Hollywood’s Hottest Comedy Director Takes a Break : Movies: After ‘Twins’ and ‘Ghostbusters II,’ producer-director Ivan Reitman decides there’s more to film than laughs.
The Ghostbusters are going out of business and the Twins will have to raise their families offscreen . . . maybe.
Producer-director Ivan Reitman, who spent much of his summer hearing what a failure “Ghostbusters II” was at the box office, has given Columbia Pictures a firm “I don’t think so” about doing “Ghostbusters III” and has told Universal that he is not going to do a sequel to “Twins.”
Most directors would kiss the devil for a box-office hit the size of “Ghostbusters II.” But in the hottest summer season ever enjoyed by Hollywood, the film got ambushed by “Batman” and ended up fifth overall. Comparing its domestic grosses against the more than $200 million earned by “Ghostbusters” in 1984, it left him wanting more.
“I was disappointed that it didn’t do as well,” he said.
In the last 12 months, Americans have bought about nearly a quarter of a billion dollars worth of tickets to Reitman films. “Twins,” which was released at Christmas, and “Ghostbusters II,” released early in the summer, took in about $111 million each. On this kind of roll, a producer generally gets right to work on the next set of sequels.
But Reitman, relaxing in his rose-and-green-hued office at the Burbank Studios, is in no hurry as he reflects on recent events.
“ ‘Ghostbusters II’ wasn’t as much fun to make as the first one,” Reitman explained. “In comedy, the element of surprise is everything. And I think once that element of surprise is gone, once people know there’s going to be ghosts, there’s going to be big ghosts, and they’re expecting something big at the end, a lot of the tools that are at your disposal are gone.”
When Reitman makes a movie, people know there’s going to be male buddies and a broadly comic theme: Bill Murray as a summer-camp scoutmaster (“Meatballs”); Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson as scientists in the silly art of busting ghosts, and venal, shrimpy Danny DeVito and big, lovable Arnold Schwarzenegger as wombmates separated at birth (“Twins”).
At 42, Reitman has the most lucrative track record in comedy film making. This year alone, his movies have grossed over $300 million at the box office, counting the domestic and foreign take from “Twins.” But he’s in no hurry to build the account; at the moment, he said, his company has no movies in development.
“Usually as I’m finishing a film, I start gestating (an idea for the next film). I purposely sort of forced myself not to this time . . . I think (the break) will help me develop a fresh perspective on what I’m doing.
“All of the films I’ve made to date have been relatively large-scale films with elaborate concepts and I’d like to try a few things on a more human scale and see how it works out. It’s not so much that I want to turn to serious drama right now and bare my soul any more than it’s bared. It’s just I think it would be fun to tell a smaller story . . . less plot and more character.
“I think I have to move people emotionally much more. I think I’m just learning what I’m doing.”
The last time Reitman tried something different was “Legal Eagles,” which had Robert Redford and Debra Winger shoehorned into semi-serious roles originally created for Murray and Dustin Hoffman. The result was labeled a disaster, a description that “drove me crazy,” Reitman said, because the 1986 movie did make money.
“Legal Eagles” and “Ghostbusters II” have something in common, in fact. In both cases, the long, behind-the-scenes political tango leading up to the actual production captured as much press attention as the movies.
With “Legal Eagles,” the controversy was over packaging, the industry term for loading a movie with a director, writer and stars from the same talent agency--in this case, clients of Creative Artists Agency.
The “Ghostbusters II” controversy concerned former Columbia Pictures head David Puttnam, who was reportedly ushered out of his job partly because he alienated both CAA head Michael Ovitz (Puttnam publicly denounced packaging) and Bill Murray (he reportedly criticized the star for taking from Hollywood without giving anything back). In any event, it took five years for Columbia to get the “Ghostbusters” sequel into the marketplace.
“It really wasn’t Puttnam” who caused the delay, Reitman said. The problem was that none of the principals wanted to do a sequel for two or three years, and by the time most of them had decided they were ready, Murray wanted to sandwich another film (“Scrooged”) between the two “Ghostbusters.” And when Murray was ready, the script wasn’t.
“At some point, when it appeared that Puttnam was the cause of the delay,” Reitman said, “executives above Puttnam at Columbia in New York contacted us to see whether we could make the deal as a separate company apart from Columbia just to make sure that it wasn’t Puttnam that was the problem.”
But the New York executives who tried to end-run Puttnam were unable to make the sequel happen any sooner.
As for “Legal Eagles,” Reitman said that he developed the story after Hoffman said he’d like to reteam with Murray, who played his roommate in “Tootsie.” When Hoffman and Murray “disappeared,” Reitman said--Hoffman to make “Ishtar” and Murray to take a long vacation in France--Reitman was stuck with the story.
“I mentioned it to Mike (Ovitz) and I asked what actors were looking for what kinds of things,” Reitman said. “He said, ‘Redford’s really looking to do a comedy. . . . He wouldn’t mind working with you, so why don’t you go meet him and see what happens.”’
Redford liked the idea and the two continued to work together on it until the actor committed, Reitman said: “We decided that for his particular character, it would be better if the partner were a woman. Then I started casting like any other director.”
Other reports imply that Winger was pressured by her CAA agents to do the movie. But Reitman insisted that it’s “ridiculous to believe that any agent, no matter how powerful, can get actors of the caliber of Bill Murray or Robert Redford or Debra Winger or a director as independent as I am to make a film that they don’t want to do.
“I auditioned probably 100 different women, and in fact Debra Winger auditioned for the piece. You know, she’s complained many times because it’s a useful publicity tool for her about being packaged in the story, but she wasn’t. She fought for the piece.”
Few film makers have operated more profitably than Reitman. The deal he cut for “Ghostbusters II” gave him and his stars a chunk of the box-office gross that was close to 10% each, according to some reports. Reitman said the 10% figure is not accurate, “but it’s a big one.”
Reitman is now testing his magic touch in the vast wasteland. He’s launched a TV division at his company, and plans to develop one project at a time, as he has always done with movies. But film continues to be his main interest and the current layoff he has imposed on himself has its own insecurities.
“No matter how successful one is, or how many films one has made, there is that sort of discomfort when you’re not working that you’ll never work again,” he said. “Even though, consciously, I think that’s a ridiculous attitude, I do suffer from it to a certain extent.”
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