John Landis hasn’t released a narrative feature in more than a decade, but the new Burke & Hare proves he hasn’t lost any of the crass humor or gift for creating engaging characters that made him an in-demand director in the ’70s and ’80s. Loosely based on the infamous West Port murderers, Burke & Hare takes place in 1828 Edinburgh during the era of Scottish enlightenment, a period when major breakthroughs in medical science occurred so rapidly there weren’t enough cadavers for the medical schools. Enter grifters William Burke (Simon Pegg) and William Hare (Andy Serkis), who strike a deal with Dr. Robert Knox (Tom Wilkinson) to be paid handsomely for every corpse they deliver, no questions asked. Landis spoke to The A.V. Club before the film’s release about how he made two murderers look like Laurel and Hardy, why he’s insulted when people compare The Hangover to Animal House, and his affection for Michael Jackson.
The A.V. Club: Is it true Burke & Hare was offered to you while you were touring London’s Ealing Studios?
John Landis: This was about two years ago, and I was having a lunch with British filmmaker Gurinder Chadha. Her most famous film is probably Bend It Like Beckham. She’s an old friend and her office is at Ealing. It’s the only movie studio in London, all the others are outside of town. I’d never been there, and it’s quite a historic place—The Ladykillers was filmed there, Dead Of Night, Kind Hearts And Coronets, The Man In The White Suit—so we walked around and Gurinder introduced me to Barnaby Thompson, he’s the guy who with a group of other investors bought Ealing 10 or 12 years ago. Barnaby circled back and said, “Are you John Landis the filmmaker?” And I always don’t know how to answer that because it’s like, do I owe this guy money? What the fuck? And I said yeah and he said, “I have a script, would you read it?” And I was very excited. It was Ealing, so I said sure. I read the script and I was taken with the idea of making essentially a comedy out of completely inappropriate material. I mean, these guys were villains, murderers, really terrible people, and to make a film in which they have to be sympathetic, I thought was a real challenge, and I like how subversive the whole thing was.
AVC: Did you shoot Burke & Hare at Ealing?
JL: Actually, only one day. We only built one set for the whole movie and that was the interior of the prison. Everything else is a real location that we dressed. There have been 14 versions that I can find of Burke & Hare movies. They have all been horror films and all the movies have taken place in Victorian times, which doesn’t make any sense. But I found out why. Because 1828, especially Edinburgh, is very difficult to do. It’s a very particular type of stone. Most of Edinburgh from 1828 doesn’t exist. We did shoot on the four streets that are still the same and obviously Edinburgh Castle. But [production designer] Simon [Elliott] had a brilliant idea, which was to use Stirling Castle, which is about an hour away from Edinburgh and Edinburgh Castle. It has many courtyards, so we dressed a lot of the interior courtyards there as streets because the architecture matched.
AVC: Were Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis attached when you got the script?
JL: No. The script was 10 years old when it was given to me. And everyone they gave it to would throw it to the ground violently. [Laughs.] I cast the movie. Simon was really my first choice because he’s so sympathetic on screen. My idea was really to make Burke and Hare the evil Laurel and Hardy, so he’s the Stanley. It’s interesting to me, because in real life what happened was, when they were caught, Hare and his wife turned state’s evidence and they got off, and Burke literally took the fall. He was sentenced to be hanged and dissected and then put on public display, and he’s still there. You see the real William Burke in the movie at the end.
And with Andy, this is really the first time, as a human, he plays a sympathetic character. The most sympathetic character Andy had ever played was King Kong! He almost always plays villains, so I needed him to be sympathetic. Andy’s tendency was always to go sinister, and I kept having to say, “Andy, no, we have to like this guy.” And he’s actually amoral, his character, it’s business to him. He’s like Dick Cheney: He has no morality at all, whereas you could make the case that Burke is more culpable because he knows what he’s doing is wrong but does it anyway.
AVC: In a twisted way do you think Burke and Hare contributed to the medical profession?
JL: Absolutely they did. But that doesn’t make what they did right. [Laughs.] And we showed exactly what they did. One of the challenges of the movie is there are no apologies or excuses. You see them murder people in cold blood. When they “burke” [smother] that old lady, that’s exactly what they did. One of the ironies is, when you mention Burke and Hare, people think of grave-robbing when in fact they never robbed a grave. They murdered people. Grave-robbing was mostly done by medical students.
AVC: The movie already had its run in England and other foreign territories last year. How did it play overseas?
JL: I’m still taken aback. We got terrible reviews in the UK, which I don’t really understand. We did okay business, but we got terrible reviews in the UK, and in France, Italy, Germany, and other countries we got rapturous reviews. [Laughs.] But you know what? In my career, my movies tend to polarize critics. The same movies I made that everybody shit on are now referred to as classic films and benchmarks by the same schmucks who shit on them in the first place.
AVC: Were you disheartened that it took a while for an American distributor to come along?
JL: It’s a brave new world out there. It’s a different business than the ’70s. I’m very lucky to have worked in the ’70s. It’s a different industry and distribution is in a state of flux now. It’s all different platforms, they’re doing this video-on-demand thing and also playing the film theatrically. It’s funny to me: In the States it’s an arthouse movie.
AVC: Do you have any interest in making movies for the studios again?
JL: I was very pissed off by what Universal did to me on Blues Brothers 2000 and that was my first experience with the new corporate Hollywood. It’s very different. Everything is by committee now, and they destroyed that movie, though the music is still good. This happens to filmmakers all the time, where producers and studios fuck with their picture, and when you’re promoting the movie you can’t say that. [Laughs.] The directors get blamed for things that are clearly not their fault. But the bottom line is, I enjoy filmmaking, I really like it and it’s a pleasure and I certainly don’t want to take some principled stand against the majors. I would be delighted to make a studio picture, but the truth is, if you look at the films they’re making, they are not the movies I want to make. I don’t want to make Thor. [Laughs.] I don’t want to make Green Lantern. Cowboys And Aliens: That’s not Jon Favreau’s movie, he’s just an employee, he’s just doing the bidding, and it’s just too bad. It’s a combination of economics and we live in a very conservative and reactionary and frightened time. People are scared shitless in terms of taking risks on movies. Would the studios ever make a movie like Into The Night now? Or even Animal House?
They call movies like The Hangover knockoffs of Animal House. The Hangover is so reactionary. I’m insulted they say that’s like Animal House. The Hangover had a nice tidy ending. The studios are not taking risks. Look at a movie like Knocked Up or Juno. I thought both were funny movies, but what’s the politics of Knocked Up? You get drunk, have sex with a jerk, and the jerk will turn out to be a worthwhile human being and you’ll live happily ever after. That doesn’t happen! And in Juno you’re a high-school girl, you get knocked up, you just dump the baby and everything is fine. It’s like, what are we watching here? [Laughs.] It’s a very strange time.
AVC: Do you still get pitched studio projects?
JL: Sometimes. They stop asking if you say no enough times. But I would much rather make a picture with a proper budget. I enjoyed working within the studio system. It’s just different now. It’s all about the marketing now. And you can’t blame anyone for it. It’s about corporations. It’s a different atmosphere.
AVC: Your next film is a straightforward horror movie, right?
JL: Well, some French people asked me if I would do a monster movie, so I thought about it and I said sure. So I’m writing that now with Alexandre Gavras and we’re almost done.
AVC: Aren’t you also going to make an adaptation of the Richard Brinsley Sheridan play The Rivals?
JL: Well, this is the kind of world we’re in now. This picture was set up. It’s cast with Imelda Staunton as Mrs. Malaprop and Albert Finney as Sir Absolute, and as far as I can tell, half of the money was coming from some rich Russian guy. When the funds were being transferred from the Swiss bank to the British bank, the British bank refused the money. Now, when a bank refuses money, you know something is wrong with that money. [Laughs.] And the guy is a friend of Putin’s, so it’s like, “Uh-oh, these guys are gangsters.” So that movie is in jeopardy. I’m very concerned about that one, because I would really like to make it.
AVC: You’ve recently written a book, Monsters In the Movies, and An American Werewolf In London celebrated its 30th anniversary a few weeks ago. In your eyes, how has the horror genre changed over the decades?
JL: The biggest difference in terms of horror and fantasy now is the Spielberg/Lucas influence. It used to be that most horror films were exploitation films and therefore B product, and occasionally you’d have an Exorcist or Silence Of The Lambs or Jaws or Rosemary’s Baby. These are all based on best-selling novels, as is Dracula. So when it’s based on a book, it gives it this literary patina, it’s not really exploitation. [Laughs.] But what’s interesting is now—and not only in horror, but across the board—the studios basically only make B pictures with A budgets. That’s the biggest difference. When I made Werewolf, everyone was going, “Why are you making a monster movie?” They thought it was so strange that I would lower myself like that. And Werewolf was fairly radical at the time; it has a lot to answer for. [Laughs.] Good and bad. I have to say I’m very lucky because I made a lot of movies that they are still showing: Three Amigos, Animal House, Trading Places, Blues Brothers, “Thriller.” So that’s great, I’m delighted. It pays my rent.
AVC: Could you ever be convinced to do a Three Amigos sequel?
JL: Absolutely. We had a great time making that movie. I have to tell you, literally a month ago, I did a restoration of Three Amigos for Blu-ray. It comes out in November. It is fucking gorgeous. I’m so pleased with it. It looks like three-strip Technicolor. It’s beautiful. Plus, as a bonus, there are about 23 minutes of deleted scenes. That movie makes me laugh and the guys [Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, Martin Short] loved making that movie. It’s like Walter Hill said, “If they knew how much fun it was to make a Western, they wouldn’t let us.” And it’s true.
AVC: Are you still owed money by Michael Jackson’s estate?
JL: Yes. Our lawsuit comes to court in October, finally. But I did get some money about six months ago. It’s like Elvis and Colonel Parker, but with Elvis there was only one Colonel Parker and with Michael there were a long line of crooks, and it’s a terrible situation. And Michael would always say, [speaking in a high-pitched voice] “I thought they paid you.” [Laughs.] I would always see him call and scream at the lawyers, but they didn’t pay any attention to him.
AVC: With having to go through this to get what is owed to you, has that tainted the memory of making “Thriller” or “Black Or White”?
JL: I was and remain very fond of Michael. I liked him a lot. He was a sad character in that he was an abused child. And “Thriller” I guess was his peak in terms of his powers, by the time I did “Black Or White” he was mad. [Laughs.] The guy that I worked on “Thriller” was a genius and he was 20 years old, but it was like working with a gifted 10-year-old. The guy who I worked on with “Black Or White” was crazy. Michael had gone mad. [Laughs.] I just feel he’s a tragic figure. I liked him a lot and you won’t hear me say bad things about Mike. I mean, I don’t believe he was a child molester. I really do not. I think he was damn weird, no doubt about it, but in terms of sexually molesting a kid, I don’t think so. When he was on trial, I tried to go to show support, and his father wouldn’t let me in the court. His father hates me. I mean, he was surrounded by bad people, and he also created a lot of his misfortune, but he was an incredible performer. Seeing him live in a stadium—and I’ve worked with a lot of people—I’ve never seen anyone who had that kind of power onstage. But in real life he was just a skinny little guy who wasn’t there. He had no presence.