Last September, Sony Pictures invited me to go to the set of Ghostbusters, Paul Feig's reboot of the original Ghostbusters. I was and am very excited for Ghostbusters, so I took them up on it. The studio offered to pay for my accommodation while in Boston, but I declined and booked a hotel through my employer so as to maintain journalistic integrity.
Integrity is important, but frequently ignored in entertainment journalism when the delicious carrot of access and celebrity encounters is dangled in front of you. A set visit is a very common bargaining chip with studios, a special opportunity that is offered to a limited group of outlets in exchange for coverage of the film in question. Like I said, I was and still am very excited for Ghostbusters so I didn't feel dishonest in my interest in this opportunity.
Blistex, Percocet, and Dej Loaf
I took an Acela train to Boston out of Penn Station at like, 7 in the morning. The Acela train is so nice! It was definitely the fanciest train I'd ever been on. Adding to my level of comfort: I just had one of my wisdom teeth removed a couple days before the trip, so I had a mouth full of gauze and was cruising on a steady Percocet high. I don't remember much about the trip, except for listening to Dej Loaf's catalog on Spotify and dabbing my lips with Blistex because they were getting chapped from all the mouth breathing. I felt pretty good. I don't remember when we got into Boston, but I managed to figure out the metro situation and took a train to my hotel which was off Copley Square, apparently a landmark in Boston.
I still feel like a weird foreigner when I visit many cities on the East Coast. I had been to Boston before, but not since 2005 when I had to come out for orientation as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer. I visited my ex-boyfriend at MIT, ate at Pizzeria Regina, and made out with a fellow AmeriCorps recruit on a bus stop bench by UMass. That's all I got for Boston. This time, I was there on the eve of the opening game of the NFL season, and the air was thick with Deflategate angst. It boggles the mind that the same city that's home to MIT and Harvard and Cheers could also be home to so many Tom Brady fans, but I suppose there are similar paradoxes in Los Angeles, my spiritual home.
I dumped my stuff in my room, which had carpeting that was (unintentionally?) a beige version of the hallway floor in The Shining. I had brought a carton of butternut squash soup so I'd have something to eat in a pinch, and I took several gulps of it for nourishment (cold!) before heading down to meet the publicists and journalists in the lobby so we could catch our shuttle to the set of Ghostbusters.
The weather forecast had predicted rain, and sure enough, as we drove to a remote suburb where the sound stage was, it started to pour. I feigned some conversation with my fellow journalists during the drive, but due to my slurred and gauzy nature every exchange had to start with, "Sorry, I just got my wisdom teeth out," which impressed most of them. They could not believe I was going out for a set visit while recovering from such an ordeal; I shrugged nonchalantly, playing the grizzled trooper. I kind of knew from the get-go that I was not going to make any friends here — I was not there to make friends.
The set we were visiting was in an aircraft hangar repurposed as a massive soundstage. When we finally arrived it was absolutely pouring, and those of us with umbrellas (including me, I had checked the weather!) dashed across the trailer-filled lot into the shelter of the stage while PAs tried to figure out how to ferry everyone else in a civilized fashion. We were outfitted with badges, to indicate that we were journalists who were there to cover this Ghostbusters set visit in a professional and enthusiastic manner. Once everyone was in we were shown to a row of folding chairs and told to wait.
The hangar / soundstage felt even bigger once we were inside. It was being used to shoot all the green screen scenes, and today they were shooting a climactic Times Square fight scene, which can be seen in trailers for the film. It should be noted that the Ghostbusters film takes place in New York City, but was shot on location in Boston and in nearby stages like this one. It seems odd — why not just set it in Boston, home of many kooky professors and ghosts? But I suppose New York City is one of the indispensable ingredients in the Ghostbusters cocktail. I never got a chance to ask anyone about this.
The place where they sat us down had to be 50 feet from the actual set. We were separated from the action by rows of video villages and camera crew stations and a special VIP section where embattled Sony exec Amy Pascal held court. We could see stars Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, and Melissa McCarthy mime their action shots, but they were so far away I could have covered each of them up with a pinky nail from where I sat. We were given instructions not to stray from our designated corral, unless it was to go out to craft services, where there were English muffins and Red Vines and other things I couldn't eat.
We had to wait a lot, so there were many times when I got up and went to crafty just to make sure I hadn't overlooked some soft snack that I could mash up with my crippled mouth.
One by one, crew members were ushered out to sit down with us. We talked to a prop designer and costume designer. Co-writer Katie Dippold was the first above-the-line filmmaker we talked to, and she was very kind and forthcoming. She told us about the basic plot of the film and the origins of the characters (plot details that are by now available on the internet). She talks about the varying levels of expectation around the film, how there is still a contingent of internet troll who thinks the female Ghostbusters will be stumbling around on high heels, which is of course not the case. When it was my turn to ask a question, I asked about her experience writing with and for Melissa McCarthy, who has become such a creative force in the films she stars in. "She's really smart, and all of the actresses look at the big picture, rather than just themselves, which is really great, because they all love Ghostbusters."
It's my fault for asking such a vague question, but I swear I had specific intent with it. I imagine that writing for a comedic force such as McCarthy is a very different ball game as opposed to writing for a TBD comic actress; there are things that will be funnier because they are performed by McCarthy as opposed to anyone else. It's also not Dippold's fault for giving such a vague answer; this is an incredibly weird environment to talk about the highly scrutinized thing you've been working on for the past year, surrounded by strangers with outstretched iPhones. Several times throughout the roundtable she looks to the publicist standing over her shoulder before giving an answer. "I ask them questions every day about my life, as well," she jokes, after trying to determine what she can say about the film's villain. (His name is Rowan, but don't hold me to that spelling.)
The roundtable interview format is strangely dehumanizing. Rather than establishing a rapport with your subject, the Q&A is reduced to a bunch of Type-As of varying aptitude fighting for time to impress an authority figure. Your questions are not only for the subject, they are for the flock of peers around you, to prove that you can ask more meaningful and effective questions than they can. The subject, meanwhile, will never see you as more than an intrusive leech interrupting their workday with some studio-mandated hullaballoo.
After Dippold, we get Kate McKinnon, who I have a fully public and very sincere crush on. I have to think about my question carefully; it needs to be something that both gets a useful answer out of her and makes her want to be my best friend. I wait and let my peers take the floor for a few minutes. The group's initial questions for her revolve around costumes and gadgets. "You can't imagine the gadgets," she says when someone asks her about the gadgets. The AD calls for quiet on the set for an action shot involving Kristen Wiig on a wired harness, and McKinnon shouts "YAS, KRISTEN!" when they call cut. I feel my heart swell. I ask her about doing action scenes for the first time. "I'm a comedian, and I don't think of myself as someone with a cool body who can do stuff," she says. I laugh. She laughs. We all laugh. I want to follow up with a cool joke about a comedian workout plan that will surely make her love me forever, but then another journalist asks her about what she likes about her fellow cast members.
Kate leaves and the room gets a little colder. I grab another seltzer water from crafty. I start to plot about how I might get more time with her — a profile! A Kate McKinnon profile! A day with Kate McKinnon, on the eve of her debut as a major motion picture star! The competitive vibe of the roundtable has sent me into a full-fledged delusional mania. Also, I am very bored.
I'm a general fan of pretty much everyone
Leslie Jones is next. I love her, too. I'm a general fan of pretty much everyone we talk to that day. The interview quickly turns to the physical, as well — she says she's lost 27 pounds during filming. "I take a lot of epsom salt baths, I get a lot of massages," she says. My mind starts to wander into a germ of a thought about physical upkeep for different kinds of female performers; actors, dancers, models — how they ready their bodies for the job they are paid to do. This is too abstract a line of inquiry to pursue in this setting, so I banish it. There's a lot of laughter during her interview, mostly because Jones is such a gregarious personality to be in the presence of. She tells us that her character, Patty, is meant to be the audience surrogate: "She's the normal person that comes into the situation." Someone dares to ask if she's seen the original Ghostbusters (come on!) and which character she identified with, and she picks Sigourney Weaver. "Even when she was possessed, she was beautiful," she says. Solid. Everyone feels happy by the time Jones is ushered back to set.
After a few rounds, especially with the actors, it starts to feel like we journalists are children at a kiddy table at Thanksgiving: distant relatives who don't really know each other, all eating in silence waiting for the next Cool Adult to swing by and make us feel relevant and vital. I hate this feeling. Interviewing people is one of the rare things I actually feel good at, after years of it being the most excruciating aspect of my profession. I like to sit with a person and have a chat; the objectives of a journalist-artist exchange are so much easier to navigate than most any other human interaction. Here, I am overly aware of being fed entertaining communal tidbits to be dispersed across the varying outlets my peers work for. I keep craning my neck toward the set, trying to get a sense of any kind of scene, but it's still just green screens and harnesses.
Paul Feig is the last person to visit our weird little losers corner. I've interviewed him before, but I would hardly expect him to remember our conversation. Paul Feig is a real sweetheart, and he's been dealing with a lot of nasty shit on Twitter in a pretty valiant, head-on way. I could talk to him for an hour about his run-in with the underbelly of the internet en route to making what, for all intents and purposes, seems like a really fun and affectionately made film. But I only get one question. So I ask him why he bothers responding to trolls (something he's been doing a lot of around the time of this interview). "It's the same thing that the women went through with Gamergate," he says. "They were just getting hammered, and everyone says ‘Well, why don't you just go offline?' But it's like getting chased out of your neighborhood ... I love the internet. I think it's the greatest tool we've ever had. I can communicate with people, I can get what people are feeling, whether it's negative or positive. And so, no, I don't want to get chased off the internet. I've never blocked anybody. And there are some people I'd love to block."
Ten follow-up questions spring into my mind. Surely Feig is not subject to the specific, direct, vile physical and sexual threats that women who find themselves targets of Gamergate are. The vitriol against his film may be misogynistic, but the vitriol against him personally cannot be of the same nature as that against his female leads. It's a dicey position to be in, a white male filmmaker standing against a tide of uniquely contemporary white male anger while you're just trying to make a fun comedy with ghosts in it. But of course, I can't follow up.
We're stuck in traffic for a long time on the ride back to Boston, and I spend most of it thinking about how on earth I'm going to make this into a piece. I've gotten a lot of nice quotes, but I've seen nothing. I have to have more time, I think stubbornly. When we get back to the hotel I flag down one of the publicists and float the idea of getting more time with either McKinnon or Feig to do a really fleshed out, personality-driven feature. I probably use the words "personality-driven" in my pitch. I'm a tool. No, literally, I am a tool. The publicist tells me to follow up that week.
I eat dinner at a sports bar off Copley Square so I can watch the Steelers vs. Pats game. I order salmon and mashed potatoes and text my boyfriend. I'm excited about Ghostbusters, I tell him. I get inordinately drunk off of a single beer and slump back to my hotel before halftime. Why is football on so late on the East Coast? I turn the game on on the TV in my room and take a shower and collapse on the bed. At some point in the fourth quarter I wake up and turn off the TV. I head back to New York in the morning, on that beautiful Acela train.
Between September and March, I follow up numerous times, as instructed. It becomes clear after a few exchanges that further interviews just aren't in the cards, they've been promised to other outlets with more recognizable readership. We get an exclusive on the trailer, which is nice and gets us a lot of traffic, but doesn't translate into any further time with Feig or Dippold.
That's fine. This happens all the time. You can only be a pestering pill so many times before accepting your lowly station in the entertainment journalism food chain. Still, I'm told, the embargo for a piece about the set visit is on April 28, so I had better get ready to publish at the same time as the 15 other journalists who went on the exact same visit and saw the exact same sliver of green screen and heard the exact same answers to the exact same questions.
So I wrote a piece about the time I went to the Ghostbusters set in September. I was excited about Ghostbusters, I am still excited about Ghostbusters. I hope this article has made you excited, too.