It’s not always easy for a famous parent to pass the baton to the next generation. Kirk Douglas bristled when he realised the young women approaching him no longer wanted to flirt with him, but to ask for his son Michael’s phone number. When her daughter Christina was cast in a soap opera but then hospitalised for an ovarian cyst, Joan Crawford snatched the role for herself. The narcissism that underlies the need for fame is not usually conducive to happy parenting.
Ivan Reitman – director and producer of many of the most beloved mainstream comedies of the 70s, 80s and 90s, including Animal House, Stripes, Ghostbusters, Twins and Dave – is a different kind of famous parent.
“My dad had always hinted about me directing a Ghostbusters movie, but I shied away from it, the way young people shy away from their parents’ legacy. I think I had to learn how to stand on my own feet,” says Ivan’s son, Jason Reitman. So Jason went out and racked up four Oscar nominations by the age of 32 – two for best director for Juno and Up in the Air, one for best adapted screenplay and one for best picture, both for Up in the Air – which is a hell of a way for a man to prove that he knows where his feet are and how to use them. “I never achieved anything like that,” says Ivan, sat next to him and smiling proudly.
The three of us are in a central London hotel to discuss Jason’s long-awaited contribution to the Ghostbusters canon, the genuinely delightful Ghostbusters: Afterlife. Ivan started the franchise back in 1984 and Jason kept him on board for this one as his producer. Throughout the shoot, Ivan sat next to his son, watching the monitor with him. Wasn’t that a bit weird for Jason?
“You gotta remember, when growing up, I would sit next to my dad [when he was making a movie], so there was something already pretty natural and familiar about us sitting next to one another at the monitor. And this was lovely because I had the world’s foremost Ghostbusters expert sitting next to me and the person I trust the most on earth. No kid wants to take notes from their parents in general, but never does a director have someone they trust as much as I trust my dad, somebody who’s just looking out for them – and that made me feel incredibly safe,” he says.
Were there any times when Ivan said things like: ‘Hey, you don’t hold a proton pack like that’?”
“It was the exact opposite. My father was way more flexible with the idea of Ghostbusters evolving, and I was the archaeologist, wanting to stay true to the last detail. My dad was like: ‘You know, it’s not scripture!’ And I’d be saying: ‘This is text! We cannot change a single thing!’”
“This movie is a lovely combination of our two sensibilities. It has the style of what Jason has developed in his directorial life, coupled with the fantastical storytelling that represents the original Ghostbusters. I’m just delighted to be involved,” says Ivan, with quiet pride.
The two men don’t look much alike: with his thick dark hair and confident patter, Jason, 44, still comes across like the indie director he once was, touting his wares on the film festival circuit. Quiet, lugubrious Ivan, 75, has a gentler manner, and it’s easy to see the Jewish immigrant he once was, after he and his family left Czechoslovakia for Canada in 1950 when he was four. But they have exactly the same laugh – a happy bark on the inhale – and the closeness between them quickly becomes apparent. I ask Ivan if he had any concerns about encouraging his son to drop out of medical school and go into film directing, given that history is littered with bitter and twisted offspring who tried and failed to follow in a famous parent’s footsteps.
“I thought he was a really creative young man who needed that creativity as a central force in his life and, um,” he says, and suddenly stops, sits very still and stares at his hands.
When it’s clear Ivan is not going to say any more, Jason quickly takes over: “I said: ‘But Dad, I’ll either succeed in your shadow or fail in a spotlight.’ And he said: ‘Being scared is not a reason not to do something.’”
“I’m not leaving, I’m taking a break,” says Ivan, getting up and heading to the bathroom.
Jason continues his spiel, but as soon as the bathroom door is shut, I ask if his father is OK.
“He’s 100% fine. This is part of the experience, and it’s emotional for both of us. I found myself on set all time making directorial decisions and realising that my father had made the exact same decision 35 years ago. It’s like when you realise you put your hands on the steering wheel the same way your parents did, and for a brief moment you know what it feels like to be your parent,” he says.
Ivan returns, eyes dried, and squeezes Jason’s shoulder as he takes his seat. I tell him he must be a very good parent, given his son still sees him as such a role model, and tears swim in his eyes.
“Don’t set him off again!” says Jason, and the two men make their perfectly synced barking laugh.
My expectations were pretty low when I went to a screening of Ghostbusters: Afterlife, and not just because the original Ghostbusters is my all-time favourite film (although that was a major factor). The current tendency to squeeze nonexistent drops from overly wrung-out franchises generally feels more exhausted than exciting, and memories of Paul Feig’s 2016 all-women version, which tried to make up for its lack of fun with a surfeit of good intentions, only compounded my dread. But Ghostbusters: Afterlife is actually properly fun: funny, scary and sweet, just as a Ghostbusters movie should be. The special effects feel charmingly homespun, like in the original film, as opposed to being CGI-ed, Marvel movie-style, to the hilt.
“It’s like your grandmother’s recipe: you know it when you taste it. My father’s one note was: ‘Wind is the presence of the supernatural,’ so when you see someone’s hair starting to tickle their forehead, you know something’s coming,” says Jason.
It is almost impossible to talk about this movie without spoilers, so I’ll just say that it is the story of a little girl who is connected to one of the original Ghostbusters – whom we’ll call X – and ends up having to don his famous flight suit.
“I wanted a story which could dovetail my own relationship with picking up the legacy of these main characters,” says Jason, who wrote the script.
I ask if that means X is based on Ivan.
“I think of myself as some distillation of all the Ghostbusters,” says Ivan.
“You really are!” says Jason with delighted surprise at the idea. “The part of you that is Egon [played by the late Harold Ramis] is his discerning brilliance. The part that is Ray [Dan Aykroyd] is his overwhelming passion. The part that is Venkman [Bill Murray] is obviously his sense of humour, and the part that is Winston [Ernie Hudson] is his business acumen. I hadn’t thought of that before.”
“Thank you. That’s beautiful. Thank you,” says Ivan, veering close to tears again.
It’s hard not to suspect that Ghostbusters: Afterlife is a bit of a reaction against Feig’s version, not least because Aykroyd complained at the time that the 2016 film didn’t involve “the originators” enough. This is clearly not a problem for Ghostbusters: Afterlife, and unlike Melissa McCarthy, who implored the public not to compare her film with the original, Jason pretty much does the opposite. Afterlife is stuffed with references to the original film and I tell them I especially liked the Twinkie that falls out of Ecto-1’s glovebox.
“My favourites are the nods to other films of my father. One character mentions the movie Beethoven, and at one point you can see the title Cannibal Girls, which was one of his early movies,” Jason says.
Jason was seven when the original Ghostbusters was released. His father used to bring him to the set, and he was there when they were figuring out how to make the library card catalogues open and spew the cards out. “It was wondrous. Afterwards I said to the special-effects guy: ‘Can you do that again?’ And he said: ‘Sure, if you pick up all the cards!’”
Whereas Jason was born into the profession, Ivan was very much not. His mother, Klara, had survived Auschwitz and his father, Ladislav, was in the underground resistance. I ask if they met after the war.
“No, they knew each other before, and my father had tried to talk my mother into running away with him, because he knew what was coming. But she believed families should stick together, so she stayed with her parents and ended up in Auschwitz with her sister. They were put on one of those forced marches, but they stayed alive and away from the Russians, who were basically as terrible as the Germans, and she ran into …” he stops as the tears overwhelm him.
“Let’s leave the war,” says Jason gently, hand on his father’s knee.
In Canada, Ivan’s father got a job in a dry cleaners. Within two years, he started his own, and then a franchise, and he became so successful that he bought a big chunk of land in Toronto, which Ivan later donated to the Toronto film festival.
“His was a great success. He took care of his children,” says Ivan with filial pride.
Ivan was directing short films from a young age and in 1975 he produced the off-Broadway National Lampoon Show, starring Murray, John Belushi, Brian Doyle-Murray, Gilda Radner and Ramis – all then unknowns.
“I made the mistake of thinking I could be creatively helpful and had the temerity to say: ‘Hey, why don’t you …’ And 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 without any force, but he had force within him,” says Ivan.
This was the beginning of one the most fruitful artistic pairings of Murray’s life, as Reitman went on to direct him in Meatballs, Stripes, Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters 2. Only Wes Anderson has worked with Murray more.
“He has a wonderful relationship with Wes,” says Ivan.
But he had him in the trickier years, I say.
“Yes, he was younger and angrier then, and he’s sweeter now. He has become a very fine actor, as well as being this universally beloved figure. I’d like to take some credit for that, but really it’s him,” says Ivan.
Like his father, Jason engenders loyalty in his actors: Vera Farmiga, JK Simmons and Charlize Theron have worked with him repeatedly, and his three most interesting films – Juno, Young Adult and Tully – were all written by Diablo Cody. He has also worked with his father before, when Ivan produced Up in the Air. “That was a learning experience for me. At one point we were having a terrible disagreement and Jason said to me: ‘I’ve worked with a lot of different producers and none have talked to me the way you do.’ And I thought: ‘Whoa! He’s right!’ I had to think of him as a professional, not my son, whom I could boss around,” Ivan chortles.
But despite having been born on third base, Jason hasn’t had the easeful coast to a home run that his initial successes suggested he might. After the quadruple whammy of Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air and Young Adult, his career faltered with the generally panned Labor Day and Men, Women & Children. Did his father give him any advice on how to cope with professional disappointments?
“He said to me: ‘You will be surprised by your greatest success and your greatest failure. You can’t decide them in advance. Your only regret will be not making more movies, so just keep telling stories.’”
So is he worried about how the critics and audiences react to his new film?
“Of course you want people to like your movie. But if I had to narrow it down to who I made this movie for, it was my Dad,” Jason says.
• Ghostbusters: Afterlife is on release now