John Landis – An American Director in Scotland

The recent twenty fifth anniversary of Edinburgh’s Dead by Dawn international horror film festival having taken over the Filmhouse for a weekend of features and documentaries including the UK premieres of Siembamba and Knuckleball and the Scottish premieres of Trench 11, Spookers and Dave Made a Maze, short films and classic screenings, the special guest was John Landis who hosted retrospectives of his own Innocent Blood and An American Werewolf in London.

A prolific writer, director, producer and occasional actor known for his genre defying resume which also includes The Kentucky Fried Movie, Animal House, Spies Like Us, Coming to America and the opening segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie as well as Michael Jackson’s legendary Thriller music video, Landis is no stranger to the city having shot Burke and Hare with Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis within the old town districts almost a decade before.

The UK premiere of Innocent Blood having taking place at the first festival in January 1993, Landis was delighted that it was a good print which had been sourced for the retrospective screening, warning the audience that it was “full of sex and violence” and that Edinburgh was the right city for it, but that was a product of a very different time in cinema.

“Those were the days when I had final cut,” he explained, “you shot the movie, you cut the movie, you previewed the movie.” Realising it was too long he proceeded to cut a further ten or so minutes to improve the flow, but the Motion Picture Association of America still had concerns, a process he felt was negotiating with prudes, and not the only battle he was fighting with the studio wanting to dub star Anne Parrillaud’s French accent which he flatly refused.

A further two minutes cut to get a rating which would allow them wide release, the film nevertheless failed to become a hit in America though it was better received in Europe where it was released as a longer version with some scenes Landis had trimmed for pacing, though still absent the two minutes MPAA objected to.

“You can have a lot of sex if there’s no violence, or a lot of violence if there’s no sex, but not both. All censorship is arbitrary because it’s based on contemporary standards and contemporary standards change.” Modern filmmaking allowing films to be edited until the very last moment as there is no longer a need to strike physical prints for distribution, traditional celluloid required firm decisions much earlier. “If it’s too long tonight – I cut that out.”

Pointing out that as Innocent Blood was fully produced in the pre-digital era so all the effects were necessarily practical (“Which is not always a good thing!”), Landis said after the screening he had forgotten “the tremendous amount of stunts” and went on to explain how the glowing eyes were achieved with reflective full-eye contact lenses, Parillaud actually stood against a bed placed against a wall while coloured lights were shone at her, an uncomfortable process.

Talking at length after the sold-out Saturday evening screening of An American Werewolf in London, Landis explained it was one of the last major British films of the period, made with a British crew and a largely British cast, “before Maggie Thatcher crucified the British film industry.” The film dedicated to Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer on the occasion of their wedding, Landis explained it was sincerely meant, he and his wife leaving England having spent a year living there engaged in the production during which time the country was “Diana crazy.”

The production having required access to Piccadilly Circus during a period when filming in central London was infrequent due to the ongoing threat of IRA terrorism, Landis’s approach to obtaining the necessary permissions to stage the final scenes of the film was twofold.

With a reassuring telephone call arranged between the head of the London Metropolitan Police and the Chief of Police of Chicago where Landis had undertaken “gigantic urban shooting” for the car chase in The Blues Brothers which involved a total shut down of the city, Landis then arranged a Saturday morning screening of the film with the audience composed entirely of London bobbies to help gain the favour of the force.

American Werewolf written by Landis when he was eighteen years old and influenced by the folklore of Yugoslavia where he was working on Kelly’s Heroes as assistant director and also has a small uncredited cameo, the script “got me a lot of work down the years but no one would give met the money to make it – it was too weird.”

Finally moving into production over a decade later when he had established his career, Landis said that the musical cues which form the soundtrack had been planned from inception although there were some tracks such as Cat Stephens’ Moonshadow which they could not obtain the licence, but he told the audience that his perseverance paid off: “If you have a script, don’t give up on it.”

Praised for how well he captured the dialogue and mood of the country in which it is set, both the surly natives of the Yorkshire Dales – filmed in Wales – and London itself, Landis remains delighted: “I’m always surprised when English people tell me how English it was because I was worried about it.”

In fact, the only significant change to the script was the need to lose the “cartoon” cinema which Landis had known from a previous visit, where parents would drop off their children as they went shopping, now replaced by a strictly adult cinema. The scene intended to play with “a Chuck Jones Road Runner and children screaming,” the evolving London landscape necessitated the revision: “Maybe it will work with porn?”

After principal photography was completed and the wrap party held, Landis and his special effects crew headed by Rick Baker spent a further five days at Twickenham studios filming the legendary transformation sequence. Shot out of sequence on a set five foot above the studio floor to facilitate access and with the layers of hair being taken off actor David Naughton rather than added, Landis confirmed “he suffered a lot.”

American Werewolf his first collaboration with cinematographer Robert Paynter with whom he would work again several times including Trading Places and Thriller, they had met many years before on location in Spain when Landis had been a stuntman on Michael Winner’s Chato’s Land which Paynter also shot; regarding Winner as “a funny man but shockingly abusive to the crew,” both have cameo roles in Burke and Hare, the notorious Winner playing “the upper class guy in the coach who goes over a cliff – I thought people would be delighted.”

Talking of his wider body of work he refused to choose between his many projects. “I don’t have a favourite. I have scenes in all of them I like, I have scenes in all of them I don’t like. Also, as a filmmaker it’s hard to separate the film from the filmmaking experience.” He did however say “Three Amigos makes me laugh. I think that’s a funny film. It’s so much fun to make a western.”

Discussing the legacy of his work, Landis took himself as seriously as the films themselves. “Do people say I’ve influenced them? Yes, a lot. And I think it means I’m old.” He did relay a comment from Sam Raimi on his reaction to seeing American Werewolf before he made Evil Dead, that “‘It never occurred to me that you could be funny and scary.’”

Landis a friend of Alfred Hitchcock towards the end of his life, often sharing lunch in his bungalow, the veteran director objected to films being marketed with the invented phrase “Hitchcockian,” and despite the blending of genres in American Werewolf Landis was similarly firm on how the film should be seen. “I hate it when they call it a comedy. It’s just a horror film that happens to be very funny.”

That reputation helped by the cameo appearance of alternative comedian Rik Mayall as one of the regulars in The Slaughtered Lamb, the suggestion had come from another friend and collaborator. “Frank Oz said ‘See the Dangerous Brothers at the Comic Strip.’ Adrian (Edmondson) and Rik were both offered parts in American Werewolf but Ade got a part in an advert which paid better.”

Closing the night with a question about the announced remake of An American Werewolf in London to be written and directed by his son Max, writer of Chronicle, Victor Frankenstein, Mr Right, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and Bright, Landis said he knew “hardly anything because I haven’t read the script.”

While cautioning that in general remakes were “a terrible idea,” he did point out that both John Carpenter’s The Thing and David Cronenberg’s The Fly were among the few successful examples, but that American Werewolf itself had been through a long process. “This has been optioned a number of times. The Weinsteins optioned it several times and I made a lot of money. I’ve never met Harvey or Bob,” he added, “but I cashed their cheque.”

Thank you to John Landis for his kindness and generosity

Dead by Dawn will return in 2019



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