Almost five years ago, there was no doubt Harold Ramis belonged on Chicago magazine’s 2009 list of Action Heroes: People who make films happen in Chicago.
Ramis, who died Monday at the age of 69, is unquestionably one of the most beloved filmmakers to emerge from Chicago, the highly influential comic talent behind such films as Groundhog Day, Ghostbusters, Caddyshack, Stripes and Animal House. And so, when Chicago magazine’s story on the local movie scene appeared in February 2009, Ramis got top billing, dominating the first page.
Ramis had spoken with me the previous October, as he was getting ready to release what would turn out to be his last film as a director, Year One. A comedy about cavemen blundering their way into the world of the Old Testament, it was not one of his better films, but it made for fascinating conversation—about religion as well as comedy. The following is an edited transcript of that 2008 interview.
Where did the idea for Year One come from?
I had been thinking it for years. Almost 35 years ago, we were developing a cabaret show in New York for the National Lampoon—John Belushi and Bill Murray and me and Gilda Radner and Joe Flaherty and Brian Murray. We were improvising stuff, and I suggested that Bill and John Belushi play—I’d just been watching something on PBS, about Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals coexisting on the planet. And I said, “Gee, Billy, why don’t you play a Cro-Magnon, and John play a Neanderthal, meeting for the first time?”
I’d always been a huge fan of Mel Brooks’ 2000 Year Old Man. And in the intervening years, Monty Python taking well-known historical contexts and giving them a very contemporary spin. Or placing contemporary people in a historical setting. Woody Allen’s Love and Death—brilliant. I just wanted to do early world comedy.
And then, after 9/11, it all sort of came together for me. It seemed like the source of so much conflict in the world are deeply held religious beliefs. I remembered an expression, something my mother always said. She said, “It’s been that way since the year one.” Or she’d even say it in regard to people: “Oh, I’ve known that person since the year one.” So I thought, well, maybe we’ve been fighting the same fight since the year one.
The best description of the Old Testament that I heard was that it starts out as mythology, then it becomes legend, then it becomes history. In the mythological period—there is a distinct mythological period in the Old Testament, where the time spans are impossible and really just imagined. The sequence of events is entirely invented by the storytellers who laid down the Old Testament—until it becomes stuff that can be dated and verified. But even all the way through Exodus from Egypt, there’s no real historical convincing proof that the Exodus happened the way that it’s described in the Old Testament.
Have you read A History of God by Karen Armstrong?
Oh, yeah, that was one of my primary research texts. I always point out to my Passover guests that the Hebrews were not living in isolation. They were at the crossroads of several great, elaborate cultures with their own mythology and religion and art and architecture and cultural belief. In fact, so many of the mythologies of the world describe the same events, just from different points of view.
You’re working with some new people on this film, including Judd Apatow.
He said in some news story I read that he’d been stalking me. He kept citing me as one of his primary influences, or at least the films that we’d worked on. He once said, “We’re all the spawn of Harold Ramis,” and I said, “I’ve got to meet this guy.” So we hit it off.
Did working with him change your approach?
I had table writing experience at Second City—you know, where you sit down with seven people and hammer out a scene. And then at SCTV, the television spin-off of Second City, the same thing. But that was kind of the extent of my table experience. Later collaborations were me and one or two other people—sometimes not even being in the same room. I call them serial collaborations. You know, you write something and send it to me. I rewrite it and send it back to you. So I’d never had the full experience of team writing.
And Judd, I think that was his basic formative experience, on the TV shows Freaks and Geeks and then Undeclared and other staff writing. All the people that he assembled were really trained in television. And he has no ego about the writing. He’s not protecting his own ideas or the pages that he’s turned out. He really likes to bring in gangs of people and have them—the word “pitch" is used a lot. “Come in and pitch ideas” or “pitch jokes.” And then just offers them up to me.
And over the years, I’ve definitely come to believe that both creatively and psychologically, you have to resist the idea that being a director is a control position. When you get the job, you think, “Oh, now I’m the one who’s supposed to have every good idea, and I’m supposed to make all the decisions.”
Well, it turns out not to be so true. If the only ideas you had were your own, you’d be very limited. By opening up, letting go and allowing this collaborative process to happen, as a director it gives me so many more options. So I’ve come to believe that my job is to create choices—not to just always be making decisions, just because that’s supposedly my job.
Some directors bristle at the idea of audience testing. You find it productive?
Comedy is so specifically targeted. If you made films really for yourself and the people who happen to like them, you wouldn’t need this process. You’d put the film out there, and those that like it would like it, and if not, not. But unfortunately, it’s so expensive to do this that you can’t do this without having an expectation of commercial success. And to do that, it just drags you into the world of demographics. You know: Who’s the picture for? Who’s going to like it? How do we sell it to them? How do we let them know they’re going to like it? And then find out: Do they like? And if they don’t, what don’t they like about it? It’s just inevitable.
We used to have an ending with The Ice Harvest, a very dark, existential film noir—in the original story, John Cusack, who’s the main character, dies in the last minute of the movie, quite unexpectedly. The audience went, “Whoa! That’s so bleak.” And the studio said, “We’ll, the audience doesn’t need you to tell them they’re going to die. We all know they’re going to die.” So we changed—the only thing we changed was John doesn’t die at the end of the movie. And the scores went up 66 percent. There was justification, philosophically and artistically, for both endings. But clearly one was more commercial. The first ending said: “If you’ve done bad things in life, unless you take responsibility for yourself, you may end very badly.” The second ending says: “No matter what you’ve done in life, no matter how you’ve screwed up, there’s always hope.”
I’ve heard that you’re Buddhist—or “Buddish.”
Buddish was the word that I came up with. I lean that way. I was raised Jewish, and fully embrace the core beliefs of Judaism—the ones that I identify as core beliefs, which are essentially freedom and justice. But the supernatural aspects of religion were never important to me. I’ll put it that way. My wife had lived in Buddhist meditation centers, and her mother had spent 35 years in a Buddhist meditation center. My best college friend, 25 years in the San Francisco Zen center. I just couldn’t ignore it anymore. I read a bit, a basic Buddhist text called What the Buddha Taught, and said, “Oh, yeah, this makes sense.” Memorable, simple, didn’t require articles of faith, but completely humanistic in every way that I valued. So I proselytize it without practicing it. Much easier.
People described The Ice Harvest as a departure for you.
I know The Ice Harvest seemed like a departure, in a sense. But I am always trying to point out to people that I don’t plot out my career in a sense of: Now it’s time for me to do an existential film noir. Now it’s time to do something serious. I’m just looking for the next thing that appeals to me on the deepest level. The most trivial things I ever done, the goofiest comedies I’ve ever done, actually have deep philosophical underpinnings. So I’m always looking for an idea that can engage me on many different levels—and that I think will touch something deep in the audience.
How has being Chicago influenced the kind of films you make?
Well, a lot of people grew up in Chicago and came out completely different, so I’m not sure it’s inherent in being in Chicago. But I’ve talked this over with my shrink. It’s not like start out with philosophies and then those philosophies shape us. It seems like we start with our own individual psychology and then gravitate toward philosophies that reinforce what we believe psychologically. So whoever I was psychologically, the Chicago stories that I latched onto were all stories of Clarence Darrow and radical unionism and the Haymarket, Studs Terkel and the Chicago Underground. You know, counterculture stuff and populist politics.
When people started teaching history from the bottom up, which was described as radical history at the beginning, it’s another view. Howard Zinn is the historian I read for truth. And Chicago has a tradition of looking honestly at itself. There aren’t a lot of platitudes about Chicago. It’s pretty raw. And it’s all there, from the greatest liberalism to the deepest racism.
Nazis marching on Skokie—that was the first movie I pitched in Hollywood after Animal House. I said, “I want to do a movie about the American Nazi Party trying to march in Skokie, Illinois, the largest Jewish community outside Israel.” (Laughs.) We never got that one made, but I thought, “That’s a great Chicago story.” The first screenplay I actually wrote started with the Haymarket riot. The movie opened with the riot.
What was the rest of the film about?
Emma Goldman, turn-of-the-century anarchist. And when we shooting Groundhog Day in Woodstock, Illinois, they have this charming courthouse there. The town square was one of the reasons we ended up in Woodstock. But the story that I loved most about it is that’s where Clarence Darrow defended Eugene Debs.
Have you had much contact with Bill Murray in recent years?
I run into him. We both have houses on Martha’s Vineyard, ironically. We don’t socialize. I don’t call him, he doesn’t call me. But it’s not like he’s—I have no idea. It’ll be one of the great mysteries in my life, and I’m sure that’s how he wants it—to be a mystery. He’s not the kind of guy you sit down and directly confront on an emotional or psychological level.
But there is the possibility you might work together on a Ghostbusters sequel? That would be the first time you’d worked together in a while.
Oh, yeah. Since Groundhog Day—although both our voices will appear in the new Ghostbusters video game. We both recorded our characters’ dialogue for it, but not in the same time and the same place.
According to Mark Caro’s Chicago Tribune report about Ramis’s death, Bill Murray visited Ramis during his recent illness. Caro reports: “Ramis, a longtime North Shore resident, was surrounded by family when he died at 12:53 a.m. from complications of autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis, a rare disease that involves swelling of the blood vessels, his wife Erica Mann Ramis said.”