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Harold Ramis on Year One and Rewriting the Bible for the Age of Obama

No matter who you are, chances are slim that you're as busy as Harold Ramis this week. Tomorrow, his biblical comedy Year One, starring Michael Cera and Jack Black, hits theaters, and on Saturday, he'll be honored at the Nantucket Film Festival with a special screening of Ghostbusters (released 25 years ago this month). Also, perhaps most important of all, this week sees the release of the massively anticipated Ghostbusters the Video Game. Vulture spoke with Ramis about Year One and his aversion to sequels (with the exception of Ghostbusters 3).

This is the first ensemble comedy you've made since Caddyshack. Why did it take so long for you to get back to your roots?
Well, my roots are part of me, so everything I do is an extension of everything I've always done. My last film, The Ice Harvest, was a bit of an anomaly. This one, I actually had a conscious desire to get back together with people who were more active. I brought these two young guys in, Gene Stupinsky and Lee Eisenberg, writer-producers on The Office. It was an important first step, to bring in young writers who would help link it to a younger audience. Then, Judd [Apatow] and I started to bond. I invited him to join me as a producer. That was very important, because with Judd came a lot of really good people, both in production and with the actors.

The movie seems like it's rooted in a much earlier comic tradition. There's the Monty Python biblical comedy, and even some of the Bob Hope–Bing Crosby chemistry shared by Jack Black and Michael Cera.
The shorthand for what I was doing was that I would be doing for Genesis what Monty Python did for the Gospels. But they're more conceptual. I don't bring the conceptual frame in this film. The main conceit is having characters with contemporary consciousness in the ancient world. That's something comedians have always played with, from Mel Brooks's The 2000 Year Old Man to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. I do have more references from the thirties, forties, and fifties than young people working today because they didn't grow up with that stuff. Maybe everything I do is an attempt to be a Marx Brothers film or some kind of forced fantasy film. I have described this film as Hope and Crosby: Road to Sodom.

We suppose you can't get much more serious than the Bible.
I felt safe. Something I've realized — I actually wrote an op-ed piece when Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ came out. Everyone was so outraged. The premise of my article, which didn't get published, was that some of our most important ideas about the human experience come from Greek mythology, theater, and literature. Those ideas were actually part of a living religion. That religion is long gone, so no one cares if I bash an ancient religion that no longer exists. It's easy to topple that religion without offending what Muslims and Christians believe. It's them I'm afraid of. I wasn't afraid of offending Jews, because it's very hard to offend Jews. I showed about half an hour of this movie to the Anti-Defamation League. They thought it was really happy.

Religious dogma has dominated the country for the last eight years or so, although that appears to be changing with Obama. It seems like an appropriate time for this movie. Do you want it to spark discussion of the role of religion in modern times?
Oh, absolutely. That's the intent. It's funny, because we had two endings for the movie, because the last act is set in Sodom. My natural instinct was to create an ending that had a Frank Capra populism to it. They win and the city gets saved by the goodness of the people — and by Jack and Michael. We tested that ending, and some of the audience said, "I thought Sodom was supposed to be destroyed." So we went out and shot an alternate ending where Sodom is destroyed by a meteor, and looked at that ending, and passed at that ending. It wasn't as successful as the populist ending. I thought, "Wow, bombing Sodom is the age of George Bush." Now we have Barack Obama, and the old ending, the one written by my natural instincts, is the Obama ending. It's the "Yes We Can" ending. In fact, Michael Cera's character has a line when the people are in revolt — you hear Michael yell, "Yes we can!"

Should we not expect a Year Two? You seem to have an aversion to sequels. The only one you directed was Analyze That.
Actually, I've made that mistake three times [laughs]. One was they convinced me that a sequel to Caddyshack was a good idea, because Rodney Dangerfield really wanted to do it, so I worked on that script. Then Rodney pulled out and they made a terrible movie without my help or cooperation. Then we did a Ghostbusters sequel, of course, which was not as successful. Based on that experience, I resisted doing Analyze That because — as I said to my Analyze This partners — sequels, in my experience, cost twice as much and are half as successful. Which is probably true and that's probably what happened with Analyze That. I would happily have done any of the Bourne Identity sequels. There are good sequels, but I'm not good at making them.

Your eighties cohorts haven't been nearly as active as you have. People like Dan Aykroyd and John Hughes appear to have lost interest in making movies.
Yeah, one of my slogans is that "character is destiny." It seems like some of my old peers have already exploited some of their best ideas. They've used up the energy, the fire's gone out, whatever metaphor you want to use. There's a generational difference. A lot of us did our best work in comedy when we were part of groups. That was very important for comedy. With those collaborations, the group is the audience, and we just made our best ideas there. There was just a desire to hang out. As people get older, they start their own families. Success can be very isolating in a way. It seems that, culturally, young people function more in groups. They know each other through digital media. All the young comedy people who work in TV are really used to working at the table with lots of writers around. They're comfortable in the group; they don't assert their own egos over everyone else. So that's part of it, too. The groupthink kind of drives a lot of comedy.

You were an adviser on the Ghostbusters video game. Was that an attempt to repackage the story for newer audiences?
We didn't motivate it. They came to us with the game. We did function as consultants and did more specific work as we got closer, and provided the voices. We were in touch all along the way, approved the drawings and the whole story line, and the environments the player goes through. Someone had thought that with the 25th anniversary of the movie coming out, there would be renewed interest. No one had done a really good game. The only exploitation had been the characters in the cartoon show. This game feels much more like the movie. Having our voices certainly nails that down. There's even a new toy line coming out to celebrate the 25th anniversary. For the first time, those action figures will have our likenesses, based on how we looked in 1984. Dan Aykroyd was much more active in the idea of the sequel.

Have you played through the game?
With sons who are 19 and 14, I've seen enough video games, and I'm always completely blown away by the graphics. This looked like a state-of-the-art game. It's flattering to see yourself running around as an animated avatar. I have no interest in playing the games. I have enough obsessions already.

You said earlier that you made the "mistake" of working on sequels three times. We assume you're very confident about this Ghostbusters 3 project in development.
Well, I'm not alone this time. There are people even more skeptical than I am who are involved with it. That's kind of a protection against doing a bad one. Bill Murray would not be involved if he didn't believe in the script. Ivan Reitman won't sign off on it unless he thinks it's really worth doing.

But Reitman isn't going to direct it, is he?
I don't think he wants to. It's an open assignment at this point. The script is being written by Gene and Lee, whom I collaborated with on Year One. We wrote the story together. Dan and Ivan have consulted.

Do you have a dream cast in mind?
I had a dream cast when Dan first went off and wrote Ghostbusters 3 by himself. It was so long ago that my dream cast was Ben Stiller, Chris Farley, and Chris Rock. That would have been cool. Now a lot of time has passed and there are a lot of young funny people. Every word I've said about this has started an Internet rumor. People thought Judd was directing and Seth Rogen was starring. None of that's true. Everyone can pretty much pick their own dream cast at this point.

But you and the rest of the original Ghostbusters will appear in it.
Yeah, we'll be the advisers. The quick reference I use is Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future. We'll provide the tools, the information, and the comedy — hopefully. People have seen the original movie. Even adolescents now are being forced to watch it by their older siblings and parents. I hear from very young people that they just saw it and loved it, or that they just showed it to their 7-year-old. If anything, I think we have a responsibility to live up to people's expectations based on the early movies — and make them contemporary enough to bring something new. I would hate to come back and do a rehash of the first movie with new faces.

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