Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman talks VR, storytelling, and tickling ghosts

At the opening of Ghostbusters' first virtual reality experience

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At the opening of the Ghostbusters: Dimension virtual reality experience in Times Square today, we got a chance to sit down with Ivan Reitman, the producer and director behind the original Ghostbusters film, and a Hollywood legend. Reitman worked with Utah startup The Void as it developed its VR companion to the upcoming reboot, and we got the chance to chat with him about emotional storytelling, technology, tickling digital ghosts, and bringing pornography to high-end virtual reality. Below is a transcript of our conversation, condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

I'm just curious to hear what you thought of Ghostbusters: Dimension and how you think it pairs with a film or a story.

Ivan Reitman: I first went through it about two months ago in Utah, where they designed this. They showed me a more completed [experience, Curse of the Serpent's Eye.] It was really spectacular as well, an Indiana Jones kind of jungle experience. You’re walking in a room about this size, and you think the vistas go on forever. I can feel my heart pounding, and there were so many interactive things that were so cool, and it was so beautiful actually. I just thought — "Oh, they can do this?"

The Ghostbusters thing wasn’t as finished as this, but I could see how Ghostbusters was kind of a perfect idea to develop this for. Most people, especially here at this particular venue — this will be the first time they’ve ever experienced virtual reality. And you just want to stand still and go, where am I and what am I seeing?

I’m really happy with the way it turned out. To me this is a whole new way of telling stories, and I’m really curious to see how you blend this unique, experiential event with something that could be even more emotional. For me, as a lifelong storyteller, it’s the way people must have felt in 1908 — or whatever date that was when they first started regular movies.

The guys from The Void keep saying, this is like when you first got a cell phone that was really cool — but you had a little suitcase there for the battery, you had another thing that you had to hoist that weighed 18 pounds, and the battery would die and you’d lose the call after 30 seconds. When you think about what we’re all carrying around now, it’s just going to happen really fast.

slimer hologram

I was fascinated to learn that there were multiple paths we could have taken. I assumed that it was one storyline with some options to move that way or shoot this way. But knowing there could’ve been another room or ending was really interesting to me.

It’s sort of similar to [interactive theater Sleep No More], except it’s much more fantastical, because anything can happen. It’s pretty amazing when you’re looking over a big Manhattan street and you’re 40 stories up, and you’re looking down and there’s no guardrail there, and there’s these things flying around. The first time I saw it, I really felt vertigo. I was with my partner Tom Pollock, who really pushed himself all the way against the back wall and sat down.

Have you done other VR experiences just with a headset? How did that compare?

It doesn’t. It doesn’t even come close. I mean, there are some nice things. One of the first ones I saw was the simplest, and in many ways was remarkably effective. It was these two French-Canadian guys, and all it was, was a loft in SoHo where a guy was playing the piano. The sound was perfect, the light was beautiful, and I felt like "I’m in this loft in New York right now. I can hear the traffic," and you just sat there and listened. That’s all it was. [This is Felix & Paul's Strangers with Patrick Watson.]

Now of course, my storyteller brain takes over. And I go, if I was doing this, [it would be] okay for 30 seconds, but then some attractive woman walking behind started to speak to me, so I’m forced to turn around — so I create the cut by turning my head. And she said "I’ve been waiting for you for three minutes, or ten minutes; when are you going to stop practicing?" Where you suddenly create a drama. You’re literally in the middle of it. I said "Oh, I can start to see how you would do a story that’s not just shooting a gun at stuff."

How do you blend storytelling with game elements?

So we spent a lot of time talking about that. For this, because it was meant — look, it’s meant to push people through here. You can’t work if only one or two people get to see [in a] day, so you can’t have the kind of true game experience that you have alone. But it’s much more... I mean it’s very active, because you’re moving, you’re actually walking, you’re feeling stuff.

But the moments when you didn’t have to shoot something, like being in the elevator, you notice the details and the sensorial effects a lot more.

The first time I did it, I sat in the chair and the ghost came right up to me — like right there — and I immediately tickled it, because I didn’t know what was going to happen. And it didn’t do anything, and I said, "You know, you gotta get it so that if I do this or if somebody does that, this thing is gonna giggle or do something else." Because that’s really one of the first events that you see, and you’re establishing truth right at that moment. If it doesn’t do anything, you move a step away. And they understood, and they got that.

It seems like there are a lot of sort of compromises that have to be made to make this economically feasible. Do you think that’s something we could move away from? Could you have something where you’d just be able to go through it alone?

Well, like all art, particularly film art, it’s expensive. I didn’t think it was that compromised, but yes, I think different kinds of things would be meant to be experienced alone.

People keep talking about pornography as the most obvious sort of next step, it’s always been a sort of technological... pusher [laughs] of things. Just the idea of feeling another human being with you in a sexual situation is such a simple emotional thing to get, and I think that’s why people’s brains go there.

"The idea of feeling another human being with you in a sexual situation is such a simple emotional thing to get."

I think [with Strangers], you could sit there and just experience the beauty of being in that room and listening to that lovely music for quite a long time. But I think it’s reminiscent of the early silent experimental films, where people would just watch people sort of sitting in a chair, or walking, and it was so amazing to see life recreated on the wall, or on a screen, that that was enough. And then after a while it wasn’t enough, you know you needed something that was more, emotionally.

Ivan Reitman Portrait

In a storytelling sense, this is really good for me, because I’ve already seen Ghostbusters. How would you do this when you don’t have another property to lean on?

We have common experiences like a fear of the unknown, the fear of heights, the fear of being in a jungle with creatures that you don’t know, that any storytelling borrows on. But I think a good storyteller could get beyond the kind of more elaborate fantastical parts of [Ghostbusters and Curse of the Serpent's Eye] and actually find real, more human-dimension stories to tell that will be enhanced with this technology.

What’s interesting to me about VR is there's such a wide spectrum of experiences available all at once, and very few people have done any of them. And so, my parents are blown away by Google Cardboard, and, for us, you know...

You’re already tired of that. It’s not crisp enough, there’s not enough resolution, and the storytelling is rather lame. Because it is the first time, the first time you see it, it is magical.

Photography by James Bareham.

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