Who You Gonna Call?

GB1_TerrorDogCrewHiRes_1_1_15 // by Ron P. Whittington

The refrain “Who you gonna call?” is still heard on Mike Shad car commercials and has been a traditional go-to phrase in any sitcom where ghosts are involved. Thirty years after its release, it’s safe to say the sci-fi comedy Ghostbusters had an indelible impact on pop culture.

Jacksonville native Tim Lawrence, who ventured to Hollywood and had a successful career in the special effects industry for several decades, didn’t know he would be part of movie history when he got the opportunity to work on the film.

“We were all thrilled at the time,” Lawrence says. “We got to work with the Ghostbusters themselves, so it was fantastic. Also, I was getting to design the ghosts, wear a ghost costume I actually designed and fly around on wires.”

Born and reared in Jacksonville, Lawrence says movies such as King Kong and Godzilla captured his imagination as a kid and he began making characters and puppets “at home with found materials like paper sacks and cardboard.” He eventually met other kids with the same interests and formed what he calls a “rubber monster band.”

“We were creating monster suits, costumes, puppets and experimenting with stop-motion animation, doing shows at the old Alexander Brest Planetarium and things like that,” he says. “Many of the people in our original group are still working in Hollywood.”

Lawrence says it was in 1976, while attending a convention in Houston, that he met Rick Baker—a well-known special effects make-up creator in Hollywood who began his career as the lead make-up man on The Exorcist. Baker liked what Lawrence and his friends were doing and gave them his phone number. That chance meeting would lead Lawrence to Hollywood in January 1981. His big break came in the fall of ’83, when he had the opportunity to play a zombie in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video.

“That was one of my first jobs there, and a great thing to be doing when you’re only 24 years old,” he says. The “Thriller” gig led to Ghostbusters.

“They were shooting the movie down in Marina del Ray at a place called Boss Film,” Lawrence says. “I had a friend, Mark Wilson, who was working on the movie. He called to let me know they needed puppeteers, specifically to play the terror dogs on the Temple of Gozer set.” (For those who don’t remember, the temple was an inter-dimensional portal that was causing the increase in ghostly aberrations, with Gozer’s nasty-looking dogs guarding that gate into the netherworld.)

“Mark and I were both inside one of the dogs,” Lawrence says. “It was like climbing into a tree-house because once the dogs were finished they were bolted in place. Mark would climb in first, then I climbed into the hips and handled the light control. We were kind of locked in there while we were shooting.”

Working with the film’s first unit meant Lawrence spent time with most of the major stars in the film. He says one of his fondest memories is of actress Sigourney Weaver, who showed up with Christmas cookies for everyone on the set.

“We were shooting it over the holidays, and I always remember that particular day,” he says. “I also remember one day the big stage door was up and there were five Corvettes parked outside, side-by-side, with different colors—white, black, red, yellow and blue. Ivan Reitman (the movie’s producer) wanted to buy a Corvette, but didn’t have the time to go down to the showroom, so they brought the showroom to him.”

Originally planned by Dan Akyroyd as a project for himself and fellow Saturday Night Live comedian John Belushi, Akyroyd, along with fellow writer/actor Harold Ramis, finalized the screenplay with the major roles going to Belushi and comedian John Candy. However, Belushi died before Ghostbusters went into production and Candy wouldn’t commit to the film, so the writers were forced to change the script. Eventually, Bill Murray would land the lead role as Dr. Peter Venkman.

When the movie was released in the United States on June 8, 1984, it was a critical and commercial success—grossing $242 million in the U.S. and more than $295 million worldwide. Elated with its box office power, Paramount Studios urged the writers to come up with a sequel.

“My phone rang in September 1988 and it was Dennis Muren with Lucasfilm Industrial Light and Magic, who had won about nine Academy Awards for special effects, and we had worked together on Howard the Duck and Caddyshack II,” Lawrence says. “Muren wanted to know if I would run the creature shop for the Ghostbusters sequel and asked if he could send me the script. I said ‘sure,’ and five minutes later there was a knock at my door. He already had a bike courier on the way when he made the call.”

While Ghostbusters II didn’t receive nearly the critical success of the first film—grossing less than half ($112.4 million) of its predecessor in the U.S.—it still did well at the box office. The second film also gave Lawrence the distinction of being the only person to play a ghost in both Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II—performing in costume as Nunzio Scoleri in the sequel.

Lawrence went on to work on many other notable fantasy, science fiction and animated movies from Beetlejuice and Aliens to Shrek II.

He returned to Jacksonville periodically in the late 1990s to help out his ailing parents, eventually moving back permanently a few years ago. But he remains busy in his trade. Lawrence currently oversees a program at the Jacksonville Zoo called “Conservation Arts” and still makes appearances at various sci-fi conventions.

As for Ghostbusters, Lawrence admits he hasn’t seen the movie in a long time—but he always likes it when he does.

“There are parts that, when I see it now, I say ‘We could have done that better,’” he says. “But it was done very quickly…about six months from start to finish. I was looking at the call sheet the other day and there was always something going on. It was like 40-something days of shooting every day. It was quite an experience.”

As for another Ghostbusters movie, actor Bill Murray joked recently in an interview with David Letterman that the studio “always wanted to make another one…because they can’t come up with any good ideas, really.”

“The first one was really great, and the second one was…good,” Murray said. “It was a wonderful bunch of people, but it’s hard to go into that groove again because that first one was so wonderful.”