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ghostbusters 1984

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How the director of Ghostbusters crossed the streams of politics and comedy

Ivan Reitman on the past, present, and future of his sci-fi comedy series

Columbia Pictures

Three weeks ago, Ghostbusters editor Sheldon Kahn discovered an early workprint of the 1984 comedy. Dated Feb. 17th, 1984, about four months before the release, the edit was wildly incomplete. Because of time constraints, no wide visual effects shots (and barely any visual effects at all) were finished. Crew members were often visible.

At the time, the incomplete cut screened for a private audience of 200 and 300 select guests, so that Reitman could get a feel for how Ghostbusters was coming together a few months before release. According to the director, the workprint only had one shot of the Marshmallow Man, that of his head behind a rooftop, so “that audience could at least understand what the hell we’re talking about.”

Today, Reitman insists that the key to Ghostbusters was that the effects didn’t matter (even though effects artists scrambled to finish the movie on time). “That screening was as good as any screening we ever had,” he tells Polygon on the occasion of the movie’s 35th anniversary. “It told us we had something special: that the story worked.”

Ghostbusters, the ’80s era relic

The story of Ghostbusters was the result of a two week brainstorming session in 1983 (with Reitman joined by stars Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis in Martha’s Vineyard), and a pure Reagan-era reaction. The supernatural entity Gozer was the villain, but so was the government.

“I’ve been sort of a Libertarian,” Reitman says. “I’m actually a double immigrant. Coming to Canada from Czechoslovakia and then immigrating to America from Canada did make me believe in the power of capitalism and the power of the intelligent individual which has been a theme from many of my films.”

ghostbusters library scene Columbia Pictures

Ghostbusters II followed that theme. At the beginning of the sequel, ghostbusting is no more, the company having been sued out of business by the government. “The people who play those antagonists, or who play the bureaucracy, or who play the individuals that we all have to come up against in daily life, are fairly well cast and well drawn with actors playing… a naturalistic style that make us believe in the truth of what’s going on,” explains Reitman.

Today, it’s somewhat comical to think William Atherton’s character Walter Peck, the smug EPA representative of the first movie, had a point about the potential ecological issues of this new ghost business. “Of course he did. The real bad guy in Ghostbusters is Gozer […] That’s the real scary thing. Then of course, there’s the day-to-day issues we all have to deal with and get over somehow,” Reitman says.

While time has granted Ghostbusters lasting appeal, the modern lens does introduce problems. For instance, on a date with Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) brings 300ccs of antipsychotic sedative Thorazine. That’s … suspect. When asked about why Venkman had the drug, Reitman gave an awkward laugh and says, “I think it was a really bad 1980s joke that doesn’t play today. It was making fun of that kind of masculine boys humor that had its heyday in the ’70s and ’80s.”

Ghostbusters, the unlikely franchise

The months between the workprint screening and the finished product were a scramble. Ghostbusters blitzed through principal photography and into post-production in less than a year, all to make it to the June 8, 1984 release date. Visual effects — involving men-in-suits, miniatures, matte paintings, and other techniques — all fell to a new studio headed by veteran Richard Edlund. Production was so rushed, there was little time to examine the movie as a whole.

Edlund is quoted in the book Ghostbusters: The Complete Visual History saying, “[Reitman] wanted to add like a hundred shots. I thought that’s going to kill everybody… So I met him in a parking lot with my samurai sword saying, ‘You’ve got to make a cut, Ivan!’

Reitman responds to the anecdote with a laugh. “He never met me in any parking lot with a samurai sword. I’m sure in his head it was there.”

ghostbusters stay puft marshmallow man Columbia Pictures

The movie was a smash, but it took five years for a sequel, an eternity in today’s franchise-driven marketplace. The delays didn’t help in 1989 either. “None of us [were] in the mood to do another one… Our problem was we made too much money on the first one and were too successful. Everyone was kind of on to other stuff in their own lives. There was also the knowledge that hey, we made this really good movie. Why would we do another one and maybe screw it all up?,” remembers Reitman.

The intentions behind Ghostbusters evolved with the sequel Reitman views the second movie as more of a romantic comedy with Venkman and Barrett rekindling their relationship, but Reitman is also critical of his work. “Even though we were confident, it doesn’t have the kind of confidence that the first movie does. I was really happy with the directing work and performance work but it was a much smaller, more intimate movie.”

Whatever caginess the director had over Ghostbusters 2, that original story is now a property that Sony, which acquired Columbia Pictures in 1989, is continually anxious to franchise.

This puts Reitman is in a unique spot. There’s an animated movie coming, but first, his son, Jason Reitman, will helm a new movie, a direct sequel to the originals. “He just wrote, with [Monster House director] Gil Kenan, this really spectacular script [...] I talked to them about it on occasion, but this is their invention based on their love of the original movie and things they felt were opportunities to be spoken about. I really believe people are going to be pleased,” says Reitman.

Until then, a new 4K/Blu-ray release is in stores, complete with previously lost deleted scenes and new commentaries. Maybe for the 40th anniversary, some of that newly discovered workprint will show up. Thirty-five years on, there’s still more Ghostbusters to look forward to.

Matt Paprocki is a writer whose work has appeared Variety, Rolling Stone/Gixel, Forbes, Polygon, Gamespot, Playboy, PC Gamer, Paste Games, Zam, DoBlu, and Retro Gamer Magazine UK.