Who you gonna call? Michael Gross!
By Jerry Eberts
EXCLUSIVE TO HMPod.com & THE CRYPT: It was 30 years ago today — June 8, 1984 — the iconic movie Ghostbusters was released. That movie remains one of the most beloved of all modern cinematic comedies, a film that has become a part of the entire world’s common cultural heritage.
Michael Gross is the man most responsible for the look of Ghostbusters — including the ultra-famous No-Ghosts logo — as well as the sequel and the popular animated series.
He came to the movie industry in a roundabout way, having spent several years as a renowned graphic designer. Most notably, he was the multi-award-winning art director for the National Lampoon humour magazine in its heyday, the early ’70s. It was at NatLamp that Gross made the acquaintance of such comedic talents as John Belushi, Joe Flaherty, Michael O’Donoghue and John Hughes, as well as Ghostbusters’ cowriter Harold Ramis and Bill Murray, the biggest name from the GB franchise.
National Lampoon’s first foray into cinema was the enormously successful Animal House (1978). Also co-written by Ramis, this mega-hit spurred interest at NatLamp’s head office in making more movies. Leonard Mogel, publishing partner with Animal House producer Matty Simmons, wanted to get into the movie biz and began putting together a team to make a film based on the sophisticated monthly cartoon magazine he published, Heavy Metal (a sister publication of the Lampoon).
After quitting his post as art director for the magazines, Gross moved his young family to Los Angeles. Within a week he had been tagged to be director Ivan Reitman’s production designer and associate producer on the second take of the Heavy Metal film.
“Len Mogel wanted to do a Heavy Metal movie,” says Gross. “He was a bit jealous of his partner’s success with Animal House. He thought I could translate the magazine into a movie, but it didn’t happen.”
It was at this point Gross took his wife Glenis and their two children to L.A., determined to make movies. Gross had made films when he was a teenager and describes movies as his first love.
“Ivan Reitman said he could get Heavy Metal made and with one phone call to Canada the deal was done. His movies made money,” says Gross. “Len Mogel had told Reitman that I could be useful. So there I was, just one or two weeks in California, and I was already working on a movie.”
Unfortunately, says Gross, “Mogel said he would get the rights to the Heavy Metal stories. We were already storyboarding and we found out he didn’t have the rights.”
Of course, the legal wrangling was got through and the movie made at a cost of about US$9.3 million and much personal upset to Gross: “My first film. We had a lot of fun, but I was vomiting almost daily.” Despite Gross’s emotional toll, Heavy Metal remains a classic of animation and a hell of a good time.
Following this, Gross worked on the hilarious SCTV series in Edmonton — “the armpit of the Western Hemisphere” — and received an Emmy nomination. To say that SCTV was made on a shoestring budget would be charitable. Says Gross: “One time we needed to create a bit of animation, but we had no animation paint. I had to use latex house paint.”
When Ivan Reitman was putting together the crew to make the Dan Aykroyd-Harold Ramis Ghostbusters script, Gross was his first choice.
“I was told, ‘You handle all the effects and all the creatures.’ I was way, way, way over my head. But you should always go in over your head. You learn by fire and — when you come out — now you’re an expert.
“I was essentially the art director on Ghostbusters. I was in charge of special effects and the creation of the ghosts. I was Ivan Reitman’s eyes and [fellow associate producer] Joe Medjuck was his ears.
“We knew Ghostbusters was going to be big. We knew we had a hit while we were making the movie. We didn’t know we had a phenomenon. We just didn’t know that, that this movie would impact people’s lives.
“We didn’t know the kids would like it. It is like that generation’s Wizard of Oz. That’s been wonderful for me. I designed the Ghostbusters logo; I should have it tattooed on me! But you can’t create an icon. It either happens or it doesn’t happen, for a lot of reasons.”
As for the hugely successful sequel, 1989’s Ghostbusters II, Gross says, “Two is better than people give it credit. I worked on the cartoon series in-between. I was a bit melancholy making Ghostbusters II and, in retrospect, I think nobody would have done it [if we hadn't already committed to it].”
Even before the untimely death of writer and costar Harold Ramis earlier this year, Gross said, “Don’t believe the rumours of Ghostbusters III. Danny [Aykroyd] is enthusiastic, but he’s about the only one. I had more fun making other movies, such as Kindergarten Cop and Beethoven.”
Gross made eleven films altogether, naming Twins (1988, with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito) and Dave (1993, with Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver) his personal favourites. Both movies were directed by Ivan Reitman.
“Twins was the most fun I had making movies,” says Gross. “Arnold was great, Danny was great.
“Which of those 11 pictures would I stand behind? Ghostbusters, Twins, Kindergarten Cop, Dave and Heavy Metal.”
Least favourite was the 1986 feature Legal Eagles. “That one almost killed me,” he says.
“I’ve been out of the business for 19 years. I live on the beach in California and paint. For the anniversary, I want my Italian Ghostbuster friends to fly me to Italy and Paris. The plan is to do two screenings in California, too. I intend to milk it as far as I can.
“I can’t take Ghostbusters for granted,” says Gross. “How grateful am I that I was able to do this, to touch so many people.
“One time, I was sitting in a bar with a friend, just having a conversation, 20 years ago. A stranger says, ‘Excuse me, can I buy your drink for you? You made Ghostbusters and I just want to thank you. I never had the opportunity to thank someone who created a moment in my life that made me so happy.’
“That is the most satisfying thing, to have contributed to the happiness of a million people — millions of people.”/JE