You’d think being Features Editor of the world’s most widely read movie magazine would satisfy any desire to talk to movie stars if you’re an entertainment journalist, but some of the conversations he’d had in the course of his regular gig convinced Nick de Semlyen there was much more to the story of screen comedy in the 1980s.
If you grew up in the era you know all the names and movies. But if you ever wondered why Chevy Chase and Bill Murray – among all the iconic names from the era – never appeared on screen together (they shared credit in 1980s Caddyshack, but never shared a scene), it’s because they once came to blows, as Murray first referred to back in 2012.
The fight backstage at Saturday Night Live was industry lore, but when he got the chance he got the chance to talk to the famously reclusive Murray while covering the Cannes Film Festival one year, de Semlyen was shocked at how candidly the star opened up about the dust-up.
He realised it was a spiritual beginning of sorts, the point where 80s comedy stars like Chase and Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Jim Belushi, Eddie Murphy, John Candy and a handful of others became the icons we remember.
Pursuing everyone he could about the era and its movies including the many writers and directors behind the scenes like John Landis and Ivan Reitman, a grand narrative took shape, and the recently released Wild and Crazy Guys: How the Comedy Mavericks of the ’80s Changed Hollywood Forever is the result.
It’s the story of how screen comedy in the 1980s was spawned from a mere two sources – Saturday Night Live in the US and its Canadian doppelganger Second City TV – but how it conquered the world.
Wild and Crazy Guys is a rollicking tale with a fly-on-the-wall quality that makes you feel like you’re in the room while titanic talents (and egos) butted heads and occasionally created magic.
de Semlyen spoke to Moviehole.net about the book from his native UK.
What’s your favourite 80s comedy?
That’s a tough one, there are so many answers I can give. I’m going to say Three Amigos. It wasn’t necessarily the one I was into the most in the 80s but the more I watch it, the more I enjoy it.
Those guys are firing on all cylinders and it’s just such a warm film. Ghostbusters is hilarious obviously, but I don’t think anyone has that waltz, you can tell the three stars [like Chevy Chase, Steve Martin and Martin Short] really liked each other. I don’t know, it just makes me smile.
How did Wild and Crazy Guys come about as a project with a contract from a proper publisher, etc?
I didn’t have those things for a long time. I had the idea probably in late 2014. I’d been interviewing these guys for my day job and put together a Three Amigos reunion as well as getting to meet Bill Murray.
I was hearing these stories and thought there was definitely a book there. It was way more than I could kind of get into a magazine article, but I just started writing it in 2015. I worked on it for a year and a half before I showed it to anyone.
I had a feeling it was going to be quite monstrous in terms of the number of hours needed to put together. Obviously, I’ve got a day job and I didn’t want to have a deadline that was going to be really hard to meet.
So I just worked on it for a long time and kind of figured out what the book was, what the structure was. Only then did I start thinking about how I was going to get a publisher. That took a bit of time but I was fortunate and got it to the right people.
But it came together slowly, it was a long process.
During the years you wrote it (presumably on nights and weekends) and worked full time, did you have any free time at all?
Empire is a very demanding day job so yeah, it was evenings and weekends, which is kind of why it took so long. You only have so much energy and it’s not a million miles away from my day job so there were times where you’re like ‘I just need a break’. I remember I was on a holiday in Miami about four years ago and I spent it watching Chevy Chase films.
It was a passion project, I was going to do it one way or another, whether people read it or not? But in the second half of the 80s the films get pretty crummy in a lot cases. There were definitely times where I wondered why I started watching Caddyshack Two and stuff like that. This is the nice point where it’s finally out and I get to chat to people about it.
We’re in a period of extreme 80s nostalgia right now. Did anything about the cultural climate convince you now was the time not just to write it but try and publish it?
I was going to write it anyway, I think it’s just that once I had the idea I knew I had to do it whatever happened. Even if I’d ended up self publishing, I think I would’ve done that.
But the timing is amazing. You know, after all these years suddenly there’s a new Ghostbusters about to film and the original cast are coming back, maybe even Rick Moranis is coming back. Then there’s Coming to America Two. There’s talk of Little Shop of Horrors. There’s all this stuff happening just as the book’s coming out, which is really amazing and lovely.
I definitely felt that sense of nostalgia. All the stuff I’ve done for Empire with these 80s comic actors has had a really nice reaction. People have messaged me and said how much they enjoyed hearing from these guys. I was just surprised the book didn’t exist.
You must also have enough left over for another book. Any thoughts on a follow up?
Definitely not a second book on this subject. I’ve got an idea for a second book, which is still very, very formative. I think it would make for a good spiritual sequel, but nothing to do with these guys or these films.
But yes, there are loads of leftovers. I talked to John Landis for four hours, Ivan Reitman for a couple of hours. I did pretty extensive interviews with all these people, so there’s a lot of material and a lot of stories I squeezed in because I just wanted to keep the pace kind of fast.
But I can see this being a documentary series. I mean, it’s not happening at the moment, but I can see it with clips and more interviews and stuff.
Did writing Wild and Crazy Guys give you the long form nonfiction bug or did you already have that and this was a way to express it?
It was kind of intimidating to write something of this length for the first time, because for many years I’ve just done these 2,000, 3,000 word articles.
You definitely still have to have a structure with those but nothing like the kind of complexity of trying to weave together eight people’s stories.
It was difficult and daunting but also really exciting. You know, you’re trying to figure out the structure of each chapter but then you’re trying to figure out how you’re going to end this thing.
I was really fortunate that I discovered a beginning and end that were quite nice parallels with Bill Murray and Chevy Chase both on Saturday Night Live with two decades or whatever between [the appearances]. That felt like a really nice top and tail of the story.
I had to make little charts and graphs with Post-It notes and highlighters, all kinds of stuff.
Just like great movies about investigative journalism like Spotlight, All the President’s Men or The Post?
Well, that may be overstating it but it definitely felt like a more serious project than I had done before.
As a professional film geek how much of all these stories did you know versus what you discovered as you were researching and writing?
I discovered a lot. I think that was essential because if I’d known it all before it would’ve been a really boring five years – I’d obviously written about [80s films] quite a lot.
My aim was always do drill deep with the research and interviews I was finding new stuff out. I only really wanted to put new stuff into the book that I was finding out – the challenge is how you tell the story of Ghostbusters when it’s already been told so many times?
The answer was to really get inside the minds of these guys. My aim was to make this all about their psychology and where they were at different times.
Where was Bill Murray just before Ghostbusters started, for instance? He didn’t want to make it, then after it he disappeared for four years. There was a lot of interesting stuff you can dig up when you go into the story from the specific viewpoint of one person, so you can hopefully tell the story in kind of a fresh way.
That’s what I tried to do with all those films.
Was it your mandate to yourself to make readers feel they were in the room when these things were happening?
That’s what I was aiming for. I wanted to include enough detail that it felt like you were there on the spot, which was tricky in some places.
I wasn’t born when the book starts so it’s all second hand, but I was lucky to be able to speak to eyewitnesses, and they remember the big events really well.
What was the biggest surprise or shock you got from the research?
I didn’t really know much about John Candy. I obviously grew up loving him, I loved him in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, but never really knew much about him as a person. I don’t think he gets talked about enough these days.
I was pleasantly surprised that he was as nice as I’d hoped he was. Some of these other guys may be a bit more difficult, but I was nicely surprised at how kind of just relentlessly pleasant he was.
But even then he had a bit of a dark side. He could lose his temper and be quite formidable, pinning Chevy Chase’s head under his arm at a party for like an hour, for instance.
Another big surprise was really Bill Murray in that four year period after Ghostbusters, which honestly I didn’t really know about. He took most of the 80s off, and I think when you look at the 80s you think of Bill Murray. It seems like he was there all the way through making these big movies, but he didn’t actually do that many.
Ghostbusters kind of blows his reputation a bit out of proportion. It’s crazy the stuff he could have done if he’d been around. I was really interested to learn more about what he was doing in that time.
Not many of these 80s comics have maintained their careers through to the present day. Did that make it easier or harder to get them interested in talking to you?
I was really lucky to get to meet Rick Moranis, who out of all of these guys has just vanished. He lives in New York and he’s still around and I’ve been really lucky not only to spend a couple of days with him but actually keep in touch.
So that was really nice to have that, because if I didn’t have that connection he would’ve been impossible to get hold of.
Bill Murray is still active but impossible to get hold of really. I was lucky to pin down some time with him but that was a bit of a fluke.
But these guys are all a little bit enigmatic and mysterious and that’s part of their appeal. They’re not doing interviews all the time, which is why it was so great that I got to sit down with Steve Martin about 10 years ago and go through all of his old films, which he very rarely does. He doesn’t like talking about them.
But the writers and directors were all pretty happy to talk. Some of them were harder than others. I almost got to talk to Martin Brest [Beverly Hills Cop] and came pretty close, but he doesn’t really doesn’t do any interviews.
But there are people like Ivan Reitman and Carl Reiner and John Landis, people who’ve just kind of been forgotten about but who made these genius comedies. They were all happy to tell their stories and they’ve all got quite amazing stories.
Bill Murray seems like he’d be the hardest to talk to [the actor famously doesn’t have an agent and all offers of work have to go through a fax number that’s said to be one of the best kept secrets in Hollywood], and the quality of the interview is supposed to depend very much on his mood on the day.
Yes, I was very lucky. I’m not sure this book could exist otherwise because getting to ask him about the Chevy Chase fight gave me the idea that it should be the start of the book, he hadn’t talked about before on the record.
He was at the Cannes Film Festival for Moonrise Kingdom and he was only doing about two interviews. I knew he was in this bar area outside a hotel so after waiting around for hours I got someone to ask him and he just decided he’d do it.
After the infamously terrible time Kevin Smith had working with Bruce Willis on Die Hard 4.0 and Cop Out, he said that – where a lot of film people of his generation were so grateful to be in the industry they always play nice with the press and with fans – stars of the 80s are more likely to have more a sense of entitlement. Did you find that in tracking down and talking to anyone?
Well, these days they don’t need to do interviews. They’re not really pumping out movies like they were.
But certainly I think some of them are quite wary of the press. The Caddyshack press conference is quite legendary where Chevy Chase told someone to go fuck themselves.
And Bill Murray can be tricky or he can be delightful depending on what day you catch him. He just doesn’t do many interviews because he just doesn’t like doing them.
You just never know – when I was putting the Three Amigos reunion together for Empire, I emailed Steve Martin’s manager thinking it would be an immediate ‘no’ because reunions are really hard to put together at the best of times and he doesn’t do many interviews.
But within a couple of hours I hear back saying ‘Steve is up for this and he’s also contacted Chevy and Martin and they’re up for it as well’. I think in that case they were happy to talk about it because they felt the film had been kind of unfairly maligned at the time.
So the three of them got together and I got to sit around a table with them and John Landis and talk about Three Amigos for an hour. It was amazing.
So it just depends. Rick Moranis, as hard as he was to get hold of, when I was there at his house he was totally happy to talk and talk. I also tried to get Chevy for a proper sit down interview for the book, but I think he’s kind of moved on from that in his mind.
The screen comedy movement of the 80s seemed very shambolic, flying by the seat of its pants. By contrast a lot of studio comedy after that feels very corporate. Do you agree?
Totally, I think comedy has kind of been shackled. It’s been made safe and I think the idea of what a comedy should be has changed. The Judd Apatow school of comedy – which can often be really good – of just some stars swapping quips in a house, comedy has definitely moved towards that. It’s expected a comedy shouldn’t cost more than 20 or 30 million dollars.
I think what these guys brought was ambition and a sort of streak of madness as well, just making these very eccentric, big ideas.
A lot of that has to do with Dan Aykroyd, he didn’t have small ideas. The Blues Brothers script was in a phone book cover. Who writes a comedy that has car chases, huge spectacle, huge songs? It was just such a oversized, crazy project and I can’t remember the last time there was a comedy that was that out control and wild.
The same with Ghostbusters. It’s just such an unusual thing and those two movies really connected, but then obviously as the book shows, other ones didn’t connect and lost a lot of money. The studios kind of clamped down.
But there was an out of control element to something like The Blues Brothers where the studio didn’t even know what was going on, slowly woke up to it and freaked out when they found out what was actually happening, how the money was being spent.
Do you think the other difference is that the studios back then seemed to need these comics more than the other way around? In the Star Wars/Marvel era, actors almost seem dispensable and the whole concept of a movie star is different.
It does seem like we’re living in a kind of producer’s Hollywood now, I don’t think it’s even about directors. It was the directors in the 70s, then it was about stars in the 80s. Obviously that’s a very broad way of speaking and there are a lot of exceptions.
But these comedy guys were unlike any comedians who had come before and any who have come after in just how big their personalities were and how they put their personalities into their work so much – and being allowed to.
They were just being trouble makers as well. Even before Aykroyd and Belushi were stars they were acting like they were. They caused all this anarchy and it was so tied to their screen image they were encouraged to be an anarchic.
It’s no surprise there are so many insane stories in the book because that was their brand. If you look at all these movies the characters are always rebels creating defying authority figures. The cops and government are always the bad guys.
I think they just played that out in real life in their interactions with movie executives and rejected whoever was trying to tell them to behave themselves, get to set on time, whatever it was.
We’re in love with the 80s again now because of Stranger Things, Ready Player One, etc. Was it really a special time or is it just because it was the formative period for Gen X film geeks (the most vocal and reverent movie demographic)?
I think it was a special time. I quote Quentin Tarantino in the prologue of the book, who talks about the 80s being the worst or second worst time for Hollywood, and there was certainly a lot of crap, but so much of it was so distinctive. The blockbusters particularly make so much noise and were embraced so much by so many people.
Everything was pumped up – in comedy certainly but also in the action movies with Schwarzenegger and Stallone. Everything was excessive, a bit too loud loud and colourful. There were many total disasters and terrible films made, but I think there was just a confidence that’s lacking a bit now.
That’s certainly the case in doing original properties, there are so many sequels and reboots nowadays, There’s a lot of stuff from the 80s that’s getting copied.
So I champion the 80s. I guess it’s a bit trite, but you look at the politics that was going on in America in the 70s and what a difficult time it was, and then suddenly it was this new era of confidence and swagger that bled into pop culture.