John Landis on ‘Thriller 3D’, the ‘American Werewolf’ Remake, & Lucasfilm’s Director Troubles
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!
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.
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?
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?
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.
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?
Well, he does that monologue and it’s not abnormal to see Vincent Price show up in a cemetery with monsters.
LANDIS: Nah, we never bothered.
You must have known him though. That sounds like you.
LANDIS: I did.
Do you have any good Vincent Price stories?
LANDIS: I do, but you cannot use it. If you turn off the recorder, I’ll tell you.
[So I did and John Landis shared one of the funniest stories I’ve ever heard about Vincent Price that I wish I could share. But alas, it definitely shouldn’t be public knowledge so you’ll never know. Now we’ll jump back into the conversation later on in mid-stream.]
LANDIS: Victoria Price, his daughter, wrote in her book about Theater Of Blood, which is an unbelievably brilliant black comedy. It’s the best thing that Vincent Price ever did. Perfect for him because he’s playing this actor who is murdering his critics. It’s a genuinely great film and very funny. Anyways, when he made that Coral Brown. Do you know who she is?
I’m not sure.
LANDIS: She’s this fabulous British actress. In Theater Of Blood she’s the one who he fries while dressed up as a butcher. She was in Auntie Mame. She was a massive stage star in London in the 20s. So not a young woman and she was famously bisexual as was Vincent. So they fell in love and had a torrid affair and they got married. They moved to LA and Coral Brown lived very lavishly and Vincent had to support her. That’s why Vincent took any job he was offered, commercials, anything. He worked until his dying day. He worked hard for Carol. Then she got sick. Cancer. He nursed her. He took care of her for years and she died. Then it turned out that she had something like sixteen million pounds in the bank in England and left it all to a charity for cats and dogs. Isn’t that a horrible story?
Brutal. Hey, one thing I was curious to ask you since you introduced Michael Jackson to Rick Baker on Thriller, did you ever see the prosthetic that Baker designed for Michael to go out in public?
What was it?
LANDIS: It was just a face. It was easy.
Was it a mask?
LANDIS: Oh yeah, it was a mask that it put on. Did you know when I was a mail boy at Fox I knew John Chambers [the iconic Planet Of The Apes make up artist] very well? In fact, he was in Schlock, my first movie. John Chambers plays the national guard captain. The big guy. So I knew him when he was doing all that CIA stuff that they made that movie Argo about. John Goodman was very physically good to play John Chambers but nothing like him. John was nothing like that. But it is true and John did a lot of stuff for the CIA. There are simple tricks that you can do. He showed me all sorts of things that he made for the CIA. Rick’s been asked many times if he also did work for the government and he’s never said. I don’t know if he did. First off all, he couldn’t tell me if he did. Rick’s very happy now though, he’s retired and doing his art.
I’m glad he’s doing well. It was sad to hear that he had to retire because there was no room left for his make up work in Hollywood with CG.
LANDIS: That’s not really true. There’s always work for Rick Baker. But CG is doing more and more. Have you seen Guillermo’s new movie [The Shape Of Water]?
LANDIS: Ok, so that’s a suit, but the eyes are CG and the fins. You can now seamlessly do so much of that stuff. I mean in Iron Man most of the time Robert Downey isn’t even in that suit. It’s amazing what they do now. The first time that I ever saw CG work for me in that way was in Pirates Of The Caribbean, Bill Nighy’s character Davy Jones with all the tentacles. That was amazing.
Did Rick ever make up you up in anything other than Schlock?
LANDIS: No, I never played a monster again and it’s just a horrible process to go through. The demands on that Schlock make up were ridiculous. It averaged 110 degrees while we were shooting, then the hottest summer in California history. I lost 10 pounds a day, but I was 21 so it was fine.
Are you involved at all in the American Werewolf In London remake that your son Max is writing?
LANDIS: I get money.
It must be a surreal situation for the two of you.
LANDIS: Truthfully, I’ve not seen his script. I advised him not to do it. I think he’s putting himself in a bad position. My son is brilliant, he really is, and he wants to do it. So what am I going to say? No? I know it won’t be as bad as An American Werewolf In Paris, which was shit. So, I don’t know. He’s a great writer. He’s been writing since he was 7. He wrote a whole series of scripts about these characters called Yelp and Dopey, two dumb dogs, when he was under ten. They were so funny.
I was curious what you thought of the musical car chases in Baby Driver since they obviously owed a certain debt to The Blues Brothers.
LANDIS: I loved them. Well first of all, I’m a big fan of Edgar Wright. I’m a big fan of Shaun Of The Dead and I even loved Hot Fuzz as well. His influences are obvious, but Edgar’s a great talent and I’m very proud of him. He’s a good person and he’ll make many more great movies.
Do you have anything that you’re working on?
LANDIS: I have many things that I’m working on, whether or not they’ll ever become real, I don’t know. You know, Joe Dante and myself and a few other guys I know are in the same position. They’re not hiring people who have opinions. They think, “He knows what he’s doing, I’m not hiring him!” Look at Star Wars. They keep firing guys. Phil Lord and Chris Miller, those guys are really talented. They’re really funny and original guys. They shot 75% of the movie and I gotta tell you, it doesn’t speak well for the new Lucasfilm. How many directors have they fired? Four. How many writers? Twelve.
LANDIS: It’s very worrying. Remember when George Lucas said that he felt like he sold his kids into white slavery? Well…
Have you read the script for Joe Dante’s Roger Corman acid trip movie? I’m fascinated by that.
LANDIS: I haven’t, but Joe came up with my favourite Roger Corman cameo. I think it was in The Howling.
When he fishes the coins out of the phone booth?
LANDIS: Yeah! That was Roger. I worked with Roger. I had a line of dialogue and did a stunt in Paul Bartel movie called Death Race 2000. I remember Roger came to the set and saw a table with coffee and donuts on it and said, “Who the fuck paid for this?! This didn’t come out of the budget.” I’ll never forget it. He doesn’t swear, but otherwise that’s true.
What stunt did you do in Death Race 2000?
LANDIS: Did you ever see the movie?
LANDIS: Well first of all, I’m the only one in the movie with long hair because I wouldn’t cut it. There are two mechanics who push Machine Gun Joe Viterbo’s car. He’d been in a fight the night before with David Carradine and he had a black eye. So I say, “I wonder if he got points for that eye” or something like that and then he bashes me against the wall with the car.
Did you ever get injured doing all those stunts?
LANDIS: I’ve only been injured once and I really wasn’t injured. I didn’t break anything. I don’t remember what the movie was. It was an Italian production with pirates and Telly Savalas was in it. So we were all dressed as pirate on this ship. We were all supposed to jump into the water screaming holding our swords. I was with Alf Joint, a famous British stunt man. I remember saying to him, “This is too high.” He said, “Don’t worry about it. Just go feet first and hold your breath.” I said, “I think we’re like 60 feet in the air.” He said, “Don’t be an asshole.” So we do it. We hit the water and it was like hitting concrete. I wasn’t hurt, but I was one big black and blue mark. I couldn’t move for days.
It didn’t put you off doing more stunts though?
LANDIS: No, cause I was a schmuck. I shouldn’t have done it.