Looking back at 'Year One' from Day One
EmptyIn the beginning there was nothing. Then Harold Ramis got an idea.
That was in the summer of 2005. Today his comedy "Year One" opens via Columbia Pictures with Jack Black and Michael Cera as lazy hunter-gatherers on a Biblical epic road trip after being kicked out of their primitive village.
Inspiration? Mel Brooks' "The Two-Thousand-Year-Old Man."
"I loved the conceit of putting characters with a contemporary consciousness in an ancient world." It all sounded funny to Ramis, who definitely knows "funny" after "Caddyshack" and "Ghostbusters."
Another influence: A mid-'70s PBS doc he recalled about how Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons co-existed for thousands of years and must have met.
"I was working with John Belushi and Bill Murray at the time at National Lampoon, and I directed them in an improv," he told me. Murray's Cro-Magnon was "his usual contemporary hipster and John played the Neanderthal like a moronic thug." There was "a nice Abbott & Costello quality" that stuck in Ramis' head.
Inspiration struck: "Why not do something set in the ancient world and invest the characters with my own consciousness?" Genesis supplied the story.
"I imagined the hunter-gatherers living in a virtual Garden of Eden with one rule -- 'Don't eat the fruit from that tree.' "
Naturally, a guy like Black "would have to eat the fruit. So it's not only the story of every comic hero, it's actually the story of every adolescent."
To Ramis, Genesis is "one epic journey after another as well as one dysfunctional family after another. So I set these characters in motion, expelled them from their garden paradise."
The first people they meet are Cain and Abel. Genesis doesn't tell us much about them, so Ramis made it a classic sibling rivalry and Cain's a bit of a sociopath.
There was going to be an episode with Noah, but that was scrapped. Not only would it have been expensive to create a flood and build an arc, but "Steve Carell's 'Evan Almighty' had just been out and, I thought, sort of burned a lot of Noah."
But that didn't matter. There's lots of other good stuff in Genesis -- like Abraham and Isaac. "They're the next important people they meet. Despite every warning by Abraham that God will destroy Sodom for its iniquities, it just makes them want to go to Sodom even more."
In November 2005, Ramis was ready for a studio deal. He had "a loose three acts, which is all I ever want to tell anyway. I always feel people pitch too much. As long as a studio feels you can do it, they don't want to hear too many details."
But always give 'em a marketing hook. "It could be the greatest idea in the world, but if they can't sell it, it's no good to them."
Ramis did a half-dozen pitches. "I have friends everywhere and they all wanted to hear it. I think Sony was my last meeting." He had a great relationship there what with "Groundhog Day" and "Multiplicity." "Before the meeting was over, (studio honchos) Amy Pascal and Matt Tolmach said, 'Oh, yeah, we'll do that.' "
The deal came together quickly and Ramis started writing in the spring of '06. He didn't want to write alone, but didn't know who to work with "because all the guys who were my age or a little younger that I'd worked with before are all so successful." He'd call writers who'd say, "I have five days in April I can give you." But that's not how he wanted to work.
Gene Stupnitsky & Lee Eisenberg hadn't had any scripts produced yet, but Ramis knew them as production assistants who'd worked for him. "They met on a project of mine and started writing together, were discovered and hired as staff members on 'The Office.' " Ramis felt they were great at that and also liked their spec scripts. Ramis thinking aloud: "Well, why not?"
Added bonus: They're much closer to the audience in age and sensibility "and this can only be good for me."
Ramis had Jack Black in mind from day one. "We sent him the script and I don't think 48 hours went by before his agent called back and said 'Jack wants to do this.' "
One wrinkle: He wanted to play the sidekick! Happy ending: When Ramis questioned it Black decided to play the lead. Michael Cera was cast as the sidekick.
Well, actually, as things evolved it was no longer a main guy and sidekick. "They're really co-equal roles," Ramis said. When Judd Apatow signed on to co-produce with Ramis and Clayton Townsend, he suggested: "You should look at Michael Cera." Ramis to Apatow after seeing Cera in the 2007 comedy "Superbad": "Well, absolutely, he's the guy."
Shooting began in January '08 for 13 weeks mostly in Shreveport, where Louisiana's filmmaking tax breaks were a big help. They found their Biblical deserts in New Mexico. A week of re-shoots followed test screenings. Ramis puts the budget "in the high-medium range" between $65 million-$70 million.
Sodom was constructed an hour outside of Shreveport on a six-acre set with cobbled streets, stone buildings, a fortified wall and a large temple with a fiery idol.
"They built this ancient city faster than it took to remodel my bathroom," Ramis laughed. "In 10 weeks we were ready to shoot on that set."