Believe it or not, movies get written. When you watch a movie: good, great, terrible, plague on humanity; it was written by someone who thought it was a good idea at the time. Unlike books and short stories, the ideas put into a script are not always the entirety of the end product. There is a lot of dilution that occurs from script purchase to movie marquee. Directors make changes, producers call for re-writes, actors ad lib, and in the end the screen play ends up changing dramatically. Who knows…maybe Battlefield Earth was the magnum opus of our age before it got in the hands of a production team (I doubt it, but it’s possible).
Usually though, it would be fair to say that the way a script is written does in fact guide the overwhelming majority of where the film goes. In a science fiction movie, the same group of people involved in diluting the script are also the same people that are responsible for making you believe the events that are transpiring. It is their job to make the fantastic scenario of science fiction or fantasy seem plausible by offering it to you in as realistic a manner as is appropriate. Some movies do a fantastic job of this, and others fail miserably. Instead of sitting here and being snarky about the whole thing I’d like to offer one of my favorite movies as an example of this (if not the example of this). Wait for it.
I’m sure many of you are going to think I’m just a fan boy, a nerd, an 80’s and 90’s kid brainwashed by a movie he’s seen a thousand times—and for the most part you are right—but you have to hear me out. Ghostbusters is a fantastically written, paced, and layered movie. The movie is presented seriously unlike many other comedies. The shots, cuts, and edits–all the cinematography–is presented as if the movie were an utmost serious drama. The world is the real world, the one we live in, or is at least presented as such. Everyone is skeptical of the Ghostbusters and the existence of ghosts. Only through advanced technology is anything made even remotely feasible and as mystical texts are referred to in the same breath with science terminology the viewer is lulled into a sense of plausibility. Venkman’s status as a double PhD in “Parapsychology and Psychology” would be off-putting and would create a divide between the leading man and the audience, but instead he provides as a relatable character because he is undeniably a hack. The movie weighs heavily on the viewer being able to relate to Venkman. Despite his dickish persona and the fact that he is probably a benign sociopath, he is also the most readily accessible character in the cast (dropping one liners that no scientist would actually say like “Back off man, I’m a scientist”).
The movie relies heavily on the acting abilities of its comedic leads (and the development of the characters), not just Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman, the abrasive yet normal guy in the group of scientists, but also Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis (who co-wrote the movie) play second banana’s to Murray’s character as true believer scientists. Ramis plays Egon Spengler while Aykroyd plays Ray Stantz. These three characters really are the core of the movie—their dynamic mimics that of the Star Trek Kirk/Spock/McCoy or Freudian Id/Super-Ego/Ego set up. Each has their role to play in forming a functional unit, none of them being a true “main character” (with the exception of Venkman having a love interest in Sigourney Weaver’s Dana Barrett character, and being the voice of the direct jokes). The delivery of the jokes is not slapstick—the Ghostbusters aren’t slipping on banana peels.
The ghosts in the movie are not presented in haunted houses or graveyards but rather in libraries, in hotels, in cabs: in mundane settings. This adds to the plausibility of their existence and provides setups for the jokes.
In the hotel scene in particular you are lulled into the sense that this is a real world as the Ghostbusters are asked not to mention anything about ghosts. They explain to Columbo by the elevators that they are exterminators. In the real world they occupy people would consider them nuts to declare they are ghost catchers. In the hallway as Egon and Ray are walking around like federal agents, Venkman is relaxed—despite the ghosts he’s seen he still doesn’t really fear them. The scientific Ghostbusters, jittery, blast at a housecleaning cart and set it ablaze. This is a prime example of some of the straight forward comedy of this movie. The house keeper exclaims, ducking under the flaming cart:
“What the hell are you doin’??”
The only response that can follow such a truly necessary question is Venkman’s:
“Sorry, we thought you were someone else.”
The response is not anxious, or even terribly apologetic. It’s mostly flat, sarcastic, apathetic. It’s genuine, and seems real. If this line was attempted as a punch line in the traditional sense it wouldn’t work. There are more lines of course that are over the top and straight forward. Even those are delivered wonderfully. Even direct jokes like setting up Walter Peck to be called “Mr. Pecker”, which opens up the casual insult of “dickless” inevitably leading to the scientific declaration that he has no dick are crafted into the dialogue and are not the main pursuit of the conversation, only a good moment to drop a laugh…almost in passing. Your more over the top moments come from Rick Moranis’ Lewis Tully, who is just a neurotic mess. He climbs on ledges to turn off TVs and runs 20 minute workouts on fast forward to get a great 10 minute work out. The entire movie is comedy, and this nebbishy accountant is the comic relief–but even when he’s possessed and talking to horses you buy it while you laugh.
Also, lines from Annie Potts’ Janine Malnitz or Ernie Hudson’s Winston Zeddemore are amazing because these are people that are entirely not scientists. “I’ve quit better jobs than this” is such a frustrated employee sentiment it could fit in any movie, and any of us might say it. “If there’s a steady pay check in it, I’ll believe anything you say” on Zeddemore’s part, for example is one of the most grounding lines in the movie as is his hilarious disclaimer to the mayor “I have seen shit that’ll turn you white”. The movie is fantastic because even though its topic matter is ghosts and shooting them with lasers, the writing and production combine to make you believe it’s actually the world we all live in.
This is most heavily evidenced by the end of the movie when a fifty-foot marshmallow man attacks New York City and takes a dump on Columbus Circle. This is probably the most insane thing ever done in a movie. To this day nothing more over the top has ever been considered, let alone attempted in a multi-million dollar feature film—the only thing more insane would have been Nick Cage Superman (nothing could have made that work). The movie has done so well in its writing—the combination of dead pan, intelligent, witty, jokes in situations grounded in reality despite their fantastic scenarios—that you do not question the Mr. Stay Puft for a second. Instead you’re saying “How are they gonna get out of this one?” Any less of a production would have seen people storming out of the theatre, but by this point you’ve seen the green ghost of John Bellushi, you’ve seen possessions and levitations, you’ve seen zombie taxi drivers, you’ve seen Rick Moranis and Sigourney Weaver turned into shit textured demon dogs, and you’ve seen an ethereal blow job; the marshmallow man is a logical thing to happen in this world that you still believe is the one you live in.
There’s really not much I can do to make you love and respect this movie that it doesn’t do for itself. As Toast columnist Mike Minch said to me writing a blog post about how well written and made Ghostbusters is, is like “writing a paragraph book report on the bible”. If you haven’t seen it—shame on you. I’m watching it right now and, no lie, it’s probably to 230th occasion I’ve done so in my life. That may sound like a low number for hyperbolic example, but that’s because it’s a good faith estimate of how many times I’ve actually seen this movie. My mother and my wife would probably tell you it’s a low ball. The only challenge I can offer you to understand how well written this movie is, is to listen to it. Don’t watch it. Listen to it. Listen to the dialogue. It’s amazing. Think about the plotting, the pacing, and the fact that it’s a movie about guys shooting lasers at ghosts. Try it.
Who ya gonna call? Netflix. Don’t cross the Instant stream.
ADDENDUM: Editorial Director Nick Newert is a great lover of Ghostbusters, and though he was not available for comment in the discussions that formed this post his spirit was certainly ecto-contained in the formulation of this post. For more on this development follow this link.