Q&A with Harold Ramis
On Wednesday night, the charismatic, intelligent, hilarious Harold Ramis started the Assembly Series on a high note. With stories about climbing the unfinished Arch, practicing Buddhism and crying during “Legally Blonde,” his talk was not to be missed. Ramis was gracious enough to spend some time with Cadenza, talking about everything from living on campus to his latest film, “Year One.”
Student Life: What’s it like being back at Washington University?
Harold Ramis: You know I come back enough that it’s never a big surprise. There’s always a new building, but the new buildings look just like the old buildings.
SL: I read that in high school you wanted to be a neurosurgeon, but then you came here and orgo scared you away. Is there any truth to that statement?
HR: Math and science scared me away. Yeah, I thought I was good, but I forgot that I never studied in high school. Organic chemistry. I never got that far. For me, zoology had enough chemistry in it that I realized this is not what I want to do. And math—I was in honors math as a freshman, and it was so hard.
SL:. You wrote “Animal House” with Doug Kenney. But some of it was based on Zeta Beta Tau?
HR: Well, Doug Kenney and Chris Miller. Chris went to Dartmouth, and he coined the phrase “animal house” from my point of view. Although we used to use it here too to describe one house. We had jock house, book men, face men and then there’s animal house.
SL: Was anything directly based on something that happened? Did you have to tone it down, play it up?
HR: Some things are toned down, some things from each of our experiences. Each of us had experiences that were just too lewd, crude or ridiculous to be seen in a movie. The way we wrote the movie was we spent three months, eight hours a day, literally, in a office in Manhattan just debriefing ourselves totally on college. Every story we could remember, every interesting person we met, every funny thing that happened; each of our experiences and everything we’d ever heard from uncles, nephews, fathers and anything that we’ve heard apocryphal about life in a fraternity or college. So that became kind of the soup. Storyline and characters emerged, and then the movie.
SL: Yeah the movie was a pretty big deal.
HR: Yeah, I mean—I shouldn’t even say this having a son in college and one in high school—but I made a strong commitment to fun. I thought more than anything, I want to enjoy myself. And that just took me down certain paths and avenues and maybe even alleys that I shouldn’t have gone down. But it also freed me up to pursue mirth, just for its own sake.
SL: Do you have a favorite Wash. U. moment or experience?
HR: Oh, so many. It was our quest. But I lived in the ZBT house, which was a terribly cramped place. And I lived there for two years. And it wasn’t so much the fraternity was important to me as an organization, but the people who I lived with in the house were insane. But they were smart and fun—it’s a great combination. And then, just the proximity of other 19-year-olds just creates a kind of license to try things that you never would have tried before. There were funny crazy people doing funny crazy things. At the same time, at a school like this, you knew that eventually that guy is going to become a doctor or a lawyer. That was part of the payoff to “Animal House,” is that everyone got a little tag at the end.
SL: You directed some of my favorite episodes of “The Office,” did you enjoy that?
HR: That was great fun. Normally, you direct a film, and that film’s never been made before obviously. And the odds are you fail. Literally, most films do fail on one level or another. The thing about “The Office” is I was stepping into a television show that was already well established. The executive producer Greg Daniels had created a show and had supervised every episode; the camera man had shot every episode of the show; the actors had done already fifty or so episodes. The show had already one the Emmy for Steve Carrell, the writers had run the Writers Guild Award, the whole cast had won the Screen Actors Guild award, and they’d won Golden Globes. So I thought, well, I can’t possibly screw this up—rhese people already know what they’re doing. So it’s like driving an exceptional vehicle – like a Ferarri or something. Everything’s been done for you.
SL: “Benihana Christmas” is one of my favorite episodes of all time.
HR: I laughed out loud when I read the script. I lucked out. One of the episodes I got needed some work and they paid me the complement of allowing me in the writers room, which I was the first director they allowed in the writer’s room, and I actually sat at ‘the table’, and that’s ‘the table’ you always hear about, and with the writers, figured out how to improve that script.
SL: And aren’t the writers from “The Office” working on the “Ghostbusters 3 “script?
HR: Yeah, they wrote Year One with me: both of whom, I can actually use the word protégé, one came to me as an intern right out of college and the other I met when he was a waiter out at Martha’s Vineyard, just out of film school, and they both came to work in my company on different productions. They met there, started writing together, sharing and apartment in L.A. and then got “The Office” job.
SL: So, ‘Ghostbusters 3’ is a go? Rick Moranis still hasn’t signed on.
HR: Rick won’t do it. Rich has retired from show business. But everyone else says they’ll do it. It’s really just a question of finding a motivation beyond the money. Everyone’s gonna have to really like this script and really want to do it. And I think that may have a lot to do with who directs it and what that vision is, and who wants to be the new Ghostbusters, because that’s very important. Whether it’s just three guys, or possibly female ghostbusters.
SL: I know you worked with Jack Black and lot, and you just worked with Michael Cera on “Year One,” but who’s your favorite young up-and-coming comedian?
HR: Those guys are great. I love Jack, I acted with him in the movie “Orange County.” Michael Cera I think has been wonderful in everything he does. I like Jonah Hill. I like Russell Brand, I like Jason Batemen, Ed Helms is good. Who else has been funny recently…Jason Schwartzman can be funny. All those guys that have been working in that level. And I like Owen Wilson. Vince Vaughn, eh, not so much.
SL: And Judd Apatow, he produced “Year One” with you?
HR: Yeah, we produced together. I started it and then brought him in year two of the project. When I finished a pretty good first draft I asked him to come in.
SL: You arguable started out that whole genre with “Animal House” and they’ve just taken it to a whole new bromantic level.
HR: Not singlehandedly. I was part of a movement.
SL: One of the forefathers of this movement.
HR: Well, for better or worse.
SL: Do you have a favorite movie of yours?
HR: Well, the cliché is that they’re all my children. I always think more of the experience of doing it than the outcome. Because I’ve had better times making some of my worst-received, least successful movies. I’ve had great times. I’ve worked with people I really loved and the ideas seemed great at the time. So I can’t make a list of my own self than I can make when people ask me what are your top ten movies. Can’t do it.
SL: Well, what was your favorite to work on?
HR: Well, it’s always the last one. I had a magnificent experience on “Year One.” People were so nice. Every movie has a different set of opportunities and challenges, and “Year One” – logistically a very big production. We had to build an ancient city. Did you see it?
SL: Yeah, I saw it. I enjoyed it.
HR: We built that city-six-and-a-half acres in the heart of Louisiana. And then out in the desert we covered half of New Mexico. Armies of extras and herds of animals.
SL: And even the costumes were kind of crazy.
HR: Well we had a virtual factory to manufacture that many costumes, and chariots, and when do you get to do that?
SL: And you worked with Paul Rudd, David Cross?
HR: Yeah Paul’s great too. And Chris Mintz-Plasse is in it.
SL: He always plays the same character a little bit.
HR: A little bit. That’s why I liked him in “Role Models,” because he didn’t play the same character, and I thought that was a charming film. But a guy like Hank Azaria-wonderful. Oliver Platt, who I’ve worked with before. We had a great cast. Not to mention the women.
SL: Olivia Wilde…
HR: Olivia Wilde, and June Raphael and Juno Temple.
SL: Do you have any plans for a new film?
HR: I’m looking, I’m thinking. Just fishing around, looking at old ideas I’ve had. For me what’s important is that the movie addresses enough of what’s important to me that it can hook me or a couple of years.