Writer-actor-director Harold Ramis believes that the clean-talking, gross-free "Ghostbusters" may break forever the reign of raunch that has plagued youth comedy since "Animal House."
If so, it will have been entirely by design. Ramis and Dan Aykroyd, co-authors of "Ghostbusters" (which, with $225 million in ticket sales, is now the most successful comedy in movie history), purposely subtracted nudity, bad language and general raunchiness from the script.
"We wanted this to be the first film in which we didn't patently accept the notion that crude is good. There was a general confusion in Hollywood that it was the vulgarity which really sold these films. Raunchy behavior became a focal point," Ramis said.
"The obvious success of 'Ghostbusters' completely validated our belief."
The writer-artist believes he has done a lot of selling out in the past. "I was persuaded to throw in heavy doses of sexism," he said. "And I'd still like to do a movie in which nothing explodes."
Artistically, Ramis (a major creative force in four other monster hits, "Animal House," "Stripes," "Meatballs" and "Caddyshack") talks somewhat wistfully about reaching even further. "Early on, I knuckled under to some crass commercial instincts, such as the way women are treated in these films . . . as mere objects. And part of my hope is that I can be less exploitative of women . . . that I can write better for women. That's a hurdle I still face."
In the hierarchy that produced the phenomenally successful "Ghostbusters," Ramis bills himself not as a general, but as a buck private, deflecting the glory to fellow goblins Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and producer-director Ivan Reitman.
" 'Ghostbusters' was Dan's creation from the beginning," Ramis said. "He came into the project with a very elaborate script and a strong concept. He had let his imagination run wild on the whole concept, creating that wonderful occupation of ghost-chasers and an entire cosmology to contain them."
Ramis came into the Columbia Pictures' project as a co-writer, and soon he and Aykroyd were turning out page after page of ghostly derring-do until they were buried neck deep in supernatural subplots. "We finally started putting them in the shredder, returning to Dan's original, purer concepts."
And the omnipresent Bill Murray was a literary ghostie on the set who reared up constantly with personal visions, according to Ramis. "He added his own polish again and again," said Ramis. "Sometimes his inspirations had us rewriting the night before, but we often kept talking right up until the minute we shot."
Ramis recalled that it was Murray who impulsively decided to describe a "Ghostbusters" villain by using a euphemism for impotence. The ad-lib seemed so right that director Ivan Reitman let the cameras run. "Is this true?," asked another character, replying to Murray's impulsive outburst. "Yes," answered Murray with a dead-pan face, "This man has no . . . . "
"This shows how much of an impromptu product this genre can be," Ramis continued. "Bill just randomly chose the euphemism and created a classic line which will be remembered for generations."
Reitman, producer as well as director of the film, had an innate vision of how "Ghostbusters" should look and feel, Ramis said. "When we sat down to write for him, it was as if we were giving a performance. I would write a scene, show it to him and he'd say 'yes,' or occasionally, 'no.' There were no nine drafts or hassles which plague many films. We talked it out and were allowed to plow ahead."
Ramis views "Ghostbusters" as his most tasteful work to date. "It was the most outrageous in concept and the most restrained in terms of taste level. And there was, I hope, a powerful message: that society might be right on the very edge of opening up a hole that we can't close. We create our own monsters out of imagination, but if we have courage and dedication, we can save ourselves from anything."
The ultimate monster in the film turned out to be a 10-story marshmallow man--a cerebral nightmare called up by one of the ghostbusters. "Some of the things we fear the most could turn out to be marshmallows," Ramis declared.
Perhaps Ramis was overly modest about his contribution to his most successful film to date. First, he carried the mindless teen-age genre one step further by putting an ideological message in the script. And second, he vacuumed most hints of sleaze and juvenile tricks out.
The fact that the film is now the most financially successful comedy of all time didn't quench Ramis' idealistic and aesthetic thirst to do a truly important comedy, a farce that makes a heavy statement--a la "Tootsie."
Ramis explained: "Certain comedies, such as 'Tootsie,' have everything going for them--they're funny, they're real, they're moral and philosophical. I have three projects now which have that potential. But I must have the courage to hold the line and fight for the preservation of the message."
His most prominent onscreen creations, such as Russell Zisky, the pseudo-wimp who joined the Army in "Stripes" and became a macho hero and the mildest of the three ghostbusters, led some critics to the opinion that he's the best portrayer of losers around.
He rankled at this: "These film characters are only losers in the narrow conventional view. This is not really the norm. What young people think is cool is the guy who lives in the messy apartment with the great-looking girlfriend. The losers in our films are not the schlemiels of Woody Allen or the guilty losers of Neil Simon."
The entire "comedy of the absurd" genre originated by Ramis, Doug Kenney and Chris Miller in "Animal House" was at first hard to sell. "We had to convince the studios that the conventional norms could be turned around so that the supposed heroes would be triumphant losers. There is a kind of nerd-like acceptance that society ultimately doesn't work. My own heroes are rebels. In 'Animal House,' Doug and I believed strongly that America really loves its rebels best--not its conformists."
Conversely, Ramis staunchly defended what he calls "idiotic youth comedy: Even to make a stupid joke work takes a rare kind of intelligence that is not always apparent in the context of the joke."
He cited the lunch scene in "Meatballs" where the camp announcer blurts out: "Here's an update on today's lunch--it was veal. The winner of today's mystery meat contest was Billy Posner, who guessed 'some kind of meat.' "
"Now that's a different way to handle it, rather than having a group of guys grab their throats and say 'yuck.' "
Next time at bat, he'll take on the saga of a Club Med on a poverty-stricken island; an unsettling sendup of the Old West, the unsanitized West, and a farcical saga about the security guard industry. Ramis was in Jamaica last week scouting locations for the Caribbean comedy, "Island Jack," which he has co-written with Brian Doyle Murray. Ramis will direct Robin Williams and Peter O'Toole in the film, to be shot this spring. The security guard sendup will be produced by Brian Grazer ("Night Shift," "Splash") and will co-star Bill Murray.
Next: How the smart studios sell a dumb movie.