John Landis on ‘Thriller 3D’, the ‘American Werewolf’ Remake, & Lucasfilm’s Director Troubles

     September 13, 2017

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He made John Belushi spit mashed potatoes out of his mouth in Animal House. He crashed dozens of cars in Chicago for a musical pile up in The Blues Brothers. He united The Three Amigos. He helped change the make up effects industry forever in An American Werewolf In London. He blew up Don Rickles in Innocent Blood. He let Eddie Murphy play half the cast of Coming To America. He’s John Landis, one of the greatest comedy filmmakers of his or any era. The guy is legend and oddly enough even all these years later his most iconic creation might be a music video.

Of course, it’s not just any music video that we’re talking about. It’s Michael Jackson’s Thriller, an amazing 14-minute short horror comedy that just happens to be synched up to one of the most famous songs by one of the most famous recording artists who ever lived. The video was instantly iconic, helping to found MTV and the video rental market with the documentary-enhanced cassette The Making Of Thriller. The thing was impossible to avoid in the 80s and now it’s back.

Not that Thriller ever went away, but now Thriller has been restored to 3D by John Landis with some sort of mysterious theatrical engagement on the way. Thriller 3D just played Venice and now the Toronto International Film Festival for it’s a big ol’ debut. Is it a coincidence that Halloween is just around the corner and a limited 3D theatrical release of Thriller alongside it’s Making Of documentary would probably do well? Unlikely, but no one has said anything yet. For now, John Landis is on the festival circuit with the iconic dancing zombie video and Collider got a chance to chat with him about it during his stop at TIFF.

Obviously with Landis being one of the most irrepressible raconteurs in La-La-Land, the interview quickly spiraled out to discuss everything from his son Max’s upcoming remake of An American Werewolf In London, the time Landis did a stunt for Roger Corman, Vincent Price’s unfortunate marriage, and whether or not Thriller make up artist Rick Baker ever designed prosthetic for the CIA. Hey, that’s just what happens when John Landis starts talking and his latest barrage of humorous Hollywood anecdotes is about to start…Now!

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I didn’t notice until I was reading some of the promo material about this release that you had actually thought about shooting Thriller in 3D initially.

JOHN LANDIS: Yeah, I explored it.

I guess it was around that early 80s revival of 3D when Friday The 13th 3D and Jaws 3D came out.

LANDIS: I don’t know. It was 1983. I didn’t choose to mainly because of the added expense at the time. So it wasn’t composed for 3D.

Yeah, I was wondering if your had gotten far enough down the line with that idea to have considered any 3D gags or anything that didn’t make it in?

LANDIS: No, no. Well, there is a surprise in it now. In fact, I didn’t change it at all this time. I just made it 3D. And I don’t think people understand what that entails. The technology now to convert is remarkable. You sit with the stereographer and they have software where you project every frame and decide what’s where. It’s very time consuming. For me, the director, I probably spent three or four days over the course of months doing it. But for the little elves? There’s an amy of guys with styluses and they have to isolate everything.

I’ll bet.

LANDIS: So there was a shot where the camera passes by some trees and guess what? The first tree has 186,000 leaves and they have to isolate them. Every leaf. Every hair. Plus, I didn’t know this, there’s some stuff where you have to generate new imagery. So for an over the shoulder shot, you have to generate the other side of the shoulder, even though you don’t see it. Just so that it’s there in 3D. A lot of that. Smoke! I shouldn’t really tell you this because I don’t want people to know…but you can’t make smoke and ground fog you 3D because it’s around and behind people and stuff. So what they do is computer generate what’s in front of everyone in 3D. Hopefully you don’t notice because it’s just smoke. I did exaggerate a couple things for 3D, for example when Michael turns into the monster and is chasing the girl, there’s her POV shot where he leans into the camera and goes “Grrrrr.” Well, it’s very short but now he leans out. So, it’s not designed for 3D, but I think the estate was happy to exploit it and resell it. I was happy to embrace it because I like 3D and I got to restore the negative. It’s gorgeous. Plus, there was a camera flare that always made me crazy, so I took it away.

So I guess 3D movies were something that you enjoyed growing up. 

LANDIS: I loved them.

Did you have any favourites in particular?

LANDIS: Oh Creature Of The Black Lagoon. Have you ever seen a good print of that projected correctly?

I have.

LANDIS: That’s the best 3D movie ever made. That underwater stuff? It’s gorgeous! House Of Wax? It’s gorgeous! Did you see Wim Wenders’ 3D film Pina?

The ballet?

LANDIS: Yeah, the one about the dancers. That 3D? Wim used it perfectly. I really enjoyed doing it. There’s a shot of the moon in Thriller that I took from An American Werewolf In London. But what was interesting was that when we shot the moon, it’s flat but they went in and curved it. It’s amazing! It was fun. The thing that 3D really enhances is the dance number. It’s really cool in 3D.

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Image via TIFF

I’m assuming The Making Of Thriller wasn’t converted to 3D. 

LANDIS: No, obviously not. But what’s amazing about The Making of Thriller now it’s not what it was. At the time it was a documentary that we made to finance Thriller. We called it The Making Of Filler. But seeing it now, it’s a story of The Making OF Thriller, but it’s also a celebration of Michael in a way that never occurred to me before. It’s before Wacko Jacko and all the weirdness. He’s just joyous and happy. You see all of his greatest performances in there. It’s remarkable.

What did you think of the video of the prisoners doing the “Thriller” dance?

LANDIS: Wonderful! Did you see the one in Mexico City?

I don’t think so.

LANDIS: It’s like 38,000 people doing the “Thriller” dance. Look it up on Youtube. To this day people do that dance at weddings and bar mitzvahs and every Halloween, of course. It’s so interesting to me because…do you know about Thrill The World? It’s a charity thing by Michael Jackson fans in like 39 countries who try to get the biggest numbers of people doing the dance. No one has topped Mexico City.

With you obviously being a big horror movie aficionado, I always wondered why Vincent Prince wasn’t in the video as well? Was that ever discussed?

LANDIS: No. I mean, you saw that I include him big time on the marquee. Why would you want an old white guy in the video?

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