Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman on managing temperamental talent

"When you show someone you are open to their ideas, they’re more likely to be open to yours"

(Michael Buckner/Getty Images Entertainment)

(Michael Buckner/Getty Images Entertainment)

Thirty years ago, Ivan Reitman directed cult favourite Ghostbusters. He’s now a restaurateur, with Montecito—which shares its name with his production company—recently opening at 299 Adelaide St. W. in Toronto. Here’s his advice on knowing when to stick to your vision.

You’ve said you enjoy working with film stars. Would you say you have a talent for defusing egos?

Certainly “egos” is one way to put it. I tend to look at stars as important corporations that I’m in partnership with. They get paid a lot because there is an extraordinary amount of pressure on them, and I think to take that auteur-style theory of directorship—that idea that they’re just clay in my hands—is kind of simplistic. The clay has a mind of its own, and you want to use that.

Any advice for getting the best from temperamental performers?

There’s that famous saying that you want to point the boat in the direction the wind is blowing. Sometimes that means trying things that someone else really believes in, even if you don’t. I learned that on Meatballs with Bill Murray. Often his ideas were contrary to what was in the screenplay, but they were better. When you show someone you are open to their ideas, they’re more likely to be open to yours.

Is it true you convinced Bill Murray to do Meatballs by refusing to take no for an answer?

It is. I called up Bill and told him about the project. I think he had a job on SNL starting in the fall, and he said he wanted to spend the summer playing baseball. I just kept on calling and calling again. (This was back when he had a phone number.) On the first day of filming, we had no star, and then he showed up on the second day. We were both in Toronto recently during TIFF, and Bill reminded me that I told him, “Look, if it turns out horribly, nobody’s going to see it.”

So how do you know when it’s worth sticking to a singular vision and when you have to move on?

That’s a great question, but I don’t really have an answer. In that case, it was instinct mixed with desperation.

A lot of directors would sooner eat glass than be involved in the financing side of their work, but you seem to enjoy it.

I’ve always been entrepreneurial, which means being nimble on your feet and very conscious of your financial responsibility. My parents instilled in me an interesting mix of art and commerce. In the process of escaping from Czechoslovakia [Reitman left with his family in 1950], we spent some time on my uncle’s farm in France, and I would put on these circus performances where I would get all the local kids to participate. I was only four or five years old. I gave tickets away and then would jump on my makeshift stage and perform. I guess one could see the combination of artist and businessman at that early age.

At this stage, do you view yourself more as an artist or an entrepreneur?

The good life comes from a balance of the yin and yang, and so does good work. My heart is in the arts, but as an immigrant, I’ve always had a sense of responsibility for money—my money or other people’s money. Creativity and responsibility can coexist.

Does one tend to get in the way of the other?

I’ve been fortunate. In the 40 years I’ve been making films, money has certainly always been an obstacle—it’s something to worry about—but what I have found is that if you’re doing the right thing, the money shows up.

You recently opened Montecito in Toronto. Doesn’t being a writer, director and producer keep you busy enough?

The restaurant started from the most simple and practical desire: I have an apartment in Toronto, in the Festival Tower, and I just wanted a good place to eat and hang out. I wanted a homey place that serves good contemporary food with a good ambience, and I had a sense that there were probably thousands of new owners and renters in the area who felt the same.

Have you found any common ground between the restaurant and movie business?

Absolutely, although the great thing about movies is, once they’re done, they’re done. Running a restaurant is more like doing a Broadway show. There’s an enormous challenge in getting everything off the ground, and then once you do, the real challenge begins, which is staying in business.

Do you pay attention to your critics?

I think you have to pay attention, and you also have to take them with a grain of salt. To me, the most valuable reviews happen in the moment. You can really sense what people like and don’t like right at the restaurant. We did a soft launch, which was like doing early screenings. We definitely made some adjustments after—the menu, the seating, the time between the first course and the second. It’s so important to pay attention to the small details. There was a pizza that tasted great, but it was too fussy and hard to eat, so we took it off the menu.

Ghostbusters turns 30 this year. Do you ever get sick of talking about your early work?

I love talking about my early work! I’m really proud of it. I was at the centre of a remarkable period of comedy. I’ve been fortunate to work with the most funny people in the world, and I played a role in creating a new comedic language. That’s pretty heady stuff.

Many of your early movies are tacked with the term “era defining.” Does that up the pressure when you release a movie today?

Sure it does. I’m watching my son go through that right now. He had a remarkable beginning of his career, where he was nominated for four Academy Awards with his first three movies. Now, suddenly, he’s made a couple that haven’t been met with the same level of love. They’re still great movies, but you’re always being judged against what you’ve done in the past. It’s part of the joy and frustration of being part of the public art.

Have you shared any fatherly wisdom with him?

I told him he’s the same filmmaker he was three years ago. That’s the hard part of having a remarkable period: It will inevitably come to an end, and you have to keep working.