The Struggle Part One: Time Is But A Window (Excerpt From The Cancelled Ghostbusters Book)
UPDATE (9/24/19): This book is no longer cancelled. In February of 2019, Lyons Press contracted me to fill a tome about the long, storied history of the Ghostbusters films. All of ’em — the old ones, the new ones, the ones they never even made. It’ll probably be out in 2021.
I’ve always considered myself a pretty serious student of this franchise and eight months in I can’t believe how much I’m learning. There’s still a year of research and writing to be done but I think the end result will really be something special. My fingers are crossed y’all will agree.
Below is a sliver from A Convenient Parallel Dimension, the Ghostbusters history book I’d been working on for the past few years, a book Taylor Trade wanted to publish until we discovered an official GB history book is coming from Sony this Fall. The portion here discusses one of the more interesting stretches in franchise history: the path between the first film and the 1989 sequel. Keep in mind this is a draft reflecting ongoing research. Tributaries would have been richer had this project survived. In any event, you should get an idea how the book would have read, and perhaps you will learn a thing or two. Enjoy, fellow ghost heads.
Hollywood has never been widely acclaimed for integrity or restraint. This is particularly true of 1980s Hollywood, where the prestige pictures of the ’70s faded away in favor of broad blockbusters and endless sequels. The bottom line ruled and studios squeezed as much as they could out of already proven formulas. Rocky Balboa was spread across three sequels; John Rambo, two (wherein Rambo was transformed from tortured everyman into bare-chested cartoon killing machine). There were eight Friday The 13ths, five Nightmare on Elm Streets. Three Cannonball Runs, three Back to the Futures, three Supermans. Caddyshack II, The Jerk Too, Arthur 2: On The Rocks.
And yet we almost exited the 1980s with just one Ghostbusters, despite the original film’s mammoth success. This is mainly because the one person in Hollywood violently opposed to the sequel-ization and blockbustering of movies was, ironically, also the single figure who could start or stop a Ghostbusters II. And stop it he did for as long as he could.
David Puttnam was a London native who abandoned the world of advertising for a career in film production, beginning with work on mid-’70s entries such as That’ll Be The Day, Lisztomania, and Alan Parker’s infamous 1976 kiddie gangster flick Bugsy Malone (starring sixteen year old Scott Baio in the title role). Through his own Enigma Productions, Puttnam managed to produce a series of acclaimed movies including Cannes favorite The Duellists, 1981’s multiple Academy Award winning Chariots of Fire, and landmark Cambodian drama The Killing Fields. It was this track record, plus Puttnam’s general rap about making “inspirational, unforgettable films” which helped to “raise the spirit of the whole world,” that impressed David Goizueta, CEO of Coca-Cola, the company that bought Columbia Pictures in 1982.
Things had been rocky for Columbia during the tenure of CEO Frank Price, who was installed in 1978. Hits like Tootsie, Kramer vs. Kramer, Gandhi, and Ghostbusters (which Price greenlit before his exit) were offset by numerous duds and disappointments. Neighbors, the final collaboration between John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, was a strange mess that went nowhere at the box office. It was the same story with Seems Like Old Times, a Chevy Chase heist comedy that at least managed to strike a chord with film critics. Worst of all was 1941, an outlandish war spoof directed by Steven Spielberg and co-producted with Universal Pictures; to this day, 1941 is remembered as the aggressively unfunny smudge that signaled the abrupt end of Spielberg’s untouchable streak.
Frank Price’s replacement Guy McElwaine fared no better. In fact, he may have done worse: though McElwaine did get the Karate Kid franchise off the ground he also sunk fortunes into several projects that quickly came to define cinematic disaster: Richard Pryor’s masturbatory Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, the Warren Beatty / Dustin Hoffman desert spectacle Ishtar, and soft core adventure flop Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. Desperate for balance, David Goizueta gave David Puttnam a three year term as Columbia’s CEO in 1986 with a parachute of $3 million.
Unfortunately, Puttnam was not interested in balance. While Goizueta had been enraptured by the Briton’s talk of enriching, uplifting film product he’d apparently fallen deaf to Puttnam’s frothing hatred of socially irresponsible and ethic-lacking “big budget hokum,” something Puttnam would put a complete stop to at Columbia if he could.
Since plans for the first Karate Kid sequel had been finalized six hours before his installment, Puttnam (right) couldn’t cancel it—but he did fire everyone who put the deal together. Puttnam was disgusted that Columbia subdivision Tri-Star produced the second Rambo and made no effort to bite his tongue on the matter. As for Ghostbusters, the studio’s most beloved film, to David Puttnam it was just more disgustingly expensive tripe, worse so because of the presence of Bill Murray, whom Puttnam didn’t like for a perceived lack of altruism.
“[Bill Murray] is an actor who makes millions off his movies, but gives nothing back to his art,” Puttnam announced during a British Press luncheon in 1986, following fawning comments about Robert Redford’s charitable actions. “[Bill Murray is] a taker.”
Word got back to Murray, who was incensed and vowed not to make Ghostbusters II so long as Puttnam reigned at Columbia. This wouldn’t be a problem as Puttnam was only interested in a sequel to the studio’s biggest hit if it could be made cheaper than the original and with all new talent (thereby avoiding a project the CEO felt would exemplify “packaging”—loading a movie with writers and actors all from the same talent agency).
Of course, the vague irony is Bill Murray wasn’t exactly gung ho about a Ghostbusters sequel either. Murray enjoyed playing Peter Venkman in the first film but hadn’t been convinced to sign on until Columbia promised to bankroll one of his dream projects: a remake of 1946 World War I drama The Razor’s Edge. Directed by period specialist John Byrum, The Razor’s Edge filmed in Europe just prior to Murray’s participation in Ghostbusters and was the first project of his to be released in the wake of Venkman-mania.
Unfortunately, the world was not ready for any kind of “serious” Bill Murray. Critics savaged Razor’s Edge for offering too nonchalant a hero in a film that moved with all the gusto of a snail. Audiences stayed away and the movie only made half of its budget back. Whatever pain Murray suffered from this failure was probably compounded by Ghostbusters’ monolithic success. There was no question Bill Murray was beloved—so long as he was being “funny.” Wrestling with complicated emotions, the actor retreated to France for several years, returning to the States to pick up his career for 1988’s Christmas Carol update Scrooged.
It was on the set of Scrooged that Dan Aykroyd called Bill Murray for a meeting to “clear the air” about Ghostbusters II. David Puttnam had been ousted from Columbia in December of 1987; his replacement Dawn Steel made one of her first orders of business figuring out what it would take to bring the boys in grey back together. Now it fell squarely on Akyroyd, Murray, co-star / writer Harold Ramis, and director Ivan Reitman to get the ball rolling. Upon receiving his old friend’s call, Murray allegedly sighed into the phone and replied, “Well, fuck it. I’m here now anyway.”
Preliminary research suggested any kind of Ghostbusters follow-up would make over $280 million in the United States alone. Alas, it was where that money would end up going that caused initial friction. Aykroyd and Ramis were apparently still upset over the large back end deals super-agent Mike Ovitz swung for Murray and Reitman on the first film; as co-founders they wanted their fair share of profits. Murray thought he deserved even more money for a sequel. Reitman also wanted a raise plus a revised contract that would shield the production from outside forces (read: Columbia executives). These were the core issues the quartet discussed and negotiated for nearly a year. Rumor has it a Santa Barbara hotel conference room served as a seven hour battleground for the aggrieved parties at one point as they worked through their disagreements.
Eventually it was all sorted, though there are conflicting reports as to how the film’s gross profit points were split. Some claim Murray, Aykroyd, Ramis, and Reitman each nabbed 15% of Ghostbusters II profits. Others suggest only Murray, Reitman, and returning female lead Sigourney Weaver broke double digits (at any rate, Reitman got his new contract). The franchise’s other male talents, Ernie Hudson and Rick Moranis, had to settle for the usual upfront salaries (albeit increased since 1984). This was fine with Hudson, as his true interest lay in having a larger role in the sequel. Moranis actually needed less screen time because he had already committed so much of 1988 to making Honey, I Shrunk The Kids and Parenthood.
The cast of Ghostbusters II appears on “Oprah,” 1989. L-R: Annie Potts, Harold Ramis, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver, Ernie Hudson.
Supposedly, Dan Aykroyd had a story for Ghostbusters II by the Spring of 1985, which was either set many years after the first film (wherein we see the Ghostbusters running a very successful and highly technical operation from atop a Trumpian high rise) or immediately after the events of the first movie. The initial plot is said to have involved the kidnapping of Weaver’s Dana Barrett by evil fairies who hold her captive in ancient Scotland. By the time everything was ready to go in 1988, the Ghostbusters II script had mutated into the Ghostbusters versus commanding 16th Century spirit warlord Vigo the Carpathian, risen anew from neon pink slime that proves some kind of conduit for negative human emotion.
Originally Vigo was to possess Aykroyd’s character Ray Stanz for large swaths of the film, sabotaging the inner workings of the Ghostbusters and unleashing a new hell upon New York City. Absent Stanz and unable to come up with any other worthy replacement, the paranormal exterminators are forced to train their wimpy accountant / lawyer Louis Tulley (Moranis) to be the new fifth Ghostbuster. A subplot would find Peter Venkman once again grappling romantically with Dana—only this time, he’d have to contend with Dana’s ex husband, a dark and mysterious European named Janosz.
Ivan Reitman wasn’t fond of the script, calling it too “heady and dark.” The director didn’t think the Ghostbusters should be fractured by a possession and also felt there was too much action. Columbia head Dawn Steel, on the other hand, thought there should be more action. Additionally, to make up for Moranis’s absence, Steel suggested the Janosz character be rewritten as some other form of comic relief. Reitman relented on both points, though eventually Reitman got his way on the possession—that element was whittled down to a very brief scene in the end of the movie.
Ghostbusters II began filming on November 28, 1988. The material struck the cast as humorous and in the vein of the first film, but there was little doubt regarding the fact they were creating a mere product, something expected of them for the sake of money. As Harold Ramis told Rolling Stone the following June while promoting the movie, “Some comedies satisfy the requirements of art and some are gratuitous pandering. We’re somewhere in between.”
This go-through-the-motions, what-the-hell-let’s-get-paid attitude is part of what doomed Ghostbusters II to be frozen in a sad mediocrity. The other part was the creators’ strange belief they were somehow in direct competition with a much-ballyhooed six foot bat scheduled to appear on movie screens across the globe in the Summer of 1989.