Monday 8 December 2014

30 years of Ghostbusters

“Well, there's something you don't see every day.”
Dr. Peter Venkman, on seeing a giant marshmallow man crash through the streets of New York

In the summer of 1984, I was a regular watcher of “Entertainment USA”, a weekly TV show that highlighted what was popular in the States and what was coming soon to these shores.  On one such show, they had a trailer for a new film that had just been released called “Ghostbusters”, which perked my interest both because of the ghosts and because I was already a big fan of Dan Aykroyd (then and now, I believe that “The Blues Brothers” is one of the best comedy films of all time).

My well-loved paperback
In August, the theme song by Ray Parker jnr was released over here and I remember it being played all the time.  I bought the cassette version of the soundtrack and played it almost to destruction (it was also the first time I’d experienced a soundtrack where tracks were included that featured only briefly in the film - Laura Branigan’s “Hot Night”, for example, can be briefly heard as Ecto-1 drives across the Manhattan bridge).

The film wasn’t released in the UK until December 7th 1984 and I could hardly wait.  Remember, this was long before the Internet, so all we knew was what we saw on TV, though I did pick up the Coronet novelisation by Larry Milne, that just filled my head with more imaginery and whetted my appetite further.  The novelisation (which is written in present tense) is packed out with interviews of the main cast and crew, plus an article on the making of.

In case you’ve never seen it (and this will contain spoilers), the film follows three parapsychologists Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Raymond Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) and Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis), who lose their jobs at Columbia University.  After being called to investigate a series of apparently supernatural activities at the New York Public Library (where they encounter the ghost of a dead librarian), they set up a paranormal extermination/investigation company called “Ghostbusters” which Stantz funds with a mortgage.
(l to r) Dr Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Dr Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) and Dr Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis)
Stantz: My parents left me that house. I was born there.
Venkman: You're not gonna lose the house, everybody has three mortgages nowadays.

Spengler is the boffin and he develops high-tech equipment to capture the spirits and they set up a base in a disused, run-down firehouse.  Their first call is to the Sedgewick Hotel where they have a run-in with a disgusting green ghost (who is called Slimer everywhere but in the film itself).

Venkman: He slimed me.
Stantz: That's great. Actual physical contact. Can you move?
Venkman: I feel so funky.

During the battle in the ballroom with Slimer and firing their “unlicensed nuclear reactors” with abandon, Spengler has a thought.

Spengler:         There's something very important I forgot to tell you.
Venkman:        What?
Spengler:         Don't cross the streams.
Venkman:        Why?
Spengler:         It would be bad.
Venkman:        I'm fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing. What do you mean, "bad"?
Spengler:         Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.
Stantz:        Total protonic reversal.
Venkman:        Right. That's bad. Okay. All right. Important safety tip. Thanks, Egon.

Paranormal activity explodes in New York City and the Ghostbusters, with their ads and media friendly turns, become celebrities by helping to contain it (taking on a fourth member, Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson) to help cope with demand).

Venkman: (as they’re leaving) We came, we saw, we kicked its ass!

Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver)
The Ghostbusters are hired by Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), whose apartment houses the demonic spirit, Zuul, a demigod worshipped as a servant to Gozer the Gozerian, a Sumerian shape-shifting god of destruction.  Venkman falls for her though she’s soon possessed by Zuul and becomes the “Gatekeeper” - her neighbour Louis Tully (Rick Moranis), a geeky Accountant who has a crush on her, is possessed by the “Keymaster”.

Barrett:         You know, you don't act like a scientist.
Venkman:        They're usually pretty stiff.
Barrett:         You're more like a game show host.

The Ghostbusters facility is shut down by Walter Peck (William Atherton), an over-officious EPA representative who believes the team are acting as unlicensed waste handlers.  When the system is shut, it causes an explosion that releases hundreds of captured spirits that wreak havoc over the city.  The Ghostbusters are arrested but taken to see the Mayor, who is holding a meeting with the police, city officials and clergy to try to figure out a plan of action.

Venkman:         This city is headed for a disaster of biblical proportions.
Mayor:         What do you mean, "biblical"?
Stantz:         What he means is Old Testament, Mr. Mayor, real wrath of God type stuff.
Venkman:         Exactly.
Stantz:         Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling!
Spengler:        Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes...
Zeddemore:     The dead rising from the grave!
Venkman:        Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria!
Mayor:        All right, all right! I get the point!
Weaver and Rick Moranis, just prior to becoming Terror Dogs.  I had such a crush on her...
After consulting blueprints for Dana’s building on Central Park, Stantz and Spengler realise it was built as a gateway to summon Gozer and bring about the end of the world.  When they reach the roof of the building, they witness Dana and Louis transforming into Terror Dogs, to do the bidding of Gozer.

Venkman:        So, she's a dog...

They are unable to prevent the arrival of Gozer (Slavitza Jovan) though they manage to briefly subdue her.

Gozer:         Are you a God?
Stantz:         No.
Gozer: Then... DIE!
Zeddemore:      Ray, when someone asks you if you're a god, you say "YES"!
Venkman:        All right! This chick is TOAST!

She then tells them to choose the form of their ‘destructor’ and Stantz, trying to play safe, thinks of a beloved memory from his childhood.

Venkman:         I didn't choose anything...
(there’s a long pause.  Venkman, Spengler and Zeddemore all look at Stantz)
Stantz:         I couldn't help it. It just popped in there.
Venkman:        (angry) What? What "just popped in there?"
Stantz:         I... I... I tried to think...
Spengler:          LOOK!
Stantz:        No! It CAN'T be!
Venkman:        What is it?
Stantz:         It CAN'T be!
Venkman:        What did you DO, Ray?
Zeddemore:     Oh, shit!
(they all see a giant white head topped with a sailor hat) 
Stantz:       (soberly) It's the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.
Crossing the streams - The Ghostbusters, with Winston Zeddmore (Ernie Hudson) at far left
Mr Stay Puft, a giant marshmallow man, begins to attack the city and the Ghostbusters fight back, crossing the streams into the portal, which explodes - defeating Gozer and freeing Dana and Louis.  The Ghostbusters are proclaimed heroes.

* * * * *
"Ghostbusters" was created (as “Ghostsmashers”) by Dan Aykroyd, who originally intended the project for himself and his friend John Belushi, with the heroes travelling through time, space and other dimensions to fight huge ghosts (one of which was the Stay Puft Man).  Having pitched it to director Ivan Reitman, who said it would be too expensive (Reitman later said that original concept would have cost $300m to make back in 1984), Aykroyd and Harold Ramis co-wrote the script and included roles for Belushi, Eddie Murphy (who was to have played Winston Zeddemore) and John Candy (the original choice for Louis Tully).  Murphy and Candy couldn’t commit to the project and when Belushi died, it was re-written to accommodate Bill Murray, who ended up semi-improvising his performance.  During the writing process, Reitman said there was a lot of discussion about the vibe between the three men - Spengler was the brains, Stantz the heart and Venkman the mouth.

Although it marked the first film pairing of Aykroyd and Murray, most of the main cast had worked together before, often in various comedy troupes.  Reitman had directed Aykroyd - they are both Canadians - in a TV show called “Greed” and worked with Murray and Ramis on the original “National Lampoon Show” review on Broadway.  The three men would then team up for several films before “Ghostbusters”, including “Meatballs” and “Stripes” (which Reitman directed and Ramis wrote) and “National Lampoon’s Animal House” (which Reitman produced and Ramis co-wrote).

Production began in June 1983, with Reitman assembling a crack team based on their experience with large scale productions.  John DeCuir was recruited as Production Designer, having won Oscars for “The King and I”, “Cleopatra” and “Hello Dolly!” whilst Richard Edlund, fresh from ILM and just setting up Boss Films (though the effects are credited to Entertainment Effects Group), had won for the “Star Wars” trilogy and “Raiders Of The Lost Ark”.  Renowed cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs was brought in as Director Of Photography and Theoni V. Aldredge joined as Costume Designer.

Ivan Reitman (left), Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd in New York
Shooting started in New York in October 1983 and lasted for a month.  The fire station that the Ghostbusters make their headquarters in is real (the Hook and Ladder #8 Firehouse) and based in the Tribeca section (though the interiors were all filmed in another fire station in Los Angeles) and although the New York Public Library was used for exteriors, the interiors were all shot in Los Angeles.  The same with the Sedgewick Hotel (with interiors filmed at the Biltmore Hotel in LA).  Whilst filming on Central Park West (where Dana’s apartment is), the production managed to snarl up traffic halfway across the upper-third of Manhatten at one point.  New York resident Isaac Asimov, who was caught up in it, visited the set and collared Dan Aykroyd, who was a big fan of the sci-fi writer and voiced his opinion.  According to an interview with Harold Ramis, “Danny was crushed.”

The Temple Set was built at on Set 16 at The Burbank Studios in LA where it stood over sixty feet tall and cost $1m.  It featured a 360-degree panorama of New York but required so much light to film that Laszlo Kovacs had to use fourteen of the existing sixteen largest spotlights ever built in Hollywood.  The studio could supply 80,000 amps and the Temple Set needed so much that other soundstages had to be shut down when “Ghostbusters” was shooting.  Other Los Angeles shooting took place at MacArthur Park and The Burbank Studios ranch, where a two-storey façade of Dana’s apartment building was re-created.

The special effects (over 200 shots in total) were filmed at the Entertainment Effects Group facility in Marina Del Ray and utilised a lot of tried-and-tested low-budget, practical approaches.  Steve Johnson (who had worked with Rick Baker on “American Werewolf In London” amongst other projects) was just striking out on his own and he headed up the creature shop with Randy Cook.  Whilst Cook would create all the stop-motion animation of the Terror Dogs, Johnson created Slimer and the ghosts.  The suits for the biggest monster of all, the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, cost $20,000 each and three were made and destroyed during filming.  To keep things as simple as possible, a lot of the effects were very ‘old-school’.  On the DVD commentary, Reitman points out that the floating books were simply hung on wires and Ramis says that the index cards were blown out of their drawers by technicians behind the wall, blowing air through copper tubing.

left - Steve Johnson introduces Sigourney Weaver to Slimer
right - behind the scenes, setting up for the shot as Weaver is pulled into the kitchen
Filming on the miniature Central Park set for the Mr Stay Puft attack
One of the most spectacular effects shows Dana levitating and rotating a complete 360, which was created by the illusionist Doug Henning (who contributed to the musical “Merlin” which Reitman had directed on Broadway), with Sigourney Weavers put into a full body cast that was attached to a post hidden in the curtains.

“Ghostbusters” was released in the United States on June 8, 1984 and was a huge critical and commercial success, receiving positive reviews and making $238m in the US alone (it would add a further $291m worldwide).  It was nominated for two Oscars, for Best Visual Effects and Best Original Song, but would lose out to “Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom” (with effects from ILM) and “I Just Called To Say I Love You “ from “The Woman In Red”.  The film also launched a franchise, which includes the 1989 sequel, two animated television series and several video games.

With re-issues, it was the most financially successful comedy of the 80s.

For my part, I think the film holds up really well - the leads are perfect in their roles, the interplay between the Ghostbusters themselves is priceless and the effects work (apart from a couple of shots) is excellent and always believable.

Great fun - now, who ya gonna call?


* Dan Aykroyd referred to “Slimer” as the ghost of John Belushi.
* William Atherton, who played Peck, complained the movie ruined his life as people would talk to him as if he was the character and give him a piece of their mind.
* The singers shouting “Ghostbusters” on the song were the people Ray Parker Jnr could find in the studio - his girlfriend and her friends
* The music video for “Ghostbusters” was directed by Ivan Reitman and featured a cast of celebrities who didn’t appear in the film at all - including Chevy Chase, Irene Cara, John Candy, Jeffrey Tambor, Danny DeVito, Carly Simon and Peter Falk.  The Ghostbusters themselves danced through Times Square behind Parker Jr.
* One of the deleted scenes on the DVD release has Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd play two tramps that witness Louis being chased by the terror dog.
* Sigourney Weaver was apparently desperate to do a comedy and was keen to win her audition, so when the script called for her to transform into a dog, she barked.  She later said she considered herself the straight man in a Marx Brothers movie.
* The Ghostbusters vehicle - Ecto 1 - was originally painted black until it was pointed out that most driving would be at night, meaning it would be difficult to see. It was then repainted white.
* As part of his deal, Bill Murray made Columbia Pictures agree to a remake of The Razor's Edge (1946) with him as the star (it was also released in 1984).

RIP Harold Ramis, who died earlier this year, aged 69.

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