, I think we are in much worse shape if this goes public so seems to me we should look for someone who isn’t seeking the spotlight.”
After the death of Harold Ramis on February 24, 2014, it was revealed that Reitman met with Sony executives to discuss how to move forward with a sequel without the franchise’s co-architect and co-star, and the studio revealed in March that Reitman would not be directing, but only serving as a producer on the movie. Then, rumors swirled that Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The LEGO Movie) passed on the project, and Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) was being considered to direct it. That didn’t come to fruition, and in October 2014, news broke that Paul Feig—who’d passed on helming Ghostbusters III multiple times—would instead be helming an all-female reboot.Two months later, The Daily Beast discovered via the Sony hack that the studio was planning a Ghostbusters spin-off that would live in Feig’s new universe, and that Sony wanted Channing Tatum and Chris Pratt to star in it, and Joe and Anthony Russo (Captain America: Winter Soldier) to produce.
An email from Tatum to then-studio chief Amy Pascal concerning Ghostbusters dated August 21 said, “Let us show the world The DarkSide and let us fight it with all the glory and epicness of a HUGE BATMAN BEGINS MOVIE. I know we can make this a huge franchise. Fun adventure craziness. COME OONNNN!!!”
“So… in a curious turn of events—the Russos and Channing want to develop Ghostbusters as a vehicle for Channing and Chris Pratt to do together,” wrote Hannah Minghella, co-president of production for Sony Pictures, to then-studio chief Amy Pascal, in an email the following day. “The Russos, Channing and Reid [Carolin] have been brainstorming ideas and want to create a whole new mythology that would support multiple movies (the way that Nolan reinvented Batman). To be clear—the Russos want to produce (not direct) and while Channing and Chris are looking for a movie to do together they haven’t mentioned this to him yet because they weren't sure how we’d react.”
In May of this year, Deadline confirmed The Daily Beast’s report that Sony was planning a male Ghostbusters spin-off with Tatum and the Russo Brothers.