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Ivan Reitman on Bill Murray, Internet Trolls, and Why He Fought for the Ghostbusters Reboot

Photo: Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic

It’s been 27 years since anyone strapped on a proton pack to save Manhattan from paranormal pests, and there’s almost no one who knows the struggle to revive the Ghostbusters franchise better than Ivan Reitman. Director of the original 1984 Ghostbusters and 1989’s Ghostbusters II, Reitman is now, finally, co-producer of the Paul Feig reboot, with its quartet of lady ghostbusters, that comes out on Friday. He’s seen the scripts that didn’t get green-lit, and the green-lit scripts that didn’t get made (including one for Ghostbusters 3, just four years ago), and personally negotiated the deal that wrested the franchise from the hands of its at-loggerheads creators — himself, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, and the late Harold Ramis — and sold it to Sony/Columbia so new films could actually get made. I spoke to Reitman for a profile about Feig, but what was supposed to be a few minutes turned into a wonderful, illuminating trip through the history of both the franchise and a brotherhood of comedians. Here’s the O.G. fifth ghostbuster on Bill Murray, internet trolls, and why he fought so hard to bring Ghostbusters back to theaters.

Last time I saw you, you were telling Paul Feig that Bill Murray and the old gang liked the movie.
Well, it was a nice relief. Because you never know. Especially with Bill. But he was very, very complimentary. He always believed in the women, as we all did. We knew they were the secret weapon, just like having Dan [Aykroyd] and Harold [Ramis] and Ernie [Hudson] and Bill in [the original Ghostbusters]. I knew I was going to be fine one way or another if the plot didn’t work, if the marshmallow-man idea was too goofy. And I think that’s what Paul did here. We always said, “If the script doesn’t make any sense” — because there really wasn’t a draft when we all agreed to this — “these women are really funny.” They’re the key to the success of it.

Why do you think the original is so iconic?
What people forget is that Ghostbusters, a movie that nobody was talking about prior to its release, ended up being No. 1 its first weekend, and then every single week all summer long, except for one week. I remember some Clint Eastwood movie [Tightrope] bumped us to No. 2 one week in August, and then we came back the next week and stayed there until September.

Partially, there’s a Wizard of Oz–like thing about it — the combination of scariness and comedy and the charming band of characters  Their sophistication worked for adults, and the silliness of trapping ghosts made it delightful for younger people. It was one of those rare movies that was fun to watch as a family. And the fact, of course, that I did a good job [laughs].

You still see people dressing up as ghostbusters.
Yeah, and that’s part of the delight of it. When I was going to direct it [a scrapped sequel, Ghostbusters 3], and was working on the more traditional handing-over-the-reins story, I saw that most male comedy stars of this era were, frankly, afraid to do it. Without mentioning any names, for the few people I contacted, they all said, “Hey, I love Ghostbusters. It’s a seminal movie for me. It’s the reason I became a comedian, but I’m just too afraid. I don’t want to step in those particular shoes.” What’s great is that these women were not afraid to step in those shoes. It was a real positive opportunity to do this kind of movie that, unfortunately, women have not been given the opportunity to do. And it was so clever of Paul to say, “Hey, let’s do this,” even though he had never really done a film of this scale and visual complexity before.

So part of the reason it took so long to get made was that male stars wouldn’t do it?
Well, no. The real reason was that we had a lot of power as a result of our deal — three of the four actors [Murray, Aykroyd, Ramis] and myself. We created it together, so we owned it. The studio couldn’t do it without us. The deal was actually too good. None of us could do it on our own. We had to get a unanimous agreement among all four of us, which is frankly impossible. So it just languished there. Then at some point, about four years ago, I started working on it with Harold and Danny to try to figure out — because Bill was always the holdout. I think he was just not interested. He loves Ghostsbusters, and he appreciated all the good that it did for all of us, but he just wanted to pursue different things as an actor. And at the same time he didn’t want to do anything that would sully the other movies.

And then Harold died [in February 2014] before we could get anywhere. That’s when I decided, This is just too tough, that I should try to find somebody with another kind of idea. So I focused on changing the deal so that it would be possible to actually make another Ghostbusters movie. And I was successful in getting that accomplished with the studio. Then Paul Feig came along. I’d spoken to Paul a long time ago about working on some non-Ghostbusters comedy. And I think Amy Pascal, when she was running Columbia, had spoken to him about doing something, and he suddenly pitched this idea. I went to a meeting with him, and I thought, Wow. He was pretty confident that he could get Melissa [McCarthy] and Kristen [Wiig] and find two others, and he had a rough outline of what the story was. And we just decided to get into business together.

Like the original ghostbusters! Did Bill have any say at that point?
No. Prior to this movie getting green-lit, I made a deal on our behalf in which the creators would be enriched for the rest of our lives, and for the rest of our children’s lives, and transferred the rights to Columbia. Danny and I set up a company called Ghost Corps, whose idea was not only to make this film, the Paul Feig movie, but to use the Ghostbusters ideas and expand it and find out what else it could do to help Columbia and Sony in the future.

Was that when the rumor started that there would also be a male Ghostbusters starring Channing Tatum and Chris Pratt?
I think everything got blown out of proportion. There was a lot of excitement about making the Paul Feig movie, and I think the Russo brothers [directing and producing team Joe and Anthony, who directed the last two Captain America movies] had been speaking to Sony about doing another more action-oriented film. Somebody had conversations. I’ve never spoken to Channing about this movie. But it had nothing to do with fear of Paul’s movie, because Paul’s movie was well in advance of anything else. That was always going to be the first film. It was part of a broader look of what we could do, both with television shows and animated film. And we’re in the middle of doing that right now.

Another live-action movie or an animated one?

And will the other movie have men or women?
Probably both. They’re being written. My movie, by the way, the one that I was working on before Harold died, had both male and female ghostbusters in it. The first movie [in 1984] was made as it was because we all knew each other and were involved from the conception point. There wasn’t even thought about gender. It was just, “These guys are all funny, we’re going to do it.” The Ernie Hudson character actually came in a little bit later because we needed a fourth person to explain things for the audience. So that’s why all this gender conversation is a little surprising to me.

As a little girl I dressed up and played ghostbusters and never thought—
That it was male-exclusive. I never thought that either! None of us did. Look, we had the original comic books, which were very popular, and there were women ghostbusters in the stories right away. I think it’s just an issue that it was a very beloved film — fortunately for all of us — and people who become fans, particularly at an early age, have an almost-religious belief in what the iconography of a story has to be. It’s very strict.

That’s why [the trolling] exploded with the first trailer. Without getting into an argument about how good or bad the trailer is, it’s clearly not the worst trailer ever made. I think it was just the shock of the first time you saw them in action. And we held back a bit! We thought we were going to do a slow reveal of all this stuff, and I guess suddenly it felt sacrilegious to the most religious. We live in a very acrimonious time. Everyone has a bully pulpit. So there was a very odd and scary rebellion against this idea when those of us who had been working on the film knew, Wow, this is really good. What are they worried about? Just wait until you see the movie. I was telling Paul, “Lay back, just let it happen.” He wanted to defend it very quickly. But I thought it was just going to encourage more conversation, which I didn’t think was helpful.

Ha, well, he definitely didn’t take your advice. Can you tell me about the past versions of the movie that were scuttled?
I think Dan wrote two other drafts on his own, which had all kinds of interesting ideas but weren’t really screenplays.

And I worked with Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, who wrote a number of movies [Year One, Bad Teacher] and worked on The Office together. They wrote a very funny script [for Ghostbusters 3] that I was very comfortable in directing, and both Harold and Danny wanted to do. And literally Bill refused to read it for a year. Then finally he may have read a few pages, and I got him on the telephone, and he said, “Look, I just don’t want to do this.” It had nothing to do with how good or bad the script was or anything like that. He was having his own issues in his own life, and I think he just didn’t want to engage.

I think the reason that Bill wouldn’t read it was he didn’t want to make a decision about this. So he just ignored it. But getting the bigger deal done that I was referring to before, that was relatively simple. When I finally got the deal to where I thought it was fair for the studio and ourselves, talking to him and getting him to agree took a week or two. And it was a huge deal, that had a kind of generational significance and impact on his life. That he was able to get done really quickly! [Laughs.]

Is it like a Star Wars–type deal?
I can’t talk about it any more than that.

I mean in the sense that George Lucas released the rights and now any number of people can create a world within that universe?

Wasn’t there another script for Ghostbusters 3, called Hellbent, that had the ghostbusters fighting the devil? 
I was never a big fan of that one. Danny always loved it. To me, what was funny about the ghostbusters was putting these extraordinary situations in a world that we knew, surrounded by people that we recognized, real New Yorkers acting like New Yorkers. I thought the comedy was in that juxtaposition. I’ve never liked the more fantastical versions.

Danny’s original treatment [for the original Ghostbusters], which he wrote for Belushi and himself, took place in outer space and the future, with competing groups of ghostbusters and all kinds of stuff going on that was almost impossible to shoot on any budget, particularly then without CGI. So after Belushi passed away, he came to me. By then I had worked with Bill, I think three times, and Dan said, “I was thinking of doing this with Bill. What do you think?” And I sat down with him and pitched this contemporary story about guys who are paranormal researchers at Columbia University, get kicked out, and go into business. And it gave us a real structure to write a story that I thought could be way funnier than something more fantastical. It’s why I like the second Ghostbusters so much. It probably wasn’t as big as it should’ve been. But I liked that a baby was at the center of it, and that it was really a domestic story. I just looked at that film again, and I was so proud of the comedy work between Sigourney Weaver, Bill, and everybody.

What was the premise of the most recent attempt at Ghostbusters 3? 
Bill and Sigourney’s kid, Oscar, is a postgrad student, and weird things start to happen. Bill Murray dies in the first scene, because he always said, “I won’t do it unless I die.” And I said, “Okay, you got it.” [Laughs.] It was a father-son story, with him as a ghost. By the way, the studio green-lit it. Everything was ready to go. I couldn’t get his attention, and in the midst of that, Harold got really sick. And that was pretty much it.

Is there any chance that will come back?
[Laughs.] It could. I haven’t looked at it in about three years. It just hurt too much.

It must be heartbreaking to complete a script, get it green-lit, and then not be able to get it done at all.
Especially when everybody is loving it. [Laughs.]

So, on this new one, you’re a producer?
Yeah, and I invited [former Sony Pictures president Amy Pascal] to be a producer with me, because she had worked so hard on bringing this deal in, and I felt really bad for her when she was ousted, because I thought she was a spectacular chairman of Columbia. She really ran a unique shop, in a good way. And I thought it was only right, so I went for it.

Were you on set most of the time?
When I produce and don’t direct, I try not to be on set as much as possible because it makes me crazy. I want to say, “Hey, don’t you think the camera should move?” Or, “I think he’s overacting. What do you think?” [Laughs.] I think Paul would kill me after the third day. I would come periodically and just see where things were. I always watched dailies. I talked about the script a lot. I tried not to be a pest, and Paul tolerated me. I think I was particularly helpful in the postproduction.

Is it sad for you that the effects are not so handmade anymore?
I had a long talk about that with Paul, and I know that he tried to emulate some of that here, where things would be done mechanically the way I did, as opposed to digitally. But the era has shifted, and the audience expectations shift, too. He tried to do Slimer as a puppet — I didn’t even do that, except for really brief periods. And when we looked at it, it was clear it wasn’t strong enough as a puppet, because our tolerance of what is visually right has shifted. So he became more of a digital character. It’s really pretty spectacular-looking. He was able to create effects that I never could have done back in the ‘80s.

Is the slime still the same?
I like the color of our slime better. [Laughs.]

It’s more green. Isn’t it?
I think it had more yellow in it, actually. And it was a little bit more see-through. Although, it’s shifted since the final color timing of the movie. So I’m happier with the color now. [Laughs.]

Did you go on set when your original guys were filming their cameos?
I always tried to be there when my ghostbusters were there, particularly so I could be a peacemaker if there were any issues. But that never arose. It was really easy.

Can you tell me more about Bill’s reaction to the new Ghostbusters
I heard from Danny first, who called me immediately after the screening. He said, “[Bill] loved it, he loved it.” I said, “He wasn’t bullshitting you? It’s for real?” And he said, “No, no. He really loved it.” And I said, “Oh, thank God.” It was a great relief that he liked it, because I trust his taste and knew he was going to be tougher on it than almost anybody. Then I saw him the next day [at Jimmy Kimmel Live!], and we hung out for about an hour, and he started describing all the scenes that he loved and how great it is. I think he was knocked out by the scale of the last act. And by the charm of the women, of the nice job Paul did. I got none of the sort of backhanded cattiness that he could apply if he wanted to.

Well, it was funny, in his Kimmel review he had this Bill way of —
Scaring the shit out of you before he let it out? Frankly, that concern that he had as he sat down to watch has been misinterpreted by some of the haters to say that, “Oh, he didn’t really like it. He was just being forced to be nice.” Let me tell you, no one’s ever forced Bill to be nice when he didn’t want to be. [Laughs.] He lives by a pretty strict code. As someone who was trying to get him to do a movie for a long period, I can tell you he genuinely loved it. There was no holding back, there wasn’t even a thread of sarcasm or anything in his sense about it. I think he’s a little worried about how scary it is. Because he’s now a father with four kids, and a couple of them are really young. It wasn’t even a reservation, though, it was really more of a perspective on what it was.

That the new movie is too scary?
It’s legitimately scary! People thought [the original Ghostbusters] was really scary at the beginning. One of the greatest moments happened at the very first screening, and then every screening I attended thereafter — that librarian scene where she suddenly changes to that scary face. The audience would scream, and then immediately laugh, and then applaud. And to have that trifecta of emotions all within a five-second period — it was one of the greatest things I ever witnessed in anything I was involved in.

Did you and Bill reminisce about Harold? 
Yeah, we’re kind of like brothers, this weird, unusual group of brothers. Harold is so important in my life. Before the National Lampoon TV show, before Saturday Night Live, before SCTV, we did a stage show that really became Animal House [which Ramis co-wrote and Reitman produced]. Harold is actually how I got Bill to do Stripes. I always felt bad that Harold wasn’t as well-known as an actor and a comedian, because he never got on Saturday Night Live where all the others were. So I said to Bill, “Look, Harold is going to do Stripes with you. It’s only fair. It’s his turn also.” And Bill knew he couldn’t say no. He even made fun of me. He said, “You just got him in to force me to make this movie, right?” And I said, “Yeah.”

So what was it about Paul as a director that impressed you?
Certainly I’ve known and admired his work, and really love what he does with actresses. Bridesmaids was amazing, I really liked The Heat. I think he’s very kind and open and trying things all the time, which is reminiscent of my background — though I’m not sure about the kindness part. I’ll let someone else speak to that. Paul said very smart things about why he thought the two Ghostbusters movies that I directed were successful. I felt he could be trusted with it. You know, this is a very important movie for all of us, the creative group that’s passed it on. We really needed it to be successful, and wanted it to be successful for all kinds of reasons. So I’m happy to say that we’ve created a film together that I think fans will be happy with, too.

Is it an important film for you because if it bombs all those opportunities to expand the franchise will go away?
Look, there have been all kinds of series that have continued after [one movie] has not worked. But it’s always better when they do work.

Was there anything that surprised you about Paul while filming?
I think he grew into it. We all did. You don’t start moving suddenly hundreds of people in a scene, as opposed to two or three people in a room saying funny things. It’s a different discipline. And it took him a while to find his legs, as far as that’s concerned. But the movie’s really amazing now. And really much bigger than my Ghostbusters. So he certainly got his legs.

Ivan Reitman Talks Ghostbusters and Bill Murray