This Week on DVD

Ivan Reitman talks ‘Meatballs,’ how Bill Murray took pity on him, and why it just doesn’t matter

Photo by Lionsgate

Are you ready for the summer? Are you ready for the good times?

If you answered yes to either question, then it may very well be time to revisit Ivan Reitman's comedic masterpiece, "Meatballs" (1979), which premieres on Blu-ray and On Demand June 12th. If you answered no, then you should definitely watch it, because you're in desperate need of some medicinal gut-busting laughter.

The story of Reitman's first directed comedy and Bill Murray's first starring role is one of risk and reward. Having just exhausted himself as an integral producer on the hit "National Lampoon's Animal House" (1978), and getting Hollywood's notice, Reitman's next move was critical to his career.

When he was denied the opportunity to direct "Animal House," Reitman knew it was time to direct his first real movie. What Reitman didn't know was that he'd soon find himself in the middle of Nowhere, Canada, at a functioning summer camp, scheduled to shoot a film from a script full of holes, with a cast and crew all eagerly awaiting Bill Murray's possible arrival.

A day late and wearing the same clothes he wears in the film, Murray showed up and delivered a revelatory performance as Tripper, the whacky head counselor at Camp North Star. After all was said and done, Reitman and Murray would go on to create some of the most successful big-budget comedies of the era, including "Stripes" (1981) and "Ghost Busters" (1984).

On the occasion of the Blu-ray release, we jumped at the chance to get the wild and crazy story behind the making of "Meatballs," straight from Reitman himself -- from working with Belushi and Murray before "Saturday Night Live" had ever aired, to Murray taking pity on the desperate director, to the unlikely genesis of one of the best phrases ever muttered: "it just doesn't matter."

Photo by Dale Robinette

Adam Pockross: Having watched the film a few times now, I still have no idea why it's called "Meatballs."

Ivan Reitman: Neither do I. It seemed to be one of the staples that was part of camp food: Spaghetti n' Meatballs. And meatball also has a secondary connotation, as in goofy. We couldn't call it "Summer Camp" cause there was going to be another summer camp movie, so it was just a name I came up with.

AP: It seems like you came up with quite a lot of the film, yet you don't take a writing credit on it. Why not?

IR: I've never actually taken writing credit on any of the movies, even though I've been very involved on all the screenplays of the movies I've directed and produced. It gives me greater freedom with the writers; they feel more comfortable because they know I'm not trying to grab credit. I figured to be known as the director and the producer of these movies is enough.

Sometimes I work on stuff that I should have had a writing credit, but really for "Meatballs" if anybody should have had [credit] it probably is Bill Murray. I mean Bill really wrote big chunks of that film while we were doing it, and I'd help edit him and sort of work on that stuff together. If you listen to the commentary you'll have a pretty good idea of what I'm talking about.

The great thing about "Meatballs" is it was really my first real movie. I had done one small movie called "Cannibal Girls" before then, but it was only an $11,000 sort of improvised film. This was the first real film where I did coverage, and had actors, and a script, and a full crew. I learned an enormous amount on it. But most importantly, it was the beginning of my professional relationship with Bill Murray. I've been very, very fortunate to have made five movies with him.

[Related: Ivan Reitman biography]

AP: How did that relationship start?

IR: I was actually a theatrical producer. I had a Broadway show called "The Magic Show" running on Broadway. I called up the National Lampoon magazine because I wanted to make a comedy movie. And I said hey, "Let's do a comedy together." And the publisher, Matty Simmons, said "We're not ready to do a movie yet, but we're interested in doing a sort of off-Broadway show called 'The National Lampoon Show.' Would you want to produce it and put it together for us?" And I said, "Alright."

What resulted was a sketch show which starred Bill Murray, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Joe Flaherty, and Harold Ramis. This is before "Saturday Night Live," it's before "SCTV." It's before all these things. These people were totally unknown. And it changed my life. I said, "Wow! These people are more talented than anything I've ever seen. They're going to go somewhere. I should hang out with them."

So one of the things I did is I developed the show into a screenplay that became "Animal House". My hope was to always direct that movie, but having only directed this one little movie "Cannibal Girls," Universal Studios, who we had our deal with, said, "No, we're not going to let you direct it. You'll produce it." This is after working on the script, intimately, for two years, and also bringing John Belushi to the table.

So I was not able to be the director. And I thought, "I've got to direct again." I called up my friends Dan Goldberg and Len Blum who I knew from university in Canada, and asked them to write a movie about summer camp, cause we had all gone to summer camp together.

When it was time to finally make the movie, I knew Bill from the [National Lampoon] show. Although he was not on "Saturday Night Live," Bill had been in a couple of sketches, and was already tapped to become part of the company the following year. So I called him up and said, "Hey Bill, if you're not doing anything this summer, I've got this funny movie I'm working on about summer camp, let's do it together."  And he said, "You know I'm going on 'Saturday Night Live' next year, so I'd rather just goof off and golf and play baseball this summer." So I had to really move him. I didn't know I had him in the movie until the day before shooting. And he finally showed up on the second day of shooting.

[Related: 'Ghostbusters' trailers and clips]

AP: How were you able to persuade him?

IR: We were friends from "The National Lampoon Show," and I think he finally took pity on me. I think he knew that I was going to do this, and that I had no back-up plan. I literally did not have a back-up plan. So there I was sitting in Halliburton, Ontario, which is about two hours north of Toronto, with a full crew, with all these other cast members, and a live summer camp full of kids, waiting for him to say yes.

AP: So you filmed at a live summer camp, how did that enhance the film and how did it make it more difficult to produce?

IR: It felt very real. When you see those kids in the dining hall, that's a real active dining hall full of real summer camp kids. It was real because it was real, and you got the flavor of that. I've always tried to make movies where you believe there's life beyond the frame that you're looking at. That it's all going on while you're watching. And shooting at a camp just allowed that to happen. Everything just felt right, and all our extras felt right, and natural. Cause these weren't extras, they were kids going to summer camp, with a few exceptions.

AP: I'm an old summer camper myself. It has such broad appeal, but what is it specifically about summer camp that you knew would hit?

IR: It's one of those subjects that a big swath of the movie-going public has experienced for themselves. And it's a very special experience. It's the first time most of us have been away from our parents for any length of time. It's a time we're living together with kids our own age. We're spending 24 hours a day with them. It's usually one of the first socializations with the opposite sex that we've experienced. So there's these huge trigger-points of our youth that are epitomized.

I always thought that while high school and middle school was okay, my summer camp experiences were the most vital and magical parts of my growing up. I thought if I could somehow capture that, there would be an audience to respond it.

[Related: 'Moonrise Kingdom' Featurette with Bill Murray]

AP: Improvisation was such a big part of this film, but it was controlled improv. Could you walk us through the "it just doesn't matter" scene to explain your process on that?

IR: Improv is a great tool, particularly when you have someone as brilliant as Bill Murray. He's really a great writer as well as a great performer. The "it just doesn't matter" was not in the script as an idea. I remember going to dinner with Bill the night before, and just talking about what we were going to do the next day for that scene, and what was the philosophy that we needed to impart in that.

I remember him saying, "You know, win or lose, it just doesn't matter. And that's probably what we should be selling in the speech." Then he sort of riffed on one thing and happened to use the phrase "it just doesn't matter." And  I said, "That's it. You should keep coming back to 'it just doesn't matter' and make up these really funny things in between."

He came back the next day with a dozen different comedy ideas scribbled out on a piece of paper free-hand. He pitched a couple to me, and I said, "Just go for it." What I decided to do was not rehearse the scene at all, but just sort of block it out, put two or three cameras on, not let the campers -- who again, are all real campers at a real summer camp -- hear any of it until we were actually shooting. So all the reactions, and Bill's energy, and being energized by the real reactions, are very natural. And we only did a few takes of it.

Often times,   part of my improvisation process, then and later on in movies like "Stripes" and "Ghostbusters" with him, was to latch on to the things that I thought were important, and encourage him to hold on to that stuff and to focus the work to make sure it fit into the plot and into the characters of the whole story.

Watch the 'Meatballs' Blu-ray trailer: