Ivan passed at the age of 75, and in his memory we’re revisiting this interview from 2007, an interesting period in physical media as DVD was still king, the dawn of high definition was complicated by the Blu-ray/HD DVD format war, and laserdisc was still a thing. At the time, he was promoting the DVD release of his newest movie, My Super Ex-Girlfriend starring Uma Thurman, and Jason was gearing up to film Juno, which went on to great acclaim.
So, in 1979, with people still flocking to see Animal House and the bawdy-comedy wave underway, what inspired you to direct Meatballs, a sweet little movie about summer camp?
I’d always thought I was going to be able to direct Animal House. I’d developed it for two years, and I brought John Belushi to it. But Universal wanted a more experienced director. So, I produced it and hired John Landis. I had this burning urge to direct again. I’d only directed really this one comedy, Cannibal Girls, before that, on a $12,000 budget. By the way, we just sold Meatballs to Sony, and, in fact, Dan Goldberg, the writer/producer, and I did this director’s commentary on it just yesterday. We’re doing a beautiful transfer and everything.
With Ghostbusters, did you feel you introduced a new genre? It was a great fantasy/adventure, but I don’t think anyone had blended those with comedy so successfully before.
Well, thank you. I don’t know if it was “new.” I think there’d been versions of it. I don’t think anyone had done it where the tone was quite so. . .right. The comedy is pretty pure and very contemporary, the scary parts are legitimately scary, and the science fiction, even though it’s a little bit spoofed, plays on this grand scale.
I’ve heard some creative people say that success can be a trap. Was there any downside to the Ghostbusters phenomenon?
It took me a long time to say yes to another movie, as a director. I had quite a run, for about 20 years, of making one hit after another. So, I can’t say it was a detriment, although I think it made me a very difficult “yes.”
The pressure to commit to the right project next.
The bar gets higher and higher. Between the periods of Animal House and Ghostbusters, in those five years, I, one, directed and, two, produced the two highest-grossing comedies of all time, with some pretty good hits in between.
Was Twins considered something of a risk, putting Arnold Schwarzenegger in his first comedy?
I didn’t think so, and the studio really didn’t think so. We shot that poster on the first day of shooting, and, as soon as we saw the poster, it just sort of told me there was something special and iconic about these two.
Was it hard to get Arnold back for Dave, back when he was so overtly republican?
No, although Dave is considered. . .. You know, I personally probably lean more republican than democratic. I always answer that question by saying, “I’m a Canadian.” [both laugh] And I’m more of a libertarian than anything else. Gary Ross, who was the writer, certainly has been a strong democrat historically, so the philosophy of the Kevin Kline presidency is somewhat democratic.
And then, lucky you, you were able to take some time off after Evolution.
Evolution didn’t quite work out as well as I’d hoped it would. I think the advertising campaign was kind of ridiculous, with that happy-face thing. And I had just started this company with my partner Tom Pollock, so I concentrated on producing a bunch of movies, like Old School, instead of directing.
My Super Ex-Girlfriend is another one of your movies that is set in New York City. I work in Manhattan, and I have to say That I like your Manhattan a lot better.
[laughs] Well, I think I’m something of a romantic, and I felt this was a romantic comedy that just happened to have as one of its characters a person with special powers. I thought that allowed for some new kind of comedy to be played out. I thought Woody Allen did such a great job in the ’70s of creating a romantic vision of Manhattan the way he saw it in that period. I was hoping there was a contemporary way of doing it.
How cool is Uma Thurman?
She’s major cool. It’s not just that she’s tall, beautiful, and a really good actress; she’s really smart, and she’s so willing as an actor to do whatever it is that the part requires and that the director wants. She’s a real good partner to work with. And she’s fearless.
She also seems to possess tremendous energy.
I think the really good movie stars have an energy that comes off the screen, that just sort of motors their movies along. And, certainly, she is in that category. I don’t think she got enough attention for the job she does in this, which is quite spectacular.
When you direct a movie, whether it’s a comic-book-type movie, an adventure, horror, or science fiction, it always has comedy at its heart. What’s the trick to finding the humor in every genre?
Every director has his own language. My language seems to center on comedy. It’s what makes me happy, and I guess it’s closest to my heart. So, even Dave, which is basically a serious movie, really plays very humorously through most of it.
But is there some dark, tragic drama lurking inside of you, burning to escape?
Well, I’m sure there is [laughs], but, when it does escape, it will have a comic voice.
Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver in Dave
My Super Ex-Girlfriend is a great DVD. all the way back to the Criterion laserdisc of Ghostbusters, you Have always shown an appreciation for home video, more So than a lot of directors.
I still have about 4,000 laserdiscs, which I unfortunately don’t look at very much anymore because a lot of them are rotting, and I’m really annoyed. [laughs] I’m hoping that doesn’t happen with my DVDs! And I’m all excited about high def.
Any thoughts on the high-definition format war?
[sighs] For me, it’s whatever dominates, finally. I don’t really care; I’d like it to be one. I haven’t made the conversion yet, although I know I will. There doesn’t seem to be enough titles, but I think there’s this kind of deep breath that everybody’s taking, getting ready to go.
With so many of your movies at Universal, and them strictly in the HD DVD camp, and Sony all about Blu-ray, are you going to have to back both formats if the split continues?
I guess. I have a big chunk at Universal; I have a very big chunk at Sony because Sony has all the Bill Murray movies: Meatballs, Stripes, and the two Ghostbusters. And Heavy Metal. I think the Ghostbusters movies and Stripes are three of their biggest titles ever—because they keep doing new editions of them! [laughs]
Luke Wilson’s character eventually learns to regret his cavalier ways.
Before we go, I have to mention: I really enjoyed your son Jason’s film, Thank You for Smoking. Very, very funny.
Thank you. I’m thrilled. I think the DVD’s pretty good, and he’s starting a new movie called Juno, which is quite spectacular, I think. I’m really proud of him.
You must have Talented genes.
So far, so good. I also have two girls. They’re growing up, and we’ll see how they turn out.