Interview with Harold Ramis
Interview date: 02/15/06
Posted on: 02/24/06
There are very few individuals in Hollywood who have been directly connected to so many classic comedies as Harold Ramis. Not to run through his entire résumé right here, but you’d be hard-pressed to beat a track record which includes participating in “Animal House,” “Meatballs,” “Caddyshack,” “Stripes,” “National Lampoon's Vacation,” “Ghostbusters,” “Groundhog Day,” and “Analyze This,” among many, many others. Ramis’ most recent movie is “The Ice Harvest,” which arrives on DVD on February 28th. He found 8 to 10 minutes – give or take – to sit down…or possibly stand up, we’re not sure…and discuss that film, as well as other cinematic achievements of which he’s been a part, his stint on “SCTV,” and just the teensiest-weensiest bit about his next project.
Harold Ramis: Hello, Will!
Bullz-Eye: Hello, Harold, how are you?
HR: Good. Where are ya?
BE: I am in Chesapeake, Virginia.
HR: Chesapeake. Virginia.
BE: Yep. Right next door to Norfolk and Virginia Beach.
HR: So it is on the Chesapeake Bay…?
BE: More or less.
HR: More or less? (Laughs) Alright, so you’ve only got one foot in the water.
BE: Exactly. Well, I’ve seen “The Ice Harvest”…
BE: …and, uh…it’s a little dark. (Laughs)
HR: Yeah, people were slashing their wrists at the end of the movie. (Chuckles)
BE: Imagine how they’ll be when they see the alternate endings that are included on the DVD.
HR: Yeah, how ‘bout this? It used to be darker!
BE: What inspired you to make a film that, I guess you’d say, is against type for you?
HR: Uh, you know, whatever type I am or whatever people expect from me is more a result of the choices I’ve made more than something that’s shaped the choices I’ve made. I’ve always gone with the next good thing. Whatever the best idea was, that’s the next film I’ve made. And when there hasn’t been a good idea, I haven’t made a film. I mean, I’ve only directed 10 films in 25 years, so it’s not like I feel the need to just keep turning out work or try to second-guess what an audience might or might not like. It’s just that when I see something good, I think, “Well, I’d love to see that movie,” or, “I’d love to make that movie.” The script came to me, written by one of my favorite novelists, and, oddly enough, at the time that the script was sent to me, I was right in the middle of reading all of Richard Russo’s prose, and, uh… (Hesitates) Prose. Like he writes poetry. Anyway, I was reading all of his fiction, and I thought, “Wow, I love these novels, and I love this screenplay!” So it was an easy kind of choice to make.
BE: Was it intentional to make Connie Nielsen (who plays Renata in the film) look and act like a cross between Jessica Rabbit and Linda Fiorentino from “The Last Seduction”?
HR: (Laughs) Absolutely! She even talked about Jessica Rabbit. I kept saying Veronica Lake, but she said, “Actually, I was thinking Jessica Rabbit.” And there was a great debate amongst the producers about the style of the film. They pictured it being sort of faithfully middle-American: cheap suits, people who think they’re good looking but maybe aren’t that good looking…? I don’t know. But the way I read the novel and the screenplay, Renata was a knockout! There’s a scene that…well, the scene’s in the movie, but the shot isn’t…when she comes out of her office for the first time, the first time the audience sees her, it’s in a strip club, and the guys who are watching a naked stripper on stage turn away from the stage to watch her walk across the room. So the script tells us she’s that beautiful. You go for world-class beauty, and Connie Nielsen’s amazing. And as Connie and I talked about the character, she said, “This woman will have very expensive taste,” and I bought that. I said, “Yeah, she’s not shopping at K-Mart!” (Laughs) So it was kinda Gucci from that moment on.
BE: In the press release, there was a quote in there which I was kind of surprised made the cut. It’s from the Los Angeles Times, and it describes the film as a “classic guilty pleasure.”
BE: It just sounds like kind of a left-handed compliment.
HR: I don’t think so. I mean, I don’t go to strip clubs because I’d be embarrassed to be seen in a strip club. I think they mean “guilty pleasure” in that sense. Just like when people say to me, “This movie doesn’t seem like you.” By saying that it is me, it’s like admitting something about myself. And I think that’s what we consider guilty pleasures. I mean, I laugh at the violence in a Coen Brothers movie, but that doesn’t mean I’m a violent person. I know there’s something really sick and twisted about it, but it still amuses me.
BE: Actually, I just described your movie to someone today as “Fargo” without the accents.
HR: (Laughs) Yeah, well, it’s got a lot of that going on.
BE: Originally, I thought this was your first time working with John Cusack, but then I discovered that you were cast as his father in “High Fidelity,” but that your scenes got snipped.
HR: Yes, we shot the scene; it was actually the first day they shot on that film. I knew the director, Stephen Frears. We’d been introduced by a friend in common in London, so when Frears came to Chicago, he was calling me to say…well, his first question was, “When is the sun going to come out?” Because he’d been here for weeks and it was still gloomy, and he wanted the film to have a brighter look. But that film actually had kind of a darker look because of the weather they had. But it was good for the film. But Frears and I went out to dinner, and he said, “You know, I’d love for you to look at the script for ‘High Fidelity’ and maybe play a part.” And I thought he was just being polite. I said, “Oh, yeah, very nice, fine.” And he said, “No, there is a part for you!” And I was very surprised. But, you know, it’s nice to be thought of as an actor by people like that, especially someone of Stephen Frears’ quality. And I liked John so much that I thought, “Oh, yeah, I’ll play his dad! What the hell!”
BE: I know “Caddyshack” was your first directing gig, but when did you realize that you’d been bitten by the bug enough to want to do it regularly?
HR: Oh, years before that. I knew from the time I started acting that I wanted to be a director. But I loved movies. I grew up on movies and TV as a kid, and, as soon as I learned that people…it was kind of in the early ‘60s that I became aware how important directors really were. It was when the first wave of foreign film directors were hitting American theaters. You know: Bergman, Kirosawa, Fellini, Goddard, and David Lean. And I thought, “Wow, this is really cool! What a great job!” So I wanted to be a filmmaker. And everything I did after that was, I thought, just training for film directing.
BE: Did you ever actually say, “But what I really want to do is direct”?
HR: A-ha, no, I…well, actually, I did, but what happened was, when we wrote “Animal House,” everyone agreed that the script was very strong, people sensed it might be a very funny film, and the fact is that Ivan Reitman, who produced it, wanted to direct it, and he had already directed a film in Canada…and I wanted to direct it, and I hadn’t directed any film. I had directed for television, but no-one was going to give it to me without having a feature film, so they hired John Landis. But Ivan and I each felt that we could’ve done a good job on the movie. So after “Animal House” was so successful, when people started asking me what I wanted to write next, producers were kind of inviting me to work for them, and I said, “But what I really want to do is direct…so the next script I write, I’ll have to direct.” So that’s how “Caddyshack” evolved.
BE: You’ve been a part so many classic comedies. (In a hushed voice) Does the crown of comedy ever weigh heavy on your head?
HR: (Laughs) I don’t feel I have the crown. (Pauses) It’s a belt. Like a heavyweight boxer’s belt.
BE: Like the WWF?
HR: Yes. I have a belt. (Hesitates) Uh, I don’t know, people can say it, but I don’t know if anyone really believes they’re as good as people say. This is not false humility, but I feel that every time I start a new project, I’m back to square one. People talk about my track record and stuff, but I’m, like, 5 for 10 or something…which is actually considered pretty good, but, still, there’s a 50% chance that every time I start a movie, it will fail…if not creatively, then commercially. And you have to be realistic. I don’t know that everyone’s going to like everything I do, so it really just puts the burden on me to like it. And not about what I think the current audience taste is, because if I made a movie based on what the current audience taste is, on what I see people liking now, I’d be a year late. So there’s no way to really anticipate the audience. You can only do what you believe in yourself.
BE: What do you think is your most underrated film? Because I have visions that “Club Paradise” is going to come to be appreciated as the lost classic of the ‘80s.
HR: (Bursts into laughter) I think “Club Paradise” is appreciated depending on what people have smoked before watching it! Have you ever seen it?
HR: I think it’s very funny. I think there are some real good things in that movie. There are things I now know, structurally, I would’ve done differently, but I quite like it. I think Robin (Williams) jokes…I think Robin’s a little embarrassed that it wasn’t successful. And I forced him to do something that he doesn’t normally do: underplay. So he wasn’t entirely comfortable doing it. But it was a real good experience, and I really like some things in that film. But, you know, “Stuart Saves His Family”…?
BE: Oh, yeah!
HR: I did a movie with Al Franken, and I used to joke with the head of Paramount, Sherry Lansing… (Starts laughing) ...I said, “Sherry, don’t worry, this movie’s gonna make a million!” Which is pathetic. It’s like Dr. Evil saying, “One million dollars!” And it didn’t make a million. It made, like, $300K or something. But, again, that movie is loved by some people…certainly in the recovery movement. There are therapists who make their patients watch that movie. It’s a very good film, and it has some really good things in it.
BE: I know Roger Ebert really liked it.
HR: Oh, we got some great reviews! It was just a very hard movie to sell.
BE: Of course, you’ve been in many a film as an actor…but, then, there’s Moe Green (from “SCTV”).
HR: (Gravely) There is Moe Green. There was always Moe Green.
BE: Has Shout! Factory releasing the show on DVD brought more attention to your role on the show? Because it wasn’t exactly what you’d call a marquee role, like the McKenzie Brothers or the Schmenge Brothers.
HR: You know, I was a very shy actor in a way. I never felt that I had the right to cast myself in starring roles. So I did a lot of…y’know, when I look at stuff on “SCTV,” the stuff I’m proudest of is, like, playing sidekick to John Candy in a couple of scenes. I just loved work with John in front of the camera. But I was head writer on the show for the first 26 episodes, and… (with unabashed emotion) …those people are so great, and it was so much fun working with them on a regular basis. So I was happy to stay a little bit in the shadows.
BE: Do you still stay in contact with any of the old comedy guard?
HR: Uh, not enough. I mean, I’ve talked to Joe Flaherty, and I talked to Marty Short recently, but once I moved out of L.A., I don’t see people that much. Not like I used to. And when I do go to L.A. now, I usually book my time pretty densely for meetings and stuff.
BE: Where are you living now?
BE: Okay, I’ve got two words for you: “Ghostbusters 3.”
BE: Never gonna happen…?
HR: Not with us! Danny (Aykroyd) and I tried. Danny really wanted to get it going, and he had a good idea.
BE: The Ghostbusters going to Hell…?
HR: Yeah, it was a real good idea…but he wrote a script that was just way out there. It was just…very bizarre. I helped him re-frame it. I said, “Uh, I really think it should go like this.” So we actually had a very good story for it. Danny talked to Bill Murray a little bit, but Bill had no real enthusiasm for it. The studio would’ve been happy to go ahead. My theory was that we’d get some new Ghostbusters. Young guys. Young, popular guys. And then maybe we’d turn up as the executives of Ghostbusters, Inc. or something, with us supervising them, and we’d just put in cameo appearances. But it turned out to be a deal that couldn’t be made. I’m quite convinced that we could’ve written a really funny and interesting script that would’ve been very faithful to the “Ghostbusters” spirit, but it was a package that couldn’t be made, somehow. It added up to more than 100% with the profits. And not that we’re so mercenary, but the studio just couldn’t foot the bill for it.
BE: What is “I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With”? I see you’re executive producing it, but…
HR: (Excitedly) Heyyyyyyy! That’s Jeff Garlin (from “Curb Your Enthusiasm”)! Jeff called me, he’s someone I really like, and he called and said he was doing this movie. He sent us the script, and it was really nice, really good for Jeff. He wanted to play this major role and star himself in the film. It’s largely improvised…well, there’s some improv in it…and he used some actors like David Pasquesi; he’s the councilman in “The Ice Harvest.” And, y’know, Jeff had been at Second City and knew a lot of really wonderful Chicago actors, so he shot some of it in L.A. and some of it in Chicago. Sarah Silverman is in it. And it’s very cool. It’s very subtle. I think it’s at Sundance, maybe. But I didn’t help him much. He didn’t need a lot of help. He just needed someone to say, “Yeah, go ahead, here’s two-hundred grand.” (Laughs)
Universal Rep: (Popping in) And do you have a final question…?
BE: I do, actually.
BE: Does “The Untitled Harold Ramis / Owen Wilson Project” have a title yet?
HR: Uh…geez, I’m so afraid that someone will get wind of what it’s about…
BE: Well, literally, all I know is that, on the Internet Movie Database, your next project is listed as “The Untitled Harold Ramis / Owen Wilson Project.”
HR: I shouldn’t say more. Half these things evaporate before they ever turn into movies, but this thing, I really like the script. We just finished the first draft, and Owen really likes it. But it’s odd. Not odd in an uncommercial way, but it’s risky. It’s a big movie. So we’ll see if the studio has the heart for it.
BE: Excellent. Well, that’s it for me. It’s been a total pleasure talking to you…an honor, really…and good luck with the DVD!
HR: Alright, man. Take care!
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