THE ORIGINAL GHOSTBUSTERS 3
THE ORIGINAL GHOSTBUSTERS 3
For this year's Ghostbusters Day, Mark Clapham looks at the three-decade process of trying to make a 'Ghostbusters III'.
It's taken 32 years, numerous spin-offs and a whole separate reboot, but the release of Ghostbusters: Afterlife marks the end of a very long journey to make a direct sequel to the first two Ghostbusters movies.
It's worth noting up front that the first Ghostbusters sequel wasn't easy to get made. Although a sequel to the most lucrative comedy ever made was a theoretical easy win for Columbia Pictures, incoming studio head David Puttnam had other, more high-minded plans and was not interested in funding a big-budget sequel. Puttnam relented in 1987, and was shortly after replaced as president of Columbia, but the need to resolve various concerns of core cast members Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis as well as director Ivan Reitman, all of whom had a say in any sequel, further extended the process.
After these issues were resolved Ghostbusters II had a tight production to meet a pre-set release date, poor test screenings, a round of reshoots and was released in 1989 to unsatisfactory box office and reviews. Some of the principal talent had gone into the process with worries that a sequel would be a cash-in repeating much of the original film to lesser effect, and those concerns were arguably borne out by the finished film and its reception. It's hard not to see Murray's reticence to make a third movie in later years as being informed by disappointment – either his, or the audience's – in regards to Ghostbusters II.
Although it came 8th in the Top 10 grossing movies of 1989, Ghostbusters II was seen as a relative disappointment and a third movie wasn't anyone's priority in the immediate aftermath. However the continued popularity of the first film, and a softening of the initial harsh response to the sequel, meant that some appetite remained for a new installment and began to grow over time. As the idea of franchises has taken greater hold over the movie industry Sony – who bought Columbia late in 1989 – have increasingly seen Ghostbusters as an important property, with a sequel being increasingly described as a priority for the studio, and occasionally hitting the slate of forthcoming releases.
This is where things get a bit nebulous. While none of the Ghostbusters scripts worked on in the last quarter of a century have been released in full to the public, drafts were circulated to cast members, Ivan Reitman and other proposed collaborators, and there are plenty of references to them in interviews down the years – Aykroyd, in particular, has never been afraid to dole out enticing quotes about ideas and concepts from whichever version was in the works at the time. Furthermore, leaked copies of scripts have been reviewed online. Between all these sources we can glean the main ideas that have run through various incarnations of Ghostbusters III.
Even during production of the first sequel Harold Ramis (Dr Egon Spengler and co-writer of both movies) had suggested the cast's advancing ages made keeping them on as leads of future movies implausible, and indeed when Dan Aykroyd began to mention working on a third film in the mid to late 1990s it was described as a 'Next Generation' type project in which the existing cast passed the torch to younger – in Ramis' words 'probably better looking' – Ghostbusters. The intent seems to be that these would be played by hot comedy actors of the time: at various points Will Smith, Chris Farley, Chris Rock, Ben Stiller, Bill Hader and Seth Rogen have been mooted as new 'busters. While Aykroyd and Ramis in particular had been keen to suggest big-name stars, the stars themselves were apparently less keen – in a 2016 interview for Vulture Ivan Reitman stated that 'most male comedy stars of this era were, frankly, afraid to do it. [...] They all said [...] "I don't want to step in those particular shoes."'
Who were these younger Ghostbusters? Initially it seems that they were a fairly generic old guy's idea of cool, younger characters, with a 2002 IGN review of a 1999 draft script (by Aykroyd, from a story idea by him and Ramis) scathingly describing them as 'interchangeable' with 'no real conflict'. Character descriptions include body piercings, dreadlocks, and other shorthand signifiers of Cool Young Personages in a Hollywood movie. As sufficient time passed since Ghostbusters II a more direct connection to that film became dominant, with the new young lead character becoming Oscar Barrett, Dana's baby – and Peter Venkman's de-facto step-son, presuming Peter and Dana stayed together – as the new male lead.
After the overwhelming maleness of the first two films, and Ernie Hudson's disatisfaction with the size of his role as the only African American character in both those movies, there seems to be a consistent effort for more gender balance and racial diversity in the new Ghostbusters team – although presumably casting choices would have affected exactly how those balances played out.
As a 'passing the torch' movie, Ghostbusters III also consistently had roles for the original Ghostbusters, with Aykroyd and Ramis consistently at the heart of these scripts as Ray and Egon – not surprising, as those two characters are the ones most invested in the science and lore of the paranormal and, behind the scenes, the actors were developing the scripts with Ramis planning to direct at the point when Ivan Reitman vocally wanted a hands-off producer role. Hudson's Winston Zeddemore would get at least a prominent guest role in the film, and there as also mention of roles or cameos for Louis Tully (Rick Moranis, largely retired since the 90s) and Janine Melnitz (Annie Potts).
The biggest question mark has always been the involvement, or lack thereof, of Bill Murray in the role of Peter Venkman. Not only is Venkman the undoubted lead of the first two movies, Murray has had by far the strongest post-Ghostbusters film career of anyone involved, one where the credibility of his collaborations with the likes of Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola outweigh the occasional dud. Even if his films aren't all huge hits, Murray is still a massive star and publicity draw, and getting him back in a signature role like Venkman would be a major box-office asset. By all accounts Sony have always known this, even if Aykroyd occasionally put an optimistic spin on the potential for a Murray-less part III.
Having been reluctant to make Ghostbusters II in the first place, Murray has been even shyer or making a third film. This isn't, by all accounts, an ego thing – aside from wanting them to match the quality of the first film, Murray's requirements for the sequel seem to involve wanting more parity between the Ghostbusters and less emphasis on his role as romantic lead. The compromise option over the years has been to offer a Murray a substantial cameo, with early scripts having Venkman quitting Ghostbusters in favour of his relationship with Dana, and later scripts having Venkman appear only as a ghost in line with Murray's apparent desire to be killed off. For years rumours have swirled about what extent Murray ever read the scripts presented to him, but suffice to say Murray – who is famously hard to get hold of and idosyncratic in his career choices – never signed off on any of the drafts sent to him, and without his involvement a conventional sequel never made it to screen.
What would these films have involved, aside from the handover from the original Ghostbusters to a new gang? One version of the film, subtitled 'Hellbent', would have seen the Ghostbusters travel to a hellish parallel version of New York called Manhellton, where the traffic literally never moves and the cops are giant blue horned demons. This version of the film, featuring a Trump-like corporate villain and a confrontation with the devil, was worked on for many years by Aykroyd, developed with Ramis and with drafts co-written with Aykroyd's Coneheads collaborator Tom Davis, but seems to have been deemed too expensive with its epic hell-dimension scenes.
Later drafts seem to have scaled back to a more conventional dimensional incursion into New York, with the inciting plot device being a Large-Hadron-Collider-type particle experiment. Variations on the script were developed by Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky, Ramis' collaborators on the film Year One, and Ethan Coen, writer of Tropic Thunder and Men in Black 3. Aykroyd continued to keep a hand in the scripting, repeatedly enthusing that this handover film would open the way to further sequels including the possibility of revisiting his Hellbent concept once the new team was firmly established.
How close did any of these scripts get to the screen? Around 2010/2011 a third Ghostbusters film is on the Sony schedule, and by most accounts this incarnation of the film was closest to being made, with Ivan Reitman returning to direct and the main holdout being Murray. Lending plausibility to the idea that Murray might actually have made the film was the fact that all the actors had contributed voice work to Ghostbusters: The Video Game that came out in 2009, with Murray enjoying the recording process and making positive noises. Whether script and schedule could have ever aligned enough for Murray to sign off on the project we will never know, as the death of Harold Ramis in 2014 made getting the whole gang back together impossible, and caused Ivan Reitman to decide not to direct.
A Ghostbusters follow-up remained a priority for Sony, and negotiations were entered into with other directors, as they had done intermittently during earlier periods when Reitman decided not to direct himself. Paul Feig, at the time coming off a hot streak of comedy movies with their own distinct, improvisational style, liked the idea of making a Ghostbusters movie but disliked the 'passing the torch' concept, preferring a complete reboot going back to the 'start-up' premise of the original film. This seems to have been the catalyst for the surviving parties with a stake in a Ghostbusters sequel to strike a deal relinquishing control of the property to Sony, allowing Feig to make his film on his own terms.
With Reitman and the surviving Ghostbusters giving their blessing and providing cameos in the reboot movie, it would seem natural to think that the prospect of a direct sequel to the earlier films had been completely abandoned in favour of a new continuity... except apparently not. Now in full control of the Ghostbusters rights, Sony set up a subsidiary in 2015 called Ghost Corps, operating out of an office on the Sony lot modelled on the classic Ghostbusters firehouse. While Feig was making his movie under his own steam, Ghost Corps was set up to look at the franchise as a whole, both in movies and other media, with the creative involvement of both Dan Aykroyd and Ivan Reitman.
Ghost Corps projects that have been mentioned down the years include prequel ideas – some featuring younger versions of the characters from the original films, some not – an animated film (possibly modelled on Hellbent), a animated TV series, and film projects featuring Ghostbusters teams in a world where the paranormal industry is more established. It's hard to tell whether these movies, often said to be involving the likes of Channing Tatum and Chris Pratt, would have been set in the original movie's continuity, that of the reboot or a whole new continuity, possibly part of a Ghostbusters multiverse, a concept toyed with in IDW's Ghostbusters comics (apparently with active encouragement from Ghost Corps).
While it might seem weird that parallel Ghostbusters projects were in development during the production and release of the 2016 reboot this flurry of activity – none of which has reached the screen yet – was typical of a period following the first Avengers movie when every studio and brand wanted a cinematic universe to imitate Marvel. With the 2016 movie failing to meet the box-office expectations inherent in its huge budget, Ghost Corps continued to find an outlet for the property that would reinvigorate it without breaking the bank.
As it turned out, a direct sequel to the original Ghostbusters movies came not from brainstorming in a franchise lab, but with a simple pitch from a writer/director close to the franchise. Jason Reitman, son of Ivan, had been on set for the making of the first movie, and brought that familial connection to bear with his pitch for what would become Ghostbusters: Afterlife. Afterlife is a lower-budget exercise set in rural America far away from the series' traditional (and expensive to shoot) New York setting, focussing on a single-parent family getting drawn into an adventure via their familial connection to the original Ghostbusters. At the time of writing all the material released for the movie suggests a film that plays with ideas of legacy, loss and nostalgia, all sensible beats for a sequel this long in the making.
Reitman Jnr, along with co-writer Gil Kenan, seems to have finally squared the circle that previous screenwriters failed to, providing an organic handover from one set of leads to another. Most of the core original cast members – Aykroyd, Murray, Hudson, Potts and Weaver, the now-retired Rick Moranis being the only major holdout – are set to make appearances, while the film's new cast includes Finn Wolfhard, Paul Rudd and Carrie Coon. All concerned seem to appreciate the distinct vision of the film which, if nothing else, seems to be a far cry from a conventional 'the same again, but louder' sequel.
Can Afterlife fulfil fan and studio expectations and bring the franchise back to box-office prominence? Who knows, but while it may have been so long coming that Ghostbusters III became something of a running joke in movie news circles, the existence of Afterlife proves that you can never fully write this series off. And, hey, maybe if its a hit we'll get to see these new characters head to the Big Apple. Manhellton might still be out there, waiting...
Ghostbusters: Afterlife is due out on November 11.
Hero Collector has launched a build-up model of the iconic Ghostbusters Ectomobile.