“Have you or any of your family ever seen a spook, specter or ghost? Pick up your phone and call the professionals. Ghostbusters! We’re ready to believe you!”
Movies are a collaborative effort, some more than others. Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi worked together on three films — 1941, The Blues Brothers, and Neighbors — before Belushi’s untimely demise in 1982. Aykroyd had been working on the script for what would have been their fourth movie together. Ghost Smashers was set in the distant future, where paranormal exterminators were as common as firefighters and police officers, and the script had Aykroyd’s and Belushi’s characters chasing down spectres through space and time. Even after Belushi’s death, Aykroyd still liked the idea and decided to continue working on it, eventually showing the script to director Ivan Reitman. Reitman commented that Aykroyd’s script would have taken $300 million to shoot in 1983, but he liked the basic concept at the heart of the film. He suggested setting it in modern day New York, and making it a “going into business” story.
He brought in his friend Harold Ramis to help re-write the script, and Ramis and Aykroyd worked on it for several weeks at a retreat of Reitman’s. Reitman then took the script to Columbia Pictures, and proposed a budget of $30 million — he would eventually go over by $1 million. The studio head loved the idea, as long as it could be out by the following June — giving Reitman approximately 12 months to finish the script, cast actors, set up the scenes, shoot, add special effects and edit. It would be a bit of a rush job, but Reitman, Ramis, and Aykroyd were successful in bringing the film — rechristened Ghostbusters — in on time.
“You don’t know what it’s like out there. I’ve worked in the private sector. They expect results.”
Ghostbusters blends comedy, action, and horror (in the classic monster movie sense) together into a seamless whole. The film establishes the elements of suspense early, with the haunting of the New York Public Library. Like many of the sequences, the scene was actually multiple locations. The exterior and upper floor were the real New York Public Library; the lower floor was a library in Los Angeles. Here the effects crew used simple practical effects to give the appearance of a haunting. Books float from shelf to shelf on hidden wires. Card catalog drawers open themselves — in reality being pushed from behind. Cards fly out through means of copper tubes blowing air into the drawers. Without even showing the ghost yet, all of this helps to build the suspense for the film, letting the audience really believe the place is haunted. When Alice the librarian (Alice Drummond) passes out in fear, the heroes of the film are called. Not yet in business for themselves, they are professors in the department of “Parapsychology” at Columbia University.
“Are you, Alice, menstruating right now?” “What’s that got to do with it?” “Back off, man. I’m a scientist.”
As the three parapsychologists head into the lower levels, they start seeing evidence of the ghost themselves… although Venkman is initially skeptical. The “symmetrical book stacking” dialogue is mostly improvised — the leads used the script as a guideline but often would try to come up with better, funnier lines on the fly. According to Ramis, they competed on who could come up with the funniest lines, but not over who would say them, with the person who came up with it often giving it to someone else. In the end, a lot of the improvised dialogue made it into the film, and the “final script” reads very differently from a transcript of the actual film.
“You’re right. No human being would stack books like this.”
The slime found on the stacks (and used elsewhere in the film) is another practical effect, a gel made from methyl cellulose. Ghosts themselves, however, were optical effects. This being before digital effects, the ghosts and other supernatural beings were green-screened in during post-production. As the film only had one year of production, the special effects crew had to start work immediately. The librarian ghost was one of the first completed, and was part of the initial test screening. Reitman was worried about the sequence, wondering if the film could truly manage to be both scary and funny. When the ghost changed form, the test audience erupted in screams — and then erupted in laughter immediately after. The emotional blend was a success.
“‘Get her!’ That was your whole plan. ‘Get her!’ It was scientific.”
When Venkman, Spengler, and Stantz return to the university, they find that they have been fired. Combined with Egon’s revelation that the data indicates they could reliably trap and contain ghosts, this prompts Venkman to decide that it’s time for them to go into business for themselves — the ghost busting business.
With John Belushi sadly deceased, Reitman, Aykroyd, and Ramis went through a few different possibilities for the role written for him, the character Peter Venkman. Michael Keaton, Chevy Chase, and Richard Pryor were all considered for the role, but turned it down for various reasons. Reitman then suggested they try and get Bill Murray, but Murray was also initially reluctant to take the role, and had a film of his own he wanted to make. He was convinced by Dan Aykroyd suggesting to Columbia that they greenlight Murray’s film — The Razor’s Edge — in exchange for Murray taking the part of Venkman. Columbia took the deal, Murray took the part and the spotlight, with his sense of humor and improvisational skills complementing the other actors and the script.
“For whatever reasons, Ray, call it fate. Call it luck. Call it karma. I believe that everything happens for a reason.”
Dan Aykroyd, of course, took the part he always meant for himself, Ray Stantz. Aykroyd is an enthusiast of paranormal investigations in real life, and his enthusiasm is carried over into the character of Ray. All of the pseudo-scientific terminology for ghosts in the film comes from Aykroyd, as do most of the designs for the equipment. Even the famous “No Ghosts” logo was Aykroyd’s idea, with Michael Gross creating the final design. Aykroyd’s other big interest, cars, also came into play during filming. Aside from one scene in which Winston Zeddemore is driving Ecto-1, every scene in which the car is being driven has Aykroyd behind the wheel — even if it’s a distant shot in which the driver wouldn’t be visible.
“Everybody can relax, I found the car! Needs some suspension work; and shocks, and brakes, brake pads, lining, steering box, transmission, rear end…”
Harold Ramis, on a suggestion from Reitman, took the role of the third Ghostbuster, Egon Spengler, who had been written in during revisions; the original script was simply a two-man team. For the first half of the film, Spengler, Venkman, and Stantz form a power trio. Spengler is the brains, the one who figures out how to make everything work. Stantz is the heart, the enthusiast of the group. Venkman is the mouth, both the front man for the group and also the one most often making smart remarks during the film. While complicated character relationships are mostly left out of the script, there are subtle nuances that show how the characters relate to each other. Instead of coming out and saying what their relationships are, as in many films, Ghostbusters merely hints. Venkman introduces himself and Stantz as doctors, then introduces Egon by his first name, showing a subtle disrespect. Later, impressed by Spengler’s discovery that they could trap ghosts, he gives him a candy bar, saying he’s “earned it” — Egon is often shown snacking during the film, a character trait that Ramis and Aykroyd felt would subtly add to the realism of the characters. Ramis further described Spengler as a “new age Spock” and seldom smiled during the movie — there are only a few scenes in which he cracks a smile of any significance.
“Egon, this reminds me of the time you tried to drill a hole through your head. You remember that?” “That would have worked if you hadn’t stopped me.”
The Ghostbusters select an abandoned firehouse for their headquarters. In reality, this was — like the library — two locations. The exterior is a real (and still in use) New York firehouse. The interior is an abandoned firehouse in Los Angeles. According to Harold Ramis, the scene in which Ray slides down the pole and insists they have to buy the building is taken from real life — Dan Aykroyd really did insist they make use of the fire poles when discovering them while exploring their options for filming locations.
The first of the movie’s supporting roles is introduced shortly after, with Annie Potts as Janine Melnitz. The script originally had a subplot with a romantic relationship slowly developing between the cynical Janine and the stoic Egon, but most of this was either unfilmed or subsequently cut, for drawing too much time away from the main plot, which already had a romantic subplot between Peter and Dana. A few remnants remain in the film, enough to suggest a crush on the part of the Janine for the mostly-unaware Egon. The humor in these scenes deftly balances on the line of being slightly awkward without ever verging on being cringe-inducing.
“Do you have any hobbies?” “I collect spores, molds and fungus.”
The trio soon get their first calls. One is a woman named Dana who experiences strange phenomena in her apartment, and it slowly leads into the main plot. The other is the Sedgewick Hotel, one of the best-known sequences from the movie. It is here that Peter, Ray, and Egon first try out their equipment — the moment in which they go from theoreticians to actual Ghostbusters. In test screenings, the audiences cheered at the Ghostbusters’ debut in uniform, as Reitman had hoped they would.
“Why worry? Each of us is wearing an unlicensed nuclear accelerator on his back.”
It is also here that they encounter their second ghost, and the ghost that is arguably the best known in the entire Ghostbusters franchise. The ghost was known by various names. The crew mostly called him Onionhead, in reference to his alleged smell. Dan Aykroyd called him the gluttonous ghost of John Belushi, in tribute to his friend’s over-the-top characters in films such as Animal House. When it came time to merchandise the character, he was simply labeled “Green Ghost” at first. But shortly after the film was released, the writers for the spin-off cartoon dubbed him Slimer, which is the name which stuck.
“He’s an ugly little spud, isn’t he?”
Slimer’s sequence may seem like a minor throwaway segment, as he isn’t integral to the main plot, but it’s actually important to the film as a whole. Reitman and Ramis describe their process as the “Domino Theory of Reality” — get the audience to accept little things first, and they’ll be more ready to go along with the big things. Slimer helps to prepare the audience for later, larger supernatural threats. The scene in which he attacks Peter contributes to the building of suspense in the movie by showing how even the mouthiest of the Ghostbusters can be frightened by a ghost.
“He slimed me.” “That’s great! Actual physical contact!”
The ballroom scene in which they finally manage to trap Slimer also sets up an important plot point for later, when Egon explains not to cross the streams of their neutrino wands. This was a late addition to the script, which Aykroyd and Ramis came up with as a way to overcome the final obstacle of Gozer in the film. The streams themselves were drawn in during post-production; the neutrino wands had lights on the end of them to signal the special effects crew when they were supposed to be “on”. The ballroom also represents the Ghostbusters’ first victory. The three actors tried several different approaches on how to make their triumphant exit. They would come up with different lines on every take, with director Ivan Reitman never knowing which of them would be leading when they came out, nor what they would be saying. The line used in the film was one of about eight that Reitman recalls.
“We came, we saw, we kicked its ass!”
After the Sedgewick hotel, the Ghostbusters become overnight successes, receiving multiple jobs and interviews. The montage sequence was partly formed from scenes intentionally shot for the montage, and scenes that were from sequences cut out of the longer script, including a scene in which Ray spends the night in a haunted manor, which is turned into a brief dream sequence for him in the final film.
Playing over the montage is the movie’s theme song, “Ghostbusters”, by Ray Parker, Jr. Parker had difficulty coming up with an idea for the song at first, until he was inspired by a late night ad to style it as a jingle for the company. He would eventually be sued by Huey Lewis and the News over similarities in the background music to their song “I Want a New Drug”; they settled out of court. The controversy did not hurt the song any, as it stayed at #1 for three weeks on the Billboard charts. The music video — which featured both the Ghostbusters actors and cameos from actors who didn’t appear in the film, including those who had turned down roles such as Chevy Chase — was also a hit on MTV.
“24 hours a day, seven days a week! No job is too big! No fee is too big!”
With the upswing in business, the team hires on another person, and at last the crew becomes the familiar foursome. Winston Zeddemore actually went through several changes as the script was re-written multiple times. Initially the character was written for Eddie Murphy, and joined the group as soon as the company was founded. Planning sketches even show Winston with the group in the Sedgewick hotel — in fact, it was originally Winston who was to be slimed. But when Eddie Murphy decided to do Beverly Hills Cop instead, changes were made. (Incidentally, this was not a bad decision on Murphy’s part; Beverly Hills Cop beat Ghostbusters in the box office take in the first year, but Ghostbusters overtook it in 1985 to become the highest grossing comedy of the 1980s.)
“Do you believe in UFOs, astral projection, mental telepathy, ESP, clairvoyance, spirit photography, telekinetic movement, full trans-mediums, the Loch Ness monster and the theory of Atlantis?”
The role of Winston was instead introduced later in the film and given to a less well-known actor, Ernie Hudson. Hudson had acted in around ten films at the time, but none of them were major; arguably the largest role for him was in Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone. Unlike the other actors playing Ghostbusters, he did not come from a comic background, and brought a quiet sensibility to the character, playing him as both the straight man and the everyman among the scientists. In an earlier script Winston was highly overqualified for the position, with multiple PhD’s. Even in the final script, he has strong qualifications, being an Army veteran and a former paramedic in addition to construction work — i.e., a strong guy, a brave guy, and a guy who is used to being on call. This was kept as the intended characterization, but the relevant part of the interview was cut in favor of opening with the funnier questionnaire from Janine.
“If there’s a steady paycheck in it, I’ll believe anything you say.”
Winston serves as a bit of an audience surrogate as the movie starts kicking into high gear, providing a way to explain some of the process of busting ghosts (“the light is green, the trap is clean!”) He also serves as a fourth point of balance with the other personalities. If Egon is the brain, Ray the heart, and Peter the mouth, then Winston is the backbone, supporting the structure and keeping them a bit closer to the common man. He is also hinted at being a bit more spiritual than the three very secular scientists.
“Ray, has it ever occurred to you that maybe the reason we’ve been so busy lately is because the dead have been rising from the grave?”
The main plot starts taking priority with Winston’s arrival, as the terror dogs Zuul and Vinz Clortho break free from the gargoyles where they’ve been imprisoned. The movie slowly builds up to this moment, with shots of the gargoyles, seeing them slowly break as time goes on. Dana Barrett, the first client of the Ghostbusters, comes to them when she saw an omen of Zuul in her refrigerator, and eggs frying on her counter top. The frying scene was achieved through actually having a heating element under the counter, and genuinely frying the eggs on it. Incidentally, pay attention to the groceries near the eggs, and you’ll see a little foreshadowing in the form of a bag of Stay Puft marshmallows.
“Generally you don’t see that kind of behavior in a major appliance.”
Peter tries to make some moves on Dana, but is shot down — and afterward it seems like the Ghostbusters don’t do much to follow up on Dana until Peter happens to run into her again. This proves to be a mistake, as she becomes possessed by Zuul the Gatekeeper. Sigourney Weaver wanted to be in the film because the humorous tone appealed to her. When she auditioned for the role, knowing that Dana would be possessed by Zuul, she included canine mannerisms as part of her audition. She got the part, and her bantering with Murray’s character fit in as perfectly as the rest of the characters. She also made the occasional change to her lines, as with the other actors, including changing one description of Peter from the “car salesman” in the script.
“You know, you don’t act like a scientist.” “They’re usually pretty stiff.” “You’re more like a game show host.”
The terror dogs (one of the few effects that don’t quite hold up today, at least in motion) are a combination of optical and practical effects. In motion, they’re optical effects, greenscreened in during post production. When they’re not running and jumping, they are puppets shot live with the actors. For Dana’s possession by Zuul, Sigourney Weaver was fitted with a full body cast, hidden under the drapery of her dress, to support her weight while she was lifted in the air. Reitman learned this technique while working on Merlin on Broadway, and states that if done today, it would probably be handled digitally, but he likes the live approach as it allowed Murray to keep interacting with Weaver in real time. For the demon-possessed voice of Dana, Ivan Reitman himself speaks the lines.
“There is no Dana, only Zuul!”
“What a lovely singing voice you must have.”
The other victim of possession is Dana’s neighbor, accountant Louis Tully. Louis was originally written as a fairly conservative personality in a business suit, to be played by John Candy. Candy had suggestions on how the character could be approached, such as having a German accent and owning dogs, but his ideas were rejected; the writers and director didn’t think the German accent fit, and there were already the terror dogs, making the idea of Louis owning dogs seem thematically redundant. Candy eventually came to feel he wasn’t right for the role, and departed. It was given to his former SCTV co-star Rick Moranis; this would not be the only time Candy would end up giving a major role to his friend, as he would do the same again with Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.
“Okay, who brought the dog?”
Moranis played the character as significantly more nerdy, and also chose the wardrobe himself. Unlike Candy’s suggestions, Moranis’s were felt to complement the script, and he improvised much of Louis’s dialogue, including the bulk of his lines at Louis’s party. Later, after his possession by Vinz Clortho the Keymaster, Moranis verbally and physically mimics his co-stars, giving the suggestion of a character who is looking at the world without truly understanding it.
“Do you want some coffee, Mr. Tully?” “Do I?”
“Yes, have some.” “Yes! Have some!”
The Keymaster and Gatekeeper are the heralds of Gozer, an ancient Sumerian god who is being summoned back to destroy the world. But the Ghostbusters’ efforts to prevent this are derailed by the interference of bureaucracy, in the form of the Environmental Protection Agency. William Atherton plays Walter Peck, EPA representative, paranormal skeptic, and utter jerk. Peck believes that the Ghostbusters are frauds, and that they are endangering the environment through the use of toxic chemicals and hallucinogenic gases, and has the power grid at Ghostbusters HQ shut down — freeing all the ghosts, releasing all their energy, and allowing the Keymaster to escape to meet the Gatekeeper and bring about the coming of Gozer. He’s a delightfully loathsome character, and William Atherton phoned Ivan Reitman approximately a year after the film came out to complain that it was ruining his life — children kept yelling at him and people kept picking fights with him, all over what his character had done. Of course, Atherton would go on to make a career out of playing jerks, following up his role as Peck with roles as Jerry Hathaway in Real Genius and obstructive journalist Richard Thornburg in the first two Die Hard movies.
“It’s true. This man has no dick.”
The Ghostbusters are eventually able to convince the Mayor (David Margulies) of the importance and reality of the situation, and the climax arrives as they go to face Gozer the Gozerian. Several streets of New York City were shut down for the drive up to “Spook Central”; many more became shut down due to gridlock. The National Guard presence was real, and Reitman riled them up by insulting their manhood to get them to make more noise during shooting. The building was real, aside from the gargoyles and structure on top, but it wasn’t as high as depicted in the film. The apparently-infinite staircase was a matte painting, and the real interior was only about twenty stories.
“When we get to twenty, tell me. I’m gonna throw up.”
For the initial confrontation with Gozer, Gozer was originally envisioned as arriving in the form of Ivo Shandor, the architect who built “Spook Central” to summon Gozer. Paul Reubens (Pee-Wee Herman) was the original choice of actor, but he turned down the role. Instead, Gozer’s initial form was re-envisioned as a woman, and was played by Yugoslavian model Slavitza Jovan, with Paddi Edwards providing the voice. The red eyes were contact lenses, which were reportedly very painful to wear.
“Ray, when someone asks you if you’re a god, you say, ‘Yes!'”
Here at last the “Domino Theory of Reality” is given its pay off, as Gozer tricks the Ghostbusters into choosing its destroyer form. By this time the audience has been primed to accept just about anything as reality. Comedy and terror have blended throughout the film. Suspense has been ratcheted high, and yet even a new audience knows there’s a strong chance something funny will be in the offering. Aykroyd’s original “$300 million” script featured several giant monsters throughout. One of those was saved for the climax of the final film, and as it came from the mind of Aykroyd, so too does it come from the mind of Ray in the film. It’s huge. It’s colossal. It’s menacing.
“It’s the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.”
The “Domino Theory” paid off in full; both the test audience and theatre audiences roared with laughter at the revelation of Mr. Stay Puft, a hilarious threat — and yet still believably a threat. The Ghostbusters’ final victory is framed with them taking a pose inspired by classic westerns, to show their bravery. They cross the streams, which Egon previously forbade for fear of what it could do, and close the door. They win the day, and much of New York is covered in melted marshmallow. The marshmallow goo was shaving cream, spread by the bucket load. Walter Peck was given his just deserts by being caught in a downpour of goo; William Atherton asked Reitman if it would hurt (reasoning that 75 pounds of foam is still 75 pounds) and Reitman tested it on a stuntman. After flattening the stuntman, they reduced the weight, though it still knocked Atherton flat.
“I tried to think of the most harmless thing. Something I loved from my childhood. Something that could never, ever possibly destroy us.”
Ghostbusters started to become popular before it ever hit the theatres. Outside shots of New York were shot live in the city, and people would see the actors in uniform and Ecto-1 driving around and asked what was going on. “Ghostbusters” was all they were told. Eventually Ivan Reitman started sticking the “No Ghosts” sign, plus a date, around town. It was a viral marketing campaign more than a decade before the world wide web was available for creating such. It took first place at the box office for five straight weeks, and kept crawling back up afterward. Between 1984 and 1985 it grossed $238 million dollars, becoming the most successful comedy of the 1980s. It was nominated for two Oscars — best original song for “Ghostbusters” and best visual effects — and most critics loved it as well as the general public did. It made #28 on AFI’s 100 years, 100 laughs in 2006.
“Dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria!”
But the critical acclaim is the smallest part of the picture here. Ghostbusters had a massive impact on pop culture, unrivaled by any other film of the decade, and perhaps only rivaled at all by the Star Wars film franchise. Ivan Reitman said he knew he had a hit on his hands when he started seeing bootleg T-shirts within weeks of the film’s release. The film’s popularity just snowballed from there, and soon Ghostbusters were everywhere. People painted hearses to resemble Ecto-1, convincing an entire generation of children that being a Ghostbuster was a genuine career option. Though the film was not actually meant for children — Reitman and Ramis point out several scenes that are ostensibly too scary for children — children loved it. Teachers loved it as well — children playing “Ghostbusters” on the playground were playing cooperatively instead of competitively. A sequel was inevitable, and inevitably successful; a third is constantly being proposed. Ghostbusters being a film made in the 1980s, a cartoon was also inevitable, and came hot on the heels of the movie. What was less inevitable was the cartoon being successful; many movie spinoff cartoons, such as Rambo and RoboCop, only lasted a single season in syndication.
“The franchise rights alone will make us rich beyond our wildest dreams.”
The first Ghostbusters cartoon did not come from Columbia. When Columbia changed the name of the film from Ghost Smashers, they had a minor problem — the name Ghost Busters was already trademarked, by Filmation, who had used it as the title of a live-action children’s show in the seventies. With the success of the film, Filmation rushed out a cartoon follow-up to their TV series. Lou Scheimer, head of Filmation, would later acknowledge that in retrospect they should have just done Columbia’s cartoon for them. Instead, Columbia took the franchise to DiC, who titled their show The Real Ghostbusters. This was only partly a dig at Filmation, and only partly because they needed a distinct title. The other reason for the title was that the concept for the series was that the real-life movie was also a movie in the Real Ghostbusters universe. The characters in the cartoon were the real Ghostbusters that Murray, Ramis, Aykroyd, and Hudson played in the film. Character designs were altered to avoid likeness fees, and a first-season episode was devoted to the Ghostbusters going to see the premiere of their own film.
“You know, he doesn’t look a thing like me.”
Ernie Hudson was the only member of the movie cast to audition for a part in the cartoon; strangely, he didn’t get it, with the role of Winston instead going to Arsenio Hall (and later Buster Jones). The cartoon kept up the blend of comedy and spookiness (toned down some for TV animation, especially in later seasons), and fleshed out the backgrounds of the characters. It ran for seven seasons, and 134 episodes, making it one of the longest-running and most successful original-content Saturday morning cartoon programs (it is exceeded in length by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Smurfs.) A later spinoff, Extreme Ghostbusters ran for one 40-episode season as a weekday program.
“We’re exterminators. Someone saw a cockroach up on twelve.”
Video games followed as well… and continue to follow, with one being released in 2007, 18 years after the last movie, to successful sales. Even all these years later, Ghostbusters still has a hold on the public’s imagination. With a smash hit movie, a hit sequel, a smash hit cartoon, popular video games, and a very successful toy line, an entire generation grew up ready to believe them. It even extends into alleged non-fiction — the success of shows such as Ghost Hunters and Celebrity Ghost Stories (on which Ernie Hudson once appeared) is undoubtedly a result of the enduring popularity of Ghostbusters. Would anybody watch paranormal investigators that never find anything conclusive if they didn’t have it ingrained in them from youth that ghostbusting is a real thing? Films such as Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop have been known to create an interest in professions such as Navy fighter pilots and police officers, respectively, but only Ghostbusters has created an interest in a profession that essentially didn’t exist before, and technically may not even now.
“Are you sure you’re using that thing correctly?” “Well, I think so.”
Ghostbusters has become not just an enduring film, but an enduring franchise, and one of the few to have success outside of the films. It’s a landmark in pop culture, instantly recognizable to everyone. It’s filled with humor, action, and just enough frights to make it work. Unlike a lot of comedies, it would still be a solid plot even if it weren’t funny at all, but it’s hilarious on top of that. It’s one of the greatest films of the 80s, and it’s one of my favorite films.
“I love this town!”