Cinema is the art of capturing motion in time.
The runaway success of Ghostbusters is inseparable from the time of its creation. Yet it's possible to take for granted how lucky the filmmakers were that everything (and everyone) came together at the right moment. Hindsight makes it look too easy. As if the movie gods saw the growing demand for high-concept, effects-heavy adventures on one hand and the burgeoning star power of the Saturday Night Live set on the other. A vision. A wise stroke of a proverbial beard. The elements are twinned. Stars are born.
Like all stories of alchemy, Hollywood or otherwise, it wasn't that simple.
"We Could Really Bust Some Heads"
Actually, nothing about Ghostbusters was simple, at least in Dan Aykroyd's original treatment.
The best films have a way of spooling out for us with beautiful inevitability, a sort of cosmic rightness; the film just feels the way it's supposed to. As such, one of the surprises of unpacking classic movies is discovering the differences between the original vision and the perfected jewel. We shiver at the casting choices: Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones? O.J. Simpson as the Terminator? We scratch our heads at old scripts and lost plotlines (Annie Hall, the murder mystery?), or just plain wonder about the road not taken.
Aykroyd's initial conception of Ghostbusters was expansive, epic and unfilmable. Reflecting the actor's own passion for the paranormal, the sprawling saga featured an established team of heroes adventuring across space, time and alternate dimensions, taking on all manner of monstrosities. "My first draft was written in a way that your basic acceleration physicist might have enjoyed more than the mass audience," he admits in Don Shay's Making Ghostbusters.
But this is not a making-of book. (I told you that.) We're doing aesthetic detective work here, decoding the information to find out what it means. Aykroyd's early drafts don't just tell us what Ghostbusters was; they help us understand what it actually became.
Dan Aykroyd is a true Renaissance man of intense fascinations. The actor and comedian is also a law enforcement buff, a winemaker, a scientist, and, for a time, a seminarian—expulsion kept him from the path to the priesthood. He is a vessel for intellectual passions, and his most memorable creations mirror his own devotion to the characters' expertise. Just as The Blues Brothers reflected a thorough appreciation of the musical traditions at hand, Ghostbusters came from a place of serious scholarship; his grounding in spiritualism, ufology and all things parapsychological is both legendary and daunting, and though Ghostbusters remains a work of fiction, ghosts, Aykroyd would stress, are all too real.
It's not difficult to fit Ghostbusters into the career of a man practically one small-business loan away from his own paranormal investigation franchise. But movies are team efforts, and Ghostbusters is not one man's vision but a meeting of the minds.
Aykroyd brought the project to his manager, the legendary Bernie Brillstein, an avuncular gentleman well-reputed for truly caring about his clients. Brillstein had already done handsomely as executive producer of The Blues Brothers and, moreover, as he recounts in his memoir Where Did I Go Right?, he had faith in his client and friend. "I took a dollar from my pocket, handed it over, and I became the gatekeeper."
A gatekeeper in search of a Keymaster. Brillstein hoped to repeat the success that he and Aykroyd (and Venkman candidate John Belushi) had found with The Blues Brothers, and sent it along to Universal and John Landis. Nothing came of it. "The nature of this game in Hollywood is that you are wrong some of the time," then-president Thom Mount reflected to then-journalist Cameron Crowe. "The decision on Ghostbusters, for example, was that it was too expensive a venture to undertake. We were wrong."
Sources differ on who said what to whom and when. "I can't say for sure what happened next or how," Brillstein admits. But the stars were aligning, out in the universe, without Universal. Aykroyd's pages were in the hands of a friend from his Toronto television days, producer-director Ivan Reitman.
"Gozer Was Very Big in Sumeria. Big Guy."
That we've gotten this far into a film text without discussing the director must set some sort of record.
A fundamental reason for the dearth of critical analysis of Ghostbusters may well be the career of Ivan Reitman, both before and after. Cinema is the province of auteur theory, and helming a string of well-liked comedies is no way to impart an artistic vision or impress Pauline Kael. It's easy to devalue Reitman's contribution by pointing out the things he didn't bring to the table; it's equally easy to forget what he actually did.
Reitman's pedigree was promising from the outset. A Canadian best known for comedy, like Aykroyd, he'd also tackled horror-comedy (Cannibal Girls, later referenced in Ghostbusters II) and even full-on horror, having produced David Cronenberg's first two features. In short, he knew his way around both a laugh and a scare.
His business sense was also strong. His instincts as a producer on Animal House had paid off for all involved, and though his relative directorial inexperience had kept him from the megaphone on that movie, he was quick to take it up with Meatballs, an inexpensive feature that proved he could deliver laughs on a budget. Next came Stripes, a highly successful comic romp, and by the time Aykroyd's treatment landed on his desk, he was very much in a position to make it happen.
Reitman knew that the time was right for a large-scale science fiction comedy; he'd previously optioned Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, though creative differences were killing the project around the same time that Ghostbusters came over the transom. No risky project gets anywhere without someone who believes in it, and Reitman believed—enough to become the sole creative producer on the film. (Brillstein was solely a dealmaker, there to look after Aykroyd.) Had the filmmaker not seen the potential in Aykroyd's idea the whole story might have been over before it began. "By the tenth page, I was exhausted," he remarks in Making Ghostbusters. "By the fortieth or fiftieth page—however many there were—I was counting the budget in hundreds of millions of dollars." Shades of the plight of the executives who passed on Star Wars based on George Lucas's early, lengthy and incomprehensible treatments.
It's a time-honored Hollywood joke that no one knows what a producer does. As producer in this early phase, Reitman was an alchemist, uniting two elements to form a whole greater than their parts. He remembered Harold Ramis from previous collaborations on stage and screen and saw in him the potential to bring Ghostbusters into this dimension. As Peter Venkman might have said, "We have to get these two together."
"Now It Looks Like It May Actually Happen"
For the lazy author, it's deeply tempting to view Harold Ramis's involvement in Ghostbusters as the precursor for the many dichotomies in the film.
Ramis's job was to temper Ghostbusters from the product of Aykroyd's wild imagination into the manageable narrative we know today. His greatest previous successes had been as a writer in collaboration, at first in sketch comedy teams for stage and television; he later lent his keen comic eye to Animal House, Meatballs and Stripes, always in partnerships. By the early '80s he was launching a fruitful directorial career (Caddyshack, Vacation), learning how to turn jokes into cinematic stories. All this Reitman knew well.
One could concoct some polarizing and probably unfair metaphor about Aykroyd and Ramis: the dreamer and the designer, the artist and the architect. Perhaps anticipating this easy reading, the writers injected these personalities into their respective characters: Aykroyd with a sheepish smile as "the heart of the Ghostbusters", and Ramis the rationalist, the man with the plan.
In any event, the script came together, and what didn't work on the page would be fixed on set—an unsurprising advantage of having the writers star in the film. Reitman, meanwhile, had more alchemy to work, not the least daunting of which was to sell a studio on the whole mess. With his script notes given and his writers hard at work, it was time to start knocking on doors.
"Where Are We Gonna Get the Money?"
Here the march of time once again intervenes. Reitman's track record may have opened some doors in the industry, but the offer from Columbia Pictures came under unique circumstances indeed.
Frank Price, then the chairman of Columbia, faced his meeting with Reitman with much the same attitude that Reitman must have taken toward Aykroyd's early drafts: receptive, interested in the concept, but cognizant that there wasn't much 'there' there yet. At the time, there was no Aykroyd-Ramis draft to show, no budget drawn up and not much to say beyond a basic plot summary and a list of talent. One can imagine the plucky producer summoning Venkman-esque charm to talk his way through the pitch.
But he'd picked the right target. A former writer and producer for television, Price, like Brillstein, knew a big idea when he saw one. (Not long after getting behind Ghostbusters at this natal phase, he would hear a similarly bizarre pitch for a high-concept comedy, which he would later green-light at Universal: Back to the Future.) And he understood that the people, not the pages, would make Ghostbusters. As Price recollects, discussing an episode of his television series The Virginian: "Of course, it was thin stuff and way off format, but I get drawn to comedy, witness Tootsie and Ghostbusters, and sometimes can't resist. The opportunity to do this with Pat O'Brien was one I couldn't pass up…" Replace the actor's name with that of Reitman or his writers and you could have the whole story right there.
In any event, Price was intrigued, and a window was open: here the practicalities of big-budget studio filmmaking would, strangely, intervene in the filmmakers' favor. He made an offer for Ghostbusters under two conditions:
(1) That it come in on its generous if vague budget, which was only fair;
(2) That it be released in the summer of 1984, one year hence, which was unheard of.
The first was just doing business, and with no script to break down, no one had much to say on the budget; "I took a number from the air," Reitman confesses.
The second factor, though, was as much responsible for Ghostbusters' green light as anything. Columbia was facing a hole in its schedule the size of a major summer release. Why? Was a project delayed, did a deal fall through? History does not relate; but nature abhors a vacuum, particularly in summer blockbuster season, and movies have been approved for stranger reasons. The money was there, the need was certainly there, and Reitman had a property worth exploring. Now if only they could rework the script, cast the actors, hire the crew, shoot, edit and score the film, and tackle the groundbreaking visual effects, all in one year.
The movie ended up costing thirty-one million dollars, a hefty sum in the early '80s. It took a serious leap of faith for any movie to get that budget, let alone a genre-crossing comedy. Columbia made the leap because they had to; in any other year, Ghostbusters might have never been made…
"Peter, You're Coming With Us On This One"
Reitman may have sold Price on the film on the strength of its talent, but the Ghostbusters team at the time was still modest in terms of manpower. Six people were on board: Reitman himself, Aykroyd and Ramis, associate producers Joe Medjuck and Michael C. Gross… and Bill Murray.
Although not involved with the development of the film, it's impossible not to consider Bill Murray a creative force on Ghostbusters; not only was the screenplay tailored to his talents, but his on-set improvisations were vital. A longtime veteran of stage shows, television and film with Aykroyd, Ramis and Reitman, Murray's involvement solidified Ghostbusters' standing as a truly collaborative work. One could even sketch a dense little family tree connecting everybody. (As David Denby would remark in his New York review, "Straightening out the overlapping credits of these men would require a high-performance computer or perhaps a great gray tomb of an article in the Sunday Times.") The actor was among friends, both as writers and actors, who knew how to handle him, even nurture him, and let him thrive.
More than one interviewer has asked Ramis if he, growing up, was the class clown: "No," he answers, "I wrote for the class clown." Similarly, recalling Stripes, Reitman notes, "Bill is this great improv player, but he needs Harold, the focused composer who understands setting a theme and the rules of orchestration." (High praise from a music major.) With Murray's legendary unpredictability being both his greatest asset and his most unsettling drawback, it's tempting to peg Reitman and Ramis as wranglers for the more raw, expressive, effusive talent of Aykroyd as writer and Murray as… well, Murray.
Although still relatively new to features, Murray's screen persona was already well under formation by the time Ghostbusters rolled cameras. "Murray was less chameleon than boa constrictor," reflects critic Saul Austerlitz in his comedy history Another Fine Mess, "swallowing roles whole and regurgitating them in his own image." Venkman would be his first comic lead to incorporate his yen for straight acting; he was already tiring of the jokesters he'd played on television and in Reitman's last two movies, and part of his deal for Ghostbusters required Columbia to green-light a remake of The Razor's Edge, starring him as the traumatized soul in search of meaning. Re-examining Groundhog Day, Roger Ebert summed up the sad humanity of the textbook Murray protagonist: "The world is too much with him, he is a little smarter than everyone else, he has a detached melancholy, he is deeply suspicious of joy, he sees sincerity as a weapon that can be used against him, and yet he conceals emotional needs. He is Hamlet in a sitcom world."
"Well, There's Something You Don't See Every Day"
The deal was made, the contracts were signed and the rewrites began.
Ramis enjoyed rewriting and proved a keen interpreter of Aykroyd's work. Aykroyd's strengths lay in story ideas and structure, Ramis's in character and dialogue, and the two made for an able and balanced team. The history of comedy is rife with writing pairs who fill each other's gaps, and do better work together than they ever did apart. In the case of Ghostbusters, one finds a comic tension between the writers akin to the Monty Python troupe, which pitted the fanciful, conceptual Oxonians against the more verbal, practical Cambridge crowd.
The core cast trio was sorted out by archetypes: "Danny was the heart, Harold was the brain and Murray, of course, was the mouth," Reitman later told The New York Times. Ramis had only initially come on as a writer, but somewhere along the line, the obvious occurred, and he strapped on a proton pack. An untried film actor at the time, Ramis had only been in one movie before—Stripes—and Reitman had cast him in part to have Murray's best writer and co-improviser on hand; the gambit worked then and it worked again in Ghostbusters, with Egon Spengler remaining by far the best-remembered work of Ramis's onscreen career.
With the green light aflame and the talent coming together, we abandon the work of Reitman the producer and at last concentrate on Reitman the director. He'd gathered the ingredients for a great film. Now he had to bring it to life. "It's left/right-side brain things," he reflects, "but I've been producing since I was in college, producing and directing and doing the two things. When I direct myself, I almost don't think as a producer at all except conceptually, initially: is this a good thing to do, is this going to work out? And then I'm the director."
Like any comedy, Ghostbusters would stand or fall on the chemistry of its cast. But that was Reitman's forte: an eye for talent, and, to mix a metaphor, a hand to guide it and shape it. Ghostbusters is the masterpiece of a man who knew not only how to get the most from his actors, but how to make them give the most to each other.
As Reitman staged the film, he kept the effects work from getting in the way of the comedy; rarely must the performers actually interact with ghosts and creatures not present on set, and neither the big-budget pyrotechnics nor the horror-film shockers stifle the humor. (We remember, for instance, the antagonistic relationship between Venkman and Slimer, but rarely do the two share a shot, and the famous punch line—"He slimed me"—comes only when the scene-stealing spook has made his exit.) A lesser filmmaker might have become swamped under effects and tricks, but Reitman's steady hand and less-is-more attitude ensured a film where the two dueling voices—sci-fi horror and deadpan comedy—reinforce each other rather than drown each other out. Ghostbusters wasn't the first movie to put a comic twist on a story with a great hook; indeed, the trend was practically a religion in 1980s Hollywood. But it's a difficult stunt for a director to pull off, and for every high-concept comedy that walks this tightrope successfully, there's a few colossally expensive failures.
Certainly the extraordinary had its turn in the spotlight, but Reitman's restrained, straightforward approach made sure the actors remained the stars. Even away from the effects, his directorial technique was similarly unflashy: in Ghostbusters, even in the most fantastic moments, the characters take precedence over the camerawork. It's why we're more likely to think of Ghostbusters as 'a Bill Murray movie' than 'an Ivan Reitman film'. "I don't do a lot of fancy shots," Reitman remarked on the commentary for his later film No Strings Attached. "I think moving cameras, although they have their place, particularly in this movie, often upstage what works best for comedy. So I believe in a kind of very simple, very classical staging of things."
There's something to be said for sprezzatura, the 'invisible director' school of thought. Even Reitman's son Jason has taken the same approach, creating smart showcases for performers and writers alike in Thank You For Smoking, Juno and Up in the Air, leading to an Oscar nomination for, among others, the senior Reitman as producer.
His instincts with actors made Bill Murray a success in his first leading role (Meatballs). Granted, it didn't take a genius to see that Murray had the goods. But consider Sigourney Weaver, struggling post-Alien. She endured a rigorous audition process for Ghostbusters, famously proving her comic chops by leaping up onto the furniture and doing the terror dog routine; Reitman saw both her skill and her desire to transcend typecasting, and her pairing with Bill Murray elevates Ghostbusters' love story from boilerplate B-plot to a touching, adult look at a budding relationship curtailed by Sumerian demigod invasion.
And then there's his handling of Aykroyd, not just as a writer but as an actor. It's worth noting that while Aykroyd's ventures as a leading man have had their ups and downs, he's also an Academy Award nominee for Best Supporting Actor. Just as in The Blues Brothers (which he also co-wrote), or Trading Places (which he didn't), Aykroyd generously ceded the flashier performance to his wilder co-star and took up the mantle of straight man, recognizing the equal comic importance of that role. From Saturday Night Live to the big screen, he was the glue that held his casts together.
Ever sensitive to the needs of actors, Reitman and Ramis knew Aykroyd's strengths just as well as he knew his own. A lesser director would have flattened the role of Raymond Stantz by neglect, reduced him to the bland Everyman defined only by what he is not: not a talker like Venkman, not a brain like Spengler, not this extreme, not that type. But "the heart of the Ghostbusters" is an active value, not an honorary title; Reitman never let the more easily-compartmentalized characters overshadow Stantz with wisecracks or technobabble, and the optimistic sweetness of Reitman's best-loved films is personified in Stantz's childlike energy.
Reitman's ability to get the most of actors extends outside the Ghostbusters group, of course. Consider his lighthearted romps with Arnold Schwarzenegger, beginning with Twins. One would be forgiven for predicting a bad end to a film hinging on the Terminator's ability to get a laugh, and indeed the story of the casting bodes for calculated cash grab over good-faith gags. (Schwarzenegger was offered his choice of Twins or Suburban Commando, which later went to Hulk Hogan; evidently, Hollywood really needed muscleman comedies.) Reitman tapped then-unseen wells of charm and grace from the former Mr. Universe, and the relationship would spawn a fruitful string of genial comedies. One wonders if the filmmaker's ability to reveal new and appealing sides of Schwarzenegger contributed to the latter's political success.
Or one might consider Reitman's involvement in the birth of Frat Pack comedy, launching the career of Todd Phillips with Road Trip and the all-but-seminal Old School.
Or, before that, working with a young John Belushi in The National Lampoon Show off-Broadway and hooking him up with his first movie role in Animal House.
Or, before that, giving Eugene Levy and Andrea Martin their first lead roles in Cannibal Girls after throwing them work in Foxy Lady.
At the very least, Reitman's finest films exemplify the ancient Hollywood adage that ninety percent of directing is casting. Ghostbusters, however, marked a high point in the development of his craft, showcasing a mature director firing on all cylinders. He'd proven himself on smaller features time and again; like his actors and his writers, he was ready for something bigger. And in the autumn of 1983, they'd all start shooting it.
It's important to put a film in context, both the historical and sociological context of its times and the context of its creators' careers. Understanding the director's and the writers' work before and after Ghostbusters illuminates their contributions to the film in question. Well before production, crucial elements of the movie's DNA were already floating around in the filmographies and biographies of its key players.
But the work that resulted is so much more than the sum of its parts, far richer, more colorful and complex. In the chapters to come, we'll drill a hole through Ghostbusters' head and analyze its formal elements (lighting, framing, color, montage, human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together…), piecing together the stated themes and the inner workings of this important comedy. From there, we'll have a context (there's that word again…) to discuss the messages the movie presents; as film critic André Bazin noted, "One way of understanding better what a film is trying to say is to know how it is saying it."
We'll begin with a close reading on the shot-by-shot level and widen out; as a thinker Bazin's equal noted: "Let's not rush things. We don't even know what you have yet…"
BIBLIOGRAPHY (will open in separate window)
Overthinking Ghostbusters © 2012 Adam Bertocci.
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