An interview by Colin Jacobson (May 12, 2003)
In the Seventies, Harold Ramis attained success as the writer of National Lampoon’s Animal House and as a writer/performer on SCTV. In the Eighties, he moved into the director’s chair with hits like Caddyshack and National Lampoon’s Vacation, while he also acted in hits such as Stripes and Ghostbusters. Since then, Ramis has continued to make an impact with audiences via flicks such as Groundhog Day and Analyze This. To mark the DVD release of Analyze That, Colin Jacobson chatted with Mr. Ramis about his career.
CJ: As someone who was an SCTV fan from day one, it’s a treat to be able to speak to you!
CJ: That leads to my first question, which may be the most important one I ask: whatever happened to Moe Green?
HR: (laughs) I believe Moe Green was kidnapped by Leutonian agents.
CJ: Did they ever let him go?
HR: I hope not! (laughs) Moe Green was my creation, kind of abetted by Joe Flaherty – he helped me work that character out.
CJ: I’m curious – you were only active on the show for about a year – what were some of your favorite episodes or sketches from that period?
HR: I had a lot of fun working with John Candy in several different scenes – I always like what John did, and we had a pretty good rapport as performers. I remember he did a health food restaurant review and I was an Indian bouncer – I loved doing that with him. He did a restaurant review where he happens to be reviewing the restaurant in The Godfather where Michael Corleone shoots the police captain – he’s the only one who seems oblivious to the fact a murder’s about to take place. As a waiter I’m afraid to stand up – I keep crawling to the table, and he doesn’t get it. I had a lot of fun with John.
CJ: In Dave Thomas’ SCTV book, you mentioned the Ben-Hur sketch as another one.
HR: Oh, the Ben-Hur one was a lot of fun.
CJ: Any particular clunkers you recall from that year?
HR: We had a pretty good share of clunkers! But there was something so wonderful about that cast – I was always willing to forgive anything there, and as one of the head writers, I think one of my skills was being able to take whatever worked about an idea and to get something out of it. Even if we had a badly written sketch, I would find something to make out of it.
CJ: When you decided to leave, it was basically to “go Hollywood”, I guess.
HR: Yeah, I was already doing Animal House when we were doing the show.
CJ: How hard did you try to keep up things with the show?
HR: Oddly enough, for the second year of half-hours, we never knew when the show was going to air, or if we were going to get picked up by anybody or not. When Andrew Alexander the producer said that they wanted 26 more shows, I said I can’t leave LA, I had this screenwriting job, and I’d started to work on Caddyshack at that point.
Andrew said “What if I sent the whole team down to you in LA?” I said okay and I rented a five-bedroom house and Andrea Martin and Catherine and John Candy and Eugene and Joe Flaherty all settled in LA – most of them in that house – and in about seven weeks we wrote 16 scripts, 16 half-hour shows, which became the first half of the next season. That was my contribution to the show after I stopped appearing – I didn’t appear in any of those shows.
CJ: Back when they went on NBC, you did show up as “Crazy Legs”. Where’d that character come from?
HR: There used to be a football player named Crazy Legs Hirsch, and this was their story of the David Beagleman scandal – one of the big Hollywood scandals, and this was their wacky retelling of those events. I think the president of Columbia Pictures at the time was a guy named Alan Hirschman or something, so I was Crazy Legs Hirsch.
CJ:What was it like to go back after all that time?
HR: Marty Short was the new addition – I never made it back when Rick Moranis was on the show. Marty was – I knew him socially and I thought he was one of the funniest people I’d ever met in my life. Going back with all these people I knew well and they now had a writing staff that was mostly Second City people that I knew from the old days there – they’re the nicest group of people in the world. All the bad blood stuff we read about Saturday Night Live in the early days, this was just the opposite. This was a cooperative atmosphere where everyone focused on making everyone else look good.
CJ: It certainly worked! Moving along to your directorial career, how did you end up behind the camera for Caddyshack?
HR: The first comedy screenplay that I wrote was Animal House and I always thought I could and should be a director but no one was about to give me that opportunity on Animal House. I made it a condition of my next employment that if I wrote a script they wanted to shoot that I’d get the first option to direct it. They really liked the script I wrote, and I got together with Bill Murray and Doug Kenny. They approved the script for Caddyshack, and Jon Peters the executive producer looked at me and said “You look like a director” and that was it!
CJ: How tough was it to make that leap?
HR: I always claim that the writer has done 90 percent of the director’s work. He’s already visualized every location, he’s probably imagined in his head how every line of dialogue needs to be read, he’s probably pictured all the blocking and costuming – all the choices that you make later as a director, that’s really the writer’s work. For me, it just then comes down to your executive skills and your social skills – how can you work with people, can you command sufficient respect, can you make good judgments.
A lot of time it’s not having the best ideas – it’s recognizing the best ideas once someone else has them. I conceded quite quickly that all the great ideas aren’t going to come from me. My job was to listen to everyone and then make the right decision.
CJ: When you went to Vacation three years later, how do you think that experience differed?
HR: There’s kind of this “baptism under fire” when you direct for the first time. I had directed something in video before I did Caddyshack and that was the only thing I’d done. But once you’ve been on a movie set - Caddyshack was an 11-week shoot, and after 11 weeks of that, I think I kind of fell into it.
CJ: How much involvement have you had in the upcoming Vacation 20th anniversary DVD release?
HR: I did a commentary and that’s all I was asked to do.
HR: You mean as far as interviews and stuff?
HR: I don’t know when it’s going to get released.
CJ: I think it’s in August.
HR: They’ll probably do one of these phone junkets when the time comes.
CJ: I’m curious – given your success, since both Vacation and Caddyshack did quite well, was there ever any consideration that you’d direct Ghostbusters?
HR: That was Ivan Reitman’s deal. Aykroyd knew Ivan from Canada and Ivan had directed Stripes and we all had relationships going back some time with each other. I’d written and acted in Stripes, and Murray and Aykroyd had the Saturday Night connection, and Ivan had the Canadian connection to Aykroyd. After Stripes, I think that for Aykroyd, Ivan was considered as the conduit to Bill Murray. He had written Ghostbusters originally for him and John Belushi, but with John’s death, I think he shifted his focus to Bill.
He went to Ivan saying let’s do this movie with Bill and I and a third actor will be the Ghostbusters. Ivan said at their very first meeting – God bless Ivan! – he said that Ramis should be the third Ghostbuster and write the script with you. They came right from the lunch where Dan proposed it to Ivan and came right to me, handed me the script and said “read this and tell us what you think”
So it was never a question of me directing. Actually, it came up though that when Dan was beating the drums for a Ghostbusters 3, he wanted me to direct that.
CJ: I can remember some early DVDs listed Ghostbusters 3 on Aykroyd’s filmography – I guess that was a little premature!
HR: He wrote a draft – he definitely wrote a draft.
CJ: Why didn’t that ever happen?
HR: It turned out to be a deal that couldn’t be made. Everyone wanted too much – there wasn’t enough left for the studio.
CJ: Looking ahead to the reason we’re here with Analyze This and Analyze That, what originally got you involved with the first film?
HR: I knew the producer Paula Weinstein, and originally the project had been vaguely mentioned to me as Billy Crystal playing a psychiatrist and someone playing a mob boss – it sounded formulaic to me until my agent said to me “what if the mob boss was Robert De Niro?” Then I thought this sounds like – I don’t think De Niro’s capable of doing a stock kind of formula comedy so this could richer and deeper than I was first picturing.
We started talking to everybody and started thinking about Bob’s character and Billy’s character and made some notes and talked to De Niro. We got along really well and agreed on what the film would feel like and we said “let’s do it”.
CJ: What’s it like to direct De Niro?
HR: He’s a terrific guy. He’s very generous and thoughtful, and he doesn’t require – there’s no coercion or manipulation involved, you don’t have to kiss his ass or anything. You just have to make sense, so if I asked him to do something, as long as it made sense and was smart, he’d do it. He’d do it with full energy, and try it with lots of variations. All you have to do is make the right suggestions, stand back and watch him work – it’s great.
CJ: You mentioned that with Ghostbusters 3, that didn’t happen because the deal couldn’t be made. How tough was it to make the deal for Analyze That?
HR: Probably pretty tough! (laughs) I’m sure De Niro had a big payday – probably his biggest ever, since it’s a sequel and he’s seen as so vitally important to the success of the first one. The same for Billy – I know we all got more than with the first one.
Everyone was probably pretty happy with the deal they made. It amazes me how expensive star-driven comedies can be. But the studio wasn’t skimping on the production values because they had paid out a lot of money in salaries. They were pretty generous on the budget of the film.
CJ: What challenges did you encounter when trying to keep it true to the first one but also make it different and stand out in some way?
HR: There’s always that thing: do we have to repeat things from the first movie, and to what extent? The audience will always say that they want something new, but then if it’s too different, they don’t feel they got the experience they came back for. There was always that tension – how to keep it fresh and familiar at the same time.
For me, I can assure you that no one did it just for the money. I wanted to say something thematically and creatively that was worth saying. I feel a big obligation to the audience, almost in a moral sense, to say something useful. In this case, it took me a while to find what statement I could get behind that would not be too weighty or that would overwhelm the comedy but that would be worth talking about. If I’m going to spend a year of my life on these things, I want something that – you know, I realize the movie was about change and can people change and crime in our society and can people be redeemed. That’s what keeps me going in the big picture.
CJ: Speaking of where you’re going from here, what is coming up next?
HR: I’m looking for something I feel that strongly about. I’ve been directing for 25 years almost, and I’ve only directed nine films in that time because I like to be careful. Not that they’ve all been huge hits, but I’ve been proud of all of them for what they’re about and what they say about life and people.
CJ: Yeah, I noticed that you took a seven-year break between Club Paradise and Groundhog Day.
HR: We did do Ghostbusters 2 in that time.
CJ: I meant a directorial break.
HR: Yeah, I did take a pretty good break there! (laughs)
CJ: Thank you very much for the chat, and I appreciate your time!
HR: Thank you, Colin, and take care!