"A CONVERSATION WITH..."
 

 HAROLD RAMIS
 

 

By Liisa Kyle


 


As a creative force behind such iconic contributions to our pop culture as SCTV, Animal House, Meatballs, Caddyshack, National Lampoonís Vacation, Stripes, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, and Analyze This, Harold Ramis is a writer/director/actor who has significantly influenced the entertainment landscape for the past thirty years.

Given the timelessness of his creations -- who can believe that Animal House is almost thirty years old?! Ė- and the breadth and depth of artistic ground that he has covered already, it is exciting to know that his creative journey continues unabated. In fact, so high are the expectations for his newest film, Ice Harvest, that the studio has slated it for a prestigious Thanksgiving release.

You are probably aware of his Hollywood reputation as an intelligent, kind man. It may not surprise you that he has a penchant for pithy mottos and quirky independent films.

Yet when I telephoned him an his Chicago office, I learned that, for someone who claims that, 'part of my posture is to never be surprised,' Harold Ramis sure can dish out some bolts from the blue...like, for example, he began his illustrious career, thanks to some ukulele lessons.

ITL: Is this a good time to talk?

HR: Itís fine. Iím just playing through my songbook.

ITL: Playing through your songbook?

HR: I support a local community organization. And, as an auction item, I am doing two in-home concerts, playing my guitar and singing.

ITL: How wonderful. Do you write your own songs?

HR: No!! There are forty-four songs that I play and sing but it's like a time capsule from when I started playing 'til now.

ITL: When did you start playing?

HR: In like 1957.

ITL: Ah.

HR: Yeah.

ITL: When you're not being a musician, do you see more yourself as a writer or director or actor?

HR: Human being. I love movies. As a kid, you don't see what goes into a film. You just see performance. So I'm sure my first fantasies were about being an actor, being the characters -- it was being on screen. And then as I started performing -- I first started performing music, actually. That's how I found that I liked it and that I had the confidence to do it.

I was thirteen when I started singing in public and playing music with friends. And I started choral singing in high school and kept that up in college.

ITL: So when you were thirteen, was that like a band situation?

HR: No. It was the folk music era. A friend of mine performed in our -- they didn't call it junior high school then -- middle school. He was [in the] eighth grade and he performed in the talent show. He was a year older than me. And he just killed. He sang Birth of the Blues, which was a great song. And he just knocked everybody out. He performed it with full energy and it was really good. And I saw the attention he got for it and how appealing it was to hear that applause rolling over him. So he taught me to play. And I actually started playing first on the ukulele. Then on four string guitar and then six string guitar and then five-string banjo. But the folk era was really getting rolling then and so he and I performed folk songs. Then a third friend joined us. We performed all through high school. So that was good.

Then I started doing skits and shows. Musical skits and shows for social organizations in school. I took one acting course in high school. I liked it. I realized I was the guy who was instrumental in writing those shows and telling other people what to do. So I still didn't have a focused notion of what it was to be a writer or a director but by the time I got to college, the age of the directors began. '63 was a big year. Laurence of Arabia came outÖand David Lean helped people see how important directors were. And the European filmmakers started getting shown in the States. You know, Fellini [and] all the great ItaliansÖWe stopped going to movies and we started going to films. Bergman and Kurosawa and Visconti and Bertolucci and all that. You know, great films were being made. It was very exciting. And suddenly, the idea of being a filmmaker now seemed possible.

Also, I had a good friend, Michael Shamberg, who's a major film producer today and we went through college together. We met in the first week of college. He, partly 'cause of his upbringing, saw the world as much more accessible than I did. He showed me, by example, that I could get access.

ITL: Thankfully. Letís talk about your writing. In terms of writing solo or with others, how do you see your creative process?

HR: I think it's evolved. Although, I've changed in lots of ways, but not really. I'm probably the same person I was at five or thirteen or eighteen or twenty-one in my heart. I still have the same kind of orientation to the world in terms of philosophy and politics...I think people adopt philosophies and spiritual values that reflect who they are already. So I've just shored up my weak personality structure with ...information and ...philosophy. So Iíve become maybe more who I am. Or at least, I've done some of the homework. I can actually footnote my behaviour now.

ITL: External validation through philosophy? Is that what you're saying?

HR: Well, it works for me. It's helped me develop a more systematic understanding of who I am, where I am in the world, why I do what I do and what my goals and values are. And, like I say, maybe my goals and values haven't changed -- or my way of working hasn't changed -- but I understand it now.

I was kind of embarrassed by my own need to be on stage. So I made that balance with the desire to make it important in some way. And I don't mean by success but by actually having something to say. Expressing my real values, my core values, through my work. No matter how broad the comedy was, I never wanted to violate my own belief system. Which means you can't sell out. You can't do work you know is corrupt or that isn't useful in terms of healing the world somehow. Sounds pretentious but that is my actual goal.

Someone asked the Hungarian director IstvŠn Szabů why he made films. He said, 'I make films to save the world.' I was at an event where that was quoted and they were praising independent films and real artists who don't, you know, pander. Then I had to get up and speak. And I said, 'Well, I pander to save the world.'

ITL: That would be a great T-shirt.

HR: That's my creative process. If it doesn't start with what's important when I'm presented with an idea, my next question is 'why is it important?' or 'how could it be made important?'

ITL: My last few interviews have turned unexpectedly spiritual in nature and that was certainly not my intention. But I'm actually wondering if it's just becoming more prevalent now -- the role or the influence of spirituality in entertainment today. What do you think?

HR: Well, I think there's a kind of fundamentalism that disguises itself as spirituality. So I think people are imposing certain kinds of orthodox values on all communications, which scares me. But I don't think of it as truly spiritual because it seems to be so repressive and it actually leads to conflict rather than conflict resolution.

ITL: That sounds more like the religious right -- red state-blue state kind of approach, right? That kind of agenda?

HR: Yeah, right. I mean, history is full of atrocities committed in the name of religion. And I think now [religion] is being used to unify politics. 'God wants democracy, therefore whatever we do in the name of democracy is okay.' Thatís a dangerous idea.

ITL: But in terms of true spirituality and the values that you're talking about -- stepping away from that kind of overt religious agenda and looking at true spirituality and people operating out of their value system -- there seems to be more and more of that, no?

HR: I think there are individuals who've always worked that way and that will continue to do so and some who couldn't care less. We're a widely diverse industry. And there's room for everybody. The studios will always be ruled by the commercial necessity of profit motive. And I don't blame them for that. One of my slogans is, 'Nobody blames the Hershey company for making chocolate.' Itís what they do. It's not the only food. It may not be the best food. But people like it and it's fine.

ITL: It's a choice that's available.

HR: Yeah. So the studios kinda cover all the bases. They've also funded this tremendous surge in independent film production and they all have fine arts divisions now. They're smart people and many of them have really good values. It's just theyíre in the circus. They have to put on a show and get a lot of people to go see it to support the expense of it all.

ITL: Well speaking of the circus, what's your favourite part of the filmmaking process?

HR: I love the community of it. Writing is very solitary. I like it when a project becomes real and you start staffing up -- those first meetings with the cinematographer or the production designer with actors, [and] other writers. I've always loved the collaborative process of writing as a group.

ITL: Are you writing something with Owen Wilson?

HR: I'm writing something for Owen Wilson. We have the same agent. He introduced us. I really liked him. I had this notion -- it's actually about spirituality, indirectly -- and I told it to Owen and he thought it was very funny so he said, 'Yeah, go ahead. I'd love to participate in that.' So we're supposed to produce it together. [I need to] get the writing done. Which means either I write it or I find some other sucker to write it.

ITL: Some spiritual-minded sucker.

HR: Yeah, right.

ITL: What do you like least about the filmmaking process?

HR: Probably the uncertainty -- the difficulty -- of getting work done properly.

I must say, let me qualify all this. I've had the easiest, most fun career I can imagine. People have basically left me alone. Even when it looks like theyíre being intrusive -- studio executives or producers. I don't mind the input. I really don't mind the input. I think it's part of deal. And I think it's part of my obligation to listen to everybody. Not do what they say, but hear them. I kind of work with the 'one man one vote' principle. Everyone's got an opinion and all opinions are equal, whether it's the head of the studio or the person standing by the lights. The electrician has an opinion and he's in the audience just as a studio executive is. And it's not a question of who knows more. It's all taste, anyway. So I figure if I listen to everybody and I start seeing trends in people's responses, it just points to things that I should be looking at. If no-one likes the ending of my film, it's pointless for me to argue that it works, you know?

I'm very collaborative in that sense. But sometimes, when people don't agree and half the people tell you one thing and half tell you something else -- or everyone has completely different opinions, it can be confusing and then you really have to take the responsibility for what happens next -- knowing that you may be wrong or that it isn't possible to please everybody.

ITL: Different subject: How on earth did you end up on Canadian television?

HR: I was in Second City in Chicago and I went away...to do the National Lampoon in New York. And in the meantime, Andrew Alexander had become a partner in the Second City. He'd opened a Toronto company quite successfully. He was then partnered with Bernie Sahlins who is one of the founding owners of the Chicago Second City, so they had some Canadian money. Investors wanted to do a TV show. They invited us up there. The company was mixed. Some Canadians, some Americans, some expatriates who were living in Canada as landed immigrants -- but all Second City people. And we started doing SCTV up there.

ITL: How long were you in Canada?

HR: I would go up and stay for several months and write a bunch of shows and then we'd shoot them and then I'd go to L.A. or New York or Chicago or wherever. I traveled around a lot [at that time].

ITL: Given your presence on SCTV, many Canadians think you are Canadian.

HR: You know I've been mistake for Canadian. And Lebanese.

ITL: And how do you feel about that?

HR: I'd be proud to be Canadian.

ITL: Speaking as a Canadian, that's an excellent answer.

HR: Joe Flaherty was a landed immigrant at the time. He's actually from Pittsburgh. He loved it. He's still up there. He's up in Toronto, still.

ITL: Yes. He, like you, is a demi-god up there.

HR: He really loves it. He took to it right away. Gilda Radner was a landed immigrant. She was from Detroit. Andrea Martin, also, a landed immigrant. She's from Portland, Maine.

ITL: You're just shattering all these Canadian myths and icons.

HR: They didn't think Gilda was Canadian did they?

ITL: No. But you and Joe and Andrea we had claimed as our own. But letís move on. In terms of your career as a whole, looking back over the various incarnations in which you've operated creatively, what do you see as the real highlights?

HR: When I was doing Al Frankenís movie, Stuart Saves His Family, Stuart -- as part of his many twelve step mottos -- used to say 'An attitude of gratitude and it ain't just a platitude.' And I think I'm basking in gratitude, for the most part. I just love that I get to do this. And maybe because the outcome has been good on almost all the projects I've done. I haven't created a lot of enemies. People generally like what I do. Sometimes they love what I do. So it ranges from 'like' to 'love' which is a kinda good space to be in.

So I get so much positive feedback for the past, that if I never did another thing, I'd feel like the culture has already embraced a lot of things I've worked on -- and almost enshrined them in the pop culture Hall of Fame.

ITL: That's got to be extremely gratifying for someone who was drawn to this business for external validation.

HR: It is. And the danger is it makes me lazy. Like gee, maybe I don't have to do anything else. But then of course I'd want to do more. Like I have a movie waiting to come out. It's a seasonal picture -- it's set on Christmas eve.

ITL: Is that Ice Harvest?

HR: Yes. Ice Harvest. The studio decided to wait 'til the Wed before thanksgiving, November 23, to release the picture -- which is a nice date because it gives it a prominent release. But I finished the movie last November. But it tested so well, they didn't want to waste it in the Spring.

And I've always felt that as long as I have a picture waiting to come out, then I'm actually, in a way, still working. Like I donít have to do anything. But this has been for so long that it's killing me. I can't pretend anymore that I'm employed.

Maybe because I worked really hard as a kid. I was always employed. From the time I was twelve, I worked every day after school and on weekends, just to earn money.

ITL: Doing what kinds of things?

HR: First, I started as a delivery boy with my father and as a stock boy in a grocery store. Then when I was old enough to get a work permit, I went to work for the Chicago Tribune as a messenger, which was a lot of fun -- going downtown everyday after school and working in that big building and being a newspaper brat, you know? Running around the press room and the city room and all that stuff. And then I worked for Marshall Fieldsí in a warehouse, during college. Worked a few warehouse jobs ....

ITL: So a very strong work ethic, very early on.

HR: Yeah, but it made me wish that could not work. So I sort of equated success with not having to work. So I've alternated between working really hard and then doing nothing. I took four years off of directing once. Between Club Paradise [which] came out in '86 and then I didn't direct one again until Groundhog Day. In the meantime, I'd done other things -- I'd produced and co-wrote a film with Rodney [Dangerfield] and we did Ghostbusters 2 -- but I didn't direct a film for years in there. There were things I played around but I couldn't get motivated 'til Groundhog Day.

ITL: Well, Groundhog Day is such a special film.

HR: Yeah.

But I didn't mean to short shrift the spiritual question because I can talk for days on that subject.

ITL: I didn't feel that you had given it short shrift. May I ask you a quick question about Chicago? Before when you were talking about a perceived greater autonomy -- that you felt that people, for the most part, left you alone. There were some notes but...do you think that was, in part, because you are physically located in Chicago?

HR: Oh no. That doesn't stop them. They make me come to New York or L.A. for meetings. They find you with their opinions. You get notes faxed to you -- elaborate studio notes. It's a decentralized business, anyway. I mean, the meetings may happen in L.A. or New York but people make movies everywhere.

I don't think thatís the source of my autonomy. What I realized during Caddyshack the big fear, being a first time director, was being replaced. Just really screwing up and they hate your dailies and they start giving you lots of notes on the dailies and then they send [someone] to stand over your shoulder all the time.

But it never happened, from my first film. They liked the dailies. They said, 'Well, he seems to know what he's doing. He knows what he wants and it's funny. Let's see it when it's cut together.' And they left me alone. Or I had such good producers that they took the brunt of it -- but no, I don't think that was the case. I think they just liked what was going on.

And even my films that haven't worked out -- that haven't been wildly successful -- studios [haven't interfered]. Everything happens for a reason. Everything that gets shot is in there for a reason. You don't love everything that's in the script but basically people sign off on the script and the casting and then if they like your dailies, they know you're doing the best possible job you can. Especially if you're on time and on budget.

ITL: Well this all sounds marvellous. Have there been any downsides or issues or challenges over your career?

HR: Just myself. Most of us are our own worst enemies and I've hurt myself in many ways -- intemperance or walking over the edge, taking chances I shouldn't have taken in my personal life.

But the career thing? I never complain. 'Cause one thing --  don't think of it as work. I never thought of it as work. I always say that for me to say 'I work hard' is an insult to people who work hard. People who really work.

ITL: Let's talk about the industry as a whole, right now. In terms of the film industry, what are the trends or issues that you see?

HR: I think it's the same for the creative person -- the person doing good work. Finding your voice. For directors, getting that opportunity. And it's increasingly competitive as film schools turn out more and more graduates and more qualified graduates. Films look better and better. My new motto is that, 'There are more well-made films than good films.' There are so many good cameramen and lighting people and editors and designers. There's an abundance of talent but because there's a finite number of projects that get made, just cracking that system is the hard part for most people. How do you get your script to the right people?

ITL: But what you're talking about is production values -- as opposed to elements of a good film, like story and character?

HR: A well-intentioned film may be very literate -- or event based on a successful literary work with real good actors -- just may not work. It may fall flat. It may not be interesting. In criticism, you can identify what when wrong. But everyone was well intentioned, everyone was talented, they just didn't make a good film for some reason.

There's a strange alchemy to it. Obviously, there's the terrific luck of getting all the right elements together and experiencing this great synergy and it makes a really successful film. It's rare. As Peter Brooks once said about the theatre, he said the reason the
theatre was dying was because there were so many bad plays. He said maybe 10% of the output in any art form is really, really good -- whether it's novels or paintings or movies or whatever. But to find the 10%, they have to make 300 films a year and release 300 films. If thirty of them are great, that's a lot.

But [the challenge is] getting through that selection process. More than 25,000 screenplays are written and registered every year. So getting yours seen, connecting with the right people who will do it respectfully, faithfully, artistically -- it's just a big crap shoot.

ITL: Which filmmakers do you admire these days?

HR: There are great filmmakers who don't always make great films. There are obscure filmmakers who may make one great film. So I like the people who take chances, who have serious intent, even if they're working in comedy. It'd be easier to name films that I liked.

ITL: Fair enough. What are some films that have impressed you?

HR: I was a fan of Sideways. House of Sand and Fog just knocked me out. I liked The Pianist. I mean, these were big, emotional experiences for me. I liked American Splendor. A film called Lovely and Amazing.

ITL: With Catherine Keener?

HR: Yes. [Nicole Holofcener] directed it. [It was] just really touching. So my taste is all over the place.

I think commercial films are often just too predictable to me to be that enjoyable. I can appreciate them on one level but they're formulaic and generic. Or I'm kind of overwhelmed by the packaging aspect of it. Someone bought a title based on an old TV show that was popular and clearly they're market-driven. They're not being made because someone feels the need to re-make The Beverly Hillbillies or The Dukes of Hazzard or whatever. They get made because there's something to sell. It's hard to take that seriously.

ITL: What feedback are you getting on the DVD release of Stripes?

HR: People love that movie. It's quoted it all the time.

ITL: And it still stands up.

HR: I had to watch [Stripes recently]. A local reporter asked if we could watch the new DVD together with the added material and just tape what I said about it.

It was kinda amazing to see -- [the film] doesn't feel that dated. And certainly Bill was at the top of his comedy ability. I like what he's doing now in his work. But that was pure Bill.

ITL: It was a terrific vehicle for him -- there was much synergy.

HR: There's a lot of improv in it. Ivan trusts us to work loose. So even where the script wasn't strong, he knew that we'd come up with something. The same thing happened on Ghostbusters. I always felt confident that Ivan knew how to exploit what we did successfully.

ITL: In a good way. Good, healthy, helpful exploitation.

HR: Yes.

ITL: Well as someone who started in television, do you have any thoughts on the trends or issues that you see in TV today?

HR: It sounds crazy to me to say I'm a little appalled by reality television, but I'm a little appalled. It occurred to me that people are willingly humiliating themselves on television these days. Setting themselves up for it. Almost auditioning for it -- to be humiliated in public.

ITL: They're competing for the opportunity to humiliate themselves on national TV.

HR: I thought of this euphemistically, that Andy Warhol said we'd all get fifteen minutes of fame. Now it's fifteen minutes of shame.

I think it's because the culture has elevated celebrity itself to almost an aristocracy. And it doesn't matter what you're known for, just as long as you're known. Whether it's for being indicted or for being successful at something or being a slut or being a tremendous athlete. It's kind of amazing that celebrity is enough, you know?

And partly, there's something paradoxical or contradictory going on in society. We're more connected than we've ever been. We have access to more people than ever before, through the internet. People are text messaging, e-mailing, and everyone's connected.... But there's actually, in a way, less community than there used to be. Less direct participation in things. And sometimes that connection masquerades [as intimacy]. It's not intimacy at all. It's just the illusion of intimacy.

So I think people think that because the media enshrines celebrity, people think it's the answer to something. And maybe it's also a response to feeling more and more anonymous. More overwhelmed by anonymity, in some way. The need to be known by someone. Self presentation becomes very important. On the internet, you post your picture and a description of who you are and you try to frame that description so you sound attractive and appealing to people. This is obviously a big, complicated paradigm that I'm not articulating really well but this desire to be known, as if it will make you feel good, seems to be driving a lot of it.

ITL: I'm wondering how this is different from what we were talking about earlier -- that basic need for external validation and wanting people to care about us and to like what we do.

HR: It embarrasses me that I have that need. But my shrink says, 'Don't be so embarrassed. Everyone has it. Just because you actually get it, isn't wrong.' He says, 'Who wouldn't want to be validated?'

ITL: So maybe in some cases, people are more aware of that and maybe more candid about it?

HR: Yeah but it's kinda nice when it's actually based on a hierarchy of values or meritocracy.

ITL: Or talent?

HR: Yeah, where people have actually done something noteworthy to get known.

ITL: I'm just thinking, in terms of the mechanism, it seems to based on that innate need for approval.

HR: It's not even approval. Some people will settle for your disapproval.

ITL: Oh, just to be noticed. Just for attention.

HR: Or to be shocking or outrageous. Even if the whole world is calling Paris Hilton a talentless slut, does she care?

ITL: Not when she's making six figures for walking into a party.

HR: That's her identity.

ITL: A parting question: Any surprises or regrets over the years?

HR: I don't live too much in regret. Although there's a line in Ice Harvest where John Cusack says, 'I have no regrets. I don't believe in them.' And Oliver Plattís character says, 'Bullshit! Everyone's got regrets. Guys our age -- that's all we've got.' But I'm not in the space. I don't dwell in regret.

ITL: Any surprises?

HR: Part of my posture is to never be surprised. Is to incorporate everything that happens as if it's part of -- not the plan -- but the unbroken string of cause and effect. You know, back to spirituality. But I believe that we're part of an ongoing, miraculous creation and that part of my posture in it al