With movies like “Kentucky Fried Movie, ” or “Animal House, ” director John Landis has made a name from himself as an almost anarchic filmmaker who manages to make fun of literally anything. With films such as “The Blues Brothers” he showed his talent to create funny and entertaining music films and his horror film “An American Werewolf In London” still stands out as one of the most influential and impressive werewolf films of all time.
Recently I had the chance to talk to John Landis about “The Kentucky Fried Movie”, his body of work, his perspectives and his take on DVD.
Guido Henkel: The commentary track on the Kentucky Fried Movie DVD is quite unconventional, though very enjoyable and entertaining. How did the idea come about to create such a loose commentary that gives viewers the impression as if they are sitting in themselves, overhearing private conversations?
John Landis: As you know, I usually don’t do commentary tracks. I frequently listen to others and quite enjoy them, but I didn’t want to do one yet. I’d rather let the movies speak for themselves. However, in the case of Kentucky Fried Movie, Anchor Bay approached me and asked if I wanted to do a commentary track. I told them that I didn’t really want to, but at the same time asked if it would be possible to do one with all the other guys. You know, David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker and Robert K. Weiss. Especially since we don’t get to see each other that much any more, it would have been a great excuse to get together. I thought it would be fun to do and Bill Lustig, who produced the DVD for Anchor Bay said, sure, that sounds like fun.
So we met, sat down, ran the movie and schmoozed.
Guido Henkel: I really enjoyed that atmosphere of the commentary, as it feels very personal and uninhibited.
John Landis: I am glad you say that, because when we were finished recording the track, I was really concerned we would sound like a bunch of 50 year-olds sitting on a bench, and nothing of what they say is of any interest. But then again, it was interesting for all of us, and even I learned a few things I didn’t know before, like the “real” budget of the movie.
Guido Henkel: Will there be more commentary tracks by John Landis, now that the ice is broken?
John Landis: I doubt there will be more. I don’t know. I don’t really foresee it. I’d rather have documentaries in their stead. Look at the Collector’s Edition of Animal House. I like it a lot and Universal even let me clean up the transfer. The film looks better now than it ever did in theaters, and I am not kidding you. They made a new documentary for it and it turned out great. I thought it was terrific, and the guys even sounded British. To do a commentary track on top of all that seemed a little superfluous to me.
Guido Henkel: Kentucky Fried Movie has a real gung-ho feel throughout, which makes the film very special.
John Landis: Hah! Good word. Gung-ho, huh…
Guido Henkel: It seems there were no limits to what you guys could think up. How much has changed from then to the way you make your movies today? Are you still a gung-ho guy, or do you see yourself more integrated in the political correctness of the studio environment?
John Landis: You are absolutely right in terms of our attitudes. It IS the effort of a bunch of reckless young guys. It was made for very little money – although I learned from the commentary track we did that it actually cost more money than I always thought. On top of that it was a film we shot really quickly, in only 20 days or so. And most important, we did it for fun and with fun!
Am I still gung-ho? I think that depends on the project and the people who are involved in it. The business has changed dramatically, especially in the last 5 years. Studios are much more corporate now. They are run by executives and business people, and no longer by the filmmakers that used to run those studios in the past. I was lucky to start as a director in the 70s, which was a much more exciting time. Both, creatively, and from the risk aspect. The people back then were individuals. They had personal tastes and preferences and they were willing to take a risk here and there.
What has happened is that today the studios are minor divisions of these huge international conglomerates where quarterly results are more important than movies. They’d rather be in the blockbuster business making nothing but Jerry Bruckheimer movies to bring in the big money. However there’s still a lot of good people around and there are a lot of interesting projects out there.
Guido Henkel: Is it correct that you used to be a stunt man specialized on horse-falls?
John Landis: (Laughs) Oh my God, where did you get that from? That is so grossly incorrect!
Guido Henkel: How did that rumor come about then?
John Landis: I did many stunts on many films, that is correct. I have fallen off a lot of horses too, but to say I specialized in that kind of stunt-work is really an exaggeration.
Guido Henkel: Did that give you the physical attributes that allow you to do all those “throw-away” cameos in your movies – excuse the pun?
John Landis: I was a stunt man in the past, but I also had done any other job. I did literally everything you can do on a movie with exception of hair dressing and makeup – and even there, I did some of the monster stuff. I was a gopher, you know, a schlepper, but now they’re called “Production Assistants.” Same thing, though… You name it and I’ve done it, just to be in the movies.
And it was always exciting. Back in the 60s many films were shot in Spain, and I did a lot of jobs there.
Guido Henkel: At one point in time everyone thought you were the next revelation in horror movies when An American Werewolf in London came out. With the exception of Innocent Blood you haven’t done any more genre work. Is there any particular reason for that?
John Landis: No, not really. You know I actually wrote An American Werewolf in London way back in 1969. Eventually the success of Animal House and the Blues Brothers made it possible for me to do that movie, which was always on my plate. So I was finally able to make it in 1981. That was how that one came together.
Directors get typed like actors, really, and because I made successful comedies I was quickly turned into a comedy director. My favorite genre is actually music. The Wizard Of Oz and Singing In The Rain are my favorite movies. I even made musicals, and they’re pretty unorthodox.
I like everything, and I would love to make a Western. I did Three Amigos – but that was satirical. In all honesty though, I would love to do a real Western. Very few filmmakers can do what they want. It’s quite an enterprise with all that money involved and ultimately, I’m at the mercy of the market.
Guido Henkel: The thing I liked the most about An American Werewolf in London was the way it manages to combine good laughs with absolutely solid horror. Many times filmmakers attempt to do that, but either one is usually watered-down quite a bit. The result is either not funny at all, or not scary… or most of the time neither of it.
John Landis: That’s right, but at the same time, take a look at James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein or The Old Dark House. He always managed to make funny horror movies and in fact in The Invisible Man he even has broad comedy elements. Psycho is a comedy if you asked Hitchcock. Lines like “Mother is not herself today” are just outrageously funny within the context.
I feel a little bad because An American Werewolf in London was very influential and a string of very terrible movies followed. It was my attempt to be realistic about something that is absurd by itself. Take an absolutely preposterous and unreal scenario and treat it as if it were real. That was the idea of the film.
Innocent Blood is much more outrageous – the movie was way ahead of its time. It came before all those modern vampire movies, and the idea of mixing the Mafia with vampires was just great. It is really funny by the way, that The Sopranosfeatures the entire cast of that movie.
Guido Henkel: Do you know if there are any plans to release a DVD special edition of An American Werewolf in London? It was released in early 1998, but without extras, and I remember at the time the film was shot there was a lot of background coverage on the special effects of the film that were groundbreaking at the time.
John Landis: In fact Universal in the UK is preparing and collecting some of that material as we speak. (Editor: The film was shot in the UK and hence all elements, such as deleted scenes, etc. are located in Universal’s UK vaults.) Universal has bought Polygram, and they now own the film. I know they are planning to do some fancy edition, which should be great!
Guido Henkel: You are also a screenwriter, and some of your most successful films were written by you. Which do you prefer most, writing or directing? Do you think being able to handle both jobs makes your work easier?
John Landis: Believe it or not, but my most successful movie isComing to America that was written by Eddie Murphy. I’ve written other people’s successful movies, and even Blues Brothers is really Dan Aykroyd’s creation.
Basically all directors write, it’s part of the job. Where you put the camera has everything to do with how a scene plays. I’ve seen good scripts which turn into bad movies, and I’ve seen really good scripts that turn into bad movies. (Laughs) And I’ve seen bad scripts that turn into great movies. It all hinges upon the director.
I bought Animal House and it was one of the few times where I had a really great screenplay ready to go. Trading Places was the same way, very old-fashioned, but great. But these scripts are hard to come by.
With An American Werewolf in London I was really concerned. I was 18 when I wrote that script and when we began working on the project that was still the basic script we worked from. When we looked into it we found that the cartoon cinema at Picadilly was no more. They had turned it into a porno theater and as a result I decided to update the script and make it contemporary.
Guido Henkel: How do you work with your actors? People like Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy, Steve Martin are all known for their abilities to improvise. Is that what you’re trying to capture in your films or do you try to polish the performances?
John Landis: It really depends. Every actor is different. I had many scenes where people think it’s an improvised scene and it wasn’t. That scene in Twilight Zone with Dan Aykroyd – I wrote that. On the other hand you can take that as a compliment, because obviously my work paid off. I like to improvise during rehearsal, but once we get on the set, during shooting it’s a very labor-intensive thing and you don’t really have the room and latitude for that. Time is money! If you decide to improvise during the shoot, you only do it within certain parameters.
Guido Henkel: Speaking of Aykroyd, can you tell me a little about Blues Brothers 2000? I truly enjoyed the movie, but I know many fans were disappointed. Looking back on it now with 2 years of distance, did the film turn out the way you wanted it to be?
John Landis: Blues Brothers 2000 was a movie that Dan and I wanted to make. There was a lot of Rhythm and Blues around at the time that we really wanted to put on film to commemorate it. The studio had entirely different ideas, but I did everything the studio asked me to do – for the first time!
It had to be PG-rated, they wanted a little boy, which is totally inappropriate for the subject matter, but we did it. They practically fucked us and we agreed just because we wanted to make it to get the music out. The first Blues Brothers movie has 8 musical numbers. The second one has 18 of them. The focus was always on the music, and not so much on the story for us. Sadly many of those great people appearing in the film are no longer with us, like Junior Wells, who died soon after the shoot.
The movie is a testament to the first one, rather than a movie in itself. Everybody worked for scale and wanted to be in it and I am very proud of the musical numbers. It was also fascinating in terms of technology. In the first movie only John Lee Hooker and James Brown were actually recorded live. Everything else was playback!
Now, 18 years later, because of the digital recording techniques, from the 18 numbers appearing in the movie, 16 were recorded live! That posed new logistic problems with the shooting, but it turned out terrific. I do have mixed feelings about the film, but I am very proud of the music.
Guido Henkel: Are you generally involved in the video versions of your movies?
John Landis: Oh, you’re supposed to. The Director’s Guild ruled that you are supposed to come in and get involved these days. But reality is a little different. Sometimes the studios rename your movie to Choochoo Train or whatever, make some really bad copies and throw it in the market. I’ve had some really bad versions of my films out there and no control over it.
Fortunately there are companies like Anchor Bay who take this very seriously. They are bringing out my first film, Schlock, which is very exciting. It’s not a great movie by any means, but it’s the first time a quality version of the film will be out there. I’m very happy with the way they treated Kentucky Fried Movie. The same goes for Animal House or the Blues Brothers, I dig it all!
Guido Henkel: Do you think that DVD has changed the way people watch movies at home?
John Landis: For a certain segment of viewers I am sure it did, especially film buffs and people who are really into the movies. They love the added bells and whistles. Personally, I love the documentaries and commentary tracks. As a film buff DVD is a terrific format, for the average viewer it offers better quality, but do they care?
Guido Henkel: How do you think DVD has changed the filmmaking community? Has it at all?
John Landis: It has certainly changed the industry, especially for the companies and studios. Blues Brothers is a perfect example for that. At one point, Universal asked me to do a Director’s Cut of the Blues Brothers. I loved the idea, and they wanted me to restore the original version and vision of the movie. When we started working on it, we discoveredthat in 1985, Universal had thrown out everything that was not used in the film. I mean, imagine that. They have thrown out a number of really hot, finished musical numbers that were cut from the film. Nowadays they would never do anything like that, because the material is too valuable.
As a director these days you try to be constantly aware how the film will be seen eventually. You have the pleasure that the good companies now offer viewers the choice to watch movies in widescreen, in Director’s Cuts and with all the extras has been a great development for the filmmaking community.
I love DVD, and I enjoy all that stuff!
Thanks go out to Anchor Bay Entertainment for making this interview possible, and thanks of course to John Landis for taking the time to talk to us.