Why I love Ghostbusters as a writer.

Let me preface this entry with the following statement: I love both the original films and the new one (Kate McKinnon as Holtzman is brilliant) as well as the Real Ghostbusters cartoon. Every incarnation brought something different to the table and all are equally good and equally valid so you won’t find any argument to support your ‘complaints’*.

When I was a little kid, one of my older cousins, who worked for a cinema magazine gave me a copy of their latest issue, that was entirely dedicated to promoting the original  Ghostbusters film. He thought that magazine would be a good help for me to practice my reading. Which it did. The magazine was mostly composed by interviews with the main cast, the set and FX designers (which I guess was a sign for me to study design) and how they came about with the concept. Later on, my dad managed to procure a copy of the film in one of those rental places and I think I watched the film like 4 times before returning the tape. Then a local channel kept it in the rotation for years, until the cartoon and the sequel appeared (I got to watch the sequel at the cinema). Since then, I try to watch it at least on Halloween every year -now is a marathon of the three films-. I have played the video games, have a couple of toys, comics, and books. I can say that I know the story like the back of my hand. And probably quote the first film most of the time in random conversations.

“Ray, When Someone Asks If You’re a God, You Say YES.”- Winston

Like now. Yeah, I’m that guy. As for the record, I think that one is the best line of the whole movie.

So as you can surmise, this is one of my favorite films (only topped by the 90’s TMNT film). I wanted to work as Ghostbuster, which explains the eclectic part book collection of physics and the occult. For me the whole explanation of how high energy physics could be used to explain and deal with the paranormal in a very coherent way (within the movie’s universe) made perfect sense. Having an engineer dad that was also a Star Trek fan helped, as he explained to me (or simply gave me the books, like A Brief History of Time) some of the basic concepts of what Ray, Egon -and years later Jillian, Abby, and Erin- were saying.

“Well, let’s say this Twinkie represents the normal amount of psychokinetic energy in the New York area. According to this morning’s sample it would be a Twinkie…thirty-five feet long weighing approximately six-hundred pounds.” -Egon.

Knowing that the quote was part of a longer explanation of the inflationary universe theory and how it made our reality prone to paranormal incursions, more or less, makes have even more respect for the whole concept of mixing science with magic. This is where my inspiration to make my own mix of science and magic for my stories comes from. The cartoon really expanded onto it, courtesy of the always super work of JMS.

However, the lesson I take from the first Ghostbusters film (a lesson more or less repeated in the 2016 film) is the economy of narrative to present complex worldbuilding and detailed characters, all around a pretty basic simple premise: a pest removal service where the pest is the paranormal.

The original film has a surprisingly short runtime of 1 hour and 45 minutes. Compared to more modern films, it’s at least 15-30 minutes shorter. It might look like too little, but in film 15 minutes is an eternity. So in such a relatively short amount of time, the movie does a lot. Once I read a column by Charlie Jane Anders at io9, about how the way ‘Back to the Future’ was filmed makes it a perfect movie and one of the reasons is how the film efficiently uses its runtime to set up the world, the characters, the conflict, and resolution. I want to believe that the same applies to the first Ghostbuster film.

We’re Ready To Believe You.

The opening, the library scene before the title card -which I consider one of the bonafide great jump scare scenes ever made- sets up nicely half of the premise: ghosts are real and are scary. The following minutes set up the other half: a trio of unconventional scientist that not only believe ghosts are real but are applying the scientific method to prove their existence. Not only they succeed but realize that a) they are ill-equipped for dealing with ghosts and b) there is a business opportunity here (it’s the 80’s, greed was good… for a few).

The following scenes go to introducing Peter, Ray, and Egon as actual characters. Each line they spout is full with meaning: Ray is a dutiful son with the heart of a child (which becomes a key plot point at the end). Egon is, for the most part, the stereotypical aloof genius that comes with the technobabble and equipment… except that he does have a sense of humor, social skills and can explain the most complex topic with ease and /or a twinkie.

Egon Spengler: There’s something very important I forgot to tell you.
Peter Venkman: What?
Egon Spengler: Don’t cross the streams.
Peter Venkman: Why?
Egon Spengler: It would be bad.
Peter Venkman: I’m fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing. What do you mean, “bad”?
Egon Spengler: Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously, and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.

And Peter… oh Peter. He is a sleazebag, a rascal, a loveable rogue and beneath the jerkass attitude, the most heroic of the three. Watch the movie, I can’t recall a single challenge he doesn’t want to tackle with dry humor and a can-do attitude.

The movie then introduces Dana and her neighbor Louis Tully, romantic interest and comic relief, apparently. While their roles are not that large, every scene where they appear is full of meaning, both at the character level and as part of the plot, foreshadowing included. They are vital parts of the plot later on.

You then move to the growth of the business, the addition of sassy Janine and the fourth musketeer Winston. I want to stop here for a bit. At the outset, the addition of Winston seems like an afterthought, the kind of stuff you could expect from the 80’s where certain unsavory stereotypes about minorities were still in vogue, especially PoC background as a blue collar worker surrounded by white scientists, just to fill a quota. It doesn’t help that the role was originally meant for Eddie Murphy and when he rejected it, probably was considered to be dropped. It is certainly problematic.

As a side note: this is something I believe the 2016 film improves on just a bit, as making Patty not only part of the team right away, but also a vital part given her encyclopedic knowledge of the history of the city and somewhat of a leader to keep the rest of the team focused on the tasks at hand.

However, with all its warts -and this is not an apology, that part of the film has not aged entirely well- the role Winston goes to play becomes one of big importance in current narratives: the common person point of view. At some point in the story, if you kept only the three founders of the GB around, you would have faced a wall with all the technobabble, after all, they all know what they are talking about, but not the audience, which would be confused or would have lost the suspension of disbelief. But Winston helps to ground the story, not by dumbing it down, but by providing the shady commentary that complements the technobabble and lampshades the ridiculousness of the film’s premise with well-delivered zingers. That makes the story more relatable and the insufferable geniuses more palatable. He is us in the film, the regular person thrown into a wider, incredible and mysterious new world and has to learn to navigate it fast. Those characters help a lot to create world building without using info dumps.

Winston Zeddemore: Hey, wait a minute! Hold it! Now, are we actually gonna go before a federal judge, and tell him that some moldy Babylonian god is gonna drop in on Central Park West and start tearing up the city?!
Egon Spengler: Sumerian, not Babylonian.
Peter Venkman: Yeah. Big difference.
Winston Zeddemore: No offense, but I gotta get my own lawyer.

The movie never wastes a minute waxing lyrical about the world they are or with not-so-necessary setups for jokes -a problem the sequel does have-. No, it moves at a neck-breaking speed introducing a complex world full of ancient cults, crazy architects,  Babylonian… Sumerian deities and spiritist guides that can describe pretty much anything paranormal in the world (which makes you wonder who or better say WHAT wrote the Tobin’s Spirit Guide). All with tight packed dialogue that takes you to the ‘End of the World’ Scenario where the heroes, in order to beat a god, use guile rather than blunt force and explosions. Kinda…

Egon Spengler: I have a radical idea. The door swings both ways. We could reverse the particle flow through the gate.
Ray Stantz: How?
Egon Spengler: We’ll cross the streams.
Peter Venkman: Excuse me, Egon, you said crossing the streams was bad.
Ray Stantz: Cross the streams…
Peter Venkman: You’re gonna endanger us, you’re gonna endanger our client. The nice lady who paid us in advance before she became a dog.
Egon Spengler: Not necessarily. There’s definitely a very slim chance we’ll survive.

What is most interesting of the Ghostbuster film is how the climax and the end pay off every single bit of foreshadowing from the beginning, ties all loose ends -Slimer notwithstanding- and at the same time leaves the door open for potential sequels without leaving anything hanging out. If there were not a film/video game combo sequel or an animated series (both with different canons), the original GB film would have been a perfect stand alone movie.

The animated series and the 2nd film/video game took different directions with the plot. The animation went for the ‘monster of the week’ approach, featuring every corner of the paranormal -including, yes Cthulhu-, strange episodes like the Agatha Christie inspired one or even heartbreaking ones like the ghost dog of the circus that helped them to beat a bigger monster while sacrificing itself (I cried when I watched it as a kid). The 2nd movie and the film tried to create a more coherent narrative where the video game -seriously, play it, especially the PS3 version- ties every plot from the first two films to create a mytharc.

Both are nice, but they don’t surpass the excellent narrative execution of the first film. In a world full of interconnected franchises and multiple sequels, the fact that you can pack so much story in so little space and deliver a satisfying ending that can be as closed or as open as the audience wants is the biggest lesson to take from the 1984 film as a writer.

For me, it’s one of the ways you could approach writing your novel, no matter if it will be a stand-alone or a series or a series of stand-alone movies interconnected -which is what I’m trying to do-. Give the reader a conclusion to that particular arc, with well-defined characters and great dialogue, leaving yourself the door open for a continuation, but without leaving the reader hanging up. I don’t know if I’m making sense or if I might achieve it with my novel. But I think as a writer is an interesting challenge. I undertook it because one of my best friends, who is an avid reader told me once that she yearned for a fantasy book where she didn’t have to wait for the next book to know how the story of the first book ends and yet be part of a series. And also don’t be a doorstopper. In my opinion, it’s a healthy way to do things, self-contained arcs that can work as parts of a bigger arc but can be read independently.

That’s why I’m using the GB films as a guide for writing my novels because I believe -especially the first one- its a good template for an interesting arc based in a simple premise, efficient pacing, world building, a mashup of genres (in this case horror, comedy, science fiction and a bit of fantasy), good character development and sly, quotable dialogue. The materials for a classic story are there. The trick, like in cooking, is in the execution as to achieve balance rather than get one of the elements to overcome the other. I sincerely hope I achieved it in my novel.

Rarely has a movie this expensive provided so many quotable lines.
Roger Ebert, Review of Ghostbusters (1 January 1984)

I agree. And they ain’t afraid of no ghost.

 

*I also liked The Last Jedi. It is the best deconstruction of the fallacy of the ‘happily ever after’ ending in a setting that thrives in conflict and a reality check to many people about managing our expectations as we grow old. So take that.

 

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