John Landis came to movies the old-fashioned way: He worked his way up from the bottom. A high-school dropout who entered filmmaking as a studio gopher, later becoming a stuntman and crewmember, Landis wrote and directed his debut feature, Schlock, in 1971. He returned to filmmaking in 1977 with The Kentucky Fried Movie, a crass but funny skit collection written by the Jim Abrahams-David Zucker-Jerry Zucker comedy team. The following year, he directed the seminal 1978 college comedy Animal House, which launched John Belushi's film career and began Landis' run of freewheeling hits, including The Blues Brothers (1980), An American Werewolf In London (1981), Trading Places (1983), and Coming To America (1988). He also took on TV projects and directed the videos for Michael Jackson's songs "Thriller" and "Black Or White." But his successes were interspersed with weaker comedies such as Spies Like Us, ¡Three Amigos!, and Amazon Women On The Moon, and they were at times overshadowed by the trial over a helicopter accident that killed actor Vic Morrow and two children during the filming of one of Landis' segments in 1983's Twilight Zone: The Movie. Landis and others implicated were eventually acquitted.
The '90s were even more mixed for Landis: The gaps between his movies widened, and the successes among films like Oscar, Innocent Blood, Beverly Hills Cop III, The Stupids, and Dying To Get Rich were fewer. (The post-Belushi film sequel Blues Brothers 2000 was particularly dire.) This year, Docurama and the Independent Film Channel saw Landis' return to directing with his first film in six years, and his first documentary: Slasher is a hilarious and horrifying portrait of the traveling car-sales specialists called "slashers." Just before Slasher's DVD release, The Onion A.V. Club spoke with Landis about politics, documentaries, the '70s, and what Landis' cinematic catchphrase "See you next Wednesday" really means.
The Onion: How did you get started with Slasher?
John Landis: There's a producer in L.A. named Chris Kobin. I was at his birthday party, and he got a little tipsy and started telling stories about his former career as a slasher. The stories were hysterical and outrageous, and I kept battering him to tell me more about slashing, because it seemed so fascinating. Eventually, he said, "All right, I'll take you to a sale." So we went up to Sacramento to a slasher sale that a former colleague of his was doing, and it was insane. There must have been four or five thousand people there. They had a Ferris wheel, a merry-go-round, go-go girls, cotton candy—it was just such Americana, capitalism at its purest. I thought, "This would be a great subject for a film." My first idea was to get Chris to do a sale, but he hadn't done it in about 10 years, so he vetoed that. Eventually, he started introducing me to slashers. There are about 45 of them in the country. There are two companies that do it, that have staffs, and there are independent contractors like [Slasher star] Michael Bennett. I chose Michael, quite candidly, because he said, "I've got a sale in three weeks in Memphis, Tennessee." And I thought, "Ooh! Memphis! Barbeque!" So we went, and the movie that we made is very different than my original intention.
O: What was your original intention?
JL: A salesman is someone who basically convinces you to spend too much on something that you don't need. This three-day sale was Memorial Day, a year ago, when George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney were still selling us the war. They were lying—they were so obviously lying. I'm thinking, "There's no connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11." They're such dishonest, corrupt guys, and I was horrified at the way the media, and everyone else, was going along with it. I felt very much like I did during Vietnam. So my original idea was to use footage of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Colin Powell selling us the war, and intercut it with people selling used cars. Now, two things happened: One, I discovered, to my horror, that if you want to buy news footage from CBS, NBC, Al-Jazeera, whoever, it averages about $90 a second. So it was prohibitive to do what I wanted to do. Two, once I got into it, Michael Bennett himself was so fascinating to me. And the town of Memphis… I had no idea when we were going in that the car dealership was in an impoverished area, or that Memphis was the bankruptcy capital of the United States. I went to Memphis because of its musical importance. But I guess what happens when you make a documentary is real life.
O: On Slasher's commentary track, you come across as excited and enthusiastic about every aspect of the production. Is that typical of how you work?
JL: Sure. You don't do it unless you're passionate about it. Filmmaking is my guilty pleasure. I really enjoy the process. I've made a lot of movies, a lot of TV shows, millions of commercials—I really enjoy shooting. This was a new experience for me, and I learned a lot.
O: The anarchic sensibility of your early films seems to display that same enthusiasm. Do you see a connection there? Or does your style on films like Animal House have more to do with the filmmaking process of the '70s?
JL: I was very fortunate to begin as a filmmaker in the '70s. The studios were basically in disarray; it was before the conglomerates bought everything. It was less corporate. When I started, studios were still in the movie business, which none of them are now. As directors, we had much more freedom. If you look at the films of the '70s and '80s, they're a lot more interesting than the shit they're making now, basically because the director and the screenplay were given a lot of respect. Now, because it's so corporate and so franchised—it's all marketing, which means if Tom Cruise wants to make a movie, it gets made, and it doesn't matter if it's a good script or a good director. Plus, the studios are interested in franchises. These companies are in the merchandising business, not the movie business. But I was lucky. I was allowed to do what were at the time some radical films. When something is commercially successful, it's instantly co-opted. It's like the way rock 'n' roll, which was considered satanic, is now totally mainstream. When we made Animal House, most of the reviews condemned it. In fact, it was with great irony and delight that I read the reviews of the 25th anniversary of Animal House, where the same schmucks who shit on it were referring to it as a classic American film. It's interesting: I don't see much difference between my early work and my later work. You talk about political stuff: If you look at Animal House, which had a great script, this is a movie that takes place in 1963 and ends in civil insurrection. The politics of that one… In American Werewolf In London, those two boys show up in a truckload of sheep. This isn't subtle. [Laughs.] Yet no one ever sees anything.
O: How did you get from production work to directing?
JL: My first job in the business was as a mailboy at 20th Century Fox, in 1966, '67. I was able to visit sets and meet people, and then I went to Europe on a movie that I hoped to get a job on because I knew the second assistant director, a movie called Kelly's Heroes. I was 18. We were in Yugoslavia with Clint Eastwood, Donald Sutherland, Don Rickles, Carroll O'Connor, and Telly Savalas, doing this WWII comedy. That was probably the best summer of my life, working on that. [Laughs.] It was an amazing experience. When you went behind the Iron Curtain, it was like going from color to black and white. It was different. That was at the height of the spaghetti boom, in 1969, so I went to Spain with some friends. You know how Canada's been in the last 10 years? That's how Spain was then. Everybody was making movies there, and the Westerns were big. So I worked on many films. I became a stuntman on a Tony Richardson picture called Charge Of The Light Brigade, only because I was standing next to Jim O'Rourke, my buddy, and the British production manager said, "Can you do horse-falls?" and Jim said, "Oh yeah!" I'm like, "What?!" So the next day, me and 600 guys are charging the guns. It's the Crimean War, there are explosions, it's wild. I'm still not a very good horseman, but I'm a fabulous falling-off-a-horse-man.
O: How did you go from there to getting Schlock made?
JL: I came back to the U.S. to join the Director's Guild of America. I was offered a job as first assistant director on a film that [Kelly's Heroes director] Brian Hutton was working on in London, but to get my work permit, I had to be a member of the DGA. I was one of the thousands who took the test, and I got the highest score. It was an idiot test, like, "A pan is: a) a cooking utensil, b) a bad review, c) a lateral camera move." So I got a very high score, and I was called in to Robert Aldrich, who was the president of the DGA. He did What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? and The Dirty Dozen. He had been Charlie Chaplin's assistant director, and he was like this big, scary guy with these Mephistophelean eyebrows that you could comb over his head. I go into his office, and there's [producer] Mervyn LeRoy, and I'm like… [Gasps.] "You made The Wizard Of Oz!" They were very nice, but they told me that I couldn't become a DGA member, and that I was ineligible to take the test because I had no college degree. You had to have a B.A. I was so pissed off. I thought being a director was what I would do one day. But I was so angered by the fucking union—I had made probably $35,000, which was all the money I had in the world, and I wrote Schlock, and I made it for like $60,000 in L.A. The 1960s and 1970s were the real years for independent film, because they were really independent. Plus, there were hundreds of distributors. There were all these companies that basically did exploitation, but they were independent. Now, there are very few independent distributors. But I made Schlock, and I finally got a distributor, who stole all the money from me. I made Schlock when I was 21, but I didn't make Kentucky Fried Movie and Animal House until I was 27. People always write about my "instant success," but there were a lot of years of non-success.
O: At what point did you feel like you'd arrived?
JL: Animal House was such a commercial success, it allowed us to make Blues Brothers, which was a truly outrageous project for a studio. Then the success of Blues Brothers allowed me to make An American Werewolf In London. It was a script I wrote in 1969, and I made it in 1981. It works that way; all those clichés about the movie industry are true. Almost everything you read about the business is wrong, but the truth is worse. Still, the product is fantastic. I love movies.
O: You appeared in Schlock and some of your early films, and you still take cameo roles in other films. What do you get out of acting?
JL: It's silly. [Laughs.] If you see Spider-Man 2, Doc Ock kills me. I'm a surgeon in that. But I've always acted. I don't know. It's fun. [Laughs.]
O: You're also known for giving other directors bit parts in your films. Is that just to share the fun?
JL: Well, I've always done that. I think the Internet and people with too much time on their hands are the reasons for questions like that. No one ever noticed that I had all these directors in my movies. In fact, in every movie I've ever made except for Animal House, there were many, many, many directors. It was just fun. I like directors.
O: Do they make good actors?
JL: Some are great actors, some of them are dreadful.
O: Do you tend to have more or less problems with them than career actors?
JL: No, everyone in front of the camera is the same.
O: What was it like working with Michael Jackson eight years after you'd worked with him on the "Thriller" video? Was it a very different experience the second time around?
JL: When we did "Thriller," Michael was just incredibly professional, and fun, and hardworking, and he did what he was told. He was great. The Michael that I did "Black Or White" with was different, in that now, instead of Michael doing what I wanted, I was an employee of Michael's. I was trying to realize his vision without him looking too crazy.
O: What about Dan Aykroyd? You worked with him over an even longer time period.
JL: Oh, I love Danny Aykroyd. He's just extraordinary—a remarkable, wonderful, wacky motorhead. [Laughs.] I think he's never really gotten the notice he should. He's played a lot of different parts for me, and I think he's a wonderful actor. And he's an absolutely terrific guy. I enjoy Danny very much. Talk about passion, this guy—I made up that "Mission from God" thing [from The Blues Brothers] to kind of make fun of, and also recognize, his commitment to focusing attention on black American music. When we made The Blues Brothers, it was all Bee Gees and ABBA. Now, I get questions like, "How did you get Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin and James Brown to be in the movie?" And I have to tell them, "It's because they were thrilled to get the job." To give you an idea of how different it is now, when we did The Blues Brothers, MCA/Universal refused the soundtrack album, because they said no one but old black people would buy it. Then we went to what was called a "black label," Atlantic, and they refused to put John Lee Hooker on the album! Fifteen years later, John had a platinum album. So The Blues Brothers was successful in its attempt to call attention to these guys. So Danny, I love Danny. It's all about Danny. He's just a wild man.
O: What was the impetus behind Blues Brothers 2000?
JL: We'd always intended for a sequel with John, but of course when he passed away, it was obvious we weren't going to do it. But Danny had been performing with John Goodman and Jimmy Belushi and the band, and he said, "You know, this is great, because this music is recognized now—let's do a movie." I said, "Great, sure, okay," and we wrote what I thought was a terrific script. Then Universal Studios eviscerated it. That was a strange experience, because the first thing they said was that it had to be PG, which meant they couldn't use profanity, which is basically cutting the Blues Brothers' nuts off. The first movie is an R-rated film, but there's no nudity or violence in it. It's just the language. Then they said, "You have to have a child, you have to have…" The bottom line was, the only way that movie was going to get made was to agree with everything they said. You know the difference between a brown-nose and a shithead? Depth perception. That's the only time I never really fought with the studio, because they didn't really want to make it. So we did every single thing they said. By the time we'd done that, the script was kind of homogenized and uninteresting. Danny said, "It's about the music. It's just about the music, John, so don't worry about it. We'll get the best people, and we'll make a great album, and get these people on film. We have to document these people." It's interesting, because, as much as I make fun of Danny, three or four of those guys have passed away since we made that movie. People say, "Okay, you've got Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, James Brown, Cab Calloway, and John Lee Hooker in The Blues Brothers—who's in Blues Brothers 2000?" The answer? Everyone else. The first movie has five musical numbers, and the second movie has 18.
O: There's kind of a long-running thing on the Internet comparing the original Blues Brothers and The Sound Of Music, on a point-by-point plot basis. Were you aware of that?
JL: No, but that's funny. I think you could do that with any movie. I saw Galaxy Quest and A Bug's Life, and both of those films are completely, plot-point-by-plot-point, a movie I made called ¡Three Amigos!
O: Did you bring that up with anybody involved with those films?
JL: No. People don't understand this: Ideas are important, but they're not essential. What's essential and important is the execution of the idea. Everyone has had the experience of seeing a movie and saying, "Hey! That was my idea!" Well, it doesn't mean anything that you had that idea. There's no such thing as an original concept. What's original is the way you re-use ancient concepts.
O: Speaking of re-using concepts, have you become totally sick of discussing "See you next Wednesday" yet?
JL: I don't like it only because I think people must be so fucking disappointed when they hear what it is. [Laughs.] First of all, people say it's in all my movies. It's not. About half of them, I think. "See you next Wednesday" is a line of dialogue in Stanley Kubrick's 2001, and it's the title of a script I wrote many years ago. Any time I cannibalize a gag, or an idea, or a joke, or a scene from that script in another movie, I give it credit with that line in that movie. That's all it is. Sorry it's not more profound.
O: There was a six-year gap between Susan's Plan and Slasher. Was there any particular reason for the downtime?
JL: Sure, I haven't gotten a job! Basically, the movies that I would like to make, they don't want to make, and the movies they want me to make, I don't want to make. It's pretty straightforward. [Laughs.] I don't know what to tell you. It's partly because I don't have to, but the truth is, I've been doing tons of work. It just hasn't been feature films.
O: You've been doing a lot of TV and, obviously, a lot of production lately. How does that compare to film for you?
JL: It's identical. It's shooting, shooting, shooting. What's interesting as a director, and even studio executives don't understand this, is that if you're directing a $200 million movie with six million people, it's the same as directing a $25,000 movie with three people. The director's job is, "You stand there and do that," or "This is the shot I want." The logistics change, but the job remains the same. And I enjoy the job.
O: A studio is likely to give a $200 million movie a bigger push, though, so more people are likely to see it. Does that matter to you?
JL: Marketing does have a lot to do with the success of a film. But even more so, and especially since home video, I've learned that a movie has a life of its own. A movie goes out there, and it exists, and it continues. I'm always fascinated by what movie people bring up when they approach me. Animal House is interesting, in the U.S., because of how many people—including President Bush and Senator Kerry—say it's their favorite movie. You know that George W. Bush thinks he's a Delta. You know that they think they're the good guys. It's just fascinating to me. That picture really spoke to people, and it continues to speak to people. I also get Blues Brothers a lot, especially in Asia and Europe. I get ¡Three Amigos!, I get Trading Places, I get "Thriller" a lot around the world. But you never know what's going to touch somebody. I was in the Czech Republic, and this major Czech critic came up to me and said, "Oh, Mr. Landis, I've always wanted to meet you. You made my favorite film." And it turned out to be Spies Like Us, which is this completely silly Cold War comedy that I made. It turns out that during the Soviet occupation of the Czech Republic, it was pretty severe. They were crushed, and there were very strict rules. This critic, his father had built a satellite dish, and he stole the movie from Rupert Murdoch's Sky Channel, and basically had a bootleg tape of Spies Like Us. He told me that people used to come and sit in the garage and watch Spies Like Us, like these secretive meetings. I said, "What about Spies was so enthralling?" And he said, "You were making fun of the Russians and the Americans." They just found it so liberating and exciting, that it was mocking what was oppressing them. It had never occurred to me that Spies Like Us would be inspiring to people. So, you know, you make a movie, and it goes out there and has a life of its own.