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ARCHIVE - ENTERTAINMENT INTERVIEWS
The Collider Interview: John Landis, Part II
9/2/2005
Posted by
Collider Staff
     

Posted by Mr. Beaks

 

 

Part One of this epic interview can be found here.  Read it first, or everything below will read like Pynchon.


 

 

While we’re discussing music, another indispensable element of your movies was your collaboration of Elmer Bernstein.

 

Oh, sure.  Elmer’s scores, especially his one for Three Amigos – I think Three Amigos is one of the great film scores.  Songs by Randy Newman, the score is by Elmer Bernstein; I really believe that score to be genuinely funny and stirring.  To get someone like that to parody himself is pretty great. 

 

To parody himself, but also compose yet another great western score.

 

It’s a great score.  You know, I knew Elmer when I was a kid.  And when I was shooting Animal House, which was a very low budget movie and very unimportant to the studio… to give you an idea, we were shooting in Oregon, and I had a Chapman crane for the first day of the parade.  I had asked for it for three days, I had it the first day, and, then, the second day it wasn’t there.  I said, “Where the hell’s the crane?”  And they said the studio had called it back for The Incredible Hulk T.V. show.  (Laughs)  That’s the priority we were!  So, when they asked me about the score, they gave me about four or five composers, and I said, “No, I would like to ask Elmer Bernstein”.  They looked at me and were like, “Get the fuck out of here!  He won’t return your call!”  And I said, “Ah-hah!  I know Elmer.”

 

 

And then that score for Animal House became the way to score comedies. 

 

You were talking about directors getting typed; Elmer had this amazing thing happen to him.  You know, he started very young, scored The Ten Commandments when he was, like, twenty-seven.  He did these huge epic movies, and, then, he did what they called “jazz scores” for Sweet Smell of Success, Walk on the Wild Side, The Man with the Golden Arm.  He did To Kill a Mockingbird, Birdman of Alcatraz, all these great scores.  And he started doing westerns for John Wayne; he did, like, twelve John Wayne westerns – True Grit and all those movies – and, of course, The Magnificent Seven.  But when I asked him to do Animal House, he had never done a comedy.  And very quickly, within five or six years, Elmer had done Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, Ghostbusters, Airplane, Stripes – the most successful comedies ever!  He became “Mr. Comedy”; for ten years he did nothing but comedy, and he got so pissed off.  He was like, “Nobody will give me a real job anymore!”  He was so angry; he did The Grifters during that time, but it didn’t change anything.  So, finally, he quit.  He said, “I’m not working until I’m not making a comedy.”  But, for free, as a favor for a producer, he did My Left Foot, and then Scorsese used him to help recreate some Bernard Hermann stuff [for Cape Fear], so he came back.  But if you could be Elmer Bernstein and get typed, that just shows how bullshit it is.

 

And his score for An American Werewolf in London

 

That’s a beautiful score.

 

He’s doing this full-on horror film, but he chooses to score it very mournfully.

 

It’s very sad music.  It’s only seven minutes of score; the rest is needle drop.

 

You’ve had a very good run with Saturday Night Live performers.

 

But I actually have no connection with Saturday Night Live.

 

No, but you’ve broken many of its stars into the movies. 

 

Actually, in Three Amigos, Phil Hartman and Jon Lovitz were in the movie because I wanted them to meet Lorne Michaels.  They were with the Groundlings at the time.

 

That was their introduction to Lorne? 

 

Yeah.

 

Well, shit, you kinda helped him out there.  That was the next ten years of SNL.

 

They were brilliant guys.  I’ve also used a lot of people from Second City.  A lot of people who were on Saturday Night Live were also in the National Lampoon and Second City.  But the one I didn’t know [before I cast him] was Eddie Murphy.  Jeff Katzenberg said, “What about Eddie Murphy?”  And I was like, “Who?”

 

 

He was nineteen years-old and already the King of the World when you got him.

 

Eddie never had to struggle.  He grew up in an integrated, middle class neighborhood, started doing stand-up comedy in New York when he was seventeen, by the time he was eighteen he was on Saturday Night Live, and by the time he was nineteen he had been in 48 Hrs. and Trading Places. 

 

And you worked with Eddie at three very different points in his career.

 

Three very guys, too.  The guy on Trading Places was young and full of energy and curious and funny and fresh and great.  The guy on Coming to America was the pig of the world – the most unpleasant, arrogant, bullshit entourage… just an asshole.  However, Eddie is brilliant, and he and I have always worked together well; there’s never been an issue created.  On Coming to America, we clashed quite a bit because he was such a pig; he was so rude to people.  I was like, “Jesus Christ, Eddie!  Who are you?”  But I told him, “You can’t be late.  If you’re late again, I quit.”  We had a good working relationship, but our personal relationship changed because he just felt that he was a superstar and that everyone had to kiss his ass.  He was a jerk.  But great – in fact, one of the greatest performances he’s ever given.  The character he plays in Coming to America, Hakeem, is so opposite of what Eddie really was:  a gentleman, charming and elegant, as opposed to this jerk-off.  Someone, I think it was James Earl Jones, used to say that when Eddie came on set, “It’s like an arctic wind.”  (Laughs)  I mean, he wouldn’t do his off-camera for people; it was bullshit.  But I still think he’s wonderful in the movie.  Because that was the first time… you know, Eddie’s genius is mimicry.  He can be anyone.  If you say, “Sing like Eddie Murphy”, he’s got no voice.  But if you say, “Sing like Jackie Wilson, or Frank Sinatra, sing like…”

 

Stevie Wonder.

 

Stevie Wonder or James Brown.  I mean, he can do it.  He’s quite extraordinary.  At the time of Coming to America, I had read this article, that I was really offended by, about Jewish comics in blackface – Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson and stuff.  I thought it was really ignorant, so I just said, “Eddie, I’m gonna have you play an old Jew”.  And he said, “What?”  He didn’t believe me, and I said, “Rick Baker can make you an old Jew”.  So, we got him in the test makeup, and the test makeup totally convinced Eddie.  He had the accent down, Deborah made him a hump for his coat, and he went around the Paramount offices flirting with secretaries.  He realized, “I can do it”.  He was so funny.  And what we discovered was that the makeup freed him.  Once he was in the makeup, he was just as fresh as when he was nineteen.  Once he was in the makeup, he wasn’t Eddie anymore.  In fact, the people who made The Nutty Professor said they loved working with Sherman Klump, but they hated working with Eddie Murphy.  Because when he was Sherman, he was a sweet guy.  (Laughs)

 

You know, in Coming to America, there were people who never understood that I didn’t do any optical tricks.  It was all straightforward doubles and over-the-shoulders and stuff.  So, in Coming to America, there were people who never realized that, at times, Eddie was four of the seven people in the scene.  Because he was so good.  So good.  And Arsenio [Hall] was really funny in those makeups, too.  The preacher was his dad.  He was playing his dad.  And I loved that great line where he says, “And when Gilligan comes back to the island!”  (Laughs)  And Eddie as that… what was his name?  Randy Jackson?

 

Randy Watson!

 

Randy Watson.

 

And “Sexual Chocolate”.

 

That’s an amazing makeup.  But then Eddie and I had a real parting of the ways.  It was like “Fuck you!”; we really disliked one another.  And many years later, I was approached to do Beverly Hills Cop 3, and I asked, “Well, who’s playing Eddie Murphy?”  They said, “No, Eddie asked for you.”  So, I met with him, and he was pleasant.  I still think it was his way of apologizing, but who knows with Eddie?  He’s so strange.  A very odd fellow.  But so talented. 

 

And how was the experience of making Beverly Hills Cop 3?

 

Cop 3 was a very strange experience.  The script wasn’t any good, but I figured, “So what?  I’ll make it funny with Eddie.”  I mean, one of the worst scripts I ever read was [the original] Beverly Hills Cop.  It was a piece of shit, that script.  But the movie’s very funny because Eddie Murphy and Martin Brest made it funny.  And with Bronson Pinchot… that was all improvised.  Everything funny in that movie is not in the screenplay, so I thought, “Well, we’ll do that.”  But then I discovered on the first day when I started giving Eddie some shtick, he said, “You know, John… Axel Foley is an adult now.  He’s not a wiseass anymore.”  It turned out… I believe he was very jealous of Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes doing these [straight roles].  If you notice, after Beverly Hills Cop 3 he did like four action movies.  So, with Beverly Hills Cop 3, I had this strange experience where he was very professional, but he just wasn’t funny.  I would try to put him in funny situations, and he would find a way to step around them.  It’s an odd movie.  There are things in it I like, but it’s an odd movie. 

 

Do you think there comes a point with certain comedians where they just can’t tap into that playfulness or invention anymore?

 

No, he was just a brilliant as he always was; he just wasn’t happy.  He’s an odd fellow.  A lot of comics are unhappy people, but I know a lot of comics who aren’t unhappy people, so there you go.

 

 

I think one of your most underappreciated movies is Into the Night.

 

I actually think it’s The Stupids.

 

Really?

 

Yeah, I was very pleased with The Stupids.  It’s a children’s film.  I made it for a company called Savoy.  They went bankrupt while I was in post-production; the film sat on a shelf for two years with fourteen other movies.  Disney tried to buy it, and that would’ve been brilliant, because then it would’ve been “Walt Disney Presents The Stupids”, which would’ve been like a papal blessing.  Unfortunately, New Line bought it, but I discovered they bought it because it was Tom Arnold, John Landis and Jenny McCarthy, who, when I made the movie, was a model in Canada.  But when the movie came out almost three years later, she had been Playmate of the Year, she had a television show, and was very hot.  So, [New Line] thought, “Oh, it’s a tits-and-ass comedy”, and it’s a G-rated children’s movie.  Captain Kangaroo is in it! 

 

It’s based on a very good series of children’s books.

 

And it’s very faithful to the book.  It’s a very clever screenplay.  It’s a movie where Captain Kangaroo and Christopher Lee play the same character.  I was very happy with that movie.  But when I screened it for Mitch Goldman, the head of distribution at New Line, about halfway through the film, he looked at me and said, “It’s a children’s film”.  And I said, “Yeah.”  He said, “What the fuck am I going to do with this?”  So, it was dumped, and treated very badly by the critics.  I’m happy to say it’s very successful on television, and extremely successful on video because people buy it for their kids.  It’s meant for ten year-olds.  That really went under the radar.  But I really like that picture.  And that one had a great score by Christopher Stone. 

 

But Into the Night was my first box office failure, and that was quite surprising to me, because I hadn’t done anything different. 

 

But you had made a dark comedy, and that’s—

 

It was dark.  And that’s another thing:  critics don’t like it when you fuck with genre.  An American Werewolf In London is still called a comedy.  It’s not a comedy; it’s a horror movie.  But it’s the opposite of high concept.  High concept is when you can explain [the movie] in one sentence.  But when things get muddled, they’re confused.  I like Into the Night.  It’s got a wonderful cast.

 

It’s got one of my favorite surreal movie moments.  You have David Bowie and Carl Perkins engaging in a knife fight while Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein plays on a television in the background.  It’s just a collision of pop cultural information that completely confounds me.

 

Do you now that you’re the only person who’s ever pointed that out?  I thought it was really outrageous to have David Bowie and Carl Perkins in a knife fight, but no one ever, until this moment, said anything about it.

 

It’s just one of those things that stayed with me.  I got it.  I don’t know what I got necessarily, but…

 

David was good in that. 

 

He was.  And so was Paul Mazursky. 

 

Paul’s a good actor.  There are a lot of directors in that movie.  Roger Vadim.

 

You do a lot of that.

 

Everything I’ve ever done, except Animal House, has directors in it.

 

Why do you do that?

 

For fun.  I wish I could tell you there was some deep reason, but it’s just for fun.  It’s not important, it’s just for me.

 

Spies Like Us is funny because you’ve got all of these up-and-coming directors [Sam Raimi and the Coen Brothers] at the drive-in.

 

Oh, yeah.  Before they were famous. 

 

And then you went and repaid Sam by being in Darkman.

 

I’m in Spider-Man 2.  I’m one of the surgeons.  You know, both times I’ve been in a fucking Sam Raimi movie, he puts me in a surgical mask so you can’t recognize me.  I’m like, “Thanks, Sam!”

 

You know, Darkman’s an interesting story.  I got a call from Sam, who was in a panic.  He said, “I’m shooting this scene tomorrow.  Kathy Bates was supposed to play this doctor, and she sets up the entire exposition of the movie in this one scene, and she backed out.  So, I’m fucked.  Do you know any actresses that could handle that kind of dialogue?”  Jenny Agutter was living in Los Angeles at the time, and I said, “What about Jenny Agutter?”  He said, “Oh, she’d be great!  Could you get her for me?”  So, I called Jenny and said, “This guy Sam Raimi, he’s really talented and gifted.”  She said, “What’s he done?”  I said, “Evil Dead”.  And she said, “No.”  She had just been in one of the Chucky movies, and had a terrible experience.  She said, “I don’t want to do any horror pictures.”  I said, “Jenny, please!  He’s a friend of mine.”  So she was like, “Alright, I’ll do it.  If you stand next to me.”  I said, “What do you mean?”  She said, “You’re in the film standing next to me.”  So, I called up Sam and said, “She’ll do the movie, but guess what?”  (Laughs) 

 

You also have George Lucas in Beverly Hills Cop 3.  How did that come about?

Well, George lives up in Northern California, and we shot at the amusement park in San Jose.  So, I called him up and said, “Come on and be in the movie.” 

 

But my favorite cameo is in Innocent Blood, where Dario Argento’s in the ambulance.

 

Me, too!  I think that’s so funny when he says (taking on an Italian accent), “You’re gonna be fine.”   

 

I can’t imagine that horrifying visage being the last image I see before I expire.  What he must be thinking!  That’s horrifying!

 

(Laughing)  Well, you and I must be the only ones who appreciate that. 

 

 

Another recurring motif is the curtain call credit. 

 

Oh, yeah.  Just show the actors.

 

And it’s always outtakes, too.

 

I don’t do it all the time.  Like at the end of American Werewolf, it would hurt the ending. 

 

Was there any reason why you started doing that?

 

Orson Welles always did those with his trailers, like Citizen Kane, where it says, “Mercury Theater”, and then the cast comes up.  You want to hear a great, insane moment in movies that no one knows about, and I’ll tell you about?  It’s not in one of my movies.  When I was twenty-five, I was hired to be… one of the twelve writers on The Spy Who Loved Me.  It was very exciting.  I fly to London, and work with Guy Hamiltong and Anthony Burgess.  Guy ended up quitting, and I ended up leaving.  It was the moment when Cubby Broccoli and Harry Salzman were suing one another.  They weren’t speaking.  It was very hard.  Whatever you pitched to Harry, he’d say, “What’d Cubby say?”, and whenever you pitched to Cubby, he’s say, “What’d Harry say?”  So, you were fucked.  But I worked with Guy Hamilton for a few months, and I really grew fond of him; he was a very funny man.  So, this was before videotape, and I got all of the Bond films on 16mm film, and I’m watching them in my flat in London.  And there’s this moment in Diamonds Are Forever where they go into the Las Vegas, and Bond is shown the room where they’re going to put Jill St. John.  The C.I.A. guy is saying, “Don’t worry.  We have men everywhere.  We have men over here, we have men over there”, and then he opens up this door and says, “and here’s Guy.”  He opens this door, and just standing there is Guy Hamilton.  And then they close the door and go on with the scene.  It has nothing to do with anything, but because I was working with Guy Hamilton, I was like, “What!?!?”  That really made me laugh. 

 

Like in Spies Like Us, I really like it when Bruce Davison and William Prince go the drive-in in the middle of nowhere.  There’s Joel [Cohen] and Sam [Raimi], but then they go in, and the spooks are Larry Cohen, Martin Brest, Michael Apted and B.B. King.  (Laughs)  It just cracks me up.  It’s totally not important to the movie, but if you do know it, it’s funny.

 

There’s been a real resurgence of raucous, R-rated comedies as of late, like Old School.

 

The one I’m excited about, which I haven’t seen yet, is Wedding Crashers.  I’m pleased, because it’s an R-rated comedy.

 

As is The 40 Year-Old Virgin.

 

And both have done well.  And I’m very happy about it, because people forget that most of my films that made over $100 million – Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, Coming to America – are all R-rated.  And they wouldn’t make those movies now.  My wife and I were talking about this.  We watched Chinatown recently, which is a great film, and I said, “You know, there’s not a company in town that would make this now.” 

 

How would you even pitch it?

 

“Then he shoots her eye out, and the evil grandfather molests the daughter, and gets away with it.”

 

Okay, John Huston at the end of Chinatown is almost as horrifying as Dario Argento in Innocent Blood.

 

That’s so horrifying!  So creepy.

 

But when you see movies like Old School, they invariably get compared to Animal House.

 

Mostly because they’re copying it, but that’s okay.  You know, I used to have lunch with Alfred Hitchcock once a month for about three years.  He was a very funny man.  He was old, but he used to see every movie that came out.  He had a screening room, and he saw everything.  And he was very distressed by this movie in which he felt he had been ripped off badly.  Everyone kept saying it was “Hitchcockian”, and his point was that it was the opposite of Hitchcockian.  He was railing about it, and I said, “You know, Hitch, it’s meant as an homage”.  And he said, “You mean ‘fromage’.”  (Laughs)

 

 

Though we were scheduled to do an hour breakfast, I kept John talking until he absolutely had to leave, which may have been selfish on my part, but, hell, it’s not every day you’re seated in a booth at Kate Mantilni opposite your directing idol.  Our conversation grew even more wide ranging, though, and so conversational that the rest of the transcript would probably be interesting to me and me alone.  We did touch on Show Dogs, his upcoming comedy for New Line, which he predicts will be a “logistical nightmare” given his canine stars.  But, as has been the case in a lot of his recent interviews, he was most interested in talking about his planned adaptation of the cult musical Bat Boy.  John lit up as he talked of his plans to play up the horror in the musical, and to have Rick Baker design a more grotesque Bat Boy.  Best of all, he wants to do it R-rated.  An R-rated horror-musical.  It’s been too long since John Landis was pushing the boundaries of genre; the thought that he’s on the cusp of doing it all over again makes me giddy.  A word of warning to the studio:  should you fail to give Bat Boy the greenlight it so richly deserves, the Landis fans of the world will have no recourse but to unleash…

 

Big Jim Slade!!!