Spring 2009

Acting Like a Director


In this article, Director Harold Ramis (1944 - 2014) shares his humorous perspective on what he learned about directing while acting for other directors.


Harold Ramis
LESSON PLAN: Ramis, with John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer, directing on the set of
The Office, learned something about directing actors from being one himself.


I never went to film school. When I was going off to college in 1962 I didn’t even know that film schools existed, and besides, I had my heart set on becoming a neurosurgeon. But when I found out that medical schools required lots of tedious and difficult math and science courses, many with homework, the thrill of brain surgery wore off and I started pursuing a career as a writer and actor. One thing led to another—Second City, National Lampoon, SCTV—and eventually co-writing Animal House. When I moved to L.A. in the late ’70s, I was determined to parlay that success into a directing job.

I co-wrote Caddyshack and attached myself as director. The decision was cinched when Jon Peters, the executive producer, looked at me critically, shrugged, and said, "Well, you look like a director." They don’t teach that in film school, but apparently I had it down—glasses that make you look intelligent and a safari jacket with lots of pockets. With Animal House well on its way to becoming the most lucrative comedy in movie history, I suspect that may have had more to do with it than the glasses and safari jacket, but I can’t be sure.

Prior to that, my directing experience consisted of a one-semester college course, and working up sketch material at Second City and the Lampoon. The only things I directed for a camera were short episodes of an experimental series for the radical video collective TVTV. I learned a few things there, like don’t let the soundman drop acid during the shoot.

I did have a few experiences as a journalist to draw from. When I say "journalist," I’m not talking about White House correspondent for The New York Times. I interviewed several major film directors while freelancing entertainment pieces for the Chicago Daily News, and spent a year and a half as an editor at Playboy. The high point of my Playboy tenure came in 1969 at "the Mansion" as I watched the entire cast of Hair swimming naked in Hugh Hefner’s pool singing "Let the Sunshine In."

And that was all I knew about directing until I walked on the set of Caddyshack and made a total ass of myself on the very first setup. We were shooting on a golf course in Davie, Florida, and the AD asked where I wanted to put the camera. I could feel the whole crew staring at me, the first-timer, waiting to see what kind of director I’d be. I looked around and saw nothing but green, trees and manicured fairways all around, so I arbitrarily pointed, "Let’s shoot that way." The AD squinted in the direction I was pointing and apparently noticed something I hadn’t. "So you want us to move the generator, the catering tent, the makeup trailer, the honey wagon, all the star trailers, and all the trucks, cause they’ll be in the shot?" Apparently, I’d failed to notice our entire production unit parked beyond the trees—a major oversight on my part. No one on the crew laughed out loud, but the sneering and smirking was obvious. "No. Good point," I nodded professionally. "Let’s leave all that where it is." I could see the contempt on the grips’ faces and that’s when I learned a great lesson of directing—if you don’t know, ask. So I turned to Steve Larner, the DP, and asked, "Where do you think we should put the camera?" From that moment on, everything ran smoothly with the understanding that I knew nothing and should not be consulted on anything really important.

Later, as I got deeper into my work as a director, something became increasingly clear to me: as directors, we work with actors, writers, producers, cinematographers, etc., but we don’t get to work with other directors. To paraphrase Mike Nichols: "Directing is like sex. You don’t usually get to watch other people do it, so you’re never sure you’re doing it right." So for me, bereft of a film school education, my entire experience of other directors comes through the work I’ve done as an actor. I’ve played in 15 or 16 films, including directing myself in bit parts a couple of times, and what I’ve learned watching other directors has been invaluable to me.

Ivan Reitman gave me my start as a film actor. He had a terrific visual and comic sense and for a simple, direct approach to performance, there’s no one better. I’ll never forget Ivan’s direction to Bill Murray and me on Stripes: "Do something funny, goddamnit!" Or later on Ghostbusters: "Look scared!" and "Look more scared!"

While acting opposite Diane Keaton in Baby Boom, I got to observe the close collaboration between the director Charles Shyer and his producer, co-writer and wife, Nancy Meyers, now a major director herself. My wife and I can barely decide where to have dinner; these two were negotiating every major creative decision on the film. Their preparation was meticulous, their design sense impeccable, their writing sparkled, and I hope their subsequent divorce was as amicable as their collaboration.

Working for James Brooks in As Good as It Gets was an honor and a pleasure. He’s a bit of a madman but a kind and gentle one, who has a real appreciation for actors. When I first read the script, I predicted an Academy Award for Jack Nicholson. Although we had no scenes together and never met, I was still hurt when Jack won the Oscar and inexplicably failed to mention my performance as the lovable Dr. Bettes, the kindly internist who treats Helen Hunt’s son in the film. I did, however, receive numerous marriage proposals from divorced, middle-aged Jewish women.

In Love Affair with Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, I learned from the director Glenn Gordon Caron that there’s nothing wrong with letting Warren do 20, 30, even 75 takes if he thinks it’s necessary. I remembered Glenn’s patience later when I was directing Robert De Niro in Analyze This. "I think we got it, Bob!" I’d chirp after a particularly good take. "Nah, we should do another one," De Niro might say. "Right!" I’d quickly agree. "Let’s do another one." I realized the most talented actors don’t always need direction. Sometimes you just need to stand by and hold their coats.

Jake Kasdan directed me twice as an actor, the first time in Orange County. The film was popular and I knew I’d found a new audience as an actor when young people on the street stopped yelling, "Hey, Ghostbuster guy!" and started yelling, "Hey, Orange County guy!" More recently I worked for Jake playing a Hasidic Jew in Walk Hard with John C. Reilly. When I looked at myself in the mirror with a full beard, curling ear locks, black suit and flat-brimmed black hat, my first thought was, "I could get laid on Fairfax."

Playing Seth Rogen’s father in Knocked Up was my most recent acting job and probably most important for me as a director, since it was there that I got to watch Judd Apatow work and worm my way into his good graces. As a result he co-produced my latest film, Year One, which is coming out in June. I’d look for a joke here but I’m being sincere: the man is a fireball—boundless talent, energy and commitment, and a great ability to drive a project. (As a measure of his dynamism, he shot a million feet of film on Knocked Up, and I believe there’s now a statue of him in the lobby at Kodak.) I just hate that he’s so much younger than me.

If that sounds competitive, it’s because I am, and attending the DGA Awards for the first time this year, I had the opportunity to experience my usual jealousy, bitterness and envy in a much more personal way than in the past. As I looked out over the room at the five directors nominated for best feature film, I had to wonder what they knew that I didn’t. I know it’s unlikely I’ll have the opportunity to discuss directing with them, but I’m working on my reel, getting a new head shot, and hoping someday they’ll cast me so I can watch them work. Or maybe I’ll go to film school—if there’s not too much homework.

Funny Business

First-person columns written by directors about their humorous experiences working in features and television.

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