Thursday, October 21, 2010

Ghostbusters / Ghostbusters 2

Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters 2 screen at the Toronto Underground Cinema today, Thursday October 21st and Sunday, October 24th. The original screens at 7pm and the sequel starts at 9:15pm.

I probably don't have to try a hard sell approach to get readers to come out to a screening of Ghostbusters. In fact, most of my readers have probably seen it already, or have already decided to come out to view it a second time. Up until 2 years ago, Ghostbusters was the highest grossing comedy of all time (eventually dethroned by The Hangover, which is already starting to age pretty badly). So instead of trying to sell you on the first film, I am going to use the first film to explain why the unjustly maligned 1989 sequel Ghostbusters 2, deserves a much warranted second look.

Ghostbusters was a film that was never really meant to succeed. Sure, Columbia Pictures desperately needed a tent pole (large scale blockbuster) for its 1984 summer line up, but they approached Ghostbusters with a healthy degree of trepidation. The screenplay by Dan Aykroyd in its original form was a futuristic action comedy written for Aykroyd and the late John Belushi. Aykroyd's original concept dealt with two bounty hunters catching ghosts on different dimensional planes and on various planets. In the original, the characters were hard nosed chain smokers and there were no less than three expensive action sequences in the first ten minutes alone.

Needless to say, Columbia Pictures and director Ivan Reitman, who was already attached to the project as was Bill Murray to play Aykroyd's sidekick Peter Venkman, decided that a rewrite was in order. The director of Stripes and Meatballs decided that he couldn't handle a film on the scale that Aykroyd had originally envisioned. Harold Ramis was then brought in to work with Aykroyd on a more manageable version of the script that still kept getting rewritten on the fly. By the end of the writing process and just as the cameras were about to roll on the most expensive comedy in motion picture history (at that point. It was initially budgeted at $30 million, but the final set piece with Gozer the Gozerian ended up adding an additional $5 million to an already over budget film), almost everyone who had been involved with the project had contributed or deleted items from the script. Everyone, that is, except for Bill Murray.

Bill Murray's ad libs weren't so much scripted or called for as they were telegraphed well in advance by Harold Ramis. Murray, who had been off in India filming his dramatic turn in The Razor's Edge, was known for going off book at almost every turn (a characteristic that infuriated co-star and Ghostbusters love interest Sigourney Weaver, who up until that point considered herself a method actress). Ramis, knowing Murray would like to have input but physically couldn't be involved in the writing process and knowing Murray's style, added a bunch of set-ups in the film that the comedic actor could use to create the dimensions that his character could work within.

Making the visual effects for Ghostbusters proved to be even more problematic since the first choice of effects studios, Industrial Light and Magic (who were actually used for the sequel) could not be used for the most part thanks to the post production needs of Paramount's 1984 tent pole, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The effects, which are still groundbreaking to this day, were just barely finished in time for release by a rotating crew of different effects houses working on different effects. This procedure is common place now, but at the time it was seen as financial suicide. The editing was also barely finished with large chunks of film deleted after being filmed due to pacing issues (including an extended hotel sequence involving a young couple being haunted and a running gag involving a pair of homeless men played by Murray and Aykroyd).

Columbia held its breath long enough and Ghostbusters took off like a rocket. After factoring in advertising and marketing, Ghostbusters needed to make $120 (in 1984 money) just to break even. The film ended up playing for runs of over a year long in major markets and held off competition from Gremlins and Temple of Doom to become the biggest hit of the summer. A sequel seemed all but inevitable.

Unfortunately, with great success comes unmanageable schedules for the newest comedy superstars. Despite all the major stars and Reitman having the same agent (super-agent Mike Ovitz at CAA), the Ghostbusters crew was unable to get back together for close to 5 years, but Columbia was highly optimistic that they could recapture the magic of the first film, and in my eyes, they did. People seem to think, however, that simply because Ghostbusters 2 was a financial disappointment and because it lacked the energy of the first film, that it is a bad film. I beg those people to reconsider and watch Ghostbusters 2 immediately after viewing the first film and with fresh eyes. You will be pleasantly surprised.

The writing for Ghostbusters 2 was as problematic as the first film, not because Aykroyd and Ramis had a particularly "out there" concept, but because it was a lot more rushed. Once again, Columbia (now under new management) needed a hit for their summer line up, and the summer of 1989 was tapped to be one of the biggest (and most sequel filled ever). The cast reassembled under poorer working conditions, but they still had a strong script, Reitman back at the helm, and better performances (Seriously, Murray is better in the sequel no matter how much he has groused about it in the media) than the original.

The idea of New York City as a cesspool is not a new concept, but the idea that negativity can fester within an urban area and on such a large scale, makes Ghostbusters 2 not only a more focused film, but also a much darker one. To some degree I can see how this would make for a less entertaining film, but it almost makes for a more interesting one.

Unfortunately, in terms of blockbuster filmmaking, the summer of 1989 was a watershed year. While Ghostbusters opened to mostly positive reviews and one of the highest opening weekends of the year, it only lasted one week at number one and by a month into its run it had largely vanished from theatres altogether. So what happened? Quite simply, Batman (and Honey I Shrunk the Kids) happened the following week and Indiana Jones got his revenge that summer by making Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (which opened 2 weeks prior to Ghostbusters 2) a better film with longer staying power. Ghostbusters 2 made just barely over $100 million, but was still seen as a large disappointment and falling well short of its budget once marketing and advertising were factored into the cost.

Ghostbusters 2, from that point on, was really the first case of a film that crossed the $100 million mark and was still seen as a disappointment. Many people at the time changed their opinions of the sequel and called it superfluous. In fact, the summer of 1989 yielded more disappointing returns on sequels than any year prior. 1989 was the year that almost killed off Friday the 13th (with Jason Takes Manhattan) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (with The Dream Child). The Karate Kid III (which is far more superfluous) and Star Trek V all vastly underperformed in comparison to their previous series high points and highest grossing entries. This was also the summer that ended Timothy Dalton's all to brief run as James Bond with License to Kill. Other than Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2 was the only other sequel to connect with audiences in 1989.

Many analysts at the time (read: people who want to sound smart) suggested that the 5 year difference between the original and the sequel, lead to the generally negative public reception towards Ghostbusters 2. These people tend to forget that the previous Indiana Jones film was also released the same year as Ghostbusters. It is just an argument that doesn't hold any water. Much in the same way the argument that Ghostbusters 2 is a vastly inferior film than the original. It isn't the same as the original, but it certainly never deserved the drubbing it has gotten since its release. Why don't you go and see it for yourself and on its own merits? You know, like any movie should be seen?

For further reading on how awesome the story behind the making of Ghostbusters was, track down a copy of Making Ghostbusters, edited by Don Shay and including the uncut final shooting script of the film with notes and annotations from Reitman, Aykroyd, and Ramis. The book is out of print, but is a must have for Ghostbusters fans. For more on the poor performance of Ghostbusters 2 at the box office, check out American Cinema of the 1980s, edited by Stephen Prince, which is an invaluable resource for cultural context on films from the 1980s.

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