Interview: Harold Ramis
Wed, 17 Jun 2009 13:19:25
"People who do comedy feel a certain bond. They automatically share a world view," says Harold Ramis. If anyone knows comedy, it's Harold.
From Ghostbusters and Caddyshack to Groundhog Day and Analyze This, the director/producer/screenwriter/actor has an iconic status. However, Year One may very well be Harold's most epic comedy yet. Written and directed by the humor auteur, the movie follows two hunter-gatherers,Jack Black and Michael Cera, who wander an ancient Old Testament world after being banished from their hometown. As with everything Harold does, there's a lot more to it than just a whole lot of prehistoric laughs.
"The serious theme of the movie is when we thank God for everything in our lives, we also blame God for everything," explains Harold. "It takes the responsibility away from us. Taking responsibility for our own actions is essential in life. It's not simply a part of growing up. It's part of keeping peace in the world and being a force for good. That's what scares me about fundamentalism. People can do all kinds of horrible things to each other simply by claiming that's God's will. I don't see God that way. In the film, Jack Black believes God is telling him what to do, and that he has a destiny. Meanwhile, Michael Cera is an existentialist who believes that everything is completely accidental. They argue about it. The movie doesn't say one is right. In the end, whatever you believe you have to take responsibility for and do something."
Year One is an inspired comedy to say the least. Harold's initial idea came from an old sketch that he did with John Belushi and Bill Murray. In the bit, a modern Cro-Magnon meets a Neanderthal. The idea stuck with him, and now he's got Year One.
As always, Harold nods to some of the genre's best. "I used to love Mel Brooks' 2000 Year Old Man. I loved the idea of contemporary characters in an ancient context. After 9/11, I started thinking seriously about these ancient conflicts that continue to divide the world. I thought why not take people back to the origin of all this stuff when religion was new and people were starting to form these fundamentalist beliefs? I thought it'd be hilarious to put some funny people in ridiculous ancient costumes too [Laughs]."
About those costumes, he illustrates, "The movie costs enough without having to actually manufacture every single item of armor or every weapon. We had to go through the catalogs and pick armor for the soldiers. There was nothing ancient enough to be in the city of Sodom where the last part of the movie takes place, so they're wearing a hodgepodge of Ancient Greek and Spartan gear. It looks like every other Cecil B. DeMille epic movie."
Harold also plays the first man, Adam. It's something of a self-referential role because his films have influenced pretty much the whole cast. "I pop up as Old Adam. A friend of mine said, 'Does that mean you're naked in the movie?' No, please that's not going to happen [Laughs]."
However, he did get to take some good shots at his two leading men, literally. "The stoning scene was a logical outgrowth of the story. In it, Jack says, 'We should be able to pick the person who stones us.' So he picks this little kid thinking the kid can't throw, but the kid starts firing these fastballs right at Michael Cera's head and hitting him every time [Laughs]."
Instantly, the chemistry between the actors sizzled. Harold had the main men chosen pretty much upon the first table read. "The big revelation for me was Michael Cera. I'd already acted with Jack Black in Orange County. I loved his work. We didn't have the second guy, so Judd Apatow suggested Michael Cera, which really surprised me. On paper, he's so much younger than Jack, and his style seems so contemporary. Yet as soon as we sat him down and had the table read at the studio, he was amazing. It was pretty apparent right from the get-go that they were going to be a great team."
Also, everyone was able to jump into the Ancient world seamlessly with a little help from Harold's deft direction. "The language is very contemporary, but I didn't want the characters to know things that they couldn't possibly know," he says. "Even things we say casually like, 'Wait a second,' they couldn't say. In ancient times, no one measured seconds. It was enough to say; 'I'll see you in the morning' [Laughs]. That was pretty specific. I was constantly censoring the actors. They learned to catch themselves."
They've no doubt caught onto their director's influence as well. For Harold, comedy isn't really different since he first started on the scene in the '70s. He recognizes, "What makes us laugh hasn't changed. The way we speak and the rhythms may change. Obviously contemporary cultural references change, but people are people. Part of the premise of the movie is we have been the same since Year One. What's really funny are the things that touch us on the most human level—the things that embarrass us, the things that frighten us, our appetites, our lust, our hunger, our excesses and the cosmic accidents that make life so painful. That's where comedy comes from."
He shows, "I've directed eleven films in 30 years. Some people make a film every year. I only want to make movies that are about something I care about. Sometimes, it takes me awhile to find material that says something worth saying or to think of something that I really care to spend three years of my life on. All of my films are about something important, no matter how broad the comedy is. They all have some great subliminal message to the audience."
For Year One, that message is especially deliberate. "In a way, the movie allows the audience to still believe what they want," he assures. "We have characters expressing both points of view, but in the end, what's important in life is what you do, not what you believe. I grew up Jewish and dealing with the stuff in Genesis was a lot of fun in Year One. It's a little edgy. Some people could be offended but not so dramatically that they're going to rush out and burn the theaters down."
As for his own future, there have been some developments back at the old firehouse that Ghostbusters built. "A lot of good news on the Ghostbusters front," exclaims Harold with a big smile. "The video game comes out June 17 two days before Year One hits theaters. All the gamers I know tell me the Ghostbusters game is really great. My two co-writers on Year One, Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg (The Office), are writing the script for Ghostbusters III. I am supervising them along with Ivan Reitman and Dan Akroyd. As soon as they have a decent script, the studio will decide when and how we get it made. It's definitely in the works. Whether it happens or not is always a mystery in Hollywood."