The veteran funnyman talks about making The Ice Harvest, not making Ghostbusters 3 and his new project with Owen Wilson

Harold Ramis is a man who for many people defined, and continues to define, the comedic movie watching experience. Whether viewers of movies like Caddyshack, Stripes or Groundhog Day (just to name to a few) are coming to them as old fans, new fans or just mildly curious, it is clear that Ramis still has a gift for providing audiences with not only laughs, but introspective moments that touch on the universal truths of human nature.

So it makes sense that this actor, writer, producer and director would make a film like The Ice Harvest. Featuring a solid cast which stars Billy Bob Thornton, John Cusack, Oliver Platt and Connie Nielsen, Ramis has managed to combine his comedic talent, with the theme of “men on the run because they robbed the mob,” to create what might become another annual Thanksgiving/Christmas movie.

Harold Ramis recently talked with MovieWeb about creating The Ice Harvest, making such films as Caddyshack, Stripes and Groundhog Day and why there will most likely never be a Ghostbusters 3.

What attracted you to The Ice Harvest?

Harold Ramis: Well, it started with really great writing, you know? Richard Russo and Robert Benton had written this wonderful screenplay. At the time I was sent the script, I was coincidentally reading through all of Russo’s published fiction and loving it. He writes about life in small American cities like nobody else. So they’d taken this really, I’ve described at as a “scurvy” novel, The Ice Harvest, by this guy Scott Phillips, the novel is really quite wonderful, and they’d written this really mature, kind of literary script, you know? It made me laugh. It was real tense, it was real dark and I’m a big fan of the Coen Brothers movies, and I thought, “Well, I could do this. This would actually be a lot fun to do.”

That was actually one of my thoughts. Even though this was very much a Harold Ramis film, The Ice Harvest reminded me of Blood Simple, or something?

Harold Ramis: You know comedy and suspense work very well together. Tension and the release of tension is what comedy’s based on. It’s also about a moral universe. Not to talk too much about the Coen Brothers, but in The Ice Harvest there’s this very murky, moral climate. It just constantly begs the question about doing the right thing, and finding meaning and direction in life and what happens when you don’t. Because John is a very bad, good man. Or, a very good, bad man, I’m not sure, you know?

I like getting away from the world of Hollywood morality. Where everything kind of squares up at the end, the bad guy goes down, you know? It’s not how life is. I kind of enjoyed playing in this existential world.

Now a movie like this has a lot of twists and turns but it’s also very much a performance piece. Did you let Billy Bob Thornton, John Cusack and Oliver Platt improvise? Or, was it important to follow the script?

Harold Ramis: Well, they wanted to follow the screenplay. You know, a lot of times actors are constantly improvising and ad-libbing because the script has failed them somehow. They don’t have confidence in the script so they depart from it. We very successfully improvised things in lots of stuff. Caddyshack, the Ghostbusters movies, Stripes, because we are professional improvisers and that’s how we were trained.

Normally, you want to have a really good script and shoot the script. Then if you can think of something better, or worth shooting, you do it. In this case the script was so solid. The actors just wanted to do the script and that was fine with me. I saw no reason to keep departing from it.

Do you think comedy can have a formula or is it strictly an organic process?

Harold Ramis: Well, there are a lot of formulaic comedies. There are a lot of comedies that look just like a lot of other comedies that were made, and you can just pretty much predict what’s gonna happen and the jokes look and sound like other jokes you’ve heard. Maybe that’s true of 90% of popular entertainment? Every romantic comedy is like every other romantic comedy. Every thriller is like every other thriller.

But I look for stuff that may look generic on the surface but isn’t when you get into it, you know? I don’t know if that’s genre bending... but if it’s already been done I always wonder, “Why am I doing it? Somebody already did that pretty well.”

What’s it like to have created such films like Caddyshack, Vacation or Groundhog Day, which are timeless in their comedy and their themes, and continue to get passed down from generation to generation?

Harold Ramis: Well, it feels really great. The double danger, one is that you try to repeat what you did. It’d be embarrassing if I was still doing films like Caddyshack. The other is, you worry about measuring up to them in terms of success or respect. Every film I do will not get the same kind of attention as Ghostbusters got. That would be a terrible burden to live with.

And they’re not going to all get the same critical respect, maybe, that Groundhog Day got. The kind of volume of response that it got. I do every movie for a good reason. I know why I’m doing it. I know why it’s important to me. I’ve never had a bad experience making a movie, even if I’ve been stung by some bad reviews, or dismal box office. In the end it never matters to me.

The films exist. That’s a great thing about film, you know? They’ll always be out there. I can always see them and get pleasure from them, and there’s always someone whose going to come up to me... whatever the film, my worst review or least successful movie, they will say to me, “I love that movie. My friends and I watch it all the time.” So, it’s fine.

Is there ever any talk or possibility of you and Bill Murray working together again in the future? Might we ever see Ghostbuster’s 3?

Harold Ramis: I think it’s very doubtful. Dan Akroyd and I tried to get that off the ground once. Dan had a real good idea, I thought it was very funny. He had more energy for it than I did, so he did most of the writing but I said I would direct it if we ever got it going. It was a very hard deal to make. It was way too costly for the studio. Not production costs, costly in terms of what they would have had to pay us to do it, you know? Not because individually we’re so expensive, but because Ghostbusters was such a valuable franchise. It just seemed natural that we would get highly rewarded for it.

But as far as me and Murray... we don’t have a lot of contact anymore. It’s fine. It’s like, I was with Bill when he was exploiting that first original persona that everyone loved so much. Now, it’s like he’s a different person in certain ways, and there’s different aspects of himself that he shows us now, very well too. I really admire the career he’s had since he stopped being “the Wildman.”

What’s next for you? Can you talk at all about the project you’re doing with Owen Wilson?

Harold Ramis: You know, I’ve been trying to say little about it in public, because it’s a very high concept that I’d really be afraid that someone would say, “Oh yeah, that’s great! I’ll do that real quick before them.” So, I’ve tried not to.

The Ice Harvest comes out on DVD February 28th, 2006 through Universal Home Video.

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Evan Jacobs