If ever there was one rule that any journalist should follow while trying to interview the legendary John Landis, it’s… don’t prepare too many questions and please, PLEASE… let the good man talk! Because obviously, like John Waters or Kevin Smith, John Landis, now 60, is one of the great raconteurs of the movie business and in a perfect world, he should have his own talk show. Loud, ebullient, extremely funny, good humoured, opinionated and talkative but also incredibly insightful and passionate… the man knows and loves movies and has seen a lot of extraordinary things, from the days when he was working as a stuntman in spaghetti westerns to his extraordinary career in comedy AND horror. John Landis jumps from one subject to another, often losing track of the question and getting lost in his love of old monster movies from the fifties or of the westerns…
John Landis was a guest of honor at 2011’s Brussels Fantastic Film Festival where he introduced his latest effort (released in 2010 in most countries), his first film in twelve years, the underwhelming but pleasant Burke & Hare, a british horror comedy in the style of the old Ealing comedies, starring Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis and a bunch of great English character actors.
If Landis’directorial career has seen his fair share of highs (Animal House, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf In London, Trading Places) and lows (Oscar, Beverly Hills Cop 3, Blues Brothers 2000, The Stupids, Susan’s Plan) with some cult and criminally underrated features added for good measure (The Kentucky Fried Movie, Three Amigos!), the lowest point of his career and life was without a doubt in 1982 when on July 23, during the filming of Twilight Zone – The Movie, actor Vic Morrow and two child extras were killed in an accident involving an out of control helicopter. Landis and several crew members were subsequently charged with involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment. After an extended jury trial, Landis and the other crew members were acquitted of the charges and the director’s career quickly recovered, even if the tragedy promptly ended his friendship with co-director / producrer Steven Spielberg. In 1991 Landis was quoted as saying « I live with the « Twilight Zone » every day of my life. »
He’ll always be remembered as the cult director of mega-successes The Blues Brothers and An American Werewolf in London, one of those rare directors who do comedy and horror, sometimes both in the same film! Actually, Landis has only made two horror movies but was still invited to take part in the Masters of Horrors project on television. But for many Michael Jackson fans, John Landis is also the man who directed the greatest and most influential video of all times : 1983’s Thriller, reuniting with Michael a few years later for Black and White.
One of the problems of those grouped interviews (in this case four interviewers from different media) is that there’s never enough time to ask every question you had in mind, to talk about some important subjects, like the loss of John Belushi, the box office failures of some of his latest movies that were mangled by the studios (Blues Brothers 2000), his career as a stuntman, his various collaborations with makeup maestro Rick Baker, his feud with Eddie Murphy, his alternate television career or his next project, an exciting illustrated book about movie monsters. Sometimes you have to endure some lame questions from a colleague you’ve never met before (« What’s your favorite chinese film? ») but with a grouped interview, it’s the name of the game… Anyway, it seems that when you talk to John Landis, there’ll never be enough time to hear the thousand anecdotes that come out of his mouth… especially when the interview begins with our guest insisting on showing one of the cameramen present in the room WHY his camera is not at the right height and explaining him in details that his images will be shit! And so the interview begins with a lecture about how to film an interview with a director and four journalists crammed into a small bus (we won’t bother you with the lecture, we’ll go straight to the interview!) A 35-minutes interview that will regularly be punctuated by a series of very loud bursts of laughter from our legendary guest. Let the fun begin…
For the FRENCH version of the interview, CLICK HERE!
Why did you decide to make Burke & Hare a romantic comedy rather than a horror movie ? It’s the story of two rather despicable people and it could have been made as a straight serious horror flick!
First of all there was this script that I was given and what attracted me to it was exactly that : the concept of making a romantic comedy out of totally inappropriate material. It appealed to me and it was a challenge because Burke and Hare were despicable, loathsome people, they were murderers! And the challenge of the movie for me was that there’s no hiding what they do, there’s no apologising : you see them kill people and I want you to like them! (laughs) I think it’s very subversive and perverted and realistic! (laughs)
Didn’t you fear it would be too distracting to have a supporting character breaking the fourth wall and narrating the whole film for us in front of the camera?
I don’t think it’s distracting! Were you pulled out of the story? He’s narrating the film. I like that narrative device, it’s an old one seen in many of my films and I thought it was appropriate to have the story told by an executioner. Because he is Death!
The movie is very funny but to me it’s never funnier than when Ronnie Corbett is onscreen. And I was really happy to see him because I thought he was… what’s the word?… Dead!
(laughs) That’s terrible! Did you know Ronnie Corbett was born and raised in Edinburgh? So I said to him : “you’re gonna have to talk with a Scottish accent” and he said : “God I’ve tried my whole life not to!”
Was it a draw for you, working with English actors, in England? With a smaller budget and independent financing?
Well it’s a British movie really, produced by a British company, about a British subject. Everyone on the set was British except for Isla Fisher who’s Australian, but even that’s the Common Wealth! (laughs) It takes place in Scotland in 1888 so it would be kinda odd to have Italians in it. That’s the point : it’s a british film! In terms of the actors, there were lots of people in there that I wanted to work with. Ronnie Corbett was one of them! In 1975, I was in London for about seven months, I was 25. I was one of the (uncredited) writers on The Spy Who Loved Me, the James Bond movie and while I was there I would watch this TV show called The Two Ronnies with Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett. And I loved them both, they were so brilliant. In fact in Burke and Hare we also have this british comedian named Paul Whitehouse, so if you’re English the movie’s filled with a lot of familiar interesting faces! Most Americans won’t know who Ronnie Corbett is but he’s wonderful. And it’s interesting because nobody asked him to play a part before really.
It is an Ealing Picture but we only shot one day at Ealing Studios : the interior of the prison is the only set, everything else is a real location. My next movie, if they get the money will also be shot in England. It’s called The Rivals and has a wonderful cast : Imelda Staunton, Gemma Arterton, Albert Finney, Joseph Fiennes, Tom Courtenay, all great actors! That’s a really more orthodox film, with sword-fighting, based on a wonderful play by Richard Sheridan. I’m waiting to see if they can get the money. Fingers crossed!… Because if you want to do anything that’s unusual and a little out of the mainstream, now it’s very hard to get any financing. The studios are no longer making small pictures! You know I love The Social Network, that’s a miracle that got out, I don’t know how the fuck that happened! But it’s difficult because studios are now minor subdivisions of huge multinational corporations, so the bottom line is different! They make movies that have to play in Rio De Janeiro and Bruges and Madrid and Taiwan! They have to play. That’s why you get Spider-Man movies and Harry Potter or Transformers movies, all those franchises and serials… stuff like that! Because it’s the lowest common denominator. Some of them are very good by the way, I love the Harry Potter movies but still it’s a different time than it was in the seventies and the eighties, when it was still Hollywood… because there’s no Hollywood anymore! It’s an international corporate film business, very different. Now everything is run by committees. But I was very lucky to be making pictures in Los Angeles and around the world at the time when they were still making movies and the directors had a lot of freedom. Sidney Lumet just passed away and to me that’s very symbolic. This s a guy who made amazing movies. No studio today would make Network or Dog Day Afternoon, you know…
It’s almost impossible to make as many movies as he did now. Good ones too!
Well you can if you’re Spielberg or Lucas or Clint actually. But that’s true, there’s very few directors who can do it.
Is this why you made a lot of television in the last ten or fifteen years? You seemed to have disappeared!
Well I’ve done documentary features but they don’t come to Europe unfortunately. But I’ve always done a lot of television before! I love television.
So you’ve worked with a lot of comedians, like Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi on The Blues Brothers, or Eddie Murphy. And then of course came The Three Amigos! How did you handle working with THREE comedians like Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short on that movie, on a Mexican western parody? Comedians are often know as prima-donnas. How do you handle the egos?
Well they’re actors you know! You just tell them what to do! It’s no different than with other actors.
Do you love improvisation in your movies? Particularly in comedies?
You know it’s interesting, there is a style now with some people where they improvise and improvise and shoot for hours, like The Hangover. They shot a million feet of film! I didn’t even shoot a million feet of film on The Blues Brothers! Jesus!… But Judd Apatow does that and Will Ferrell too… You can get great stuff through improvisation. I do a lot of improvisation during rehearsals and sometimes during shooting I’ll throw something at them to improvise with but, no, Three Amigos! was scripted. Have you ever seen The Twilight Zone – The Movie, the opening sequence with Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks? All the reviews said that the scene was improvised. And at the time I was aggravated : I FUCKING WROTE THAT!!! (laughs) Improvised???… But then I realised that it was a compliment to the actors, you know, because it felt genuine and real. I like improvisation but film was expensive then! With digital now you can shoot for hours for free. But with film, you got ten minute rolls or twelve minute rolls, that’s very expensive! That’s why you said cut and you only printed the selected takes. Now when they shoot, they just print everything because it’s cheaper when you make the transfer! Jesus Christ, you know!…
Would you like to make another comedy with comedians from that Judd Apatow generation? Do you like this whole new generation, Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Zach Galifianakis, Paul Rudd, etc. ?
Yes, some of them are great! I’ve worked with tons of musicians and that’s more difficult because most of them are not actors. But working with comedians is interesting. You know, directors get typed just like actors and it’s always aggravated me because being a film director is the exact same job if it’s a 200 000 million movie or a 2 million dollar movie. Whether it’s a gigantic movie or a tiny movie, the director’s job is the same! And if it’s a comedy or a western or science-fiction, a war movie, horror, musical… the director’s job is the same! Some guys like Hitchcock or John Carpenter franchise themselves. That’s marketing : “John Carpenter Presents!…” A lot of the horror guys do that. But as a director it pisses me off because if there’s a good western they wouldn’t think of offering it to me! “Landis doesn’t do westerns, he does comedy”…
Back in the sixties and seventies I worked on a lot of westerns, as a stuntman. Walter Hill once said to me : “If they knew how much fun it was to make a western, they wouldn’t let us!” (laughs) It’s wonderful making westerns and some of my favorite movies are westerns. Sergio Leone was interesting. He basically reinvented it as an opera. His pictures are very Italian but it was fresh and it brought the genre back. But there are so many good American westerns : The Wild Bunch, John Ford, Budd Boetticher… You know who made hundreds of westerns? William Wyler! And good ones too, like The Westerner, with Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan as Judge Roy Bean! It’s so good! There are so many good westerns. And bad westerns too! But there’s bad everything you know…
Looking at your resumé, one can see that you’re multi-talented, starting as a stuntman, then going into writing, directing, acting… According to you, what’s you forte? Your greatest talent?
I’m not a good actor! (laughs) But what is my talent? Talent in general is chemical. You know that’s funny, I’ve been to a lot of film schools as a teacher, giving lectures. What I’ve seen is that making pictures is not hard, it’s a craft, like building a table. It’s coverage, so easy, knowing the montage, the language of film, your lenses and shit… Making movies is not art! If you can drive a car, you can make a film! The problem is that you cannot teach talent. People can either sing or they can’t sing. It’s genetic. I’m an atheist but you know the expression : “god-given”? I can make someone in a film look better, by manipulating the film, cutting in the film. There are a lot of tricks you learn : like if there’s a scene between me and you where we’re talking. And I’m a terrible actor… but you’re a good actor… So I’ll film you speaking to me and I’ll play most of it on you, and you’ll make me good. But when an actor can’t do something, give him something to eat! You say : “eat this apple, eat this sandwich”, because everyone speaks natural when they’re trying to speak with food in their mouths! So there are all these little tricks : gum chewing is one of them but you can’t do that on stage. Either you can do it or you can’t. So what it is? I don’t know… If I knew what it was I’d be really rich!
Combining horror and comedy is a very tricky business and you’re one of the few with Sam Raimi or your buddy Joe Dante who’ve always managed to do it, with An American Werewolf in London or Innocent Blood…
Innocent Blood was more of a comedy, yes. But with American Werewolf, it always bothers me when people say it’s a comedy. It’s very funny and intentionally so, but I think it’s a terrible essentially tragic story. The reason it was funny is because I was trying to make it realistic. And there’s this thing in literature and cinema called “suspension of disbelief”. Well, with a good movie, a good piece of music, a good record, a good painting, a good piece of literature, you should have suspension of disbelief. When you’re watching a good movie, you’re involved, you’re there! It’s the case with the best horror films! Look at the original theatrical version of The Exorcist! I think the Pope should make William Friedkin a saint or something because it was the most pro—catholic fucking film ever and what was interesting about that movie is… I’m a complete atheist, you know, I don’t believe in the Devil, I don’t care about Jesus or anything, all that bullshit… I know it’s not true! But while I watched The Exorcist, I bought it all! I bought Satan, I bought that he was possessing the girl and I was so grateful when the priest showed up and I started to believe in the power of Christ and all that shit! It was great! As soon as the movie was over, I didn’t care but I saw it with friends who had been altar boys and they had nightmares for months, you know!… So anyway, my intention on American Werewolf was to make it real and we know it’s ridiculous! Almost all horror movie premises are absolutely ridiculous! Vampires, zombies, they’re ridiculous! So, how do you make them real ? My idea was that in that movie I was going to have a protagonist that was smart. (laughs) And what do smart people do when they encounter something ridiculous? They laugh!… If I told you that this guy right here was a vampire, you’d make a joke! So later tonight, if he comes up behind you, turns you around, bites you on the neck and rips your throat out, you’d be in pain, you’d be terrified but you wouldn’t think : “UNDEAD”, “VAMPIRE”, you’d think “CRAZY PERSON”!!! Because vampires don’t exist! What’s happening is impossible. And in Werewolf, when Jack is dead, he can’t fucking accept it, he’s pissed, it’s insane! Because IT IS insane! So that’s why it’s funny but it’s not a comedy. There’s certainly no happy ending! Also it’s not subtle : these boys : the first time you see them they’re in a truckload full of sheep, then they go to a pub called “The Slaughtered Lamb”! They’re dead. From the beginning of the movie, they’re dead! (laughs)
What happened with the score for American Werewolf? On the original record, you cannot hear the entire score from Elmer Bernstein…
I wrote the film in 1969 and made it in 1981. It was a very long time because everybody said it was either too scary to be funny or too funny to be scary. But after I’d made Animal House and The Blues Brothers, I had some clout so I could get the money to make it. All the music that I had intended was in the script. The great Elmer Bernstein had written the score, this beautiful piece of music. So when Polygram did the album, they had Meco Monardo, a guy who had made “Disco Star Wars” – who was a huge hit at the time – record some music. I was really unhappy with it because I had this great music and they put up that crap! I was left out of it and there’s only about 6 minutes of Elmer’s score on the album! If you read the back of the album, I literally say “This Sucks!” (laughs) I was very unhappy about it!
For some people you’re mostly known as the director of Michael Jackson’s Thriller!
Actually it depends what country I’m in. In some countries it’s Three Amigos! In France, they love Trading Places, they call it “Two On a Couch” (Un Fauteuil Pour Deux) or something… but it’s funny when I’m in Russia they love Spies Like Us! In England it’s American Werewolf… In Chicago it’s The Blues Brothers of course! But Thriller was completely international, everybody liked it. Everybody loved Michael!
In your opinion, what is your best movie? I think Three Amigos! Is your definite masterpiece!
I don’t know, I have problems with all them! Making a film is a constant compromise. There are so many things that can go wrong! Alfred Hitchcock called the crew “the people between me and my movie”. (laughs) But you know actors, they have fights with their wives or they’re allergic to something… So many things can go wrong. With Three Amigos!, I told the guys, Steve, Chevy and Martin : “there’s a lot of horse back riding, I want you to take lessons.” So they went to their first lesson and when you take your first western saddle lesson, you hurt, your ass is sore. So they said : “Ow, we hurt, we’re not going back!”… So all of a sudden I had a western with three guys who couldn’t ride horses! So when I see Three Amigos!, I think that my greatest achievement is you think that they’re riding those horses! (laughs) I had doubles, you know. That worked!
I always wanted to see a sequel to Three Amigos!
You know, I think that movie is really funny. I watched it recently and it really made me laugh! Alfonso Arau is so good as « El Guapo »! Tony Plana… all the Mexican actors were great! It’s a wonderfully silly movie.
I’ve had the theme song of Three Amigos! in my head all day because of this interview!
Well, If you wanna talk about music, Randy Newman was the voice of the “Singing Bush” and we had music and lyrics by Randy Newman and a score by Elmer Bernstein! And that score had a huge orchestra, we had a 120 piece orchestra. It was incredible and it’s wonderful because if you listen to it, it’s Elmer Bernstein making fun of Elmer Bernstein (laughs)! You know, he wrote The Magnificent Seven and all those magnificent western scores. He wrote a very clever score, wonderful!
But you know when people ask : “What’s your favorite movie” or “What are your ten favorite movies of all times?”, I think it’s complete bullshit! Because you can have a completely emotional reaction. Off the top of my head I can think of 30 great French films! Take two movies like Godard’s Weekend or Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête… They have NOTHING in common, they’re both great but you can’t say : this one is better than this one! What are great movies? Paths of Glory and… Pinocchio! They have NOTHING in common but they’re both great movies! What’s that movie that I love by John Woo? The one in the hospital? (hearing answer) Hard Boiled! Great movie! Very romantic and very funny. The only thing about John Woo is that he’s always got those fucking pigeons flying everywhere! Stop with those fucking pigeons already!
I think they’re doves!
Oh, they’re doves? They’re rats with wings!
Do you usually have any kind of advice for young directors who come up to you?
When people say “I want to be an actor, a singer, a director”, I always say “Why?”… And they go : “Well…”… “Because you wanna be rich and famous, right?” “Oh no…”, “Well OK then, make movies, take your little movie camera and go make a movie!” Most people who make movies do it for the wrong reasons, you know… But now, the technology is so ridiculous! With this little camera here, you can shoot hi-def and you can shoot your movie, cut it on your laptop… That’s a huge advantage that young directors have now. They can actually do it. What I find is… they don’t!!! That’s what I find interesting : they can and they don’t! And the other thing I say is : don’t make ONE movie, make FIFTEEN movies! The same goes for writers : in school they write their big script, but then.. nothing else! Then their big movie doesn’t get made and they’re like “what?”! They should have fifteen scripts! That’s my advice, don’t give up! You can make a feature film now that’s perfectly presentable on television for 500 bucks!
The Roger Corman way of making movies!
No, Roger was just cheap! (laughs) I love Roger but he’s cheap! He gave their chance to Coppola, Scorsese, Joe Dante : he gave them their break but he also exploited the shit out of them! (laughs) He made millions and they didn’t see a dime. Roger was all about money! The title of his autobiography says it all : “How I Made A Hundred Movies in Hollywood And Never Lost A Dime”. (laughs)
Horror directors have to be the most creative of directors because they’re working on shoestring budgets. Like Don Coscarelli who’s always worked with very small budgets…
Yes but sometimes it’s a choice. You know my favorite movie of Don’s? Bubba HoTepp! Ossie Davis and Bruce Campbell were so funny! I loved the idea, I loved the script, that black man who thinks he’s John F. Kennedy! I really loved that movie!
Is it still possible to have total control, to take care of the distribution yourself?
You can’t really do this anymore! William Goldman once said famously : “The only real author in cinema is Russ Meyer.” Because Russ wrote, directed, photographed, edited and distributed his movies. He put the film in the trunk of his car then he did everything! And it’s true, he was the only one!
But it’s very difficult now. One of the big problems is distribution. Because of these new technologies there’s a PLETHORA of films. I was just in Paris and there were 250 FRENCH films made last year. This means there’s not enough cinemas. And so, if your movie doesn’t make enough money the first day, you’re outta there! That’s the big difference now : it’s not so much the cost of production, it’s the cost of marketing and just trying to get your picture seen! That’s the difficulty!
Doing Masters of Horror on television with complete freedom must have been great and liberating in a sense. You could do whatever you wanted to do!
That was fun because that was unique. The directors would like to do more but they don’t have the money so… Masters of Horror was good! Most of them were good but some of them were great! Each of us were given a million dollars and ten days and we had to shoot in Vancouver. And we could shoot anything we wanted. ANYTHING WE WANTED!!! So that was fun. I directed two episodes. I had my son write one for me, Deer Woman, the other one was a script by Brent Hanley who lives in Texas and is a very strange guy. Have you seen Bill Paxton’s Frailty? The movie was OK. But the script? The script was one of the best fucking scripts I’ve ever read. It’s the only screenplay that I’ve ever read where at the end I was completely shocked! So the writer wrote this episode called Family, starring George Wendt. I was very proud of that one. It’s a great performance by George.
Funny AND scary at the same time!
By the way, before we leave, I wanted to thank you… I don’t know if you’re aware of this but you’re the only director who gave us a nude scene from Michelle Pfeiffer, in Into the Night!
Oh yes THAT scene! Michelle was very young and very pretty at the time! She’s still very pretty! That’s another reason why I’m making movies! (laughs) That scene? That’s probably what I’ll be remembered for!!! (laughs)
Words by Grégory Cavinato.
Special thanks to Marie-France Dupagne.