'Ghostbusters II': Return of the Money-Making Slime

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If Ghostbusters II does a belly-flop like Caddyshack II, it will be a gloomy summer on the Burbank lot. "It's pretty scary, because the summer is so jammed with product," says Steel, who's spent much of her eighteen-month tenure at Columbia fencing with rumors of an impending studio sale (to Sony) and of her own imminent departure (when in fact she has gained clout since Columbia merged with Tri-Star, its sister studio). But as a consummate Hollywood power player, Steel is ready to roll the dice. "It's a mine field," she says. "But it's summer, so every night is Saturday night."

The original Ghostbusters was released in 1984. Buoyed by an infectious comic spirit (and a chart-topping Ray Parker Jr. title song), it ended up making $220 million as me top-grossing comedy of all time. Yet despite these unimpeachable box-office credentials, the sequel was once a Hollywood orphan, a project without a patron.

When David Puttnam became head of Columbia studios in 1986, he showed a noted lack of enthusiasm for Ghostbusters II, to the point of considering making the film with a new, and lower-salaried, cast. Specifically, he was not eager to employ Murray. In a speech before a British-American Chamber of Commerce banquet, he dismissed Murray as "an actor who makes millions off movies but gives nothing back to his art. He's a taker." Puttnam later claimed he was misquoted, but others at the banquet confirmed the account. Either way, reports of Puttnam's speech chilled his relations with Murray.

As it turns out, Murray wasn't so keen on reviving Ghostbusters either. After the film's release, when he was at the peak of his career, the former Saturday Night Live star appeared in a film version of Somerset Maugham's novel The Razor's Edge. The movie quickly flopped at the box office. Dispirited, Murray dropped out of sight for nearly four years. As for the Ghostbusters sequel, Murray now says, "I really didn't want to do this movie for the longest time."

Then came the lunch.

By late 1987, Puttnam had been deposed as studio chief at Columbia, replaced by Dawn Steel. A savvy, acerbic executive with a healthy respect for Hollywood's star system, Steel knew a Ghostbusters sequel was a top priority with her corporate bosses. "When I was being interviewed for this job," she says, "one of me first things we talked about was the Ghostbusters sequel and getting it off me ground."

Enter Hollywood agent extraordinaire Michael Ovitz, whose powerful CAA talent agency is famous for packaging star vehicles – and conveniently represents the 'Busters team of Murray, Aykroyd, Ramis and Reitman. Ovitz knew a summit meeting was vital. Not only was Murray wary of making a sequel, but a certain amount of ill will had festered among key 'Busters teammates. Hollywood rumormongers quietly theorized: Were there bad feelings about profit sharing from the first film? Had resentments sentments built up over unrealized projects in the intervening years? No one was eager to discuss just how much ill will had accumulated, but as Ramis diplomatically puts it, "There was a little air to clear before we got going."

The lunch was in a back room at Jimmy's, a Beverly Hills showbiz restaurant. In attendance were Murray; Ramis and Aykroyd (who would write the sequel); Reitman (who'd again direct); Ovitz; and Ray Kurtzman, CAA's head of business affairs.

Determined to make the lunch a festive occasion, the CAA chieftains had decorated the room with plastic ghosts and other merchandising trinkets left over from the lavish advertising campaign for the original film. According to Reitman, lunch ran nearly four hours. As everyone arrived, prospects for Ghostbusters II looked dim.

Murray had been away from the screen for so long no one knew if he could still carry a film. Certainly Aykroyd couldn't, not after Spies Like Us, Doctor Detroit and The Couch Trip. Ramis had been writing or directing such fluff as Armed and Dangerous and Club Paradise. Reitman was still seething over Puttnam's lack of respect for the original hit. "I felt insulted because he always talked about Ghostbusters in such condescending tones," says Reitman. "It was 'I like Ghostbusters, but what I'd really like to do …'"

"I think walking into the meeting no one really felt we'd make the movie," Murray says. "But in the course of lunch we had so many laughs and so much fun that it became clear we'd really enjoy working together again."

According to other participants, Murray himself was the biggest stumbling block. He had a fear of being roped into making a schlocky sequel simply for the prospect of a big payoff. "Bill is very suspect of people's motives," says Ramis. "I think he wanted to make sure we were all doing this for the right reasons, not just because CAA had all these computer printouts saying that a certain audience percentage or likability was there."

Once the hatchets were buried and Murray committed to the project, there began what Ramis describes as "a year of deal making." High-rent deal making. According to Columbia sources, Murray, Aykroyd and Reitman are working for minimum scale but will share a tidy percentage of the film's profits, a potentially lucrative deal similar to the one Reitman, Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger enjoyed on Twins.

By keeping salaries to a minimum, Columbia has been able to make the film for close to $30 million. Studio sources say if the stars had taken their customary salaries up front, the film could have cost close to $50 million.

"We'd much rather pay a piece of the profits than the huge salaries," says Steel. "This way we're saying, 'Take the risk with us. Then we're partners.'"

When the film opens, the 'Busters have gone bust. Murray is hosting a psychic-phenomena cable-TV show. Aykroyd is reliving his ghost-busting triumphs at children's birthday parties. Ramis, who plays the outfit's techno-wizard, has retired to his lab, obsessed with research into the effect of human emotional states on psycho-magnetic energy fields.

Across town, Sigourney Weaver (as Murray's former paramour) has married and divorced another man and is raising a baby boy while working as a restorer at the Manhattan Museum of Art. When her tyke's baby carriage mysteriously heads off into oncoming traffic one morning, she realizes sinister, otherworldly forces are again at work.

Who's she gonna call?

"First off, we wanted to deal with the success of the Ghostbusters – or nonsuccess – which we thought would be fresher and more unusual," says Ramis, who also wrote parts for 'Buster number 4, Ernie Hudson; Annie Potts (who's back as the team's long-suffering secretary) and Rick Moranis (who returns as their accountant and newly accredited attorney). "But the moral issue was also important to us. The source of the slime would come from negative human behavior. Comedically, it suggested, what if everyone in New York City had to be nice for forty-eight hours?"

Following that premise, Ramis and Aykroyd's script shows the malevolent gunk peacefully at rest – until aroused by negative human energy. In one scene, Ramis demonstrates the principle: He shouts, "You ignorant disgusting blob!" and the slime starts to bubble and swell; he and Aykroyd croon "Kumbaya," and the slime shrinks back.

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