Ramis On ‘Ice’
Mind Behind‘ Animal House,’ ‘Caddyshack,’ ‘Stripes,’ ‘Ghostbusters,’ ‘Groundhog
Day’ and ‘Analyze This’ Fires Off A Laugh Noir,
print 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. A transcript follows.
‘THE LUMP OF COAL’
After a long
career making big-budget studio comedies, why did you make “Ice Harvest” in
a smaller, more indie vein?
Well, I never made big films to
make big films; the scale’s
been appropriate to the content. 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. And Focus Features put a cap on it,
and we were able to get under it in Illinois — my goal
was to shoot a film where I live.
But you know, if someone had said, “You have to do
this film for under $40 million,” I would have said, “Okay,” and
spent $39 million.
You’ve said you’re
a fan of crime movies. Can you cite your favorites?
Well, 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.
Most Hollywood films have it pretty black-and-white — there
are bad guys and there are good guys, and sometimes the good
guys, you know, they’re good bad guys, and their hearts
are made of gold…. But Richard Russo and Robert Benton,
the writers of our script, understand that we’re all
seriously flawed. We all suffer through life, and some of
us make better choices than others. I guess that’s
the essence of film noir — recognition of existential
Many of my personal-favorite
crime movies contain a ton of laughs: “The Big Sleep,” everything Tarantino’s
done, the Coen Brothers, obviously, certain David Mamet scripts….
find myself laughing at “Goodfellas” — and
often at some of the most painful things. It’s always
the irony you’re laughing at.
Now that you’ve made “Ice Harvest,” do
you have any new insights on the relationship between comedy
and crime? With “Ghostbusters,” you’d already
explored the relationship between comedy and horror….
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] It’s seeing life in balance. Comedy
and tragedy co-exist. You can’t have one without the
other. I’m of the school that anything can be funny,
if seen from a comedic point of view.
You’ve talked about comedy as a stealthy vehicle for
ideas — you can sneak so much under the radar.
to students about cultural literacy and media literacy and
critical thinking. Everything we
see has some hidden
message. A lot of awful messages are coming in under the
radar — subliminal consumer messages, all kinds of
politically incorrect messages….
You’ve described your later comedies — particularly
your informal trilogy of “Groundhog Day,” “Multiplicity” and “Stuart
Saves His Family” — as “madcap redemption
comedies.” Is “Ice Harvest” going to make
that a quadrilogy?
No. Describing my own career, I’ve broken it up into “institutional
comedies” that were kind of broad social satires, and
then these films of consciousness — the “redemption
films.” But “Ice Harvest,” it’s like
a style piece, almost. I think it has its own distinctive
Did you come
aboard the project subsequent to Benton and Russo’s
Oh, yeah. They’d written the script years ago for
Benton to direct — and then Benton didn’t want
to work under the budget constraints; that’s how I
understand it. And then another director, Dean Parisot, had
only a short window to cast the movie, and he couldn’t
get it cast. So the script got circulated again — 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.
You’ve talked in the past about doing extra work on
scripts once you get a hold of them. You didn’t do
much to this one?
No. Just a few touches. Ultimately, we
re-framed the ending of the film — but that was sort of done with the actors….
Given that this
is a “cynical Christmas movie,” and
given the cast, was Thornton’s “Bad Santa” ever
a source of discussion?
Certainly — but it’s 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
it was going around, when people talked about Bill Murray
as the “Bad Santa” character. But our film is
nothing like it.
When we finished “Ice Harvest” and finally tested
it, the numbers were so encouraging that the studio moved
us from a spring release — which, you know, is iffy;
that was thinking of us as a small movie for a limited audience — 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.
about "mystery laughs" — the
audience reactions you didn't predict while you were making
the film. What were the mystery laughs in “Ice Harvest”?
really liked everything that I thought they were gonna like.
Sometimes I’m the mystery laugher when
I see a film — when something strikes me as so cynical
or weird that there couldn’t be more than a handful
of people who are gonna see it. That’s not a function
of intelligence — it’s a function of being sick
enough or warped enough. But this film is so warped.…
about the importance of "finding themes
and ideas that are worth spending three years on." What
are the themes in “Ice Harvest”? And 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.
Applied to “Ice Harvest,” for instance: I’ve
been thinking a lot over the last several years about existentialism,
existential psychology and its relationship to Buddhism and
its relationship to religion in general and to ethics and
Remember Professor Irwin Corey? He was a comedian
who played a mad professor — that was his persona as a comedian.
He gave lectures. He must be almost 90 years old. 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. It’s been cut from the script, but
this was a line suggested by Hampton Fancher, who wrote “Blade
Runner” and is a friend of the producer, Ron Yerxa:
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
compass — with
no connection to anything and no values of any kind. 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 Doug Kenney, plus
own struggles with substance abuse. What did it bring to
the scenes you directed with Oliver Platt's alcoholic character,
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.
It’s not like the film celebrates the shortcomings
of its main characters — we’re watching very
weak, morally confused people make all the wrong choices.
And Oliver’s one of them. He’s actually a big
source of redemption in the film.
You've said about
your directorial style: "If
I can't convince you that I am right, then I don't expect
do what I say."
It’s kind of a function of a character weakness of
mine, which is that I don’t like conflict — I
don’t like confrontation.
You picked a great career for that. [laughs]
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 — but I could provide him with useful anecdotal
material from my own life or other people I’ve known,
or actual psychological information, or insights into his
character. The technique’s up to him.
But there are ways to gently urge an actor
to pick up the pace or slow it down or focus more, to go
bigger or smaller.
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.”
GHOSTBUSTERS 3: GHOSTBUSTERS GO TO HELL
My editor is
begging me to ask you three questions about “Ghostbusters
The non-existent film?
Yes. He would like to know about the non-existent
film. My understanding is that it would have sent Peter,
Egon to Hell.
Yes. “Ghostbusters go to Hell” was Danny Aykroyd’s
concept for it.
What was your favorite scene from that script
that we'll likely never see?
Well, we never really got down
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:
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.
He does tend
to think big when he’s writing these,
Oh, he’s amazing. [laughs]
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. When we’re blinking on, they’re
off — 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. No two people speak the same language.
It’s all the worst things about modern urban life,
And Heaven was across the George Washington
Bridge in New Jersey — which was irony. The Ghostbusters had to make
this journey from lower Manhattan to the George Washington
It sort of makes
me sad that I’m
not gonna see that.
Yeah. There was a good structure — because
some of us were in Hell, while some of us were in the real
tracking our journey through Hell. We had new Ghostbusters
and old Ghostbusters.
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 MADHOUSE MEMOIR
The next generation of smart movie comics is
paying a very conscious homage to you.
I mean, 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 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
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. And the
only jobs available through the student employment service
were a collection agent in a very poor neighborhood — which
I thought would be horrible — and working as an attendant
in a locked psychiatric ward. 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…. There’s
some funny things in it, but it’s not like a madhouse
comedy. I’ve described it in my pitch as “Cuckoo’s
Nest” meets “The Graduate.” [laughs]
never seen a film from the staff point
of view set in any kind of mental-health facility, so I thought
would be interesting. I wrote it from memory, so it has the
feeling of a memoir. I didn’t really realize what it
was about until I’d written it, and then I realized
it was about the nature of suffering on a personal level,
a social level and a global level — the Vietnam War
kind of being played out on a grand scale while people were
really in the depths of despair. And my character’s
trying to figure out his relationship to suffering.
Would the character be under the threat of
the draft? Would he be protesting Vietnam?
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. [laughs]
that working in a mental ward "prepared
you to work with actors" — but I think you could
make the case that the booby hatch informs the sensibilities
of a lot of your comedies. People who might be regarded as "insane" (or
at least people who challenge "sane" institutions)
are almost invariably the heroes of your pieces — from "Animal
House" right through "Groundhog Day" and "Stuart
Saves His Family." Do you consider your time in the
psych ward formative?
Well, Rodney Dangerfield used to say
that the only normal people are people we don’t know that well. We’re
all screwed-up in some way — dysfunction is the rule,
not the exception.
I make real distinctions in my life between
real pathology and the ordinary struggles most of us go through.
of the films I’ve made and my own interests and my
own psychotherapy, I’m on the board for the Institute
for Psychoanalysis in Chicago, and I’ve spoken to that
group — so I’m very respectful of the science
of psychology. And I’ve known people in my life who
were probably diagnosable — who should have been medicated
or were self-medicating or were really struggling with some
I also worked in a public school in ’68, in the poorest,
most crowded square mile in the United States, the Robert
Taylor Homes in Chicago. I was teaching when Martin Luther
King was killed, so it was an amazing time to be down there,
but I wouldn’t say it was a good time.
Both jobs [teaching and the psych ward] forced
me to look at everyone as individual, to really be present,
with what was really going on, and to jettison my expectations
of what “normal” behavior is, to try to understand
what I was seeing, and to frame reactions to it that would
not contribute to the chaos or conflict — that could
possibly even be healing or therapeutic. That’s kind
of my approach to everything and everyone. It’s become
my whole orientation.
THE RUDE BOYS OF ‘CADDYSHACK’
I just re-watched "Caddyshack,” and that movie’s
really interesting because of 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. What's the trick to
juggling all those styles in one film?
People asked me the
same thing when I was doing “Analyze
This” — “How could you possibly reconcile
the styles of Billy Crystal and Robert DeNiro?” 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
for “Caddyshack.” Each of the individual Marx
Brothers had a really unique orientation — I mean,
they never played brothers, save for Harpo and Chico sometimes….
Have you reflected
on why, even though “Caddyshack” is
now revered, it didn't it make more of a splash at the time?
The studio can make any kind of splash it wants — just
throw money at publicity and advertising, and people will
talk about it. And it did fine. But I think the critics were
gunning for us a little bit: They thought we were just gonna
keep slavishly doing “Animal House.” And while
there are obvious connections — rebels and outsiders
going up against big institutions with traditional values — we
weren’t trying to do “Animal House” again.
We thought each institution had its own unique set of rules
But “Caddyshack” was not embraced. We had a very
rocky publicity junket.
even imagine that mix of actors together on a podium, talking
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.” The New York Times called it “an amiable
mess.” But the film obviously has values that transcended
whatever people thought about it when it first came out.
Chris Rock riffed
for this magazine on how comedy is harder than drama — that you can get an "A for effort" in
drama that you aren't afforded in comedy.
Yeah. On the other
hand, it amazes me what people will laugh at. Sometimes
comedians just say
that: If we did drama, we’d
say drama’s much harder.
[laughs] Fair enough.
People who do it do it
because they like it — not
because it’s easier or harder. Right around the time
of the first “Ghostbusters,” some other comic
actor had been in a drama — I forget who it was — and
Bill Murray said, “I could cry in a movie, you know,
but I’m not gonna do it. Why would I do it?”
THE TALENTED ECCENTRICS: MURRAY, THORNTON, AYKROYD
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 in the movie, the water was warm and indoors, in
a backyard pool….
You know, he’s open about the quirks of his personality.
He hides nothing. And he’s so totally amiable — at
least to us, he was. 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.”
I think he wants to do well as
an actor, and he’s good
at what he does; I don’t think he would admit how important
it is to him that he’s a good actor. He’d rather
convince us that he’s havin’ a great time, and
acting is easy and trivial. 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 with it, 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. I believe that using real information
is a good thing, even in a comedy; it has the possibility
of educating the audience. All that elevated technical talk
in “Ghostbusters”? Some of it has origins in
real history or science.
Oh, sure. Aykroyd
was big into that whole ’70s era,
when they were publishing “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
That was a fun
time to be alive — it
was like you lived in a world where you could believe there
was a Loch
Ness Monster and believe there was a Sasquatch…
[laughs] 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 talking about.
Bill used to play a character we called “The Hawker” — he
was a street guy. And it was the voice he used as Carl Spackler.
And Carl Spackler, he can know anything, as far as level
of reference goes. That’s one aspect of “playing
from the top of your intelligence” — to 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, so why not use it?
And to me, “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
worldview or a sophisticated view of human behavior — the
most intelligent view you can come up with? If you take any
idea, even if it’s generic, there’s no point
in aiming it at 12-year-olds. Working from the top of your
intelligence kind of assumes that even a 12-year-old is smarter
than you’re giving him credit for. So that’s
sort of what it means to me: aspiration and reference.
You once mentioned
that Bill Murray improvised all his material in "Caddyshack" — except
for one scripted speech. Was it the speech about caddying
for the Dalai Lama?
That was in the script — but he
embellished it with things that no one else could ever
have thought of.
I would imagine
he’s a lot like DeNiro, in that he’s
bringing a lot of material there that he’s not really
telling you about.
He’s really verbal. DeNiro’s not verbal. Bob
improvises emotion and mood — but he doesn’t
have the language that Bill has. Bill has an amazing command
of that, and imagination to spare.
I’ve heard that caused some tension on “Mad
Dog and Glory,” actually.
Well, I think that had more
to do with Bill’s personal
IN PRAISE OF CHICAGO (and the NAKED CAST
What was it like
to see "Groundhog Day" remade
I didn’t see it. I hope it was
[laughs] I hope
so, too. You could have started a global franchise with
the message of that film….
Now, you had an association with Playboy magazine
back when it was culturally important, with fantastic interviews.
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.”
You and John
Hughes are fellow Chicago-obsessed filmmakers — and
there are certainly some ways that your sensibilities dovetail.
Does Chicago produce a certain kind of filmmaker?
may have grown up in Cleveland for all I know — but
I think there’s a Midwestern sensibility. Doug Kenney
grew up in Chagrin Falls, Ohio…. Before “Animal
House,” we got touted off doing a treatment for a high-school
film — and one of Doug’s favorite images was
kids in Ohio trying to surf on a lake. Growing up in the
Midwest, he and I shared this feeling that New York and L.A.
represented a kind of polarity — that if you were in
the middle, you were nowhere.
I think that feeling has even been amplified
in recent years.
Chicago still remains a Mecca of the Midwest — people
from both coasts are kind of amazed how good life is in Chicago,
and what a good culture we’ve got. You can have a pretty
wonderful artistic life and never leave Chicago.
from Chicago, right?
It strikes me that John Cusack has a very Second
City comedy sensibility.
We’d been talking for years about doing something
together. In fact, I have a discarded … what do they
call those scenes on the DVD that aren’t in the movie?
Yeah, that’s better than “discarded”….
I have a deleted scene where I play his father in “High
Fidelity.” I think that was like the first day of shooting.
You keep your offices far, far away from Hollywood.
I moved back here [to Illinois] nine years ago.
When everyone's declaring you a national comic
icon, how do you keep your ego and priorities in check? How
maintain the perspective that keeps comedy sharp?
I don’t think my wife does think I keep my ego in
check. [laughs] 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.
had a longer career than a lot of your peers in comedy.
Comedy careers often
seem to have shelf
lives that yours has transcended.
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