A hypothetical situation: You partly control the rights to a wildly successful 1980s film franchise. It’s one that has spawned cartoons, comic books, video games, virtual-reality experiences, vast land sites’ worth of toys and enough sickly sweet neon-green juice boxes to permanently alter a child’s flavour receptors. But the last time that you tried to extend the brand on the big screen, all you got were an army of crybaby fanboys and disappointing box-office returns. So, Ivan Reitman: Who you gonna call?
If that line above makes you groan, well, you might not be an admirer of Ghostbusters: Afterlife, director Jason Reitman’s sequel-slash-tribute to the creative and intellectual-property powers of his father, the Canadian filmmaker and Ghostbusters pater familias.
Set three decades after the events of 1989′s Ghostbusters II, Afterlife follows the estranged daughter (Carrie Coon) and grandchildren (Finn Wolfhard, Mckenna Grace) of Ghostbusting crackpot Egon Spengler (the late Harold Ramis, who co-wrote both original films with Dan Aykroyd). Tasked with clearing out Egon’s rotting Oklahoma hideout after his mysterious death, the Spengler clan uncover all manner of supernatural shenanigans with the help of a local science teacher (Paul Rudd, in a very Bill Murray-y role).
The younger Reitman’s new film, opening in theatres this month after a few pandemic-induced delays, aims to satisfy a litany of sometimes-competing Ghostbusters forces: the hardcore fans who treat the original films as sacrosanct cultural and personal touchstones; younger audiences who apparently just want to watch iterations of Stranger Things; the business demands of Ghost Corps., the production company headed by Reitman Sr. and Aykroyd that oversees all Ghostbusting media endeavours; and the unspoken desire from just about everyone to wash away the memory of Paul Feig’s 2016 “lady” Ghostbusters project.
To hear Jason tell it, though, Afterlife is about one thing above all (say it in a deep Vin Diesel voice): family.
”The film deals with this legacy that I’ve dealt with my entire life. Everyone I’ve known has asked me at one point whether I was going to make a Ghostbusters movie. That’s what this movie is about. What’s it like to be the child of a Ghostbuster?” Reitman says during a Zoom interview, his Slimer bona fides stacked up behind him in the form of toy Ecto-1 and ghost trap models. “What’s it like for these grandkids who are thrilled at finding a proton pack in the basement of a barn, and their mom being, ‘Ugh, I could care less?’ What is that divide: carrying something simply because it’s who your father is, or because of what he created?”
Viewed from that angle, Afterlife fits within Jason’s until-now franchise-free filmography. See: Aaron Eckhart’s ethically compromised father in 2005′s Thank You for Smoking, George Clooney’s childless father figure in 2009′s Up in the Air, Kate Winslet’s desperate mother in 2013′s Labor Day, Charlize Theron’s anxiety-racked mother in 2018′s Tully, and, well, you can figure out the themes of 2007′s Juno and 2014′s Men, Women & Children for yourself.
Even though Jason Reitman has spent his entire career running away from Ghostbusters – “I’d make the most boring Ghostbusters movie,” he told Howard Stern more than a decade ago – here he is, bustin’ like he feels good at the age of 44.
”What changed is that I found this story that I needed to tell,” he says today. “I’ve thought of Ghostbuster movies the way a lot of people did for many years: They’re about four people who open up a Ghostbuster business. I didn’t have a personal way into that. But then I imagined this family, three generations of the Spenglers, trying to come to terms with themselves while picking up their own legacy. All of a sudden, that felt really personal. A movie about developing the confidence to pick up the proton pack.”
But in Afterlife, Reitman doesn’t just pick up his father’s proton pack – he scoops up the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, the Ecto-1, Vinz Clortho the Keymaster, Egon’s taste for Crunch bars, Elmer Bernstein’s original score, and a dozen more spoiler-alert-y elements from Ivan’s movies, too. There is drawing the line between homage and fan service, and then there is nuking that line with a cross-stream proton burst.
”It’s a delicate balance, and something that we’ve talked about since day one,” Reitman says. “When [co-writer Gil Kenan] and I sat down, we talked about this new story with new characters in a new location, which got us excited about what we wanted to see in a Ghostbusters movie that we hadn’t seen before. The car chase is a perfect example. There’s never been a scene where the Ecto-1 has been used to chase a ghost. That’s the perfect marriage. You love the car, you love the ghosts, you love the proton pack. Here are those things used in a new way.”
When Reitman and I last spoke in 2018, when he released a doubleheader of Tully and The Front Runner, the director was coming off disappointing receptions for Labor Day and Men, Women & Children (both of which were so mercilessly mocked in critical circles that Reitman has since become something of an obsession for a segment of Film Twitter). At the time, though, he didn’t feel the pressure for his new projects to become runaway critical or financial hits: “I measure my success differently. I’m not making Marvel movies that cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and are measured by their ability to make a billion dollars worldwide.”
The Ghostbusters brand, though, is as close as you can get to a Marvel series today without involving superheroes. There are, as Ghost Corps.’ existence serves as a reminder, potentially hundreds of millions of dollars on the line. Does Jason Reitman feel the pressure now?
”The unique pressures I felt on this film had nothing to do with how much money it makes,” he says, noting that Afterlife’s budget was about a third the cost of a typical Marvel outing. “It had to do with making my father proud. Of not letting down the originators of this franchise who showed up to be in it. It also has to do with never feeling like I owned this film.”
So is Ghostbusters: Afterlife not really a Jason Reitman film?
”There’s this sense of ownership that you have as a director while making a movie that you then give to the audience. It stops being yours and starts being theirs once you start playing it,” he says. “Ghostbusters never belonged to me from Day 1. I got to pick up the baton and run with it. The pressure I feel is telling a story that I never really believed belonged to me, and only wanting to make people who love this franchise happy.”
Which in addition to pre-emptively placating a notoriously particular fan base, is also a way of Jason saying that people can now stop asking him when he will make a Ghostbusters movie, like his dad – and that they can now start asking him when he’ll make a Ghostbusters sequel, like his dad.
”It’s like when you first get married and everyone wants to know when you’re going to have another kid. Once you have one, it’s, ‘So, when are you going to have a second?’” he says. “We wanted to create a film that could serve as the foundation for the future of Ghostbusters. I’d love to see new unique Ghostbuster films from all kinds of cultures and filmmakers who I love. How much I’m involved in them, I don’t know yet. But I love Ghostbusters and would like to find a healthy balance in my life.”
Or afterlife, as it is.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife opens in theatres Nov. 19
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