Cannibals and comedy: Ivan Reitman’s path to Ghostbusters

It’s 30 years since Ghostbusters. But what led its director and producer from Canada to Hollywood? Ryan takes a look...

 In‭ ‬1984,‭ Ghostbusters became a global sensation.‭ ‬Its catchy theme song was‭ ‬inescapable,‭ ‬and audiences were chattering excitedly about‭ ‬the movie’s perfect balance of fear and comedy,‭ ‬from the effective jolts of its ghouls and demons to the patented world-weary sarcasm of Bill Murray,‭ ‬one of the most prominent faces among its ensemble cast.

Ghostbusters must have been a proud moment for Ivan Reitman, a filmmaker whose early life was filled with uncertainty and upheaval, and whose love of cinema would one day lead to controversy, intrigue, and ultimately, global success.

Reitman was born in‭ ‬1946‭ ‬in‭ ‬Komarmo,‭ ‬Czechoslovakia. Reitman’s Jewish parents,‭ ‬Leslie and Clara Reitman,‭ ‬had‭ lived‬ through the unimaginable‭ ‬horrors of World War II and briefly thrived in its aftermath.‭ ‬By the time little Ivan was born,‭ ‬Leslie Reitman had established‭ a successful business – ‬what one newspaper article described as‭ “‬the country’s biggest vinegar factory.‭” ‬But then the communist party came to power,‭ ‬and when Leslie was threatened‭ ‬with imprisonment if‭ ‬the‭ ‬factory failed to meet its quota,‭ ‬the Reitman family began to look for‭ ‬an escape route.

When Ivan was just four years old,‭ ‬the Reitmans stowed away in the bottom of a coal barge,‭ ‬where they hid for five days as the vessel carried them down the Danube to Vienna.‭ ‬From there,‭ ‬they fled to Toronto,‭ ‬Canada.‭ ‬Initially working in factories,‭ ‬Ivan’s parents saved up enough money to start a dry cleaning business,‭ ‬then‭ ‬a‭ ‬car wash,‭ ‬before investing the profits in real estate.

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Ivan‭ ‬Reitman‭’‬s initial plan was to pursue a career as a musician,‭ ‬but as a‭ ‬youth growing up in Toronto,‭ ‬the movies also had a magnetic power.‭ ‬He’d spent many happy hours in his local cinema,‭ ‬drinking in such‭ ‬movies as‭ ‬Invasion Of The Body Snatchers,‭ ‬The Bride Of Frankenstein, and the‭ ‬unapologetically horrific,‭ ‬gimmicky films of William Castle.‭

While still in college studying music,‭ ‬he‭ ‬wrote,‭ ‬produced and directed a short‭ ‬comedy called Orientation,‭ ‬which was so successful that it essentially launched his career as a filmmaker‭; ‬aired on Canadian TV,‭ ‬Orientation was picked up by‭ ‬20th Century Fox and screened in front of the‭ ‬1969‭ ‬romantic drama‭ ‬John And Mary,‭ ‬starring Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow.

Reitman then produced The Columbus Of Sex‭ (‬1969‭)‬,‭ ‬an X-rated movie that earned the unlikely distinction of being the first Canadian film to be prosecuted for obscenity‭ ‬-‭ ‬Reitman was reportedly put on probation and fined‭ ‬$300‭ ‬for his‭ ‬saucy‭ ‬transgression.‭

Undeterred,‭ ‬Reitman‭ ‬produced and directed the comedy‭Foxy Lady‭ (‬1971‭)‬,‭ ‬one of his few early financial disappointments,‭ ‬before turning his attention to‭ ‬a project that spoke to his childhood affection for schlocky horror and fantasy.‭ ‬Cannibal Girls‭was shot‭ ‬in the space of just‭ ‬nine days,‭ ‬starred a young Eugene Levy‭ (‬who’d previously made his debut in Foxy Lady)‬,‭ ‬and was distinguished by its gleeful approach to nudity and gore. It also boasted a theatrical gimmick straight out of a William Castle flick:‭ ‬it was,‭ ‬the poster boasted,‭ “‬The picture with the warning bell.‭ ‬When it rings,‭ ‬close your eyes if you’re squeamish…‭”

But as The Columbus Of Sex proved,‭ ‬Canada wasn‭’‬t‭ ‬the best place to make something zany‭ ‬or risque‭ ‬in the1970s,‭ ‬and when Reitman struggled to find a distributor,‭ ‬Cannibal Girls‭’‬ investors took the alarming step of holding the movie hostage.‭

Reitman‭’‬s response was even more surprising:‭ ‬he stole the film and took a trip over to the Cannes Film Festival,‭ ‬where he managed to sell it to producer Samuel Z Arkoff,‭ ‬the famous B-movie producer and vice president of American International Pictures.‭ ‬Reitman also took Cannibal Girls over to the International Horror Festival,‭ ‬where Eugene Levy‭ ‬and co-star Andrea Martin won‭ ‬early‭ ‬accolades for their semi-improvised performances.

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Thanks to his cunning,‭ ‬even risky tactics,‭ ‬Reitman managed to turn Cannibal Girls from‭ ‬what could have been a can of film gathering dust on a shelf into a profit-making success.‭ ‬Unlike America,‭ ‬where filmmakers had the likes of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures to finance and distribute their‭ ‬low-budget genre‭ ‬films,‭ ‬Canada of the‭ ‬1970s had little‭ ‬in the way of support for budding producers and directors.‭

Canada did,‭ ‬however,‭ ‬have Cinepix.

Cinepix and Cronenberg

Cinepix was a tiny indie film company based in Montreal.‭ ‬Founded by John Dunning and Andre Link in‭ ‬1962,‭ ‬it specialised in the distribution of low-budget‭ ‬erotic‭ ‬pictures with titles like Sex Isn’t Sin,‭ ‬Virgin Loversand The Importance Of Being Sexy,‭ ‬as well as horror films like The Blood Beast Terror and The Astro-Zombies.

Cinepix was also the production company behind Reitman’s Foxy Lady,‭ ‬and co-distributed Cannibal Girls alongside American International Pictures in‭ ‬1973.‭ ‬Following the modest success of the latter,‭ ‬Reitman continued to collaborate with Cinepix over the next‭ ‬few years,‭ ‬during which time he produced the debut feature of a certain David Cronenberg.

Cronenberg,‭ ‬32‭ ‬years old and with two well-received and exceedingly unusual short films called Stereo and Crimes Of The Future under his belt,‭  ‬had‭ ‬decided to make a full-length horror movie.‭ ‬Recognising that there was little future,‭ ‬at least financially,‭ ‬in short art projects, he decided to go mainstream‭ ‬-‭ ‬albeit with a screenplay with the decidedly‭ ‬antisocial title of Orgy Of The Blood Parasites (and later retitled, among other things, Shivers and They Came From Within).

Reitman immediately responded to the script’s extreme nature,‭ ‬which,‭ ‬even in its first draft,‭ ‬displayed‭ ‬many of the unique‭ ‬body horror hallmarks for which Cronenberg would later become infamous.‭ ‬About a blandly upscale apartment block infected by a parasite which also happens to turn its victims into sex-obsessed zombies,‭ Shivers contained all the sex and violence a producer like Corman or Arkoff would have liked,‭ ‬but alsocarried with it a transgressive,‭ ‬boundary-pushing air of the forbidden.‭

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The taboo nature of the script made it a hard sell in Canada,‭ ‬whose government-sponsored film development entity,‭ ‬the CFDC‭ (‬or Canadian Film Development Corporation‭)‬,‭ ‬was more used to providing funds to‭ ‬black-and-white dramas and‭ ‬documentaries about‭ ‬the Inuit.‭ ‬After more than two years of negotiations,‭ ‬the CFDC finally relented,‭ ‬and agreed to provide the film with its tiny‭ ‬$179,000‭ ‬budget.

Like Cannibal Girls,‭ ‬Shivers was shot in a matter of days,‭ ‬the inexperienced Cronenberg capturing scenes‭ ‬in a take or two and bedding down at night in an apartment full of fake blood and prosthetics.‭ ‬The low-budget film did,‭ ‬however,‭ ‬have an additional touch of class thanks to the presence of Barbara Steele among the cast‭ ‬-‭ ‬a horror movie actress famous for her roles in horror classics like Mario Bava’s Black Sunday.‭

Released in October‭ ‬1975,‭ Shivers was a hit with audiences.‭ ‬The reaction from some critics and politicians was,‭ ‬however,‭ ‬toxic‭; ‬one writer tore the film to pieces‭ ‬in an article carrying the infamous headline,‭ “‬You Should Know How Bad The Movie Is,‭ ‬You Paid For it.” The news that such a violent film had been made with taxpayers‭’ ‬money was controversial, to say the least.‭ ‬That controversy soon abated,‭ ‬however,‭ ‬when it became clear that Shivers was one of the few CFDC-backed films to actually turn a profit.

Reitman,‭ ‬it seemed,‭ ‬couldn’t help but get involved in censor-baiting or button-pushing films.‭ ‬He‭ ‬collaborated with Cinepix and Cronenberg again for the latter’s second film,‭ ‬the equally sordid Rabid‭ (‬1977‭)‬.‭ ‬This time,‭ ‬Reitman suggested that Cronenberg cast former porn star Marilyn Chambers as the leading lady with a blood-sucking skin graft,‭ ‬having seen her on television while in New York.

Rabid was,‭ ‬again,‭ ‬a low-budget hit,‭ ‬and paved the way for an almost unbroken run of deeply personal yet successful horror movies for David Cronenberg,‭ ‬which stretched from the mid-70s to the mainstream hit,‭ ‬The Fly,‭ ‬in‭ ‬1986.‭ ‬Thereafter,‭ ‬Cronenberg moved into a new period of more diverse dramas,‭ ‬tragedies and thrillers,‭ ‬such as Dead Ringers‭ (‬1988‭)‬,‭ ‬the controversial Crash‭ (‬1996‭)‬,‭ ‬A History Of Violence (‬2005‭) ‬and Maps To The Stars‭ (‬2014‭)‬.

National Lampoons and Meatballs

By the time he was‭ ‬30‭ ‬years old,‭ ‬Reitman had already established himself as one of Canada’s most successful producers.‭ ‬He’d helped launch David Cronenberg’s career,‭ ‬produced lucrative genre films like Black Out and Death Weekend (‬also known as The House By The Lake) ‬and been behind several stage,‭ ‬radio and TV projects.‭ ‬The major turning point for Reitman was arguably The National Lampoon Show,‭ ‬a‭ ‬radio series based on a popular American humour magazine.The show brought such performers as John Belushi,‭ ‬Harold Ramis,‭ ‬Chevy Chase and Bill Murray to public attention,‭ ‬as did a‭ ‬1973‭ ‬off-Broadway show,‭ ‬National Lampoon’s‭ ‬Lemmings.

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While many of those performers would soon go on to even greater popularity on American TV’s Saturday Night Live,‭ ‬the success of the National Lampoon radio show led to Animal House,‭ ‬the hit frat comedy co-produced by Ivan Reitman and directed by John Landis.‭ ‬By the standards of Reitman’s earlier projects,‭ ‬Animal House was a big deal,‭ ‬with a‭ ‬$3.2m budget courtesy of Universal Pictures.‭ ‬But few were prepared for how popular it would soon become:‭ ‬all told,‭ ‬Animal House grossed around‭ ‬$200m worldwide.‭

“I didn’t know it was going to be quite so big,‭ ‬Reitman told Starlog‭ ‬in‭ ‬1984,‭ “‬but I did believe it was very good.‭ ‬We all knew there had never been a movie like Animal House before and that we were onto something big.‭ ‬That it happened was a thrill.‭”

The success of Animal House was a further boost to Reitman,‭ ‬who’d been briefly considered to direct before the more experienced Landis took the helm.‭ ‬Reitman did,‭ ‬however,‭ ‬get to direct Meatballs,‭ ‬the‭ ‬1979‭ ‬comedy that marked the first starring role for Bill Murray.‭ ‬Although not quite the phenomenon that Animal House was,‭ ‬it was hugely popular for a Canadian production‭:‭ ‬grossing‭ ‬$43m,‭ ‬it was‭ ‬in an entirely different league from Reitman’s earlier films as director.

Reitman and Murray repeated the same success with Stripes in‭ ‬1981,‭ ‬an army comedy which,‭ ‬like Meatballs,‭ ‬was co-written by Harold Ramis,‭ ‬who’d co-written Animal House and Meatballs.‭ ‬Once‭ ‬again,‭ ‬it was a hit,‭ ‬earning more than‭ ‬$85m on a‭ ‬$10m budget.

Not everything Reitman touched turned to gold,‭ ‬however.‭ ‬A movie adaptation of the comic Heavy Metal‭ ‬was an unusual,‭ ‬risky project that‭ ‬didn’t take off as expected.‭ ‬Nor did a stage production called Merlin,‭ ‬or the sci-fi Spacehunter:‭ ‬Adventures In The Forbidden Zone.‭ ‬All told,‭ ‬1983‭ ‬wasn’t the happiest in Reitman’s career so far.‭ ‬Reitman did,‭ ‬however,‭ ‬have Ghostbusters.

Who you gonna call?

Canadian actor Dan Aykroyd had found success as a writer and performer on Saturday Night Live while he was still in his‭ ‬20s,‭ ‬and made his film debut in Steven Spielberg’s box-office disappointment,‭ 1941,‭ ‬released‭ ‬in‭ ‬1979,‭ ‬before‭ ‬co-writing and‭ ‬starring in The Blues Brothers,‭ ‬which‭ ‬was a big hit.‭It was in the early‭ ‬80s that Aykroyd had the idea for‭ ‬a comedy about ghost exterminators who could travel through time and space.‭ ‬Aykroyd’s family had a longstanding interest in the paranormal‭; ‬his great-grandfather was a spiritualist,‭ ‬while his grandfather attempted to communicate with the dead via a radio.‭ ‬Those family stories clearly rubbed off on Aykroyd,‭ ‬and as he thought about the old ghost movies of the‭ ‬1930s‭ (“‬Virtually every comedy team did a ghost movie‭ ‬-‭ ‬Abbott and Costello,‭ ‬Bob Hope,‭” ‬he told Vanity Fair‭)‬,‭ ‬an early draft of Ghostbusters gradually began to take shape.

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The script was,‭ ‬even in its revised form,‭ ‬co-written by Harold Ramis,‭ “‬impossible to make but one that had brilliant ideas in it,” according to Reitman.‭  ‬Nevertheless,‭ ‬Reitman,‭ ‬who seemed to have risk-taking coded into his DNA,‭ ‬decided to push ahead with Ghostbusters,‭ ‬even though the visual effects it required would send it into far more expensive territory than Meatballs or Stripes.‭ ‬Reitman threw himself into the project,‭ ‬serving as both producer and director when Ghostbusters found a home at Columbia Pictures:‭ ‬remarkably,‭ ‬the studio agreed to Reitman’s projected‭ ‬$25m budget‭ ‬-‭ ‬an extraordinary sum for a comedy at the time.

The gamble, as we now know, paid off,‭ ‬and Ghostbusters became a worldwide smash when it appeared in‭ ‬1984.‭ ‬But while it was arguably a success thanks to its stars‭ ‬-‭ ‬Bill Murray,‭ ‬Akroyd,‭ ‬Ramis,‭ ‬Ernie Hudson,‭ ‬Rick Moranis, and Sigourney Weaver‭ ‬-‭ ‬it’s notable that Ghostbusters contained many of the elements of Reitman’s earlier work as both director and producer.‭ ‬Full of wry comedy as well as horror,‭ ‬it’s arguably as much a tribute to the movies Reitman loved as a youth as,‭ ‬say,‭ ‬Cannibal Girls was.

Ghostbusters led to further American success for Reitman in America,‭ ‬with such films as‭ ‬Legal Eagles,‭ ‬Twins, and Kindergarten Cop all hits through the‭ ‬’80s and early‭ ‬’90s.‭ ‬But‭ ‬aside from the hit movies,‭ ‬Reitman also helped to launch the careers of actors and filmmakers who might‭ ‬otherwise have struggled in Canada’s comparatively tiny film industry in the‭ ‬1970s‭ ‬-‭ ‬not least Cronenberg,‭ ‬who went on to forge his own unusual path through cinema history.

Reitman himself‭ never forgot his roots in Canadian cinema. In Ghostbusters II, released in 1989, patrons are shown fleeing a cinema in terror. The film briefly shownon the marquee above their heads? Cannibal Girls, one of the stepping stones that paved the way to Reitman’s Hollywood success.

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