Damaged Goods: John Landis by Craig Hubert

The director’s varied career, the “wild energy” behind his films, and why he loves monsters.

John Landis

John Landis. Courtesy of Endstart Photo.

It almost seems unnecessary to provide an introduction, or summarize in some way, the career of John Landis. Let’s just say, even if you don’t realize it, you’ve probably seen one of his films—possibly even a few of them. Even my parents know who he is. His most famous films were made in the often overlooked post-movie brat period of American Cinema, the New New Hollywood, and mixed comedy and horror in ways that seem more influential now than their forbearers, who receive most of the credit. Because of their popular success, and their origins in trash comic books and dirty-seat monster movies, the films Landis made never received their proper critical respect.

There is a genuine, out-in-the-open, love of cinema on display in every frame of his work that is hard to ignore, an infectious buzz behind the camera that makes you think this is a man who could do nothing else but be involved in the movies. It was a thrill to sit down with Landis, a few days before his mini-retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and talk about his early days on the studio lots, his phenomenal run of successful pictures, and a dirty joke about a critic.

Craig Hubert Your films are steeped in a classical Hollywood tradition, with a lot of playing around with genres. When did you first become interested in film? What was the first film you saw?

John Landis I’ve said this so many times. When I was eight years old I saw a movie called The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), at the Crest Theater, which is still there on Westwood Boulevard. I had what’s called suspension of disbelief. I went nuts. I was enchanted by it, and I went home and asked my mother who makes the movie, and she said, “the director.” Which was surprising. So literally, from the time I was eight, I wanted to be a director. So I had an advantage, which was I knew what I wanted to do.

CH Were you immediately a film buff?

JL Absolutely, I was a maniac; and because I grew up in Los Angeles—I was born in 1950—in the 1960s I was able to seek out and meet almost all the great filmmakers.

CH Many of the directors that started their careers around the same time as you grew up obsessed with the cinema. William Lustig told me he used to see six movies a day in New York when he was younger.

JL Well, I used to go see a lot. When the grindhouse was going we used to go see—I mean, I’ve done six films a day, but I would see two a day.

CH And you got a job as a mail boy at Fox while you were still pretty young. How did you end up there?

JL Well it’s long and involved, but basically I brought a class-action suit against the majors, because—actually, I don’t like how I got my job, because I kind of forced them. But I got a job in the mail room at Fox when I was seventeen, and I was very happy to be there. I was right near production—in the year and a half I was there they shot all the Irwin Allen TV shows on the lot, so Voyage to the Bottom of the SeaLost in SpaceThe Time Tunnel; they shot Payton PlaceThe Green Hornet, so I knew Bruce Lee. But also, they were shooting Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Just a tremendous amount of production.

CH And this was a time, I’m assuming, when things were a little more relaxed and open at the studio. You could more easily approach people you saw on the lot.

JL Sure. You know now when you see a movie, and they want to show a studio, you see show girls and monsters all around? It was just like that. It really was. It was great.

CH What directors were around at the time you were there?

JL Well, at Fox, there was George Cukor, who was doing a picture called Justine (1969). I met George Stevens. I met Robert Altman, who wasn’t very nice. But also around town, I sought out William Wyler, Billy Wilder, Hal Roach! I was able to meet a tremendous amount of filmmakers. Later, I had a bungalow at Universal and so did Hitchcock. So I used to have lunch with Mr. Hitchcock.

CH This was a time when most of Hollywood thought of these filmmakers as coming to the end of their careers.

JL All of them were working! Cukor made like six more movies after that.

CH Into the 1980s.

JL Yeah, and Wilder made movies after that. Even Hitchcock made a movie after that. So they were working.

CH Were they more accessible?

JL I don’t know if they were more accessible. It was interesting, because at that time in the ’60s and ’70s, it was only the French and the British, people like Lindsay Anderson and Truffaut, who gave credence to any of these filmmakers. I remember George Stevens, I went up to him—he was shooting this terrible movie, The Only Game in Town (1970)—and said, “Mr. Stevens, you know, I’m such an admirer.” He was with his AD, I remember, and he was so taken aback that I was American, he said, “Name five of my movies.” And I did, I rattled off Alice Adams (1935), Shane (1953), Giant (1956), you know. He was so impressed he took me to lunch.

CH You hear stories about other guys around the same time, like Bogdanovich seeking out Hawkes.

JL Bogdanovich is older than me, but he sought out all these guys. Hawkes is interesting because he was a pathological liar, and most of what he told you was just not true. But it didn’t really matter because it was Howard Hawkes.

CH From there, I know you entered production a little bit.

JL Not a little bit, a lot. The first movie I worked on was Catch-22 (1970), but I was with the second unit and was in the belly of a B-25 in Mexico. It was a terrible job, and I left it after three or four weeks.

CH You worked on some Westerns too, correct?

JL Well, I went to Europe as a, well, they’re now called production assistants, back then they were called gophers. I went to work on a movie called Kelly’s Heroes (1970), which was shot in the former Yugoslavia.

CH With Clint Eastwood?

JL Yeah, a Brian Hutton picture. Don Sutherland, Don Rickles, Telly Savalas, Carroll O’Connor, a big cast. And the Yugoslav army (laughs). We were playing World War II, blowing shit up. It was 1969, so it was right in the middle of the spaghetti boom, in Spain. So when I was finished I went with a guy named Jim O’Rourke; we went to Madrid, then to Almeria. I lived in Almeria for over a year, and worked on fifty or sixty movies. A huge amount of movies—Spanish, French, Italian, German, British, and American.

CH I just read this book called Conversations with Clint where he talks a little about his time shooting Kelly’s Heroes, and how he had to spend something like a year there.

JL No, no. He was there, probably, eight months, and he was very unhappy.

CH And quickly after that you made Schlock (1973)?

JL Well, not that quickly. Two years later I made Schlock. I was in Europe almost two years, and then I came back and made Schlock in 1971.

CH I’m interested in this period, from when you made Schlock, with it’s really low budget, through Kentucky Frietd Movie (1977), and arriving at Animal House (1978).

JL Schlock was 1971, Kentucky Fried and Animal House were 1977. There was a long period of time where I worked on a lot of movies, doing stunts on movies like The Towering Inferno(1974). I worked on a shit-load of movies.

CH So you were doing stunts?

JL Yeah, I did stunts. I did whatever job they’d give me. I did stunts in a lot of pictures. I did some stunts in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).

CH What kind of stunts did you do?

JL Well, there was falling off horses. But it depended.

CH So how did you end up getting the job to direct Animal House?

JL I got that job because of the script-girl on Kentucky Fried Movie, which was made in, I think, twenty-one days, really fast. We had half-a-million dollars. The script girl on that, Katherine Wooten, her boyfriend at the time was a junior-executive at Universal named Sean Daniel. They had the script that they had been developing. They sent it to everybody, people like Richard Lester, John Schlesinger, Mike Nichols—all of them threw it back. There were issues with the script because it was very funny, but also very offensive. There were no good guys in it—everyone was a pig, essentially. So they hired me originally to supervise a rewrite. Which I did.

CH What kind of comedies did you grow up watching? Many of your comedies, Animal Housemaybe the most so, remind me of the Marx Brothers.

JL Well, the Marx Brothers made their own college comedy, Horse Feathers (1932). So did Buster Keaton, and Jack Oakie made a lot of college comedies. There were a lot of people. It’s been a tradition.

CH I was thinking of the anti-authoritarian streak and the way their work always ends in chaos.

JL That’s interesting because the picture takes place the year Kennedy was shot, and Kennedy’s alive when the movie takes place. It really ends with the beginning of the ’60s, and it’s correct to end in chaos. It’s quite accurate. It ends in civil insurrection. Something that a contemporary audience doesn’t even get is when the Dean says that they are all 1-A now, you know, that’s a serious threat. It meant you were being killed; you were being sent to Vietnam. It’s funny now how people watch it now out of context. Because it was a period picture, even in 1977, we were able to deal with many things like racism and sexism in a very frank, upfront manner because we were protected by the period.

CH Are you surprised by how the film still resonates with kids?

JL If you told me at the time, I would have went, “Huh?” Now I understand it. There’s this period in most people’s lives, between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four, when they are independent. They’re either in the military or they’re in school, acting as adults, but they’re complete children. This sense of great freedom and exploration, I think the film captures that. That wild energy. But, you know, I’m still amazed a lot of my pictures are still playing.

CH Coming out of Animal House, which was very successful, were there suddenly a lot of options for you? Did you have a few different paths you could have followed as a director?

JL I was offered films, but not that many. Films I didn’t want to make. I was actually working on The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981); the movie they made was very different from the movie I was making. The movie I was making was extremely political. In fact, the only thing left over in the new movie is Henry Gibson’s character, although very different, and Rick Baker’s gorilla.

CH The Blues Brothers seems like an odd choice to make for your next project.

JL The Blues Brothers was a development deal, which the studio made with me, John, and Danny, to grease John and Danny and get them to be in Animal House. Lorne Michels wouldn’t let Danny out of Saturday Night Live, so we didn’t get him. Animal House was written—Doug, Harold, and Chris, the writers, were all from the Lampoon, and there was this whole extraordinary group of talent. When the script was written, the character of Bluto was written for John Belushi, D-Day was written for Danny Aykroyd, and Boone was written for Chevy Chase. I very much wanted Belushi and Aykroyd. I didn’t want Chevy, only because Chevy was the only star to come out of the first year of Saturday Night Live. I wanted unknowns, if I could get them.

CH Watching The Blues Brothers again recently, it still strikes me as such an odd movie. There wasn’t much there in the SNL sketch to start with.

JL Well, it’s not from SNL. That’s what people don’t understand. In fact, before that, we had a development deal for a movie about Jake and Elwood. These were characters they had created much earlier, years before Saturday Night Live, when they were both in Second City in Toronto.

CH It’s still a bizarre film.

JL Oh yeah, it’s nuts. One, I was coming off of a big hit, and two, it was sort of an accident: John and Danny performed on the show a couple times, to warm up the show, and then Steve Martin asked them to be his opening act at the Universal Amphitheater. So we put together this amazing band—Steve Cropper, Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy, all those guys—and Atlantic recorded the concert, and that album, Briefcase Full of Blues, became this gigantic success. So suddenly, the studio looked and went, “Wait a minute, we have John Belushi, star of the biggest movie in the world right now, John and Danny, the stars of the biggest TV series in the world right now, and we have the hottest album in the world right now.” So they literally said, “Can you have the movie in theaters by August.” It was like six months away, and I said, “Sure!” There was no script, and Danny wrote this like eight-hundred page thing that was unshootable, so we had to cut it down.

It was a unique situation. The movie’s very flawed, but you know, you make movies for lots of reasons. Dan and John did something extraordinary, which was they exploited their own celebrity to focus attention on this great American music. It’s hard for you to understand, but in 1977, 1978 really, it was all over. Motown was over. It was all disco, Abba, and the Bee-Gees. Black music was Chic. The studio just thought we were nuts. The studio, I don’t think, ever really got it that it was a musical. (laughter) It’s funny, people will say, “How did you get those great artists?” Trust me, they were happy to be getting the job. The one who was actually doing very well at that time was Ray Charles, who was doing country and western music.

CH At that point he had been doing that for a number of years.

JL That was what he did when he couldn’t sell rhythm-and-blues records—brilliantly, by the way. To give you an idea of the times: when we made the movie, Universal, Decca Records, and MCA Records, refused the soundtrack album. They said, “Nobody is going to buy this.” We got Atlantic Records—even with their great success with the first album, Ahmet Ertegun (founder and former president of Atlantic) wouldn’t put John Lee Hooker on the album. He’s not on the soundtrack. I had a huge fight, and Ertegun told me, “He’s too old and too black.” So it was with great satisfaction, four years later, that John Lee had a platinum album.

CH Did the classical Hollywood musical influence the film?

JL Oh yeah. I was trying to do every kind of musical number. There’s performance when they are performing on the stage. Aretha’s number is classic American musical comedy, where they burst into song and further the plot.

CH Also the James Brown scene in the church.

JL Exactly. I was trying to do all this stuff. Also, the soundtrack, a lot of those Sam & Dave songs, John Lee Hooker—I actually shot listening to the music. The driving stuff was composed to this stuff.

CH Were you thinking of these songs when you reached the edit stage?

JL Of course, that’s what I was shooting to.

CH I thought maybe we could talk a little about the influence of music because it is something runs through all your films.

JL All movies have music.

CH But music is certainly more prominent in your films: musicians star in your films; the Randy Newman songs in Three Amigos; the B.B. King score in Into the Night. All this stuff is up front. Obviously music is very important to you.

JL Well, yeah. I was also lucky to have Elmer Bernstein score ten of my movies. He’s brilliant. In fact, his score for Three Amigos is my favorite score of my movies because it’s Elmer Bernstein satirizing Elmer Bernstein.

CH Your next film was An American Werewolf in London, which I understand you wrote almost a decade before the film was made.

JL I wrote that while I was working on Kelly’s Heroes!

CH I thought maybe we could talk about your twin interests in comedy and horror, and maybe we can discuss the book you wrote, Monsters in the Movies.

JL Well, I love fantasy. I don’t like the name horror; it’s a bullshit thing, because it’s easy to horrify somebody. There’s no skill involved. Boris (Karloff) wanted to call them suspense movies. I love fantasy films, and I really like monsters. I’m really fascinated by monsters because monsters are metaphors.

CH Well the book does explode open this genre that people think is very narrow, opening up all the possibilities of what a monster movie can be.

JL The book’s about monsters, not about horror, so that includes science-fiction, fairy-tales. I have Tinker Bell in there!

CH One of the great things about American Werewolf is how aware the main character is of what he is becoming. He even talks about The Wolf Man (1941).

JL That’s pop culture. Yeah, they’re aware of other movies.

CH Even today, the self-awareness is still striking.

JL Tarantino gets a lot of credit for that, but Joe Dante and I were doing it long before Quentin.

CH I read an article recently asking why people in zombie movies don’t know what a zombie is.

JL That’s because it’s silly. One of the reasons why American Werewolf is funny is because I was trying to do it as realistically as possible. Realistically, you do know about this stuff. That’s a good point, you just reminded me—do you remember the beginning of Night of the Living Dead (1968)? The guy says, “They’re coming to get you, Barbra!” He’s imitating Karloff.

An American Werewolf in London

An American Werewolf in London, 1981, directed by John Landis. Courtesy of BAMcinématek/Photofest.

CH That’s right, I forgot about that. I wanted to ask you about this thing they’re showing in the program called Coming Soon (1982).

JL I’m shocked they are showing it. That was the very first thing ever made specifically for home video. It’s just a bunch of trailers and making-of’s cut together.

CH I saw bits and pieces of it, and I saw it has those classic Hitchcock trailers that he is featured in, where he walks through the set.

JL The thing about trailers is they were an art form. No longer—now it’s all down to marketing. Also, the studios, many times, they would use alternate takes for the trailers. Did you know that? They used to use unprinted takes because they didn’t want to fuck with the negative.

CH Next for you was Trading Places (1983)—your first time working with Eddie Murphy.

JL That was a great script. In the 1930s, they made a bunch of what I guess you would social comedies.

CH Preston Sturges.

JL Right, Frank Capra, Leo McCarey, Howard Hawkes even. They were movies about class. People look at Trading Places, and they think it’s about racism. Yeah, it’s there, but it’s really about class. It’s The Prince and the Pauper. Just taking that premise and shooting it, making it contemporary—and the only thing that makes it contemporary is language and nudity. Everything else about it could be from 1934.

CH Now Into the Night (1985), which is also in the program, is one of your films that is not as well known.

JL It was my first failure. Nobody went to see it.

CH I think it’s excellent, and I’m glad they’re showing it in this program. It has an interesting, offbeat tone, one that is hard to place.

JL It’s an odd film, like a history of ’80s hair, I think.

CH There are a ton of cameos in the film, a majority of them directors.

JL Every movie I’ve made has lots of directors and for some reason they noticed it in that movie. I’m not sure why, but that was the first time everyone wrote about it. Animal House is the only movie I’ve made that doesn’t have a director in it, although a lot of those guys have become directors. I’ve always had directors in my movies. You know, directing is a solitary job. I enjoy the cameos, it’s just for fun, and it’s not meant to be anything other than that.

CH There’s an interesting sense of community between directors—I’m not sure if it exists as much anymore—and your films tend to celebrate that.

JL Yeah, Mick Garris has these Masters of Horror dinners which are really fun. With Into the Night, I was given a script. The basic story was the same, everything else—I rewrote it, that’s one of the few movies I’ll say, it had no words of the original writer in it. It’s a serious story, but there are some really funny moments. The thing about the movie is the lead character is exhausted; he’s been awake for a long time, so it becomes more and more surreal. Plus, he’s sort-of drifting through it.

CH Like a dream-state.

JL It gets weirder and weirder. It’s violent. Carl Perkins gets stabbed by David Bowie. David Bowie is really good in it.

CH Speaking of weird, let’s talk a little about Three Amigos (1986)

JL Three Amigos, I’m happy to say, comes out next month of a Blu-Ray that I just restored. It’s gorgeous; it looks like three-strip Technicolor.

CH How did you get involved with the film?

JL I was sent the script by Steve Martin. He was one of producers, asked if I wanted to do this, and I asked for a few changes, and, yeah, I was very happy. I like that movie; I think it’s really funny. Also, it gave me an opportunity to just be silly.

CH It also gave you the opportunity to do a Western, in a way.

JL Oh, I love Westerns. Walter Hill once said, “If they knew how much fun it is to make a Western, they wouldn’t let us.” It is, really, the most fun.

CH It also has the elements of silent cinema.

JL Oh yeah, they were wearing lead based makeup. We took it seriously. And we shot that on the—have you ever been on the Universal Tour? Well, part of it you go through this little Mexican town. That’s the oldest standing set in Hollywood. So we shot it on that silent set.

CH And then Coming to America (1988) is a like an explosion, with these huge musical numbers and costumes.

JL I was able to put that musical number in there because, like The Blues Brothers, Eddie was such a big star, the studio said, “Can you have this in theaters by August?” So that gives you a great deal of power, because you’re just shooting. They’re like, “Why is there this musical number?”

Again, you talk about why you make movies, and the thing with Coming to America was it’s silly, it’s a fairy tale. When Eddie pitched me the idea, it wasn’t much of an idea, I realized this is going to be a black movie. I don’t think anyone understands that there will be a couple of white people in it, but essentially it’s an African American movie. But the color had nothing to do with the plot. The plot was purely this love story, fairy-tale, and I realized this is an opportunity to do something really important that nobody will notice. It was the first big Hollywood movie where the character’s skin was not part of the plot—Eddie plays the black guy in Beverly Hills Cop, he plays the black guy in Trading Places. Here, he just plays this guy. It was so successful; no one ever refers to that as an African American movie. Ever. Yet it has three speaking parts for white people. Every other speaking role is an African American.

CH Many of your films, while commercially successful at the time of release, never got their proper respect from critics. Critical opinion has turned over the years toward your work, and I was wondering what that meant to you.

JL What’s amusing is that the same, literally the same guys, who shit on these pictures, now hold them up as classic examples. It’s funny. The best critic story I have is a true story. When American Werewolf in London came out, Janet Maslin, the critic for the New York Times, reviewed it. You read, and think it’s not bad, till you get to the end, the last paragraph, where she attacks me. So John Belushi calls me up and says, “Did you read the New York Times?” I said, “Yeah.” And John says, “Did you fuck her?!” (laughter).

Craig Hubert is a writer based in New York City.

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