Father and son Ivan and Jason Reitman on the pressure of making a sequel to the 1984 hit and the emotional memories of making the original
Anyone who was sentient in the mid-1980s will remember with a chill the opening bars of Ray Parker Jr’s hit song Ghostbusters. For a short but excruciating time it was omnipresent, in discos, pubs, supermarkets, lifts... as was the film to whose coat-tails that insidious ditty so tenaciously clung. But in fairness, the movie itself was pretty darned good.
Based on a daft but undeniably original idea by Dan Ackroyd, Ghostbusters had a decent script, a goofy charm, some groundbreaking effects and an excellent cast, led by Bill Murray in his pomp and including Ackroyd, his co-writer Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson, Rick Moranis and Sigourney Weaver. It made a big splash when no one was expecting it to, except perhaps for its director, Ivan Reitman.
Now, almost 40 years and two indifferent sequels later, Ivan’s son Jason has created a surprisingly emotional and soulful new instalment that captures some of the exuberance of the original. Ghostbusters: Afterlife is set in the present, but has the charm and wholesomeness of one of those 1980s family adventures that Hollywood no longer knows how to make.
When single mum Callie Spengler (Carrie Coon) finds out that her estranged father has died, she moves with her two teenage kids Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) and Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) to her dad’s ramshackle farm. From the local townsfolk they discover that the old man was an eccentric and recluse, and that all he has left them is a pile of debts. But Phoebe, who is a clever, curious girl, finds a basement laboratory and realises that her granddad was a Ghostbuster.
Scholars of the franchise will have noted the name Spengler, and in fact granddad is none other than Egon Spengler, the character played by Harold Ramis in the original film. Ramis, a hugely talented writer and director whose credits include Caddyshack and Groundhog Day, died in 2014, and in ways Ghostbusters: Afterlife is a tribute to him. But it’s also a love letter to the original and to 80s family classics in general.
Lots of emotion in play then. Just to add to that, Ivan Reitman’s son Jason co-wrote and directs the film, with Ivan producing. Did Jason feel a tad nervous embarking on this one, I ask when I meet him and his dad via Zoom.
“Absolutely,” he says. “Ghostbusters has been a part of my life as long as I can remember, and I can tell how much it means to people from conversations with complete strangers. I wanted to make a film that would make my father proud, but I wanted a film that would also give people the experience they’ve been looking for within this universe.”
But for Jason, whose credits include Juno, Up in the Air and Young Adult, Ghosbusters: Afterlife represented a very different challenge.
“This is the one film I’ve made that never belonged to me,” he says. “And from the moment I picked it up, I realised I was picking up something that I could not drop. There’s pressure that comes with that, and it’s not about letting yourself down as much as letting down everyone who loves this franchise.
“And you realise the amount of connective tissue that people have with this film, it’s not just about a song, it’s not just about these four guys wearing their flight suits, it’s also the car, it’s even about the noise that the car siren makes, the terror dogs, the iconography, the Gozerian temple, all of it. We wanted to treat it respectfully, and give people access points, so they could feel like whatever age they were when they first saw Ghostbusters.”
Nostalgia for the great family films of the 1980s was a key theme in the film’s conception. “Gil Kenan, my co-writer, and I grew up in the 1980s watching the films that you’re describing,” Jason explains, “and unlike the generation of kids that were Ghostbusters, we were the kids who wanted to be Ghostbusters, we were the kids who played with the toys and read the comics, watched the cartoon show. So we wanted to make a movie about what it felt like to be a young person wanting to be a Ghostbuster, and how magical it would be if you could zip up a flight suit, get a proton pack working again, maybe even hang out the side of Ecto-1 [the Ghostbusters’ car], and catch a ghost.”
But the Ghostbusters legacy was not to be tackled lightly.
“We made a list of everything we always loved about the original that we wanted to experience again, right down to that feeling of wanting to see Ecto-1 fly around the corner one more time. But simultaneously we would be introducing a family that felt very familiar to us, and so the trick was to balance that story of a new family coming to terms with each other as we reintroduce ourselves to the props and iconography and finally the characters that we loved from the original.”
At one point in the film, Mckenna Grace’s character Phoebe communes with the spirit of her grandfather with the help of a lamp. It’s one of a number of moving nods to Harold Ramis, whose family were consulted from the start.
“The first person who ever read the script was my father,” Jason says, “and after that it was the Ramis family, because this movie is a tribute to Harold and his contributions to this universe, and the character Egon Spengler, who was always my favourite Ghostbuster. He was brilliantly misunderstood, and we wanted to create a 12-year-old girl — same age as my daughter — who is heroic, smart and misunderstood, just like her grandfather. So the Ramis family read the script, they were on the set, they were there in the edit. Harold’s daughter Violet and I grew up together on the set of Ghostbusters, and so I wasn’t gonna make the movie unless they were in favour of it.”
For Ivan Reitman, watching his son create Ghostbusters: Afterlife evoked strong and emotional memories of making the original.
“The true weight of what Jason created here is playing strongly for me emotionally,” Ivan says, “and has made me think more about what I created in 1984, because at the time, I think, I maybe didn’t appreciate it enough personally.”
Back then, the idea for a film about quack scientists dealing with a ghost invasion in Manhattan must have seemed a wild one. Did Ivan have any idea that was going to have the cultural impact it did?
“Well it was the kind of movie I had always wanted to do,” he says, “and I had a kind of strange confidence in it as an idea. I guess I was called upon because I had worked with Bill Murray a couple of times already by then, and they thought I’d be right to direct it. Dan Ackroyd had come up with the concept a few years previous to that... but I sort of disagreed with Dan’s approach. I said instead of making it in the future and in outer space, let’s just make it here, in town, in New York, and make them ordinary guys at university or something, who sort of get caught up in this world.
“And so we were all quite cocky at that time, we all had had initial successes, and believed in ourselves and each other as a way to tell the story in a way that it would work. And I mean I took it pretty seriously, even though it was a comedy, I mean I took it sincerely in terms of what it had to do, and I think that had something to do with its success. It was a good time.”
Ghostbusters: Afterlife is in cinemas now