Thursday, March 13, 2014

"Spores, molds and fungus": Seven tidbits about Ghostbusters that aren't found either in the late Harold Ramis' 1999 DVD commentary or on the film's IMDb trivia page

'If a Twinkie represents amount of grief I feel when someone dies, Harold Ramis' death would be a Twinkie 35 feet long weighing 600 pounds.'--Patton Oswalt

The February 24 death of Ghostbusters star and co-writer Harold Ramis has led to tons of Ramis tributes and Ghostbusters-related items being posted and reblogged on Twitter and Tumblr, including my own Tumblr. The Ramis-directed Groundhog Day is a better-made film (for example, unlike Ghostbusters, it doesn't contain any FX shots that are crude-looking by today's standards, like the matte shots of the haunted apartment building's exterior that made Ramis and Ivan Reitman cringe during their 1999 Ghostbusters DVD commentary), but the endlessly quotable Ghostbusters is the Ramis work I'll always associate with Ramis first, more so than all his other works, because it left such an impact on me as a kid and a comedy nerd. It also kicked off a longtime fascination of mine with New York.

I'll never forget the tiny old-timey theater where my mom took me, my older brother and my older sister to see an afternoon matinee of Ghostbusters, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary this June, back in 1984: the Granada Theater, Morgan Hill, California. That shot of the library ghost leaping out at Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz and Egon Spengler gave me such a good scare at the Granada that whenever I would subsequently rewatch Ghostbusters on VHS as a kid, I always looked away when the movie reached that moment (I don't do that so much anymore).

Here we see a shirtless Keith Richards relaxing aboard his yacht.
(Photo source: DVD Beaver)

I was lucky to have met Ramis once, when I was a UC Santa Cruz student writing for one of the campus papers. It was through the paper that I found out Ramis, whose daughter was a UCSC student at the time, was on campus to do a Q&A at a screening of Groundhog Day and then speak the following morning at a film class I wasn't enrolled in. I went to the class not to get an interview with him but just to see a few words about comedy from this comedy legend I admired since Ghostbusters, a filmmaker who, as Matt Singer wrote in The Dissolve, championed in his funniest writing or directing projects outsiders and misfits who proved the value of their unorthodox ideas and behaviors.

I don't remember the classroom lecture at all. It's what happened after the lecture that I haven't completely forgotten. Ramis' talk went past the end of class and continued over lunch in the pizzeria right next door to the lecture hall. The group of us who joined Ramis wasn't that big. We all ended up hanging out with him for an hour (maybe even an hour and a half) in that small campus restaurant, talking mostly about films and SCTV.

I wish I could remember what Ramis said about working on SCTV for only one season, and I wish camera phones had been invented by then so that my memories of the afternoon in the pizzeria weren't so fuzzy. The only things I remember about that afternoon were when Ramis signed an article of mine where I interviewed UCSC students and alumni about their hatred of Glory Daze, an early Ben Affleck movie that was filmed on location in Santa Cruz (I might still have the autograph, which Ramis placed next to artwork done by one of the paper's illustrators of John Belushi expressing his boredom with Glory Daze), and when I told Ramis about the time Stuart Saves His Family, a directorial effort of his that was released the previous year, turned up on cable one morning. I enjoyed what I saw of the film, which starred Al Franken as his SNL character Stuart Smalley, because it was better than the average '90s SNL movie spinoff, but I wasn't able to finish watching it because I had to run over to the movie theater across the street from my apartment to watch Danny DeVito's Matilda (he was kind of disappointed that I didn't finish Stuart Saves His Family, but he said he liked DeVito's directorial work).

As for the third and last thing I remember about meeting Ramis, it's one of the following seven tidbits about Ghostbusters that currently can't be found on the IMDb trivia page or in either countless listicles about the film, the entertaining commentary track Ramis recorded with Reitman and associate producer Joe Medjuck or the Premiere magazine oral history about the making of Ghostbusters that Esquire posted immediately after news of Ramis' death broke. Selections from Varèse Sarabande's out-of-print 2006 Ghostbusters score album, the first official release of Elmer Bernstein's excellent Ghostbusters score, can be heard during "AFOS Prime" and "Hall H" on AFOS.

1. "You know, you don't act like a scientist... You're more like a game show host": Peter is basically Bill Murray's flippant SNL Weekend Update entertainment correspondent persona, but plopped down into the world of parapsychology. My favorite Murray SNL sketches were often when they just let him riff as himself and put his Second City training to use in his Weekend Update entertainment news segments. If you found Ghostbusters II to be underwhelming as the final official screen appearance for Peter, outside of The Real Ghostbusters (uh, Ghostbusters nerds, Murray's never going to do another Ghostbusters movie--deal with it and get used to Zombieland as being the last time he'll ever put on that uniform), just pretend Murray's entertainment news segments are glimpses into Peter's side job as an entertainment reporter. Peter's handling of entertainment reporting is the same as how he handles parapsychology (and how a lot of us have handled certain jobs we've had in the past): he clearly finds it to be boring work, but he actually isn't clueless about what he does, unlike a certain entertainment anchor who can't tell famous black actors apart--and yet, that dumbass is still employed by KTLA.

I just watched the pilot for Bosch, Amazon's recently greenlit adaptation of Michael Connelly's beloved Harry Bosch crime novels. Titus Welliver, Amy Aquino and Wire alumni Jamie Hector and Lance Reddick are all terrific in the Bosch pilot (no surprise there), but it's yet another procedural about a detective who's intensely driven when it comes to his work. When are we going to get the procedural where the lead is bored with his work, like Dr. Venkman?

2. Unlike the other Ghostbusters, Peter's uniform pant legs are never tucked into his boots. I always thought that was a clever character choice Murray made to underscore Peter's insouciance.

Damn, these Manhattan potholes are the worst.

The Ghostbusters investigate Giles' library. It's that Ghostbusters/Buffy crossover I always wanted to see.
(Photo source: The Fwoosh)

3. Mort Drucker's 1986 MAD magazine parody of Moonlighting mocked Bruce Willis' wisecracking shtick on the show by saying Willis was ripping off Murray's performances in Ghostbusters and Stripes. Nineteen years later, a Moonlighting DVD extra confirmed that Willis did indeed model David Addison after Murray. Everyone wanted to be Murray in Ghostbusters, whether it was Willis or yours truly. If you played Ghostbusters on the playground as a kid but, like me back then, you couldn't identify with the wanting-to-drill-a-hole-in-his-head nerdiness of Egon (the true leader of the Ghostbusters, according to The Bitter Script Reader) or the Tobin's Spirit Guide-quoting nerdiness of Ray, you wanted to be either audience surrogate Winston Zeddemore or Peter--mostly because Peter got the ladies and most of the funniest lines.

4. In Dan Aykroyd's original--and much more outlandish--vision of Ghostbusters, which took place in the future, the character that became Dana Barrett was an alien fugitive who looked like a warthog and took human female form. Then in later drafts, as the character evolved from being a throwaway joke about sex with aliens to a love interest who causes Peter, the lazy and skeptical one in the team, to start taking the paranormal more seriously, Dana worked as a fashion model. But when Sigourney Weaver added her input, she thought it would be more interesting if her character were a musician, and Aykroyd and Ramis went with her idea.

"She has such dignity--there is just no way to treat her as an object," said Ramis about Weaver's suggestion to turn Dana into a cellist in the 1985 book Making Ghostbusters. "And we liked the subtle class difference she brought to the part. She clearly had better breeding than Venkman did. Writing for women has not been one of my strengths in the past, but with Sigourney's contribution, this character really grew and strengthened."

Dana's comparison of Peter to a game show host was also Weaver's idea. It's much better than the originally scripted line, which had Dana comparing him to a used car salesman.

Dana's fridge is haunted by Coca-Cola product placements.
(Photo source: Ghostbusters Wiki)
Peter drops by Dana's apartment again to investigate how a struggling cellist in Manhattan could afford an apartment so big.
(Tweet source: Kumail Nanjiani)

5. Anti-government libertarians and conservatives worship the first Ghostbusters for its portrayal of an EPA employee as a villain and Peter, Ray and Egon's success in the private sector. Yecch. I hate it when conservatives cream their khaki pants over films or hip-hop tracks I like--for reasons that weren't intended by the liberal or apolitical writers behind those films or tracks. As Adam Bertocci wrote in Overthinking Ghostbusters, the apolitical Ghostbusters isn't anti-government. Sure, the film's hatred of Walter Peck reflects the Reagan era's then-popular view of the EPA, but the film also portrays city government in a favorable light. The various divisions of the city government spring into action (a moment that would make Ron Swanson run to his typewriter and type out a Yelp-style letter of disapproval) and work with the Ghostbusters to whup Gozer's ass. The film is more anti-institution, like Ramis' previous screenplays and that very conservative David Simon show The Wire.

6. Elmer Bernstein's absence from Ghostbusters II is mostly why that sequel is inferior to the original. Randy Edelman did some good scoring work in films like Murray's directorial effort Quick Change, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story and Dragonheart (the themes from Dragon and Dragonheart ended up becoming '90s movie trailer staples), but his score for Ghostbusters II just doesn't work for me. The late Bernstein's enjoyable Ghostbusters instrumental theme, which Bertocci referred to as "bouncy, twinkly piano and jazz" and is heard briefly at 1:54 in the Stay-Puft sequence clip below, was such an essential element of the first film--it's even more essential than the overplayed earworm that was Ray Parker Jr.'s Ghostbusters song--that to find it replaced by a more generic heroic theme composed by Edelman was the worst part of Ghostbusters II.

"It's very New York, lending the film an older, classier feel," wrote Bertocci about Bernstein's theme for Peter, Ray, Egon and Winston, "like something out of a metropolitan screwball comedy, perhaps, or one of the black-and-white paranormal funnies that were Dan Aykroyd's muse."

The Bernstein theme's absence from Ghostbusters II (a film I don't consider to be a fiasco like most viewers do because it's redeemed by Ramis' twisted dialogue as Egon and an early Murray scene where Peter hosts a psychic talk show, but the sequel is way too family-friendly for my tastes) is worse than the tedious scenes of the Ghostbusters fawning over Dana's baby (sure, those scenes are alright if it's home movies of a friend's baby or Three Men and a Baby, but they're just filler when it's Ghostbusters). It's even worse than those horrible shots of Ernie Hudson in the haunted subway bugging his eyes out and yelling like a scared black butler in a racist '30s movie. Bernstein didn't score Ghostbusters II because he declined to return. By the late '80s, he had grown tired of the string of comedies he had been scoring since 1978's Animal House, which Ramis co-wrote and Reitman co-produced, and he wanted to try something new.

"The change came for me with My Left Foot, which was a small serious film," said Bernstein in an archived interview that was excerpted in the liner notes of Varèse Sarabande's Ghostbusters album. "And it broke the comedy cycle. It was time."

7. At that lunch at UCSC in 1996, Ramis briefly did what's known today as fancasting. It's common knowledge that for the Ghostbusters threequel they wanted to make, Ramis and Aykroyd were considering sending the Ghostbusters to hell or introducing new members to the team. Seth Rogen, who shared scenes with Ramis in Knocked Up (Ramis played Rogen's dad) and then played Peter in a 2012 Film Independent live-read of the Ghostbusters script, has always been brought up whenever people try to fancast a new, Apatow-era Ghostbusters movie. But at that lunch, someone else was on Ramis' mind for a new Ghostbuster.

Ramis said to us that he wished he could get Conan O'Brien--an SCTV fan--to work with them on the threequel. Gangly, awkward and pale Conan--a.k.a. Rockefeller Center-era Conan--running away from things that are paler than him? I would have cosigned that.

1 comment:

  1. what a great way of celebrating the 30th anniversary of Ghostbusters
    is by jetting of to England and travel to the beautiful town in Milton keynes
    and head over to the football stadium there and see William Atherton to have
    an photo op with him from 16th-18th may check flights for details and hotel
    reservations free bus and entry to the venue you will find the nearest free
    bus pick up and drop of points below and I hope to see you there.
    Frankie Smales