INT: Harold Ramis
One of the best times I've ever had in an interview was getting to sit down with Harold Ramis on the set of YEAR ONE. As David Cross would tell us later that day, the man is an underappreciated comic genius. When you look back and what he has contributed to American comedy and realize he was one of the driving forces behind ANIMAL HOUSE, GHOSTBUSTERS, CADDYSHACK, STRIPES, MEATBALLS, GROUNDHOG DAY and VACATION? That's pretty impressive.
Though it was freezing cold and I was wearing a tunic, I could've sat there all day listening to stories of Billy, Danny, John and the old crew and his new crew of Jack Black and Michael Cera. An amazing talent and actually one of the nicest guys I've ever met.
What was the name of that show? Was it on stage?
Ramis: National Lampoon show we were doing. Gilda Radner was in the show, Bill and me and Joe Flaherty.
What was it like working with the newest generation of comics, Jack Black and Michael Cera?
Ramis: Yeah, its somewhat generational. I think the press release the studio first put was Judd and I was a meeting of these generation. Theres a picture of Judd as a teenager, coming to see me in LA in the early '80s, which is what he was doing as a kid; was just trying to meet every funny person who he'd seen on television or in movies. So I started hearing about Judd first. Id see interviews; I knew about Freaks and Geeks, and I started seeing interviews where he would mention me as some big influence on him. So Judd's about 40 and I'm about 60 and then [Michael] Cera's like 20. So he started working with people one generation younger than he is, and he's one generation younger than me. So now he's the bridge for me to people two generations younger. I have a son who's a year younger than Michael Cera.
You mentioned Life of Brian before, and we were talking earlier about other great Biblical comedies like History of the World Part I or Wholly Moses!, which is a bit of a forgotten film. What's going to differentiate this movie from some of the other classics? What's your spin on it, basically?
Ramis: Well (chuckles) our spin is that Wholly Moses! was awful! [laughter] And thats well forgotten, and History of the World I looked at again and it's very old school. Its very Catskills. It isnt really expressing any kind of philosophy. Whereas the Python films do contain some kind of social commentary, and there's a sense of playing with real literature with the Pythons, and that's sort of what I was going for here. I've been looking at the Old Testament for a very long time, starting as a Hebrew school student, and just thinking about it every year. I've had some really enlightening contact with a progressive rabbi that I know, and these ideas, suddenly after 9/11, seem much more important. The role that religion plays in the world, the power of fundamentalism over people's lives. I thought, maybe I can take all of those ideas I had about the early world and use them in service of this idea. And to somehow find an interpretation of Genesis that would hook directly into where we are today. All our problems go all the way back right to the beginning.
Do you think that the Old Testament is inherently funnier than the New Testament?
Ramis: I don't know about funnier, but I was explaining to someone that the New Testament is a much better narrative, that's why it's more popular, because it's like a hero's journey. It's one character, the story takes place in one person's lifetime, it has a beginning, a middle and an end, and a redemption. You look at the Old Testament, and it's one dysfunctional family after another. Somehow, when we tell Bible stories to kids, they turn out to be little morality tales, but they're not! You read the Old Testament, and people, theyre more than flawed; they do some terrible things to each other, and there are no happy endings; there are no resolutions. These stories just go on and on in the Old Testament. I noticed that, and I also noticed that they're all journeys in the Old Testament. Everyone's on a journey; they've either been expelled from somewhere or exiled or they're fleeing from something or they're out seeking something in the world. When I thought about doing the Old Testament, there was no single story that has a good enough arc to be a movie, unless you're doing The Ten Commandments again. So I thought I could take all these stories from the early part of Genesis and smash them into one story. I'm sure most of our young audience will not know the difference anyway. (laughter) So it was a way to try and forge a narrative out of a bunch of Genesis material.
Ramis (left) talks while we all listen intently
We heard earlier Adam and Eve is gonna be in it, along with the forbidden apple? Ramis: [laughs] Well there are representations of that, yeah. Can you list a few of those? Is the Burning Bush going to be in it? Ramis: No, the forbidden fruit is a trigger event, and it really starts with Paleolithic hunter-gatherers. Jack [Black] and June Raphael and Michael [Cera], they are living in a state of nature. That's my interpretation of the Garden of Eden, man's pre-civilization. So they're hunter-gatherers. Jack is the laziest hunter-gatherer in the tribe, and they have one rule in the tribe: the one rule is that you can't eat that fruit. You can eat anything else, but not that fruit. Jack, as part of his seduction of June, eats the fruit and she gets to eat the fruit. So it's an original sin concept, it causes his fall, and he's expelled from the tribe, which sets him off on this journey. The first people they meet are Caine and Abel, and they travel with Caine for a while, they run into Abraham later, and then Abraham warning them about Sodom. Every awful thing he says about Sodom sounds very good to them. (laughs) Is there going to be the type of social commentary that there was in Life of Brian or are you just using that background for the humor? Ramis: Well, I always liked everything Monty Python did, but just the idea that there could be something as accurate and funny done on the Old Testament, as they did on the New Testament, that was an appealing concept. When I looked at all the Bible movies. I looked at all the comedies and all the serious ones, and theirs was really far and away the best of the comedies, so part of it for me was to try and do a satire as elegant as that one, and then looking at all the old Cecil B. Demille pictures and all the other Bible pictures that were made, its also part parody of every bible epic youve seen. What are some of your favorite straight Bible epics? Ramis: As a kid, Ben Hur was like, really powerful and I liked Ten Commandments as a kid. Now look at it and it seems so ridiculous, but the funniest is Samson and Delilah. Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr. It's one of the worst movies ever made. It's DeMille, and it is really bad, but it makes me laugh so much. Youre going to have to see it to know how awful it is. We saw the camels and we heard you had sheep and other animals. Any crazy stories? Ramis: Yeah, lot of animals. Nothings run amok yet. We had a cougar that didnt want to work. I heard he was constipated (laughter) but its the cougar that was in Talladega Nights. When they hired the cougar, they were like Hey, this cougar worked with Will Ferrell How are Jack and Mike around animals? Ramis: Oh, theyre great. Jack had a little scene with a fox in it, theyve worked with oxen so far. Virtually every scene in the movie has animals in it. Seemed like part of doing the early world. We have a zebu walking around, and noones ever seen a zebu. Is there any concern of a backlash among religious groups? Ramis: No, I think the Fundamentalists will put it on their banned lists without even seeing it. It seems that will be an instant knee jerk reaction to the content of the movie. Orthodox Jews wont be allowed to see it, and I think all religious moderates will enjoy the film.
Theres never a discussion with the studio or anything where they ask to soften things? Ramis: Amy Pascal, who runs the studio, she was at the first meeting where I described what I wanted to do, and she said that since 9/11, shes wanted to do a film on Fundamentalism, but always thought it would be a drama. She said, Now Im thinking it might be a comedy. Theyre building this huge thing is that part of a set piece for the end of the movie? Ramis: Yeah... things will fall down. (laughter) Will you only have one opportunity to shoot it? Ramis: Were doing it on a Saturday I think. Two weeks from Saturday. Can you tell us what theyre trying to build? Ramis: Oh, its a zigarrat. A lot of zigarrats, or as I call them The birthday cake zigarrats, where its one layer after another and they get smaller and smaller, but its the Tower of Babel, its a huge obelisk. Its funny that Jack Black is in your movie. I wondered if you saw Be Kind Rewind and their sweded version of Ghostbusters where Jack Black plays you? He plays everybody but Bill Murray. Its very entertaining. Ramis: So Ive heard. I havent seen it yet. I saw clips that suggested thats what they were doing, but I met Jack first on Orange County. We did some improvising together but it doesnt appear in the film, but we were working the same nights, so I got to know him a little bit. Stephen Frears also put me in High FidelityI played Johns father, it was a little fantasy moment--but they cut it out. Its on the DVD I guess, but I didnt meet Jack then, but thats where I first saw him and thought he was so great. I wanted to work with this guy for a long time. Are you any way involved with the Ghostbusters video game that's coming out? Ramis: Yes I am! They consulted with us every step of the way, they showed us drawings, and they laid out the concept of the narrative of the game, and showed us drawings of all the environments, and then showed us animatics of the preliminary stuff. Have you played it yourself? Ramis: No, Im not a gamer. Then we had the script, and we've been looking at the script, and we'll make changes. Mine will be sort of in-studio. I think Danny [Aykroyd]'s been working on actually rewriting their script. Can you talk about shooting in Shreveport, and why you chose it here, especially with the amount of churches there are in the area? I thought that was kind of ironic. Ramis: A lot of churches. Well, someone said, Youre shooting a bible comedy in the bible belt. How smart is that? People have been great so far. We havent had any problems, but Shreveport is one of the states (sic) that has one of the best tax breaks in the country, and we needed that help. For a comedy, this is quite a large scale. Hundreds of costumed extras and all this construction, so we needed a relatively inexpensive place to work, and we didnt want to leave the country. How did you find this place where you could build five acres of Sodom? Ramis: Its a little more, its like six and a half acres. This is a large sand pit. The sand has been dredged out of the waterways, I guess, and we looked at another sand pit and some other open fields, one of them on a military base, which was a landfill I think. We have another big set that we use for the farming village that Caine and Abel live in, and thats on a big flat land fill. Just timing-wise, is Jesus or God going to be felt in this movie? Ramis: No, were thousands of years before Jesus. Its the real one Jesus wasnt born in the Year One. They made it one after him. (laughs) Because when he was born, they didnt say, Lets start counting again; this will be one. And then when he died, they didnt say This must be 33. It was in the 7th Century that Pope Gregory decided to try to figure out a calendar that began with the birth of Jesus, so he enlisted a monk named Dennis the Short (laughs) to do a calculation which took him quite a while but he figured it out by tracing generations back. And he was still six years off. What kind of special effects will we see in the film? Ramis: The usual. [laughs] Multiplying crowds. The movie is a secular humanist testament. (laughs) The only miracle that I know is the miracle of life itself. To me, everything is a miracle, so we don't need fire and brimstone to live in a state of awe and wonder. Thats sort of what the movie's positing to people. If you want to see miracles, just look around every day. It's just existence itself; its kind of a Buddhist thing, so the Dalai Lama appears at the end (laughter), floating on a cloud.
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