Ramis On ‘Ice’
Mind Behind‘ Animal House,’ ‘Caddyshack,’ ‘Stripes,’ ‘Ghostbusters,’ ‘Groundhog
Day’ and ‘Analyze This’ Fires Off A Laugh Noir,
web-only uncut version here.
Harold Ramis about to re-invent himself again? The 60-year-old
has one of the most storied resumes in Hollywood comedy.
He made his name in the ’70s and early ’80s working
as a writer, director, and/or actor on what he now calls
his “institutional comedies” — “National
Lampoon’s Animal House,” “Caddyshack,” “Stripes,” “National
And then, after co-writing and
co-starring in the two “Ghostbusters” films,
he re-invented himself as a sort of metaphysical jester.
“When you’re young, you can play around,” he says
today. “You can take a sketch idea and, if you can
stretch it into ‘Anchorman,’ great. But I feel
like I’ve done that. And the Big Ideas are so tantalizing.
I find that entertaining.”
And so Ramis started making funny
movies that grappled with the Big Ideas. He stuffed what
he calls his “madcap
redemption comedies” with psychoanalysis (“Analyze
This”), existentialism (“Multiplicity”)
and even mythology (“Groundhog Day,” arguably
his and frequent collaborator Bill Murray’s mutual
And now, with “The Ice Harvest,” he’s
changing his tone yet again.
The film — written by the formidable duo of Robert
Benton and Richard Russo (the pair collaborated on “Twilight,” and
Benton won Academy Awards for his screenplays for “Kramer
vs. Kramer” and “Places in the Heart”),
and set for a Thanksgiving release — is a dark crime
comedy about a corrupt lawyer (John Cusack) and his nasty
mentor (Billy Bob Thornton) as they attempt a Christmas Eve
heist in Wichita, Kan.
“The Ice Harvest’ doesn’t fit into anything I’ve
done before,” says Ramis. “I use the phrase ‘retro
film noir’ to describe it. It’s very faithful
to its generic antecedents — I’ve never done
a piece that stylish — but it’s not an homage
to anything. I was flipping through a book of lurid Italian
films, and there are phrases in this film that look like
those sort of over-saturated, melodramatic film posters.
“And Russo and Benton are
so smart — the script is infused
with all sorts of mature wisdom, even though the characters
are on the slide morally.”
In Focus talked with Ramis for
almost an hour about a little bit of everything — “The Ice Harvest,” “Caddyshack,” the
eccentricities of Billy Bob Thornton, the never-to-be-filmed
plot of “Ghostbusters 3,” Ramis’ days as
a psych-ward orderly, musical nakedness at Hef’s mansion,
and much, much more. An edited transcript follows.
‘THE LUMP OF COAL’
Why did you make “The Ice Harvest” in
a smaller, more indie vein?
Well, I never made big films to make big films. And “Ice
Harvest” didn’t need to be big — 40 days
of shooting was plenty.
People usually make their financial deals
in inverse proportion to their desire to do the project,
ironically — the
more they hate the material, the more you have to pay them.
In this case, everyone loved the material, so we were able
to save a ton of money.
a fan of crime movies.
I really like the Coen Brothers films — the darker,
the better. I love Billy Bob in “The Man who Wasn’t
There”; I’m a really big fan of “Fargo” and “Blood
Simple.” They really understand the human side of larceny.
And Richard Russo and Robert Benton, the writers of our script,
understand that we’re all seriously flawed. I guess
that’s the essence of film noir — recognition
of existential realities.
My favorite crime
movies contain a ton of laughs: “The
Big Sleep,” everything Tarantino’s done, certain
I find myself laughing at “Goodfellas” — and
often at some of the most painful things.
Now that you’ve made “Ice Harvest,” do
you have any new insights on the relationship between comedy
Well, for me, it’s the relationship between comedy
and life — that’s the edge I live on, and maybe
it’s my protection against looking at the tragedy of
it all. [laughs] I’m of the school that anything can
be funny, if seen from a comedic point of view.
Did you come
aboard “Ice Harvest” subsequent
to Benton and Russo’s hiring?
Oh, yeah. They’d written the script years ago for Benton
to direct. And I, as a reluctant writer/director, am always
looking for a script that’s so well-written that I
don’t have to do any work on it. And this was the one.
Given that this
is a “cynical Christmas movie,” and
given the cast, was “Bad Santa” ever a source
Certainly — but almost more from a marketing point
of view. We weren’t thinking “Bad Santa” when
we made the film, but I’d seen “Bad Santa” and
really liked it; in fact, I read “Bad Santa” when
people talked about Bill Murray as the “Bad Santa” character.
When we finished “Ice Harvest” and finally tested
it, the numbers were so encouraging that the studio moved
us from a spring release to the day before Thanksgiving.
They said, “Wow! We could take the ‘Bad Santa’ slot!”
[laughs] It’s amazing to me, given that film, that
it’s now considered a “slot.”
Well, it’s counter-programming. I describe this film
as the lump of coal in everyone’s Christmas stocking.
You’ve talked about the importance of “finding
themes and ideas that are worth spending three years on.” Does
that sense of urgency to explore important themes increase
as you get older?
It doesn’t increase as a function of urgency — like
I’m on a messianic mission to save the world. It’s
just that my own interests have devolved to the Big Ideas.
Remember Professor Irwin Corey? He was a comedian
who played a mad professor. He gave lectures. I heard him
speak a few
weeks ago, and he said, “If God exists, then anything
is possible. If God doesn’t exist, then everything
is permissible.” In a way, that’s at the heart
of “The Ice Harvest” — because these are
characters who are clearly on the existential slide; life
has very little meaning for them.
We used to open the film with a flashback
of John and Billy Bob on barstools. Billy Bob said to John, “If you are
what you do, and you never do anything, then what the fuck
are you?” And then John says, “So what do you
want to do?” And Billy Bob says, “I don’t
know.” And so they hatch the plan to commit the crime.
It’s like a joke setup: “Two guys are sitting
in a bar … .”
But John takes the bait, so the movie shows
what happens when you make choices without any kind of moral
You see that John Cusack’s character had a nice, middle-class
family — but he’s abandoned his family values.
He’s a corrupt lawyer. It’s cool.
You’ve spoken movingly about the substance-related
deaths of your colleagues John Belushi and [“Animal
House”-“Caddyshack” co-writer] Doug Kenney,
plus your own struggles with substance abuse. What did it
bring to the scenes you directed with Oliver Platt’s
alcoholic character, Pete?
Well, I never had a problem with alcoholism — of all
the things, that was never my issue — but I knew some
really outstanding alcoholics. [laughs] But my first concern
was as a director, from a purely technical point of view.
People always say if you’re gonna play drunk, you play
against it. But Oliver didn’t. And just as I was about
to lay that platitude on him, I thought, “Why would
I say that? He’s so funny.” So I realized: Forget
the rules. What works, works.
You’ve said about your directorial style: “If
I can’t convince you that I am right, then I don’t
expect you to do what I say.”
It’s a function of a character weakness of mine, which
is that I don’t like conflict — I don’t
You picked a great career for that.
I’m at my best when I’m working with really talented
people, and I’m there to gently suggest or guide or
inspire or contribute whatever I can to their effort. It’s
not like I’m gonna tell Robert DeNiro how to act. The
technique’s up to him.
Some actors are very open right at the beginning — they
say, “You only need four words with me: ‘Bigger,
smaller, faster, slower.’”
The George Lucas
directorial technique: “Faster.
My parody of Ivan Reitman directing “Ghostbusters”: “Look
scared” and “Look more scared.”
GO TO HELL’
is that “Ghostbusters 3” would
have sent Peter, Ray and Egon to Hell.
The non-existent film? Yes. “Ghostbusters go to Hell” was
Danny Aykroyd’s concept for it.
What’s your favorite scene from that script that we’ll
likely never see?
We never really got down to an actual scenario. We had a
story. Part of the fun of “Ghostbusters” was
developing some kind of lamebrained scientific explanation
for what was going on, and I take credit for this:
What Danny had originally conceived was sending
us to a special-effects Hell — a netherworld full of phenomenal visual environments
and boiling pits and all that stuff. But my thought was that
what works so well about the first two is the mundane-ness
of it all. So my notion was that Hell exists simultaneously,
and in the same place as our consensus reality. But it’s
like a film shutter — it’s the darkness between
the 24 frames. So we blink alternately with this other reality,
which is Hell.
So all the Ghostbusters would need to do [to
go to Hell] is take themselves “out of phase” one beat. And
we create a device to do it, and it’s in a warehouse
in Brooklyn. And when we step out of the chamber, it looks
just like New York — but it’s Hell. Everything’s
gridlocked — no cars are moving, no vehicles are moving,
and all the drivers are swearing at each other in different
foreign languages. It’s all the worst things about
modern urban life, just magnified.
And Heaven was across the George Washington
Bridge in New Jersey. The Ghostbusters had to make this journey
Manhattan to the George Washington Bridge.
There was a good structure — because some of us were
in Hell, while some of us were in the real world, tracking
our journey through Hell. We had new Ghostbusters and old
that you had a next-gen cast in mind. If you were casting
those roles today, who
would play the younger
Well, we had Chris Farley as one of them, Ben Stiller as
one of them … . It was a while ago.
NEXT-GEN HOMAGE and
a MAD-HOUSE MEMOIR
The next generation of smart movie comics is paying a very
conscious homage to you.
There’s a scene set to “Shout” by Otis
Day and the Knights in “Wedding Crashers.”
I’ve heard ’em say this stuff. In fact, I’m
going to the Austin Film Festival, and [“40-Year-Old
Virgin” writer-director] Judd Apatow is interviewing
me in front of an audience. But those guys, they grew up
on that stuff, so I understand it. I’m at the same
agency that they all are, and I’ve been developing
a film for Owen Wilson.
Is it the autobiographical
project you’ve spoken of
in the past — the one set in 1967?
No. Here’s what the 1967 film is about: The year I
graduated from college, in the summer of ’66, I tried
grad school very briefly. It didn’t work out. So I
worked seven months in the psych ward at a Jewish hospital
and had some amazing experiences. I was 21, and the war was
going on … . I’ve described it in my pitch as “Cuckoo’s
Nest” meets “The Graduate.”
I’ve never seen a film from the staff point of view
set in any kind of mental-health facility. And I wrote it
from memory, so it has the feeling of a memoir.
Would the character be under the threat of the draft?
Yeah. I was very draftable. One of the last scenes is me
going through the physical and deciding if I was going
to join it or oppose it. I opposed it, but without honor.
THE RUDE MEN
I just re-watched “Caddyshack,” and I couldn’t
believe the sheer number of comedic styles it mixes. You’ve
got the new guard — Chevy Chase and Bill Murray — and
total Borscht Belt comics in Rodney Dangerfeld and Ted Knight.
People asked me the same thing when I was doing “Analyze
This” — “How could you possibly reconcile
the styles of Billy Crystal and Robert De Niro?” And
my response was that I didn’t intend to reconcile them — the
comedy came from their differences.
It’s the same thing in “Caddyshack.” Those
four unlikely characters — Bill and Chevy and Rodney
and Ted — they’re each in their own world, as
people and as characters. I used the Marx Brothers as a model.
Have you reflected
on why — even though “Caddyshack” is
now revered — it didn’t it make more of a splash
at the time?
It did fine. But I think the critics were gunning for us:
They thought we were just gonna keep slavishly doing “Animal
House.” But we thought each institution had its own
unique set of rules and characters. And “Caddyshack” had
a very rocky publicity junket.
even imagine that mix of actors together on a podium.
They were terrible. No two of them spoke the same language,
and they were rude to the press. Someone came away writing, “If
this is the New Hollywood, let’s have the Old Hollywood
back.” But the film obviously has values that transcended
whatever people thought about it when it first came out.
WITH BILLY BOB and
WORKING FROM THE TOP OF YOUR INTELLIGENCE
You’ve said you enjoy working with big personalities — certainly,
you’ve had a workout with Mr. Murray over the years.
I’m dying to know how Billy Bob Thornton was larger-than-life
on the set of “Ice Harvest.”
Billy Bob was great. He was —
of water —
well, yeah, afraid of water [laughs], but we worked that
out. I promised him he’d never be in water much deeper
than his waist. And we made sure that when he was in water,
the water was warm and indoors, in a backyard pool … .
You know, he’s open about the quirks of his personality.
I said to his assistant at one point, “Am I wrong,
or is Billy Bob just dedicated to having as good a time as
he possibly can wherever he is?” And she said, “No,
that’s about right.” On the set every day, he
would re-introduce himself by saying, “Hi, I’m
Billy Bob Thornton, international screen star.” He’s
just havin’ fun, you know?
Your old collaborator
Bernie Sahlins of Second City said, “Work
from the top of your intelligence.” What did that mean
It means a couple of things. One is level of reference — any
character can know anything. Carl Spackler [the Bill Murray
character in “Caddyshack’], he can know anything,
as far as level of reference goes. And use real information.
There’s no reason to make stuff up when we have a culture
and history and science and art, and all that to draw from.
All that elevated technical talk in “Ghostbusters”?
Some of it has origins in real history or science.
Oh, sure. Aykroyd
was big into “Chariots of the Gods” and
stuff like that.
Yeah, I read all that. [laughs] He and I hit it off because
I’ve read a bunch of that stuff. I’m not a big
believer in a lot of things, but I loved “Earth in
Upheaval,” “Worlds in Collision” — big
The ’70s was a fun time to be alive — it
was like you lived in a world where you could believe there
a Loch Ness Monster and a Sasquatch …
Well, I was married to someone who was willing to believe
everything — that there was a portal in the Earth’s
crust and a civilization living beneath us — so I kind
of escorted her on her investigations. And I had a lot of
fun. It gave me this reference material for what Danny was
“Working from the top of your intelligence” also means
raising your aspirational level. If you’re gonna communicate
with an audience, why not try to impart a sophisticated view
of human behavior? If you take any idea, even if it’s
generic, there’s no point in aiming it at 12-year-olds.
Assume that even a 12-year-old is smarter than you’re
giving him credit for.
You worked for
Playboy magazine back
when it was culturally important. What’s your fondest
memory of working for Hef?
I always tell people about the perfect late-’60s moment:
I was at the Mansion at a party — this was back when
the Mansion was still in Chicago — and I went down
into the basement swimming pool, and the entire cast of “Hair” was
naked in the pool, singing “Let the Sunshine In.”
declaring you a national comic icon, how do you keep your
ego and priorities
in check? How do
you maintain the perspective that keeps comedy sharp?
You know, no matter what I hear about my old stuff, unless
I wanted to retire now, I still have to face the reality
that this stuff’s hard to do — and that’s
very humbling. No matter what you’ve done in the past,
every time you sit down to write something new or embark
on a new project, it’s like you’re starting over — you
don’t know anything.
But you’ve had a longer
career than a lot of your peers.
Yeah, but you look at guys like Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart,
Mel Brooks — they’re still doing it. My father’s
90, with all his mental faculties; I might just be maturing