John Landis, Uncensored

The October issue of HT featured our one-on-one interview acclaimed director John Landis, but those pages were scarcely adequate to contain his boundless enthusiasm, and who are we to restrain the mind that perfected the R-rated comedy? We hereby present this unfettered version of our discussion with the man behind Animal House, The Blues Brothers (celebrating its silver anniversary this year with a new special edition DVD from Universal Studios), and An American Werewolf in London, to name but a few, in addition to Michael Jackson's groundbreaking video "Thriller," which once ruled MTV.

(grinning) So, why did you come to choose 2005, of all years, for the 25th anniversary of The Blues Brothers?

We made it in 1979, and it came out in 1980. (pauses) Isn't it the 25th?

The previous DVD was actually the road-show version: the long version of the film?

Well, it wasn't the road-show version. Here's what happened. It's hard to imagine this, but, at the time we made The Blues Brothers, it was an insane project in that John and Danny were the stars of the number-one television show in the country. John was the star of Animal House, the number-one movie in the world. Danny had recorded A Briefcase Full of Blues, which had gone triple-platinum and was the most successful blues album of all time. So there was tremendous pressure on Universal in that I was preparing a movie called The Incredible Shrinking Woman with Lily Tomlin. The Blues Brothers was a development deal that Danny and I had done before 1941 came out. And so, suddenly, Universal had this very hot property, and they said, "Can you have a movie in theaters by. . ." whatever it was, and I said, "Sure," even though we didn't have a script or anything. It was a crazed production, and the studio thought we were crazy. And you have to remember, this was 1979. Disco, Abba, and The Bee Gees were the big acts. Universal had Decca Records, Universal Records, and MCA Records, and they would not take the soundtrack out. They said, "Who would buy this?" So the soundtrack album, which I'm delighted to say went platinum, was released by Atlantic Records, and even Atlantic refused to have John Lee Hooker on the album. They said he was too old and too black. You know, it was 1979. And so it was with great glee that, years later, John finally got the recognition. The road-show version of the movie was supposed to have an intermission. At that time, the exhibitors had a lot of power. They would screen your movie and decide whether or not they liked it and thought it would make money. They could literally dictate the future of your picture. They looked at The Blues Brothers and came to the conclusion that it was a "black" movie, that no white people would see the movie, which is, of course, ridiculous. They were proven wrong: The movie made a fortune.

Four dollars of that is mine: I saw it in the theater, and I'm white!

There was this very scary moment when Lou Wasserman called me to his office, and a man named Ted Mann, he had Mann Theaters, and the Fox Theater. In Los Angeles, at that time, in 1980, the premiere place for a movie was Westwood Village. There were the best theaters and the highest-grossing theaters, and he basically told Lou Wasserman, "I don't want blacks in Westwood." And Lou said, "John, we're having trouble booking pictures, and we can't road-show it, so you have to take out at least 25 minutes. So I took out about 15 minutes, and then we previewed it again, and, based on the second preview, I made more lifts and trims, and we released the movie, and the movie became a big hit. Years later, when home video became a profit center, Universal came to me and said, "Would you restore the movie?" I said, "I'd love to," and discovered, to my horror, that, in 1985--this was before DVD, obviously--Universal basically threw out all the trims. And then, several years ago, the son of the manager of the Picwood Theatre apparently stole the print, and he was trying to sell it, and Universal recovered the print. It was a fairly good print of the movie, with 15 to 17 minutes of stuff that had been cut out. So, for the last release of the Blues Brothers DVD, we restored those scenes. However, the actual first cut, or the road-show release version of the movie, still it's missing.

Was there some reward for the guy who supplied the extended print?

Yeah, his reward was he didn't go to jail!

How many cop cars did you actually use during the production?

We had 37, 38 cars that we bought that were the basic cop cars. We had a 24-hour body shop going in Chicago. The Lake Wasapamani, the Illinois state troopers, and Chicago city cop cars are all the same cars. We just changed the logos and the mars bars. We had a corps of about 37 cars that we reused over and over again. Plus, we used a lot of real police cars. Of the hundreds of cars involved in the movie, we destroyed about as many as it looks because we used the same cars over and over and over, and it looks like we're trashing hundreds of cars, but we're not.

I heard that some people in Chicago were a little steamed at the mess you guys made while you were there. Is that true?

No, actually, that's not true. The filming went incredibly well. There's a very funny story that I guess is what you heard, which is about when we had the movie screening in Chicago, member of the Cook County board were outraged because we invade the Cook County building. They were saying "There's no way we're gonna let you do this." And we kept saying, "Gentlemen, it was done a year ago; you didn't even know they were there." And I'm delighted to say that we were the first movie to trash a mall.

Coming out of a fairly cynical decade like the 1970s, do you think that The Blues Brothers helped keep the movie musical alive?

No, I think the movie musical will always be alive. Every genre has cycles. It all depends on box-office success. So there will be successful musicals. In fact, Chicago was a hugely profitable musical, and now there are about three or four musicals about to come out. Grease and The Rocky Horror Picture Show were in the '70s. I think that all genres come and go, and I'm delighted you call the movie a musical. A lot of people wouldn't call it a musical, and that upset me terribly.

You've had a very fruitful partnership with Dan Aykroyd.

Oh, yeah. He's a great man; I love Danny. He's a genuinely original thinker and a total motor-head. He has amazing ideas: Ghostbusters, The Blues Brothers, The Coneheads. He has a really interesting point of view. He's a great writer and a wonderful performer. I think people don't credit him with just how talented an actor he is. Look at the character he plays in Trading Places, and then look at Elwood: They couldn't be more different.

Plus all the "serious" movies he's done: Driving Miss Daisy, Pearl Harbor--

I fucking hatedthat movie!

Well sure, everyone does, I just meant that Aykroyd is always good, regardless.


If John Belushi were still with us, do you think you two might have made another film together?

Oh, absolutely. One of the great tragedies of John Belushi is that, other than moments in Animal House and The Blues Brothers, he was never really caught on film. Also, there's a picture he did called Going South where he's very funny. He was a wonderful performer. Look at the first two seasons of Saturday Night Live; you see it there. He was a massive star, but he never really got the opportunity in movies to really show his stuff. "Don't use drugs" is the moral of the story.

At age 18, you were a stuntman on Once Upon a Time in the West?

Yeah, I went to Europe when I was 18. I was a gofer; they're called P.A.'s now; on a movie called Kelly's Heroes. After that, in '69, I went to Almaria, Spain, right at the height of the spaghetti western boom. I actually worked on many, many movies, mostly Italian, but a lot of German, French, American, British, and in any kind of job I could get. It was mostly as a stunt double, but also as a dialogue coach, actor, schlepper.

Could you point to any scenes where we can spot you?

Well, I'm usually doubling somebody, so, hopefully, you can't spot me. In Valdez Is Coming, I have a line, and in Battle for the Planet of the Apes, I have a line.

And you had a bit part in Jaws?

No, I'm not in Jaws. Michael and Julia Philips hired me to rewrite a script called Project Blue Book, which eventually became Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and I was flown to Martha's Vineyard to meet Spielberg during the production of Jaws. People forget this, but Jaws was a $4 million movie that cost $12 million. It was the Titanic of its day. And remember during the production of Titanic how vilified James Cameron was, and then he was a genius. It was the same thing with Steve. When I arrived on that island, Spielberg had no intention of meeting me. I was there the day they put the shark in the water and it sank; it was one of the greatest things I ever saw. It was like this great Laurel and Hardy moment. There was total dead silence, and then, suddenly, everyone was leaping in the water and screaming. When I got there I was sharing a house with Richard Dreyfuss, Spielberg, Carl Gottlieb, and Ricky Fields, and I had nothing to do. Remember the scene in the movie where the guy's fishing and the whole pier is pulled off? I helped build that pier, I was so bored. I was there two weeks, and what I took away was this great quote from Richard Dreyfuss. American Graffiti was in theaters at that time, and he was having great success with the ladies, and Spielberg was not, and, at the dinner table, Dreyfuss is gloating about his amorous adventures, and Steve was saying, "Why you?" Rick looked at him and said, "Steve, I have a 25-foot face."

Pretty sure this is true: You've never shot a movie in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio?

No, I haven't, but I would like to. I wanted to shoot The Three Amigos in anamorphic, but they wouldn't let me. When I made Animal House, they asked me if I wanted to shoot anamorphic, and I saw that the vast majority of people who see a movie see it on television. By shooting in anamorphic, the majority of people who see your film would see it even more butchered. I like anamorphic very much. So I haven't yet, but I will.

You put a good amount of thought into how your movies will look on video.

Oh, of course. Home video is positive in that you get great movies and own them for relatively little money. But it's also negative because it's affected the box office. I believe that people now, especially people over 25, wait to see a movie on DVD. As a filmmaker, nothing duplicates the theatrical experience. For me, one of the big things about the theatrical experience is other people. The more crowded the theater, the more scary or funnier a movie is. And comedy is meant to be seen with as many people as possible. A scary movie is much more frightening in a crowd.

Comedy and horror: Fairly unusual for a director to be so successful in both.

Comedy and horror are very similar in that they're both very unforgiving. A movie is either funny or not. It's either scary or it isn't. They're both the most difficult because they involved the suspension of disbelief. But I like everything. Directors, just like actors, get typed. Right now, I'm trying to get Bat Boy off the ground. The guys who wrote the original off-Broadway show have just finished a screenplay for me. God knows if I'll get the money for that, but that's a monster musical. They see that I did "Thriller," I've done monsters and music. You get typed.

You've had such tremendous success, but do you find that success is a trap?

Yes and no. I was very lucky to get started in the studio system in the '70s. It was all director-driven, and I had the opportunity to do what were, are the time, extremely unorthodox movies. Anything radical, if it's successful, is instantly mainstream, from blue jeans to rock 'n' roll. Everybody has to have it. Animal House has been ripped off so many times. And now they're not as brave as they used to be. I personally am delighted at the success of The Wedding Crashers, but only because it's R-rated. They don't make R-rated movies now. It's a different time and a different bottom line.

So you'll only direct music videos for Michael Jackson and no one else?

No, I did one for Paul McCartney, and I've done several for B.B. King. Music videos have changed. Now it's a business for young, hungry directors. The way it works now, the record label sends out the song to a bunch of production companies and directors, and they ask for a presentation. So you're supposed to invent the video and tell them how much it will cost and present it, and they pick and choose what they like. And I think, fuck you, pay me. I'm happy to do it, but pay me. "Thriller" cost $750,000, which, at that time, was an incredible amount of money.

Before I go, I wanted to say how much I enjoyed your commentary on Kentucky Fried Movie.

Actually, I think the commentary is funnier than the movie.

(shrug) My friends and I love that movie. As you look back; Animal House, Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London; you've made some fairly iconic films. Is there a secret to your style?

Not that I know of. If there were, I'd bottle it.