Last year, like many writers, I wrote a story remarking on the 30th anniversary of Ghostbusters. While a lot of big pimpin’ journalists relish access to the major stars of a movie, you can often get great information from many people behind the scenes who no one ever thinks to talk to.
Scouring the credits for Ghostbusters on IMDB, when I did further research into Michael Gross, I had the feeling he’d be a great interview, and I wasn’t disappointed. (Most of what you’ll read in this story is being published for the first time anywhere.) Gross started as the art director for National Lampoon (he brought the infamous “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog” cover to life, finding a pooch with just the right fear in its face), and he would eventually work on the movie adaptation of Heavy Metal magazine, Vacation, and of course, Ghostbusters.
Gross, who passed away last week at the age of 70, not only provided me with many great insights into one of the biggest comedies of the ’80s, but he also brought me back to a great time in comedy I recalled fondly, the post-Animal House era of the early ’80s, when National Lampoon, and the original stars of SNL, still ruled supreme.
Gross and Ivan Reitman first worked together on the 1981 animated film Heavy Metal. Once Reitman had to be called away to direct Stripes, he made Gross one of the producers on the animated adaptation of the adult sci-fi magazine. From the success of Stripes, Reitman became one of the hottest names in comedy, and he was trying to figure out what he’d take on next. There was the possibility of a sequel to Heavy Metal, as well as the big screen adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which Reitman wanted David Cronenberg to direct. (Reitman produced several Cronenberg films and felt he could make a great comedy.)
Then Dan Aykroyd came in with the screenplay for Ghostbusters, which Columbia quickly agreed to make even though it was not a typical comedy concept, and it certainly wasn’t going to be cheap.
Aykroyd’s first draft of the Ghostbusters script was large and unwieldy, and FX supervisor Richard Edlund remembered it ran 175 pages, which would have made a three-hour film. Once Ivan Reitman came aboard, the project finally got into shape, and after months of intense work, the screenplay was hammered into a shootable movie.
“When Ivan took control, he really took control,” Gross says. “He reined it in. It was everywhere. It took us to other planets. Danny Aykroyd wanted to make them working-class, Rotorooter guys, and Ivan’s guidance made it what it is. He had a vision of how to pull this thing down and make it work in its craziness. But no one denied what he was doing. He didn’t fight with Danny and Harold over what he was doin’. They said, ‘Yeah, yeah, makes sense.’ If you look at the film, there’s not a wasted scene, not a wasted line of dialog. How many movies do you watch today where 15 minutes go by and you ask, ‘What am I watching?’ There’s not a moment in that film that’s lost.”
As far as getting Columbia behind such a crazy idea, it actually wasn’t hard because Reitman had already been involved in three big comedy hits: Animal House (which he produced), Meatballs, and Stripes. “Columbia was in bad shape. They had nothing on the agenda,” Gross told me.
Reitman pitched the film to Frank Price, the head of Columbia, who asked, “How much is it gonna cost?” Reitman held up a draft of the script and said, “It feels like it’s going to be $25 million,” which was obviously a lot of money for the time, more than Ivan had ever spent on a movie. Undaunted, Price asked, “Can you get it ready for June 1984?”
“There were risks involved, yes, but at the time it didn’t feel like a risk,” Gross says. “It was a lot like working at National Lampoon where you had an idea, and four smart people in a room would say, ‘Sounds good to me.’ And I think that shows — you feel it. It’s like watching ensemble actors. You’re seeing smart people generating fun. These were some of the brightest people I’ve ever been in a room with.”
Reitman made Gross the associate producer and told him, “’What I want to do is make you an associate producer, and I want you to take care of all the FX, gather up all the artists you know, get them to conceptualization the ghosts, because we’re going to have to figure out problems before we even have an FX house.’ I had to build or find an FX house, then we would develop the characters and ghosts. We had to do it all simultaneously. We had 18 months. It was a major special effects film. There were no special effects houses available, and we hit the ground running so hard and fast.”
According to Joe Medjuck, who was one of the producers on the film, “Frank Price caught a lot of flack from the head office. I think they almost fired him. Coca Cola had bought Columbia before Ghostbusters came out, and they thought it was insane. Everyone thought we were crazy. ‘You can’t mix these styles together, it’s too expensive…’” But Gross told me they had total support from Price, and it never wavered. “He gambled everything on Ghostbusters.”
Ghostbusters has a wonderful, let-your-imagination-run-wild quality that a lot of movies sorely miss these days. As Gross lamented, “I can’t see any corporate structure today approving any movie we made then, I honestly can’t, especially the big studios. It would be too many committees to even make a decision like that. And even as we made Ghostbusters, we thought maybe the Stay Puft Marshmallow man was a crazy, stupid idea, but we took the risk. Right up to shooting and showing a rough cut, Reitman asked, ‘Have I made a huge mistake here? The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man … Is this going to be a disaster?’ Cause you don’t know, you really don’t know when you’re making a movie. You don’t have that much confidence. You start second-guessing yourself. None of us knew either until we showed it to an audience, and then it exploded. Whew! Big exhale! We pulled that one off! Because we didn’t know any better, no one told us what to do.”
As far as Dan Aykroyd’s off-the-wall ideas, which don’t always work, but certainly worked very well for Ghostbusters, Gross told me, “Danny, I’m not speaking badly of him, but he fails more than he succeeds. Yet he’s so jubilant and full of energy and excitement, and he will do anything that seems like fun. He’s still exited about a third Ghostbusters. That’s Danny’s energy.”
Looking back at the context of the times, Ghostbusters was a groundbreaking film in that it was the first comedy that had major special effects in it. It was a hard shoot for Reitman, because many comedians love to be spontaneous, and he felt restricted by the rigid nature of putting the FX together.
“This is what really bothered Ivan,” Gross says. “He was a comedy director, the form is different. You improv a lot, you go as you go, you try different jokes, you have different takes. Well here we’re doing an effects film. I told Ivan, ‘Here’s the problem. You storyboard in advance, that’s like editing in advance. You’ve got a scene, they’re going to approve that scene, and we’re going to spend nine months doing that cut. There’s no second takes, there’s no outtakes, there’s no coverage.’ He hated that. It made him angry a lot of times. You can cut stuff, but you can’t add stuff. It made him so confined that it really bothered him.”
And miraculously, Ghostbusters only went about a million dollars over budget, which would be a godsend in today’s Hollywood. (The FX budget was five million, and it went about $700,000 over, which again would be a miracle in a town where money routinely blows out the window.)
One fact of Ghostbusters that many find mind-boggling today, myself included, is that John Belushi was going to play Venkman, and the ghost Slimer was supposedly the spirit of Belushi. Gross downplayed this when I spoke to him: “One of us at the FX house said, ‘Think of John Belushi as far as how he would act,’ and that’s as far as it went.”
While it’s amazing to think how much more insanely hilarious the movie could have been with Belushi, Gross felt it could have altered the tone of the film too much and left it off balance. “If you look at Ivan’s movies, he’s not big on the wackiest guy in the world being in the middle of his stories,” Gross says. “He likes grounding it into something you can relate to. As much as he respected and appreciated John, if you had a major fourth comedic talent in there, it would be hard to maintain, and it would be hard to ground it.”
This was also why Elmer Bernstein did the score for ‘Busters, much like he created a serious score for Animal House that made the movie even funnier. “Ivan didn’t want the music telling you it’s funny,” Gross says. “That was part of making it more like you’re in a real film, and that impacts the play of the jokes. Keep it at a level where you suck the audience in, they’re with you, then deliver the joke.”
Gross will always be known as the artist who created the final design of the Ghostbusters logo, and he told me, “I designed it, but I didn’t create the concept. It’s in Danny Aykroyd’s script. As an art director, I had two artists work on it, and I developed it.” Co-producer Joe Medjuck recalled that the logo in the script had Casper inside the symbol. “I said, ‘That’s Paramount, we don’t own that.’ I don’t even remember whether we tried to get the rights to Casper or not.”
The first public screening of Ghostbusters took place three weeks after the movie wrapped, and even without the effects, the audience loved it, which showed Ivan and company that they had a monster hit on their hands. And indeed, Ghostbusters not only ruled the summer of 1984, but it also played into the fall, thanks in no small part to the title song, which was a huge hit that year as well. (The song was supposed to be released earlier, but it came out as the movie was being mixed, and the success of the song and the movie kept feeding off each other.)
In recalling the magic of Ghostbusters, I enjoyed my talk with Michael Gross enormously, and I wish he was still around so we could talk more about the glory days of the Lampoon, Heavy Metal, and more. Still, I’ll fondly remember the time we spoke and how I was also a little taken aback by his modesty, not just in creating one of the best recognized logos of the ’80s, but for helping put together one of the best loved comedies of the last 30 years.
“I was lucky to walk into Ghostbusters,” he told me. “These were some of the brightest people I’ve ever been in a room with. Bill Murray is a true, deep intellectual, and I don’t think I’ve known three or four of them in my life. Harold Ramis, bless his soul, he was the smartest guy walking. Ivan Reitman is brilliant. These were smart guys who were in the right place at the right time. I was just a privileged bystander.”