Unreeled: John Landis Retrospective Interview
It's really difficult to not brag when you've had the same kind of conversation I recently did with John Landis, the same human who directed Animal House, The Kentucky Fried Movie, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London, ¡Three Amigos!, Trading Places, Michael Jackson's "Thriller," and dozens of other great moving pictures you and I adore. So, for this article, you are going to need to bear with a few of my gloats, please. I'm a nice guy who loves cats and grandmothers, so you can manage for a few paragraphs of crowing. (Or, just skip what I have to say and listen, I'll never know unless you comment that you skipped, which is just mean.)
Landis was in Dallas over the weekend to get the Dallas Star Award from the Dallas International Film Festival, as well as talk to fans after a special screening of Blues Brothers. Since I live in Dallas and like movies, I interviewed the fella about a lot of his.Originally, I only had ten minutes to talk to him, but he really geeked out on some topics and his team were kind enough to let him continue until he was tired of talking to me and/or looking at my face. I had twelve questions and he answered all of them in three.
The beginning of this interview will always be more interesting for me than you because it's about me. Me me me. We discuss my name, first and last. I've never thought about my name much, but since I started this whole film criticism mumbo jumbo, people always ask me if Chase Whale is real or a pseudonym. It's real, or that's what my sweet mother tells me. And she's a saint.
We talk about that (my name, not that my mother is a saint) and Landis boasts that "it [sounds] like a bounty hunter. Chase Whale." if it were used in a western. The Good, the Bad and the Chase Whale, never riding into to a theater near you.
Another favorite moment about this part of the chat is when he asked if he could borrow my name and followed up with, "'I might go, "Private Detective. Chase Whale, P.I.'" Little did he know how much I invest my time in Raymond Chandler and other PI novels.
You will like what follows after our hoopla about my name because we dive into Landis' career and get right to the bone with his thoughts on his movies, CGI (which he says he would use if American Werewolf were made today), the movie that made him want to be a filmmaker, and why he hates that most people see An American Werewolf in London as a horror comedy.
I promise if you're a fan of his work and read or listen to the whole interview, you'll get something useful out of it. If not, you can call me a liar.
[Note: I transcribed the interview for all the readers out there, but if listening is something you enjoy better, I've added the audio at the end of this article. Please bear with me saying "yeah" a lot. It's one of those things I do often in interviews and can't ever seem just nod instead. It's inevitable. Like me overdosing on pizza, one day.]
John Landis: Now, how did that happen?
Chase Whale: Um, my name?
Well, my mom got pregnant...
"Chase." It's an unusual name, first name. I know Chevy Chase. I don't...
That's where this shirt [I'm wearing] came from. [Chevy Chase made it famous.]
Yeah. I got this because you know ... As you probably know, his name ... Probably thought his name was weird, and people never believed my name is Chase Whale. So I got this shirt, and ... So, yeah.
So, like do Ahab jokes and stuff like that.
Tons of Ahab jokes. Tons of killer whale jokes.
I was called Ahab. Ahab, my captain, in high school. It's kind of worked out.
Let me see your tattoo. "Mom."
... a traditional mom tattoo with the film wrapped around it because she's the one that's always believed in me with my film stuff whenever other people were like, "Don't be a film critic. Don't write about movies." This and that. Now that I'm doing well, they're just like, "Oh, you're just so great." I'm like, "Well, fuck you. My mom's supported me since the very beginning." Yeah.
We'll go ahead and get started. I don't know how much time we have; probably not a whole lot. I'm sure you're tired from answering the same questions all day.
I'm going to try to throw some curve balls at you; we'll see if I can.
Okay. Oh-oh. What's this [interview] for?
This is for ScreenAnarchy.com
Have you heard of them?
Okay. Yeah, they're big fans of yours.
I love Chase Whale. I love your name.
It's a good name. Chase Whale. You know, it's like a Western. It's like a bounty hunter. Chase is here. Chase Whale.
But I ... See, I wouldn't want people to know my name because, in something like that ... Like Bond. James Bond. He always says his name. It's no longer a secret. He gives himself away. I'm surprised he hasn't gotten murdered yet out of the blue because he keeps telling people his name, and he's supposed to be this secret agent.
It's not really James Bond. See, that's ...
But maybe in a Western, people want to know my name because I want to be scary.
Yeah. It's like, "[Have Gun - Will Travel's] Paladin's coming." You know, it's always about ...
Do you know that joke? I'm going to tell a terrible joke. You might want to ... Never mind. I'll tell you later.
This whole interview is just about my name. I love it. (Laughs)
All right. Let's go ahead and start this. A lot my colleagues consider you more of a horror director and others fight that you're the King of Comedy. What genre do you see yourself?
I'm ... I do not understand why I'm now a Master of Horror. People ... I'm referred to very often as a Master of Horror, and in ... My son, Max, our son, is very successful screen writer and film maker. He wrote this picture a couple of years ago called Chronicle. Which is wonderful. When it was reviewed ... I forgot. Her name is Dargis? In the New York Times. Whatever her name is. The critic. When she reviewed Max, she wrote ... It was a good review for the film, I guess. She referred to the screenplay by Max Landis, parentheses, son of Hollywood director, John Landis, known for his horror film. End parentheses. And I thought, "I am?" I mean, it was like, "What?" I found that very strange, but that's what it's become. I think because I was part of that series, that Masters of Horror thing-
... that Mick Garris did.
See, I knew in my heart you would say comedy.
I wouldn't say comedy. I mean, I have to tell you...
So what genre would you consider yourself?
All genres! I consider myself a filmmaker. Directors, just like actors, get typed. Some directors, Alfred Hitchcock, Master of Suspense ... I mean, there are horror directors ... John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper ... These guys, they brand ... It's branding. It's marketing. You know, that's what they do.
But in fact, a film ... Now, many people disagree with me, but it's not wrong. A filmmaker ... You know, filmmaking is a craft that, if done extraordinarily well, can become an art, like carpentry. What's interesting about filmmaking is that, if it's a comedy, or a horror film, or a melodrama, or a chick flick, or a science fiction film, or a fantasy film, or a Western, it's exactly the same process.
So, I've never understood ... I get it, commercially, because what happens, one, in a marketing way, but, two, people tend to be simple, and it's all about chasing money. If a guy's had a lot of successful comedies, then you give him comedies. You know?
But in fact, I'm envious of the old days in the studios when directors were on contract and went from picture to picture to picture. A guy who's career I think is amazing, someone like Michael Curtiz. He made "The Maltese Falcon". He made Robin Hood. He made Dodge City. He made Captain Blood. He made Yankee Doodle Dandy. He made Casablanca. Is he a master of what, exactly? He's a good filmmaker.
He's a Master of Awesome. That's what he is.
Yeah, exactly. That would be nice, but it's ... So, in fact, I enjoy making comedies. I enjoy making ... I mean, if I could make anything I wanted, I'd make Westerns,
Absolutely. Chase. Chase Whale. (Laughs)
I've made one ... As a director ... I've worked on a lot of Westerns, but as a director, I've made one Western, which was a comedy, which was ¡Three Amigos!
Yes. Very ...
Walter Hill said to me once, "If they knew how much fun it was to make a Western, they wouldn't let us." It's true.
It's so fun. You're out on horseback all day. You're outside. You're running around. It's really fun.
Aw, man. I should've worn my Ennio Morricone shirt.
Ah! There you go! Did you know I'm in Once Upon A Time In the West?
Yes! That's actually was at the bottom of my questions to have you talk about it if we have time, so we can get back to that.
The other thing that's interesting, when you make a lot of movies, it depends where I am and who I'm talking to what movie it is that they're excited about.
Obviously, in this country, Animal House. I get a lot of Animal House, get a lot of The Blues Brothers. I get a lot of Trading Places, you know. But in England, it's, first and foremost, American Werewolf and then it's Trading Places. Then it's Coming To America. It depends what country I'm in, or who you're talking to, what movie is it ... Because everyone ... You know, everything about a movie is how old you were, who you were, who you were with, where you saw it. Everything about your experience of a movie is completely subjective and depends on so many things.
What's your favorite movie?
Magnolia. Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia.
All right. How old were you? Where did you see it?
It was 1999. I was born '83. I was like 15, 16.
Where'd you see it?
I saw it in the theater.
I don't remember.
See usually you'd remember. But it's interesting. I mean, it's who you were, at that moment when you saw that movie.
Okay, so we'll flip it on you. What are some movies that made you fall in love with film.
Well, I could be very specific about that.
Oh, no, that ... Well, this is so obnoxious because I've said it so many fucking times.
Then lie to me!
I mean, so many times. No, but it's the truth. When I was eight years old, I saw The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad at the Crest Theater in Westwood Village, and I had what's called "suspension of disbelief". I fucking loved it! I was there. I loved it.
For a lot of people, it's Star Wars. For you, it was Magnolia. For other people, it's ... I mean, for Ray Harryhausen and Ray Bradbury, it was King Kong. You know, it ... The original. It's what movie is it that you went, "Oh!". You had that epiphany. You had that completely transcended experience. It can be a painting, it can be a sculpture, whatever it is. But in the movies, it's which picture is it, and for me it was "Seventh Voyage of Sinbad". I just went ape-shit, and I came home so excited. I mean, a cyclops and a dragon; the whole thing. I said to my mom, "Who does that? Who makes the movie?", and she said ... It's surprisingly sophisticated of her, but she said, "The director. He makes the movie. That's who makes the movie." So from the time I was eight years old, my only advantage is that I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.
I wanted to be a director. I wanted to do anything I could to be near production.
Okay, so, my favorite movie is Magnolia, but the movie that changed [the way I saw films] is Terminator 2: Judgment Day. I can tell you, I saw that with my mom when I was in third grade at the AMC Theater in Irving, Texas.
See? You changed your look. You went, "whoa". Your eyes lit up ... You know, that's a great film.
The special effects still hold up today, and that's ...
No, that genuinely ... There's ... You know, everyone says that "Jurassic Park" is the game-changer, but in fact, it's Terminator 2.
Which was like two years before.
Yeah. What's extraordinary about CG and digital compositing, it's not the animation. People really don't understand that because CG is so labor-intensive. You ever see those end credits? I mean, it's far more work than hand-drawn animation, but digital compositing means no superimposition. No blue sodium. No green-screen. What happens is, "Jurassic Park" ... The amazing thing in Jurassic Park wasn't the dinosaurs. I mean, stop motion's as good as that. What they did though, was those animals and those things were in the picture. Not on the ... They were in the frame in a way that it never happened before ...
... because it was all first-generation. That was, you know and ... T2 is the movie that ... ILM, same people. You know when that guy came out of the linoleum floor ... That's a great movie!
Are you ... Do you consider yourself more pro-practical effects than like CGI and stop motion, or are you just like, "I don't give a fuck, just make a good movie now."
No, they're just...
There's always that battle.
That's the truth and it's a false battle. You know what? The truth is, they're tools, so you use what works. I mean, for instance, I do think CG is like so ... I'm sick of it, but I've seen brilliant stuff. The best CG you don't know is CG. And you don't know it. In one of the Borne movies, I forgot which one, but there's a chase in Downtown Manhattan where they're going up for the big chase. It was the first time, and I watched that chase, and I went, "Wait a minute. How the fuck? Wait, they couldn't have done that. I know they could not have done what I just saw." So I went back to see it, and then I realized, "Two of those cars aren't there. Those are CG cars. Oh, my god! That's fucking brilliant!" I mean, that was great use of the tools. I mean, it's amazing.
I like ... I think CG's a ... You forget, I made "Black or White". That's the first time anyone saw morphing.
So I ... And I wanted to ... You want ... That's an interesting story. You know how that happened?
No. Please tell me.
I wrote An American Werewolf in London in 1969. Okay? I had gone to school when I was 14 and 15 because I'm a high school dropout. I didn't go past that; I was 15. When I was 14 and 15, I went to school with John and Mark Whitney. Their dad was John Whitney. You know who John Whitney was?
He's the inventor of what we call "Computer Generated Imagery", but he was not a scientist; he was a fine artist. He was doing it as art pieces. He's in the Whitney. He's in the Museum of Modern Art. He's one of the first guys to do ... You know now video art and all that stuff-
Didn't he do a short in 1969 or something like that?
Oh, he did ... You know what he did? The first thing you might know that he did was commercial was the ABC logo that went (sound). No one had ever seen anything like that before. Through John Whitney, things like the flight simulator, the military, early on, saw the practical applications of a lot of what he was doing. Very much like the internet's developed by the military; it's government stuff. John Whitney was a fine artist who's atelier was paid for by the Department of Defense. He was remarkable man and just way out there. In 1971, when I came back to the United States from being in Europe, I had this script. In the script, I mean, it is the movie; it's exactly the same. Literally, exactly the same, but it had this idea of the metamorphosis taking place in real time, in bright light, and all that stuff. I thought, "Gee. You know" ... I'd met Rick Baker on Schlock in '71. I thought, "If Rick could sculpt the first, and then fifth, and then tenth, and then 15th moment of metamorphosis, a computer should be able to generate and map the difference." This was insane thinking, and I thought, "I bet John Whitney could do this." I go to see Mr. Whitney, who was not a young man at the time.
He took me to a place way out in Playa del Rey, and ... Did you ever see Colossus: The Forbin Project?
Do you remember the beginning with all those UNIVAC computers lined up and Colossus? It was just like that. He took me to this place underground; it was under a runway, under the ground. With military, with MP's, white helmets and machine guns. It was like, "Wow! What is this place?" It was just like a ... It was like Army & Flint ... Like, "What the fuck am I?" It was part of [CON NORAD 15:09], which is our nuclear defense system. It was just this ... Oh, gosh. I don't know how many computers with tape going like this.
He said, "John, all this computing power", and I'm not a technical guy, so I don't know what the word is. What's the word? Gigabytes? Whatever the word is about the computers. "All this power isn't enough to do what you want to do, but," he said, "the science of computers is advancing." This is 1971. "So rapidly, that I bet in 10 years, you'll be able to do it." So, more than 10 years later, when I came to do ... What's it called? "Black or White". Jackson. I thought, "You know, maybe I could morph face." So I went to see ... Mr. Whitney had passed away, but I went to John Whitney, Jr. John Whitney, Jr. had then just made the first CG movie called The Last Starfighter. That's John Whitney, Jr. I mean, he ... Then John Dykstra and all those guys, John Landis, and Dennis Muren. Anyway, I went to John Whitney, Jr., and I said, "What do you think about". He said, "That's ... I know people that can do that." He sent me to a company called PDI, one of the first [inaudible 16:26]. I shot the live-action, and I said, "I want all these faces to morph." And they not only did it, they did it on desktop computers. I remember thinking, "Holy Shit!".
Your mind was blown.
I was just blown away because these were now ... John showed me ... Mr. Whitney showed me this mountain of computers and said, "I can't do it." Since then ... I'm sure you know this. In a smart phone ... Do you know this? In a smart phone, there's more computing power in an iPhone or a smart phone than NASA had when we put a man on the moon.
That I did not know.
Yeah. That's how fast this shit's going.
Isn't that incredible? So that's a very long answer to what? I ... Oh, to why I ... Oh, that was like I ... Do you know what? Let me just see this just a second. Oh, gosh. I've had this phone four years, and I still don't know how it works.
That was a whole ... That was like a real detour.
No, no. Please. This interview is about you.
That was a detour. But anyway. I'm not ... That argument about practical versus CG. I think that, for instance, makeup now, because of the new materials, there's makeup now that is so amazing that stupid producers don't realize it should be practical, and they think, "Oh, we'll do it CG later." That's fine, except it's 10, 20 times the cost and unnecessary. Did you see Foxcatcher?
The makeup on Steve Carell ... Everyone knows he's got a big nose. There's not one inch of his flesh there, even his eyebrows aren't his. He's got so many prosthesis on, they totally changed his everything, but it's these new silicones; it's seamless. That's one of the best makeups I've ever seen.
It was great.
Oh, my god! Or what Rick Baker did in Maleficent. Her makeup is ... If she's wearing those pieces ... Seamless.
I'm excited to see what can be done now. I know that J.J. on the new "Star Wars", there's a bunch of practical makeup.
J.J.'s untouchable, man. Love that guy.
I'm actually going to blow your mind with "Black or White". I remember seeing it when it aired on TV, and Bart Simpson when he dropped ... It was like a pre ... It was with my mom-
He turned it off, Bart Simpson.
We were taping it. Yeah. I remember he drops in the frame and...
He doesn't drop in the frame. He ... You watch the whole thing, and it turns out that it was being watched by the Simpsons. He turns it off.
I remember watching that with my mom whenever it aired on TV. It's amazing.
Well, they ended up ... It caused all this scandal because of the silly ...
People love drama.
Everything Michael ... It sold records. The bottom line is, I love practical, but I think CG's astonishing, and if I did Werewolf now, it'd be a combination of both.
Especially the advances in CG, just in the last two years, is amazing.
Let's go back to, or keep with, Werewolf. That's a movie with multiple genres in it.
See, that's ... Now that, is a sore point with me, but it's me being stupid. Nonetheless, that's always called comedy-horror. It is not. It is a horror film that's very funny.
And, it has some dramatic moments that are very affective.
It's a horror film that has very funny things in it, but it's not a comedy. Shaun of the Dead is a comedy. There are comedy ... Which by the way, is a great movie. There are comedy-horror films. That's not, and I think it has a lot to answer for because people thought, "Oh, that's ... Now we have to make" ... It's like, you know how James Bond ... I was one of the writers of "The Spy Who Loved Me", so I was involved in this weird progression of the Roger Moore movies where they just became comedies.
They lost ... It just ... And I think that horror, although there's a renaissance now with horror ... There's some great stuff being made now with horror. I'm sorry.
Yeah. No, no. You're fine.
Have you seen that What They Do At the Dark or What They Do At Night"? What's it called? "What We Do At Night" or "What We Do In the Dark". This new movie from New Zealand.
What We Do In the Shadows!
What We Do In the Shadows!
Yes. It's great.
I love when they use CGI and all that, they use it sparingly. It's very effective.
Yeah. I really thought that movie was funny and sweet. I love the ending when he buried his girl ... The woman he was in love with. Wasn't that sweet?
It was sweet.
But I like ... I thought that was very funny. There are wonderful ... Beetlejuice. That's a comedy; it's not meant to be scary.
American Werewolf, my intention now ... I know it's not the filmmakers ultimate... my intention was to make a completely preposterous story, completely ridiculous story, realistic. What do you do with something that's impossible when it's in your face? How do you deal with the supernatural because the supernatural does not exist? The crux of that movie is basically David questioning his sanity. The truth is, he's not crazy. He's a fucking werewolf. It's funny because you're smart. An educated or a smart person's reaction, it's funny. The movie is very funny; that's my intention. But I don't think it's a comedy. If it's a comedy, it's awfully dark because those boys ... My wife, who refuses to read a script unless it's in production. She's says, "I'm not reading it, unless it's going."
Even though I had read Werewolf ... I read. I'd written it years before. When I finally got the money, she said, "Okay." She's going to sign it. She reads it. She said to me, I'll never forget it. She goes, "John, okay. These boys show up in a truckload of sheep. They go to The Slaughtered Lamb. They're dead from the first frame." I said, "I know." And she said, "You put the 'B' in 'subtle'." I never forgot because I thought, "Did you make that up? That's funny!"
Have you been to The Slaughtered Lamb in New York?
Do you know there's one in New York? There are like 15 of them around the world. They just ... They're not connected with one another, and I don't get any money from it. It still pisses me off. Do you know you can't protect that unless you copyright it separately? You can't protect anything like that tied, something from ... There are Blues, ¡Three Amigos! restaurants, all kinds of stuff.
Yeah. That's interesting.
I have been at Slaughtered Lamb in New York. I kept thinking. You owe me money. (Laughs)
Well, cool. We'll go ahead and ... This is one more question. I know you have a busy day, and I'm sure you're tired of talking about the same shit. You have a really impressive catalog, as you humbly know. Which one of your own movies have you watched the most, and why that one?
I tend not to watch my movies. A movie of mine ... If you said to me, what movie of can I watch and not cringe ... Because I see movie, I just see the mistakes, and I'm full of regrets. ¡Three Amigos! I find very funny. If it's on TV or something, I'll watch it. Has amazing music, ¡Three Amigos!. Score by Elmer Bernstein, songs by Randy Newman. I just find it sweet and funny, so I like that movie. That was not a big hit, that picture.
It's a cult hit now.
Now it does very well, but...
How do you feel about that? Movies that you've made that may not at the time been a hit, but now they're just so beloved. Every year they have a huge screening at New Beverly in L.A. or...
Well, it's ironic. To paraphrase John Huston, "Motion picture directors, buildings, and prostitutes grow respectable with age." Now, I'm in my 60's. What's interesting is films that were shit on are now referred to as classics by the same critics, by the way. That's very odd. Sometimes movies are just ... There's so many movies that just failed and were badly reviewed, and they're genuinely wonderful films. There's so ... And even more movies that stink that are huge hits and acclaimed. There's no ... It's not like fair, and again, it's subjective.
There are moments in all my movies I like. There are things in all my movies I like. Like The Blues Brothers. I saw it two years ago in Melbourne, Australia because I had a retrospective there. The Valhalla Cinema was an old theater in Melbourne that showed "The Blues Brothers" when it came out, and then showed it every Friday and Saturday night at midnight for like 28 years. It became a thing in Melbourne. I don't know anywhere else, but in Melbourne, where, like Rocky Horror, people would dress up as the characters. They had routines and stuff. At my retro ... Then the Valhalla was closed, and it's gone. Then at my retrospective, they had this huge screening of "The Blues Brothers". There were like 1200, 1400 people. There must have been 400 Jake and Elwoods, people dressed as the nun, people dressed as Nazis, and people dressed as Chicago police. It was wild because they had, like Rocky Horror, they had rituals like dry, white toast flying through the theater, just big dance numbers. It was kind of great, but nuts.
It was a ... It was really kind of ... But you know, in Australia, the blood rushes to their heads, I guess. I don't know. That was fun, and I really enjoyed that. I really sometimes ... The sequences in all my films I like.
That makes sense.
: But it's hard for me to watch them. I made a picture ... What you're saying about movies that fail. I made a movie called Into the Night. "Into the Night" was a total failure. It was my best reviewed movie, but total failure. When cable TV started, so about 20 years ago, a little over 20 years ago [inaudible 28:09] cable TV, they start showing "Into the Night". So many people would come up to me and go, "John, saw it. So great. I love that movie." I didn't ... You want to bite your tongue because you want to say, "Well, where the fuck were you?"
"Where were you when it fucking released!??
Lori Duncan: Hello!
Do you know Chase Whale?
LD: Hi. We had met years ago. I'm Lori Duncan.
Oh, okay. Yeah.
Nice to see you.
Nice to see you as well.
He has a great name. I really like it.
LD: I know.
Chase Whale. Can I borrow it? I might go, "Private Detective. Chase Whale, P.I."
Well, if you ... Yes, and if you write a story, I will gladly be in it. You just let me know.
Chase Whale. That's a good story.
Anyway. It's ... Of my movies? I don't know. There's things I like and dislike about all of them.
[All photos by Ed Steele Photography LLC.]
This audio interview is long (clocks in at almost thirty minutes), so if you skipped out on reading, just trust there's a lot of interesting things discussed if you dig Landis' work. Scouts honor.