If someone made you select one movie—and the colossal, confounding shitstorm engulfing it—that best encapsulates the political climate of 2016, it would be Ghostbusters.
And the opening salvo was fired by none other than Donald J. Trump.
When Sony officially announced the cast for its all-female remake of the ’80s classic, led by Bridesmaids stars Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy along with SNL-ers Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones, the former reality-TV show host took time out of his busy schedule of eating taco bowls and bragging about sexually assaulting women to film a little video at his desk.
Squinting into the camera, the pursed-lipped provocateur exclaimed, “They’re remaking Indiana Jones without Harrison Ford—you can’t do that!” He waved his hands around for added effect, as though signaling a squeegee man to back the fuck away from his limo in the ’80s. “And now they’re making Ghostbusters with only women. What’s going on?!”
Now, far be it from me to question the cinema taste of a man whose favorite film is 20 assorted minutes of Bloodsport—or, for that matter, the mental fitness of a senior citizen who likes to film six-second Vine videos of himself defending Miley Cyrus for twerking at the VMAs, but Donald’s small-minded take did indeed align with that of those on the women-bashing, change-scared alt-right, many of whom would become his most fervent online supporters when the cotton candy-haired mogul announced his presidency with a speech bashing Mexicans a mere five months later.
“Oh, I’ve seen it. Oh, I’ve seen it,” Ghostbusters director Paul Feig says of the ridiculous Trump video. “If anybody chooses to remember the two together, our movie and this whole [Hillary Clinton] campaign, I think it’s very hard to say there’s not a relationship between the angst that it caused in a certain part of the population. I think they are definitely tied. I think they will forever be tied. Whether people will remember a silly movie about ghosts in the same breath that they’re remembering a president of the United States, I don’t know. But I think there is a very interesting thesis that some future student could write about this that I’d love to read, because I think there’s a very interesting simpatico going on between the two.”
Indeed, just as the first female presidential nominee of a major party in Hillary Clinton squared off against the most misogynistic presidential nominee of a major party in Donald Trump, so did Ghostbusters against a myopic horde of keyboard cowboy anti-feminists who spent countless hours downvoting the film’s trailer to make it the most disliked in YouTube history, or even vowed to despise it sight unseen. Sony even sent out (and later deleted) a tweet from its Ghostbusters account praising Hillary for shattering “the glass ceiling,” while longtime Feig collaborator Judd Apatow claimed that many of the Ghostbusters haters were Trump supporters—a sentiment Feig seems to agree with.
“A lot of the things I hear leveled at Hillary are the things I heard leveled at my movie for two years,” says Feig. “I would never be so bold as to say they were all Trump supporters, but it falls in line with the beliefs of some of them, and I would get angry at horrendous tweets and I would go back and see who said it, and a good amount of the time there would be some pro-Trump thing on there. I don’t know how to say it, but things always get crazy before they get better. Everybody screams the loudest before the new normal happens, so if this is the death throes of that old way of thinking, then that’s great.”
Things took a particularly nasty turn in the alt-right’s war on Ghostbusters when alt-right poster boy Milo Yiannopoulos sicced his sizable Twitter following on star Leslie Jones, who was subsequently bombarded with racist and sexist memes. Milo was banned from Twitter for engaging in serial targeted harassment, while Jones’s iCloud and website were hacked, with her hackers—presumably the same alt-right tormentors—posting her nude photos and personal information online.
Jones handled the hacking with grace and deft comedic skill, calling out her enemies in a hilarious rant on Saturday Night Live. “Look at how Leslie Jones has been handling her hack? The thing she did on Weekend Update this past weekend was fuckin’ brilliant,” says Feig, beaming with pride. “These are strong, smart women who aren’t taking shit, who are standing up for themselves, who are being empowered and not being victims, and who are using their comedy to make statements and give their world its due. It makes me want to cry sometimes because you realize how it hasn’t been that way for so long because these voices weren’t allowed to say these things. These women have always been there, but they didn’t have the forum.”
Feig discusses that forum—or lack thereof—at length in the new book On Story: Screenwriters and Filmmakers on Their Iconic Films. His chapter concerns “heroes” in cinema, and for those who don’t know, Feig has been a champion of female protagonists since his breakthrough as the creator of the cult TV show Freaks and Geeks. He’s since gone on to direct the women-fronted films Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy, and of course, Ghostbusters.
The 2011 film Bridesmaids, in particular, seemed to signal a cultural shift in the way Hollywood—and filmgoers—perceived women on screen. It proved what many have known for a long time: that women are not only just as funny as men, but can be just as profitable too, with the movie grossing close to $300 million worldwide against a meager $32.5 million budget.
“My hope is that we showed a woman in all her three-dimensional forms as we have been doing with men forever—especially in comedy,” Feig says of Kristen Wiig’s Bridesmaids protagonist. “Women have been forced into very one-dimensional roles in comedy in recent decades. If you look back to the ’30s and ’40s, there was a real parity in comedies between men and women, where the women were intellectual rivals to the men. That’s what I grew up watching, and those are the movies I fell in love with.”Some of the movies Feig cites as his childhood favorites are His Girl Friday, featuring Roz Russell going toe-to-toe with fellow journalist Cary Grant, and the Barbra Streisand-starrer What’s Up, Doc? But in the late ’70s and early ’80s, depictions of women on screen seemed to shift—which Feig blames in part on the rise of home video and the “Blockbuster mentality.”
“I always trace it back to the Blockbuster mentality. When they started coming in back in the ’70s and the town realized they were making most of their money off of 15-year-old boys, they started pandering to the 15-year-old boy’s perception of what women are—which is she’s a Barbie doll, a mom who’s mean, or she’s your girlfriend who’s mean and doesn’t let you hang out with your friends,” he offers. “That began to self-perpetuate, and they started to make money, and we just went into this sinkhole—and women went into this sinkhole with these ridiculous roles.”He pauses. “It really started to become clear when I got in this business and saw all these women that I thought were really funny and talented showing up in those roles, and you thought, ‘Oh my God, they’re not letting them do anything! You have this powerhouse comedic actress and she’s just being mean and not being funny at all.’ That’s when the real injustice started welling up in me and I thought, ‘I want to start getting great roles for these great women, and then let women in the audience see themselves in the way they want to be or feel that they are.’”
Feig has done just that. Unfortunately, the online campaign against Ghostbusters did manage to hurt the film’s bottom line, with the movie grossing an underwhelming $229 million worldwide against a $144 million budget. As the Sony hack revealed, Sony had been banking on the film kick-starting an entire Ghostbusters cinematic universe, including multiple sequels and even a male spinoff film possibly featuring Chris Pratt and Channing Tatum. According to Feig, even a sequel is still up in the air.
“That’s up to the studio because they have to pay for it. Nobody’s called me,” he says. “But I love those characters and I know they are now heroes and mean a lot to a lot of people, so in a perfect world it would be great if we could see them bust more ghosts, kick more ass, and be awesome again.”
Looking back on the two years of online vitriol both he and his film experienced, Feig can’t help but try to see the positive in it all—including whatever part the film played in forwarding the perception that women can kick ass and save the day on screen, too.
“Now that the movie’s kind of past all that stuff and we’re out on DVD and streaming on digital, I get contacted all day long over social media by women thanking me for the movie, and girls and young women sending me pictures of themselves in their modern-day Ghostbusters costumes,” says Feig, cheerily. “I even get tweets from women saying, ‘If this movie was around when I was younger I’d maybe be an engineer now, because I see these cool women who are scientists.’ So I hope the world will go, wow, we got upset over something that we really didn’t need to get upset over. I’m hoping that time will rehabilitate us.”