COVER

THE KING OF COMEDY

Brian D. Johnson June 9 1986
COVER

THE KING OF COMEDY

Brian D. Johnson June 9 1986

THE KING OF COMEDY

COVER

It was April Fool’s Day, but in Hollywood film-maker Ivan Reitman was in no mood for fooling around. He was at Universal Studios trying to complete his latest film, Legal Eagles, in time for release this month across North America.

With a $40-million budget and the blue-chip names of Robert Redford, Debra Winger and Darryl Hannah, a lot was at stake. Reitman spent the morning darting in and out of three editing rooms like a general commuting from front to front. At noon he paused for lunch, briefly. He slid his lanky frame behind the wheel of a grey Jaguar sedan and drove a short stretch of freeway to Art’s Delicatessen, where he ordered a diet cream soda and a corned beef sandwich. To a casual observer, there was little to indicate that the boyish-looking Canadian with baleful eyes and a slightly bucktoothed smile was one of the most successful comedy directors in Hollywood.

King: At 39, Reitman is the box office king of American film comedy.

Ghostbusters, which he produced and directed in 1984, earned $310 million and became the most lucrative comedy in movie history. Reitman also produced the previous record holder, National Lampoon's Animal House, which grossed $220 million and became the prototype for a new generation of youth-oriented movies. Even his more modest hits, Stripes and the Canadianmade Meatballs, have been immensely popular. Turning such talents as Bill Murray and John Belushi into box office gold, Reitman has acquired a reputation as a movie mogul with a Midas touch. But he is also a director obsessed with his craft, a perfectionist involved in nearly every aspect of making a movie, from conceiving the script to marketing the final product. “I take what I do really seriously,” the

producer-director told Maclean's. “I try real hard to do it better than anyone else does.”

Reitman’s films have rarely received critical acclaim. And their more memorable scenes—the food fight in Ani-

mal House or the Stay Puft marshmallow man stalking the streets of Manhattan in Ghostbusters—have a cartoon-like silliness that defies serious criticism. Michael Gross, one of two executive producers at Ivan Reitman Productions, said that his employer “does not really get the reception he would like from the critics— but the Hollywood machine loves him.” What Hollywood finds most lovable about Reitman is his almost infallible instinct for knowing what his audience wants. Said Dan Aykroyd, who co-wrote and starred in Ghostbusters: “He has a great feeling for the pulse of an audience. He knows how to build those points of reaction, the peaks and

valleys that make a movie work.” Over the past decade other filmmakers have tried to duplicate the Reitman recipe. Obvious imitations include Police Academy, Bachelor Party and Revenge of the Nerds. But Reitman’s latest film, Legal Eagles, marks a radical departure. Rather than create another adolescent fantasy with an ensemble cast, he has directed a trio of glamorous stars in an adult comedy-thriller. As he explained, “It was important for me to find another means of making people laugh.”

Legal Eagles is a tale of murder and fraud in the art world, a comedy of relationships rather than jokes. Reitman aimed for naturalism— and went to unusual lengths to achieve it. In an art-gallery set at Universal, he hung authentic paintings by such masters as Picasso and Miro. With the stars’ salaries rivalling the value of the paintings— Redford received $9 million—the movie is clearly a class act. Still, Reitman took nothing z for granted. He test| screened Legal Eagles ^ six times while it was o being edited in order to 2 gauge audience reception. Said one Reitman associate: “No one testscreens a film like Ivan. He even worries if there are regional differences in reaction to the jokes.”

Ethic: Reitman’s singular dedication is rooted in the work ethic of his immigrant family. The Reitmans fled their native Czechoslovakia in 1950, shortly after the Communist takeover, hiding under the floorboards of a tugboat. His parents gave four-year-old Ivan tranquillizers to keep him quiet. Arriving in Austria, they had trouble waking him up. “For a while,” Reitman recalled, “they were concerned they might have killed me. When they finally lit a candle, I was lying there with my eyes wide open—but out cold.” The family eventually emigrated to Toronto,

where Ivan became a mediocre student with a keen interest in show business.

At Hamilton’s McMaster University, he majored in music—but also took over McMaster’s film club and directed a series of plays. In his second year, after winning an award for composing religious choir music, Reitman persuaded a music industry sponsor to send him to a summer course at the National Film Board in Montreal, where he made his first movie, Guitar Thing—a 4 Vz -minute pastiche of live action and animation based on his own

sound track. Reitman launched his next film after returning to McMaster in the fall: Orientation, a 20-minute, 16-mm documentary for the student council. After the CBC broadcast it, he convinced an executive at 20th Century-Fox to blow it up to 35 mm and show it as a short in theatres across the country. Meanwhile, he had taken over the university’s faltering film club and turned it into a profitable venture.

‘Sex’: With club revenues, in 1969 Reitman produced his first fulllength feature, a 16-mm experiment in soft-core pornography called Columbus of Sex. Although not explicit by current standards, it created a scandal: Hamilton police seized the movie and Reitman was convicted on an obscenity charge and fined $300. “It was a terrible movie,” he acknowledges. “And it typed me a certain way at a formative point in my career.” But it did

not slow him down. In 1973 he scored his first commercial success with Cannibal Girls, a humorous B-grade horror film about man-eating women. He took it to the Cannes Film Festival where, he recalled, “we put salacious posters all over the main drag to lure buyers into the theatres.” Cannibal Girls won worldwide distribution and became a cult classic—as did Shivers, a horror picture which Reitman produced with Toronto director David Cronenberg.

They found a growing market for Bmovies with an ironic twist, a young

audience that would later appreciate the parodies of television’s SCTV and Saturday Night Live in the late 1970s. In fact, the two stars of Cannibal Girls were Andrea Martin and Eugene Levy, who—along with fellow McMaster alumni Martin Short and Dave Thorn-

as—would go on to form the nucleus of SCTV. Reitman made his own brief excursion into television at Toronto’s CITY TV, where he produced a live weekly variety show, Greed—a parody of The Price is Right. The show’s offstage announcer was Ghostbuster-tobe Dan Aykroyd.

Fan: By that time Reitman had become a fan of the American satirical magazine National Lampoon, and he proposed a Lampoon movie. But after the publisher told him that he would prefer a stage production, in 1974 Reit-

man produced The National Lampoon Show, a hit revue that toured North America for six months. Its cast included future comedy stars John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner—and Harold Ramis, who would later cowrite Reitman’s four most popular films. Said Thomas: “Harold is responsible for a gold mine. In Hollywood he is revered the same way Neil Simon was 15 years ago—and Ivan was very smart in teaming up with him.” Ramis’s first project with Reitman was National Lampoon ’s Animal House. Reitman served as producer, but studio executives chose the more experienced John Landis as director. Said Reitman: “It was very frustrating to me. I knew that the movie was going to be a hit and that the director was going to get the I credit.”

g The week after AniSimal House was released ? he began directing the

comedy Meatballs at an Ontario summer camp. It starred Bill Murray as a camp counsellor—although Murray did not agree to join the cast until three days after the shoot was under way. “I kept working on him,” said Reitman, “and he kept saying, ‘Naaah, you’ve never directed anything.’ I basically told him, ‘Look, it’s going to be a Canadian movie, so if it’s lousy no one will see it, and if it’s good you’re on your way.’ ” In fact, Meatballs became the surprise summer hit of 1979, and it grossed $70 million. Its success gave Reitman the credentials to direct Murray and Ramis in Stripes, a Hollywood comedy about the military which grossed $115 million.

Buzz: After completing two less successful films, Heavy Metal, an animated rock musical, and Space Hunter, a 3-D science fiction feature,

Reitman made Ghostbusters in 1984, a liveaction cartoon that turned ectoplasm into the latest buzz word.

Aykroyd, who had made a serious study of paranormal disturbances, wrote the first Ghostbusters script, filled with technical jargon.

Over lunch at Art’s Delicatessen, Reitman asked Aykroyd to team up with Ramis to rewrite it. Said Ramis:

“Sometimes you’ll put together three good jokes where you really only need one. Ivan always goes for the big laugh, as opposed to milking it for more and more.”

Reitman appears to have turned film comedy into an exact science, but an element of risk remains. None of Ghostbusters’ producers, including Reitman, was sure that its most monumental joke—the 113-foot Stay Puft marshmallow man—was truly funny. In the end, he melted the hearts of moviegoers and helped make Reitman one of Hollywood’s most bankable directors. His success was acknowledged in Canada, where the Academy of Canadian Cinema honored him with a Genie award last year for “outstanding contribution to the world of comedy.”

Reitman moved to Los Angeles seven years ago, where he lives with Geneviève Robert, his Canadian wife, whom he married in 1976, and their two children. He says that Canada was a “wonderful place for me to start making films.” But he added: “I want

to make a major impact on a worldwide moviegoing audience. That’s why I have never taken Canadian nationalism seriously.” Still, throughout most of his career he has maintained loyalties to his early Canadian collaborators. One of his two executive producers is Joe Medjuck, a former University of Toronto lecturer, and two McMaster colleagues, Daniel Goldberg and Len Blum, co-wrote several of his screenplays. While working on

Stripes in Toronto they phoned Reitman in Los Angeles almost every day to read him fresh pages. Like many of his co-workers, Blum and Goldberg insist that, despite his image as a mere mogul, Reitman is in fact an unusually dedicated film-maker. Said Goldberg: “Ivan invented the formula, and he gets a bum rap by being lumped together with his imitators. He says, ‘What kind of movie do I want to make?’ rather than, ‘What do these morons want to see?’ ”

Cheering: Reitman’s boyish lack of cynicism may help to explain his success: unlike some of the comic actors he has worked with, he seems genuinely to share the middle-class values of his audience. His sense of humor lacks the ulterior motives of satire: “Satire,” said Dave Thomas, “always leaves the white bread of the audience out in the cold, scratching their heads. Ivan knows how to get people out of their seats cheering and laughing.” Recruit-

ing his stars from the dark satirical fringe of Saturday Night Live, Reitman redirected their energies for the big screen. Murray, who has starred in three Reitman comedy hits, is the leading example. “Billy,” said Reitman, “is always presented in a very optimistic way in my films—as opposed to everything else he has done in his life.”

Always faithful to a proven contender, Reitman had planned to cast Murray in Legal Eagles, twinning him with Dustin Hoffman. But Hoffman chose instead to make a film with Warren Beatty (Ishtar), while Murray decided to take an extended vacation in Paris. Meanwhile, Redford had approached Reitman with a script for a romantic comedy. Reitman found it unappealing and suggested he do Legal Eagles instead. When Redford objected to starring in a male “buddy” movie, Reitman added a romantic intrigue to the story by making Winger and Hannah his costars. If Legal Eagles is a hit, Reitman will have demonstrated that he can escape his youth-comedy formula. Still, Aykroyd is busy writing a script for a Ghostbusters sequel.

When making a movie, I Reitman measures his own laughter as the test of what is funny. After lunch at Art’s, he hurried back to one of the editing rooms at Universal. Watching the small screen, he kept rerunning a scene where Winger and Redford—both playing lawyers—discuss joining forces to defend a suspect (Hannah) in a murder trial. “It would be funny,” Reitman told his film editor, “if we could go from the last shot of him trying to decide if he should join up with her to the shot of him working with her. That’s the laugh I’ve been looking for.”

Reitman disappeared into another room while the editor carried out his instructions. A few minutes later he returned to view the re-edited scene. When the cut arrived, he chuckled quietly. It was not a guffaw, not even a full-fledged chortle, but it was a spontaneous, certifiable laugh. Film’s king of comedy was one joke richer—and still counting.

— BRIAN D. JOHNSON in Los Angeles