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‘A naked American man stole my balloons’

Director John Landis talks gorillas, slashers, and werewolves


His name is John Landis. And his irreverent, playful, and deadpan humor has been making audiences laugh since he dropped out of school at age 17. He learned filmmaking by doing, by asking questions, and by working on Hollywood film sets as a mail boy, a production assistant, and a stuntman. This hands-on experience helped him craft some of the most memorable and timeless movies in Hollywood history --- films like Kentucky Fried Movie, Animal House, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London, Michael Jackson's Thriller, Trading Places, and Coming to America as well as the HBO comedy series Dream On.

            Landis will appear at the Dryden Theatre on Saturday, April 24, to screen his first-ever documentary, Slasher, a fascinating expose of a gimmick-ridden used car sale run by a price-slashing salesman. He will also receive the title of George Eastman Honorary Scholar, thus joining the ranks of John Frankenheimer, Norman Jewison, Ken Burns, Phillip Kaufman, Dennis Hopper, Tony Curtis, Haskell Wexler, and Richard Widmark.

            I spoke with the writer-director-producer-actor on the phone last week. He was surprised to learn that the Dryden Theatre screened his debut film, Schlock, as part of their April-long Landis retrospective.

            Landis: Did they show it last night?

            City:Yeah, they showed it on the big screen.

            Landis: Was anybody there?

            City:Myself and two other people. No, around 100 people.

            Landis: Really, 100 people? What was the print like?

            City:More like 50 people and the print wasn't that great.

            Landis: Yeah, I can't imagine there'd be any good prints of that movie.

            City:The film was well received. The audience enjoyed its independent spirit and its silliness.

            Landis: Well, that's nice. It was shot in 12 days for $60,000. And the most remarkable aspect of that movie is that I'm in that ape suit and makeup by Rick Baker and it averaged 109 degrees during shooting. It was the hottest summer in California history. I would lose like eight pounds every day.

            City:Will there ever be a "Son of Schlock?"

            Landis: I doubt it. I don't know. Schlock actually made a surprising amount of money considering what it is, but none of it came to me. Over the years it has cost me quite a bit to keep it alive. I doubt there will be a Son of Schlock... although I did try to sell it as a TV series.

            City:Did you get more gorilla roles offered to you after "Schlock?"

            Landis: No, but I was given --- I was so surprised --- in France, of course, in a comedy film festival, I got Best Actor.

            City:You beat out Jerry Lewis that year?

            Landis: I don't think Jerry had a picture out that year.

            City:Was that the first time you and Rick Baker had met and collaborated on anything?

            Landis: I found him through John Chambers, who was the great makeup artist responsible for the Planet of the Apes. I went to him to ask him about making the Schlock outfit and he said he didn't have enough time but he sent me to a place called the Don Post Studio in Burbank and they wanted something like $150,000 to build the suit and I had $60,000 to make the movie.

            But Don Post, Jr. was painting a mask and said to me, "You know, there was a really talented kid in here the other day looking for a job." He gave me a card that said "Rick Baker, Monster Maker." It had the phone of his parents' house where he was living in Covina.

            All the Schlock molds were baked in his mother's oven. He's since won like eight or nine Academy Awards.

            City:The first one being for "American Werewolf in London."

            Landis: Right. Although his most extraordinary work for me probably is on Coming to America --- turning Eddie into all those different characters.

            City:Where did you find this Michael Bennett guy --- the Slasher? I found him fascinating, compelling, and annoying all at the same time.

            Landis: What happened was, I was at a birthday party for a producer named Chris Kobin who makes family films, direct to video, and he started telling stories about when he used to work as a slasher [a used-car salesman for hire --- see movie capsule, this issue]. And the stories were so damn funny that I said, "What the hell is this?"

            There're about 40 guys around the country that do this. And I went to this sale in Sacramento that was so outrageous. It had Ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds, hot dogs, and go-go girls... kind of like a county fair, Fourth of July. I said, "This is like Glengarry Glen Ross meets The MusicMan." I just thought, this is a great subject for a documentary, it's such Americana. And I said, "Chris, would you do a slasher sale for me and let me film it?" Actually, correctly, he said no. I don't blame him.

            But he was still connected in the community and he put me in touch with a bunch of guys. I met Michael Bennett, he was about to do a sale in Memphis. I was able to get the money from IFC and we went to Memphis and altogether shot six or seven days. We shot five or six days in Memphis and a day and a half in LA.

            City:Were you happy that you only had to document a three-day, Memorial Day Weekend sale? Was his non-stop, monster truck announcer vibe draining on you?

            Landis: No, it wasn't draining. It was a fascinating experience on many levels. One is that the film I made was very different than the film I thought I was going to make, because real life happens. I had a real conflict with the company I was using to produce the film --- Stick Figure, a documentary company out of New York. We had big conflicts and I finally removed them.

            It was a little rough in that also when we arrived we learned right away that we were at the end of the runway. Obviously there're terrible problems with planes flying over every four minutes so I said, "OK, make it a virtue. I want everyone to shoot every plane that comes over and tie it into the lot." And they said "why?" And I said, "Don't ask me why! Just do it! I'm not going to explain to you about cutaways and transitions --- just do it." The first two days were awkward, but then we got into it."

            City:There's a great moment of a girl looking at the $88 car that her parents just bought her at the sale and she's looking at it as if one of Rick Baker's severed heads were spiked through the antennae.

            Landis: Yeah. She didn't want that car. And then her dad says that she can drive it to college as soon as she has her baby. That's life.

            City:You're in your late 20's, directing the bawdy "Animal House" with an equally young cast of John Belushi, Tim Matheson, Karen Allen, Peter Riegert, Donald Sutherland, and Kevin bacon --- that must have been fun. Or was it a ton of pressure seeing that it was your biggest picture to date with the biggest budget?

            Landis: I was 27. And it was fun, my first studio picture. The budget was $3 million. The studio was worried about the cast. They wanted a star. That's why we brought in Donald Sutherland. But it was fun.

            City:It shows. It translates on the screen.

            Landis: That's a myth, that if you have fun making something that it's going to be fun to watch or any good. Quite often it's the opposite. The ones where everyone ends up not speaking to each other are the ones that turn out good... but that's not a certainty either. What's remarkable about Animal House is that it still stands up as an excellent period piece. It's set in 1962 when there weren't any pantyhose yet or credit cards. That's why all the women are in garters.

            City:I was nine years old when my parents took me to see "Animal House" --- maybe they couldn't find a sitter --- and immediately I'm exposed to marijuana, booze, sex toys, sex, masturbation, and naked pillow fights. Which films have influenced you?

            Landis: Oh, I'm influenced by everything. Preston Sturges, the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton... Hitchcock. Here I'll name them all so I don't leave any out: Kubrick, Russ Meyer.

            City:Russ Meyer had a memorable appearance at the Dryden Theatre several years ago.

            Landis: Unfortunately he's not doing so good. I was so excited to have Uschi Digard in Kentucky Fried Movie because of her Russ connection.

            City:Some critics call "American Werewolf" your most personal film. Would you agree?

            Landis: Hmmm. My most personal? I never thought of it like that. I wrote it in '69 when I was 18. On the set of Kelly's Heroes in the former Yugoslavia, around guys like Clint Eastwood, Don Rickles, and Harry Dean Stanton.

            I have problems with people who call it a comedy. It's funny, yeah, but it's not a comedy. The two boys we meet in the beginning of the movie are dead at the end of the movie, so it's not a happy story. This is a horror film and a pretty classic and traditional one.

            City:The first time David Naughton's character transforms into a wolf is a classic scene that should be included in a time capsule. In your DVD interview for the film, you draw parallels between this metamorphosis and puberty. Was your puberty that painful?

            Landis: Well, it's about adolescence --- this whole metamorphosis. Your body is changing. You're getting hairy. You're getting erections. You're hungry. You're horny. Your hormones are raging. And the David character is literally changing into an animal, a beast, so I wanted to make it look as painful as possible.

            City:"Thriller" is one of the most talked about music videos ever made and it also received the first ever MTV Video Award. How did you get involved with Michael Jackson?

            Landis: Michael had seen American Werewolf and he contacted me because he wanted to turn into a monster. Obviously this is a guy fascinated with metamorphosis. And that was what intrigued him. He wanted to turn into a monster.

            City:Many people will say that he has succeeded.

            Landis: Well... Yeah, people say that. He's an odd guy. I like him. I feel terrible for him. But anyway, he contacted me. And Thriller is essentially what's called a vanity video. It was really because Michael wanted to do it. We financed it independently and it was fun. I was totally unprepared for that response I'll tell you.

            City:The response to the video?

            Landis: Yeah. Enormous all over the world. I'm very sorry, I have to get off the phone now. But ask me whatever your last question is.

            City:OK. In "Animal House" Dean Wormer gives Flounder some great advice --- "Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son." It's how every commencement speech should end. Any closing advice like that for our readers before you visit on April 24?

            Landis: Closing advice? Oh geez. Read a lot of books. Go to a lot of movies. Don't trust this administration.

The rule of the toga: John Belushi in Landis' "Animal House."

George Eastman House

Landis in April at the Dryden Theatre

Animal House(1978): Come attend class, toga parties, and fraternity initiations with Otter, Pinto, Boone, Flounder, D-Day, Neidermeyer, Dean Wormer, Otis Day and the Knights, and Bluto in Landis' career-launching comedy. Clever and funny "gross-out" before hundreds of imitators turned the genre into bland and boring "gross-out". ScreensWednesday, April 21, at 8 p.m.

Slasher (2004): What do you get when you cross a carnival barker with a Morning Zoo, classic rock DJ, a chain smoking, beer pong champion, and a used car salesman? You get Michael Bennett, aka the Slasher, and a fascinating documentary (Landis' first). "Buy a car and be a star," and find out if the Slasher can live up to his boast of moving 40 units in three days off a humid Memphis car lot. Landis will introduce the film and stick around for a post-screening reception. Screens Saturday, April 24, 8 p.m. Tix: $15 ($10 students), $25 reception.

The Stupids (1996): A Landis film based on the books by Harry Allard and James Marshall that Landis used to read to his kids. The Stupids realize that their garbage is being "stolen" and they try to expose this "conspiracy." It stars Tom Arnold and continues the Landis tradition of giving his friends cameos. ScreensSunday, April 25, 5 p.m.

Into the Night (1985): Jeff Goldblum plays an insomniac in Los Angeles coping with an unfaithful wife, a dead-end job, and a mysterious glamour girl with smuggled emeralds in her coat pocket and a cabal of Iranian hit men on her trail. Michelle Pfeiffer plays the girl and Landis himself plays one of the hit men. Plenty of cameos from Friends of Landis like David Bowie, Carl Perkins, David Cronenberg, Roger Vadim, Paul Mazursky, Jim Henson, and Jonathan Demme. Screens Wednesday, April 28, 8 p.m.

Tickets to Dryden screenings are $6 ($5 for students). For more information, call 271-3361 or visit