Monday, January 18, 2016

Recap: "Ghostbusters" Intro

Ghostbusters was, and still is, a pop culture phenomenon. Odds are, you’ve probably seen the movie. Or at the very least, you’ve heard of it. It’s very hard to predict what things will make a lasting dent in pop culture.

Let’s just take the 90’s, for instance.

Furbys? Tamagotchi? Made a huge impact for a brief time. Today, they’re pretty much ignored by anyone who didn’t grow up with them.

Batman: The Animated Series? Generally well-regarded, then and now.

Toy Story? A franchise that stood the test of time with two sequels released as of this year and another on the way. And who could have predicted such a hit from a company that specialized in making Listerine commercials?

Ghostbusters is a similar underdog story. By all rights, the film as we know it should not have been made for a large number of reasons. I mean, seriously, it’s a miracle we ended up with such a good movie, when you look at all the differences from the original vision. A good movie that spawned a sequel film, a few video games (including a single good one), numerous cartoons, a few comic book series, and an upcoming (as of the time of this writing) reboot. An upcoming reboot that I have chosen not to discuss for the time being, mainly because even mentioning the movie seems to be inviting a flame war. So for now, all I will say about the upcoming reboot is that I’m keeping an open mind, I think the hood ornament on the Ecto-1 is a nice touch, and I’m cautiously optimistic.

With that out of the way, it’s time to take a look at the series of unlikely events that gave birth to one of the most beloved films to come out of the 80’s.

Isn't that always how these films come about?
The year was 1982. Ivan Reitman, Joe Medjuck, and Michael C. Gross were attempting to make a film version of the beloved British sci-fi novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a movie that wasn’t made until 2005. The whole deal with that story is something I’ll get into another time...

Hmmm, there's an anniversary coming up in a couple years.
...but I’ll say right now that the project was kind of doomed as long as the original author was on the project. And he was. Adams has famously gone on record saying that he likes the whooshing sound that deadlines make as they pass by, and that would go a long way toward explaining why the film wouldn’t be made within his lifetime. But in ’82, they had three versions of the story to try and work with, and were considering Dan Aykroyd or Bill Murray for the role of one of the book’s main characters, Ford Prefect.

But that’s when Mr. Aykroyd gave them a little script of his own, inspired partially by the classic black-and-white film Spook Busters and also by his own love of ghosts and the paranormal. A pretty personal project for him, seeing as how his dad wrote a book on the subject of ghosts. In the end, they decided to work on that instead.

Now, I don’t know if this is still the case, but at the time, there was one inherent problem with every movie script Dan Aykroyd wrote: Dan Aykroyd was incapable of writing movie scripts. And I mean utterly incapable. The Blues Brothers was Aykroyd’s first attempt at writing a movie, and it showed. He ended up turning in a phonebook-sized manuscript that was formatted in a way that only made sense if you were on cocaine at the time. Luckily, pretty much everyone in the 80’s was, so John Landis, the director, managed to convert it into something that could conceivably used to make a movie, with a little effort.

A couple years later, Aykroyd came up with a little something he called “Ghostsmashers,” which is exactly what it sounds like; it’s similar to Ghostbusters, but definitely not quite the same thing. The original script was just… well, weird. The titular “Ghostsmashers” were from the future, where ghost smashing is yet another public service, like fire fighters or the police. Dressed up in S.W.A.T. gear and armed with nuclear wands, they took orders from Ivo Shandor, their extradimensional boss, and traveled through time to defeat ghost after ghost after ghost, with little actual plot to speak of.

I don’t think the 80’s had enough room for another time-travel comedy.
Now, I don’t want to accuse of Mr. Aykroyd having written such a story while in, shall we say, an illegal state of mind… but man, cocaine is a hell of a drug, isn’t it?

Ivan Reitman absolutely loved the general idea, but recognized that it was pretty much impossible to film with the special effects and money available. He estimated that it would take somewhere around $300,000,000 to make. And that’s in 1984 dollars. In 2016 dollars, we're talking somewhere around $690,131,337; more than three times the budget of The Force Awakens.

So Harold Ramis was brought in to ground the story in realism; make it a bit less fantastic. And, most importantly, cheaper.

Step 1: Set it in the modern day. Save money on sets.
Step 2: Make it a story about the team starting their own business. Save money on props and make the characters more relatable.
Step 3: Cut the majority of the ghosts that weren’t important to the plot. Save money on special effects.

With those changes implemented, the film was now about three Ghostsmashers, played by Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, and Eddie Murphy fighting ghosts. And in the end, they would open up branches all across America! Then John Belushi died. Since the role of Peter Venkman was written for him specifically, they took this opportunity to retool the film even more to compensate. The revised role was eventually given to Bill Murray, who took the role only as long as Columbia Pictures agreed to let him star in a remake of the 1946 film The Razor’s Edge.

The role of Ray Stantz was given to Dan Aykroyd, seeing as how he basically wrote the role for himself.

Eddie Murphy was to play the final Ghostsmasher, Winston Zeddemore, but ended up leaving the project to star in Beverly Hills Cop, which ended up beating Ghostbusters at the box office. One of the reasons he left was to keep people from looking at the cast and saying, “Hey, it’s SNL!” Even though Harold Ramis was on SCTV, and not SNL, but never mind. (Accounts actually differ on Eddie Murphy involvement from the beginning and reason for leaving, but most information I could find says that he was involved from an early stage, if not the beginning.) Ernie Hudson, a relative unknown, was cast to fill the role. And.... well, I'll get to the problems with that later.

The character of Egon Spengler was created, but proved to be difficult to cast. Michael Keaton turned down the role, and the other choices, like Christopher Walken, John Lithgow, Christopher Lloyd… well, they just weren’t quite right. Eventually, they got the idea to have Ramis himself read the part, and it was quickly decided that he was the perfect Egon.

The minor role of Louis Tully was originally meant for John Candy. But he decided to turn down the role, which was actually a relief to Ramis and Aykroyd, because John Candy wanted to drastically change the character into a German stereotype with a bunch of dogs. Luckily, Rick Moranis came in with a take on the character that they liked.

And then Sigourney Weaver was cast. Which seems like a bit of an odd choice for a non-action woman in a comedy, but she’d had experience with the genre before. It also helps that she was more than willing to act like a dog during the audition, which not only impressed the director, but also makes sense in context.

So in the end, the people who would be working on the movie were one big web of former successes. Bill Murray, Ivan Reitman, and Harold Ramis brought us Caddyshack. Ramis, and Moranis were well-known for SCTV. And the list of connections goes on.

Even if the script was still as odd and unfilmable as it was at the beginning, at least the people working on the project were about as good as you could get. But the script was far from finished, even when casting began. Chevy Chase, who turned down the role of Venkman, says that the script they gave him was much darker, scarier, and adult-oriented. But during production, they decided to not make it a kids’ movie per se, but make it a “family” movie; meant for adults, but with some definite kid appeal and a lot of jokes that go right over their heads. Even so, there are some pretty terrifying moments, some dirty jokes, and quite a lot of swearing for a movie you could conceivably take kids to. Take a shot every time somebody says "shit."

Eventually, Ghostsmashers was ready to be filmed. And also have its name changed. Their dream name for it was “Ghostbusters.” Unfortunately, there already was something called The Ghost-Busters. Namely, a 1975 live-action TV show owned by Filmation.

There's a man in a gorilla suit wearing a hat. Don't question it.
So multiple versions of several scenes were filmed, using different names for the heroes. Ghostsmashers, Ghoststoppers, Ghostblasters…. Eventually, they just paid for the rights to the name and released the movie as Ghostbusters.

Though Beverly Hills Cop beat Ghostbusters at the box-office, it still stands as the 32nd highest-grossing movie of all time, and was the highest-grossing comedy until Home Alone came along. The film made $242,000,000 in the USA alone.

But does this film stand the test of time? Apparently so, seeing as how it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2015. And really, you won’t find many people claiming that this film isn’t a classic. At the very least, it changed the way people watch The Blue Brothers forever.

There is no way to watch that scene without at least thinking of the obvious punchline.
So let’s take a look and see what makes this ghost story such a scream. (I apologize for that pun; I’m writing this at 1 AM.) Coming up in Part 1! Spooks, scientists, and starting a business!


  1. So, have you watched Ghostbusters cartoon? And while we're at it, how's your relationship with animated series based on Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?

    -Faceless Enigma

    1. Well, I'm afraid that I'm a child of the 90's. So I sort of missed the heyday for Transformers and the Turtles.

      As for the Ghostbusters cartoons, my only experience with it as a kid was the 90's-tastic sequel to The Real Ghostbusters, Extreme Ghostbusters.

      I watched a bit of it a while back, and discovered that it actually holds up surprisingly well. At the very least, I recommend listening to Jim Cummings's cover of the Ghostbusters theme. And the actual ghost designs were pretty amazing and surprisingly freaky.