Live & Learn: Ivan Reitman

The veteran movie director and producer on going from Communist Czechoslovakia to making big-budget flicks in Hollywood.

My parents and I escaped Czechoslovakia when I was 4 1/2. That was a pretty traumatic experience. I don't remember anything before that day. My life begins here.

We didn't have any money when we got here and none of us spoke the language. It was your fairly typical immigrant beginning. I had an aunt and an uncle and my cousin who lived [in Toronto], and we lived with them for a short while, and after a few weeks my parents rented a small apartment on Robert Street near Harbord. Now it's kind of chic. Back then, it was kind of lower end.

I was lucky because I really started my formal schooling in Toronto, so culturally I started as a Canadian.

My father was a very good businessman, very prescient about things, very pragmatic. He had an instinct for numbers–not mathematics, but more of a three-dimensional understanding of the ebb and flow of business. I think I got that from him. I'd like to think I did. My mother's family was quite artistic. I guess that's where I got that combination.

As a producer more interested in the financial side of the entertainment equation, I think some level of nerve is important, as is a true understanding of the financial dynamics of the deal: really understanding both sides of leverage.

As a filmmaker, knowing how to tell a good story is important: discerning what an audience might want to actually pay to see. Hopefully you can find something in your own artistic soul that parallels those things, because it's a very expensive art form, and everyone is constantly struggling to find money to do things.

I've had the good fortune of finding fresh comedic voices or actors that went on to greater fame, or became famous as a result of movies I was involved with them in. People like John Belushi and Bill Murray were in their first movies with me.

There's great comfort in working with family, and I'm talking sort of a wide business family. People like Joe Medjuck, Dan Goldberg and Tom Pollock have been my colleagues for 30, 35 years, and that's been wonderful for me.

My worst experience tends to be when a movie is not working, and there's conflict because of a divergence in points of view. If people don't like it aesthetically, and the public doesn't show up–that's bad. Fortunately, that's not happened that much to me, though it has happened and I'd like to keep that to a minimum.

People tend to think Hollywood is a horrible place full of horrible people, but if you don't lead a crazy life, it's possible to meet unique, talented, lovely individuals there.

My wife has often remarked how dogged I get, particularly when I'm facing real problems and failure. I think that's when the real hard work begins. You have to keep searching for any shiny lining that you can latch on to to try to overcome the extraordinary problems that often come up.

It gives me the greatest joy to be in an audience full of people that are really responding to something that I was responsible for; their whole bodies move because they can't help themselves because of the humour of what they're watching.

Movies are like startups. They are companies that cost a lot to start, and they're remarkably risky because they're one of a kind.

There's a lot of pressure on the cost of movies. They've become increasingly expensive, so the business model is starting to be problematic. The cost of marketing is way too expensive, so there's enormous pressure on every aspect of making a film in terms of cost-cutting. If someone's just well-known but has no proven value to the bottom line, his or her salary will get squeezed. There was a time where you got paid just for being famous. I don't think that's going to happen much anymore.

I love all of my movies. I love the ones that are well reviewed and the ones that are poorly reviewed pretty well equally. People tend to talk about Dave, because it's the most serious of the movies, but I think that falls more into the prejudice of dramatic films, not that it's a dramatic film, but films of a more serious nature given more weight than pure comedies. I love that movie, though, and I love the early movies like Ghostbusters, Twins and Stripes. And I love the last movie I did, My Super Ex-Girlfriend, which was not a big success financially, but I'm quite proud of it. I thought it was very effective.

I try not to read reviews because what I've found is the good ones are never good enough and the bad ones are really horrible and painful. I can't take them too seriously, because neither does your brain much good.

Canada faces the same problem that every country faces. Film is an expensive business. The very cream of the crop in terms of talent, and I'm not only speaking of Canadians, tend to work in the big system, and the big system is Hollywood.

Hollywood is not really Los Angeles: it's a group of six or seven multinational companies that are based in New York and Los Angeles that have the financial wherewithal to make the most expensive movies and the most broadly marketed movies in the world. Not necessarily the best movies, sometimes, but that's the area they work in. I think countries can compete by making great movies.

I think there was some Canadian magazine that had me at only 50 years old, and worth $2 billion, and I thought, “geez, it's too bad that none of those numbers are correct.”

On making C annibal Girls (1973):

I had known a bunch of what I thought were very funny people, like Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin and Hart Pomerantz. I talked to them about doing this funny movie together. I was in a rush, much too much of a rush, so it proceeded without having a real script. It was going to be an improvisational movie, that was part of the concept, but that really does take a lot more shooting time than you'd think because a lot of the time you're doing things that are actually not that good. When we finally started editing the movie together parts were genuinely funny and good and then parts were pretty terrible. We would discard the stuff that was terrible, because even then I knew that was a good idea, and then I would go out and shoot another day or so, always borrowing equipment, borrowing film stock, running up debt.

We finally got to a place where the movie was sort of finished, and we were going to try to sell it, and the best place back then was at the Cannes Film Festival. (Now, of course, it's the Toronto Film Festival.) I think I borrowed $1,000 from my father and my girlfriend and I, who is now my wife, Genevieve, went off to Cannes. I didn't actually have a print of the movie. I had some posters, a date to show the movie, but I had no movie. My partner Dan Goldberg said, “Don't worry, I will get you a print of the movie.” The laboratory, who had been treating us very well ? you know they were only charging us 50¢ on the dollar as it was, but we couldn't even pay the 50¢ we were supposed to pay ? said they were going to seize the movie, but fortunately Dan was acting as an intermediary between the laboratory and the negative cutting place, and so always had possession of part of the negative, and God bless him, he went to the head of the laboratory and said, “I'm going to throw a reel or two of the negative off a cliff.” It's like saying I'm going to take my baby and throw it off a cliff unless you give me what I want, which was a print. And then he said, “That's the only way you're going to get paid, so you might as well let us sell it, and see if we can get some money and get you paid.” So they made him a print, and we sold the movie.

Ivan Reitman

Santa Barbara, Calif.

Born Oct. 27, 1946, in Komárno, Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia)

Director and producer


Reitman arrives in Toronto, with his parents, after a harrowing escape from then-Communist-ruled Czechoslovakia.


Produces Animal House. Goes on to direct camp comedy Meatballs, one of the highest grossing Canadian films.


Directs and co-produces Ghostbusters, which becomes the first comedy to gross over US$200 million. Who you gonna call?


Is third director honoured by Variety as a “billion-dollar director.” Founds the Montecito Picture Co., with Tom Pollock, in 1998.


Reitman executive produces the upcoming Trailer Park Boys movie. To date, he has worked on some 40 films.