Ivan Reitman: in memoriam

Ivan Reitman was one of my Hollywood heroes. His anarchic humour paired with human warmth shaped me and my writing: “Ghostbusters”, “Twins”, “Dave”, “Legal Eagles” and other films of his really made me laugh in my youth – just as they do today.
Sadly, Ivan Reitman passed away on 12 February 2022 at the age of only 75.
Almost exactly a quarter of a century ago, I got the wonderful opportunity to interview him in my previous life as a journalist and film critic. Then, I asked him rather clairvoyantly how he wanted to be remembered after his death. His reply:

“He made fine movies and made us laugh.”

Here is the interview that I conducted in the Atlantic Hotel Hamburg on 5 February 1997 for the then “Europe’s biggest film magazine” Cinema, which was never published in its entirety:

Nikolaus von Uthmann: When you made “Dave“ in 1993 you said that filming this movie is about you becoming a grown-up. Now you made “Space Jam“, starring Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Are you back in your childhood again?

Ivan Reitman: I guess so (laughs).

NvU: Did you grow up with the Looney Tunes?

Reitman: I grew up with them. I guess I discovered them in America, when I came to Canada when I was only five years old. I didn’t even see a television before I was seven or eight. Somewhere then is when I first saw them. I may even have seen them in a movie theatre.
I cannot really quite remember when exactly it was. I always thought they were the best cartoons because they seemed to be much more energetic and their humor was much hipper.

NvU: You played with puppets when you were just three years old. What were your shows or plays about?

Reitman: I can’t remember what the show was, I just remember doing it – just stories I made up. I would try to entertain the kids on the streets. I did that in Czechoslovakia, and apparently I even did that in France, where we lived for six months when I was about four and a half, before we came to Canada. We lived on a small farm outside of Paris. I would get all the local farm kids –
I didn’t speak any French. I don’t know what the hell I was doing, but I was very entertaining apparently.

NvU: Your parents and you left from Czechoslovakia right before that. How did you escape?

Reitman: My parents and I hid in a boat in a small town and we ended up in Vienna. We were nailed down underneath the floor boards. We spent one night on that boat, a two-day trip. I was drugged so I wouldn’t make any noise when the boat was inspected by the Russian police as we left Czechoslovakia.

NvU: Have you ever returned to your place of birth?

Reitman: (hastily) Not yet, not yet.

NvU: Are you afraid?

Reitman: Perhaps I have been. I don’t think I am particularly afraid right now. The correct moment has not arrived yet.

NvU: Do you plan to ever go back over there?

Reitman: Yes, sometime I will.

NvU: Your parents are astonishing people. They worked in the underground resistance in WW2, later fought and fled the communism regime. What kind of values did they teach you in your childhood?

Reitman: My father used the word menschkeit as a phrase for what he wanted for me. I think I learned optimism from them. Having overcome what they did, both during the war and then with the communists after the war, and then in Canada they started from nothing, and overcome that poverty and starting their lives again for the third time. They were in the thirties when we arrived in Canada, it was a tough time to begin again from nothing. And they put a very nice life together. I think that kind of positiveness is something that was obviously handed down to me.

NvU: After ten years in movie business in Canada you moved to Hollywood. How do you survive there?

Reitman: It can be a terrible place for some people. But I think if your values are well-grounded and if you surround yourself with good people it’s as nicest place to live in the world as there is. Hollywood has too often been described by writers of cheap novels and sensational magazine stories. It is those things sometimes, but it’s not only those things. It’s actually very little of that. The people I know are mostly interested in their families, and sort of try to lead sensible lives in an area of great wealth and great privilege. It is somehow what I try to pass down to my three children. Fortunately I have a very fine partner and wife, who has her head very well on her shoulders and keeps me on a straight line, if I seem to get a little too crazy.

The key is to try to make good work, and try to keep your head on straight.

NvU: It’s unusual if you have friendships in Hollywood which last over twenty years. Back then you met the National Lampoon, you’re still friends with Bill Murray. How do you keep friends with difficult people like comedians?

Reitman: I try to be respectful of what they do. Comedian in particular is the most dangerous work, because to make someone laugh you’re saying: you’re putting yourself out there like this and you’re expressing yourself in a particular way that the only appropriate response is laughter. And when the laughter doesn’t come it means that you’ve failed. You’re always risking something. People don’t think about it like that. They think: “Oh, he’s such a funny guy and he says funny things“. But every time what you’re really doing is auditioning every moment of your life when you’re a comedian because you’re trying out – whether it’s on stage or on a soundstage, in a film or you’re just sitting here and trying to entertain the journalists – if he’s not particularly funny he’s gonna feel bad. It’s something tough to live with.

NvU: Bill Murray says that you’re an easy laugh.

Reitman: He can make me laugh quite easily, practically any time he wants. He has something, which he triggers at me. Generally I don’t think I am an easy laugh, I’m a pretty strict laugh. But I do perseve things which are humorous. My son always says I’m a tough laugh (laughs). He’s nineteen and a very talented and funny young man himself. I’ve always been respectful of Bill’s works and of pretty well everyone I’ve worked with has been so talented. On one hand I laugh with them, on the other hand I’m quite strict in terms of not accepting the easiest things that they do. Even when that makes them angry sometimes I think they respect it and appreciate the results in the end.

NvU: You turned Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sigourney Weaver, and Debra Winger into comedians. How did you do that?

Reitman: I put them in appropriate situations. I’m not asking Arnold to deliver a line like Bill Murray. If I tried to do that it’d only look bad. There is no point in that, that’s not what his skill is. Understanding what an actor’s skills are and what their personality is, what their persona is, and you see all these things and put them in the right kind of story and situation where humor can result from. I did the same thing with Michael Jordan in “Space Jam“.

NvU: In Germany the American sports heroes are not that well-known. Do you think this could limit the international success of “Space Jam“?

Reitman: All my films have certain Americanized references that all audiences will not get all things. But that’s not necessary for ultimate success. Over all you get a good sense about the movie and enjoy it. A movie like “Ghostbusters“, which is successful as you can be, is just full of things that make no sense to other peoples. Some things make a lot sense in America and maybe Germany, but don’t make any sense in Japan. There are local references that don’t have to work, as long as the whole movie has an impact. That’s what I hope for “Space Jam“.

NvU: You once said that you were not that comfortable of being “just“ a producer. You prefer directing over producing. Still you produced “Space Jam“. Why didn’t you direct yourself?

Reitman: In “Space Jam“ my producing is about the same amount as directing. We had a lot of directors on “Space Jam“: Joe Pytka did most of the green screen work, three different animation directors, a special effects director. Really I directed the directors. You know, credits are a complex thing with the guilds in America. But in terms of what I did on the film is, I developed the script, I casted, I hired all those directors, I supervised the animation, hired the voices, directed the voices, and edited the movie. It took four years to make the movie. And I was the captain, to put it that way, because I’m not allowed to use the directing word. But the studio looked at me and everybody else did in terms of having the ultimate creative say about this movie. It was my baby.

NvU: Just like “National Lampoon’s Animal House“. You got the people together. But you didn’t even get a credit of a creative consultant. How much did that hurt?

Reitman: It was clear for me then that I should go back being a director, what is really what I wanted and what made me the happiest. Even before “Animal House“ was in the field I had started a small Canadian movie called “Meatballs“, that did very well particularly in America, which got me back into directing.

NvU: Were you angry with John Landis?

Reitman: No, he did a very good job. I got into a fight with John Landis after, which had nothing to do with “Animal House“ but with a project we’re gonna do together.

NvU: Your film debut in the ’60s was “Columbus of Sex“, for which you were actually tried in court. Why exactly was that?

Reitman: When I was in my last year of university a friend of mine who still works with me, Dan Holberg and I produced this movie, another guy at the university, who already had directing experience directed it. We raised a few of thousand dollars. The film was based on “My Secret Life”, which was an anonymously written Victorian sex novel about a thousand different sexual adventures of this Victorian Gentleman. We used two projectors at once, two screens. It was a real 60s movie, very experimental. The first screening was at the university, and one of the kids who attended the film called the local police. It was a pretty sexy thing, though much less sexy than you see on television right now. The police comes, sees the movie, and we were put on trial for obscenity in Canada – which we lost. We probably would have won on appeal. It was a small and strict community, where we would lose almost no matter what. We were fined 300 Dollars. We could have gone forward, which would have cost a ton of money. So we forgot about that. Unlike Larry Flynt I was not interested in making law at this point of my life.

NvU: Since then you haven’t use that many sex scenes in your movies. Why?

Reitman: It hasn’t interested me that much. “Animal House“ has a bunch of sex scenes in it, so has “Stripes“. I always felt in a strange way that it distracted from the rest of the film. If I tried to tell a story about sexuality I would make it very sexy! I just produced “Private Parts“, with Howard Stern. It has a few sex scenes in it. It will be a very controversial film. Howard Stern is America’s most famous radio personality. He’s the original shock jock. He’s heard all over America, and he’s even loved or hated. He wrote his biography “Private Parts“, and it was a tremendous success as a book. He wanted to turn it into a movie for a long time, so he called me for help.
I hope it’ll be a huge success in America. It is as unusual as “Animal House“ when it came out. We’ll see how it translates to people who don’t know who Howard Stern is.

NvU: One of your old colleagues has trouble in America right now, meaning David Cronenberg. You produced a few of his films in your earlier career. Have you talked with him about the problems he’s got because of “Crash“?

Reitman: I haven’t seen him in about six years or more. He still lives in Toronto. The last time he talked to me when he was going to direct for me “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy“.
He actually ended up doing “The Fly“. I lost the options of the book later. I may have spoken to him once after that.

NvU: “Hitchhiker’s Guide“ would be, like “Space Jam“, now and here, very modern. But you said once you would have been more comfortable being a comedy director in the ’30s and ’40s.
How did your attitude change?

Reitman: I don’t know if I said that I was more comfortable, but I definitely would’ve been comfortable doing comedies in the 40s. I could’ve fitted in the system just fine. There was this tremendous group of performers that I would’ve loved to have worked with, I guess. I just finished “Father’s Day“ with Robin Williams and Billy Crystal – I directed it in kind of a ’40s style.

NvU: Isn’t it a remake of a French film?

Reitman: It’s not really a remake. It takes the premise of the film. It’s a great idea, but I think the plot went into the wrong direction. So after the first two or three scenes, which are very similar, we’re going our own way.

NvU: “Father’s Day“ won’t be a pretentious film, I guess. You have once said:

“I hate pretentious films, I hate pretentious filmmaking.“

What exactly did you mean with that? Can you name some examples?

Reitman: Oh, you know what I mean! (laughs) I won’t name examples. It’s filmmaking where the filmmaker is screaming: “Look at me, look at me!“, pretty well throughout the movie and you keep feeling it with every shot, and where things are done for that particular effect.

NvU: Did you turn down “The Prince of Tides“ because of that?

Reitman: “The Prince of Tides“? I never had the opportunity to make that film.

NvU: I read that you got offered “The Fisher King“ and Prince of Tides“ after “Legal Eagles“.

Reitman: (thinks) I may have been offered “The Prince of Tides“ actually. I got the script.
“The Fisher King“ I don’t remember it being offered.

NvU: “Legal Eagles“ and “Junior“ didn’t do that well. You’ve made only two or three not-so successful films. The critics didn’t like them that much.

Reitman: (interrupting) Oh, “Legal Eagles“ the critics liked a lot actually. The money part became a big story in Hollywood though.

NvU: How much did it cost?

Reitman: It cost 34 million Dollars. It was expensive then, but even then there were movies that crossed fifty million. But it was just one of those things which became a story. I can’t explain it. The East Coast papers, like in New York, gave “Legal Eagles“ great reviews, probably the best reviews of my life. And “Junior“ got good reviews in most places…

NvU: You turned fifty last October. That’s kind of a landmark. Since you roam around in Hollywood a lot: What do you want to be remembered for in, say, thirty or forty years max?
Or what is the epitaph you would like to see on your memorial?

Reitman: I think “He made fine movies and made us laugh“. That is a very complex thing to ask. I think the idea that I’ve made many fine films that were humorous and moving in some way.

“Relatively intelligent“ would be a nice epitaph.

NvU: Last question: What happened to “Ghostbusters 3“ and what are your future plans?

Reitman: After “Father’s Day“ will be probably this romantic comedy with Harrison Ford called “Six Days, Seven Nights“, which we will film this summer. I don’t see “Ghostbusters 3“ in my future. I think Danny [Ackroyd] really would love doing it and might try it.

Interview: Nikolaus von Uthmann, 5 Febrary 1997