When you talk about legendary directors, it’s no stretch to put John Landis in that category. Let me just run down a few of the classic films he’s given us – National Lampoon’s Animal House. The Blue Brothers. An American Werewolf In London. Trading Places. Spies Like Us. Three Amigos. Coming To America. It’s a pretty amazing cv, isn’t it? This is the man who directed Thriller, the greatest music video of all time. Hell, he even co-wrote Clue, which is one of the most beloved films of the 80s.
A few years ago, John Landis added author to his list of credits with Monsters In The Movies, a gorgeous DK coffee table book that delivers what’s on the cover. I’d been hoping to talk to him about the book, his movies and the horror genre, and I’m happy to say, the interview finally came to pass, thanks to the folks at DK and the Toronto International Film Festival, who are putting on Toga! The Reinvention of American Comedy, a monthlong film fest which includes among its featured directors, John Landis. It’s all worked out so nicely. Let me preface our chat by saying that, of all the interviews I’ve done on our site, this was the most freewheeling, and in many ways, the most fun.
So, without further adieu, check out our interview with the one and only John Landis.
Andy Burns: I’ve been waiting to talk you about Monsters In The Movies for a few years now, since DK sent it to me, so thank you for taking the time. First of all, how did you wind up writing the book. It’s a gorgeous book.
John Landis: I was in London making a movie, and in the U.K., An American Werewolf In London is a big movie. It’s like being in Chicago with The Blue Brothers. When you’ve made a lot of movies, certain movies have more resonance in certain countries. I was approached by four different publishers asking me to write a book about horror films. And I thought, “gee, I don’t want to”(laughs). But they were offering me money. Then, totally coincidentally, I met a woman named Loretta Dives who runs with her husband The Kobal Collection, which is the largest collection of motion picture photography in the world, and she asked me if I wanted to do a picture book. And I didn’t want to write a book about horror films, but the monsters themselves are so interesting visually that I thought that would make a fun book. She said, “Great, let’s do that”, and she went to several publishers, and we chose DK mainly because of the quality of their books.
It took about three months. I was doing other things too, but the writing of it went rather smoothly. I mean, it’s written in a conversational tone. I wrote the chapters, and then I thought that I wanted to hear from important and influential people in the monster world. So the ones who were in the book – Rick Baker, Ray Harryhausen, who sadly just passed, Christopher Lee, Sam Raimi, Guillermo Del Toro, Joe Dante, John Carpneter – they’re all friends of mine. I’ve known all those guys for 35, 40 years, so I did these conversations where I sat with them and recorded it. I enjoyed those, but unfortunately because of the limitations of the book ,I had to heavily edit them, because they were quite lengthy. The two most interesting things about them were that, they’re old friends, so they can’t bullshit me. I can challenge them. And two – I think they all had really interesting and insightful things to say.
Andy Burns: That’s something I wanted to ask you about, because as a coffee table book, the images are amazing, but the book also celebrates not just the creatures, but the actors who portrayed them, like Lon Cheney Jr., Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff, names that were associated with really classic characters. In my observations growing up as a horror fan, you know…I’m a lot younger, and I grew up watching the Universal and Hammer films on tv, and those names are always associated with those characters. And now, I tend to think, with the exception of maybe Robert England, in contemporary film, at least in the new millennium, you don’t have any actors that really get associated with any sort of horror characters. I’m wondering, why do you think that would be? Is it a lack of characters, actors not wanting to be associated with horror?
John Landis: You’re right. I think, first of all, they’re making different kinds of films. I think…Anthony Hopkins is certainly associated with Hannibal Lecter. He had a vast career before Hannibal Lecter and a big career afterwards, but when someone is kind of indelible in a part, like famously Tony Perkins was sort of crucified for being so brilliant as Norman Bates…but I think it’s the movies that they’re making (pause). Let me think about this, that’s an interesting observation. You’re right! And you know, when you think of Leatherface, who was Gunnar Hansen…he was played by other people. That’s an excellent point, Andy.
Andy Burns: Thank you! It’s interesting too, because you mention Anthony Perkins. I was a pre-teen in the 80s when Psycho 2 came out and I’ve always felt that it wasn’t particularly well-regarded at that time…
John Landis: It’s not bad.
Andy Burns: No, there’s been a real critical reevaluation of it. And I got this sense that Anthony Perkins really embraced that character. But you know, maybe die hard horror fans might know the name of the fellow who played Jigsaw in the Saw
John Landis: Or the guy who played Pinhead…
Andy Burns: Doug Bradley! I knew that one (laughs)!
John Landis: There you go. Or Warwick Davis’ Leprechaun.
Andy Burns: Exactly. Now, I also wanted to ask you about one specific creature type that you’re obviously well associated with, and that’s werewolves. They obviously play a huge part in your history and they’re loved in the book, they’re on the cover, they’re throughout the book. What is it about that particular creature that resonated with you as a creator yourself?
John Landis: Well, Joe Dante said it, that all monsters are a metaphor. And werewolves themselves are so interesting on so many levels. The fact that the physical body actually changes, the obvious correlation is to adolescence. That happens to all of us. We start stretching and growing and growing hair. Weird things start happening to our bodies. And historically, werewolves were always conscious beings, and usually evil. By that, I mean they’re witches, or even Dracula turned into a wolf, and when they’re a wolf, they’re still a witch or Dracula or whatever. The bad guy. One of the interesting things about monsters is that, screenwriters invented so much of what we accept as mythology or classic lore! Even Bram Stoker…all these things about vampires…he made it up!
Andy Burns: And then if you drift away from that, you’re against canon in a way.
John Landis: I know, and when I made American Werewolf In London, I received criticism that he wasn’t killed by silver bullets. And I thought, excuse me, none of this is real! And the thing that nobody questioned, that was new in American Werewolf…was that the victims being undead. I just made that shit up and people went, oh of course (laughter). But you know, that’s one of the things about fantasy. It’s fantasy! It’s human nature to invent.
Andy Burns: Let’s talk about the fact that you’re coming to Toronto, not for horror, but for comedy. Toga – The Reinvention of the American Comedy and a Celebration of Animal House. Is there a difference for you between horror vs a comedy. Obviously there’s the genre difference, but as a director to you approach one differently from the other? Or is it movie making and the genre becomes irrelevant in your eyes?
John Landis: You know, truthfully, something that’s always bothered me is the ghettoizing of directors and what’s called typecasting. Sometimes it’s deliberate, like Alfred Hitchcock was not only a brilliant filmmaker, but he was a genius marketer. Or John Carpenter, who has certainly made some fantastic horror films, but did you ever see his Elvis?
Andy Burns: With Kurt Russell. I saw it years ago.
John Landis: It’s terrific, but it’s like, he’s just the guy that makes horror films. But the truth is, if you’re a filmmaker, if you know how to tell a story through the juxtaposition of images, the director’s job, it does not change, regardless of the genre. And for me, I’ve always resented…I’ve made a lot of successful comedies, but I’ve only made two horror films, but for some reason I’m a master of horror! I’ve made far more musicals than I have horror films, but you just get typed. Really, 99% of the scripts that I’m sent, that I’m offered, are either horror or comedy, and it’s kind of…I mean, I wish they were better. I like horror and comedy but it’s just that I’ve become gheottoized. People don’t think of me for westerns or romance or whatever. Critics and especially studio executives equally are incorrect when they say, “that person does this”. And they’re really talking about money, they’re talking about box office. And it’s unfortunate because I would like the opportunity to do everything, and you’re not given the opportunity. You look at the great Hollywood directors and the studio system, like Michael Curtiz. He made Doctor X and he made Casablanca, and he made Robin Hood and he made Yankee Doodle Dandee! You look at his credits and you think, wow! He got to do everything. But people don’t get to do that.
Andy Burns: Well, I wonder if it’s something to do with the time, because, let’s say, with your work in horror, you’ve made really definitive, classic contributions to the horror. Thriller’s the greatest music video of all time. It’s more than 30 years old at this time and it’s still the greatest of all time. So from a fan’s perspective can see it from the perspective that “he’s made something like this great, let’s do it again”. But I can also see the artistic and creative person in you not wanting to be typecase into one place. I totally understand that.
John Landis: Well thank you.
Andy Burns: Finally, there’s the saying that art is never finished, it’s just abandoned. On that note, do you ever watch your own films when they come on tv. Or do you just flip away?
John Landis: I don’t really watch my own movies. It’s odd. This year I’m going to a retrospective in Buenos Ares and in Melbourne, Australia, and they ask, do you want to watch the movie? And I say, no, I’ve seen the movie (laughs). And also, when I watch my own movies, I do see the mistakes. But there are things that I enjoy. I’ve made some bad movies, and even in those, there are scenes that I enjoy, that I can take. Of all the movies I’ve made that I enjoy the most, Three Amigos seems to be the one.
A huge thank you to John Landis for taking the time to talk to Biff Bam Pop! As well, thanks to Chris Houston at DK Canada and Jonathan Elder at the Toronto International Film Festival for making this happen. TOGA! The Reinvention of American Comedy runs July 17th-August 29th in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. John Landis will be signing copies of his DK book, Monsters In The Movies on Saturday, July 20th at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Find out all the details here.