Hell froze over: Harold Ramis on <I>The Ice Harvest

Writer/director/actor Harold Ramis' newest film, The Ice Harvest, is the blackest of black comedies. Though there are occasional echoes in the film of his earlier blockbusters– Animal House, Caddyshack, Analyze This– those films were all relatively light.

"The film's rough," is how Ramis, 60, describes The Ice Harvest, which screened October 29 at the Virginia Film Festival. "I live in the suburbs. And I keep telling my suburban neighbors 'Don't bring the kids.'"

"It won't be a big hit for children," agrees Festival moviegoer Marilyn Wright, "but it's a great Christmas movie for warped adults."

Set in Wichita on an exceptionally grim Christmas Eve, Ramis' film charts a mob lawyer's (John Cusack) descent into an ever-widening quagmire of inebriation, embezzlement, strip clubs, and murder.

With this latest work, Ramis has tapped into something bleak, grotesque, and restless in his own nature. "I have a dark soul," he says, sighing heavily. The film sprang from "The dark of side of me, the side that wrestles with ambiguity, and uncertainty, and suffering.

"I've always appreciated emotionally difficult films, and films that show a darker view of the world," he says. But in an industry where pigeon-holing is de rigueur, "No one had ever thought of me to do one," he says.

The film's title refers to Cusack's character's existential dilemma. "Metaphorically," Ramis explains, "it's cold out there when you're living in the existential void... And you harvest ice, literally."

The film's script was co-authored by Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Russo (Empire Falls) and Academy Award-winning screenwriter Robert Benton. By the time it reached Ramis' desk, he was an avid reader of Russo's novels.

"It said a lot about character," Ramis beams. "It said a lot about the moral climate of America, in a way– at least parts of it, or individual people. And it seemed like it had really strong entertainment possibilities."

As will be very apparent to audiences, the script's humor is "ironically funny," Ramis says, "because it's so dark," not because of any "set-up gags."

To heighten The Ice Harvest's mood of moral disillusionment, Ramis drew on the "visual cues" and "pace" of Hollywood's great films noirs. This homage, of sorts, is most apparent in the visual treatment of the film's central femme fatale, played by Connie Nielsen.

To give the film its consistently scuzzy feel, Ramis and production designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein studied everything from '50s Italian movie posters, news photographer Weegee's bleak urban photography, and certain especially seedy films (including John Huston's Fat City)– searching in the last for what Ramis calls "really cool downbeat bar lighting."

A visual "ice" motif dominates the film, in everything from a trunk's steel frame, to interior d├ęcor, all the way down to a frigid white Christmas tree.

The cryptic phrase "As Wichita Falls, so falls Wichita Falls" dots the film. When it crops up, Ramis' somewhat somber mood dissolves into hearty amusement.

"I'll tell you who wrestled with that," Ramis says. "We showed it at the Deauville Festival in France, and the French translator said [in a French accent], 'Does this mean that events in Wichita, Kansas, have a profound effect on the city of Wichita Falls, Texas?'

"I said, 'I don't think it's that specific.'"

As to the phrase's actual meaning, Ramis explains, "Rhythmically, it reminds me of 'As Maine goes, so goes the nation.' The events in the film, or the events in Wichita, are representative of everywhere.

"But, more importantly, I take it to mean, in the Buddhist conception of cause and effect, that everything we do here has an effect somewhere else."

Though the film features almost no remotely virtuous characters, Ramis says that he wasn't bent on repudiating personal values, but reassessing them.

"In my own life," the director says, "I very strongly believe it does matter how you live your life. And in a world where meaning is not given to us, even if you believe in God, I don't think God's intention is clear here...

"So, it's clearly up to us to chart our own moral and ethical course in the world... To create our own values, and try to live by them."

Harold Ramis popped by Charlottesville for screenings of Groundhog Day and his new movie,
The Ice Harvest, and parties down with Miss Virginia.