With a veritable who’s who of comedy gracing its cast, Ivan Reitman’s version of Army training has a few moments of truth and a lot of fun, wishful thinking. What he does get right is the need for humor and the coming together of a group of vastly different people, thrown into a disarming situation. There’s a John Winger in every platoon and the rest of the soldiers are usually thankful for him. Throw in John Larroquette, John Candy and Warren Oates, mud wrestling and a couple of topless women, and you’ve got yourself one of the funniest, silliest comedies to ever drolly go behind the scenes of military life.
1. Director Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters, Meatballs, Twins, Kindergarten Cop, Six Days, Seven Nights, My Super Ex-Girlfriend) says people always tell him that this is their favorite movie of his. In what may be my favorite commentary tidbit ever, Writer Dan Goldberg (Meatballs, Heavy Metal, Feds) recalled Reitman coming up to him at the Meatballs premiere and saying, “I have an idea for a movie: Cheech and Chong join the Army.” Lenny (Co-writer Len Blum [Private Parts, The Pink Panther—2006]) and Dan said, “That’s a great idea” and for the next year they wrote Cheech and Chong Join the Army, though they never spoke to either Marin or Chong. The group (Reitman, Goldberg and Blum) figured there would be no problem talking to the comedy duo who had just done Up in Smoke. Movie studio Paramount “thought it was a good idea.” The movie ended up being distributed by Columbia Pictures instead, without Cheech and Chong (Reitman didn’t go into details about why Marin and Chong were out, but some sources say that the duo’s manager demanded too much control and/or money). The writers ended up taking out all the dope humor and the script became “smarter.”
2. The production got permission from the Army to use their commercial and Reitman is “still amazed” they were allowed to shoot at Fort Knox and given assistance. The director said he’s made a lot of films and tried with much more innocent movies to get the Department of Defense to help, but that never happened again. Goldberg noted that Private Benjamin was shooting at the same time and they were not given DoD approval and had to film in “strange locations in California.” They had a couple of Army guys who followed them around all the time and made sure insignias and room decorations were correct; one of them had a line and a lot of characters are soldiers from open auditions held at Fort Knox.
3. Stripes was the third time Reitman worked with Bill Murray, whom he calls “the funniest white man in America.” The two were together during “The National Lampoon Radio Hour,” which also featured John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, Harold Ramis, Christopher Guest and Joe Flaherty.
4. Murray agreed to do the film two weeks before shooting began and showed up on the third day of shooting; Reitman said, “We were hoping he’d show up. He was following a baseball team (around the country).” The beginning of the film was shot in downtown Louisville and for the opening scene when Winger loads suitcases into his taxi trunk, “Bill insisted we load up the bags (suitcases) really heavy so he could act properly.” Reitman laughed over spending a lot of time trying to determine exactly how much weight should be in the bags. The film was largely improvised; in this first scene when he loaded the suitcases Murray actually did hit himself in the cojones, so his line “Oh my balls” was very real. Reitman called Murray a very good driver, so the taxi scenes were not filmed with a tow truck, rather with a camera mounted on the hood and Murray driving.
Reitman on Murray: “Bill and lines—he has wonderful way of spinning whatever you’ve written. It’s not all off the top, he’s a writer too and he thinks of things and writes things in between takes. You end up with very original and wonderful twists on a comic character. Bill trying to be sincere was very tough in these kinds of movies. So much of what makes him funny is irony and standing somewhat outside of his own character and scene to give comment on his character. So to get him to stand back and be sincere was difficult for him. Underneath the irony is true sincerity.”
5. Just coming off his first year on “Saturday Night Live,” Murray was looking to do a movie, but he also felt guilty that his friend Harold Ramis (Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, As Good As It Gets) hadn’t gotten onto “SNL.” Murray would only agree to do the film with Ramis as his co-star. Reitman remarked that the two guys are really good friends and have wonderful rapport, you believe they are friends because they are. It comes from all the (improv) comedy they’ve done together.
6. A fairly new director, Reitman discussed all the extra footage that was shot (you can catch a lot of great deleted scenes on the DVD) and said he learned an important lesson: a little goes a long way. Meeting Winger and Ziskey (Murray and Ramis), there were “pages and pages” of script for before they guys joined the Army. What they realized was that the audience would get the characters pretty quickly; get the characters in the military sooner because that’s when the film really begins. They were really worried that no one would believe these guys would join the Army, so a lot of time was spent selling the conceit. The apartment scene was cut in half, then later cut back in (for the extended DVD version). The film was shot for about $10 million in 1981, “a fairly moderate budget for a film with a war at the end.”
7. Stripes was Judge Reinhold’s (Running Scared, Gremlins, Beverly Hills Cop) first film. His character, Elmo Blum, inherited all the Cheech and Chong doper jokes from the original script. This was also the first film for John Larroquette (Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, “Night Court, The John Larroquette Show, The Practice, Chuck”), Sean Young (Blade Runner, No Way Out, Wall Street) and it was (according to Reitman), John Candy’s first American film (but he had already done The Blues Brothers). The Rick Moranis (Louis Tully) role in Ghostbusters was actually written for John Candy, but the actor refused to play the role straight—he wanted to do it as a “weird German guy with a lot of dogs.” Reitman thought there was too much going on already (in Ghostbusters) but he always wanted to work with Candy again.
8. Actor John Diehl’s (Vacation, Almost Dead, Nixon) character Cruiser was meant to be the dumbest guy. Reitman said Diehl is a method actor and that he “actually made himself stupid.” Diehl apologized to Reitman after the film, saying “I don’t know what happened, I was just there.”
9. They had “a very hard time finding two women who would agree to be in the movie. Amazingly, Kim Basinger was going to do the P.J. Soles role, but her agent wanted $200,000 and they didn’t have that kind of money.” Reitman thinks that in the end, it was good they didn’t use Basinger, because P.J. and Bill had a great thing together. Soles (Carrie, Jawbreaker) had just been in Private Benjamin (with dark hair) so at first they hesitated, but she was “…a terrific partner for Murray.”
10. None of the actors realized their hair would be cut so short. The regulation haircuts were done by actual Army barbers at Fort Knox. Reitman noted that John Candy was really depressed after that day—he was shocked.
11. Stripes was “one of the first films” to use Steadicam (after Bound for Glory, Marathon Man and Rocky. Inventor Garrett Brown, who originally called it the “Brown Stabilizer,” was their operator. Brown has won multiple awards for his invention, including an Oscar and worked on The Shining, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Fame, Xanadu, Blow Out, Reds, Taps, Tootsie, The Muppets Take Manhattan, Birth and The Brothers Grimm. Reitman fell in love with Steadicam when the platoon was running to graduation; there was one take of the sequence—they were out of (filming) time. Reitman said there was so much power in natural running, that it worked great.
12. Reitman said he gets quoted a lot of dialogue from the film and that people quote John Candy’s whole speech. The script “wasn’t very good and Candy was nervous;” he kept re-working it and Ramis gave him a hand. “Candy realized he was going to get a moment and ran with it.”
13. Reitman had “great respect” for Warren Oates’ (Sergeant Hulka) and loved his deadpan reactions and the tension between Hulka and Winger. The director said the pressure Oates could put on the platoon really helped the movie along. “Bill Murray was in awe of him.” The Wild Bunch actor died from a heart attack only a little more than a year after Stripes was released.
14. There was no real script for all the obstacle course stuff, they “just went to the base and found a bunch of stuff to do.” These are Steadicam shots:
Goldberg and Reitman said there was a lot of betting on set; they bet on how many push-ups Bill could do. “He’s very athletic, but not very good at push-ups.
15. Reitman told a story of which he was “most embarrassed.” During the course of the montage, he had some of the characters jump Warren (Oates) and throw him into the mud without first telling Warren. The director thought maybe something funny would happen. Unfortunately, when they did it Oates broke one of his teeth. “He was furious and came up to me and said, ‘Look, I’ve been doing this for a long time, I’m a professional. You want to throw me down—that’s fine, just tell me. But don’t you fucking surprise me.’ He was really, really mad and his tooth hurt for a long time.” Reitman said, “Look Warren, you’re absolutely right. I just thought it would be funny to improvise and I made a terrible mistake.” He apologized every way that he could and Oates finally forgave him. Oates was sent to an Army dentist who fixed him up, but the director admitted, “I still feel guilty about it now when I think about it.” Goldberg to Reitman: “He taught you a good lesson.” Sergeant Hulka was at one point supposed to be killed and replaced by his twin brother, Bob Hulka. They later decided there was no point and so Sergeant Hulka was merely injured by a mortar fire accident and he shows up later with bandages on his hands and face.
16. The extended cut of Stripes restores the long rumored, 7 minute, deleted AWOL (Absent without Leave) scene which features Winger and Ziskey dropping acid, parachute jumping out of an Army plane with a bunch of paratroopers, and landing somewhere in South America. Winger gets stuck hanging from his parachute, upside down (“Bill got really sick and angry.”). The scene was actually filmed on the backlot of the Burbank/Warner Bros. studio and included “every Mexican actor hanging out at the place.” Reitman said it was the studio’s favorite scene, but that they could never figure out where to put it. The director said, “You end up in the same place with the characters when the scene is done, so we didn’t need it. Tonally, it didn’t fit.” Goldberg thought it was amazing that they found it (the deleted footage) and both were glad to have all the deleted scenes available to watch.
17. Casual nudity was included because in the 80s it was “a big thing.” There was also a brief time where mud wrestling was popular, so that was added. (The writers needed an evening sequence with the soldiers going somewhere alone, off-base.) Reitman wanted a segment to feature John Candy; even though Candy wasn’t well known, the director knew he would make a real impact in the film, and wanted to give Candy some “central comedic influence.” Candy didn’t want to rehearse the scene, he just wanted to get in there, and said, “Don’t worry, I’ll be funny.” The mud wrestling was all shot in one day; the girls were real wrestlers and one fighter with real skills. Reitman mentioned that if one watches closely, all the hard stuff is done by one girl—the fighter.
18. There was a “great deal of improv” between PJ and Bill. Reitman wanted a new way to do a romantic scene that honors romance, but stays true to comedy and the tone of a movie like Stripes. He set up the spatula scene by leaving a bunch of props for Bill to play with, put things in the refrigerator, and walked Bill through and gave him a tour of the kitchen. He figured Bill would find the scene through props. PJ just followed along, she had no idea what was going to happen—she was just very positive and had fun. Ramis and Young’s parts were pretty well written, but with PJ and Bill, “there was nothing” (in the script).
Reitman said, “Bill’s favorite thing was to pick up women, carry around and make fun of them, then put them down.”
19. The graduation scene was considered the second act curtain, “they always knew it was coming and saw that as a big moment, the climax of group working together as somewhat well-oiled humorous machine.” The director thought a good Army movie had to have a war. He constructed a war that would occupy the third act story and so, needed a climax to end the first two sections of the movie. The idea of a “crack military drill thing” was always in the script. Reitman said there was no way to fake it. They brought in a Broadway choreographer and rehearsed the group for two weeks. “The guys couldn’t stand having to rehearse during their ‘off-duty time’ on weekends, but Reitman was glad he did it.
General Barnicke was played by “a fine actor,” Robert Wilke, who was at the end of his career and had trouble remembering his lines. Though the complicated routine was done in a short period of time, Wilke’s little dialogue took much longer to film because he had problems. Actor Dennis Quaid was in the graduation audience somewhere. He was there to watch his wife (at the time), P.J. Soles.
20. Reitman noted that even though everything was carefully set up in the first part of the film, the war was a stretch for them. A lot happens quickly; Ziskey is shown with a manual so the audience knows he can operate the EM-50 Urban Assault Vehicle later. The director called it “the cheesiest cheat in the movie” when Ziskey and Winger “borrow” the vehicle, but that they were confident enough at this point to do “basically, what’s an Abbot and Costello routine.” When Captain Stillman (Larroquette) discovers the EM-50 missing, the actor “did once perfectly what you see (Stillman runs through a door), but when they filmed extra scenes, he ran into door, slammed his face and broke his nose.” Because Larroquette really got hurt, the first take was used and the actor had to use make up the rest of film to cover the bruise.
Reitman said he “was almost embarrassed by the simplicity and goofiness of their storytelling at the end, but the audience just wants to see them go kick ass.” He wanted to use Joe Flaherty (who he knew from SCTV), and asked someone to get Joe. Dan Goldberg went the actor’s hotel room the night before to go over the Border Guard part, and it was a different Joe Flaherty. Dan called the right Joe and was able to get him in time—the wrong Joe was givine a different, small part. Reitman commented that the two guards were so funny they just kept looking for ways to put them in.
The film was made before CGI, so there were lots of actors, stunt people, vehicles and explosions. Their low tech methods included someone on the roof pushing down the metal window protectors on the EM-50. They got “the guy who did Escape from Alcatraz with Clint Eastwood to do the missile that shot the guy in the tower.” They had a “supergun” but no one gets killed, and a driver actually had to navigate the EM-50 with a periscope. The finale was shot with pyrotechnics all in two days.
Cindy Davis wouldn’t mind being in Bill Murray’s platoon.