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Q&A: Harold Ramis Goes from Ghostbusting To Getting Primitive Directing Year One

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Before a small group of comedy-infused journos, veteran funnyman, director/writer Harold Ramis spent over an hour not just talking about his latest comedy, Year One but outlining his career and the history of modern funnymen as well. And with Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaur hitting theaters this summer, it seems there's lots of funny in the Pleistocene and beyond.

Year One follows a famous tradition of taking our mythology to task, peering way back to our caveman past and discovering that even then, geeks and nerds--ably played by Jack Black and Michael Cera--came under fire from the tribe, prompting derision and humor. Of course, Ramis, with comedic ambitions extending along the lines of Mel Brooks' History of The World, plumbs such sacred texts as the Bible for inspiration and source material. With the help of exec producer Judd Apatow, Ramis made a semi-gross out comedy that inveigles to explore a few serious ideas as well. It asks such questions like "who the hell came up with circumcision ANYHOW?"

This former Chicagoan started as a journalist, became joke editor at Playboy and then joined his hometown's legendary improv comedy troupe, Second City. He then went on to writing and perform in the first National Lampoon shows with original Saturday Night Live team members such as Dan Ackroyd, Bill Murray, John Belushi and Chevy Chase. The veteran writer/director then established himself in comedy first as one of the writers of National Lampoon's Animal House, then, as an actor as well as a writer of such hits as Stripes, Ghost Busters, and then debuted as a director with Caddyshack in 1980.

Q: How different is Year One from other films that you've done?

HR: What's that thing? "Love the one you're with?" [laughs] I live in hope, so my new work is always my favorite because I always hope it will teach me something I didn't know before or I'll have some experience I've never had before. If this were television and you had worked seven years doing the same show over and over, you pretty much know what to expect.

But every feature film is like a grand adventure and you go on it with new people every time; Jack Black and Michael Cera are amazing allies to have. I had Judd Apatow... not with me, but with me in spirit and certainly as an ally back in LA making sure...just covering everything for me. And just a wonderful cast, a great staff and people I've worked with behind the camera. It's the nicest job I could imagine having and this film in particular, the journey itself.

I've made one other journey film, National Lampoon's Vacation. It's a lot of fun traveling with the whole crew; it's like being in the circus. And the ideas in this film, as silly and broad as the movie is it's the intellectual and philosophical underpinnings are so meaningful to me it gave me a chance to explore these ideas, at least in my own head. Whether they translated to the audience or not, I don't know.

Q: What were those ideas?

HR: Very few young people are interested in religion. But as you get older, people return to the religion of their family or they start to think philosophically. There are very few 16-year-old Buddhists around; it takes a lot of living to even start asking the questions. You know when I was younger, like everyone else I was driven by my hunger, my greed, and my lust for money, power, sex, and fame. All the things that we're conditioned to want and that we quite naturally want. Evolutionary biologists might say it's all just a mask for needing to procreate; just to get girls.

I used to do an improv thing at Second City as a swami--a yoga master. One of the things was "why did you become a swami?" "I thought it was a good way to get girls." So, those are the ambitions of young people I think and people who either achieve some of those goals or fail to achieve start to come to some realizations, starting around 40. It might be "I'm never gonna have that, so what does my life all mean?" or "Alright I've got that, now what? There's gotta be something else."

My rabbi, Irwin Kula, was at the screening last night. He once said to me in response to my film The Ice Harvest, "You can never get enough of what you don't really need." That applies to alcohol, drugs, sex, fame, money; it doesn't get you what you thought it was gonna get you and then you get religion.

Q: So Modern man is not much more advanced than Cro-Magnon man?

HR: I don't think so; I mean part of the premise of the movie was no matter how far back you went we would find that people were driven by the same needs and in a way had the same potential awareness. I'm convinced that there had to be a hunter-gatherer telling jokes; there had to be a hunter-gatherer thinking "there's got to be more to life than this" or "I hate my life" or "Is this all there is? That's all I'm gonna do the rest of my life is hunt and gather?"

Q: The nerds and geeks go far back.

HR: Oh yeah, no question [laughs].

Q: A lot of the humor revolves around anachronism. Was there ever a point where you had to decide how these characters where going to talk?

HR: From the very beginning I imagined, and I didn't invent this, but the conceit of having main characters speak in a contemporary way, and the characters who are more of the time speak in a more classical way; I settled on that pretty early. The aristocracy of Sodom would speak in an inflated, Shakespearean tone; that the patriarchs Adam and Abraham would speak in a biblical tone; and that our guys would speak the way we speak, because they are not of that mindset or that social class. The examples are great and many: Mel Brooks' 2000-Year-Old Man classics.

Q: Or his The History of the World.

HR: I was much more a fan of The 2000-Year-Old Man. I memorized every word of it. My friends and I could quote all of it; And Monty Python, they did a great job on both Monty Python and The Holy Grail and Life of Brian. Woody Allen's film Love and Death, where he plays a completely contemporary neurotic Jewish New Yorker in the middle of Napoleonic Russia.

Q: Where'd you get that wacky soundtrack instead of the expected Biblical music?

HR: Well we tried different things. We tried to go "epic" on the music like it was a [Cecil B.] DeMille film, one of those big Hollywood type scores and then we tried to create an ethnic world music score with ancient instruments. But we realized it wasn't contemporary enough for our audience and needed a backbeat so we could overlay those ethnic elements. For the opening of the movie--the boar hunt--I steered our music composer Teddy Shapiro toward the Balinese monkey chant, so that's under there. So, [we did] whatever worked just with a bit of an eastern flavor.

Q: You incorporate humor into the objects on set like some of the costumes.

HR: For me, really successful comedies work on three levels: the story works--which includes the characters and the behavior--the dialog works--people are saying funny things--and there's physical business going on that's fun to watch.

Part of the fun of this, moments like the discovery of the wheel is seeing the wheel for the first time. That's an object very specific to this movie that I thought there was going to be a joke on that. It might be on the DVD but we cut it from the film, when Jack sees..."what's the big round thing?" "That's the wheel numbskull. It makes the cart go." And Jack used to say "Wow! That's the greatest invention since the vagina!"

We probably should have left it in but the NPAA was already a little like, "What?" I think it might be on the DVD. I don't know why I thought oxen would be funny but taking a classic chase situation and having it on ox carts, I thought "Well they're gonna get a laugh from this." That's very specific to the world of the film.

Q: Because you could jump from era to era and biblical story to biblical story, how did you figure out when to stop?

HR: That was sort of a big question raised by the studio and by every one of a thousand people who gave us script notes. Should we include the Exodus? It sounds crazy, but I said no, The Exodus is way too late. That's around 1200 BC, whereas Abraham was around 2000 BC. Of course in the film, we leap from the Garden of Eden--if you were an Orthodox Jew theoretically you would say the Garden of Eden was 5769 years ago--coming up on 5770 or something like that. That's what a fundamentalist might think. If you were an evolutionary biologist you might say hunter-gatherers were 10,000 years ago. Quibbling about time might seem silly given the leaps we make in the film.

We had a focus group after one of our screenings and someone in the test group said, "How could they meet Cain and Abel and then meet Abraham, who was a thousand years after them?" and I said, "Oh, you mean the real Cain and Abel. This is a totally different Cain and Abel."

We're in fantasyland anyway. Genesis starts off as mythology, not unlike other mythologies like Greek and Mesopotamian, probably heavily borrowed from Mesopotamian. Then it turns into legend--things that may have happened. As much is known about Abraham as Robin Hood, but it represents a history you can track.

Then it turns into literal history; you can start dating things in the real world. So I thought as long as we're in the myth and legend period, I'm free to... I could have had the Tower of Babel. If we could have afforded to make the ziggurat higher in Sodom it would have been the Tower of Babel.

Q: Maybe to continue on to Year Two?

HR: Our joke was that the sequel would be called Year One 2 [laughs]. When I'm making a film I've never seriously thought about a sequel. It's not like I need to explore...I wasn't exploring bible stories because I think they're funny, I was trying to explore Genesis in the context of some political and social ideas that I had and psychological ideas. In my mind, having dealt with those, I don't need to do that again. If the public wanted to see more funny bible stuff, I suppose Sony would get someone else to do the Moses stuff.

Q: Did you research sections of Genesis?

HR: Oh yeah, absolutely. A lot of times I find my research is unintentional and unconscious. It's more like the work I do is a synthesis of what I've already been reading as opposed to having an idea and needing to go back to find out what's in literature. The big global ideas in the movie I've been thinking about for almost 10 years.

Q: A friend just had his son circumcised. The jokes about it are great, but when you think about it, where did that concept come from?

HR: That's what I was thinking [laughs]. How did people react when Abraham, out of the blue, said, "I'm gonna cut off my foreskin and every other guys' in the village."

If I had been standing there I would have done the same thing as Jack and Michael. I had the same dilemma, I have two sons and my wife was afraid to let the rabbi do it; she wanted the doctor to do it. But, she didn't realize that moils, the official circumciser, that's all they do. Chances are your pediatrician has done far fewer.

Q: Couples will look for a moyel to do it.

HR: While we were doing that scene I was telling the classic moyel joke. Here's the moyel joke.

A guy's walking down the street. He notices his watch is stopped. He sees a store on Madison Avenue and he notices it has clocks and watches in the window. He goes in and says, "I need a battery for this watch." He says, "We don't fix watches."

The guy says, "You don't fix watches? You got clocks and watches in the window--what do you do?" He says, "I'm a moyel." The guy says, "Well, why do you have all the clocks and watches in the window?" He says, "What should I put in the window? [laughs]"

Q: What were your sources when you researched circumcision?

HR: Two things occurred to me when I was working on that. When we got to the eunuch, played by Kyle Gass, the second half of Tenacious D--or maybe the first half of Tenacious D--we'd already dealt with circumcision and I thought eunuchs have been around for a long time also and it struck me, "Where did that idea come from?"

As it's actually set up, people don't laugh--Michael's delivery is not intentionally a joke delivery--but I thought, for the first time in a movie someone's going to say, "What's up with all the genital mutilation?" Which is a real issue. In developing countries, female circumcision is still a huge issue. But, what is it? Is it some deep Freudian, psychological revulsion towards our own genitalia, some need to mutilate it or is it a pride thing? Or did Abraham just think it was going to look better.

Q: Not to deflect from the genitals or anything...

HR: Yeah right, it's also partly a Judd Apatow movie, so... [laughs].

Q: When you have two actors like Jack Black and Michael Cera, who are such improv kind of guys, how much of what went on in front of the camera surprised you?

HR: I'm always surprised, sometimes not happily surprised. Improv is now part of the job. Virtually everyone who's doing comedy today has been trained at one of the improv schools whether it's Second City or Upright Citizens Brigade. Everyone has "played"--they all call it "playing." Even guys like David Pasquesi, who played the Prime Minister of Sodom in the huge turban. Pasquesi is a brilliant improviser and David Cross played with him at Upright Citizens. Paul Scheer--who's actually June Raphel's boyfriend--was the happy volunteer slave [bricklayer], he's a very well known Upright Citizens actor, so is Matt Besser, who played the irate Sodomite. Everyone's done this and you know Jack has that training.

Michael's actually--I wouldn't say classically trained--been raised in television. I looked up his imdb thing, he was like nine years old when he did his first commercial and 11 when he did his first TV shows. But he fell in with all these improvisers and he's so smart he can roll with anything. With Superbad I'm sure did a lot of improv. Jonah Hill improvises very easily and you know I worked with Seth Rogen and he improvises a lot.

It's not so rigid anymore that you have stand-up and you have improv; most people are crossing over these days. When you write a script you do your best. At some point, the studio says, "Okay, let's make the movie," though you're not really finished with the script. It doesn't mean your last idea is your best idea and there may even be places in the script where you go, "I'm not even sure this is going to work but we'll find it, we'll either fix it in writing or we'll improvise around it."

So, each day part of our job is to do the script as well as we can do it, write every idea we can think of. I have an executive producer, Rodney Rothman, sitting there. He's also a guild writer, handing me slips of paper like, "What do you think of this?" and I'd show it to Jack and Michael--"Do you like any of this stuff." And then turn the actors loose and let them just do it.

Q: What makes a good comedy pairing?

HR: There are so many good kinds of teams. I think it's like every good relationship we have with women: Two people who complete each other. You usually bond with someone who's not just like you, they have what you don't have and you have what they don't have. Two great looking guys don't usually bond. The great looking guy has a wingman who's less cool but picks up the leavings from the cool guy. The sidekick has other skills. You know, Abbott and Costello--a straight man and a comic--if they were both comics then they'd be different style comics: one's dry and one's broad.

Obviously, with Jack and Michael, they're a great physical pairing. When we showed people still photos of them in their wardrobe, they laughed; they just looked funny because they're just cartoons. Jack's a human cartoon. He's very big; Jack will just mug, he'll drop his pants, you don't even have to ask. And Michael is so introverted and subtle and real and...awkward, and yet he's not really an awkward person.

Q: Were the interactions on set a result of those two being so different?

HR: Jack is actually a much calmer and serene person than he appears on screen and Michael is a much looser and has more fun than he appears on screen. And they both are amazing musicians. I play the guitar and sing and our cameraman Alar Kivilo, is a brilliant guitarist. So we always had two guitars behind the monitors where we all sit so there were always people playing in different combinations. Jack and Michael both played and would sing in close harmony; they would even invent music and go freeform and invent music in close harmony.

Q: There are a couple of situations where Michael's character gets into it with the animals--the snake and then with the cougar. You chose not to show how the hell he survived those things.

HR: Almost not a choice. They warn you when you're going to be a film director, avoid the A, B and C--animals, boats and children--because you can't control them. So of course we wrote a show with animals in every scene and things for the animals to do. I should have known.

When I did the film National Lampoon's Vacation, there's a scene where Chevy's staggering around on a desert. I wanted him to fall down into the ground and have a guy come by on a camel. Chevy wondered if it was a hallucination or not. So we get a camel to come out from California, and I cue the camel and we're rolling the camera and I shout, "Where's the camel? Cut, cut cut. Where's the camel?"

"The camel's is not comfortable walking on sand." [Laughs.]

"It's a camel, what do you mean he's not comfortable walking on sand???"

[Answers the trainer], "He's from Burbanks."

So in this movie, I wanted Michael to be attacked by a cougar, we even had a scene where he was attacked by an eagle, which I had to cut out. When they're up climbing up the mountain they said, "Look, an eagle, so majestic." Then it swoops down, clawing Michael in the face. We cut that out.

All right, so the cougar. I said, "Can you get me a cougar?" Yeah, a cougar. We got the cougar from Talledega Nights. This cougar worked with Will Ferrell. Even I haven't worked with Will Ferrell, so it's gotta be a good cougar.

"I need the cougar to walk out on the tree limb, leap from the tree onto a stunt man, wrestle on the ground with the stunt man."

"Fine. Done."

So it's the middle of the night; "How's the cougar?"

"The cougar is fine."

"Okay, could you bring out the cougar?"

"He won't go out on the tree limb."

"Why not?"

"Well it's different from the way we rehearsed it."

"We rehearsed it with a backing so he would feel safer. He's afraid he's going to fall off the tree limb."

"He's got claws, doesn't he?"

"Well, yeah. He's a little constipated."

"All right, just get him out there. Can he leap on the stunt man?"

"Well, he really can't leap to the ground from that height."

"Well what can he do?"

"He can leap onto a platform maybe six to seven feet."

"And then jump on the stuntman?"

"Well he won't jump on the stunt man, he would jump near the stunt man."

This was a disaster, it was literally three in the morning and we were all standing there waiting for the cougar to come down. So we ended up with a CG cougar.

It was intended that there was some wrestling on the ground with a live animal, but it didn't happen. Not everything in a movie is a choice. You know a lot of things in a film are a result of people doing the best they can under the circumstances.

There's a scene in Cecil B. DeMille's Samson and Delilah which is as funny as anything filmed in a comedy. Samson is wrestling with a lion. It's a story from the actual Bible. In the movie, the double for Victor Mature is maybe a foot shorter than Mature, wearing a completely different wig, and he's clearly the animal trainer because he was dancing with the lion. Then it cuts back to Victor Mature with a stuffed lion, and it cuts back to the guy dancing; nothing matches. It goes on for maybe a solid minute.

In our movie, the CG lion jumps on it and we just got of it right away. The snake was another story. We tried so many different endings. In the out-takes we see Jack slamming the rubber version of the snake, a very expensive replica of the actual live snake. Michael was comfortable with that snake climbing out, it's an albino python. Once a snake has been fed--they eat once a month--it was not a problem. But Jack was nervous, very nervous about the snake. So the final shot of the snake coiled around him is CG. They put the rubber snake around Michael, then the effects guys made it undulate a little.

Q: On a film like Year One, how do you decide how much time you're going to spend on, say, Oliver Platt, or whoever it happens to be.

HR: It kind of relates to Ghost Busters in a way. Ernie Hudson was new to the comedy world, being the fourth ghost buster. He's a serious actor, and a really good actor. He would have ideas and try to talk to Ivan Reitman and Ivan goes, "Yeah, yeah, yeah" and kind of put him off. And I could see how disappointed Ernie was. He says "I think Ivan doesn't like me."

I said no, no, no. Ivan really likes you, but here's how it works: Bill gets this much money, and is the headliner; Danny gets a little less than Bill, but he's a second headliner; I get a lot less, but I'm like third because I actually wrote the script; and you're fourth guy. So when there's a really wide shot, we're all in it and Ivan cares what we're all doing. If the shot's a little less wide, you're out. If it's a two shot, it's not going to be me and Bill. It's going to be Danny and Bill.

There are pecking orders; you can only spend a certain amount of time. I had day players, people who are in the movie to do a small scene or a couple of scenes for only a day or two--to them that's their chance. It's like they're playing Hamlet all of a sudden. And they want to talk to you about their character. You can only go so far. There's only so much time.

Oliver loves to talk about his character. He's very serious about it and really thinks these things through. And it's fun to talk to him, but it is a comedy. A Sex and the City producer once said, "In comedy, you wear your character lightly, like a hat. You kind of put it on your head and do it."

So you don't want to spend too much time over thinking these things. But you want to give each actor what he needs. Most of these comedy people you just put them up there and they go. In general most funny films are funny because they have great comic performances at the heart of them. So you recruit for that reason; someone who's going to make you laugh. Most of them, they know their place in the film. They know that the whole thing is not going to stop and revolve around their moments.

Q: With this cast, you have so many comedians in the background with parts; do you, as director, prefer to make films with lots of comedians around?

HR: In comedy, we audition all kinds of people. Sometimes you don't know who is going to be funny and we trust our casting directors to bring in everyone who they think has a reasonable shot at making it work, so we audition tons of people.

I saw Andy Samberg last night and forgot he auditioned for the movie. Almost everyone on SNL came in auditioned for very small parts. They just wanted to join the party. But in the end, I didn't hire them, not because they weren't funny but because I thought, "What am I going to do with Andy Samberg on a set. There's really not enough for him." If you had him, you would really want to turn it into something.

Q: You had Bill Hader and Paul Rudd for small but memorable parts.

HR: Yeah, Paul had a significant role to play. Embodying one of the central figures of Judaic-Christian mythology is a big job. And having cast David Cross as the first psychopath, sociopath, embodying that kind of insanity, I thought who embodies goodness for the audience? What comic actor is a paragon of virtue with ability, so Paul Rudd--yeah, he was happy to do it. We just had to pad his shoulders a little bit to make him a little more heroic.

Q: And when you kill somebody in a comedy...

HR: And brutally too. It always shocked me. In the Bible, there's the six-day creation which goes by pretty quickly and then there's a little dwell in the garden until they make the big mistake. Next story in the Bible is the murder. It's like whoever wrote the Bible was thinking like a primetime programmer at NBC--murder at 8 o'clock, CSI, and then, "Let's kill somebody." It's a great hook into the Old Testament.

Q: It sets you up for the rest of the book.

HR: That's it, sure.

Q: You've got an arc?

HR: Well, every Shakespeare play begins with a murder. There's a reason it's on all our minds and has been a central story in literature forever. As a parent, I'm always concerned our kids grow up on action films and millions of rounds are fired. For some reason, bad guys are the worst shots in the world. They never hit anybody. But good guys are remarkably accurate.

I was watching the movie The Untouchables--the latter version of it--and there was a brilliant, big climactic moment, one of the henchman--one of Capone's guys on the stairs in the train station--he gets shot in the head and the audience cheers.

You know, I'm such a liberal, I thought "Why are we..." and maybe it was the Buddha, but I'm sure the Dalai Lama was not cheering. We're cheering the death of this person we don't even know. Maybe he had a family, maybe they're orphaned children now. Maybe he was doing this job but it was first day on the job, and he didn't even know what he was doing. He thought his job was a bodyguard; maybe it's the only thing he could do to feed his family.

I once thought of doing a James Bond parody movie, that's starts with Bond, you know he always starts in mid-caper and he's at a Russian nuclear facility--one of the Bond movie actually started that way. We don't know why, but he steals the thing he's supposed to, and breaks the machine he's supposed to break. He has to escape and kills maybe about 25 people before he escapes onto the helicopter.

In my version, instead of the movie going off with James Bond, the camera would pan back to the dead, the dying, the tears and the crying and their wives showing up to identify the bodies, amputations in the hospital and these guys living the rest of their lives with limbs missing or brain damage. We're so conditioned to action in films, and my kids watch people shooting at each other, beating the crap out of each other, and no one gets hurt.

The hero gets up and in the next frame, if you hit a guard once really hard he will stay unconscious for as long as you need him to be unconscious. To actually beat someone to unconsciousness you have to club them repeatedly. Of course, there's a situation where one blow can cause serious damage, but for the most part it's hard to kill someone. So we thought, all right, we're gong to make the killing of Abel painful, so people would know murder is not funny, it's painful.

Q: You have said that working on Year One was the best time you ever had...

HR: [That's true for] every film that I've actually written, you know it's all in your head. You sit down and start writing something; I've started a film set on a fictional Caribbean island. It's a fantasy that you'll ever get to make it. I don't know how it is for people who don't work in comedy; in comedy, you look forward to the possibility of one) realizing the fantasy you put down on paper and two) fleshing it out with the funniest, nicest people you can find.

Most, if not 99% of the screenplays that are written, don't get produced. Those are unfulfilled fantasies, but when you write a fantasy, especially an epic fantasy, and responsible adults put up the money for it, it's like, "Wow! I'm already ahead of the game here."

For an extended version of this interview go to: filmfanwriter.blogspot.com.