At some point in your life you’ve probably been obsessed with one of Ivan Reitman’s films. It could’ve been his most notorious movie, Ghostbusters, which starred funny guys Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Bill Murray. If you’ve spent some time overseas, it may be the sardonic buddy film Stripes. Or, if you’re a bit younger, you probably brought your girlfriend to the film Friends with Benefits last summer, which starred Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher. There’s no doubt that Reitman’s career has been one which aspiring directors hope to achieve. But what you may not know is that his wild ride started at an imaginary camp called Camp North Star 33 years ago with one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, Bill Murray, up in the Great White North.
We sat down with famed director/producer Ivan Reitman to talk about Bill Murray’s first starring role in Reitman’s summer camp comedy film Meatballs, which made its way to Blu-Ray earlier this month, to talk about his memories on set, his work with some of the biggest names in Hollywood and the indisputable genuine charm you find in all of his films.
Playboy.com: It must be crazy for you to have a movie you made so long ago coming out on Blu-Ray.
Ivan Reitman: I of course hope all of my movies come out on Blu-Ray; I’m actually working on that happening. I’m really happy that Meatballs is coming out again.
Playboy.com: Yeah, it’s so much fun! I hadn’t seen the movie in so long. I was actually watching a bit of it at work today and it was a little bittersweet to think that the last time I watched Meatballs, I worked at a summer camp and now I was watching it in an office on a laptop.
Reitman: Ah, the world has shifted!
Playboy.com: What are your memories of working on set? I know it must be a haze since you’ve worked on so many other films, but Meatballs being your first major film, there must be some things that come to mind.
Reitman: Well, it was my second feature as a director; the first one I did was for about $11,000 in Canada, called Cannibal Girls.
Playboy.com: I love that movie.
Reitman: You saw Cannibal Girls? Wow, that’s insane. After doing that film, I thought I’d be directing Animal House because I worked on that for two years and put the whole thing together. But, having only directed Cannibal Girls, they felt that they should get someone more experienced, so I ended up producing it even though I had worked on the script for two years and brought John Belushi into the fold. I didn’t have the pleasure of directing it, John Landis did, which he did a really good job of. But I knew that I had to get back to directing so that wouldn’t ever happen again. I called up some friends, Dan Goldberg and Len Blum, who I had gone to university with and decided to do a summer camp movie. Amazingly, the owner of White Pine Camp said yes to us filming Meatballs during the summer camp season. After everything was done, the big piece of the casting puzzle of course was getting Bill [Murray] to say yes.
Playboy.com: Was that role written for him?
Reitman: Yeah, it was. I had done a show called The National Lampoon Show, which was a variety show before SNL and before SCTV. The Lampoon Show had Bill Murray, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Joe Flaherty and Harold Ramis.
Playboy.com: Wow, okay! So everybody who was anybody was on the show.
Reitman: Yeah, but this is when they were all unknown. A bunch of the cast got hired by Lorne Michaels when he started SNL and Bill, although he was not hired, had done a couple of sketches that first year and was going to be brought in for the second year. I had just finished Animal House and called up Bill, who I of course knew and had his actual phone number [Editor’s Note: Bill is notorious for having no agent and only a 1-800 number you can call and pitch your idea to] and told him that I was going to try and do this film up in Canada at a summer camp and promised it would be a lot of fun. He said, “Well, you know…I’d rather just golf and play baseball this summer because I’m going to go work on SNL next year.”
Playboy.com: It seems that not much has changed with him.
Reitman: After that, I just kind of kept at him and wouldn’t offer it to anyone else. I was cofinancing the film with my Canadian partners and then we were on location at the camp with full crew and all the other cast and literally I didn’t find out he was going to do the movie until the day before we started shooting. He showed up on the second day.
Playboy.com: That’s incredible. Is it true that the clothes he was wearing in his first take are what he showed up in?
Reitman: I’m not so sure if that’s true, but it could very well be. The first thing we shot was when he introduces the viewers to the counselors-in-training. Although he used the structure of the scene that was written, he literally changed every line. And every line that he changed was of course much better than what was written. I remember turning to my partners and writers saying, “Thank god he said yes, I don’t think the movie would be very good without him!”
Playboy.com: Is it strange to be the director of a film which many others are based upon or with scenes that are used as tropes?
Reitman: It used to bother me. I wasn’t upset about it, but it was annoying. I felt like they were stealing. But now I see it more fully and realize it’s a compliment. It’s a long tradition in any creative work to borrow from others before. Particularly in the music field as of late, it’s all samples from other great songs and artists are creating new work from it. So I think that sort of helped me come to terms with that.
Playboy.com: Fast-forward 33 years since the first release of Meatballs. A lot has changed for you!
Reitman: We just finished doing this wonderful movie called Hitchcock, which stars Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren. Hopkins plays Hitchcock and Mirren plays his wife. It’s a story of their lives in the year that he made Psycho so there’s a lot of the shooting of that film in it. Scarlett Johansson plays the Janet Leigh role in Psycho. We have this extraordinary cast and we’re rushing it out because the studio is really high on it and hopes that it will get a lot of attention.
Playboy.com: You’ve worked with so many big names. Who was the wildest on set: John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd or Bill Murray?
Reitman: The person who always historically brought the most energy was Bill. Bill was just this force of nature. But, in all honesty, all three of them are forces of nature.
John Belushi’s career was unfortunately so short. I got to work with him both in The Lampoon Show where I saw him onstage and then again on Animal House where he was in great shape and not on drugs whatsoever. He was just this extraordinarily funny and charismatic person. I think he could’ve been a great dramatic actor. He used to do Marlon Brando on SNL, but what made it so memorable was that lure he had that Brando had which, in my opinion, is incontestably taking the stage or being the center of attention where you can’t take your eyes off him no matter who is with him.
As for Dan Aykroyd, he’s sort of this mad genius. No one else has come up with the conceptual ideas that he has. I mean he single-handedly invented the Blues Brothers, Ghostbusters, Coneheads, the wild and crazy Czechoslovakian brothers…These are huge ideas. He’s not a wild and crazy guy in real life, but he’s a really good guy who’s smart and funny and has these brilliant out-there ideas.
Playboy.com: How did you film your earlier movies? I feel the same sense of “normal” as I get when I watch Judd Apatow films, especially in Meatballs and Stripes.
Reitman: I like to think it’s because [I’m a] a fabulous director. [Laughs] It’s always been my style to play things in a real world. I’ve always believed that my principles as a director were that the main actors in my films were always the smartest guys in the room, as opposed as the dumbest guys, which is another form of comedy altogether. If you could be as clever as Bill Murray or Harold Ramis, and you were as brave as they are, this is the way you might be able to say something if you were at the top of your game.It’s interesting; I see it now after Animal House, Stripes and Meatballs were rereleased.
I think people remember these movies very fondly and they have resonated through these decades and don’t really feel dated in the way most movies from 30 or even five years ago feel. I mean the music is, the sense of clothing and style is different, but there’s something about the storytelling, comedy and the character interplay that seems to work today as well as before.