Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Ice harvest: John Cusack & Harold Ramis (Q&A)

A couple of weeks ago I covered press for The Ice Harvest, the upcoming noir comedy directed by Harold Ramis which stars John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Oliver Platt and Connie Nielsen. Like Jarhead below, this was a press conference with the film's talent and since I covered for a college mag, I participated in a room full of 20-somethings -- but I did get a couple of questions in anyway that weren't of the "what's your favorite color" variety...I've since submitted all the stuff I'm gonna need for print and thought I'd post the rest of the copy on here...

Harold Ramis: ...I go in the middle of the table (sits down and faces everybody): students, I'm professor Ramis. (laughter) - looks over at a college-aged journalist -- have you done the reading? Let's hit it... (Cusack goes over to get a soda and sits back down)

Cusack: (like a waiter) Can I get you something?

Q: John, you're kind of known for playing the loveable losers like Lloyd Dobler [in Say Anything] do you see any of that in Charlie [Aglist]? What did you relate to with this character?

Cusack: I don't know if -- he's definitely a loser -- but I don't know if he's very 'loveable.' I sort of wanted to play him because (Robert) Benton and (Richard) Russo had written a terrific script and I knew that Harold [Ramis] was going to have a very interesting take on this whole noir world. And I think -- I don't know if you'd have a really good time or if it'd be a really dramatic film playing someone who was 'enlightened' because then there would be no conflict. So, I think, characters have to be struggling with themselves or with their place in the world for there to be any ignition to make it interesting to watch, so, that's why people in pain are usually so fun to watch. And that's why they're actually either dramatic or comic, I think.

Q: Harold, The Ice Harvest is a really noir-driven comedy, one can catch a couple of cinematic references here and there, could you tell what some of your influences in that respect are?

Ramis: You know, I'm not a film student. I actually was in college before I knew that there was something called 'film school' and I'm not one of those film nerds who goes back and watches everything in the genre because I never felt that we were making a genre film. For me, what excites me about making any movie is the possibility of doing something no one's ever seen before. And if I feel like people have seen it before, or I've seen it before, why would I do it? I'm not interested in doing homages to anything or derivative work and, in fact, what most screenplays suffer from -- and I read, you know, hundreds are submitted every month -- (is that) they're totally derivative of other films. So when I see a screenplay like this, of course there are noir elements but almost by -- not by derivation, just by association -- I mean this felt like a unique work of literature, you know, by two really mature and wise writers. And just by following the map of the script and my own instincts and combining it with the work of wonderful (set) designers, cameramen and actors, the film results; it becomes what it is. And then you apply labels to it. You don't set out and say 'oh, I'm going to make an existential film noir with laughs.' We make the film and then we see what we've made.

Cusack: -- it was just sort of like 'here comes Billy Bob, here comes Oliver, here comes Connie' and then it's just me and Harold at the bar with the strippers and the rain outside. [laughter] That's sort of how it felt but it could've been a lot worse in Chicago. Because in the winter -- it was cold -- but it could've been a lot colder.

Ramis: -- Well both the novel and screenplay were written with a huge blizzard preventing them from getting out of town -- we couldn't afford snow -- and because we were starting late, we couldn't count on any real snow, you couldn't count on that anyway even if you shot in the dead of winter. So I was driving home wondering what I was going to do, since weather was critical, and -- classic Chicago, terrible February day, it was 33 degrees -- not cold enough to snow but cold enough for it to sleet and the rain to freeze up on the [asphalt] and make it really treacheorus -- and I thought, ' oh, this is it. God is send me a message, if there is one. And the message is: make it a wet Christmas, not a white Christmas.

Q: As falls Wichita falls, so falls Wichita Falls: I was wondering what the meaning of that poem was.

Ramis: The French translator who did the subtitles for us at the film festival was very baffled by that. Is it a question of geography- the linkage between Witchita, Kansas and Witchita Falls, Texas? You know the question of decadence, of "falling" being the key word. But I think the simplest explanation is that we live in a world of cause and effect; our actions have consequences; the choices we make here and now have effects there and then. And it's part of the whole moral ground of the film. John's character has convinced himself that it doesn't matter what you do but, in fact, the film tells you that as Wichita falls, so falls Wichita Falls -- you cannot take action in this world without expecting consequences.

Q: How do you go about creating a full-fledged character without being handed a well-defined back story?

Cusack: Well, you can give him a back story. You can create one, you know? And in a sense, like this you can go back to a book that the film was written on and I think that's kind of one of the fun processes -- you sit around all day when you're waiting for them to bring in the lights and do whatever they do and they say "oh my God, the truck just broke down" [which occurs in the film] and you just sit around the set and you start talking about these people and you sort of invent these past [lives] for them. You fill in the blanks as you go and, so, that's one of the things -- it's like you get to create a human. It's kind of fun.

Ramis: The interesting thing about this particular movie -- and we discussed this at some length -- even though each character, each actor, evolved their own back story based on clues from the script and from their behavior as Connie said, no two people in this movie fully reveal themselves to anyone else in the movie. She dies without telling us where she's from -- we don't know where this woman came from. No one ever told anyone else in this movie where the alliances were, where the conspiracies were; who was doing what to whom -- we don't know. That had an interesting affect on character too.

Q: Harold, your name's included on the production credits of some of the classics of comedy films in various capacities and wearing many different hats -- yo co-wrote Animal House, you directed Caddyshack, you produced Back to School, etc. Do you have a preference?

Ramis: Directing's the best because you get to do it all, really. You don't have the thrill of acting or going on camera with the players but you still get to engage in the process with them -- you know, the whole motivational process, the technical process. I'm on the journey with them. There's certain delicious moments in the movie, you know, I wish I could push them aside and actually get in there. Particularly in the love scene. [laughter] But I'd settle on my actor instincts, I'd settle for the vicarious pleasure of engaging in their process with them. As a writer -- I'm always a backup writer on the set -- when something's not working [with the script] where not going to fly Russo in or get them on the phone [while] shooting in the middle of the night, we're going to work it out ourselves. So I get to use all those writer instincts, techniques...and being a director, you know, the most generous description of it I've ever heard was Mike Nichols saying "he loved the job because he was at the service of so many people." That's a little sappy and the truth's that I'm a little more selfish than that -- it also means I get to tell everyone what to do and I get to have an opinion about everything. It doesn't mean I have to have the answer for everything but I get to express my judgement in every area of the film -- from the photography to the design...even what we're going to have for lunch. It's kind of cool.

Q: Are there any plans for a sequel to Grosse Pointe Blank?

Cusack: I don't think there'd be a sequel but I'm going to try to write in the same vein and continue on with that way of writing. Disney doesn't want to do a sequel. So it's pretty hard to take that specific character and setting and do one but I would like to. Like the further misadventures of...I have secret plans to do a non-sequel sequel.

Q: This is your second film with Billy Bob Thornton. How's your relationship on and off camera?

Cusack: When you work with people that you really like -- or my experience has been wehn I work with people I really like -- you can not see them for a while and it's kind of like, I don't know if you have friendships where you haven't seen somebody in eight months and then you go out to dinner and you just pick up right where you left off and it's as if no time has passed at all -- I sort of had that when I met Oliver and Connie and Billy Bob. You just start to get along and everybody likes to work the same way and - you know, I hadn't seen Connie for a long while and yesterday,we saw each other and it was like 'oh, yeah!' and we started having lunch and it just picks right up. So, that's one of the things that probably keeps me -- also I wouldn't have anything else to do -- but it keeps me in the film business, is getting to work with these kind of artists. Having lunch with them and talking about ideas or talk about film and just be (ing) around all of them. So Billy Bob is the kind of guy that he -- I think a lot, like Oliver, in a sense -- that you can't really go down a road or make a choice that they won't follow and vice versa. There's just no way to shock them; there's no way to go 'too' outside the box -- they're really unflappable in this fantastic way. So, I think Billy knows that if he wants to go try something bizarre that I'll be right there with him...so there's a complete lack of pretense with Billy. If he wants to get in the car and he'll have on some bizarre instinct and he'll mention it to Harold and I'll be like "alright, let's go. Let's try it!" You know, it's not always right -- I don't even know how many ended up in the film -- but it's a very free way to work. I would say that with Oliver and Connie and Billy Bob they kind of broke the mold with those people. I don't know anybody like any of those three people. Because I don't know of any other actresses like Connie and,certainly, I don't know of any other actor like Oliver and I don't know anybody else like Billy -- they're just really authentic, unique people. So I thinks it's kind of like the best job in the world.

Q: Harold, when people look at your earlier work they'll see hints of darkness around the edges of most of them; Ice Harvest seems to be a return to that -- what brought you back?

Ramis: You know I never plotted my own career, you know, based on what I did before or some aspiration to do something generic. Like 'now it's time for me to do THIS kind of movie' -- I never thought of it that way. I'm always looking for the next wonderful thing that will engage me for the year or two that it's going to take to make the movie. And that really is more of a function of belief in the theme of the film than in the style...when I see ideas that are worth talking about and wasting a lot of somebody's money and taking up a lot of the audience's time . Once I've decided that the idea is worth doing, then the style becomes the next question. What's the best expression of that idea? And, you know, clearly this film, it's what it wanted to be. Based on the written material (which) was so specific -- I was not involved in the invention of it -- so, with this film, I was just following this wonderful map I was given. It's really a question of does this want to be a broad comedy? Does this want to be a subtle comedy? Is it satirical? Is it a lampoon? Is it a spoof? You know, all these words to describe something -- is it a satire -- and they all have different rules. They might have a different look, they certain have a different playing style and it derives from the great history of comedy and drama. You won't see Comidea del Arte mentioned in many reviews about Oliver's performance -- he could be a Shakespearean fool if [that's] what it felt like to me. You know, it's not, for me, derivative of something that I saw last year in a movie. It's just part of the whole grand tradition of how we express ourselves on the stage, in drama in film...I don't know, it's just specific to each big idea.

Q: Did you create an extra backstory for your character beyond what was in the book and the script to help you get into character?

Cusack: Well what he'd done is he'd sort of been on this slippery slope downward and he was a lawyer and then he got involved with these guys who wanted to make a quick killing -- he actually was the mob lawyer -- he was one of his legal guys. why some one would end up in strip club in Wichita Falls on Christmas Eve is a philosophically challenging question but I can only assume that their life hasn't ended up how they'd planned...they say if you want to make God laugh, tell him your planS. I don't think Charlie planned to be where he was. [at that point in his life] So I think he's sort of at the end of the end when the film starts...I think it was "how did we end up here?" That's more how I felt about it. These guys have ended up in this sexual bus stop that's just not a place you want to be at on Christmas Eve. [laughs]

Q: Since Say Anything on up to the Frears thing, music's always been an integral part to the characters and storyline in the films you've played in. Is that a part of your process (both writing and acting)?

Cusack: Absolutely. Yeah, for example, I gave Harold mixes and stuff - I do like internal soundtracks in my head and, for some reason, when I read the script and I heard Harry Simone's "Little Drummer Boy" it was really, really haunting in relation to this narrative and I would listen to that and it would just set a certain mood...and Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah" -- I just, you sort of just go for the guts or the soul of the character -- just all the yearning and stuff -- But, yeah, I'm always listening to music as kind of an emotional cue.

Q: What're you listening to now?

Cusack: Like lately I've just heard this album, Daniel Lanois did this Willie Nelson album called "Teatro" you ever hear of that? I hadn't heard it either, I'm not like a big Willie Nelson listener but it's like a Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash record, I mean there's Daniel Lanois --

Q: --the guy who works with U2?

Cusack: -- yeah, yeah, and the guy who did the Bob Dylan records and -- everything he does sort of turns to gold, Daniel Lanois. And it's just absolutely haunting, it sound like a Woody Guthrie thing -- it's really great...so, I live for those moments when somebody -- you'll meet Harold and he'll you 'you got to go read this book' and he'll start talking about some book or, you know, a friend will come over and say 'have you heard this?' and you get to experience it for the first time...I live for all those moments.

Q: You a vinyl or digital man?

Cusack: Man, I am so digital. I couldn't keep a vinyl [collection]. iTunes is the greatest fucking invention since the combustion engine, personally -- because you need, also, when you do a movie for me it's always a -- you can always tell if someone's gonna burn themselves out because on the first day they're like full of energy and I'm thinking 'man, this is a marathon, jack. You're going to have to be here for 10-12 weeks and so, it's easy to get your mojo going for that first week -- it's just, what happens at hour 13 of the seventh week at four in the morning when you have to be in front of the camera? So, it's -- I always use music to remember my through line...reminder yourself that you want to think like a poet. Because here, you can sit there, you got to do this thing and it's technical...then you've got to go home. You've always got to find ways to re-inspire yourself. At least, I feel that I do.

Q: You ever see yourself doing the big romcoms in order to be able to do smaller pictures like this?

Cusack: I think that question was directed only at me. [laughter] Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the business is -- I'm not bitching about it -- but it's very much like a leverage thing. And in order to get to make [smaller] movies with no interference...I mean the idea where you can go into Chicago and it will be our movie, win or lose. The reason you can do that is because they know that they can sell the movie far and wide or you have a certain kind of cache and it all has to do with box office [returns] - things like that. So, I made a movie called Max that I really loved and I wouldn't have been able to make that without any question if I hadn't done a lot of romantic comedies. You wouldn't think those two things are connected but they totally are to me because I had to get Max made. So I knew I had to leverage it. So that's just the way the business works and I'm very at peace with it all.

Q: You ever look back on films you've done and wished that you could go back and change something on it?
Ramis: You know, for me, I live with all the films I've done -- a lot of them just won't go away -- so, I'm there watching cable, flipping, and I see one of my films and I'll stop. And I just want them all back. I want to get back in the editing room on them -- some of them, for sure -- but for the most part, when I watch the films I have not an aesthetic reaction but an experiential reaction to watching. I remember why we did that. [sequence] And I know, no matter what I think now, there's no way I would've or could've done it differently. It's just: that's what happened.

Q: Harold, as a writer you've written some of the best lines in the comedy genre that people quote on the regular, like "Why don't you call me when you have no class" stated by Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School. You have any favorite lines you've penned?

Ramis: No, you know, I'm so at the mercy of -- when you do broad comedy, there's never been a successful broad comedy that didn't have an amazing comic performance at the heart of it. You know, I've done six films with Bill Murray and you've mentioned Rodney Dangerfield's line...Every time I worked with Rodney, we would - the night before [shooting a scene] -- either on the rewrites of Back to School or on Caddyshack, the every day before we would go over every joke he ever told. He would go, reach back to the 50s and say 'I used to do a joke about' - the 'no class' joke, for instance -- 'you think it'd work in the movie?' and I'd go 'yeah, that wouldn't be bad there.' So he was just reaching into his grab bag of jokes. Bill Murray, the best improvising comic actor maybe that's ever lived -- that's a big statement but I think it might be true -- I've never met anyone who's so verbally funny and so inspired and unpredictable. So, Murray probably should have writing credit on all the movies that we did together because a lot of those great lines that people quote all the time are either his total invention or -- what I call guided improvisonizational -- [which] I kind of worked it out with him. You know on some of those early films --

Cusack: -- how much of Caddyshack was scripted?

Ramis: Bill Murray had only one scripted speech in Caddyshack. [laughter] Everything else was just his.

Cusack: -- I'd like to believe that you had something to do with 'bark like a dog.'

Ramis: -- yeah, ' the monkey woman.' I had him for six days. I'd already shot this speech that people know as "The Dalai Lama Speech" --

Cusack: -- which is weird because things in there. You had to [have written] that!?

Ramis: No...I'd shot it with another actor, my first day of shooting ever on a feature film, this actor was as bad as an actor could be. And I thought 'oh, my career's over. They're going to see this at the studios -- the dailies -- and I'm done. Anyways, they forgave me, we went on and when Bill came to do his week on the film, I said 'well, let's reshoot the Dalai Lama scene with Carl (Murray's character in Caddyshack, yo) What I added to it, I said 'take this pitchfork and keep the kid there with the pitchfork. You know, not menacing, just tapping him with it occasionally on the throat.' And Bill started riffing on the Dalai Lama stuff and added all these little grace notes to it. But everything else we did together Second City style...

The Ice Harvest opens nation wide on November 23...

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