Nebbish accountant Louis Tully (Rick Moranis) clumsily dashes across Central Park West with a fierce, monstrous animal in hot pursuit, chasing Louis into the pitch-blackness of the park. As he stumbles upon New York’s famed Tavern on the Green, Louis begins banging on the restaurant’s windows, pleading for help. When the beastly Terror Dog catches up with Louis, transforming him into Vinz Clortho, Keymaster of Gozer, the diners in the warmly lit restaurant interior turn back to their meals, in sync with one another, as if nothing out of the ordinary has occurred. To them, Louis is a crazy, disheveled New Yorker, just one of many scampering through Central Park.
There’s no doubt that the attitude of the original Ghostbusters is inherently New York (though you could certainly imagine the scenario at Tavern on the Green playing out that way at certain Los Angeles restaurants). The truth, however, is that only about 35 minutes of what appears onscreen in Ghostbusters was filmed in Manhattan. The remaining 1 hour and 10 minutes of screen time of the beloved movie that asked “Who ya gonna call?” was shot on a Burbank studio lot and at practical downtown L.A. locales, including one of the most famous movie locations of all time: the Ghostbusters firehouse.
Now, before you start thinking, Wait a minute, I’ve visited that firehouse in New York. Yes, you may have stood outside Hook & Ladder 8, that mecca of movie locations on North Moore Street in Lower Manhattan. The interior of the Ghostbusters firehouse, however, is old Fire Station No. 23, a decommissioned firehouse located at 225 E. Fifth St. in downtown Los Angeles.
Built in 1910, seven years after its New York counterpart, Fire Station No. 23 was the subject of some controversy among city officials of the era. Its construction went drastically over budget as imported Italian marble, white oak and Peruvian mahogany were incorporated in the building’s elaborate design. The firehouse, which is today shuttered and undergoing a restoration to become a city-run youth arts center, was called the “Taj Mahal of fire stations” by the L.A. Times, and for decades it was considered the most elegant firehouse west of New York City. Its unique design and historic status earned it a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
With the release of a new Ghostbusters movie upon us, we spoke with the director of the original film, Ivan Reitman, about shooting at Old Fire Station No. 23 and the movie’s various other L.A. locations, the vast differences between filming in New York and Los Angeles during the mid-’80s, and what nervous Ghostbusters fans can expect from this summer’s franchise reboot.
Jared Cowan: For a film that’s considered a New York movie, a majority of what appears onscreen in Ghostbusters was material that was shot in Los Angeles. Was it the plan from the get-go to shoot a lot of the film in L.A.?
Ivan Reitman: Yes. For one thing, we started filming in [New York in] the middle of October of 1983. I knew we were going to run out of [hospitable] weather and that we were going to run into trouble sometime in December. Back in the ’80s they didn’t have the soundstages they have now. So there were things I knew that were going to require space and the kind of infrastructure that only existed, at that time, in Los Angeles, a little bit in London, a little bit in Rome, but particularly in Los Angeles. We were doing so many things mechanically as opposed to digital CGI effects that it really required skillful people, the majority of whom were in [Los Angeles]. … I think we were there [New York] for five weeks, and we got out of there literally just before Christmas. I remember the last couple of days the weather had really turned bad, and I was saying, “Thank God, we’re going to California.”
One of the biggest sets in history was built on the biggest stage on the Columbia lot at that time, which was then the Burbank Studios [now Warner Bros.]. It was one of the tall stages, and we built the rooftop. We had a 360-degree cyclorama painting, which we had to light live. They had to shut down the rest of the studio when we were doing that, because we used up all the power. So there were some amazing things we were able to do, but it was a tribute to, sort of, the kind of can-do aspect of filmmaking in this city and in this state that, I’m afraid to say, is being lost right now as big productions have now moved to London, and to Canada, and to Georgia, and, to a lesser extent, to Louisiana.
At the time you were shooting Ghostbusters, was New York the haven for filmmaking that it is today?
No, not at all. They set up the New York Film Office — it was one of the first of those ideas to sort of try to recruit more filmmaking in the state and in the city. You know, people love New York, it has an extraordinary talent pool, so it made a lot of sense, but it was an extraordinarily expensive place to shoot, particularly back then.
Was it easier shooting on location in L.A. versus New York?
Yes, because you don’t have the density. Although it was more unique in New York; people weren’t quite used to having film crews on the streets as they seemed to be in certain areas of Los Angeles, where, between television and films, it’s been a fixture of shooting now for, you know, a hundred years.
Did Dan Aykroyd’s early drafts of the film set the Ghostbusters headquarters in a firehouse?
Dan Aykroyd had an early draft that was set in outer space and in the future, and they were acting like firemen. There was a description in it that they were performing the duties [of firemen], but they were catching ghosts. That was the concept, and it was really my idea to move it to contemporary New York and [make] a “going into business” story.
After I pitched the story to him and Columbia, the three of us [Reitman, Aykroyd and Harold Ramis] went to Martha’s Vineyard for two or three weeks where we worked day and night, and cranked out that first draft that really became the movie that you know.
What was interesting about the firemen aspect and setting their headquarters in a fire station?
It was metaphorically correct, wasn’t it? I mean, these people are working as a public service, working very much like firemen where they are eliminating a public threat, and so it seemed appropriate. And they’re going to have a vehicle with sirens that they were going to have to get out of and get going very quickly. All of those metaphorical comparisons seemed to be very appropriate.
Locations such as the basement library stacks [Los Angeles Central Library], the Sedgewick Hotel [the Biltmore Hotel] and the fire station interior were all in Los Angeles. Did you look for any of those locations in New York?
Not particularly, no. It was very expensive to shoot there. We were just trying to be as budget-conscious as possible. I mean, the stacks of the library are the stacks of the library. Even though they’re quite particular at the great New York Public Library on 42nd Street, we didn’t think it would be a problem to move that scene [to L.A.]. Where we made use of the great reading room [of the New York Public Library] — and we were always going to film there as soon as I walked through it and was given permission to shoot there — I said, “Well, this is incomparable, so we have to shoot here.” Even though our [Central] library is quite beautiful inside, it’s nothing like that. I thought it was appropriate to do that wonderful scene there [where Venkman and Stantz first meet up with Spengler].
New York’s Hook & Ladder 8 in Tribeca was, and still is, an operating fire station. Did you ever discuss trying to film inside?
We did, actually, but it was clear we couldn’t take it over for a long enough period to do all the interiors. But we did use it. I vaguely remember shooting three or four days, mostly outside. We had to interrupt shooting, I remember, at least once when there was an alarm and we had to clear out of the way as they pulled a fire truck out of there.
Did you find Hook & Ladder 8 in New York before Fire Station No. 23 in L.A.?
Absolutely. We did our first scout in New York and made sure we were ready to film there. We were working so quickly, and while we were shooting in New York I had location scouts looking in Los Angeles to find doubles for the interiors for the places I was filming outside of there [New York].
The Biltmore Hotel clearly was a perfect place to shoot that extraordinary sequence [when the Ghostbusters get their first call]. We did a lot of that stuff live at the Biltmore, including when they were shooting at the walls. We had these phony walls that we could just tag right to the real walls that had built-in pyrotechnic effects to show the results of their shooting. That’s all stuff now that we would add later with CGI, but we did it live.
We did the card catalogue stuff, which is a remarkable scene – that’s all done live and I did it a number of times. I remember bringing my son to the set – I’m talking about the great filmmaker Jason Reitman.[Laughs] I brought him to the set, I think he was about 5 years old – and he was there on the card catalogue day. The effect is so – it’s what you see! … After we did it the first time [Jason] said, “That’s great, Dad. Can you do it again?” [Laughs] Fortunately, I had to do it again, because I wanted to get more angles. There was nothing wrong with the first take; I just wanted to get more coverage. Suddenly, about a dozen of the effects crew jumped on, picked up all those cards, and put them back in place in the card catalogues. And we did it again. I think we ended up doing it three times, and they got really good at reloading.
Was it more critical to find an acceptable firehouse exterior over the interior?
Yes, because at the very worst we could have built it [the interior] on a stage the way we did the rooftop. What’s particularly wonderful about the New York fire station is that it’s in such a good location, there’s nothing around it, and you can get really far back. It’s the uniqueness of the streets that it’s on that I could put a camera way back and get really big, beautiful wide shots that we could add matte paintings to and do all sorts of stuff with.
Was it difficult finding the L.A. firehouse?
No. I think I saw two and this one seemed to be the closest and most effective. I think it was already closed down, so it was really easy to film there. That had a lot going for it right there. We’d have the run of the place, and we could do the scenes and it would be quiet and we could focus on the acting.
Can you describe what you saw and what you thought when you first scouted Fire Station No. 23?
I vaguely remember that someone was using it as an art studio. I can’t remember the artist, but I kind of liked what he was doing. It was kind of scary, and I ended up actually using one of the pieces somewhere. We had to clean it [the firehouse] up. It was kind of junky. We had to paint it; we had to add details. They [the two firehouses] are really quite different-looking inside, but we were able to make the match OK.
The president of the LAFD Historical Society told me that the single-bay design of Fire Station No. 23 is typical of a firehouse you’d find in New York because of the vertical build, but it’s not common for L.A. fire stations. When you saw it, did you feel like you hit the jackpot finding this decommissioned firehouse in L.A. that resembled the New York location?
Yes. I was told that it was quite unusual … that the kind of thing we were looking for is not really what was typical of what was being built in the 1920s for Los Angeles.
Originally, the LAFD Museum, which ended up at old Fire Station No. 27 in Hollywood, was going to be at Fire Station No. 23, but a deterrent was its Skid Row location. What was the neighborhood like when you were doing Ghostbusters?
It was pretty sketchy, as I remember it, but we were inside and we had work to do. We were busy all day long, so I didn’t really feel it. We were having a good time. Making Ghostbusters was really one of the most joyful experiences of my life, and that’s both in New York and in Los Angeles.
What most people didn’t even realize is that on the backlot at the Warner Ranch, we rebuilt the front of Central Park West. You know, the front of Dana’s building. John DeCuir Sr., who was our production designer … he said, “Yeah build it here.” And I remember coming to the set and seeing the front of the building and it was, like, mind-blowing. Our mechanical effects group had a way of making the sidewalks – that whole sidewalk thing, which you could swear was totally in New York, most of it was done in Los Angeles on the backlot there. The combination of the two – because we did it in both places – is pretty seamless, but the gag is really done in Los Angeles. It was a great learning experience for me when we did that, to give me confidence on how to use a set and a location properly.
On the DVD commentary, you mention that when Dan Aykroyd saw the pole in the firehouse he wanted to use it in the movie. Did he scout locations with you or was that just upon visiting for the shoot?
No, when he visited he looked at it and he had this gleam in his eye. I said, “Do you want to slide down it?” He said, “Oh yeah.” [Laughs] But we were doing that every single day on every scene. I very much believe that the last draft is written – well, it’s really written in editing, but one of the final drafts is written on the set while you’re shooting it, so that we use it as a very active, creative opportunity.
Sliding down a fire pole is almost every kid’s dream. Did you guys take turns doing that?
I think I even did it myself, yes. I get very serious on a set because finally it’s my responsibility as a director; so, yeah I think I did, though. I mean, hey, how often do you get to do that in your life?
How much of the fire station interior had to be built out in order to make it look like a working office?
It was mostly furniture and a couple of low dividers, like a railing of some kind. I remember we added that railing and some bookcases and things like that just to give it a kind of definition of an office.
I recently found an archival photo of the inside of Fire Station No. 23 that depicts a handful of firemen with a horse-drawn, steam fire engine. Upon rewatching the movie I noticed the same photograph on the wall above Venkman’s desk. Do you remember that photo?
I don’t. I was worrying about other things. [Laughs] But we had an extraordinarily effective design team, both art directing and production design. So it makes sense that that would be there and they probably took a print of it from right where you found it.
Did you actually shoot on the second floor of the firehouse?
Yes. … The famous Chinese food scene where they get their first call was shot there in Los Angeles on the second floor.
What were your ideas about what the lab equipment in the firehouse should look like?
Well, I love this idea that they’re actually scientists, that they’re smart, and that the kind of stuff that they might be doing would be probable. And at the same time, I didn’t want it to be too fancy and too, kind of, slick [so] that everything that they built, and that it somehow got built in this building, was built the way you’d build sort of a homemade hi-fi set amplifier or other things that had a self-constructed quality — not a slicked-out, machine-honed finish. And the equipment that they had hanging around should reflect that same sensibility.
If you could picture Ghostbusters as an L.A. movie, how would it be different?
I think in terms of the character stuff it wouldn’t have been that different. I think in terms of the dynamics of the city, for example, the mayor’s office and everything that happens after the mayor’s office would feel different. There’s something very Manhattan about those scenes. The chief of police and what those guys look like, and sound like, and talk like, and what the movement of the Ectomobile to Central Park West felt like with the cops surrounding it would feel very different in Los Angeles.
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There’s been some trepidation among Ghostbusters fans about the new movie. As the director of the original and a producer on the new film, what would you say to those fans and what can audiences look forward to?
I think, first of all, they should relax. I can’t wait for them to see it. It’s been frustrating not to be able to show the movie until now. But the movie is magnificent and it’s fun. The four actresses are spectacular and are very much as special together as the Ghostbusters were in my film. … Anybody can be a Ghostbuster has always been my feeling, and I always expected it to be [that way]. In fact, the script that I was going to direct, the third one, really had both men and women in the roles, so it was always going to [happen], and I’m really happy that we’ve got the cast for this.
Special thanks to the Office of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, the Bureau of Engineering of the City of Los Angeles and Robert Chattel of Chattel Inc. Historic Preservation Consultants for the use of Old Fire Station No. 23 interior photos. Additional thanks to Sony Pictures Publicity and the Los Angeles Public Library. Follow Jared on Twitter @JaredCowan1.