5 Tips For the ‘Ghostbusters’ Reboot From a Lifelong ‘Ghostbusters’ Fan
On Tuesday, director Paul Feig announced via Twitter that he had cast the new Ghostbusters: Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon. Just a few hours later, the film was officially given the greenlight by Sony Pictures, for a July 22nd, 2016, release date. Readers of the site already know how I feel about gender diversity, so I won’t touch on any of that other than to say I support Feig and screenwriter Katie Dippold’s basic vision. At the same time, as a lifelong fan of Ghostbusters (it’s the first movie I can remember seeing, and almost certainly the film I’ve seen the most number of times), I definitely have a number of thoughts on how the new film can recapture what it is that makes the original so great.
For a film that is literally about the supernatural, paranormal and otherworldly, most of the comedy in Ghostbusters stems from the mundane. The guys may end up fighting a 100-foot marshmallow man summoned to Central Park West by an ancient God, but the story starts with three guys working for grant money at Columbia University, unsure of whether or not the usual icebreakers will work on a poltergeist.
Even though the film introduces an obvious “everyman” character halfway through the film, the comic appeal of the movie springs from from the entire gang’s amateur, seat-of-the-pants strategies and their homebrew ghostbusting technology, which gets field tested all over the inside of the Sedgewick Hotel’s ballroom. Peter (Bill Murray) can’t quite pronounce “Hittites,” Ray (Dan Aykroyd) gets the jitters at late-night talk of Judgment Day, Winston (Ernie Hudson) is happy to buy into the theory of Atlantis if it pays his rent, and even Egon (Harold Ramis) is initially more comfortable with his homemade gear in principle than in practice (“I looked at the trap, Ray” is possibly my favorite line in the entire movie).
Film-wise, Feig’s two hits were Bridesmaids and The Heat, R-rated comedies that embraced the scatalogical and extreme (his newest, Spy, fits the same description and opens this summer), so it’s not entirely unusual to wonder if he’d try to bring that same tone to Ghostbusters. However, in late December, he commented to Empire that he and Dippold were not only looking for a PG-13, but hoping to generate some legitimate scares. It’s far from a promise, but it stands to reason that the film will have to be somewhat grounded in order to sell the supernatural seriously. Those who are more worried about Feig’s ability to pull it off should keep in mind that Feig not only directed several episodes of Arrested Development, but also co-created Freaks and Geeks, both of which illustrate his skill with more natural, dialogue-driven comedy.
The same reminder could also apply to his pal McCarthy: most filmgoers know her from her star-making, attention-grabbing roles in Feig’s films, but she got her first big break on Gilmore Girls, playing Lorelai Gilmore’s big-hearted best friend Sookie, and mixes Hollywood blockbusters with smaller comedies like St. Vincent that allow her opportunities to stretch (her co-star in that film—none other than Bill Murray—even praised the idea of McCarthy getting the gig). Just because a comedy like Ghostbusters represents a change of pace from their previous big-screen efforts doesn’t mean it’s outside of their respective wheelhouses.
Early rumors about the script have reported that the new film—a complete reboot—involves the government assembling a group of people to study ghosts (further plot details were reported on HitFix and then yanked by Sony’s lawyers). Some have criticized the idea for being more Men in Black (a film which itself follows a Ghostbusters-ish template), but it depends on the approach; imagining a ragtag group of the only four women willing to take the job, working with minimal resources, could easily capture a similar “figure it out as we go along” atmosphere. And speaking of those women…
A big part of what keeps Ghostbusters anchored even as the story ramps up is how well-written the characters are. Conversations about the new movie frequently turn to who’s going to “be the Venkman” or “the Egon” of the new group, which is both wrongheaded and a testament to how clearly the audience grasps those characters.
With their screenplay, Aykroyd and Ramis (working to reduce a more sci-fi draft by Aykroyd that took place in the future and was packed with technological detail) pull off an impressive balancing act. Peter, Ray, Egon and Winston are drawn with strokes as bold as a machine that delivers electric shocks, yet remain nuanced and complete thanks to the actors that play them. There is a basic dynamic which informs each joke, but the characters are still fully realized enough to grow and change (in particular, Peter’s hat-tip to Ray as they go all-in on their potentially existence-ending gambit is surprisingly poignant).
Little is known about what kind of characters the new Ghostbusters will be (and, as previously mentioned, what is known should be left unsaid as to avoid the wrath of Sony’s legal department), but the key(master) to a good script won’t be the set pieces or the villain. What Ghostbusters needs is four well-written women, characters who bring a specific tone or trait to the group dynamic but feel complete all on their own. Once Feig and Dippold have that down, the setpieces will write themselves, because the characters will dictate how each bust plays out.
Smart special effects.
In his review of the original Ghostbusters, Roger Ebert observed that visual effects and comedy are hard to blend because they tap into opposite types of energy: one requires an eye for detail and meticulous planning, the other ought to feel loose and spontaneous. Worse, modern Hollywood doesn’t seem to know how to spend money on an effect without trying to make sure the back row can see every cent of that money on the screen.
When spirit energy is drawn in by the evil architecture of the apartment building where Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) lives, director Ivan Reitman cuts to matte paintings of ominous, unnatural clouds forming over the building. These shots of the sky darkening last for a few seconds at most, just enough to establish the paranormal activity congregating above “Spook Central,” yet it’s hard to imagine a 2015 production where the clouds forming wasn’t an entire sequence of swirling CG clouds whipping up as the camera spins around the building, from the ground floor to the roof, at an angle that will look good in post-converted 3D. To be clear, this isn’t a “practical vs. CG” debate. I’m sure the new film will rely on the same cutting-edge technology as its contemporaries, and that’s fine. What matters is how those tools are employed.
There’s a subtle but crucial difference in using effects to tell a story and using effects in service of the story, and Ghostbusters gets it right. There is a shot in the Sedgewick Hotel sequence where Slimer is actually just a peanut painted green, which works because (despite what the cartoon suggests), he’s not a character, just a catalyst for the comedy of Peter, Ray and Egon destroying the ballroom. Other effects are more complex: the unforgettable shot of Mr. Stay-Puft walking through Columbus Circle isn’t just the punchline to a joke, but also a reinforcement of the tone, drawing even more laughs by staging something as silly as a cheery advertising character with the same visual sincerity as an appearance of Godzilla. Reitman even knows when not to use effects at all: the sequence where Winston talks to Ray about Judgment Day really captures the imagination, and it’s just two guys sitting in a car having a conversation.
Both the original and new Ghostbusters are summer movies, a season when special effects are the movie industry’s version of Fourth of July fireworks, but the title of the film (or films) isn’t Ghosts. The whole point of developing great characters is to focus on them—the FX should always play second fiddle.
Use the frame.
Ghostbusters II has its defenders. I don’t think it’s a terrible movie (and some of its problems can be chalked up to corporate meddling), but it falls prey to a number of familiar sequel problems, including regressing the heroes so they can triumph in the same way all over again, bringing back nearly every character who got a laugh in the first movie, and pandering heavily to the first film’s unexpected kid audience (pretty much everything involving Rick Moranis’ Louis Tully is a bad idea). One of the more subtle things that changes between Ghostbusters and its sequel is the way Reitman uses the frame. There are more cutaways to punchlines, more oddly belabored shots with all four men in the frame (although to be fair, this is arguably preferable to Winston frequently getting cropped out), and more of a focus on making sure those effects land with a bang.
If there is one thing I’m not entirely convinced Feig’s demonstrated a skill for, it’s composing for scope. The first two Ghostbusters are widescreen films, another subtle touch that has a psychological effect on the way the audience looks at the spectacle. Comedies are generally shot in 1.85:1, closer to the frame of a television (both tube and LCD), because the focus is on the performers and not on other details in the frame. Feig’s comedies have fallen very much into that category, following in the brightly-lit, visually simplistic footsteps of most modern comedy. Reitman’s 2.39:1 ratio promises something epic, expansive and grand.
I remember the first time I saw the film on DVD in widescreen, having spent the previous 15 years watching it on pan-and-scan VHS, and noticing details such as Venkman imitating a rollerblader outside Dana’s concert hall, or the Stay-Puft Marshmallow billboard painted on a building near the firehouse when the containment unit is shut off. More importantly, the framing of the film influences the way the special effects are used (and vice versa), and can even help emphasize tone and character if employed correctly. Most of Reitman’s other films are unremarkable, cinematography-wise, but on this movie, for thematic and creative reasons, he stepped up his game. Here’s hoping Feig can do the same.
Not too many callbacks.
Look, I love Ghostbusters. I’ve also already seen Ghostbusters. I will be fully aware that when I sit in a theater in summer 2016 and watch the new Ghostbusters play out in front of me that what I’m seeing was influenced by the old Ghostbusters. Feig has tried to reassure those wary of his decision to do a reboot instead of a sequel by promising some winks and nudges for fans of the original series, but nothing clogs the franchise machine like an awkward easter egg.
The video game was widely embraced by fans of the series as the surrogate Ghostbusters III, but I quickly tired of the way the story returned to the New York Public Library and the Sedgewick Hotel, reused Stay-Puft and the librarian ghost, and once again tapped Ivo Shandor and Walter Peck (William Atherton) as antagonists. The whole reason I wanted to make this list in the first place is to show that it’s possible to capture the spirit (no pun intended) of the original film without tracing over any of the same steps.
If Feig is worried enough about standing in the shadow of the original to jettison the continuity (one of the big sticking points for many of the naysayers), he should apply that same thinking to cutesy references as well. Any joke about city-sized Twinkies or Keymasters is just going to be a reminder—no matter how good the new Ghostbusters is—that I’m not watching one of my favorite movies of all time. So, no Slimer, no Stay-Puft, and it’d be best if the car and jumpsuits looked different this time around as well. Please, don’t have anyone humming the theme song, nix someone sarcastically asking “who ya gonna call?” and lose any characters drinking ECTO-Cooler (although if they wanna bring it back in reality, I approve). Aside from the logo (reportedly second in global recognition only to the Coca-Cola logo), the Ray Parker Jr. theme song and cameos from the original cast (as new characters, of course), I’m hoping for a film full of fresh surprises.
For many people, the announcement of a new Ghostbusters movie so unlike its predecessors is upsetting. As for me, I first remember reading about a third Ghostbusters movie in Wizard Magazine back in 1998, when the hot rumor was Murray’s insistence that he would only return if his character died and came back as a ghost. Since then, details about a script called Hellbent about an alternate New York City trickled out, the video game was released, Dan Aykroyd made 10,000 promises to the press, multiple drafts were written, and Harold Ramis tragically passed away.
Throughout all of it, I never doubted that someday, I’d end up watching a new Ghostbusters film in theaters, and the announcement that it’s finally happening is exciting, even if it isn’t what I was picturing 18 years ago. I’d be lying if I said I’d bet on the new Ghostbusters capturing the same lightning in a bottle as the original, but there’s more of a formula to follow than keeping the same characters and story. I wish Paul Feig, Katie Dippold, and the rest of the cast and crew luck: I’m ready to believe them.