The interview is part of the coverage for the Whistler Film Festival, which I'll be covering live next weekend for WestEnder.com
Top of his game
Ivan Reitman, the famed 64-year-old director and producer, often falls into the category of “Really? He’s Canadian?” Hollywood is, of course, chock-full of high-profile northerners often mistaken for American by virtue of the magnitude of their fame, including Jim Carrey, Mike Myers, and Saturday Night Live creator and film producer Lorne Michaels.
But few have been as successful or as influential as the Toronto-raised Reitman, who, over four decades, has directed and produced box-office-smash comedies including Meatballs, Ghostbusters, and, more recently, I Love You, Man. Reitman is being honoured for his cinematic achievements on Friday, December 4, at the Whistler Film Festival — a tribute that comes at the cusp of what seems to be a Reitman revival, what with him having produced two films this year (Atom Egoyan’s Chloe, and son Jason’s Up in the Air), and the recent news that he’s set to produce and direct Ghostbusters III in 2010.
“I met with the writers just yesterday morning for breakfast,” Reitman says, over the phone from his L.A.-based office, about the long-rumoured Ghostbusters sequel. “I was giving them notes on some of the pages, and we’re going to try to get a good draft done by the beginning of next year. And once we have that... we’ll be assembling the original cast and the new cast, and [we’ll] make the movie.”
For Reitman, who, according to IMDB.com, currently has at least six movies in development, directing means returning to the lessons he’s learned since the 1973 horror-comedy Cannibal Girls, and his attempt to turn two years of hard work drafting the script for Animal House, the seminal 1978 frat-house comedy starring John Belushi, into his first major motion picture. That directing job ended up going to John Landis instead. “Having made only one $12,000 independent horror-comedy before, Universal was not ready to let me direct, and that was a heartbreaker,” Reitman recalls. “I realized I need to get back and sort of direct another small film and rebuild my career.”
Reitman assumed directorial duties for the comedy classic Meatballs in 1979, the first in a string of hits that included Stripes and Ghostbusters, which were also starring vehicles for Bill Murray, whom Reitman refers to as “genius.”
“I learn something [throughout all my films], but I think the great thing about Meatballs is that I had the opportunity to work with Bill Murray, who’s such a talented writer as well as performer,” Reitman says. “Some of his ideas were so good, I had to be very nimble on my feet. Instead of getting my back up and getting into a fight about just doing what I thought was important, I learned to work faster and make use of good ideas that came to me from others as part of the filming process, and learned to be fast enough to accommodate and still make the kind of schedule we were under. And mostly learning about funny, because funny is really hard. Everyone says so, and it actually really is.”
Figuring out what’s funny has motivated much of Reitman’s career. He’s modest when he talks about his accomplishments, but admits that he was pretty certain he’d tapped into something special when he screened Ghostbusters for the first time, just three weeks after wrapping the production, sans special effects. “It was kind of a gutsy thing to do,” Reitman says, laughing. “I got up in front of the audience and said, ‘Look, some of this isn’t even going to make sense because people are going to open up a refrigerator and there’s going to be a sign that says, ‘SCENE MISSING.’ But it was pretty much as good as any of the screenings we had [after the effects were completed], because I think people get into the story and get into the character, and the comedy interplay between them. It was effective; you get hooked in even if you don’t know all the pieces in between them, and it gave me great confidence.”
Reitman parlayed that confidence into a lengthy career of hits as a producer (Old School; I Love You, Man; Hotel for Dogs), plus some notable misses (he hasn’t directed a hit since 1993’s Dave). He’s responsible for making Arnold Schwarzenegger funny on purpose (Twins, Kindergarten Cop) and he bought the Trailer Park Boys to the big screen.
Reitman’s greatest accomplishment, though, might be his son, Jason, a celebrated writer and director who’s three for three in the filmmaking department, having directed Juno, Thank You for Smoking, and the much-buzzed-about George Clooney feature, Up in the Air, of which the elder Reitman is a producer. “It’s as big a thrill I’ve ever received in the movie business, the success that Jason’s having,” Reitman says, audibly beaming as he talks about his son’s triumphs.
“He’d clearly been paying attention way more than I ever knew,” Reitman continues, laughing again. “In fact, he went to great pains to pretend he was going to do otherwise; he enrolled in pre-med his first year in university, but clearly he wasn’t happy doing that.
“One of the best things I did was tell him a story about my own father: I’d come to my father and said I wanted to open a submarine shop, because they seemed to be doing well in other cities, and there were none in Toronto. Wouldn’t it be a great thing to do? And he said, ‘You know, I’m sure if you wanted to open a sandwich shop, you’d do a very good job, but I don’t think there’s enough magic in it for you.’ And it sort of freed me from that concern about earning money no matter what. And what I told Jason was, ‘You’d be a very good doctor, if that’s what you wanna do, but my concern is there’s not enough magic there for you.’ And he left pre-med, literally within two weeks of that conversation, applied to [the University of Southern California] to the English department, and started working on his first short, which then went on to win about 70 awards all over the world. He was good right from the beginning.”
He’s given the world plenty already, and now Ivan Reitman can be thanked for one of the best new filmmakers of the decade: all worthy reasons to raise a glass in Reitman’s honour, even if he hadn’t brought a little bit of Canada with him to La-La Land.
The Whistler Film Festival’s Tribute to Ivan Reitman takes place Friday, Dec. 4 at the Whistler Conference Centre, 7:30 pm. Tickets $50 from WhistlerFilmFestival.com.