Obituary: Ivan Reitman, filmmaker behind Ghostbusters and Schwarzenegger comedies
It was the early 1980s and Ivan Reitman had directed a couple of moderately successful movies with TV star Bill Murray and a little-seen film called Cannibal Girls when he talked Columbia Pictures into gambling a hefty $30 million on a comedy with a lot of expensive ghosts and other special effects.
Ghostbusters combined its pricey puppetry, models and special effects with the irreverence that Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd had developed on Saturday Night Live on TV. And it grossed almost ten times the budget on its initial cinema release in 1984, making it the highest-grossing comedy of all time and Reitman one of the hottest new directors in Hollywood.
The film, which Reitman both produced and directed, launched a long-running, multi-billion dollar franchise that included sequels, television series, video games, comic books and other merchandising.
Reitman, the son of an Auschwitz concentration camp survivor, went on to direct a string of big hit comedies in the 1980s and 1990s, while Ghostbusters turned into something of a family business when his son Jason Reitman directed the latest instalment Ghostbusters: Afterlife, which came out just a few months ago.
Ivan Reitman developed a particularly successful relationship with Arnold Schwarzenegger, taking the action hero in a new direction in a series of high-concept comedies beginning with Twins, in which he is diminutive Danny DeVito’s big brother.
Reitman was born to Hungarian-Jewish parents in Komárno in Czechoslovakia in 1946. His father had owned a business producing vinegar and had joined the resistance during the Second World War. His mother had stayed with her parents and narrowly escaped being murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz.
After the war, with Czechoslovakia now part of the Communist bloc, the Reitmans decided to flee to the West, hiding in the hold of a barge to get to Vienna. Reitman was only four at the time.
“They gave me a couple of sleeping pills so I wouldn’t make any noise,” he said. “I was so knocked out that I slept with my eyes open. My parents were afraid I was dead.”
The family eventually reached Toronto, where they had relatives. They were penniless when they arrived but went on to own a dry cleaning business and a carwash – Reitman would later donate the land on which it stood to the Toronto Film Festival for a new cinema.
Reitman studied Music at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He had been in a folk group and wanted to be a composer. But life took him in another direction. He made his first films when he joined the university film club and hit the headlines when he was fined $300 for obscenity for his involvement as producer in a film called The Columbus of Sex.
He worked briefly as a producer in television in Toronto, where he got to know Dan Aykroyd, and in 1973 he produced a musical magic show, originally called Spellbound, with a book by David Cronenberg.
Cronenberg is best known as the originator of “body horror” movies, which explore violations of the human body, and Reitman was producer of Shivers and Rabid, the feature films that made Cronenberg’s name and marked the emergence of the new sub-genre in the mid-1970s.
By that time Reitman had directed a couple of low-budget comedy features of his own - Foxy Lady and Cannibal Girls, both of which starred Eugene Levy, who later found fame in American Pie and Schitt’s Creek.
Reitman met Bill Murray and John Belushi, stars of the Saturday Night Live show, when Aykroyd recruited him to produce National Lampoon’s off-Broadway revue. He recalled a tricky introduction to Murray. “I made the mistake of thinking I could be creatively helpful and had the temerity to say: ‘Hey, why don’t you …’
“Bill immediately came over and put his arm around me, took me over to where the coats were hanging, grabbed my scarf, wrapped it dangerously tightly around my neck and said: ‘Hey man, thank you for dropping in.’ He ushered me out of the room.”
Nevertheless Reitman soon had a successful working relationship with both Murray and Belushi, as well as Aykroyd.
In 1978 Reitman produced the film National Lampoon’s Animal House, which showcased Belushi at his most anarchic, and then directed Murray in Meatballs, a low-budget Canadian comedy set in a holiday camp. It provided Murray with his first lead role.
Reitman and Murray followed up with the hit army comedy Stripes, in which a US army platoon invade Czechoslovakia by mistake. “It was some fantasy of Ivan’s to go back there and kick some ass,” said Harold Ramis, who co-starred in the film and completed the Ghostbusters team with Aykroyd and Murray.
Ghostbusters was conceived by Dan Aykroyd, inspired by a multi-generational family interest in ghosts. It was originally intended as a project for himself and Belushi, along with fellow Saturday Night Alive alumnus Eddie Murphy. They would play parapsychologists, who dressed like plumbers, but whose business was catching unwanted supernatural visitors.
Reitman was involved from an early stage and found Aykroyd more receptive to creative suggestions than Murray had been. Aykroyd’s original idea had the film set in the future and the action was not restricted to Earth.
Reitman suggested that setting it in the present and making it as realistic as possible would heighten the comedy. Murray himself became involved after Belushi died of a drugs overdose in 1982.
The People magazine review summed up the end-result rather neatly when it said: “Reitman keeps the Aykroyd-Ramis screenplay zipping right along, creating something like Abbott & Costello Meet the Exorcist.”
Reitman co-wrote, produced and directed the comedy Legal Eagles, starring Robert Redford, but it was with his movies with Schwarzenegger that he found another distinctive winning formula, subverting Arnie’s macho image with comic roles.
Schwarzenegger played DeVito’s brother in Twins in 1988, he was a tough policeman pushed to the limits when he goes undercover in a nursery in Kindergarten Cop in 1990 and he was a pregnant man in Junior in 1994.
Reitman continued his run of hits this century, with Evolution and My Super Ex-Girlfriend, but his films as director were fewer in recent times. He concentrated more on producing films, including the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot and the 2009 comedy drama Up in the Air, which was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, starred George Clooney and was directed by Jason Reitman.
Reitman is survived by his wife Geneviève Robert, an actress and director, and by their three children.
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