See You Next Wednesday: A Conversation with John Landis

I first met John Landis at the Spooky Empire convention in Orlando, Florida. I nervously asked if I could interview him for this site and he said, "What do you want to ask me about?" I responded, "Everything." He agreed, phoning me from London weeks later. Upon answering the call, he encouraged me to go to Radio Shack to purchase better equipment for my phone interviews. I laughed nervously and asked my first question, "So tell me what you're doing in London, are you making a new film?" He paused for what seemed like an eternal moment and says, "Are you asking me these things because you don't know them, or because you're reading from a list?" I stumbled on, commenting that this was his first film since 1998, to which he responded, "My last film was last year and I won an Emmy. I also made a movie after Susan's Plan, what are you saying?" It was one hell of a disastrous start...

Once we started digging into Burke and Hare I relaxed and the interview rolled nicely, wrapping with John commenting, "Thank you for a beautiful piece." He has since become a mentor and friend, an encourager of personal projects (and shutting some down, such as an essay on Blues Brothers 2000, to which he said no one would care about) and even agreeing to an "Evening with" conducted on the Universal Studios Lot, for which I interviewed him in a screening room full of Studio Tour guides. We spent 3 hours discussing his career and answering audience Q&A. Afterwards he invited me to join him in visiting the soundstage where The Fate of the Furious was being filmed. As I climbed into his car, he backed into a Universal golf cart, sending it flying over the curb next to the Commissary. He shouted, "Let's get the fuck out of here!" and quickly fled the scene of the accident. As we drove he told stories of "stealing shit" from the Lot with John Belushi back in the day, including a large gargoyle from the set of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, "I still have it in my living room."  Standing on the set of the new Fast & Furious movie he joked aloud in front of the irritated crew about how much money was being burned on shots that would never be used - it was one of the greatest nights of my life. Director F. Gary Gray approached him saying that one of his first jobs was as an extra in Coming to America and he whisked John away to his office, leaving me alone on the soundstage of a major motion picture. That night was like a dream, a Hollywood fantasy. Something you might see in a John Landis film...
Jason Anders: Tell me about your next film that you're currently prepping for.

John Landis: I'm at Ealing Studios, where on January 25th we start principal photography on a picture called Burke and Hare. It's a British film that stars Simon Pegg and David Tennant in the title roles, and we're running around like crazy preparing.  It's based on the notorious Irish murderers who are most famous as grave robbers, when in fact they never robbed a grave. They took a shortcut by eliminating the middle man. The reason people were robbing graves in Edinburgh at the time was to supply cadavers to the medical schools.  Edinburgh was the center of medical education in the world at that time, 1827, and there were many different institutions teaching surgery and anatomy.

You have to realize how primitive all of this is, it was still candlelight and basically there was no anesthetic. It was a pretty primitive time in medicine. They were doing vivisections, autopsies and surgeries on people for those who would pay to see this as entertainment.  There was a lot of money to be had in dead bodies. Mostly, in real life, it was the medical students, but the people who were grave robbers included some pretty sleazy characters. Burke and Hare just murdered people, they killed sixteen people in a relatively short period of time and then sold them to Dr. Knox. This is based on that true story.

What do you love most about making movies?

I actually enjoy everything about making movies... except raising the money. The hardest part of filmmaking is getting the money to make the film.

Is fundraising still a difficult process?

Of course, sure. Even Dreamworks had their money pull out at the last minute. Did you know that? Then they had to go and get new money, and Spielberg had to put up his own money... it's a very tough environment out there.

It's strange because the box office is doing so well right now.

Yeah, it is weird. Movies are doing really well right now. It has to do with the ownership of the studios- at this point in time there's not really one studio that can be called independent. They're all tiny pieces of giant multi-national corporations. So it's not the fact that Columbia Pictures is doing okay, because Sony as a giant entity is not, and that affects everybody.   It's like, Warner Bros. is doing okay but Time Warner is not. Universal has had a bad year, and so did NBC, but even so they're less than 1% of General Electric. It's a whole different business.
How do the troubles of raising money now compare to the way it was earlier on in your career?

Well, I was really lucky to come along in the seventies. Looking back, I can see this period from 1969 to maybe the late '80s was this extraordinary moment of the American movie business because for a while there the filmmakers and directors were given a lot of power. The studios let them make their films and that's changed quite a bit. When Lew Wasserman sold MCA Universal to the Japanese it was the beginning of the end, really. He was the last mogul.

When I made Animal House I could tell you that Steve Ross was Warner Bros., Arthur Krimm was United Artists, David Begelmen was Columbia, Lew Wasserman was Universal - you could look at the companies and tell who it belonged to. There was someone who owned it and was in charge, and they were in the picture business and took risks. There's no major corporation now who would back a picture like The Last Temptation of Christ or Coal Miner's Daughter. I look at a lot of the pictures Universal made during my time there and there are amazing films that they would never make now. Look at the pictures Paramount made like Chinatown and Midnight Cowboy - these movies wouldn't get made now by a major studio.

Are there any movies out now that you are shocked to see get made?

Yeah, very often I'll see a movie like that. I saw Transformers 2 and I'm not shocked it got made, I'm not even shocked that it made a fortune... but I'm shocked by what a piece of shit it is.

What about films you admired that were produced by a major studio?

Well, I haven't seen Where the Wild Things Are but I'm excited about it. I don't know if it's a success or not, but I'm very excited that Warner Bros. gave a filmmaker as interesting a Spike Jonze the opportunity to do it. I mean, there's good movies being made still, and there will always be good movies made, it's just that the number will go down as the number of movies being made goes down.
Which directors working now are you intrigued by?

Oh there are wonderful directors working now. Sam Raimi is still working, Joel and Ethan Coen and Edgar Wright. Joe Dante just made a movie. There's wonderful directors and there always will be. There's really interesting people making pictures, but there's far more of them not making pictures who should be. Gosh, there's a lot of good filmmakers out there. So many.

The only generalization I hold to is that it's dangerous to generalize. But if you look at the majority of the product now, the studios are much more interested in making what are called "tent poles", which are giant productions that have a lot of special effects and stuff.  Listen, you can have someone else whine about it. I feel very fortunate that even though it's low budget I am doing a really good script, so I'm happy.

Of all the films you have made, is there one that stands out as being a personal favorite?

I don't really have a favorite film. There's some films I enjoy, but it's very hard for a filmmaker to separate the experience of shooting a movie from the movie itself. I had a really good experience on many movies. Some films are more successful than others. Some are frustrating. I've never seen a movie of mine that I didn't wish I did some things differently. When you're making a film the circumstances conspire against you.

I think people who haven't made a feature film don't understand how difficult it really is to get all the elements - you're dealing with so many things that are out of your control, and you're dealing with a finite amount of money and time, as well actors who may be having marital problems, an illness, or even an addiction of some kind. You're also dealing with electronics, computers and carpenters. It's quite a thing to make a movie. People that haven't done it tend to be more dismissive. Even when I see a terrible movie now, I'm well aware of the amount of physical work that went into it.
What originally inspired you to get into filmmaking? Was it a specific film that inspired you?

Absolutely! I had the epiphany moment. I've heard Ray Harryhausen and Ray Bradbury talk about King Kong as their epiphany moment. For me it was The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, which is a picture directed by Nathan Juran and one of Ray Harryhausen's movies. I saw that in Los Angeles when I was eight and went nuts. I had what's called a "suspension of disbelief."  I've told this story so many times, but it's true so I guess it bears repeating; I went home and asked my mom "Who does that?  Who makes the movie?" and my mother said "the director." So from the time I was really young, around 1958, I wanted to be a director. I was very lucky that I lived in L.A. where I could actually seek out and meet directors.

Back in the '60s, being a director wasn't as chic as it is now. In fact, guys like Spielberg, Lucas and Scorsese were like Revenge of the Nerds- these guys were like the audio-visual guys in junior high who brought the 16mm projectors to class to show the movies. Back then, really only the French and some Brits were respectful of American filmmaking, especially classic American filmmaking. I'll never forget when I spoke to George Stevens, he was shocked that I knew who he was. He said, "You're not French!" It wasn't until the mid-seventies that being a director had become groovy. So now it's like everyone wants to be a director, but when I was a kid you were considered weird if you wanted to be a director.

Which movies top your favorites list?

I don't like those lists. Whenever anybody asks for the "Ten Best Films" or your favorite, that's bullshit to me. Just off the top of my head I can say a brilliant film like Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers, and then take a movie like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lawrence of Arabia or Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, Walt Disney's Pinocchio or Dumbo... I mean, there's so many great films and they have nothing in common. What do they have in common? Nothing. How can I say one is better than the other? So I don't. Off the top of my head I could probably rattle off forty-five movies that I love and then I'd realize later, "Oh fuck! I left out these movies!"
What elements do you feel are essential to a great film?

Well again, I'm afraid of those generalizations. There are misunderstandings about film that are interesting to me, and they're misunderstanding that are pervasive. For instance, if you have a good story that is compelling enough, the movie doesn't have to be that well-made to still be compelling, because the story is so compelling. The idea of "high concept" is not what I'm interested in. What I'm interested in is execution, because it's not about the idea, but about the execution of the idea.

Let's use the analogy of painting: Let's take the idea of painting a naked woman - well, you have Van Gogh, Picasso, Rembrandt and you could just rattle off the names of artists like Renoir or Norman Rockwell... you could just keep going and find seven-hundred wonderful paintings of naked women, and they have nothing in common! Nothing other than they are women who are naked. It's all about the artist's impression. It's not about the idea "let's paint a naked woman," it's about the execution of the idea. That's why so many Westerns are so great; You go, "What's the idea?"..."well it's a town that has bad guys, good guy comes, cleans up and leaves." That's not a story, but there have been at least fifty great movies based on that.

Have you ever made a film that you felt was a disappointment? Or turned out differently than what you expected?

Well being "disappointed" is different from "not what you expected". But I've been disappointed in my own films, sure. Sometimes you just can't. Sometimes events conspire against you. It's also your motive for making a movie - why are you making a movie? If you're making a movie for money, that's one thing, if you're making a movie for passion, that's another. I've made three or four films for political reasons, and those have all been pretty successful... not only commercially, but for what I was trying to put across. So I'm happy with those. A movie that I liked that I worked on was a picture called ¡Three Amigos!. I enjoy that picture, I think that it's really funny and I love the way that it looks, and I enjoy it. It was not a big hit, but it makes me laugh.
But how can you go wrong having Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, and Martin Short in a film?

Easily! (laughs) It was lovely. I enjoyed that picture. That movie has great music, it's Elmer Bernstein with a big orchestra making fun of Elmer Bernstein. It also has songs by Randy Newman. It's just terrific music in that show.

What is an example of a movie you felt disappointed in?

None of your fucking business. (laughs) That's funny. So, what have you done that you were disappointed in?

Oh I've done a lot.

Well, so has everybody.

Do you have a film that you are most proud of?

The problem is that when you make movies they are like your children, and they go off into the world and they have their own lives. I'm old enough now to have people come up to me from different countries, and sometimes I'm really surprised. Often in the States it's either Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, Thriller or Coming to America that are their favorites. In Spain or Mexico it's always ¡Three Amigos!. In other countries it's different movies. It's really interesting because different people come up to you and tell you. Watching a movie is an objective experience, and so much has to do with when you saw it, how old you were, who you were with and where you saw it that it's difficult to make those generalizations.

I mean, of my films, which one do you think made the most money?

Coming to America made almost a billion dollars. It made $800 million around the world. And this is now normal, but back then it was pretty shocking. The Blues Brothers was the first American film to gross more money foreign than domestic. It only did $80 million domestic and around the world it did like $200 million in its first release. So it's interesting, and that's one of the problems is that people gauge the quality of a film on the box office, but if you think about it, the box office has nothing to do with the quality of a film, and yet that is the only real measure of success in the business. It's called "the business", you know.

Do you measure the success of your own films by the money they make?

Well, that's all that matters in "the business". Do I measure them that way? No! I've seen tons of movies that made a fortune that were crap and I've seen many great films that don't make any money at all. So it's not analogous, that's why filmmakers tend to be schizophrenic.

I love how often you've included Dan Aykroyd in your work. 

Oh, I love Danny Aykroyd! Danny is a genuinely original person, he's got a great brain. I mean the Ghostbusters came out of him, The Blues Brothers came out of him - also, so many of those skits on Saturday Night Live like the Pitch Man who used to sell the bag of glass. Danny is just a remarkably interesting guy. He's nuts. He's brilliant, a wonderful actor, and we work well together. I admire him.

Where did you come up with the idea of making a documentary on Don Rickles?

Well I've known Don since I was 18 on Kelly's Heroes and he's worked for me as an actor several times and we've been friendly over the years. I mean, I met him as a kid. So my wife and I were at his 70th birthday, and his 75th birthday - and then when we were at his 80th birthday, which was two or three years ago now, I looked around the room and thought it was remarkable how many people had died. I got to thinking about how Don just doesn't get the respect he should. I don't think that people appreciate his position in American show business because he's basically a cabaret comic. Even though he's had a big acting career and a big television career, his real success is in Vegas.

You know, like in Death of a Salesman, "attention should be paid." So I told him, "I wanna shoot your act," and Don is real old-school and said, "I don't wanna shoot my act, that's my act! They can pay to come and see me." And so the deal was.  Did you see Mr. Warmth?
I did, yes. It was great!

Well, you see, I could only show fifteen minutes of his act... which I did, but I made it seem like more because of the way that I cut it. But I wanted to show that, and it was a coincidence, that it was the last showroom in Vegas and that they then blew it up! I went back like eight months later to film them blowing it up. But that is why I did that and it worked very well because Don got huge notice and won an Emmy, and people starting realizing how many movies he was in. It was great and really worked. It was nice.

Do you remember the first job you ever had?

For money? Like a real first job? Gosh, that's a good question. Babysitting. When I was between fourteen and sixteen I used to babysit for these two little girls up the street and a boy down the street for like fifty cents an hour.

Were you ever headed down a different path other than filmmaking?

No. That's all I wanted to do. I'm a high school dropout. I left school as soon as I was legally able to go and work in the mail room at Fox.

So what do you say to aspiring filmmakers who come to you and ask if they should go to film school?

I always tell them that becoming a film director is not like becoming a dentist. If you want to become a dentist, there's a very prescribed way of doing so. To be a filmmaker you just need a camera. A question I've asked at colleges all over the world is "define a filmmaker." I actually make it even more specific, I say, "define a motion picture director" and often I get very esoteric answers. The correct answer is "someone who has directed a film." So there's no right or wrong way, I think any way that works, works. The best way is to be rich and finance your own film. That's the easiest way! The big advantage filmmakers have now is the new technologies. With just a small digital camera you can make a very nice looking picture and cut it on your laptop. It's a brave new world out there.
What sort of challenges did you face when you were making Schlock back in 1973?

Schlock was 35mm and we used an experimental Panavision camera, Arriflex. It didn't work for the Truffaut movie Day for Night, which is how we got it so cheap. One of the biggest challenges on that is that it was made for sixty-thousand bucks. Perhaps the biggest challenge was the twenty-year-old Rick Baker did this makeup on me and I was in a gorilla suit, and it was the hottest summer in California history in 1971 - so there were days when it was 112 degrees and I'm in a fucking gorilla suit! That was hard. That was a terrible movie, Schlock, but I'm glad I got to make it. I learned a lot. I learned more cutting it than I did shooting it.

What did you think about the new documentary, "Beware the Moon", that was made for the recent Blu-ray release of your film "An American Werewolf in London"?

I'm delighted by it! I'm amazed that I was able to get it on the DVD. I sort of bullied Universal into it. They were afraid of it. I mean, the fact that Paul Davis did this on his own without any rights was kind of foolish. But when he showed me what he had done, I was impressed! I said, "well, man, you've interviewed all these people and gone to all of these locations!" It's fun. It's really the first fan-made documentary that's been professionally released. I think it's entertaining. It's almost longer than the movie!

One specific scene I've always wanted to ask you about is one of the final shots of Blues Brothers 2000; what was it like directing a room of legendary musicians?

Because we had to choose a date in the summer when all the acts tour, and we had to change the specific date, we lost a lot of people because they were performing and couldn't get out of it. So there's a lot of people who didn't make it, but it's pretty impressive who did. I'm unhappy with what the studio did to that film. They forced Danny and I into a lot of compromises we didn't want to do. Danny really wanted to make the movie, though, and kept saying, "It's about the music, John. Putting these people on film."
Ironically, in the years since then it's quite something how many great musicians in that picture passed away. So he's not wrong. The music in that movie is great, it's really amazing. A lot of it we recorded live.  Because of the new digital recording technologies I was able to record live, which is extraordinary. I really enjoyed the music, but I was not happy with the script the studio wanted. First they made it PG-13 and we weren't allowed any swearing- which cuts the balls off The Blues Brothers, you know? By the time they were finished, John Goodman had no character. He's just standing there. But if we were to object to any of their demands they wouldn't make the movie.

So we made the movie for very little money. The thing that pissed me off, finally, was that they made it bright! Which I was unhappy with, the photography. It was supposed to be dark, and they made it look like a Doris Day movie. That was my last studio film, I was so pissed off. I walked away.

Whose idea was it to bring in John Goodman?

John had been performing with Danny for a while. I wasn't looking for a replacement for John Belushi. I mean, the character of Mack actually had a character before the studio did their revisions. For me, it's like a children's version of The Blues Brothers. But it's got amazing music, which I'm very happy with.

Tell me about your future projects and when you expect "Burke and Hare" to be released.

Oh, not for a year. We start principal photography on January 25th, so figure nine or ten months from then. Beyond that I actually have three or four movies I'd like to make but it's the question of getting the money. The only one I can tell you about is Ghoulishly Yours, which is a script by Joel Eisenberg about William M. Gaines. It's a wonderful script and I'd love to do that.