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Movies, Monkeys and Music
with John Landis

Adam Jahnke caught on tape with director John Landis.
Adam Jahnke caught on tape with director John Landis.

Even in the unlikely event you don't know who John Landis is, you are almost certainly familiar with his work. Landis has directed some of the most popular comedies of recent years, including Animal House, The Blues Brothers (and its ill-fated sequel Blues Brothers 2000), the Eddie Murphy hits Trading Places and Coming To America, and Three Amigos! with Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short. Now, Landis is making his mark on the literary world, serving as guest editor for The Best American Movie Writing 2001. This year's collection is an eclectic group of essays on topics ranging from censorship and Nazi propaganda to the Three Stooges, with work by such acclaimed writers as John Irving, novelist Russell Banks (Affliction), and Jack Kerouac. I interviewed Landis recently, ostensibly to discuss the book and the DVD re-release of one of his best films, An American Werewolf in London. We ended up talking for over an hour and the conversation that followed was as freewheeling as one of Landis' own films.

Adam Jahnke: First off, congratulations on the Werewolf DVD.

John Landis: Thank you.

Adam Jahnke: It's excellent. As a filmmaker, what's it like for you to go back and revisit these movies that you made 20, sometimes 30 years ago?

John Landis: Well, usually it's frustrating because you see all the things you'd like to change. When you make a film, when you're in production it's constant compromise - unless you're Kubrick or David Lean or something. You know, Alfred Hitchcock used to call the crew “the people between me and my movie.” (laughter) But it's just difficult because you have so many elements to juggle. Financial, elemental... I mean just the weather, you know... and whether your actress is having her period or the actor has a skin problem... there are so many things you can't control: and so it's all about time and money. Usually when I look back on a film, it's frustrating. In every one of my movies, and I've made 20 movies, I guess... features, I've made more than that but features... and when I look back on them, there's almost always something I like. I mean, scenes or sequences or something. But for instance even on a picture like Coming to America, which was very successful commercially, it's too fat. I'd like to take 15 minutes out of that movie. In fact, I asked. Paramount said no. But that's because that picture was finished quickly to get into theatres. However, on Werewolf I had a nice surprise which was I hadn't seen it in at least 10 or 12 years and when I went back to London last May to do the remix with Gerry Humphreys, the original mixer and most of the original guys, at Twickenham Studios, we sat down and watched the film. They'd been building tracks for weeks. And I watched the film and I thought, “Gee, I kinda like this movie!” I was surprised. I actually enjoyed the film more than I usually do. I liked it. And also the fact that I could remix it was exciting. You know, it was a mono mix originally. We were able to get almost all the original elements. What was hard were the needledrop. So much of the score is existing (musical) recordings. They're called needledrop when you do that. And because we were doing a 5.1 DTS mix, you really need the original material. Now when they tell you they “digitally remix”, usually that just means they ran the tracks, the monaural tracks or even stereo tracks through the board and just split ‘em. But we wanted to do a genuine mix - a theatrical mix. And so we needed new elements and all we had was the three-stripe. But we had the original elements of Elmer Bernstein's score and we had a lot of the original effects. Although some of them were mono effects and they didn't work on the surrounds. Some of the biting and stuff we had to enhance and get new effects. But basically the needledrop was the hardest because we had to find the masters. And the masters were in Chicago and Memphis and Los Angeles and New York. We found everything but the Sam Cooke Blue Moon, which we went to vinyl. We had no choice. And it sounds OK. But that took a lot of work.

Adam Jahnke: You kind of answered this already with your comment about Coming To America, but are there any of your other movies that you'd really like to revisit?

John Landis: Well, no. It's not that I want to. (laughter) Usually, it's like, “Thank you, next!” But not really, I've never thought, “Gee, I'd like to go back and do this.” It's interesting, in almost all the times you've seen a Director's Cut or scenes put back from the original release, the original release version was better. Almost always. And that's mainly because shorter is better. That's just a general rule. Like for me, it was fun as an exercise on the The Blues Brothers DVD when we put in scenes that had been taken out. They're interesting to me to watch on DVD. And it's a fun way to watch it. I'm not sure I would want that theatrically because that's not what the movie was when it came out and it's not what the movie was intended to be. The movie was actually longer still and had an intermission. So I have very mixed feelings about that stuff.

Adam Jahnke: In releasing your films on DVD, you've been working with the whole spectrum of studios, from little guys like Anchor Bay all the way up to Universal. What are some of the differences and do you have any preference?

John Landis: Well, Anchor Bay's terrific. I have two pictures on Anchor Bay and they've done a great job in terms of quality of the transfers and stuff. They really care about it. It's interesting. They're not so little. They're pioneers in the market. You know, all the new cutting-edge technologies are always developed and advanced by the porno industry. I don't know if you know that, but home video is a result of the porno business.

Adam Jahnke: Yeah, it's true.

John Landis: And all of the technological improvements have been championed early on by the porno guys. So DVD took awhile. But for film buffs, it's quite a boon, because as a marketing ploy they came up with this idea of restoring pictures. I don't know if you know this but some interesting trivia is that the media, the newspapers and television, would not review DVDs at first because they said, “Well we did this on home video and it's old. What's the big deal?” So they tried to make it a new product by adding these bells and whistles: documentaries, making-ofs, all these things you know, interviews. But even that didn't work. So finally someone had the good idea, a marketing guy, to re-release pictures theatrically. So what they've been doing is... Lawrence of Arabia, Funny Girl just came out, then they do it with... gosh, how many movies have done this where they would make a theatrical re-release. Usually just in L.A. and New York. Which is great for those of us in L.A. and New York to go see these on a big screen. That's good. But sometimes they cheat you, like The Wizard of Oz re-release. They claimed it was the cleaned up, gorgeous, “digitally remastered” Wizard of Oz. But in fact, you went to the theatre and it was just an old shitty print. You know, it wasn't even nice! The DVD was beautiful but they never bothered to transfer it to film. But regardless, by doing that, then they got the reviews. Then they got media attention. So now it's evolved so that DVD is making inroads in the market, so now they have DVD review stuff.

Adam Jahnke: Yeah, now it's all over the place.

John Landis: Yeah, it's big business. But even still, some of the studios are way behind. I mean, Paramount is terrible. And Universal's late to the party, but they do a very good job. I was very pleased with the way they repackaged their old horror stuff, with David Skal making those documentaries.

Adam Jahnke: Yeah, those are really nice.

John Landis: Those are really nice. Although they didn't sell, so they've stopped it. (laughter) But those are really nice. Yeah, sometimes it's great. Sometimes it's silly. I mean, The Terminator one is like insane. Jesus Christ, it's like a video game.
Director John Landis.

Adam Jahnke: One of your movies that Anchor Bay has put out is your first one, Schlock.

John Landis: (laughs) Yeah.

Adam Jahnke: That was made completely independently, just on your own?

John Landis: Oh, Schlock was totally independent. So was Kentucky Fried Movie. So was American Werewolf in London. Those are all independents. But Schlock was really low budget, down and dirty. Rick Baker and I did a commentary on that which was interesting. I tend to shy away from commentaries. I don't like them. I mean; I've heard some really good ones. But usually, I don't want to hear someone else talking during the movie. It's like, “Shut up! I'm watching a movie here!” You know, I don't mind hearing what they have to say. But like Francis' commentary on The Godfather, I just watched it and it was like, “Shut up, Francis! Your movie's so good! I don't want to hear about that extra and what was going on.” Please, it's a great film. But I wouldn't mind hearing him talk about it later. I had an interesting thing. David Cronenberg and I were both teaching up in Sundance one summer and it was when Crash was coming out. And he screened Crash. And the audience was very disappointed in the movie. And then David stood up and started to talk. He talked for two hours and David was dazzling. He was brilliant. I mean, what he was saying was so extraordinary, he was so fascinating, he was much better than the movie. So it can work that way. On Schlock I did it ‘cause the movie's so terrible anyway, it doesn't matter. Rick and I had a really wonderful moment on that where, I don't know if you've heard the commentary...

Adam Jahnke: I haven't.

John Landis: Rick's dad is in the movie. And all of a sudden, Rick went, “Oh my God,” as we're watching it. And I said, “What?” He said, “I just realized that my father is younger in this movie than we are now.” That's just like... (does a few bars of the Twilight Zone theme). (laughter) So on Werewolf, Adam Simon had made a documentary for the Independent Film Channel called... um... uh-oh.

Adam Jahnke: American Nightmare.

John Landis: American Nightmare, which was excellent. And Werewolf was supposed to be part of that. So he shot interviews with me for part of that. Then when I saw the finished documentary, I'm in it but not my movie! I mean it's all about Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven and George Romero and David Cronenberg and John Carpenter. And I went, “Well, what the hell am I doing there?” He used me like his voice. But still, when they asked me to do the commentary for Werewolf, I said, “Hey, there's a documentary already existing. They shot it already.” So it's ironic because that was shot at Rick Baker's place and then Rick's interview was shot over two years later, but it looked like they were done at the same time ‘cause they're in the same place. So that was fun. I'm happy with the Werewolf DVD. It looks beautiful and sounds beautiful, so I'm very pleased.

Adam Jahnke: If you were a young, independent filmmaker starting today, do you think you could or would make Schlock as your first movie? Would it be possible to make or release a movie like that today?

John Landis: No. You know, the vast majority of independent films made now are never released. The independent film is really kind of a myth, ‘cause you have to get distributed. For every Blair Witch, there must be a thousand... and I'm not exaggerating... that never see the light of day. Don't even go to cable. It's very difficult out there. It's a changed business. And also one of the changes is the big studios now make exploitation pictures. I mean when Universal's spending that kind of money on The Mummy Returns... you know, that's a B programmer. So you can't compete. And in terms of sex, you have Warner Bros. releasing Eyes Wide Shut, which is sort of a high-class tits and ass movie, and it's just difficult to compete with cable. You have all those movies on cable. And the Internet, free porno... it's a different world and a very difficult one for independent filmmakers. And when they talk about Miramax, that's not independent film, that's Disney! Or Fox Searchlight... that's NewsCorp. I mean; they're all parts of huge conglomerates. It's a totally different world. It sucks. It really is a difficult time. Now having said that, I don't want to discourage people. I don't want to say to them “don't do it”, because as a young filmmaker now you have a tremendous advantage, which I didn't have which is the technology now. You can go out and digitally shoot a picture, a very good-looking movie, for $15,000. You really can. I was shooting 35mm, but even with 16 you couldn't do that then. So, I used to say writers have no excuse, because to be a writer all you need is pencil and paper. But to be a filmmaker, a director, you need all this stuff. You need equipment and actors and laboratories and cables and generators. And that's all shrinking. It really is. So, it's an interesting time. You know, there won't be film, I think, within the decade. Within ten years from today there won't be film. It'll all be digital. It'll look like film. And we'll still go to the theatre and still see it in a movie house. You know, when you make a movie now, my last three pictures, you don't even handle film in the cutting room.

Adam Jahnke: It's all on the computer.

John Landis: All computer, which is really kind of depressing. I write about it in the book that I miss film but that's just being archaic, I guess. I saw the trailer last night for the... what's it called... The Clones?

Adam Jahnke: Oh, the Star Wars movie?

John Landis: Yeah. It looks fabulous and that's all shot digitally. It's perfectly acceptable. You know what I saw last night that I really liked? Monsters, Inc.

Adam Jahnke: Oh, of course, because the Star Wars trailer's attached to Monsters, Inc.

John Landis: Oh, is it?

Adam Jahnke: Yeah, Lucas and Pixar made a deal so that all prints of Monsters, Inc. have that trailer attached.

John Landis: Aahhhhhh. Pretty clever. But Monsters, Inc. is terrific. I really enjoyed it. They're smart guys.

Adam Jahnke: Was it projected digitally where you saw it?

John Landis: No, it was projected by film.

Adam Jahnke: The few movies I've seen projected digitally are amazing.

John Landis: Well, animation especially looks good.

Adam Jahnke: Those are the only movies I've seen digitally are animated ones.

John Landis: They look especially good and they will look better. What's interesting is the first time I saw digital projection of a feature, I kept thinking, “What is wrong?” I was looking at the screen thinking, “What's bothering me?” And what was bothering me, it was so strange, was that the main title was rock steady. There was no gate jitter. But I don't think people should freak and think, “Oh God, we're going to lose anything,” ‘cause we're not. Filmmaking has not changed at all in almost a hundred years.

Adam Jahnke: Yeah, it's due.

John Landis: No, it's not gonna change in the future, either. The tools will change, but the process is exactly the same. It's like, people think computer animation, somehow computers do the animation. You read the end credits of Monsters, Inc. and see if anything it's just as if not more labor intensive than old-fashioned animation. It's certainly not cheaper. But it's interesting in terms of... it's just tools. You know? It's just tools. You still need to juxtapose those shots to create the montage to tell the story. And if you look at a production still from 1910 and look at a production still from 2001, it's a camera on sticks, there's a dolly, there's a bunch of guys standing behind it and some actors standing in front of it. I mean, none of it has changed.

Adam Jahnke: We were talking about Schlock before and that leads into this general question. What's your story with gorillas? What's behind that fascination?

John Landis: I don't know. I've always liked gorillas. When I was a kid, I loved King Kong. I still think King Kong is like a perfect movie.

Adam Jahnke: I'd agree with that.

John Landis: I've always loved gorillas. I don't know what that is. And it's funny, ‘cause when I met Rick Baker, I was 21 and he was 20, and the two of us had always liked gorillas. And the only other two guys... actually, I write about it in the book Best American Movie Writing 2001, my new book, which we have to hype.

Adam Jahnke: Yes, we do.

John Landis: I'm very pleased with the book. It's extremely eclectic and very entertaining. In it, there's an interview about Charlie Gemora. And in my introduction to it I write that I know three other guys, Bob Burns, Ray Harryhausen, and Rick Baker. Three very different ages but it's just so weird because we all have gorilla fascinations. I'm a big gorilla buff. I have no idea why. And I don't mean real gorillas, although I'm fascinated by real gorillas and I like them and all that stuff. They're not as cool as Mighty Joe Young, but... (laughter)

Adam Jahnke: The book, since we're on that subject now, is very excellent.

John Landis: Oh, good. Thank you. It's got a lot of interesting stuff in it.

Adam Jahnke: Yeah, it really does. To what degree would you say the book reveals your own interests and obsessions?

John Landis: Oh, I think entirely! In fact, if anything, too much! The parameters of the material were that it was supposed to all be published in 2000. I cheat. I just took that to mean, OK, it was published in 2000, it doesn't have to be written in 2000. So for instance the Jack Kerouac piece in there on the Three Stooges, that's an old piece but was published for the first time in 2000. Walter Bernstein's book, Inside Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist, it was republished in 2000 with a new preface, so I've excerpted the new preface and the last chapter, which is brilliant.

Adam Jahnke: There's the Kubrick piece on 2001.

John Landis: Which, of course, is obviously old. It's not like, “Oh, Stanley did that for me.” No, that was in the DGA magazine when he made the film. But I published that because it's 2001. And he died. And also, I have the Michael Herr piece about Stanley in there, which I quite like, from his book. ‘Cause you know Frederic Raphael wrote a book about working with Kubrick that I thought was just a bullshit book. I mean, Stanley was not an easy guy but he was brilliant. Raphael protests too much. But still, you're right, you wouldn't normally have a book that would have Molly Haskell and Bob Burns in the same book. It does reflect me. There's a wonderful piece on Ray Harryhausen. I didn't write it but... have you seen Monsters, Inc.?

Adam Jahnke: I haven't.

John Landis: They go to a bar called Harryhausen's! (laughter)

Adam Jahnke: Back on the subject of your movies and movies in general, with Kentucky Fried Movie

John Landis: Yeah, that's the only commentary I like.

Adam Jahnke: It's very funny.

John Landis: ‘Cause those are funny guys, so that was fun.

Adam Jahnke: I think you could easily make a case that Kentucky Fried Movie is the best of this weird 70s subgenre of sketch comedy movies like The Groove Tube and Tunnelvision, which may be damning it with faint praise.

John Landis: Yeah. (laughter)

Adam Jahnke: Why do you think there were so many of those types of movies?

John Landis: Well, Kentucky Fried made a lot of money. So of course there's going to be others. Groove Tube and Tunnelvision are both about television. Kentucky Fried was really much more of a potpourri, kind of anything goes. And it came about because we originally, you know the Kentucky Fried Theatre which was Jim Abrahams, Jerry and David Zucker, Stephen Stucker, Pat Proft, a bunch of people were involved, and they just did a sketch revue comedy. In the 60s, this was already into the 70s, but in the early 60s, in Chicago was the Second City, where you had genius people, you had Nichols and May and Alan Arkin and people like that. In San Francisco was The Committee with Howard Hesseman and Carl Gottlieb and those guys. In England in the 70s, you had the Pythons. And then of course came Saturday Night Live. So you had a lot of this stuff going on. We tried to do Kentucky Fried Airplane first but I said, “Y'know guys, there's a subtle line between parody and plagiarism.” If you screen Zero Hour next to Airplane!, you'll see a third of the dialogue is just lifted. It's the exact same plot. One of the reasons Airplane! works is that the structure is solid. Very much like Young Frankenstein is the best constructed of all of Mel Brooks' movies because he's just doing Son of Frankenstein. So the hard work's been done. But anyway, no one would do it (Kentucky Fried), so Bob Weiss was the one who said why don't we just do this show? Make sure there's enough nudity in it so we can get a distributor. So we said, “OK!” Sort of like Mickey and Judy.

Adam Jahnke: After Kentucky Fried Movie, you made Animal House which really cemented your reputation with some of the biggest names that comedy's seen in the last quarter century.

John Landis: Well, they weren't at the time. You have to remember... Steve Martin was certainly a star when I worked with him but most of the guys were not. They became big stars. But most of them were not big stars when I worked with them the first time. But yeah, I've had a really lucky career in terms of comics and musicians. I mean I've worked with everyone from Cab Calloway to Paul McCartney. David Bowie to Michael Jackson. I have worked with extraordinary musicians. B.B. King... just amazing people. And I've also worked with George Burns, Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Danny Aykroyd, John Belushi, Eddie Bracken. I mean I've been really lucky... I'm trying to think... John Candy, Marty Short, Chevy Chase - a really remarkable list of people. And Elmer Bernstein, I just love working with him.

Adam Jahnke: What's it like working with Elmer Bernstein? He's... a legend, really.

John Landis: Elmer did Animal House, he did American Werewolf. American Werewolf's a lovely score. Only seven minutes of music, but a lovely score and very essential to the movie. He did Three Amigos. Three Amigos is my favorite score of all my movies, mainly because it's Elmer Bernstein making fun of Elmer Bernstein. And it's very witty. The level of musicianship in that film, I mean the songs are by Randy Newman and the score is by Elmer Bernstein and it's really functioning on a high level of wit - especially the orchestra. The biggest orchestra I ever had, 140 pieces. And man, when they were doing the Three Amigos theme. It's like taking the mickey out of Magnificent Seven but like the best kind of satire, it works. I mean that's why satire's so hard. George Bernard Shaw said, “Satire is what closes on Saturday night.” But the reason there are so few satires made... a lot of parodies. Parody is not hard. Parody is making fun of. Satire has to succeed on its own as material. I mean... how do I explain that? Dr. Strangelove. It's not only a brilliant satire of nuclear war, it's also probably the best nuclear war movie ever made. And no matter how insane, it functions with real suspense and tension and really works. And it's very credible. No matter how exaggerated it gets. So that's what I think the score to Three Amigos has if you listen to it. But anyway, Elmer did Spies Like Us and... what else? Oh, twice I've called on Elmer, once on The Blues Brothers when I needed God. And I thought, y'know this rhythm and blues isn't making it, I need a big orchestra. So Elmer came and did the God music. And then on Thriller, I wanted scary music, so Elmer came and did the scary music. I've worked with Elmer a lot... he just turned 80.

Adam Jahnke: Really? And he's still working.

John Landis: He's doing Marty (Scorsese)'s movie right now, Gangs of New York.

Adam Jahnke: For better or worse, you're mainly known as a comedy director.

John Landis: All directors get typed. Just like actors.

Adam Jahnke: I assume this must have limited your ability to work in other genres to some extent.

John Landis: Well, it doesn't limit me but it limits the guys who give you money, so I guess it does limit me. The problem is if you've had success in something, that's what they want you to do. It's funny, I've done musicals, I've done comedy and I've done horror pictures. So it's like those are my... ”Oh, it's a musical/comedy/horror picture! Little Shop of Horrors. Let's get Landis!” That kind of thing. But I'd love to do westerns. That's what I'd really like to make. I think that's one of the reasons I'm fond of Three Amigos. Even though Three Amigos is certainly silly, it was still a western. They're so much fun. I worked on a bunch of westerns in Spain and also some here. Walter Hill said to me, “If they knew how much fun it was to make a western, they wouldn't let us.” And it's true, because you're riding around on horses, you're outside... it's so fun! I can't tell you how much fun it is. I loved it. But I like all kinds of movies. I'd like to make any kind of film; any and all kinds of films. And you don't really have the opportunity to. And then I get fucked when I do something like An American Werewolf in London, which is a horror film, people still call it a comedy, which drives me crazy. I mean; I hope it's funny but it's not a comedy.

Adam Jahnke: It's interesting because besides comedies, you are known for horror. And it's not that you've done a lot, but the ones that you've made have made this huge impression, like Werewolf and Thriller and Innocent Blood and things like that.

John Landis: I'm proud of Innocent Blood but that didn't really do well at all in this country. It was kind of a disaster. But I like that picture. It's got wonderful performances in it.

Adam Jahnke: Yeah, Don Rickles is great in it.

John Landis: Don Rickles is wonderful and Chazz Palminteri is wonderful and Annie Parillaud is wonderful and Robert Loggia redefines “over the top” in that movie. I think he's just brilliant in that.

Adam Jahnke: In addition to King Kong, are there other horror movies you're a big fan of?

John Landis: Oh, many. There are a lot of good horror pictures. I tend to like the classics but certainly Night of the Living Dead and Texas Chainsaw Massacre are great, great films. David Cronenberg's made some great films. I think The Fly remake is a great movie. I think Carpenter's The Thing is a great movie. By the way, so is Hawks'. They're both great movies, they're just different. There are a lot of great horror pictures. Unfortunately, a lot of them are old. Like Island of Lost Souls, I don't think has been improved. I think that's an unbelievably brilliant picture. Bride of Frankenstein -- all the ones that everyone always throws at you but it's true, they're great.

Adam Jahnke: On Twilight Zone, you wrote and directed both the first segment and the prologue. Was the prologue perhaps intended for Aykroyd and John Belushi, before he died?

John Landis: No. I wrote it and hired Albert (Brooks) and Danny. In fact, I always thought Danny and Albert were given not enough and too much credit. By that I mean, I always read that that was improvised. And I wrote it. So on one hand, that's a great compliment to them.

Adam Jahnke: Yeah, it sure looks improvised.

John Landis: And on the other hand, it's really aggravating. But it was a little more frightening than it is now. Because originally the monster turned and went (hisses) like that, and you cut outside and Albert's head came bouncing down the road. We took that out. But I like that opening.

Adam Jahnke: Yeah, I think that's a terrific opening.

John Landis: I didn't shoot the ending, I think Joe (Dante) did. The thing that ties it up with Danny (in the ambulance). I think Joe shot that. Joe or George (Miller), I forget who shot that.

Adam Jahnke: Also on Twilight Zone, you were the only one who shot a completely original story while everybody else decided to remake an episode from the TV show. Why did you choose to do that?

John Landis: Well, I wanted to honor The Twilight Zone, not repeat The Twilight Zone. I was trying to do some of the political... I mean, Rod Serling was a classic liberal and he always had these morality tales. Especially about racism and things, so I wanted to tackle that head-on. And because of the tragedy (NOTE: actor Vic Morrow and two children were killed in a helicopter accident during the filming of this segment), the piece is kind of abbreviated. And it was a very difficult decision what to do with it. Do we include it, do we take it out, what do we do? So what we ended up doing was rebuilding it and cutting a large section out of it. I don't know if it recovered. But Vic's performance was great and I think it's very powerful at the end when he goes off in the train. So it's a tough decision and the studio and Spielberg thought, “No, you should have it in.” But I don't know. I have mixed feelings about that.

Adam Jahnke: Have you gotten any indication from Warner Bros. that that will be coming out on DVD anytime soon?

John Landis: I have no idea. It sure makes a lot of money. That picture continues to make money. I get checks all the time. So I really don't know. It should. It came out on laserdisc.

Adam Jahnke: I know for awhile, Spielberg had sort of placed a moratorium on his movies being released on DVD until he could become involved...

John Landis: I don't know anything about it. I know for a long time Spielberg and Lucas both thought they would be losing money. That they'd be ripped off. And Steve and George both desperately need more money. (laughter)

Adam Jahnke: It seems like you can't turn on VH1 these days without seeing Thriller.

John Landis: Well, it's Halloween. Y'know, that's like my Portrait of Dorian Gray. Every year it shows up and my hair is black.

Adam Jahnke: Are you still in touch with Michael Jackson?

John Landis: I spoke to Michael not long ago. I mean; I don't talk to him all the time.

Adam Jahnke: Are you planning on doing any more videos?

John Landis: I don't know. I hadn't thought about it. I enjoyed working with Michael but I'm not in the video business, really. When I did the first one, it was a theatrical short that became a video. And the second one (Black or White) I did as a favor to Michael. I felt I owed it to him. And I enjoyed doing that, mainly because it really was the first time anyone had ever seen the computer morphing. That was very exciting. It's funny how whenever you use a new technology, it's startling and then it becomes an instant cliché because it gets co-opted. Like you remember that shot the (Gap) commercial did where you go 360 around something and then it was everywhere! I remember when we were shooting American Werewolf, it really was one of the first movies to use a Steadicam. Like the third movie or something. And I was at Technicolor London sitting next to Bob Paynter, the DP, and there was this shot of the wolf's POV in the subway and Bob turned to me and said, “Well, there's an instant cliché!” And it was true! It was so obvious, well, we're gonna see this shot some more! It was just so obviously effective.

Adam Jahnke: Of your movies, one of my personal favorites and I think probably your most underrated movie is Into The Night. I think that's a terrific movie.

John Landis: I like that movie. That was my first failure. I'd made all these little movies and then made Animal House and The Blues Brothers and they'd all been big hits and then made Into the Night and it completely tanked. And I was like, “I did the same thing. What did I do different?” I like that movie, too.

Adam Jahnke: How did you get involved with it?

John Landis: I read a script by Ron Koslow that I didn't like, but I loved the premise. ‘Cause it was based on a real event. The Shah of Iran's sister moved to Trousdale. It's a long story but y'know the Peacock Throne, the royal jewels of the Peacock Throne of the Shah, are beyond anything you've ever seen. Forget the British crown jewels, they're not even close. And more than half just vanished with the fall of the Shah. And they ended up in safety deposit boxes in Gestad and Geneva and Beverly Hills. And it was very interesting, the Persian impact upon Beverly Hills. There still is a very large Iranian community. And it's Jewish and Muslim and Christian. It's basically all the people who fled the Ayatollah. So for instance in Into the Night, every Persian is played by a real Persian except Irene Pappas and myself. Everybody else is in fact Iranian. So everyone's speaking Farsi and a lot of those people were big movie stars in Iran who'd fled. So we had a lot of very good actors. So, I like the movie. And it has a wonderful score. The score is by Ira Newborn. No one had ever done this before. Eric Clapton has done it several times since. But I just had this idea that worked very well. I had B.B. King, who I'd admired forever and this was the first time I worked with B.B., and had him sit down with the movie and a headset and he watched it once. Then he watched it again and just jammed to it on Lucille, his guitar. We did that twice and then Ira wrote a score around B.B.'s lead guitar. It's a very unusual score. It's a silly movie but I like it. I liked making a movie about L.A.

Adam Jahnke: Was it a particularly hard movie to shoot?

John Landis: It was ten weeks of nights, which was very weird. But because it's Los Angeles, the weather was fine. So it was weird being a vampire but at the same time, the other picture I made all nights was Innocent Blood and that was terrible weather in Pittsburgh. So what was supposed to be ten weeks went to, like, seventeen weeks because we had blizzards. You can see it in the movie, you can really see it in the film. Most of that snow is real. Yeah, that was miserable. That was tough ‘cause it was freezing. See, I grew up in Los Angeles. I'm one of those guys. I've now shot in Norway, London, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Toronto. Y'know, I've shot all over the world and anytime I'm someplace where it's cold I think, “These people are crazy.” ‘Cause I grew up thinking, “Snow? That's a luxury you visit, and then you leave!” You don't live in it! But Into the Night was fun. Michelle (Pfeiffer) and Jeff (Goldblum) were not big stars then. The big star in the movie was David Bowie! And Carl Perkins is in the movie, so that was fun. I have to say I enjoyed making that picture. I haven't seen that movie in many years. I don't know if I'd like it if I saw it again. And I ended up in it by accident, because I had this notion of the Savak. I wanted them to be kind of like the Three Stooges but I really wanted them to be murderers. They are just stone-cold killers. But I wanted them to be funny and yet deadly. And I was trying to get the guys, they're all good actors and I was trying to get them to do slapstick. And they just couldn't get it. So I finally ended up going, “Fuck it, I'll be one of you guys. You just follow me, boys.” And it worked fine. I certainly could pass, so it was not a problem. That movie caused trouble when it got on TV.

Adam Jahnke: Really?

John Landis: Well, they were speaking Farsi and in Farsi, in terms of Islam, there are all these words that are... when you're being profane, you're really being profane. It's really sacrilegious. You know how the Savak are yelling at each other all the time? Well, what they're saying is obscene and blasphemous. And when it went on NBC Saturday Night at the Movies, people are so ignorant, they go, “Oh, those guys are Arabs.” They're not Arabs, they're Persians. They're Aryans, in fact. But they're speaking Farsi, they're not speaking Arabic. But Americans are ignorant, so they heard that and went, “Oh, it's gibberish. Who cares?” They didn't realize they were speaking a language so when it went on TV on Saturday Night at the Movies, they got several thousand outraged letters and phone calls, “There's profanity coming off the TV!” (Laughter) That gave me some pleasure.

Adam Jahnke: The other thing that's really cool about Into the Night is I think it's one of your best Spot-The-Director movies. There are all sorts of fun people in it.

John Landis: Do you know that I've always... I felt bad, on Into The Night for some reason it's the one where people noticed it. But all of my films except Animal House have had directors. All of them. And lots of directors. It's just for some reason, I guess because it was in L.A., really. And partly too because two of the directors played directors. Dan Petrie and Colin Higgins. No, Colin Higgins played an actor. Paul Mazursky played a producer. So I guess only one director played a director. But it was in Hollywood, so I think people noticed it more. And sometimes it's just fun. I mean, The Stupids had an unbelievable number of directors. And Spies Like Us. And really esoteric directors, that's what I like. I get perverse pleasure out of, like you see Coming to America and here's John Amos owns a fast-food franchise and one of his guests at the party is Tobe Hooper. That kind of stuff I like. But it's not important and it's not in there for any reason. I don't want to make too much out of it. It's not like Hitchcock. When Hitch made cameos in his movies, it became a selling tool and stuff. And he's so recognizable. My movies, you shouldn't... every so often, I will make a joke. In Innocent Blood, it's a joke for those who know, it's funny but it's not important. When Don Rickles is attacked and he's put in the ambulance, the ambulance driver is Dario (Argento). (in Italian accent) “You're-a gonna be fine.” (laughter) That's funny. And George Lucas is funny in Beverly Hills Cop III. (imitating Lucas) “Hey!” And Spielberg was funny in Blues Brothers. And Frank Oz is a good actor.

Adam Jahnke: Yeah, he's been in a lot of your movies.

John Landis: A lot of my movies. I love him. I think he's brilliant. I'm watching Monsters, Inc. and I said to Debra, my wife, I said, “Is Frank in this?” ‘Cause you're watching all these monsters and his voice, I could just hear it. I had to stay for the end credits and sure enough, Frank was in the movie.

Adam Jahnke: Are there any filmmakers that you'd really like to get into one of your movies that you haven't been able to yet?

John Landis: Oh, sure. All of them. What I like is that I have everybody from Gillo Pontecorvo to Russ Meyer in my movies. I mean I really have a pretty wild selection of directors in there. It just gives me pleasure. It's totally unimportant. I don't want people to now play Spot-The-Director in the movies.

Adam Jahnke: There's a lot of strong stuff in the book, but one of the best sections is on censorship. Particularly the piece by Doug Atchison on how the MPAA rates independent films.

John Landis: That's never been my experience but he's not wrong.

Adam Jahnke: I know working for Troma, we've had this experience with the MPAA refusing to give our movies an R rating and they won't tell you what you can do to change it.

John Landis: They never tell you what to do. That's frustrating. But I say that in the book that one of the problems with censorship is it's got to be arbitrary. When you're dealing with something that's irrational in the first place, it's very difficult to be rational. You can't negotiate when someone's being insane. So that's a tough one. Although I do support the MPAA because without it, there's no doubt we'd have government censorship - especially with these lunatics in power right now. We have real bad guys. Talk about religious war, that's what we're in. Taliban's not our only enemy. Let me put it that way.

Adam Jahnke: Have you personally had any trouble with ratings on your movies?

John Landis: Oh, sure. Innocent Blood went back and forth 20 times. Innocent Blood was much sexier than it is now. What they don't like, you can tell... it's not sex and it's not violence. It's the combination of sex and violence. So a movie can be very violent if you don't have any nudity or any sex in it. They'll let you get away with more violence. But as soon as you combine the violence with sex, they get very freaked out. And vice versa. You can get away with more sex, but there's no violence. So it's strange. And you never know who's watching it and some of them are more lenient than others. It's a weird thing. And you can't argue because on Innocent Blood, there's a silly thing where the Kim Coates vampire leaps on Anthony LaPaglia and he says, “I'm gonna eat your face like a chicken.” And Tony shoves a gun in his mouth and fires. Well originally, you saw a shot where you saw the bullet go out the back of his head and he fell over dead. And it was a very good effect, too. And they said, “No, you can't see the bullet going out the back of his head.” Well, you can make a list of 30 films where you've seen that bullet go out the back of someone's head. My favorite one on Susan's Plan, a movie I made, there's a nightmare... well, I'm blowing it for you, but there's a nightmare that Nastassja Kinski has and at one point Danny Aykroyd shoots Sheree North in the head. And you see her entire side of her head come off against the wall. It's quite shocking and very quick. And they said, “Oh, you can't do that.” And I said, “Well, it doesn't really happen. It's in a dream.” Which is true. And they went, “Oh, OK!” So I thought, “Huh? Well, good, great!” You want to talk to somebody who would really start going is Paul Verhoeven. He'll go crazy. But it's difficult because even though it's frustrating and outrageous, the alternative's far worse. You know, David Cronenberg's never had a film of his not butchered in Canada.

Adam Jahnke: Really? In his own country?

John Landis: Oh, yeah. Canada, especially in Edmond, they've got strong censorship. So if you want to see a Cronenberg film uncut, you've gotta come down here. I had an ironic thing happen on Innocent Blood, which was, I did my first cut. My very first cut. And I've always previewed answer prints. Long, involved story but it's cheaper to preview answer prints and then make changes than to do temp dubs and stuff like that, really because I know what I want. So anyway I previewed my first cut of Innocent Blood and it's fat. I know it's fat, I want to see it. It's like 15 minutes fat. And then I get it down to how I want it and I take it to the MPAA and they take out like another minute and a half. Of sex, mostly. Almost all sex, maybe two minutes. OK, so it's gone. So they make the American version of it and they say to me, “Look, for Europe can we release a version with the sex in it?” I go, “Sure.” So my partner Leslie Belzberg and I go to Brussels for this horror film festival where it's going to have its European premiere. And we sit there and we're watching the film and I'm thinking, “What is wrong with the movie?” Then I realize, they didn't put the two minutes in. They put back in the 15 minutes! So all around Europe, the print of Innocent Blood is completely wrong and not my cut! It's got more sex in it but it's also got 12 minutes more stuff in it that should not be there. So it's very weird because I'm thinking, “Oh my God, this is completely wrong!” and I'm there to promote the movie so I can't say, “I've been fucked! Don't watch the movie!” So that was a very tough one and in fact, ironically, the American version that you buy on DVD is much closer to what I want than the so-called uncensored director's cut in Europe. So you never know. It's very frustrating all that stuff. You have very little real control over it.

Director John Landis. Adam Jahnke: Have there been any of your movies you thought were rated unfairly... I guess what I'm thinking of is this weekend I watched Roger Ebert and he was saying he was amazed that Domestic Disturbance was rated PG-13 and it has all this violence in it, while something like Waking Life is rated R.

John Landis: What's Waking Life?

Adam Jahnke: It's an animated movie kind of like Slacker, made by the guy who made Slacker.

John Landis: Oh, Richard Linklater's movie.

Adam Jahnke: Yeah, and there's really nothing in it other than language.

John Landis: Well, language... ”fuck” is a big one. When I made the first Blues Brothers, it was rated R. There's nothing in that movie I wouldn't show a child. But they say “fuck” a lot. But that's fine with me, you just have to teach a kid when you swear and when you don't. There's a Mark Twain quote that I love... I can't remember it exactly right now but the end of it is, “When you're very angry, swear.” The point is there are some words that you should say. I made a TV series called Dream On. And on Dream On, which was revolutionary at the time, everyone thought what was revolutionary was the nudity and the fucking. In fact, that wasn't revolutionary. What was revolutionary was the language. Because people spoke the way people really spoke.

Adam Jahnke: That was for HBO, right? You were working for HBO before it was cool to work for HBO.

John Landis: Well, we got them their first Emmy and all that stuff. It was just an amazing opportunity ‘cause I had total creative freedom. So it was very cool. But you don't get that anymore. David Chase now has it on The Sopranos. But in any case, what I was going to say is that on the second Blues Brothers the studio made this pronouncement it had to be PG. Well, that meant that the actors couldn't swear. And as soon as Elwood can't swear, it's like you cut his nuts off. It's essential to the character. So, we just decided on that movie, “Fuck it.” Y'know, that's why I like DVD, ‘cause if you get the DVD of that movie you can just go to the musical numbers. The way we got that movie made was by agreeing to everything. We just kept bending over and saying, “Yep, OK. Fine. A child? No problem. Whatever you want, you got it.” So we did everything the studio said, destroyed the movie, but we also got to... the first movie has six musical numbers, the second movie has 18 musical numbers. The second movie's about the music.

Adam Jahnke: The second one's really more of a traditional musical.

John Landis: Yeah, it's got much, much more music. I mean, for me just getting Junior Wells and Wilson Pickett and those guys on film, I'm happy.

Adam Jahnke: This may be a completely unfair question, but what's your favorite piece in the book?

John Landis: That's a tough one. My favorite piece? Gosh, I was very struck by the (Robert) Polito piece on Barbara Payton ‘cause it's so sad. It's heartbreaking. That's an excellent piece. The Leonard Leff piece on Gone With The Wind and racial politics is very interesting. I think the Russell Banks piece, “No, But I Saw The Movie” is probably my favorite. Because it's a very smart discussion on the difference between novels and movies. Let's see, what else? I liked Larry Kasdan's piece, which I thought was funny. I like the piece on Sam Raimi. I love the one on Burn!, just because I love that movie. Oh, you know what? I guess my two favorite pieces would probably be the Russell Banks piece and this Stuart Klawans piece, “An Interlude”. Have you read that? It's about a Nazi film.

Adam Jahnke: I'm about halfway through that one, actually.

John Landis: It is bizarre. It's an extraordinary story about Kolberg, this film that the Germans were making while they were losing the war. That's an amazing story. Also I like the David Remnick piece on The Sopranos, “Is This The End Of Rico?” because it's not really about The Sopranos as much as about the gangster genre and where can it go from here. And also this woman, Maria DiBattista piece “Female Rampant”. She wrote this book that's basically this big feminist viewpoint of screwball comedy but she discusses in great detail a film I adore which is His Girl Friday. So I love a lot of stuff in the book. I'm pleased with the book. My intention is just to create an entertainment. So if you're interested in movies, this should interest you.

Adam Jahnke: That's why I said it was probably an unfair question, because if you didn't like it, it wouldn't be in the book.

John Landis: That's true. And boy, I read hundreds and hundreds of pieces that I did not like. And also I enjoyed putting together all this... they didn't want me to do this but I did it anyway...

Adam Jahnke: Oh, the compilation of quotes at the beginning of the book?

John Landis: Yeah, the quotes on critics. And there are some wonderful things in here. This quote, “The criterion for judging whether a picture is successful or not is time.” That's (Peter) Bogdanovich's quote. And then I love this exchange. This is a brilliant quote from Pauline Kael. She says, “The critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising.” Great, and then I followed it with a quote from George Cukor, where he says, “Oh, fuck Pauline Kael, fuck her! And I don't use that language all the time. I don't care what she has to say. She's a bitch. She's spiteful, and she's wrong.” (laughter) And then John Steinbeck, “Time is the only critic without ambition.” But it's a complicated issue with critics. I think it's also colored by the fact that there are no good critics writing today. I mean we don't really have anybody good. Plus, now that the critic becomes a media celebrity, it's about promoting the critic. I mean, Roger Ebert thinks he's Alex Woolcott for Christ's sake. I would loathe Roger Ebert except for the fact that he wrote Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. (laughter)

Adam Jahnke: So he's redeemed.

John Landis: He's a redeemed guy. (laughter)

Adam Jahnke: What are you working on right now?

John Landis: I'm going to New York to promote the book and I'm doing a commercial which is kind of fun for Japanese Pepsi with this guy Ichiro. You know, the Japanese ballplayer for the Seattle Mariners? Yeah, he's a big star in Japan. Big star here, too. But actually the truth is I'm waiting. I'm very fortunate. I don't have to work but I'm desperate to make a movie. I've got like six things. When one of them becomes real, I'll let you know. And unfortunately, it's reflected in the product of the last year, Hollywood has really changed in terms of the kinds of movies they are making. It's a very difficult time. There's a lot of crap out there and I just don't want to have to do that. I mean there was a time where I had to take any job where they met my price ‘cause I needed the money. But I don't now. I mean, I'm working! I've got stuff going all the time. But I really don't want to make a movie unless there's a real reason to.


Our thanks to Matt Kalinowski at Universal and Alex Young at Avalon Publishing for setting this interview up. And, of course, a big thanks to John Landis for coming out to shoot the shit for a while. Now go out and buy Universal's An American Werewolf in London DVD and The Best American Movie Writing 2001 from Thunder's Mouth Press. You'll be glad you did.

Adam Jahnke

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