Harold Ramis Gets Down to Funny Business
The director of Year One, Harold Ramis, talks to The Daily Beast’s Kim Masters about Bill Murray, Michael Cera, Judd Apatow, Will Ferrell, and the much-anticipated Ghostbusters sequel.
In a recent interview about their upcoming movie Year One, Michael Cera and Jack Black were asked whether they wanted to suit up for Ghostbusters 3. Cera said no way. " Ghostbusters is too important for me to try and be one," he explained. "I would feel like a phony. I would feel like an impostor."
Indeed. The only Year One player with an assured role in a Ghostbusters sequel, should it happen, is director Harold Ramis, who co-wrote the 1984 original and starred as the sexy geek, Dr. Egon Spengler. That role is just part of a career in comedies that were iconic to more than one generation. Ramis was a writer on Animal House, Meatballs and Stripes; he wrote and directed Caddyshack and Groundhog Day. He has directed episodes of The Office and has even entered the Judd Apatow orbit (he had cameos in Knocked Up and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, and Apatow is a producer on Year One). Kim Masters talked to Ramis about Bill Murray, Judd Apatow, Michael Cera, and the chances for a Ghostbusters reunion.
“Bill’s characters could get laid, you know? These characters now are hopeless and helpless.”
Why are cavemen funny?
This is not a caveman movie. There’s not a single cave in the whole picture. I’m a serious guy. A scholar. And our movie is about Paleolithic hunter-gatherers. This is not Ringo Starr in a loincloth.
If it’s not a caveman movie, what is it?
It’s about awakening to the existential dilemma, which is—of course—comedy. It tracks through Genesis. It’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern go to Sodom... I kind of compressed the timeline of Genesis, though.
I’ve heard that you’ve described the comedies of the era when you were working with Ivan Reitman as “institutional” comedies—like Stripes took on the military and Animal House took on universities. Is that how you see it?
Yes. Caddyshack, the one I directed, for me was about the exclusivity of country clubs and social-class conflict.
Now we seem to have Judd Apatow movies taking on the challenges of growing up. Does that sound right to you?
Apatow—his young characters are not struggling against institutions. They’re struggling against their personal issues, maturity issues. It’s partly a generational thing. Every generation has to go through a period of rebellion and then eventually, you join in. You know, country clubs look pretty bad until you join. But to an extent, the cultural war is over. The youth actually won. We’re now a Levi's-wearing nation. We all listen to pop music. Political activism has really cooled, partly due to the end of [the draft]... The rules have all relaxed. Now we have kind of a confused, lazy slacker generation. They’re told they’re not going to do as well as their parents. Maybe they’re a little more lost in a certain way but they know how to enjoy themselves. Or medicate themselves.
In those early ’80s comedies, Bill Murray was a take-charge guy. Who is the comic protagonist these days?
Our characters were alienated, outcasts, rebels, but they were empowered. Bill’s characters could get laid, you know? These characters now are hopeless and helpless. They might get lucky. Beautiful women fall for Jason Segel. But there’s no world-changing heroism—it’s mundane. It’s enough that he stops smoking pot. Year One may be a bit of a throwback. We’re saving the world in this movie.
Is Michael Cera really a movie star?
He is because he's unique. He's got a unique voice and perspective. I don't know what that's going to turn into when he matures. So far we've only seen Michael play in these urban settings and it doesn't require a ton of range. And he's self-limiting in a way. He wants everything to be completely real.
What about Will Ferrell and Land of the Lost, which tanked?
He's much loved and he's really good. I think all movie actors go through the same thing because for the most part, American actors play variations of themselves. I saw a reel of all my performances strung together and the only thing that changed was my shirt.... You see Dustin Hoffman at 70 and he's still got the same tics that he had when he was doing The Graduate. If we're tired of it, that's our problem.... But the danger for most successful comedy actors is doing the right material. People want to work. For most artists, these are more issues of character than talent. [Years ago] Paul Shaffer did a pilot in L.A. and we all asked him what it was like. He said, "Hollywood is like having a person on either side of you whispering bullshit in your ear." So it's so easy to be flattered [and] you start believing it and you start taking career advice from people who aren't working in your best interest. It's tough.
If comedy breaks down into genres that come and go, how can you stay current as a director?
Partly by not worrying about what’s current but by focusing on what’s on my mind. I did a series of films about what it means to be a good man. Groundhog Day was completely about the individual in relation to himself.
So it wouldn’t surprise you that at a recent meeting of the newly formed Global Alliance for Transformational Entertainment, Eckhart Tolle cited Groundhog Day as a “transformational” film with an inspirational theme. Do you know just what he means?
I know entirely what he means. I’ll name-drop the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama said to me, “You make films?” Then he name-dropped Richard Gere and said, “I’ll tell you what I told him: You have an opportunity to put out important messages to the world.” I do take it seriously.... It’s good if we can urge filmmakers to at least question what they’re doing—or as they say to physicians, “At least do no harm.”
What would be the impetus for a new Ghostbusters?
It’s not money. It’s not just the desire to capitalize on an old success. Bill is far too reclusive to want that. I don’t feel at this point that I need to reach back; I feel I still have a future. Dan [Aykroyd] is the proprietor... He would love to go forward [with the project] because he still loves it. And the public wants it.... But no one wants to do it if it’s not going to be great [and] it’s a very tricky assignment.
When I was on the set of Ghostbusters 2, Bill Murray didn’t seem to be having that much fun. Is he ready to have fun this time?
Bill got cranky. That’s the only way to describe it. It’s hard to say if he’s ready to have fun because he and I don’t talk much. He might be feeling better. He kind of carried all those comedies on his back. When the script wasn’t up to it, Bill was always there to improvise something great.... Maybe the antic part of him that is still playful—and I know that still exists talking to friends and relatives of his—maybe he wants to give it a shot.
Will you and Ivan Reitman fight a duel over who directs the new Ghostbusters?
It’s Ivan’s baby if he wants it.
Kim Masters is the host of The Business, public radio's weekly show about the business of show business. She is also the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.