With summer upon us, it's only appropriate that the camp comedy classic "Meatballs" finally makes its debut on Blu-ray -- and acclaimed director Ivan Reitman is more than happy to take movie viewers on the tour of the film that remains very near and dear to him.
"Technically it was my second movie (the horror spoof "Cannibal Girls" from 1973 was his first), but it was the first movie I directed that was picked up by a major studio," Reitman told me in a recent interview. "Plus, it was the film that began my working relationship with Bill Murray."
"Meatballs" stars Murray as Tripper, the lovable head counselor at Camp North Star who, through his off-the-wall ways, gives the facility's young residents a wild summer they'll never forget. The film is new this week on Blu-ray (Lionsgate Home Entertainment) and video on demand.
Reitman believes the reason "Meatballs" still resonates with viewers is because it brings back memories for those who went to camp when they were younger, and if they didn't it makes you imagine just how fun it would have been.
"It's the one time when you're younger when you're away from your parents for an extended period of time, you're hanging around kids your own age, plus, camps usually have both genders so there's the whole social aspect," Reitman said.
"I remember going to camp when I was 12 or 13, and learning how to dance and dating and that sort of stuff," Reitman added. "A special experience ensues, and to look back at that is very nostalgic for most people, and for those who didn't go, they can understand what is special about it."
Released in 1979, "Meatballs" came out less than a year after the debut of "Animal House" in theaters, a film that Reitman produced.
"I developed the script for 'Animal House' and wanted to direct it myself, but the studio didn't think I was ready to direct a major studio movie," Reitman said. "So as that movie was in post-production I decided it was my time to direct, so I called up my friends in Canada and said, 'Let's do this camp movie I have in mind.' The fact that I got a chance to direct the movie after losing 'Animal House' made things not as painful."
While "Meatballs" marked Reitman's first big director's gig, it was also a watershed moment for Murray, who was making his feature film debut. But just because the film had a beautiful camp setting by a gorgeous lake in Canada, Murray wasn't exactly ready to dive into the project, Reitman said.
"Bill is really complicated. He didn't say yes to the movie right away, and in fact, didn't show up on set until the second day of shooting," Reitman recalled. "I didn't know I had him until the day before we started shooting."
At least Reitman had the benefit of knowing Murray previously. The actor was a part of Reitman's off-Broadway production "The National Lampoon Show," which also starred John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Harold Ramis and Joe Flaherty.
"It was just before 'SCTV' and 'Saturday Night Live.' We all got to be good friends and it was sort of big change in my life getting to know all these remarkably talented people," Reitman recalled. "Some of the sketches from that show made it into 'Animal House' eventually."
Reitman said a big part of the holdup with Murray was the actor's pending commitment to "Saturday Night Live," which he was joining in the fall.
"I called him and said, 'Bill, I have a great, funny script' about summer camp and we'll shoot it in 30 days, and he said, 'Well look, I'm golfing, I'm playing baseball. I'm going on 'Saturday Night Live' in the fall and I don't really want to work,'" Reitman recalled. "But I kept at him and refused to hire anybody else. I knew him well from the 'Lampoon' show and I knew he was the perfect guy for it."
From there, it was just sheer persistence on Reitman's part to get the guy he wanted, even if it meant laying everything on the line.
"We were already on location with a whole crew that I was half-paying for with my partners in Canada. It was totally independently made and I kept waiting for him," Reitman said. "I would call him every other day, I would call his lawyer and call his agent, and he finally relented. Thank God he did because he was so good. As soon as showed up on the set he was remarkable."
The make or break scenario, Reitman said, proved ultimately invaluable.
"I learned a lot about directing Bill in the movie because, he's not only a great performer and a great comedian, but he's also a very, very good writer and very fast on his feet. He'd be often thinking of things not in the script and veer off course a little bit," Reitman said. "I really learned how to be nimble enough to make use of what he was doing and strong enough to be able to contain it so it made sense in the body of the rest of the movie."
The film also gave Reitman an opportunity to recognize Murray's undeniable charisma, like in the "It just doesn't matter" scene, where Tripper turns into a rabble-rouser to get the kids motivated about winning the camp games. Murray not only commands the attention of his cast mates in the scene with his presence, but the entire screen.
Reitman, of course, put that command to perfect use again with Murray's speech to the troops before basic training graduation day in "Stripes," and of course, they collaborated again on the two "Ghostbusters" films.
With any luck, the 65-year-old Reitman said someday they'll be able to bust ghosts together again.
"He's a huge gift to most every movie he's in, and he's been huge gift to my life in the five movies we did together. I'm extraordinarily appreciative," Reitman said. "He's grown cantankerous as he grown older, and he's always been fussy about the movies he'll make."
"There's an enormous amount of pressure on he and I with regards to movies like 'Ghostbusters III,'" Reitman added. "People want to know why (he doesn't want to do it), but I feel like he's earned the right to do whatever he wants. I'm very happy with how I've been able to work with him."