The first person we talked to on the set of Year One was the mastermind behind the project, director Harold Ramis. Having already been behind some of the funniest comedies of the last three decades–Animal House, Meatballs, Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day are four of the comedy classics Ramis has written and/or directed–the filmmaker is tackling his biggest subject to date with Year One – the bible. He talked to us about how the movie came together.
ComingSoon.net: It seems that this has a modern premise but the language and dialogue will be “of the period.” Is that the way the script was written, or was that a decision you made?
Harold Ramis: The whole conceit of the movie is to put these characters with a modern, contemporary sensibility in an ancient world. It’s not a time travel device or anything. My assumption always was… not unlike “Monty Python” and “The Life of Brian,” in that, at every great historical event, there’s some jerk like me standing in the background not getting it, being out of sync, seeing through the pretensions or the hypocrisy of it. That’s where our main characters come from. So they express themselves; their vernacular is much like our audiences’, but the people around them are in the classic role. So in a way it’s like you’re watching a Cecil B. DeMille movie, and two of your favorite comedy stars turn up.
CS: Whose idea was it to do this PG-13? I think we’ve gotten used to anything Judd’s involved with automatically being Rated R.
Ramis: Yeah, the studio… I was writing it for families anyway, not that it’s a wholesome movie. It’s pretty twisted anyway, but I thought that they’d gone about as far as you can go in “Superbad” and even “Knocked Up,” language and explicit sexual stuff, so this movie’s not about that. My own adolescent sense of humor can be rude, but I really thought that this content might make this movie suitable for younger kids and older kids. It sounds grandiose and way over-optimistic, but having been involved in “Ghostbusters,” it makes me think that there are movies that whole families will see together and the parents will enjoy as much as the kids do.
CS: Can you tell us a little bit about how the idea came about and how you worked with the writers to develop the idea? Did you meet them while you were directing “The Office”?
Ramis: No, Gene (Stupnitsky) and Lee (Eisenberg), I met them both as college students. Gene lives in the next suburb, he grew up in Deerfield. My office is in Highland Park, so they’re adjacent suburbs, and Gene came to me, I think between his junior and senior year at the University of Iowa and wanted to work for me. Huge fan of mine and I’m the only filmmaker in the area. He came to me and worked as an intern, as an assistant, in several different capacities, and then Lee, we spent our summers on Martha’s Vineyward, and Lee Eisenberg was working as a waiter at a restaurant called Alchemy and he seemed like such a funny guy that we just started talking and I asked him what he was going to do after college, and he wanted to be a comedy writer. He came to L.A. and worked for us as a P.A. and intern also, so they met while they were both P.A.-ing on different projects of ours. They started writing specs together and they showed me everything they wrote and it was getting better and better, so when I thought, “Who can I work with on this?” I wanted someone with a much younger sensibility and then they got the jobs on “The Office” and they were fully professionalized. The script, their regular work on “The Office” and then another script they’re doing for CollegeHumor.com, so those are the guys.
The ideas that turn up in this movie have been bouncing around in my head since 1975, believe it or not, when I started thinking of an early world comedy at that time. Then I was doing a show – John Belushi and Bill Murray were in the show. I just watched a show on PBS about the Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal coexisting on the planet at the same time, so suggested at in improv the next day that John play Neanderthal and Bill play Cro-Magnon meeting for the first time. Modern man meets the caveman. John was great as the Neanderthal, and Bill was extremely funny as the Cro-Magnon, and Bill had a completely contemporary approach obviously. That comic voice kinda stuck in my head; just someone speaking in a modern way, in an ancient setting.
CS: What was it like working with a newer generation of comics in Jack Black and Michael Cera?
Ramis: Yeah, it’s somewhat generational. I think the press release the studio first put out was Judd and I was a meeting of these generations. There’s a picture of Judd as a teenager, coming to see me in L.A. in the early ’80s, which is what he was doing as a kid; was just trying to meet every funny person who he’d seen on television or in movies. So I started hearing about Judd first. I’d see interviews; I knew about “Freaks and Geeks,” and I started seeing interviews where he would mention me as some big influence on him. So Judd’s about 40 and I’m about 60 and then [Michael] Cera’s like 20. So he started working with people one generation younger than he is, and he’s one generation younger than me. So now he’s the bridge for me to people two generations younger. I have a son who’s a year younger than Michael Cera.
CS: You mentioned “Life of Brian” before. We were talking earlier about other great Biblical comedies like “History of the World Part I” or “Wholly Moses!,” which is a bit of a forgotten film. What’s going to differentiate this movie from some of the other classics? What’s your spin on it, basically?
Ramis: Well (chuckles) our spin is that “Wholly Moses!” was awful! [laughter] And that’s well forgotten, and “History of the World” I looked at again and it’s very old school. It’s very Catskills. It isn’t really expressing any kind of philosophy. Whereas the Python films do contain some kind of social commentary, and there’s a sense of playing with real literature with the Pythons, and that’s sort of what I was going for here. I’ve been looking at the Old Testament for a very long time, starting as a Hebrew school student, and just thinking about it every year. I’ve had some really enlightening contact with a progressive rabbi that I know, and these ideas, suddenly after 9/11, seem much more important. The role that religion plays in the world, the power of Fundamentalism over people’s lives. I thought, maybe I can take all of those ideas I had about the early world and use them in service of this idea. And to somehow find an interpretation of Genesis that would hook directly into where we are today. All our problems go all the way back right to the beginning.
CS: Do you think that the Old Testament is inherently funnier than the New Testament?
Ramis: I don’t know about funnier, but I was explaining to someone that the New Testament is a much better narrative, that’s why it’s more popular, because it’s like a hero’s journey. It’s one character, the story takes place in one person’s lifetime, it has a beginning, a middle and an end, and a redemption. You look at the Old Testament, and it’s one dysfunctional family after another. Somehow, when we tell Bible stories to kids, they turn out to be little morality tales, but they’re not! You read the Old Testament, and people, they’re more than flawed; they do some terrible things to each other, and there are no happy endings; there are no resolutions. These stories just go on and on in the Old Testament. I noticed that, and I also noticed that they’re all journeys in the Old Testament. Everyone’s on a journey; they’ve either been expelled from somewhere or exiled or they’re fleeing from something or they’re out seeking something in the world. When I thought about doing the Old Testament, there was no single story that has a good enough arc to be a movie, unless you’re doing “The Ten Commandments” again. So I thought I could take all these stories from the early part of Genesis and smash them into one story. I’m sure most of our young audience will not know the difference anyway. (laughter) So it was a way to try and forge a narrative out of a bunch of Genesis material.
CS: What are some of your favorite straight Bible epics?
Ramis: As a kid, “Ben Hur” was like, really powerful and I liked “Ten Commandments” as a kid. Now look at it and it seems so ridiculous, but the funniest is “Samson and Delilah.” Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr. It’s one of the worst movies ever made. It’s DeMille, and it is really bad, but it makes me laugh so much. You’re going to have to see it to know how awful it is.
CS: We heard earlier Adam and Eve are going to be in it, along with the forbidden apple?
Ramis: [laughs] Well there are representations of that, yeah.
CS: Can you list a few of those? Is the Burning Bush going to be in it?
Ramis: No, the forbidden fruit is a trigger event, and it really starts with Paleolithic hunter-gatherers. Jack [Black] and June Raphael and Michael [Cera], they are living in a state of nature. That’s my interpretation of the Garden of Eden, man’s pre-civilization. So they’re hunter-gatherers. Jack is the laziest hunter-gatherer in the tribe, and they have one rule in the tribe: the one rule is that you can’t eat that fruit. You can eat anything else, but not that fruit. Jack, as part of his seduction of June, eats the fruit and she gets to eat the fruit. So it’s an original sin concept, it causes his fall, and he’s expelled from the tribe, which sets him off on this journey. The first people they meet are Cain and Abel, and they travel with Cain for a while, they run into Abraham later, and then Abraham warning them about Sodom. Every awful thing he says about Sodom sounds very good to them. (laughs)
CS: Is there going to be the type of social commentary that there was in “Life of Brian” or are you just using that background for the humor?
Ramis: Well, I always liked everything Monty Python did, but just the idea that there could be something as accurate and funny done on the Old Testament, as they did on the New Testament, that was an appealing concept. When I looked at all the Bible movies. I looked at all the comedies and all the serious ones, and theirs was really far and away the best of the comedies, so part of it for me was to try and do a satire as elegant as that one, and then looking at all the old Cecil B. DeMille pictures and all the other Bible pictures that were made, it’s also part parody of every bible epic you’ve seen.
CS: We saw the camels and we heard you had sheep and other animals. Any crazy stories?
Ramis: Yeah, lot of animals. Nothing’s run amuck yet. We had a cougar that didn’t want to work. I heard he was constipated (laughter) but it’s the cougar that was in “Talladega Nights.” When they hired the cougar, they were like “Hey, this cougar worked with Will Ferrell…”
CS: How are Jack and Mike around animals?
Ramis: Oh, they’re great. Jack had a little scene with a fox in it, they’ve worked with oxen so far. Virtually every scene in the movie has animals in it. Seemed like part of doing the early world. We have a zebu walking around, and noone’s ever seen a zebu.
CS: Is there any concern of a backlash among religious groups?
Ramis: No, I think the Fundamentalists will put it on their banned lists without even seeing it. It seems that will be an instant knee jerk reaction to the content of the movie. Orthodox Jews won’t be allowed to see it, and I think all religious moderates will enjoy the film.
CS: There’s never a discussion with the studio or anything where they ask to soften things?
Ramis: Amy Pascal, who runs the studio, she was at the first meeting where I described what I wanted to do, and she said that since 9/11, she’s wanted to do a film on Fundamentalism, but always thought it would be a drama. She said, “Now I’m thinking it might be a comedy.”
CS: They’re building this huge thing… is that part of a set piece for the end of the movie?
Ramis: Yeah… things will fall down. (laughter)
CS: Will you only have one opportunity to shoot it?
Ramis: We’re doing it on a Saturday I think. Two weeks from Saturday.
CS: Can you tell us what they’re trying to build?
Ramis: Oh, it’s a zigarrat. A lot of zigarrats, or as I call them “The birthday cake zigarrats,” where it’s one layer after another and they get smaller and smaller, but it’s the Tower of Babel, it’s a huge obilisk.
CS: Can you talk about shooting in Shreveport, and why you chose it here, especially with the amount of churches there are in the area? I thought that was kind of ironic.
Ramis: A lot of churches. Well, someone said, “You’re shooting a bible comedy in the bible belt. How smart is that?” People have been great so far. We haven’t had any problems, but Shreveport is one of the states (sic) that has one of the best tax breaks in the country, and we needed that help. For a comedy, this is quite a large scale. Hundreds of costumed extras and all this construction, so we needed a relatively inexpensive place to work, and we didn’t want to leave the country.
CS: How did you find this place where you could build five actress of Sodom?
Ramis: It’s a little more, it’s like six and a half acres. This is a large sand pit. The sand has been dredged out of the waterways, I guess, and we looked at another sand pit and some other open fields, one of them on a military base, which was a landfill I think. We have another big set that we use for the farming village that Cain and Abel live in, and that’s on a big flat landfill.
CS: Just timing-wise, is Jesus or God going to be felt in this movie?
Ramis: No, we’re thousands of years before Jesus. It’s the real one… Jesus wasn’t born in the Year One. They made it “one” after him. (laughs) Because when he was born, they didn’t say, “Let’s start counting again; this will be one.” And then when he died, they didn’t say “This must be 33.” It was in the 7th Century that Pope Gregory decided to try to figure out a calendar that began with the birth of Jesus, so he enlisted a monk named Dennis the Short (laughs) to do a calculation which took him quite a while but he figured it out by tracing generations back. And he was still six years off.
CS: What kind of special effects will we see in the film?
Ramis: The usual. [laughs] Multiplying crowds. The movie is a secular humanist testament. (laughs) The only miracle that I know is the miracle of life itself. To me, everything is a miracle, so we don’t need fire and brimstone to live in a state of awe and wonder. That’s sort of what the movie’s positing to people. If you want to see miracles, just look around every day. It’s just existence itself; it’s kind of a Buddhist thing, so the Dalai Lama appears at the end (laughter), floating on a cloud.
CS: It’s funny that Jack Black is in your movie. I wondered if you saw “Be Kind Rewind” and their “sweded” version of “Ghostbusters” where Jack Black plays you? He plays everybody but Bill Murray. It’s very entertaining.
Ramis: So I’ve heard. I haven’t seen it yet. I saw clips that suggested that’s what they were doing, but I met Jack first on “Orange County.” We did some improvising together but it doesn’t appear in the film, but we were working the same nights, so I got to know him a little bit. Stephen Frears also put me in “High Fidelity”–I played John’s father, it was a little fantasy moment–but they cut it out. It’s on the DVD I guess, but I didn’t meet Jack then, but that’s where I first saw him and thought he was so great. I wanted to work with this guy for a long time.
CS: Are you any way involved with the “Ghostbusters” video game that’s coming out?
Ramis: Yes I am! They consulted with us every step of the way, they showed us drawings, and they laid out the concept of the narrative of the game, and showed us drawings of all the environments, and then showed us animatics of the preliminary stuff.
CS: Have you played it yourself?
Ramis: No, I’m not a gamer. Then we had the script, and we’ve been looking at the script, and we’ll make changes. Mine will be sort of in-studio. I think Danny [Aykroyd]‘s been working on actually rewriting their script.