Harold Ramis Takes Us Back to Year One

Jack Black and Michael Cera star in this hilarious look at life in the early days of existence

Year One is coming to DVD and Blu-ray on October 6th. This hilarious new comedy was directed by the legendary Harold Ramis, a man responsible for such epic box office hits as Caddyshack, Vacation, and Groundhog Day. He's also an established comedic actor, appearing in such 80s mainstays as Stripes and Ghostbusters, not to mention the recent Judd Apatow film Knocked Up. This past year, he teamed once again with Apatow to direct Year One, which stars Jack Black and Michael Cera as a couple of lazy hunter-gatherers who are banished from their primitive village. The two comedians set off on an epic journey through the ancient world of biblical times hoping to save two women they wish to "lay with". It's a very funny adventure that is sure to be a cult hit on DVD. We recently caught up with Mr. Harold Ramis to get his take on the film and its recent run at the box office. Here's what the godfather of true comedy classics had to say about his most recent effort:

Are you ever intimidated by your own legacy as both a comedian and a director when you head into a new project like Year One?

Harold Ramis: (Laughs) Yes. In doing what I do, there is a chance that you will become grandiose at some point in time. The flipside of grandiosity is total humiliation. So I am always on that seesaw. I go between believing my own reputation and feeling like a total imposter.

Year One fell under some harsh criticism this summer. When I watched it, I felt it was as funny and entertaining as anything else in the marketplace.

Harold Ramis: Thank you. I thought so too. We go into the marketplace already armed with market research and advanced screenings. I knew statistically that a certain number of our target demographic thought the movie was quite excellent. It's no comfort when you finally reach the marketplace and critics don't like it. Or the audience doesn't turn out for whatever reasons. I am certain that when people look at the movie, they will find wonderful things in there. Its funny, its smart, the actors are great. And it looks good.

Do you think people are more willing to be angry when it comes to paying for films nowadays? Do you feel like you're dealing with a harsher climate audience wise than maybe you were in the 80s? Or has that not changed in your view?

Harold Ramis: I think some people give a wide birth. They are given a lot of latitude. (Laughs) When they think they are going to like a movie, there are high expectations. That can set people up for disappoint, obviously. In this case, with Year One, I have heard it called a "feathered fish". I call it high-minded low comedy. The ideas are adult and relatively philosophical. But the tone of the movie is crude and juvenile. That is not a comfortable mix. Someone once said of my film Stuart Saves His Family, "People who will like this movie won't see it, and people who will see it won't like it." People that came expecting a Saturday Night Live skit got a real character study about someone dealing with family dysfunction, co-dependency, and addiction. In the case of Year One, kids came because it was marketed towards young males. I think they might have been expecting a less religious experience in some ways. The studio certainly didn't market the religious side of the film. People came expecting a caveman movie, in some sense. That's not what it was.

What are some of the dangers of working in a biblical landscape? Do you think general audiences are turned off by religious themes in film in this day and age, and was it at all hard to get made?

Harold Ramis: I had no trouble getting the movie made. Everything was so smooth and so pleasant with both the studio and the actors. The whole production was smooth as silk. Judd Apatow was my ally. It was really cool. I think that young people simply aren't interested in religion. I always feel that religion is wasted on children. It's the adults that should be in Sunday school. Kids aren't involved in existential issues. These stories aren't relative to them. It can be kind of boring. They are not looking at the bible from a deeply existential point of view. Religion is not on their radar. Later, as people get older, they start to see religion as a much more complex and meaningful experience.

I've heard the argument that "the film could have been better if it were rated R". Having been involved with the creation of two of the all-time best PG rated comedies, where do you stand on this argument?

Harold Ramis: The only way I felt slightly handcuffed was the fact that the whole last act takes place in Sodom. Which is synonymous with vice. Living in a PG-13 world, we couldn't show any nudity or simulate any sexual acts. We pushed the limits as far as we could go.

Persona-wise, you couldn't have chosen two more polar opposites than Jack Black and Michael Cera. What did you initially see in them that made you want to bring them together?

Harold Ramis: I worked with Jack as an actor in Orange County and I thought he was great. When I found out how smart he is, and how professional, and how funny, I decided that I wanted to work with him. Jack has this insane confidence. Especially for a guy his size. He never plays losers. He is an over-reacher. He's a guy that thinks he can do anything. No matter what goes wrong, he still feels that he is right, and that he is continuing on the right path. He is all instinct. And he is very physical. Michael, on the other hand, is all-cerebral. He is thoughtful. It's the classic Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello. That teaming is great. Michael is so soft and gentle. Jack is just balls out going for it every time.

Whose decision was it to reteam Michael Cera with Christopher Mintz Plasse, and do you see them going on to continue their working relationship? Do you see the same strong bonds forming with today's comedic performers that you experienced with someone like Bill Murray?

Harold Ramis: At my age, this is two generations removed from what I used to do. Judd is one generation younger, and these guys like Michael and Christopher are two. But yeah, I see that they have an affinity for each other. There is a new comedy mafia in Hollywood. There is no question about that. Judd is the hinge for all of it. He didn't discover everybody. But he has brought folks together in great combinations. That was one of the strengths of having him on this film. He had access to these people. They all knew my work, of course. They grew up on it. And they have paid due reverence to those old films. Kind of. Working with them was definitely facilitated by having Judd around.

Land of the Lost was very similar to your film in that it also failed to find an audience at the box office, but as people actually see both films, they are starting to talk about what funny, great films they actually are. What kind of life do you see Year One having now after its release?

Harold Ramis: I got to watch this film with audience members that strongly liked it. Its not like I see the film as a failure. It didn't perform its first run at the box office as everyone had hoped. But every film has a potential after-life. Not just on DVD, but also On Demand. Eventually, you'll be able to dial it up on your computer. I think it is a film that people will see. Both Jack and Michael have a huge fan base. And we got caught in a crunch, don't forget. The reviews certainly didn't help, but Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen opened up early on a Wednesday. We opened on a Friday. Everyone in our target audience was going out to see that film. We got caught in that crunch. And then no one expected the The Hangover to hangover. Which it did. Everyone was blindsided by the success of The Hangover because it was very funny, and very popular. That is the movie everyone was talking about it. There is also this problem with perception. An older friend of mine thought we were Land of the Lost. He thought the marketing of the two movies was vague to him. He obviously wasn't paying close attention. Somehow, both these films got lost in the shuffle.

I am out here in Nashville right now, and I discovered that some of the younger kids didn't even know that Land of the Lost or Year One had even come out already. Do you ever worry about a film's awareness as it hits the marketplace?

Harold Ramis: I only worry about marketing as far as whether test audience liked the movie or not. If not, how can I help them like it more? Once a movie is open, I immediately delete all of the emails about box office. I don't want to see that.

Do you have a favorite scene from Year One? If you had to show someone a reel of your work, which scene would you choose from this particular movie?

Harold Ramis: I love the Abraham scene. The circumcision scene. It is the first film I know of that has talked about circumcision in a comedic way. There are so many scenes that I like. I especially like the Kane and Abel material. And I like the stuff in the village with Jack and Michael. The initial hunter-gatherer scenes. Before I could show the whole film, I made some public appearances. I made a reel that consisted of about thirty-five minutes of footage. I wanted to show it to the anti-defamation league, because the only backlash I was worried about was from the Jewish community. Boy, they thought it was hysterical. The scenes I selected were the ones I just mentioned. It was stuff from all over the picture. I think there are good moments throughout the entire movie. Some stuff didn't pay off right. Roger Ebert slammed me for certain scenes. We just couldn't add some stuff. Michael gets jumped by a cougar. Well, we didn't have a real cougar. I didn't have a stuntman to continue the attack. So certain scenes just ended. It is a little messy. Messy was never a problem with some of my most popular films.

Speaking of your most popular films, lets changes gears a little bit. This summer it was announced that Ghostbusters 3 was definitely a go, and the Internet was buzzing with excitement. You directed a number of The Office episodes, which Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg wrote. Did that have anything to do with getting the ball rolling on this long gestating sequel?

Harold Ramis: Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg also co-wrote Year One, and the studio was really impressed with their work. They also worked on another film that the studio just bought. They are good at what they do. Gene has been a protégé of mine since college, and Lee was a waiter I met at Martha's Vineyard. They both started as interns and production assistants at Sony. I virtually read everything they had written up until they got their jobs on The Office. It has been a nice relationship. The studio didn't only think they were good, but they thought there was a convenient link to Ghostbusters 3 through me to them.

Why do you feel, at this date and time, it's so important to revisit Ghostbusters? Is it purely financial, or do you truly feel you can push these characters in a new and exciting direction that we haven't seen before?

Harold Ramis: It's Dan Aykroyd. He has been keeping this idea alive. This is his original concept, and he's wanted to do this for a while. He even wrote a spec script years ago. The twenty-fifth anniversary came, we had the new Blu-ray, and the videogame release, and people still seem so very excited about this movie. The response from the game was tremendous. Everywhere I went, people were asking about it. I thought, why not? Why can't there be a Ghostbusters 3? I have to remind people that they didn't like Ghostbusters 2 very much. But they still seem to want a third one. Finally, Murray said yes. I thought, "Well, we have a good script. Why not?" Ivan Reitman said yes. It can be done. It can happen.

Can you share anything about Dr. Egon's life in 2012? Is he having a hard time dealing with the effects of the Mayan Calendar? Has he found love? Does he have a kid?

Harold Ramis: I had two initial first instincts. One was that Egon had become a shaved head Buddhist monk. That is not going to happen. The other thing that I pitched for my character is that he's been living in Geneva, and he works for the Institute of Imaginary Science. The work we are doing doesn't require any conceptual, intellectual, spacial, or mathematical models. Even we don't know what we are doing. It's that theoretical.

The film is listed as coming out in 2012. Is it going to deal with the Mayan calendar and the end of the world?

Harold Ramis: That is pure speculation. We are not going to do that.

Who would you like to see as the new Ghostbusters? Are you eyeing any potential new talent?

Harold Ramis: Every young actor will be mentioned. No one is signed or has been approached.

The end of the first one is so legendary, how hard is it to top that, or are you even concerned about that?

Harold Ramis: I think we are just going to try and make a good movie. The intention of a sequel is not to give an audience more of what they didn't get enough of the first time around. It's to give the audience something that is new. We want them to feel that they are having a new experience of some kind. That becomes a tightrope. Yeah, we definitely are introducing new Ghostbusters. That much is for sure. And there will be inter-dimensional creatures visiting New York. And we will deal with it. That's all I am allowed to say at this point.

What about a new Meatballs? I see that you are attached to make a remake?

Harold Ramis: I heard that. I asked Ivan Reitman. I think there is some development on that front. I had so little to do with the first one, I am a little amazed that they mentioned it in my IMDB bio. I was a script doctor on the first film. I have nothing at all to do with this new one. Heck, maybe I can get some points on it. (Laughs)

How difficult is it to find new and exciting ideas that interest you enough to step behind the camera?

Harold Ramis: That is something that has always been hard. When we were "hot hot", between Animal House and Ghostbusters, we were on a roll. I was part of a defacto group. I just had lunch with Ivan Reitman. Between us, we created an incredible string of pictures that either he directed, or I directed, or that Murray was in, or Chevy. I worked in two big films with Murray as an actor. We were definitely on a roll. I turned forty. I took a break. I started looking at what I was doing. I didn't direct again until Groundhog Day. I think that film presented a life change for me. I was starting to look at things in a different way. Those early comedies were about "us against them". The cool guys against the jerks. It was "snobs versus slobs". However people expressed it. Life got more complex and textured for me. Now, I am looking for thoughtful comedies that actually say something. I want something that is real and useful about the world.

The Ice Harvest was one of your later films, and it certainly has a more dramatic spin.

Harold Ramis: Yes. That was a great script that I got. An Academy Award winner and a Pulitzer Prize winner, Richard Russo and Robert Benton, got together and wrote a script on this really cool novel. I thought it was the best piece of writing that I'd seen in years. I love John Cusack. I love Ollie Platt. And Randy Quaid. It came together easily. I love that picture. I think it's really good.

Are you planning to head into more dramatic fare in the future?

Harold Ramis: I don't tend to think that way. I start with what is compelling to me. Of course, people send me comedies. More often than not, I begin thinking comedically. You know? I am open. I wrote a fairly serious movie about my experiences in the late 60s. I think I might turn that into a film at some point. My wife and I are talking about a relationship film. We'll see. I am getting old. I want to be careful about what I do. I am too mature to just jump in and do another stupid youth comedy.

I grew up with your comedies, and it certainly was exciting to see you step into a role for Knocked Up. Do you think, after appearing in Ghostbusters 3, you will continue to seek out acting roles?

Harold Ramis: I act when people ask me. I would audition, but my agents think that I am a director. So they don't send me out for anything. When people send me good scripts, I will do them.

But there's no chance we will see you popping up on TV, like Chevy Chase in Community?

Harold Ramis: I doubt it. It would have to be a hell of a show. That is not how I want to spend my free time.

The most important question of the day: When are we going to see Rover Dangerfield on Blu-ray and DVD? Are you busy remastering it in hi-def?

Harold Ramis: (Luaghs) That I have no idea about. Rodney wanted to do that movie very badly. I worked on it with him. It wasn't that popular. But I though there was some funny stuff in there. Thanks for mentioning it. "Hey, I don't fetch." That was one of the lines from the movie. Nice talking to you.

Year One arrives on DVD and Blu-ray October 6th.