The "Werewolves" of HTF Meet John Landis
by Jesse Shanks
With their second celebrity chat in a row, Home Theater Forum (run by Ron Epstein and Parker Clack) welcomed director John Landis on October 24, 2001 in a session that saw him address questions about his films, his tastes in film and his opinions about movie making.
The director was handling his end of the online connection from home—and showed great patience with occasional network difficulties—to answer a wide variety of questions.
An American Werewolf in London, from 1981, was one topic during the evening with the film's recent release in a Collector's Edition from Universal Studios Home Video. dOc is currently offering the disc paired with the horror retrospective Boogeymen in the Werewolf Boogey game. One fan asked Landis his thoughts on comparisons between An American Werewolf and another lupine extravaganza,The Howling. The director replied, "I like The Howling. I'm a big Joe Dante fan. At the time, I wasn't happy that Rick Baker's ideas for An American Werewolf were being used, but Rob Bottin is brilliant (see Carpenter's The Thing) and Joe is a wonderful director and they made a funny and scary film with very little money."
Landis had plenty to say about the financial processes of making a film and ultimately their distribution and release on DVD. In answering a question about the comedy, The Stupids, Landis referred to difficulties in categorizing the film, "I like that movie, it got royally screwed on release because New Line refused to sell it as a children's film, which it most decidedly is. It even has Captain Kangaroo!" Another example was the recent Blues Brothers 2000, of which Landis spoke about a possible DVD release with extra footage, "BB 2000 didn't make enough money domestically for them to spend more money. Maybe in the future." Another Landis film unavailable on DVD is Innocent Blood, from 1992. The director noted, "Innocent Blood again wasn't successful [enough] in the States for Warner's to spend any money on it. I really enjoy that picture."
Critic Leonard Maltin accorded Innocent Blood three stars and noted, "Wild and woolly crossbreed of urban action thriller and vampire movie, with a wicked sense of humor; doesn't always make sense, but fun to watch (if you can take the blood). [Don] Rickles is terrific as [Robert] Loggia's loyal lawyer." This film also features other directors in cameo roles, including Dario Argento, Michael Ritchie and Sam Raimi.
A participant sent this question through the moderator: "At a VSDA panel discussion a couple of years ago, you mentioned this great script you wanted to direct for a Lone Ranger movie—The Lone Ranger and the Valley of Gold, I think it was called. Can you talk about that a little bit, and what ever happened to the project?" Landis replied, "George MacDonald Fraser wrote me a lovely screenplay for that project at Universal but there was a rights mix-up and Fox Family Films owns The Lone Ranger now. They want to make it contemporary! What can I say?"
Upon finding out from a fan that the 1978 film Animal House was now out of print on DVD, Landis was surprised and replied ironically, "Out of print? I wonder why. I guess they figure to re-release it much later in some new edition—remember all of the studios want to sell you essentially the same product over and over again."
When a fan asked about a potential of seeing a DVD release of the popular Landis-directed Michael Jackson video, Thriller, from 1983, the director noted, "The company that put out the home video, Vestron, went bankrupt long ago. I'll call Michael and see if we can license it to Anchor Bay or somebody."
Tackling a question about what genre of film he had not worked in, but would like to, Landis said, "My dream project would be a film version of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court. One that would try to be faithful to the dark and funny vision of the author. But that's expensive and it has a downbeat ending, so it's been a tough sale. I've almost gotten it made twice with big stars, but both times the stars wanted compromises in the character of Hank Morgan to make him nicer... that I would not do." He then added wistfully, "Also, filmmakers are typed just like actors—I'm MR. COMEDY but I would like to work in all genres. I love westerns!"
The discussion on genre continued with a question asking if the director would ever return to the horror genre. Landis said flatly, "I would love to do another horror film if I could find a good script."
A fan of Landis' earlier films asked, "Has anyone talked to you about doing another film like Kentucky Fried Movie or Amazon Women On The Moon? Do you have a desire to do more films of this type?"
Landis said, "Those movies are fun, but extremely hard to write. A sketch movie is like watching too many cartoons at one time, they tend to blur together and the whole feels less than the sum of its parts." He noted that, "The Kentucky Fried Movie DVD has my favorite commentary—it's Bob Weiss, Jerry Zucker, David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and me sitting on a couch watching the movie. It's funny." After working with Landis on Kentucky Fried Movie, those men are variously responsible for a string of popular comedies, including Airplane!, The Naked Gun and Ruthless People.
In 1987, Landis was one of five directors on the sketch-comedy spoof of late-night television and low-budget movies, Amazon Women on the Moon. His segments featured appearances by Arsenio Hall, B.B. King, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Andrew Dice Clay. Legendary B-movie director Russ Meyer makes a cameo appearance in one of the Landis-directed sketches.
Another fan noted that Landis was a movie fan as well as a director, and asked what are some films he wished were better-known and would like to see released on DVD. After indicating that, given time, he could come up with quite a list, Landis hit the HTF group with a rarely mentioned director, saying, "I'd like to see a good DVD of [Gillo] Pontecorvo's Battle Of Algiers." Italian director Pontecorvo made La Battaglia di Algeri (Battle Of Algiers) in 1965 and followed it up with Quemada! (Burn!) in 1969 starring Marlon Brando. Interestingly, Pontecorvo made a cameo appearance in Landis' 1996 comedy, The Stupids, as Talk Show Guest #1.
One fan asked how this penchant of Landis' to include cameos by other directors in his films started, and why. "I've always done that," Landis replied, "Animal House is the only film of mine with no directors (although Tim Matheson, Tommy Hulce and Kevin Bacon all became directors later). Why? For my own pleasure, it's never important to the movie. I do like it though that at the party that John Amos gives at his house in Queens in Coming To America, Tobe Hooper is a guest!"
Landis himself pops up in cameo roles in several films directed by others. He played a judge in 1999's Freeway II: Confessions of a Trickbaby and is credited as Astronaut #1 in 1996's Vampirella. He has also made cameo appearances in some his own films, including playing Trooper La Fong in the original Blues Bothers and an uncredited bit as "man being smashed into a window" in An American Werewolf in London.
Another fan asked for more information about Coming to America and Landis went against the grain in these days of adding back scenes to finished movies by replying, "I enjoyed shooting Coming To America although because it was rushed out to meet a release date, I think it's a little fat. I would like to trim 7 or 8 minutes out of it."
Turning to another popular film and DVD that Landis had participated in, a fan said, "You co-wrote the story and co-exec produced Clue: The Movie," then asked, "How'd you come up with the story (fitting in all the game characters and such) and are there any memories of that production that you have?"
Landis corrected the perception of his involvement: "Clue was written and directed by Jonathan Lynne. I just set up the mystery based on the characters in the game and he solved it. I was shooting in Europe when it was shot in Hollywood. The DVD has all four endings."
On a technical note, one fan pointed out, "I've noticed you shoot most of your films 1.85:1. Have you just never had the budget to go anamorphic, or do you just prefer a taller frame?"
"I was tempted to shoot Three Amigos in Panavision," Landis revealed, "I probably should have. I never shot one before because most people will see your movie on their TV and I can't tolerate 'pan and scan'. However, with letterboxing becoming more accepted I would shoot anamorphic now."
At one point, a participant in the chat chimed in with the question: "Hey, Mr. Landis, if you were shrinking one inch every hour, how long would it take before you noticed?" Without missing a beat, the director shot back, "If this would be happening during sex— right away!"
For a full transcript of the chat with Criterion, check here: Home Theater Forum.