Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here, with Part 2 of my hour-long interview director John Landis. If you missed the first part, you can find it HERE, where we talked about his early years working as a stuntman for Sergio Leone and making his first three films--SCHLOCK, KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE, and the groundbreaking ANIMAL HOUSE. We also covered his latest film, the bloody period comedy BURKE AND HARE, starring Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis. There's still so much more to come, and Landis is such a wonderful storyteller…
Capone: I read an interview with you where somebody asked, “How did you get into comedy?,” and you turned around and said, “Well, actually comedy found me,” as if it were something you didn't choose. Can you explain that?
JL: First of all, film directors get typed just like actors. So, if you have great success in comedy, then they think that’s what you do, comedy. And if you say, “Well, I want to make a horror film,” they say “Well, we're very sorry, you don’t make horror films.” I’ve had great success in comedies, horror, and musicals, so they want to offer me THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW. “That’s a comedy, horror film, and a musical.”
They're very narrow in their thinking, and it’s quite remarkable in retrospect that I was able to make ANIMAL HOUSE as freely as I did at Universal, which is a tribute to Lew Wasserman, I think. At the time, that was quite a radical movie. Now with people like the Farrelly brothers and others, everyone has copied that style so much, like OLD SCHOOL and all of that. It’s been copied so much that I think it loses something. Like PSYCHO or TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, there are some movies that were very different at the time, but they were very influential. So, if you see them now, they don’t have the impact maybe they would have had when they were released.
Capone: You still see your influence on the landscape of today’s comedies? I’ve heard people--actors and directors--talk about the influence of your films, of Harold Raimis as well.
JL: I think that has a lot to do with their age. These are the films they saw when they were growing up. It’s kind of shocking to me, when I go to talk at film schools sometimes, I’m always amazed at how ignorant the students are of film history. They don’t know Laurel and Hardy or the Marx Brothers or Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton or Chaplin or Abbott and Costello, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Jerry Lewis even. They don’t know these films. I’ve actually met people who thought comedy started with me, and it was like, “I hate to disillusion you, but there were brilliant comedies before I was there.” I don’t think I’ve ever really made a great film, but I’ve made very influential films, which is good and bad.
Capone: I might have to disagree with you there. My being in Chicago, I would be remiss not talking a little bit about THE BLUES BROTHERS. A couple of years ago, I had a conversation with Michael Mann where he told me something I had never really considered, which was that because the original Mayor Daley didn’t ever let movies get shot in Chicago, that when he stopped being mayor, THIEF and THE BLUES BROTHERS were the first two post-Daley films shot in Chicago.
JL: Right. That was Mayor Byrne, Jane Byrne, who allowed filming in Chicago. She encouraged it. There was THIEF and THE BLUES BROTHERS and ORDINARY PEOPLE. We were all shooting at the same time, and then also was that Steve McQueen movie THE HUNTER, where the car goes off the Marina Towers. What was funny was when we arrived, our film company stayed at the Holiday Inn City Center, and Steve’s company stayed at the Holiday Inn City Center. So, the top floor or the penthouse was divided in half. I had half, and he had half, and every morning we would come out at 7:00am at the elevator, “Good morning.” “Good morning.” We'd ride down the elevator. Have you ever seen those cartoons with the coyote and the sheep hound working on the clock?
Capone: Exactly, yes. I believe that's a Looney Tunes cartoon.
JL: We were terrible. The units of his movie and my movie, we used to do terrible tricks on each other. We would steal their walkie-talkies and send drivers to the wrong location. When we were shooting on Lower Wacker Drive, they were across the street at the Marina Towers, and their catering truck and everything was set up. We had a huge food fight across the river.
Capone: The stuff that you guys did on BLUES BROTHERS, especially along Wacker Drive and Lake Street, was obviously unprecedented for Chicago. Today, maybe not so much, because they shoot a lot of movies in Chicago, but could you even pull off what you pulled off in that film today? I don’t think so.
JL: [laughs] I don’t know. What we did that was the most remarkable were, we had 10 or 12 shots in there where there are over 30 cars going over 100 mph in downtown Chicago, and those were very complicated shots. We had to block off like two whole miles at every entrance and exit. In fact, there’s a shot where the Blues Mobile is coming towards us and the camera pans right as it makes a left turn, followed by all of those cop cars, under the 'L' tracks. I’ve forgotten the name of the street.
Capone: That’s Lake Street.
JL: Right. We shot most of that stuff very early Saturday and Sunday morning, and when I looked at the dailies, I had cleared the street of pedestrians and stuff. I said, “You can’t tell that it’s fast. It looks like we just sped up the film.” So, we reshot it and put people on the sidewalk and paper in the street, so you could see it was real. [laughs]
Capone: When you put out the DVD of THE BLUES BROTHERS a few years ago, you expanded it, put some scenes back in. Were you hesitant to mess with perfection?
JL: With THE BLUES BROTHERS, it’s hard for people to understand this now, which is a good thing, but when we made THE BLUES BROTHERS, it was insane. The whole thing of “Mission from God,” that was me. I put that in the script. I was making fun of Danny [Aykroyd], because Danny was downright evangelical about rhythm and blues. This music was passé at the time. If you look at 1979 and ’80, when we made the movie, it was all disco. It was all ABBA and the BeeGees. To give you an idea of how outrageous it was, MCA Records, which was Universal’s record label, refused the [BLUES BROTHERS] soundtrack. They said, “Who’s going to buy this?”
We went out on Atlantic Records, and even with Atlantic I had a fight with Ahmet Ertegun, because he wouldn’t put John Lee Hooker on the album. His quote was, “He’s too old and too black.” I have to tell you that six years later, John Lee Hooker had a platinum album. I sent it to Ahmet saying, “Dear Ahmet, have you seen this?” [Laughs] But you know, it was really Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. It was an unusual thing, they were using their own celebrity to focus attention on these remarkable acts and this great American music. I still get asked, “How did you get Aretha Franklin and James Brown?” These people weren’t working. They were thrilled for the call, and all of them acknowledged what it did for their careers. The movie really brought attention back to that music, and that’s such great music. I’m happy to say it was very successful, but it was difficult, because when we had our exhibitor screening… Do you know what those are?
Capone: Sure. You mean the screenings for theater owners.
JL: Now, they don’t have the power anymore, but then after the breakup of the trust, exhibitors, if they didn’t like your movie, they wouldn’t book it. On THE BLUES BROTHERS, people told Universal, “Only black people will see this movie. No white people will see the movie.” Isn’t that bizarre? We had a terrible problem with it. The movie originally was a road show; it was meant to have an intermission. And Lew Wasserman said, “John you have to cut 30 minutes out of it.” So we did big lifts, and then I had a preview in L.A. and then I made some more lifts, and that was the released version. I’ve always felt the movie was kind of strangely lopsided, because of the rhythm and how I intended it to be, that was gone. But nonetheless, I don’t know how many years ago, Universal found this exhibitor print.
In 1985, Universal threw out all of the outtakes and trims, so the negatives are gone. So, all of the other stuff that was cut out is gone. However, the print from the preview showed up. It turns out it was stolen by the theater manager’s son, and he put it on eBay about seven or eight years ago, so Universal and the FBI swooped in to retrieve it, and that so-called “Expanded Version” is that preview print. It’s not my first cut of the movie, but it has like three scenes that weren’t in the movie, and we were able to extend some songs. The John Lee Hooker number is longer. The James Brown number is longer. The Cab Colloway number is longer. It’s like 15 minutes longer, but it isn’t the movie either. [Laughs]
Capone: But it’s closer.
JL: It comes out on BluRay this year.
Capone: Oh great. When's that happening? Do you know?
JL: I don’t know, but I just approved it. It’s gorgeous. They cleaned it up. The picture is well photographed by Stephen Katz, and they really cleaned it up. It looks polished. It’s beautiful.
Capone: Anything new on the BluRay?
JL: I don’t think so. I mean, they're making new extra stuff, but they wanted me to do a commentary, but I don’t do commentaries.
Capone: It’s ANIMAL HOUSE that has that great making-of documentary on it, right?
JL: Yeah, they made a documentary that was fun. That was a few years ago. Martha Smith, who plays Babs… We had this ANIMAL HOUSE reunion with everyone all together and she said, “You know, John, if they make another one of those making-of things, we are going to have to call it ANIMAL HOME.” [laughs]
Capone: Do you deliberately structure the humor in your films to work on a couple different levels, from utter mayhem to more subtle moments?
JL: Everything works on many levels. Everything works that way, and it depends on the film. The thing with casting directors in my films, that’s the Internet. The Internet is full of people who have too much time on their hands. [Laughs]
Capone: I’ll say.
JL: No one ever noticed that before, and then somebody noticed that at the end of the night there are a lot of directors. In fact, in all of my films, there have always been directors. It’s just for me; it’s for fun. I don’t want people to go “Oh look, that’s Steve Spielberg,” [in THE BLUES BROTHERS], he’s supposed to be a clerk. Lucky for me, he looks like a clerk.
Capone: That’s true. Still, it was nice of you to give him a job in the clerk's office. I just watched AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON recently, when the BluRay was released…
JL: Did you see that documentary that Paul Davis made, BEWARE THE MOON? That English kid?
Capone: Yeah, that’s the one I just saw.
JL: I was very impressed with that. He made that on his own. What I was thrilled about was to see all of those members of the cast and crew. That was so nice. It was amazing. I really enjoyed that. His fucking documentary is longer than the movie. [laughs]
Capone: There are a lot of cases like that. One of the best ones I’ve ever seen is the one on BLADE RUNNER. It’s two-and-a-half hours long, but it’s great. I was going to say about AMERICAN WEREWOLF, watching it again, reminded how much of a tragedy it is.
JL: It is a tragedy. Listen, my wife once said to me, “John, you put the 'b' in subtle.” But when you meet those boys, they're in a truckload of sheep, and the first place they go is the “The Slaughtered Lamb [Pub].” Those two were dead from the first frame, and it is a tragedy. You're absolutely right.
Capone: I think the score reflects that. Watching it again recently, maybe the adult version of me identified more with David, who clearly doesn’t want this curse.
JL: Curt Siodmak, when he wrote THE WOLF MAN, that was his contribution to the werewolf mythology. Every movie invents its own rules, and when Curt Siodmak wrote THE WOLF MAN, he’s the one who basically made the Wolf Man a tragic figure, because Larry Talbot is cursed and not happy about it. It’s not like JEKYLL AND HYDE, where Dr. Jekyll drinks a formula and he becomes Hyde; Hyde is actually a reflection of him, his evil self and his lust and desires. The Wolf Man turns into a completely other creature that has nothing to do with him. It’s kind of like getting cancer, except that it kills other people, too. That was Curt Siodmak’s thing and that’s what I was trying to honor.
Capone: I do want to talk about the work that you've done over the years with Eddie Murphy. You’ve certainly captured him at different points in his career. When you made TRADING PLACES, was he a direct-able actor at that point?
JL: Oh my God, yes. TRADING PLACES and COMING TO AMERICA, he was very direct-able. On TRADING PLACES, he was fantastic. He was very young. It was his second movie, and he was full of enthusiasm and he was happy. He was a pleasure and a joy. On COMING TO AMERICA, he was kind of a horrible, depressed, creepy guy, but a great talent. He always took direction from me. He was great. On BEVERLY HILLS COP III, it was bizarre, because he didn’t want to be funny, and there was nothing I could do to make him funny. I actually learned later that he was very jealous of Wesley Snipes and Denzel Washington and Sam Jackson, all of these guys who are making these big action pictures.
I actually gave him a gag, and he said to me, “John, Axel would be a wiseass if he did that.” I said, “Eddie, Axel is a wiseass.” He says, “No, he’s a man now.” I thought, “Uh oh.” If you look at that movie, it’s like, “Come on Eddie, be funny,” and he’s not. He’s a very interesting guy. He’s really quite gifted with extraordinary talents, but now you only really see it when he’s in disguise.
Capone: One last thing, and I’ll let you go. This is obscure, but I actually loved watching "Dream On" when I was in my early 20s. That was really HBO’s first original series, right?
JL: It wasn't their first series, but it was their first series to win an Emmy. I won HBO its first Emmy. That was actually their second or third series.
Capone: Whenever I watched that show, I always think of the people who were doing all of the archival digging. What a job. I could never wrap my brain around how they put an episode of that show together. How did you write a show like that? How did you find those moments?
JL: The show came about because Sid Shineberg came to me and said, “John we own…” It was something like 300 hours of black-and-white footage from early television, and because it was MCA, the agency that made these shows, they were “General Electric Presents,” "G.E. Theater," "Heinz 57 Playhouse," and all of these different anthology shows. A lot of pilots were done in those shows. They're mostly melodrama, and most of them are not great. But what was amazing was who was in them. He couldn’t give the footage away. He couldn’t sell it anymore, because it was black and white, but I looked at the stuff, and what was incredible was there were people like Bette Davis and Edward G. Robinson and Henry Fonda, The Marx Brothers, extraordinary people. Then I saw that tons of people were in it who were young, up-and-coming actors, so you had small parts played by Bob Redford, Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, Tony Curtis. I thought, “Wow, it’s incredible who's in this footage.”
I spent a long time trying to solve it: “How could I use this footage?” Then I came up with the idea of using the footage as thought balloons, like in a cartoon. Then I got these kids who were college kids named Marta Kauffman and David Crane, who were very clever, and they created the show and they ran the show for the first two years, and then they left me, the bastards, to do "Friends." [Laughs] Now they're billionaires. That was a tough show. We did that for seven years for very little money. Every year, my writing staff would be raided. I would hire kids from college, because I didn’t have a lot of money, and if you did one season on "Dream On," then you went into, if not "Friends," then "Mad About You" or "Seinfeld." I just kept losing writers every season, so it was a struggle, but it was fun. I only directed about 12 or 13 of those.
Capone: That’s a lot, though.
JL: Well, we made 120, and what was interesting were the people we had working on the show--Betty Thomas, for example. I gave a lot of people their break, and it’s amazing, when you look at those old shows, who's in them. I got everyone. It was Salma Hayek’s first American job and Jennifer Aniston and Courtney Cox. So many people were in that show.
Capone: Wendie Malick is still working. She never really stopped working.
JL: Brian Benben is still working. I did DEER WOMAN [one of Landis' "Masters of Horror" entries] with him. I love him. He was the lead.
Capone: That’s right. One last thing and then I’ll let you go, because you mentioned Famous Monsters magazine earlier, our site is now running the website for Famous Monsters. I read an interview with you once where you mentioned that you met Ed Wood at one point when you were younger. How did that happen?
JL: That was at the cast and crew screening of SCHLOCK. What happened was I made SCHLOCK. I finished it, we tried to get a distributor, and everybody laughed in our face. Then Jack H. Harris, who is most famous for producing THE BLOB, was the SCHLOCK distributor, and he saw it and he said to me, “If it was 10 minutes longer I would distribute it.” So I said, “Well give me $10,000, and I’ll make it 10 minutes longer.” So, I shot three additional scenes. That’s why Forry Ackerman’s in it. But I met Forry at the cast and crew screening of SCHLOCK. How he got there, I don’t know, but he was there at MGM, and his date was a kind of shabby guy that he introduced me to, and it was Ed Wood.
JL: I was blown away. I said, “Ed Wood! You made PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE and GLEN AND GLENDA,” and he looked at me, he was genuinely amazed that I knew who he was, because at that time, nobody knew him. Now that Tim Burton made the movie ED WOOD, Ed Wood is a known figure. But at that time, you had to be pretty on the fringe to even know who Ed was. I was thrilled to meet him. He was kind of a sad guy. At the time, I learned later, he was directing gay porno.
Capone: Right, I'd heard that. Was he happy at least that you knew who he was?
JL: Oh, he was absolutely delighted that I knew who he was. He was kind of drunk. But Forry and I struck up a friendship, which lasted the rest of his life.
Capone: John, thank you so much for taking time to talk to me.
JL: Thank you so much. All right, bye.
-- Capone email@example.com
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