For nearly thirty years, filmmaker Harold Ramis has had America laughing with his writing, whether it was with National Lampoon’s Animal House, Caddyshack, the two “Ghostbusters” movies, Groundhog Day or Analyze This. After taking a few years off from directing, he’s been brought back into the spotlight thanks to the adoration of his seemingly #1 fan, Judd Apatow, who also came forward to produce Ramis’ first comedy in four years, Year One.
The biblical road comedy has Ramis working with Hollywood’s new breed of comic actors, as Jack Black and Michael Cera play a pair of hunter-gatherers at the beginning of time who leave their primitive village for an epic road trip where they meet many famous characters from the Old Testament.
This should be a fairly exciting weekend for Mr. Ramis, as not only is Year One being released, but he’s also being honored at the 14th Annual Nantucket Film Festival with the festival’s annual Screenwriters Tribute and taking part in the festival’s first All-Star Comedy Roundtable with Ben Stiller, Peter Farrelly and John Hamburg.
Last year, ComingSoon.net had a chance to visit the set, and you can read our report here, but last week, we got on the phone to talk some more with the filmmaker whom many feel should be considered the Godfather of Modern Comedy based on how much influence his work has had on the current generation of comedy filmmakers and actors.
ComingSoon.net: I was one of the journalists dressed in funny costumes at the set last year.
Harold Ramis: Oh, cool. (laughs) So you know all about the movie.
CS: I haven’t actually seen it yet, but I guess I know quite a bit, yeah. I was surprised that some of the big secrets didn’t get out, because it had been so long between the visit and when we published it, so it’s good there will still be a couple surprises left.
Ramis: Yeah, and there’ve been a lot ads. It’s been on the NBA Finals, on the big game, it’s been on “SNL” all the time; it’s in high rotation now.
CS: Right, and they ran a Super Bowl ad, too. That must be really exciting, especially since you mentioned you came up with this idea 34 years ago.
Ramis: Yeah (chuckles)… in the Year One I had this idea.
CS: And you’re also getting this special award at the Nantucket Film Festival, too. Actually, do you know exactly what they’re doing yet?
Ramis: They are giving me what I like to call, “The Whoever Will Show Up Award.” (laughs)
CS: So there is there a chance some people from your past might be showing up to talk about you?
Ramis: I don’t know. I think it’s a distinguished lifetime achievement award in screenwriting, which is cool. It seemed like a good thing that they can get some really interesting people up there, and I’m doing a panel with Ben Stiller and Peter Farrelly and John Hamburg, so that’s kind of an attractive thing to me, too, besides the award, and I think they’re showing “Ghostbusters” one night and then “Year One” the next night.
CS: I’ve obviously known your work for a long time, having seen “Animal House” when I was 13, and I’m pretty sure that was the first time I’d seen a woman’s breast, as I think was the case with most guys my age.
Ramis: (laughs) Yeah, me, too, and I was like 33 or something.
CS: Nice. I’ve talked to a lot of the directors who’ve been making all these big comedy movies the last five years, and you’re always the guy they reference as an influence. How does it feel being that elder statesman of modern comedy in some ways?
Ramis: I just want to be their friend. When I hear that these guys see me as an early influence, I hope they’re not ruling me out as a collaborator. That’s pretty much the Judd Apatow experience I had. I knew his work and I noticed that he kept citing my stuff as a big influence on him, and then we met, and he put me to work as an actor a couple times in the movie directed, “Knocked Up,” and then in a movie he produced that Jake Kasdan directed (“Walk Hard”). Then getting to collaborate with him on this film as a producer, it was great. I’d rather be working than home being admired.
CS: It’s impressive because I think at this point, you probably could just write or produce but the fact you’re still going on set and directing as much as you do.
Ramis: If anything, I think most people would rather direct than write. Oh, yeah. Given the choice, the writing is lonely and miserable and doesn’t pay as well as directing.
CS: I guess that’s true. One of the things we talked about on set is that you wanted “Year One” to reach younger audiences, which is interesting, because so many other comedy filmmakers are automatically going towards R-rated comedy because it’s more freeing. Did you shoot a lot of different versions of things just in case you decided later to go for an R-rating or did you shy away from that idea?
Ramis: Well, language wasn’t an issue because we’re in the ancient world, and it seemed that even though our language is kind of contemporary, somehow contemporary obscenity didn’t seem right. That was not an issue. The big issue for us was and we walked a tightrope between R and PG-13 was the fact that a third of the movie takes place in Sodom, which is synonymous with carnal sin, and yet the movie is very tame in that regard. Part of the requirement that it be PG-13 from the studio’s point of view is that our actors, Jack Black and Michael Cera, have a young following, as young as 11 probably and going all the way up through the demographic of young men probably up to 30. We didn’t want to exclude those teenagers from seeing the film, and a lot of theaters do enforce the R-rating now as I found out with my own kids, who are now 19 and 14. For the youngest ones, the movie will be kind of racy, for the older ones it may seem tame in certain ways–there’s no nudity or bad language–but the ideas are kinda edgy in a way, and the movie’s funny without getting really crude. It’s scatologically crude, I will say that.
CS: I think with Will Ferrell’s most recent movie, they were kind of on that border, but this last weekend was interesting because the R-rated “Hangover” was #1 over “Up” (and now two weeks in a row). It’s always been this thing from the studios to go PG-13 to get bigger audiences, and that seems to be less the case now.
Ramis: I just think “Hangover” looks funnier to people. People smelt something about “Land of the Lost” too. I use my 14-year-old as a bellwether for these things, and he didn’t think “Land of the Lost” looked that good – “Hangover” he thought looked really good.
CS: Did he go see that at 14?
Ramis: Yeah, he went, he did go, and I went yesterday with my wife, but I got in for free. (chuckles)
CS: I was curious because you say you’re trying to reach a younger audience, but as I said, I saw “Animal House” when I was 13, so I wondered if you’ve seen a big difference between what that age group wants to see now compared to thirty years ago? You’ve covered so many different waves of comedy so do you see teens now shying away from things that worked back then?
Ramis: You know, I think everything’s changed. When you were 13, I’m sure there wasn’t 24-hour pornography available free on the internet, right?
CS: They didn’t have the internet when I was 13.
Ramis: Right, so it’s not about nudity, it’s not just about language… People want to laugh. If they’re going to a comedy, they wanna laugh. If it was just about nudity, you wouldn’t have to go to the movies, so I think they’re looking for things with some fusion of concept and comic potential that makes them want to come to theaters. Some movies seem to have it. Why didn’t people go see “Zack and Mirk Make a Porno.” If it was only about how mature the content was, that movie on paper would have been a big hit. Why was “Paul Blart” a huge hit and then “Observe and Report” wasn’t? “Observe and Report” was a good movie, I liked it. I thought it was funny and weird and really offbeat, but it’s never the rating or a movie’s not good because it’s R or bad because it’s PG-13, it’s gotta be some chemistry of actors, concept and whatever people can read from the promotional materials, trailers and ads.
CS: How important is marketing? I’m sure your movie has a really funny script and cast, but that can always be lost in the ads, so do you get very involved in the marketing and what to include in the trailers and commercials?
Ramis: They show you stuff. We have the right to consult; we don’t have the right to approve or disapprove. They sort of listen to us, but in a way, I thought they were right on with the marketing. They’re really good at it. And especially when they feel they have something to sell, they get very enthusiastic when they think there’s an audience out there. The marketing department at Sony was excited about the movie before we felt the movie was good. Well, we knew the movie was good, but before we were really comfortable with it, they were really excited, because they knew they could just sell the hell out of it. There were certain images, like the one-sheet image with Jack and Michael as hunter-gatherers in the skins and long-hair wigs, people just smile when they see it, and they knew they could get out there. That’s sort of where the campaign went. “Meet your ancestors” and “the first road trip in history” – they weren’t stressing the religious aspects of the film or the biblical connection. They probably were a little bit afraid of it or some kind of heartland backlash.
CS: I was wondering about that. Since we talked last year, has there been any kind of talk among the religious groups about the movie?
Ramis: Not at all. I’m sure it’ll be on everyone’s… Fundamentalists or Orthodox of any kind, don’t like movies. They don’t like entertainment.
CS: Unless it’s someone being whipped and tortured like in “Passion of The Christ.” They don’t like comedy basically.
Ramis: Yeah. I showed all the sensitive parts of the film to the leadership of the Anti-Defamation League here in Chicago. I showed them about 35 minutes of the film and they thought it was hysterical, so since the Hebrews are the only ones who are sort of named and teased in the film, if it’s okay with Jews, than I’m sure Christians and Muslims will have no problem with it.
CS: I know you came from an improvisational background and both Mike and Jack do a lot of improv–and I saw a little of that on set–but what’s the general mindset about improvisation this time around? Same as usual, shoot the script first and then go off it afterwards?
Ramis: Well, you know, you rehearse first. You get the cameras set-up and you run a little rehearsal or you run a rehearsal before they start lighting and you get a sense whether the script is even going to play or not. No matter how good it looked on paper, once you put it on its feet and hear the actors speaking your dialogue–’cause we don’t have a lot of off-set rehearsal–you can be really unpleasantly surprised by how flat the script may sound or how flat it may play. Improvisation to me is just a great opportunity. I think of it as the last draft of the script, just not written on paper, it’s written right on film.
CS: How do you see this younger generation handling this material? You’ve obviously worked with Jack quite a bit over the years, but what are they like compared to working with someone like Bill Murray?
Ramis: Bill was one of the most verbal improvisers ever. Murray could talk for an hour with the camera rolling, so it’s different. Jack doesn’t improvise that way. He improvises funny, musical moments. He’s just very inventive and much more demonstrative than Bill and much more physical. His face is much more mobile, mugging and just goofiness. Bill was always pretty much the same guy, the improv was all dialogue, so it was just fun to watch Jack work. He’s just physically so funny, and Michael could improvise verbally, but was very careful about mugging and schtick. Michael does not do schtick, so that kind of made them an interesting combination.
CS: Does Michael stay more in character when he does improv, more similar to Bill?
Ramis: He once said that he models his acting after Bill Murray in that sense that he didn’t want to sound like him, but he thought that Bill never had a false moment, that every moment out of his mouth felt like the truth or felt real. Michael wants everything he does to feel completely real. That’s why he won’t go broad and he won’t do physical comedy. He can be physically funny, but it’s all in a very realistic range.
CS: I think you mentioned this was one of the bigger productions you’ve done, at least in terms of sets. Did you end up having more footage than normal?
Ramis: (The Sodom set) was 6 and a half acres, that’s big for any movie. I didn’t shoot that much more film than I normally shoot. We shot for 65 days so it was appropriate for the number of days. I don’t know how he does it but Judd Apatow just shoots a million feet of film, lots and lots of film. I don’t do that. I don’t just roll the camera between takes, which some people do, but it was a manageable amount. The first cut was no more than 2 and a half hours or so.
CS: What’s the final running time then?
Ramis: It’s like 96 minutes or something.
CS: Was there anything significant in the story that ended up getting cut out? There must have been if you cut an hour.
Ramis: No. Every major sequence is in there, just different lengths. When you first assemble, you play every line, every joke, everything full length. For me, comedy is pace, all pace. The movie is not so deep that there are long emotional scenes or long montages of travel or anything. Everything’s there for a reason, it’s tight and it’s fast.
CS: Do you do a lot of test screenings and are you a fan of using that system?
Ramis: Oh, yeah, absolutely, yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s how you find out what you’ve done really. It would be different if I was making art films, but we’re just trying to make popular comedy and it’s hard to know if you’re popular or funny without showing it to people.
CS: Before we wrap things up, I wanted to go back to your first movie “Animal House.” I know you were already writing for “Second City” at that time.
Ramis: Yeah, I’d worked at the “National Lampoon” and the “Second City” TV show had just started.
CS: What was the defining moment for getting “Animal House” made?
Ramis: Once we wrote a treatmentwe wrote a very long treatment, it was 110 pages – it was virtually a finished screenplay, it just didn’t have all the dialogue. Everything was described in great detail, and it was a very funny, it was super funny, and it was an easy sell to Universal. We wrote it under contract at “National Lampoon” and they sold it to Universal, and when we started writing the script, I don’t think there was any doubt that it would be a really funny and popular film.
CS: You’ve generally stayed within the studio system since then, too, so have you ever had the feeling that you had to do something independently along the way?
Ramis: No, I’ve never had a project that didn’t have studio backing. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t do that, but it’s just always worked out that the things I want to do, someone in the studio system wants to do. The closest I came (to doing something independently) was “The Ice Harvest,” which was done by Focus Features, but they’re a part of Universal, so they just have their own separate management.