After producing Animal House in 1978 — an experience that only reinforced his desire to direct — 31-year-old Ivan Reitman gave himself a five-month window to conceive and shoot his own movie. He started with a simple premise — a crazy summer camp — but not much else in terms of Hollywood support or financing. (The budget was less than a million dollars.) But he thought he had an ace in the hole in Bill Murray, the then-27-year-old who was just emerging as one of the new faces on Saturday Night Live. If only he could persuade the contrarian comic, who he knew from The National Lampoon show in New York, to show up to the rustic camp in Ontario where the cast and crew were filming in August 1978. Even then, Murray was difficult to pin down. “It’s not like he was a big star or anything,” says Reitman. “But he’s always kind of been iconoclastically difficult about agreeing to be in things. And also hard to reach. But I refused to take no for an answer and … he showed up on set on the second day of shooting.”
It’s a beautiful thing he did. Though Meatballs isn’t a perfect film, it’s pure mainlined Murray, establishing the smirking, irreverent persona that would run wild in other Reitman collaborations, like Stripes and Ghostbusters. With Meatballs arriving today on Blu-ray and On Demand for the first time, Reitman talked to EW about the little film that launched him and his hilarious star to Hollywood stardom, and how he still holds out hope for another Ghostbusters film — with Murray.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Summer-camp movies are practically a sub-genre unto themselves now, but I don’t recall a lot of them before Meatballs. Was it something new, or had there been older camp movie you had absorbed?
IVAN REITMAN: There were a couple of camp films that were suddenly all starting about the same time. I think there was a movie called Little Darlings, and I vaguely remember Norman Lear writing some camp film that didn’t get made that was planned about that time. For me this was an antidote to my not being allowed to direct Animal House. I had worked on it three years, brought Belushi into it, and ended up producing the film, but my original intention was always to direct it. But because I had really only directed this small $12,000 improvised comedy called Cannibal Girls, the studio wouldn’t let me do it, and so we hired John Landis who did a great job. But I really wanted to direct, and literally, as soon as our cut was done on Animal House, I called a couple of friends up, Len Blum and Dan Goldberg, who all gone to camp at various places — sometimes together — in Ontario, Canada. I said, “Let’s see if we can put this summer-camp movie together.” This was in March 1978. Animal House came out in [late July] and we started shooting [Meatballs] the third of August. I remember the film had just opened. So really, we had a four-month window to do everything, from writing it to financing it to putting together a cast and talking some camp into allowing us to shoot there.
Was finding a camp willing to host a movie a difficult negotiation?
No, we only went to White Pine. Len and Dan had gone there and were very friendly with the owner. We called him up and said, “Look, this will be fun for the campers. It’ll make a great, you know, swing activity.” We had no money. There was no budget. Fortunately, he let us come and we shot while camp was in session. Fortunately we were able to get a decent script going, and most fortunately, I was finally able to talk Bill Murray into starring in the movie.
Bill was still kind of unproven at that time. Had he even really established himself on Saturday Night Live yet?
Not really. I knew Bill from this off-Broadway show called the National Lampoon Show, which I’d done before Animal House. This was before Saturday Night Live and all that stuff. It had Belushi. It had Bill Murray and Gilda Radner and Harold Ramis and Joe Flaherty. It’s how I knew Belushi to put him into Animal House. Bill did not get on Saturday Night Live that first year, but I think Lorne Michaels by then had decided to bring him in as a full-time cast member. So this summer he was busy mostly playing golf and baseball. I called him up and said, “Come on, Bill, this is a funny script. It’s a great idea, we’ll have a great time, we’ll be at a real camp. And you’re not doing anything.” And he just wouldn’t say yes. It’s not like he was a big star or anything. He had never been in a movie. He had barely been on television. [Note: Murray debuted on Saturday Night Live in January 1977 and began to play a much larger role on the show during the 1977-78 season.] But he’s always kind of been iconoclastically difficult about agreeing to be in things. And also hard to reach. But I refused to take no for an answer and I refused to hire anyone else as the star of the movie, because I couldn’t think of anyone else who could kind of fill those shoes. He agreed finally to do it, I think, on the eve of the first day of shooting, and he showed up on set on the second day of shooting. It was really touch and go all the way. But when he got there, he was absolutely committed. He was brilliant. He helped rewrite the script, as he usually does. It was the start of his career and he was certainly responsible for the start of my directing career.
When you think about the Bill Murray persona that became even more famous in Stripes and Ghostbusters, it really took shape in Meatballs. What had you seen on the Lampoon show that made you want him and what gave you the confidence that he would ultimately show up.
I have no idea why I felt that he was going to finally do it. I finally thought he wasn’t going to let me down in an odd kind of way. I was going on faith. In terms of knowledge about his abilities, I had worked with him for a year on this off Broadway show and he was on the same stage as Gilda and John, and he was as strong as they were. There was no issue of him being in the same class. He was brilliant on stage, as were the others. For me there was no doubt, I just knew.
You’ve said the script changed dramatically once Bill showed up. How was it originally devised?
It was slightly more of an ensemble, concentrating on the group he was taking care of. His role was always the most important, but the group of older teenagers, the so-called CITs, were the center of most of the subplots. What we learned as we were doing it and as we watched it in editing was the relationship between Bill and Chris Makepeace, the young kid who was sort of sad, seemed much more powerful and was a better balance for his abilities. For him to play that sort of ironic bombastic character against the sweetness of Makepeace turned out to make some really delicious sceneplay.
So what was it like for the other actors when Bill showed up last minute? Was there an awe factor?
They didn’t really know who he was. I mean, he was more unknown than most unknown people who star in movies right now. But his personality is so large and the confidence that you see and have grown to know over the last few decades was there right from the beginning. I mean, I remember walking in the streets of Manhattan with him when he was a total unknown and he had the same kind of extraordinarily confident energy. He’d sing out loud, he would do funny voices really loud in restaurants and not worry. He just had a way of making people laugh all around him all the time. Most of these guys don’t do this in real life. They save it for the performance. But particularly in those early days, that was a big part of who he was on a daily basis.
Well, that reminds me of the scene from the film where he pretends to be the rich camp’s counselor and gives the interview to the bewildered reporter. That’s a scene I can imagine Bill Murray really doing even when there’s not a camera around.
As you can tell, most of those lines were not in the original script. I mean, we would talk about it and then I’d just start rolling. I quickly learned to be very fast on my feet. One of the great trainings about that movie that I’ve used ever since was not to be afraid of a good idea even if it’s not my good idea, but to recognize when something is special. Even if preparation was different, to be nimble enough to use it. Certainly that happened a lot.
NEXT PAGE: “Bill should work more. He’s so damned talented and I don’t think he works enough.“
You mentioned the importance of the relationship between Bill and Chris Makepeace’s character, and in the DVD commentary, you discussed how they connected off screen.
I think he liked the kid, you know? That helped a lot. This was Chris Makepeace’s first movie. We found him in Toronto. He had a good sense of humor, and he himself was not afraid of Bill. So he knew how to play his role in a kind of un-actorly way, in a naturalistic way. And Bill responded to him.
There was only so much research I could do, but I feel confident enough to say with almost absolute certainty that your film is the only soundtrack with Elmer Bernstein and Rick Dees on it.
[Laughs] That is true. Elmer Bernstein had done Animal House so we became friends and I asked him to do Meatballs — really for no fee but a participation. And I think his score is just gorgeous. It’s very sweet, and it captures this lovely nostalgic feel and the joy of being youthful at this time. But this was the late ’70s so certainly having songs in a film with a lot of kids in it seemed to be important and was certainly de rigueur for that period.
Kate Lynch turned out to be an excellent romantic foil opposite Bill. I imagine you had to cast that role carefully knowing how charismatic Bill could be.
I certainly chose her because I felt she could perform the strength that was required. And she was attractive without being overly beautiful, and I thought in a strange way that was going to be good. If you look at my other films with Bill, I’m really proud of the male/female pairings. They’re always with very strong women. Kate was very strong in Meatballs. Certainly P.J. Soles stands up to him in a different way in Stripes. And certainly Sigourney Weaver in the two Ghostbuster films. But you still feel the romance in each one of those.
There’s that very funny scene when Tripper flirts with Roxanne in his very unique way and ends up wrestling with her. In the DVD commentary, you said that you’ve actually seen Bill court that way — that he’s very… what’s the term?
Aggressively physical? But in a very funny and lovely way. You don’t feel like you’re being sexually harassed. Most people are laughing when it’s happening. I just saw him sort of do it, like in real life, and I witnessed it though all the films that we made together. It’s just a very endearing quality of his, and this was a way of presenting it and using it in the film.
The movie went on to be one of 1979’s biggest hits, but you’ve said that it could have — or should have — been a disaster. Were you terrified this might be your last film.
No. I have to say I was pretty confident. After we wrapped, I knew we had filmed some really funny things and that Bill gave an extraordinarily special performance. There were other things too: the young actors were very attractive and endearing, and somehow I knew it was going to come together.
I’ve been fascinated by more recent stories about Bill’s legendary elusiveness, but when I hear your own war story of locking him down for Meatballs, I realize he hasn’t changed much in 30-some years. Do you chuckle when you hear anecdotes of other people’s close encounters?
Well, I feel bad for the people who are counting on him because I’m well aware of the nervousness involved. I actually feel that Bill should work more. He’s so damned talented and I don’t think he works enough and when he does, lately, it’s been mostly smaller roles. The movies are generally really good, but they aren’t really centered on himself. Apparently, he’s got the big part in this FDR movie so I look forward to seeing that.
That’s true. As someone who grew up watching and loving the films you made together, I’d love to see another “Bill Murray movie.” It’s been almost a decade — Steve Zissou maybe? — since anything like that.
I don’t really know the reason. I mean I’ve talked to him about it over the years, but I don’t think he wanted the pressure of that. I think he wanted to do a different kind of work — I guess more serious. Although I think to be able to do what he does in Stripes and Meatballs and Ghostbusters is about the hardest thing you can do as an actor. It’s a high-flying act. There’s very few people in the world who can do it. So when someone has that gift, you sort of wish he take advantage of it more.
Do you have much hope for a Ghostbusters 3 with him? Or will you only believe it when he shows up to the set on the day of production?
Yeah, I think that’s basically the attitude. He keeps saying negative things and positive things about it, and I think the ambivalence is real. I don’t think he’s playing games. We’ll see if it ever comes together once we have a script that is actually good enough.