Ivan Reitman: Why We're Still Talking About 'Ghostbusters' 30 Years Later

Director on making the original blockbuster, why sequel deserves a second look and that notorious 'Ghostbusters 2.0' trailer

Director Ivan Reitman discusses the original 1984 blockbuster hit.

Comedy may be the most subjective of genres, but Ivan Reitman knows what the people want. Over the course of his 40-plus-year career as a director, producer, and writer, the Slovakia-born/Canada-bred filmmaker has been a key player in some of Hollywood's most iconic comedies — Animal House, Meatballs, and Stripes among them. But few films have amassed as passionate a following as one particular hit: Ghostbusters.

Originally conceived of as a space-set ensemble piece and starring vehicle for Dan Aykroyd (who wrote it) and John Belushi, the horror-comedy-sci-fi-family-film hybrid eventually morphed into something much different — and ended up becoming not just a blockbuster hit but a bona fide comedy franchise. As the newest big-screen installment of Ghostbusters hits theaters next week, Rolling Stone asked the director of the first two films (and producer of the newest one) to take us back to the summer of 1984, when special effects were hard to come by and audiences weren't afraid of no ghosts.

Back in the early 1980s, Dan Aykroyd had written a 60- to 70-page treatment called Ghostbusters, for John Belushi and himself to do. But Belushi died before they could take it any further, so it sat around for a year or two. It was futuristic; I remember that it took place in outer space, that there were competing teams of Ghostbusters, and there was some kind of apparition or monster on every page. It was a very huge, and frankly impossible, movie to actually do. Particularly in 1980. [But] it had this really brilliant idea at its core, which is: Here are a bunch of people looking very much like firemen, doing this important job, and that ghosts existed and it was possible to catch them.

I had just done Stripes, and [Aykroyd] had already spoken to Bill Murray. Bill liked the idea, so Aykroyd called me and said, "Why don't you read the treatment?" I read it and asked him to lunch at Art's Delicatessen in the Valley in Los Angeles. I said, "It's good, but it's very hard to make what you've written so far. The movie I'd be interested in doing should be set today in New York. I think these guys should be people who are dabbling in parapsychology, probably at a university. They get into trouble, they get kicked out, and then they go into business for themselves. And it turns out it's a good business."

Aykroyd liked the idea a lot. I had worked with Harold Ramis a few times because he wrote Animal House for me as a producer; he'd worked on Meatballs and acted in and co-wrote Stripes as well. I knew I needed a different kind of writer to sort of fill it all out, and that there should be more than just two Ghostbusters … Aykroyd, generous as ever, said, "That all sounds cool. Let's just do it."

I had a meeting with Frank Price, who was running Columbia Pictures. He said, "I hear you guys have a movie you want to make." I said, "Bill and Danny both want to do it. We want to bring Harold Ramis into it. They're writing a script." I gave him a description of the script, even though it didn't exist. Stripes had cost $10 million; Ghostbusters was going to be way more elaborate, so I thought, let's make it three times as expensive: $30 million. I was really just pulling a figure from the air. He said, "You've got a deal." This was May, 1983; about six weeks later, Aykroyd, Ramis, and I all went to Martha's Vineyard, where Dan has a house, and spent two or two-and-a-half weeks in Aykroyd's basement, every day. [We] basically created the movie as it exists now on film.

"I remember sending the very first draft to John Candy: 'I want you to play the neighbor.' He said, 'I could play him as a German guy and speak with a German accent? And I think I should have these big German shepherds.'"

I remember sending the very first draft to John Candy, who I just worked with; I said, "John, you should read this. I think this is going to be special. I want you to play the neighbor down the hall." I don't think he was an accountant in that very first draft but whatever he was, Candy just didn't like it. He said, "I'm not seeing this movie, but perhaps if I could play him as a German guy and speak with a German accent? And I think I should have these big German shepherds." I said, "You can't have German shepherds because there are these dogs on the roof already. I think there are too many dogs. It's going to get complicated and confusing." So we parted ways. I knew Rick Moranis a little bit from Toronto, because that's where I grew up. I sent him the script, he read it within an hour of receiving it and called me immediately thereafter: "I think Candy's an idiot. This is the greatest part."

Right away, Rick had all these wonderful ideas. I think it was his idea to play him as an accountant; he wrote that extraordinary speech when he is inviting people to a party at his house and he's walking that incoming couple through. I had the joke of throwing the coat on the dog that's in his bedroom, but that whole wonderful speech … Rick just made all of it up as he was doing it. All these guys were so, so good at writing. They weren't just thinking of the first goofy idea that came on. They were really focused on their characters — good things just happened from scene to scene. 

One of the amazing things is that we didn't even have a special visual effects company that could make the film. There was really only one big one at that time, and that was ILM, which was busy working with Steven Spielberg on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. So we had to create our own special effects company. I enlisted Richard Edlund, who worked on the effects on Star Trek, and talked Columbia into putting him into business. I said, "You're going to have to fund him enough so that he can put a team together and do the special effects for us," and they did it. I think the only way that movie got made is everyone just kind of believed.

We had a full script when we left Martha's Vineyard; it was a rough first draft, but it was a true first draft. We did another draft by the end of July, and that was a lot better and was starting to get some attention when we went out to our secondary cast. I think we wrote another draft by mid-September. We were looking for our Dana Barrett, and Sigourney Weaver came into the office to audition; she had just finished Alien. She said, "I read the script. I think it's great, but I do think Dana Barrett should be possessed by those dogs on the roof." She got on my coffee table on all fours and started howling and snarling and I thought, that's kind of a cool idea. I remember calling Harold up and saying, "Sigourney Weaver had a really cool idea." We were still trying to figure out the Keymaster/Gatekeeper thing. We had this odd idea that was a little bit incomplete at this point. Sigourney's idea was what helped us straighten out where that storyline should properly go.

I had a great production designer named John De Cuir, who had done Cleopatra and Hello, Dolly; he was nominated for 11 Academy Awards throughout his career, and was in his 80s when I hired him for Ghostbusters. He did this huge drawing for the top of the building, because it was unclear in the script where Gozer was going to come from. He did this beautiful painting of these crystal doors that opened and I said, "Wow, that's what it should be." So we wrote that into the script.

I remember actually driving out to JFK and picking up Bill Murray. We were getting ready to do costume fittings and pre-production shooting. He had been living in France, and I wasn't sure if he was actually going to get on an airplane, so I wanted to be there when he arrived.

[When I work with comedians], I treat them as writers as well as performers… I'm always looking for a way to keep the scene fresh and dramatically on point or comedically on point, so I do encourage improvisation. And then I do a lot of editing from take to take where I'll say, "That was great, keep that, but go back to the script for this paragraph. I think it falls better." I would often reshoot a master to include something that came up in coverage just for the close-up and go back and do the master again because it was such a good idea. I wanted to make sure I would be able to edit it properly with this new, good idea that had just occurred.

In his 3.5-star review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote that Ghostbusters "is an exception to the general rule that big special effects can wreck a comedy. Special effects require painstaking detail work. Comedy requires spontaneity and improvisation; or at least that's what it should feel like, no matter how much work has gone into it." Reitman managed to mix genuine comedy with state-of-the-art special effects and genuine scares — a mash-up that's still hard to tackle.

Tone is something that, as a director, you're moderating all the time. Having a consistent tone that makes sense, that brings out what is funny, is one of our big jobs. You know it when it's wrong. You've seen it many times in all kinds of films. No one had ever seriously tried to mix this blend of scary stuff and funny stuff.

One of the happiest moments happened at the very first screening we had, which was only three weeks after we finished shooting. We started shooting October of 1983; I remember having my first screening on February 3rd, and we had [only] finished shooting in the middle of January. I had a very good editor named Sheldon Kahn, and we managed to put a cut together without any special effects in it. I did a lot of things live in the camera using mechanical tricks and things that we could accomplish while we were shooting. Then I thought it would be a good idea if we showed the film right away, just to see if it really worked — if it was holding together, if the plot made sense.

I was particularly afraid of the Marshmallow Man, as that was the logic leap in the film that took it to this whole other plane. I wasn't sure the film could withstand it; if it didn't, I wanted to know about it as soon as possible so we could figure out what to do. We had a couple of shots that were done with a man with a rubber Marshmallow Man hat on, walking through a miniature SoHo area of New York. They did that really early because it was a relatively simple thing to do — so the very first cut had that in it. Also, when the guys shot their proton packs, nothing came out; we added a sound for them at the screening, but they were really just pushing around this thing with nothing coming out. We showed the movie to 200 people on the Burbank lot. 

I knew we got it right was very early on, in the scene where the librarian changes into that monster head. We already had that, or a very early version of that. People screamed like crazy when it suddenly changed from a nice lady to this monster. They screamed and then, a split second later, they all laughed — and then, a split second after that, they applauded. This happened at almost every screening, all happened over a five-second period. I said, "Wow, that's the movie right there."

Then, finally, came the Marshmallow Man sequence at that very first screening. We hear big footsteps, so you know it's something really big, and then we cut to that lovely first shot of this head bobbing behind a New York skyline and the audience just lost their minds the first time they saw it. It was one of the most satisfying moments I've had in my career … The story worked. We never had to reshoot anything.

Ghostbusters would go on to earn $229,242,989, and become the second highest grossing movie of 1984 (Beverly Hills Cop managed to out-earn it by about $5.5 million). In 1989, five years after the original film was released, a sequel — Ghostbusters II — hit theaters. Though reviews were mixed, it earned $112,494,738 at the box office, which was enough to make it the seventh highest grossing movie of the year.

None of us wanted to do a sequel right away. Bill has always been tough about everything that he's done; I think he has a complex sense of what he wants to do as an actor. There was always a sense that doing sequels was kind of selling out, so there wasn't the kind of energy going into that that there is in Hollywood today. We never got around to doing a sequel for five years. I'm really proud of the second movie — I just saw it again and I really liked it. It didn't get particularly good reviews. It was successful, financially, but less successful than the first one. I pushed it into a much more personal story. I loved the sequences between Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray and what's probably their baby, Oscar, although it's not made clear in the screenplay.

I think Bill Murray's work with the baby was so lovely and his relationship with Sigourney. Probably the movie was a little too soft and a little too optimistic — I mean, it ends with everybody singing "Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher." It was all about New York was getting nastier and that required people to use the best part of themselves and make the good vibes push out the bad. So you suddenly have a bunch of New Yorkers singing on New Year's Eve in Manhattan.

Keep in mind, this was in the era when you've got Tim Burton's Batman, which was very dark. The zeitgeist of the country was totally different. So this friendly, more personal, sort of character-based Ghostbusters was something of a disappointment for people who were into bigger and better. But I thought it was cool. I thought it was the movie we wanted to make. I think when people look at it again, they suddenly find it way funnier than they remember it. I'll stand by that.

It didn't take long for people to start talking about the possibility of a third film, with all of the original cast and crew. And they got pretty close to seeing that happen.

Aykroyd, Ramis, and I worked on another draft of the film with two other writers, Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky. We had a very good script that was a more traditional sequel idea. It was the passing of the torch from the original Ghostbusters to a new group led by Oscar, the little baby in the second movie. Bill Murray's character, Venkman, dies pretty early in the film and his ghost is a very major character in the film. Bill actually got a lot to do even though he wasn't a human anymore.

The studio loved the script but, in the course of writing it, Harold Ramis got very sick and died about a year later. In that process, Bill was very skeptical about doing another Ghostbusters and made himself quite unavailable. I realized, once Harold passed away, that it was going to be really impossible for me to do another one because I didn't want to do one without Harold. And getting Bill to say yes to the five movies we've done together has always been difficult … I could see, suddenly, that that wasn't the way to go. So I withdrew as the director.

The interesting business side of the whole thing was that Aykroyd, Ramis, Murray, and myself really owned control of the movie. Nothing could be done without our unanimous approval. It's probably one of the reasons that nothing got done for 20 years. Trying to get unanimity among four very creative and individualistic people is frankly impossible. We just let it go until we started working on the [new film]. It was done because the studio decided they would try to entice us into it by paying for a draft and hoping that we would get it done. 

What I tried to do was make a business deal in which we all gave up this ultimate control and sold it to the studio so that they could continue. I always felt that there was a future for Ghostbusters. It's such a wonderful idea and there was an opportunity for it to expand into other films and into other things … Once that happened, the studio was open to other filmmakers trying to make it.

In the summer of 2014, it was announced that Bridesmaids director Paul Feig would be rebooting Ghostbusters with an all-female cast. Not every fan of the original film was excited about the news. When the first official trailer for the new Ghostbusters, which Reitman produced, premiered in March, it managed to rack up a record number of "dislikes" on YouTube.

Paul Feig came in with this really wonderful idea of doing it with women and he already had Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig, two of the funniest women in the world, interested in it. So it felt like just the right thing to go forward with at that time. Really, that's how this version of the movie got started.

[In regards to the response to the trailer], I imagine there's some level of misogyny, but I'm a little suspicious of just laying it on that. It's just too easy. My sense is that it has more to do with the kind of nostalgia you're talking about for this film that's now over 30 years old and the kind of love that it had found. Most of the people who are writing negatively about it I think are men in their 40s who saw the original film when they were about seven or eight years old. I think it turned out to be a seminal film for them; they're very protective of it. Frankly, I'm really appreciative of that. I think they want to make sure that if you're going to do it again — and you probably shouldn't — but if you're going to do it again, that it's going to be worthy.

All the talk about backlash was surprising because I thought the trailer was just fine. I'm not arguing that it's the best trailer in the world, but it's certainly not a bad trailer. And there's no way for any kind of teaser that's a couple of minutes long to be able to compete with the weight and the emotional experience of the first film. So, inevitably, there was disappointment — and that was really strongly stated now that we have something called the Internet and we all get a chance to express our opinions. By the way, the 89 million of the 90 million people who saw it and liked the trailer or had no problem with the trailer don't tend to write. It's really the people who have a strong negative opinion that write.

The good news is that, since we started screening the film, the response to the movie has been wonderful. Suddenly people get it. The wonderful thing about the new movie is the four women, [who] are so strong together and every bit as delicious and spectacular as the four men in the '84 Ghostbusters. That's finally what's going to make this one work for everybody, because they're just as inventive and just as wonderful to watch. They're clever and the chemistry between them is undeniable. The special effects in this movie are much greater than what we had and could do in the first film. It's a big time treat in that it looks beautiful. I'm pumped. I got to produce this. I got to work with Paul Feig, which I enjoyed. And I got to work with these women.

Why are we still talking about the original Ghostbusters more than 30 years later? I think it's a combination of things. Certainly, the actors are really good and there's something about the four of them together, which is paralleled really nicely by the four women in this new film. There was something about those people working together that was just great fun to watch. Plus, the idea that it was a ghost story that was dealt with humorously without sacrificing what's scary about these spiritual occurrences.

Remarkably, it worked as a family film. I mean kids are all worried about death and worried about those kinds of ghost-like things. By watching Ghostbusters, there's a sense that you can control this, that you can mitigate it somehow and it doesn't have to be that frightening. It became this movie that parents liked to bring their kids to — they could appreciate it on different levels but still watch it together. There are very few films where you can do that as a family. I think it's really well made. I know that's a pat on my own back [laughs]. It's carefully made despite how quickly we had to make it.

We all got lucky. Sometimes magic occurs — and magic did occur when that movie got made.