Friday, October 16, 2009

Harold Ramis: One of the best comedy movie directors working today

Comedy is hard.
Making audiences laugh is one of the most difficult things someone can attempt. Humor is personal. What one person finds funny, another might not.
Even the best comedic performers, writers and directors can be hit and miss. Those with the highest batting averages are rightfully revered. Harold Ramis is one such actor, writer and director.
His latest film, “Year One”, got pretty poor marks from critics. But I'll reserve judgment because I haven't seen it yet. It was released on DVD Oct. 6. “Year One,” which stars Jack Black and Michael Cera, merited only 15% positive reviews, according to A rare misstep for Ramis.
I had the chance to interview Ramis in November 1992 before the release of “Groundhog Day,” arguably his best film. (“Groundhog Day” received 96% positive reviews, according to RottenTomatoes.)
I was working as editor of a prototype magazine called “Inside Comedy” at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. I interviewed Ramis by phone for a possible article in the magazine. By the time we spoke however, it was too late for inclusion in the publication. I wrote the article as a class assignment, but the article and interview were never published.
Until now …
At the time, Ramis was best known for co-writing and co-starring in “Stripes” and “Ghostbusters.” He also co-wrote and directed “Caddyshack” and directed “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” Plus, he co-wrote “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” “Meatballs” and a bunch more. (Since then, he’s added “Analyze This” and “The Ice Harvest” to his filmography.)
Ramis got his big break with the Second City comedy troupe in Chicago working alongside Bill Murray, John Belushi and Gilda Radner.
What follows is a transcript of my Nov. 13, 1992, interview with Harold Ramis.

Q: “Groundhog Day” is scheduled to open on Feb. 12. What’s the movie about?

Ramis: Bill Murray plays a Pittsburgh weatherman who every year is sent to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania – that’s P-U-N-X-S-U-T-A-W-N-E-Y – to cover the annual groundhog festival there. He’s very vain, self-centered, not what you would call a considerate person. Andie MacDowell goes along as his producer and Chris Elliott is his cameraman. He does the story and they try to leave Punxsutawney to get back to Pittsburgh and there’s a blizzard that turns them back and they have to stay in town. Bill wakes up the next morning and … it’s Groundhog Day again. And he thinks he’s losing his mind. He struggles through the day and he goes to sleep again and wakes up and it’s Groundhog Day again. And for karmic reasons, he is trapped in Groundhog Day and can’t get out no matter what he does.
At first he thinks he’s crazy, then he accepts the idea, then he’s depressed about it, then realizes that if the day is just going to start over then there are no consequences for anything he does. And therefore he can do whatever he wants, so he begins to exploit that and exploit his knowledge of what’s going to happen on that day. And then he turns his attention to Andie and … I won’t say more, but it’s very romantic, it’s very funny. We’ve had some great test results in our screenings so we think it’s going to be well received.

Q: What have you gained from this film in your progression as a director?

Ramis: This is probably the most controlled thing I’ve done in terms of story and holding on to the more serious themes of the film. It takes a very romantic and spiritual and emotional turn. Generally in my earlier films whenever I would come to a crossroads with comedy to the left and something more serious to the right, I would always make that left turn. But in this I thought it was important that we honor the serious side of the script because that’s what attracted me to it in the first place. It really paid off. Bill gives one of the more textured performances that I’ve ever seen him give. So I think people are going to be surprised.

Q: This is your sixth film working with Bill Murray. How is your relationship different on this film?

Ramis: The only other time I directed him was “Caddyshack” and he was only with us for maybe eight shooting days in the whole production. About 75% of what he did in that film was improvised or created on the spot. So it was a different kind of experience. He wasn’t carrying that film. He didn’t feel the pressure of being the star of it. It was very well divided among him, Chevy (Chase), Rodney (Dangerfield) and Ted Knight.
But on this film he strongly felt the burden. He’s in every scene of the film. Because of the very tricky time sequencing of the film, he had a lot to remember about where he was at any given moment.

Q: Was there much improv?

Ramis: Yeah, some. We’ve always worked loose. It’s just our training – Second City. And I think there’s a tendency for people not to prepare the same way for film as they do for theater. A lot of people want to leave a lot to be resolved on the set, to be inspired, to make it fresh. It’s very hard to get people to focus before you get to the day you’re gonna shoot.

Q: What makes a good comedy director?

Ramis: What makes a good comedy director? I don’t know if I could answer that. You’ll have to ask one of the good ones. I find in general … it’s as true in life as it is in comedy, when things are going well, when you have the right idea, people tend to recognize it and support you and there’s a natural energy that flows from that correctness. It’s just a natural response to excellence.
I just try to start the ball rolling and try to steer it a bit. The director can’t be the energy source. He has to stand behind the actor. He’s not the star. Much as I would like to be, I’m not. And it’s really my job to make Bill look good without intruding on the product. It’s like with Andie MacDowell – I’ve felt this in the past – I would like to step in and be the romantic lead. This is metaphorical, so my wife won’t take it in the wrong way. I want the leading lady to fall in love with me. But I know that for the film she has to fall in love with the star. That’s a good analogy for everything I do. It can’t be me doing it. It’s got to be Bill doing it. He has to provide the energy. I can motivate the crew and I can galvanize the production. But if things aren’t going well, you can’t fool anybody. So like I say, when things are going well, when you have the right idea, a lot of energy comes from that.

Q: Do you just step back and let the actors do their thing?

Ramis: I try to quietly suggest what I think will work. No one’s right all the time. I think one of the reasons that the people I work with trust me is because maybe I’m right a higher percentage of time than other people they work with. I might be right only 40% of the time, but that could be 20% more than most people. Comedy is very hit-and-miss. That’s why a lot of people are afraid to try it.

Q: Is there a scene that typifies your style?

Ramis: There’s a great monologue Bill does in “Caddyshack” when he’s cutting the heads off flowers with a grass whip. He’s pretending that he’s in the Master’s tournament. It’s been memorized by professional golfers on the pro tour. I know that for a fact because Bill goes out on the tour sometimes. And a lot of athletes love all his speeches in the movie. But anyway, this for me, typifies how we work together. All I said in the script was “Carl,” Bill’s character, “stands there lopping the tops off flowers with a grass whip.” That’s all it says.
But I tend to, even when there’s no dialogue indicated, I figure, why not improvise dialogue. It could be a great bonus. I try to take things from my own life. For instance, when I jog or play any sport, in my mind I run that same kind of fantasy that everybody does, that I’m running the last lap of the marathon at the Olympics or whatever. So I said to Bill, “Why don’t you talk to yourself as if you’re in a professional golf tournament?”
It just clicked with him immediately. We ran two cameras and did one take and it was perfect. It just clicked right into something he knew really well. He hit the right metaphor for it. You know, “Cinderella story. He’s a Cinderella boy.” And the details were great. It’s so accurate what he does. It doesn’t always work like that, but I see that as where I could serve him best and by knowing him and reaching for something that I understood that we could really connect.

Q: What about “Groundhog Day”? You didn’t play it fast and loose?

Ramis: We worked harder on the script. We got some time to work together on the script and we used the script as a guideline – some of it will work and some of it won’t. We’re not afraid to throw out what isn’t working.

Q: What about the scene where the groundhog drives the truck?

Ramis: He lets the groundhog drive. But the groundhog bit him twice during that shot. That was big news. He took it well. He’s a brave guy.

Q: Why six years since the last film you directed?

Ramis: “Club Paradise” came out in ’86, yeah. Why (no films since)? I didn’t find anything I wanted to direct actually. After “Club Paradise” came out, I also had “Back to School” out that year and I shared a screenwriting credit on that. And then I started working on the “Ghostbusters II” script and I started developing two other scripts, which … I just never liked them enough to turn them into films. I was working with other writers and they just didn’t happen. And I got very involved in my personal life for a couple of years in there. I went through a divorce, I remarried and I had another child, so a lot of things were happening. I’ve never felt that I needed to work. I never worked just for money and “Ghostbusters” was kind of liberating financially. I hate doing bad work. I would rather not work than put out something I know I won’t be proud of. Because that’s happened a couple times.
Besides the “Ghostbusters” sequel, I spent a fair amount of time developing a script for a “Caddyshack” sequel because Rodney wanted to do it. I didn’t want to do it, but they used the argument “It’s gonna happen anyway.” Rodney and I had a success in “Back to School,” and then Rodney decided he wasn’t going to do the movie. He got into a contractual dispute with the studio, so that was a year wasted there. And I didn’t like the movie that got made out of it. It’s really not very good and that’s being kind. So then I started looking in earnest for something to direct and there just aren’t many good scripts around and this finally came to us in ’90, I guess.
The author of the original screenplay is Danny Rubin and he has story credit and we share screenplay credit and I have co-producer credit with Trevor Albert.

Q: Your films have been collaborative. What has been your contribution?

Ramis: It’s hard to talk about your own contributions, but I think I began to realize even when we were working on the screenplay for “Animal House” that I felt I had a good story sense.
One thing about writing long form is you have to hold the whole thing in your head in order to keep it working. It’s like having memory in your computer. My brain is big enough to keep 120 pages organized, so I know where I am and know how one thing will affect the next. But beyond that … We had a rule at Second City, which was, “Always work in the top of your intelligence.” And I see a lot of comedy where people are writing down to the audience or pandering or being deliberately stupid.
The films I’ve worked on … a lot of them are goofy, but they aren’t really stupid. I hope they’re smart goofy movies, which to me separates them from the slew of dumb movies that come out.
I had plenty of experience as a joke writer and I had a lot of scene experience at Second City. I probably have the most comprehensive experience to do what I do of all the people I know. There are people who are far funnier as performers but they don’t write. And there are people who write but don’t perform. There are people who direct but can’t write. There are people who act but don’t direct. I think that because I have worked in all these areas – and I’ve produced – it just gives me a good sense of how to write dialogue so an actor can speak it, because I’ve acted, or how to stage a scene so the actors can play it, so it looks natural. Part of what I bring to the mix is knowing what is a good mix.
I try only to work with people I think are really smart. None of these things would have worked without all those other people being involved, whether it’s Bill or Chevy or Danny (Aykroyd) or John Candy or (director) Ivan Reitman. You take anyone out of it and I don’t know what we would have had.

Q: I see Brian Doyle-Murray’s been in all the films you’ve directed so far.

Ramis: Brian’s great. He gets funny work without me. But there are other people … Robin Duke was in “Club Paradise” and she’s in “Groundhog Day.” There’s certain people I really like working with. Two of the films Brian was in we wrote together.

Q: Do you have any desire to do some sort of auteur project that’s your baby from start to finish?

Ramis: I don’t think I could. I’d be terrified. Especially in comedy, I need other people to give me feedback and tell me what’s working and what isn’t. Comedy doesn’t happen in a vacuum. One of my mottoes is “There are no auteurs in comedy” because it needs the response. If no one laughs, you can’t insist it’s funny.

Q: Who are the best comedy directors working today or the ones you admire most?

Ramis: I admire Woody Allen the most, just for his mastery of film and his intelligence and his ability to deal with real life without sacrificing real laughs. It’s just rich what he does, but it’s not always that popular.

Q: What about Ivan Reitman?

Ramis: I’ve liked Ivan’s films that I’ve been involved in. I don’t like the other ones. It’s not just a prejudice. I just wasn’t that interested in “Twins” or “Kindergarten Cop” or “Beethoven” or those kinds of things.

Q: John Landis?

Ramis: Landis can be good. I don’t particularly like his sensibility all the time. The films I do like (of his) are more generous in terms of honoring the human spirit.

Q: I’ve noticed that your films seem to end with an all-hell-breaks-lose or big ending.

Ramis: Yeah, they’re really hard to end, aren’t they?
You’ll see in “Groundhog Day” I haven’t pushed the ending beyond the resolution. Because it doesn’t exist solely as a comedy, it didn’t require a huge comic payoff.
We wrestled with whether or not to have a big ending in the second “Ghostbusters” movie. Because we had the marshmallow man in the first one, we asked ourselves, you know, does something need to get big? Will the audience require it?
And I’m sort of sorry we went the way we did. I’m sorry the movie seemed so derivative of the first one.

Q: Will there be a third “Ghostbusters” movie?

Ramis: I don’t sense any willingness among the players to have a third one. If we had the right idea … Also, from a business point of view, our mutual agent negotiated a deal that I don’t think the studio would take again. We took a tremendous share of the profits.

Q: Are you more comfortable as a screenwriter or a director?

Ramis: I like directing movies that are successful. I loved making “Club Paradise.” I hated that it wasn’t more successful. I have my own rationale for why that happened.
It makes me want to be very careful as a director and not just do it because I need to do it for my ego or any other reasons. I want to just do it because I have a script I really like.

Q: I watched “Club Paradise” the other day and some of it holds up very well.

Ramis: It’s missing its spine though. It was conceived for Bill (Murray) and John Cleese. We ended up with Robin (Williams) and Peter O’Toole. Very different (mix). In fact, it’s a direct reversal of roles. Bill is obviously laid back and cool and Robin’s hot, and O’Toole is laid back and cool and John Cleese is hot.

Q: The supporting characters are great though.

Ramis: It all fell apart in the casting of the principals. Not that I didn’t relish working with O’Toole and Robin, but the movie wasn’t constructed for them and it never fit. O’Toole had some good moments. Robin always felt handcuffed by it.

Q: Where did you go to college?

Ramis: I went to Washington University in St. Louis. I got a B.A. in English literature. I’m angling for an honorary PhD. I haven’t given them enough money. I really want one. I understand that Antioch actually gives you college credit for life experience things.

Q: How about your résumé?

Ramis: I was freelancing for the Chicago Daily News, which was one of the four dailies in Chicago then. And after my first two stories were published, I went to Playboy and they coincidentally had an opening in the editorial department – party jokes editor. So I did that for about six months before they started letting me do other stuff. My title changed from assistant editor to associate editor.

Q: Did you leave that to go to Second City?

Ramis: I did both for awhile. I guess for about six months I was doing 40 hours a week at the magazine and then eight shows a week at the theater. That was a little heavy. It was sort of a great combination though. For being in Chicago and having those two jobs, it was great. I lived on State Street, so I could walk to both jobs. I was born on the West Side of Chicago and then moved to Rogers Park.

Q: Was it a straight line from Second City to TV and films?

Ramis: I took a year’s sabbatical from Second City. John Belushi was hired to replace me and when I came back to Second City we were together on stage for half a year. Then he got hired by the Lampoon and the following year he had the chance to make up a Lampoon performing company. He grabbed me and Joe (Flaherty) and Gilda (Radner) and Brian Murray and Bill and we became the Lampoon company. And then from there, Lampoon wanted to do a movie, so I started “Animal House.”

Q: You also did Second City Television.

Ramis: I did 39 episodes as the head writer, but I only did 26 performing because I shifted over to my movie-writing career.

Q: And they never rescued your character from the terrorists.

Ramis: Moe Green, right, from the Leutonian terrorists. That was fun. We had an amazingly good time doing that. People still stop me on the street and say embarrassing things about the characters I’ve done.

Photo of Harold Ramis from IMDb.

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