If I told you the most successful film director in the world was named Ivan, you'd say "Huh?"
Well, get ready to "Huh," hon.
Ivan Reitman, whose "Dave" opens today in about a jillion theaters to glowing reviews and long lines, has very quietly become, if not the No. 1 director in the world, certainly the No. 1 comedy director. His movies have been sublimely successful: "Ghostbusters," still one of the highest-grossing comedies in the world; its sequel, which only made more than $100 million in domestic release; as well as "Twins," "Kindergarten Cop" and on back to two films that made Bill Murray a huge star: "Stripes" and "Meatballs."
His films have earned $2 billion and he's directed the largest number of consecutive box-office hits of any director during the past 10 years.
Not bad for a quiet 46-year-old Canadian who modestly says, "I like to think that I recognize things that are funny."
If Reitman has been slow to swim toward recognition, that's partially because he's been a low-profile kind of guy by preference, working with big stars and letting them do the interviews; but it's also partially because he began as a producer, and producers who become directors are invariably looked upon as money men with ego problems, who, having made their millions, insist on being the ones who say, "Action."
But Reitman's super-successful production career -- the legendary "National Lampoon's Animal House" was his first mega-hit -- was strictly a detour.
"I think in the beginning I was frightened off my original ambition to direct by the lack of a film school credential. I had a bachelor of music. What did I know?"
He knew enough to ally himself early on with David Cronenberg, another young Canadian, and the two of them made a series of extremely provocative low-budget horror films -- "They Came From Within," "Scanners," "Rabid" -- which combined Reitman's management skills with Cronenberg's dark vision.
"But it was his vision," says Reitman, recalling a set of movies in which heads exploded, and parasitic snakes exploded out of women's arms to attack their faces -- "and it came out of his extraordinary mind. It didn't reflect my point of view. I'm much more optimistic. I wanted to get back to comedy and back to directing."
Reitman took a strange, but in retrospect brilliant, course toward Hollywood. He got to New York by producing the hugely successful Doug Henning Broadway production "The Magic Show," which sited him to connect with a new generation of comic talent coming of age in an off-Broadway production called "National Lampoon's Lemmings," which was an offshoot of "National Lampoon's Radio Hour," which was an offshoot of National Lampoon Magazine, which was itself an offshoot of the Harvard Lampoon.
Among the young performers he met were John Belushi and Chevy Chase, and he became reacquainted with Dan Aykroyd, whom he'd produced on a Toronto television show.
Thus he produced the film "National Lampoon's Animal House" which, following the success of the young "Saturday Night Live," made those performers the voice of a generation. He consolidated with the Murray films.
Yet for all his success, Reitman is low-energy, quiet -- not a dominating jokester, a quip-a-minute yuckster. In fact, he's not really very funny at all, being much more reflective and modest.
"I always look for what's humorous about everyday events. I think I hunt it out in my films. People who know me recognize my quiet, dry humor but it's more a question of knowing what is funny rather than being funny. If I hear a line 15 times over 15 different takes, I know which one is the funny one."
He admits that the premise of ''Dave'' -- regular-guy look-alike takes over for the president of the United States -- isn't exactly the most original thing going.
"It's not an original story. It goes as far back as Shakespeare. But this script contemporized the concept in a nice way."
He says that the film simply reflects his own growing interest in politics, but that he deliberately kept party lines blurred.
"We represented 'both ends.' I didn't think it was the place of the movie to get into dialectics. This is a character-based comedy, not a position paper. Of course I didn't want it to be bland. Its strongest message is responsibility. We can't just be cynical about politics. We've got to be involved."
He has been and he will be compared to the great Frank Capra, whose Depression-era populist comedies -- "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" "Meet John Doe" -- represented a fanfare for the common man.
"We have the theme in common," Reitman says, "the idea of a regular guy placed in a large, faceless institution, where his decency allows him to do well, whether it's Bill Murray in the Army or Arnold in kindergarten or the three ghostbusters. If you make those films you're bound to be compared to Capra. But the funny thing is . . . I'm not a big Capra fan."