Nantucket is a getaway from the everyday, a peaceful haven. Within this forum, the beauty of simple thought gives way to intriguing discussions, simply because of the location. This year, at the 2009 Nantucket Film Festival, Harold Ramis, a honoree for his years of screenwriting expertise, shared his wisdom and handiwork across the board. From a comedy roundtable featuring Ben Stiller, a local boy done well, to a candid discussion of one of his greatest screenwriting successes: “Ghostbusters” to a showing of his brand new comedy “Year One”, Ramis has elicited his effect on Nantucket.
Creating a comedy roundtable is ironic itself sometimes because of the ideas being tossed back and forth and the sometimes paradoxical relectiveness that sets in. The essence of what comedy screenwriting can be is fleeting in retrospect since inspiration comes and goes so quickly. But when you get together such a massively successful panel of comedy mavens which includes Ben Stiller, Harold Ramis, Peter Farrelly and John Hamburg, it is quite interesting.
The big thing which motivates the fervor here in general in terms of the festival perspective is that Stiller is a hometown boy who grew up right here on this island (though he now lives in New York). He relates “The Ramis Effect” per se in that when he was in his teens he worked at The Sunken Ship downtown. His big influence during that time was “Caddyshack” which was written and directed by Ramis. Stiller says that he memorized all of Bill Murray’s monologues and repeated them to his co-workers, parents…anyone who would listen. As this was his childhood home, his parents including dad Jerry and his wife, actress Christine Taylor, were in the audience cheering him on. By sheer coincidence, “The Ramis Effect” had influenced the early development of one of Nantucket’s famous exports.
In terms of themes, one of the initial perceptions discussed at the roundtable was the aspect of writing real characters for comedy by optimizing versatile actors that might not have been bred in the comedy world. Stiller, Hamburg and Ramis have all dealt with, in interaction, as a point of discussion, with Robert De Niro who is considered an acting legend. Ramis as a director obviously tackled it first with his comedy “Analyze This”. Having been involved with the script, he recalls a one-on-one meeting with De Niro in Santa Monica, California where he explained the anger, grief and guilt of this mob character to the actor. Ramis believed this was the best way to approach it by appealing to that aspect of DeNiro’s personality. De Niro actually took notes during this meeting, according to Ramis, and whenever he spoke to people at the studio about the movie, he would take out his notebook and quote Ramis. When an actor of that stature uses your verbal quotes verbatim, that is a good sign. Hamburg relates a decidedly different interaction with De Niro as the revising screenwriter on “Meet The Parents” joking that the actor “probably thought I was an intern”.
Stiller then proudly brings up the fact that the way he was introduced to Hamberg’s material as a screenwriter (which launched their collaboration which eventually led to “Meet The Parents”) when he saw Hamberg’s indie movie “Safe Men” ten years ago at this very festival. The great thing to see is that Nantucket creates that symbiosis which allows such occurences to happen since that is the way many projects get made. Peter Farrelly interjects, as a matter of point, in regards to the “intern” joke, that he and his brother passed on “Parents” as a directing vehicle in its initial form because they believed the story was weak. After Hamberg got to it and turned it around, Farrelly says it became a movie, successful on all levels, that they could not have foreseen. Also in terms of seeing that specific script [“Parents”] as an actor, Stiller said that he had an interesting reaction to it as they were getting ready to shoot. He was courting Taylor and actually went to meet her father (a security consultant) while he was in rehearsals which created an ironic “art imitates life” convergence. This seems to relate that it all comes down to connecting with the character on a “real” level for an actor.
In terms of the actor experience in terms of what you write, everybody has a different ideas, especially if you are on both sides of the camera.
Ramis, puts his “effect” in motion talking about being in “Stripes”, initially being a writer and then being assimilated into the scene of that movie as performer while having, in his mind, no acting experience. Stiller responds saying that not many people talk about SCTV, but, as he cites Ramis as a founder, he believes that this year’s honoree really revolutionized a certain kind of comedy structure. Stiller counts that troupe among his influence for “The Ben Stiller Show” in the 90s. Farrelly also points to Ramis as being one of his major influences as it was “Animal House” that showed him that you could push comedies beyond the point of comfortability and still make them work. Ramis relates that, at the time when “House” came out, frat enrollment went distinctly up because everyone was looking for that kind of experience. But again not everyone can be Bluto.
But then again not everyone can be Egon either. To celebrate the 25th Anniversary, Ramis allowed this landmark movie to be shown at the Sconset Casino. Outside the hall, a mammoth recreation of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from the original theatrical release dominated the ground.
Seeing the film on actual celluloid and not in a digital format definitely is a wonderful thing. The interesting angle to see this movie with an audience which is not done as often. One forgets how some sequences and jokes play in a mixed audience. Ramis had just come from the Comedy Roundtable and arrived late as I did.
With the advent and recent 25th Anniversary of the film (which motivated this showing), “Ghostbusters” has begun anew in the hearts of a new audience. A recent video game touted with a brand new story, cutting edge visuals and an glitzy E3 debut mirrors a brand new Blu Ray version of the film. The fervor of “ghostbusting” seems to be beginning again.
When I asked Ramis about the process of writing the original film with Dan Aykroyd, he related that the initial concept was planned as a buddy movie for Danny and John Belushi. After Belushi died, the idea changed until Bill Murray came into the picture. Having worked with Murray onscreen as well as a writer on “Stripes”, Ramis seemed a natural fit to bring the project closer to fruition. Being another character onscreen seemed was just an extension of that. Aykroyd invited Ramis out to his house in Martha’s Vineyard (quite close to Nantucket actually) where they hashed out and revised the script. Ramis jokingly recounts that they would write and then they would swim in Danny’s pool…and sometimes in reverse order.
Initially, according to Ramis, the script for “Ghostbusters” was much different. The second half of the film was completely set in another dimension and was almost, as he describes it, one big special effect. Ramis, in retrospect, it seems, brought a grounding to the film. The big key being that the audience should experience the ghosts in real time as these guys do which starts in the library scene in the beginning of the film. Also initially Aykroyd had the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man occur in the film on page 60 before they left this world for the other dimension. Ramis felt that the story would much better be served within the mundane and watching these guys go from unemployed college professors to who they eventually lofted to be.
Another point I mentioned to Ramis had to do with the balance of what a writer and director perceives when he is on a set where he is not at the controls. Ramis had just directed “National Lampoon’s Vacation” with Chevy Chase which was a decent sized hit. The funny thing is that there was a plethora of writers and directors on the set of “Ghostbusters” at any given time as performers which meant everything was discussed. Ramis had already directed three movies. Director Ivan Reitman had directed two. Rick Moranis had just directed “Strange Brew”. So there was alot of creative heads moving at once. Ramis said he had a good idea of what the movie would look like in his head from the time they wrote it.
When I countered on the aspect of how different the film was from the actual finished script, Ramis says that they always rewriting on the day because you had the screenwriters on set and in the scene. The specific aspect that Ramis really fortifies is that he knew how to write for Murray in terms of dialogue. He says that he just got Bill’s humor and his rhythm. The problem, he admits, is that when you do that, rewriting, on set, you tend to direct the performance especially if you are in the scene as well. He says that Reitman had to take him aside to remind him who was directing the movie.
Ramis also addressed in the bigger question forum, the “Ghostbusters 3” talk that has been revolving around (specifically lately) in the media. He says that they have gotten everybody to commit including Sigourney [Weaver], [Bill] Murray and Ivan [Reitman]. From what it sounds like however, it is committed based on approval of a finished script. It sounds like Columbia has put the two writers from Ramis’ new film “Year One” (who are also writers on “The Office”) into the first draft mode with Aykroyd and Ramis in consultant roles. That can go either way (in this writer’s perspective) in terms of possibility depending on the skill of these writers in a feature world, as most people have not seen “Year One” yet. Ramis says that Aykroyd has been dying to do a third “Ghostbusters” for years.
Ramis relates that Aykroyd actually wrote another “Ghostbusters” script a couple years back (which Danny brought to him) about the Ghostbusters going to hell. Ramis says that he thought it was quite interesting but it never quite gained traction. The talk of the third movie came up again with Columbia when Aykroyd was talking to them about an animated/CG “Ghostbusters” film (which is actually a very cool idea with the recent leaps in special effects technology and motion control – not to mention 3D). The studio said, according to Ramis, that if they were going to do the CG work anyway, why not make it a live action film?
As the festival wrapped to a close, “The Ramis Effect” took one more stride with a showing of the writer/director’s historically enriched “Year One” starring Jack Black and Michael Cera as the forefathers of all who wander out into the world after escaping from their would-be Garden. Ramis pointed in the Q&A afterward that the movie was, in essence, a field trip through the Old Testament. He had always pitched it as two guys who just happened to end up in these places that they didn’t below. The movie is a hark back to the great buddy movies.
A couple years back, Ramis said he thought of local Ben Stiller and his friend Owen Wilson but by the time the movie came around, that pairing, he said, had already been played. He wanted to work with Jack Black whom he had met when he did a small acting part in “Orange County”. There was just something about him. Producer Judd Apatow suggested Michael Cera whom he had just worked with on “Superbad”. Ramis says that he understood that he had lost touch with the young crowd and that Apatow had his pulse on what the current generation liked. Cera turned out to a great boon. The film itself works simply because of that matching. Cera’s words just slightly miss the daggers being thrown by Black. It is like a dance but it doesn’t feel forced. It is just happening and is augmented by editing. Black plays a big goofball primitive caveman type who seems to be always looking for the ladies and usually just missing his chance because he is overcompensating. On the other hand, Cera’s character is so weak and gets dumped on so much that he doesn’t know how to approach a girl until he gets laid. He tries to hit her over the head with a club but finds out that that doesn’t work either. They meet a bunch of would-be bible figures along the way who simply seem to make them more confused and disconnected. David Cross kills onscreen, literally, as Cain who whacks his brother Abel (Paul Rudd in an apt cameo) with a rock then escapes off to become a would-be Roman soldier who simply loves the “perks”. Hank Azaria plays Abraham who seems to be big into circumcision because of, as he calls it, the “will of God” while his party-hungry, geeky son Isaac (McLovin from “Superbad”) wants to go to Sodom with the boys after they prevent him from being sacrificed. Sodom is, of course, the place to party which is perfect for our intrepid adventurers.
The movie of course tends to placate the aspect that everyone is misunderstood and must step up to the plate. However, the script isn’t above making fun of its own intelligence but also making sure that it hits the mark with the younger generation. Ramis said that they had actually gone and put together the sacking of Sodom as the ending sequence which is something they thought people would want to see. It turns out however, in reshoots, that in shooting new elements for the beginning, the ending in Ramis’ mind, needed to be more ambiguous. Ultimately, the ending of the film is a little bit too resolute and moral for a comedy of this angle but that is a subjective opinion. An open perception a little darker (say “Death To Smoochy”) would have been a lot more telling. But the balance between optimism and cynicism is a narrow road.
“The Ramis Effect: was felt throughout the nooks of Nantucket during the film festival from his perceptions of intellectualism versus the adolescent perspective of his comedic outings to the paranormal mundaneness of scientists acting as ghost exterminators to ancestral adventurers enraptured by the essence of the literal nature of life. WIth his creative endeavors inspiring a new generation of filmmakers as well as those at the forefront of comedy (like Ben Stiller), Harold Ramis’ impact on comedy remains constant.