Q & A with Writer-Producrer-Director Harold Ramis

Harold Ramis on the set of “Year One”

Harold Ramis on the set of “Year One”

As part of ZAMM.com’s ongoing series of filmmaker interviews Martin Grove talks to writer-producer-director Harold Ramis about his comedy “Year One” starring Jack Black and Michael Cera, opening June 19 from Columbia Pictures.

Written by Ramis & Gene Stupnitsky & Lee Eisenberg from a story by Ramis, “Year One” was produced by Ramis, Judd Apatow and Clayton Townsend and executive produced by Rodney Rothman. Also starring are Oliver Platt, David Cross and Hank Azaria.

In “Year One” Jack Black and Michael Cera play two lazy hunter-gatherers who after being banished from their primitive village take an epic road trip through the ancient world.

Among Harold Ramis’s many hit movies are “Animal House”, “Caddyshack”, “Stripes”, “National Lampoon’s Vacation”, “Ghostbusters”, “Back to School”, “Groundhog Day”, “Multiplicity”, “Analyze This”, “Bedazzled”, “Analyze That” and “The Ice Harvest”. I was happy to have the opportunity to catch up with him recently to talk about the making of “Year One”.

Q: How did “Year One” come about?
A: I was thinking about this one a long time. I started making notes in the summer of ’05. There were a couple of influences that were kind of lying dormant. I went through college memorizing all of Mel Brooks’ recorded materials (like) “The Two-Thousand-Year-Old Man” and all the stuff that went with that. I loved the conceit of putting characters with a contemporary consciousness in an ancient world. It seemed very funny to me. And I love history. So those were things that were kicking around.

And then in the mid-’70s I was watching PBS and saw a documentary that informed me that Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons, the first modern man, co-existed on the planet for thousands of years and must have met. I was working with John Belushi and Bill Murray at the time at National Lampoon and I directed them in an improv. I told them what I’d heard on the show. Bill’s (Cro-Magnon) brain was like 1,500 cubic centimeters. John’s was only 1,400. Bill played him like his usual contemporary hipster and John played Neanderthal like a moronic thug. It was very funny. They had a nice Abbott & Costello quality. So that was sticking in my head.
Q: And it stuck with you for quite a long time.
A: That was 34 years ago. In 1975 we were doing that show. So it occurred to me after 9/11 that I wanted to say something about the ancient world just as a way of talking about the world now. I thought back to both those influences and (said to myself), “Well, why not do something set in the ancient world and invest the characters with my own consciousness?” — because I’m sure there had to be guys like me standing there at the Golden Calf, you know. Probably, I would have been one of the guys who made the Golden Calf, in fact.
Q: So you had the idea. What do you do when you have an idea for a movie?
A: I started making notes imagining a classic comedy team at the dawn of man. I thought, “Well, what does that sound like?” I started thinking about hunters and gatherers and what’s funny about hunting and gathering and then it started to take shape. I just started connecting it with the earliest ideas of Genesis and started thinking, “Well, Adam and Eve really is a metaphor for man living in a state of nature.”

So I imagined the hunter-gatherers living in a virtual Garden of Eden with one rule — Don’t eat the fruit from that tree. And a guy like Jack (Black), who like me, once hearing that would have to eat the fruit. So it’s not only the story of every comic hero, it’s actually the story of every adolescent. I started to see the expulsion from the Garden as both the beginning of civilization and the beginning of an existential crisis when man stopped living in a state of nature and the beginning of when adolescence starts to lift you from the world of childhood to a world of dawning responsibility.

I also realized that everyone in Genesis was in movement. All of Genesis is one epic journey after another as well as one dysfunctional family after another. So I started looking at it that way and set these characters in motion, expelled them from their Garden paradise. And the first people they meet, as in the Bible, (are) Cain & Abel. The second story in the Bible is a murder. We’re given very little information about Cain & Abel in Genesis, but I fleshed it out a little bit. I made it a classic sibling rivalry and Cain’s a bit of a sociopath. That’s Paul Rudd and David Cross. Our guys stumble on them just as they’re beginning their fatal argument — and then they’re accomplices and they flee with Cain. So that’s a lot of things in motion. They end up meeting Abraham and Isaac. We had a Noah section, too, which we couldn’t afford to shoot.
Q: Because of the flood?
A: Well, the flood, the size of the Ark and, also, Steve Carell’s “Evan Almighty” had just been out and, I thought, sort of burned a lot of Noah. So we dropped Noah. But Abraham & Isaac is one of the seminal stories and they’re the next important people they meet. Despite every warning by Abraham that God will destroy Sodom for its iniquities, it just makes them want to go to Sodom even more. So they go there. And the studio picked up on it in the marketing as the“first road trip.”
Q: How did it come to Sony?
A: In November of ’05 I thought I’m ready to tell this. I have a loose three acts, which is all I ever want to tell anyway. I always feel people pitch too much. As long as a studio feels you can do it, they don’t want to hear too many details. They just want to hear enough that gets them laughing and a story that really makes sense so they can visualize the characters in it and so they can visualize the marketing campaign. That’s very important to them. Executives have said that to me very directly. It could be the greatest idea in the world, but if they can’t sell it, it’s no good to them.
Q: So you pitched it then?
A: My agent set up five or six meetings. I have friends everywhere and they all wanted to hear it. I think Sony was my last meeting. I’d had very good relations at Sony. I made “Groundhog Day” there and “Multiplicity”, both films that they liked. Before the meeting was over (studio honchos) Amy Pascal and Matt Tolmach said, “Oh, yeah, we’ll do that.” Making a deal happened very quickly and then we were writing. I started writing in the spring of ’06.
Q: Were you writing alone at that point or were Gene and Lee on board?
A: I didn’t want to work alone and I didn’t know who else to work with because all the guys who were either my age or a little younger that I’d worked with before are all so successful. I’d gone through it before on previous films. I would call a successful writer and he’d say, “Oh, yeah, I have five days in April I can give you.” I remember writing our best movies when we had nothing but time. We sat around and spent three months (working) every day, eight hours a day on a first draft. So I didn’t want to do it in five days. Gene and Lee had literally been protégés of mine. They both started as interns and then as PAs on projects of mine. They met on a project of mine and started writing together, were discovered and hired as staff members on “The Office”. They were very good at it and I loved all the specs they’d written. So I thought, “Well, why not?”
Q: I understand that way back Lee was a waiter in a restaurant you liked on Martha’s Vineyard.
A: Lee waited on us at Alchemy in Edgartown.
Q: That’s got to be the ultimate dream of every waiter who gets near somebody who’s in showbiz.
A: Well, the rest was up to him. He took the initiative and moved out to L.A. and actually called my office. He didn’t call me and did not try to exploit that meeting at all. He got on as a PA on his own on my film “Bedazzled” and they just liked him. So I didn’t give him that first job. But all the writing Gene and Lee showed me was good. And I thought, “Well, they’re so much closer to the audience in age and sensibility than I am and this can only be good for me.” So we went into it together. I took the lead and laid out the first draft and they rewrote me every step of the way and kept bouncing it back and forth.
Q: Had they written any films prior to this?
A: I don’t think they’d written a feature yet. They wrote a couple specs after we started, one of which I think is going to get made at Sony.
Q: Did the three of you sit down in a room and write together?
A: At first, when I told them the movie we were together. And then I just started sending them stuff. You know, e-mail’s great these days! So I would e-mail them each day’s output or each section of the film. They’d send it back rewritten promptly. I’d retouch that and (we’d continue) back and forth.
Q: So many times when I talk to writers and ask if they had anybody in mind to play the roles when they were writing, they always say no, it could be anybody. But I understand you had Jack Black in mind from the start.
A: I was so curious about Jack the first time I saw him in (Stephen Frears’ 2000 romantic comedy drama) “High Fidelity”. I thought he was great. I could hardly believe that that was an actor playing a role. He was so convincing and yet so funny. And then we both acted in (the 2002 comedy) “Orange County” with Jake Kasdan directing and, again, I thought he was brilliant. So he was always in my head. But I never count on anybody unless someone’s really on board and committed. Nine times out of ten, when people write for someone someone else ends up doing it. But his whole generation was in my head — Jack, Owen Wilson, Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell. It could have been any of those guys. In my mind at that point I thought it could be good for any of them. It was really going to come down to the commercial decision who wanted to do it, availability, all that stuff. When it came time to finally do a table read for the studio, Jack was the only one in contention.
Q: Did he love it immediately or did you have twist his arm?
A: We sent him the script and I don’t think 48 hours went by before his agent called back and said Jack wants to do this. But then there was some confusion. She said, “He wants to play the sidekick” and I said, “Oh, wait. No, no, no. That’s not good.” But I entertained the idea. Then I thought, “No, he’s got to be the other guy.” And then, fortunately, I think either they called me back or the first time I questioned it they said, “No, no. Jack wants to play the main character.” It’s no longer a main guy and sidekick. They’re really co-equal roles. Michael Cera’s so good and Jack is so generous.
Q: How did you come up with Michael?
A: I didn’t have Michael in mind because I hadn’t seen him yet. I saw (Greg Mottola’s 2007 comedy) “Superbad” finally. When Judd Apatow came on board as my co-producer he said, “You should look at Michael Cera.” I had looked at a bunch of “Arrested Development,” but he was like 13 when he started there and it was hard to tell anything from that. But once I saw “Superbad” I thought, “Well, absolutely, he’s the guy.”
Q: When you write something that you know you’re going to direct, do you write any differently than you would if someone else was going to direct it? Like, say, not writing a scene you’d have to shoot at night in pouring rain?
A: Oh, yeah. There’s that. I heard this 30 years ago — someone said if you’re going to write a screenplay to direct never start with, “It was a freezing day in Detroit.” I was looking at all the DeMille pictures. I wanted to do an epic. I’ve been directing long enough to know that the director in one sense is the easiest job on the set. He’s the only one that doesn’t have to carry anything or know how to work any machines. I don’t have to wrangle the animals or get the extras together. I just write from my imagination and I’ll worry about the logistics later.
Q: So you had a script and a studio and a cast. What happened then?
A: In the meantime, Judd had hired me as an actor in (the 2007 romantic comedy) “Knocked Up”. We had met before and had a very cordial relationship based on his affection for my early work and the influence he claims (on himself) from that. And then we met at the Deauville Film Festival in France. We bonded there. Seth Rogen was with him. They were showing (the 2005 romantic comedy) “40 Year Old Virgin” and I was showing (the 2005 comedy thriller) “Ice Harvest”. And then he turned up and hosted an awards thing for me at the Austin Film Festival that fall. He was just great about it and I felt so flattered by his respect.

And he was so successful, I thought to myself, “Well, if I had Judd Apatow with me as an ally this would be great” because everything he was doing was working and he was so well connected to two comedy generations that I had grown beyond. He was happy to come on and that really kicked things into high gear at that point. The studio was asking for a table read so pretty much the first thing we did together was cast the movie. This was before he had a lot of script input. We cast the table read and it was pretty much the principals who are in the film. But those key roles were really working at the table. In fact, Amy Pascal kind of snuck over to where I was sitting during the table read like 20 minutes in and whispered to me, “We’re making this movie.” That’s very encouraging.
Q: When did you start shooting?
A: January of ’08 (after) a good long prep. And then Judd started testing the script with other writers. He likes (to do that). Everything goes before a comedy jury with Judd. He uses a lot of writers and let’s people just throw jokes in and he wants to hear lots of opinions. I opened up to that. So we got some input on the script and he had good suggestions for a production designer — Jeff Sage (“Knocked Up”) — and Debra McGuire (“Knocked Up”), whom I knew from other Judd-produced vehicles, as a costume designer. I brought (in) my favorite cameraman, Alar Kivilo (“The Lake House”), who had shot my last film, “The Ice Harvest”. So the team kind of formed up. There was big design stuff in the film because recreating the ancient world without leaving the country was tricky.
Q: Where did you shoot to get the right period look?
A: For climate, just so people wouldn’t be freezing — we didn’t want snow — we went south. Louisiana had this wonderful tax structure. We went to the Shreveport area, which is a burgeoning film community. We had a couple big stages in the city and our two big sets were built within an hour of Shreveport — one east and one west. We built Sodom (on) a six and a half acre set, an authentic looking ancient city with stone cobbled streets and stone buildings and a stone fortified wall around it and a large temple with a fiery idol. It sounds like a joke, but they built this ancient city faster than it took to remodel my bathroom. In 10 weeks we were ready to shoot on that set.
Q: What kind of money did you save shooting in Louisiana?
A: I think we got a rebate of 10 percent of the budget and maybe more. Because I don’t have to do the numbers, I don’t know what that really means — if that’s cash they give you back or tax you don’t pay. I don’t know what form it comes in. But apparently theirs is very favorable and people were pretty happy to shoot there.
Q: What kind of budget did you have?
A: I’ve heard of big scale comedies costing twice that much. We were just actually in the high-medium range.
Q: High-medium? I would guess sixty-ish?
A: Yeah, a little more.
Q: $65-70 million?
A: Yeah. Right in there. That doesn’t sound outrageous (but it is) by any standard but Hollywood’s!
Q: Looking back at production, there must have been all sorts of crazy days.
A: There was a lot of activity. Lots of extras and lots of animals. I wanted animals in every shot. We had our oxcart chases and we had camels later. We had zebus. You don’t see zebus walking around very much.
Q: What is a zebu?
A: It’s a small Asian ox. The movie opens with a boar hunt, which we shot in L.A. We shot a little bit in L.A. — the Garden of Eden and the forest of the hunter-gatherers. So I rented boar to run around. (We also had) monkeys and gibbons and chickens and goats and ancient Scottish cattle. It was a real animal show.
Q: Don’t they say in film school that you should never work with animals, children or water?
A: Yeah. ABC — animals, boats and children. There were times when the oxen wouldn’t (work). They’re supposed to be stronger than oxen. They wouldn’t pull! These were oxen that were raised somewhere in Burbank. They didn’t want to pull the carts so that took a little doing. I think there’s some B-roll of me trying to direct the oxen (and) speaking directly to them. Jack was terrified. In the Garden of Eden there’s an eight foot albino python and Jack was really afraid of that snake. It was funny watching him come to terms with that and let it crawl all over him. He didn’t like it, but he did it. We had a cougar. We were told, “This is the cougar from “Talledega Nights”. He’s really good.” But this was a cougar who did not apparently want to work nights. We could not get this cougar to do anything we wanted it to do. It was almost kind of a disaster. We had some other big cats, too. We had a young lion and a young tiger in one shot. Jack did not want to go near them either.
Q: What did you do?
A: We designed the shot so they were in the foreground and cleared the shot before Jack got too close to them. I was kind of fascinated by the whole animal process. After 10 weeks in Louisiana we went to New Mexico and shot all over (the state) in great Biblical looking canyons and deserts and white sand.
Q: How long did you shoot?
A: We shot 13 weeks and then came back and shot a week (after) we looked at the movie and saw we needed to re-shoot stuff. It all went very well. The shooting went great and then we played with the film a long time in editing because we always knew we were a summer release. We got to do a lot of testing and then did our re-shoots based on the tests. Judd was directing “Funny People” (his comedy drama starring Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen and Leslie Mann, opening July 31 via Universal) so I didn’t really have him by my side either on the shoot or in the editing room, but after he finished shooting “Funny People” he got to make his very good contribution to the editing, I have to say. Everything I hoped for in our collaboration really paid off.
Q: It sounds like you had fun.
A: I always have fun because I refuse to not have fun. And I try not to work with people who are going to be a problem or a drag in any way. We had great people. You get the right people and everything goes beautifully.