Most moviegoers, serious or otherwise, are familiar with director John Landis' work even if they do not immediately recognize his name.
During his peak creative years—roughly from 1977 to 1988—Landis helped secure his reputation as a venerable screen humorist with films like The Kentucky Fried Movie, National Lampoon's Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, Spies Like Us, Three Amigos, and Coming to America.
During this same period, Landis had an interesting side project, crafting a series of darkly funny and technically innovative horror films. His An American Werewolf in London has one of the greatest human-to-werewolf transformations ever captured on film, courtesy of Rick Baker (Men in Black), who won an Academy Award for his makeup effects. Landis and Baker then used what they learned on An American Werewolf in London for an unlikely project – Michael Jackson's iconic "Thriller" music video – and added genuine menace to what might have been just a pop culture goof.
Last year's Burke and Hare continued that trend. The director's first theatrical narrative feature since 1998, this black comedy centers on two grave robbers (Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis) who begin supplying a medical school with cadavers by any means necessary. Burke and Hare isn't quite at the same level as An American Werewolf in London or even his underrated 1985 thriller Into the Night, but it is a sly, entertaining nod to the classic Ealing farces, and it indicates that Landis still has much to offer.
The following interview with John Landis centers primarily on Three Amigos, which makes its Blu-ray debut on November 22nd. That said, Landis is a generous and forthcoming speaker, and the conversation moved from that 1986 Western-comedy classic to such topics as great monster movies, his experiences with film restoration, and what the future holds for older films on Blu-ray.
For those of us who grew up watching Three Amigos on cable, the visuals on the Blu-ray are a minor revelation. How did you get that smeary, almost-3-strip Technicolor look in the restoration?
Pure technology. It's amazing. Basically, I was very happy that they invited me to come in and restore it as opposed to just handing it over to technicians. I mean, Blu-ray is a double-edged sword: when the filmmakers are involved, you can make the film look the way it's intended, but it's so remarkable what they can do with it when just the technicians do it—they'll make it look too bright or too clean. They can damage it.
…On Three Amigos, my intentions at the time—with my production designer and my costume designer—we really wanted the movie to look like an old Technicolor Western…an "old Hollywood" Western. When I was able to do with Blu-ray—what they do is they re-scan the negative. They can get more information out of the negative with this digital technology as opposed to a chemical development. It's like…do you remember when they first started digitally up-res'ing all of the Beatles' records?
They learned that when you listen to the original mag[netic] stripes, there was more information on the stripe than the earlier equipment allowed us to hear. Now, when you listen to master recordings sometimes, you can hear conversations in the hallway outside of the studio! So, with Three Amigos, I was just able to really go through it, and color-correct it, and time it, and clean up the nicks and the film scratches, and make it beautiful.
Did you have to campaign to get this kind of work done? While the film has obtained quite the reputation through cable and home video, you've spoken about it being relatively unsuccessful in 1986.
Yes, but that had nothing to do with the film negative. It's not expensive to do.
No. Film restoration, when you don't have the complete negative, and you're piecing it together from all different sources, and it's archival materials—that's expensive. This movie had its original 35mm negative with the Technicolor, and they just re-scanned it…You just sit with a colorist, and you go through it. Someone else actually sits there and finds every little piece of dirt in the picture…and then they digitally erase it. That's kind of boring, and that probably took someone three weeks to do, but I didn't do that…The movie looks very much the way it did in its original release.
Still, what a difference from the home video and cable prints. They didn't look good, and they weren't letterboxed.
They just used an old 35mm print. Those things fade.
You've been very lucky on Blu-ray thus far, though. This looks phenomenal, and Blues Brothers, in particular, looks great.
Trading Places I [also] did, and that looks beautiful. Coming to America, I was able to do. Every movie is different; every movie that I make, I'm going for a different look or a different aesthetic...
My first experience with Blu-ray was when they did the high-def transfer of National Lampoon's Animal House. They were very proud, and they showed it to me, and I was horrified. [Laughs] They made it look like a Doris Day movie. Animal House was supposed to be dark…and kind of gritty and grainy, which was going against the tide of how comedies were supposed to be at that time.
When the technician came to clean it up, he did; he just made it bright and shiny. I went, "What are you doing?" I made him go back. In fact, I remember very clearly…this technician—you sit in this mission control room, with all these monitors and high-tech stuff—but he was funny because on his chart, he kept writing for every cut, "Image degraded—Per director." [Laughs] Sometimes, they take it out of the film, but I want that grain back!
It's like with the first Patton Blu-ray. They smoothed everybody's wrinkles out. Everyone looked like Ken™ Dolls.
It's ridiculous. Sometimes, when you watch a movie on really high-def TV or on Blu-ray, it looks like videotape! It's just too clean. It hurts it.
It reminds you what a young science this is, that they're still figuring it out.
It's interesting—Universal has been very good on their Blu-rays. They have the directors come in, and Paramount [does], too. But Warner Brothers, for instance, doesn't. It's an interesting thing, and it's down to who's doing the transfer.
I noticed that with Warner's Spies Like Us Blu-ray. It's good to have that one in letterbox, but it doesn't look great.
That one has never been restored. I don't think they even made that one high-def. I don't think they've done it—I don't know anything about it.
Talk a little bit about the sound on Three Amigos.
You're hearing it digitally; you're not going through Dolby. Three Amigos has an absolutely spectacular soundtrack with some spectacular music in it. I mean Randy Newman wrote the songs, and Elmer Bernstein wrote the score—I think of all of my films, it's my favorite score because I have Elmer Bernstein satirizing Elmer Bernstein. We had a big orchestra, and it was really fun.
I remember that when we did it, we were shooting in Tucson, in the Saguaro National Forest—that's where we built El Guapo's fortress—and we went across the border to Nogales to get a mariachi band for El Guapo's party. They were fantastic, and we recorded them live. Then, when we came back to Hollywood, the Musician's Union said, "You have to replace all of that music with a union mariachi group." We did—we had to record it—and it just didn't sound the same. And then, Elmer said to me, "John, you've paid [the union group]. Use the original!" [Laughs] So, we did.
But Elmer's score is fantastic, and Randy's songs are wonderful. This was way before his Pixar stuff. Randy is just brilliant—you know, he's the singing bush.
These days, high-profile comedy projects tend to campaign aggressively for laughs. By comparison, Three Amigos has a who's-who roster, but its spirit is so lovely and unforced—it doesn't solicit our approval in the same fashion. How do you capture that tone?
[The stars] are very into their characters, and part of the tone is that they are so...silly. We were really trying to capture some of that Laurel-and-Hardy silliness. Like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby—when you watch the road pictures, there's a very relaxed atmosphere. But it's not relaxed; trust me, they're working hard. Did you get a chance to see any of the scenes that we cut that are on the [Three Amigos] Blu-ray?
There was a lot more stuff like that. I'm very sorry I couldn't find the Sam Kinison material…[or] more of Fran Drescher [Author's note: as Landis explains on the Blu-ray, Kinison played a cannibalistic bandit while Drescher played a starlet in competition with the Amigos for box-office superiority, but all of Kinison's material and some of Drescher's has been lost], but it's comedy taking its time and establishing the story. All of the trims we made were just to pick up the pace. That's all.
Watching it, I understand why you cut it, but it's still a shame; in particular, those extra bits with Joe Mantenga, Jon Lovitz, and Phil Hartman are so funny.
It is funny. You know, I tried to get Lorne Michaels to see Jon Lovitz and Phil Hartman. They were in a comedy group here in Los Angeles, whose name escapes me…Pee Wee Herman came from there?
The Groundlings! Thank you. I had seen [Lovitz and Hartman], and I thought they were so great. Lorne, at that time, wasn't interested in what he called "West Coast comics." So, I hired them to be in the movie so he could see them, and then he hired them. [Laughs]
I was so surprised; you see Mantenga give Lovitz his famous "That's the ticket" line before it became a big catch phrase. Now: in terms of the three leads, how much of their performances was them, how much was the script, and how much was your input?
The screenplay was very good. It was written by Steve Martin, Lorne Michaels, and Randy Newman…There was improv, of course, but at the same time, it was a very smart script. The line I quote—my wife and I spent several months in India, and I found myself quoting Three Amigos when [the Amigos] first get to the village in Santa Poco, and Chevy says, "Do you have anything besides Mexican food?" [Laughs]
I like the movie very much, and I like the sweetness. That's always something I try to get. Those three guys are egomaniacal, but they're also childish.
You never feel like they're doing anything that hurtful as a result.
No. They're "babes in the woods." Even as movie stars, they're children.
Yet you do an interesting thing: as silly as the movie is, Martin Short's speech where he rallies Dusty and Lucky works on a completely unironic level—he takes becoming a hero seriously, if his big moment is undercut at the end by Chevy's pistol misfire.
The motivational speech is such a movie cliché. I also mocked it in Animal House with Belushi giving the big speech. Westerns all have that "rallying the troops" thing. It's just good writing, good scoring, and good acting.
I'm also a sucker for slapstick, so my biggest accomplishment in Three Amigos is I make it look like the three guys can ride horses.
I can only imagine what that process was like.
Good doubles. [Laughs]
There's a moment in the movie I like. It's always the silly stuff. "Mount up!" And they look at him, and he says, "It means, get on your horses." [Laughs] I just love that stuff…The movie amuses me to no end. I've made a lot of movies that I watch and think, "Well, okay." This one, I always enjoy. I don't know why. My wife, Deborah Nadoolman, did the costumes, which are so brilliant in the film. I love those Three Amigo outfits.
Also, I had wonderful Mexican actors. I had Alfonso Arau—he is so fantastic as El Guapo.
He does add the right amount of menace, even though he's introduced directing that ridiculous photoshoot.
And the dynamic between Jefe (Tony Plana) and El Guapo. They're very funny. Good actors like Jorge Cervera, when he says, "They called us scum-sucking pigs!" [Laughs]
I'm just pleased with the re-releases because they'll see it the way it was meant to be seen…the way you saw it in the roadshow when it was first in a big theater.
Of the films you've made, what others would you love to see get the same treatment? Any plans for Into the Night on Blu-ray?
[Laughs] Eventually, everything will be Blu-ray; they'll have to do the whole library. It will be broadcast-quality standards, as technology improves. Now, they're only doing Blu-rays that will sell…and Into the Night made no money [Laughs]. They don't think of that as a commercial gold rush.
I'm very pleased with the Blu-ray of An American Werewolf in London…It looks right, the way it's supposed to, although, I must say, I was concerned on that one that the clarity of the image…would hurt the effectiveness of some of Rick Baker's makeup. In fact, what I saw was, [the Blu-ray] made it better because you could really see it.
You mention on the disc's ninety-minute-long Beware the Moon documentary that you felt you showed a little too much of the beast because you loved Rick Baker's design so much. Do you still feel that way?
Yeah, I think I showed a little too much. I still do. The best shot of the wolf in the movie is in the…subway when the guy falls on the escalator….It's way high up, and [the wolf] comes out, and you think, "That thing is big."
I'm a huge fan. Those interviews are priceless; you have guys like David Cronenberg, John Carpenter, Guillermo del Toro, Rick Baker, and Ray Harryhausen speaking so candidly.
You know why? All those guys are friends of mine for thirty years and longer. When you interview someone, most interviewers can't say, "Oh, that's full of [it]!" [Laughs] All of them are obviously very accomplished, but they're very smart, and they have a lot to say, and we all disagree. [Laughs]
Between the book and the special feature on the Island of Lost Souls Blu-ray where you, Rick Baker, and Bob Burns shoot the breeze about the "animal man" makeup, a series with you on old horror movies would be great.
By the way, how great is Island of Lost Souls?
It is so profoundly creepy.
I think it is one of the creepiest horror films ever made. And [Charles] Laughton is so good. All the stuff with, "What is the law?" "Not to spill blood!"
It has one of Bela Lugosi's best performances as the Sayer of the Law, especially considering how little he's in the actual movie. He just makes a meal of his screen time.
He is good. I love that movie, and when Criterion asked me if I could help them, I said, "Are you kidding? Of course!" That's another one I'm pleased people will be able to see correctly.
We're lucky to see that one at all, considering how damaged the negative was.
Most of it is lost. They pieced it together from a bunch of different sources. The Three Amigos restoration was fairly straightforward; it was just a question of aesthetics and taste, whereas that one was a hell of a lot of physical labor and research…That took a lot of work.
Still, even though you see the seams of the restoration from time-to-time, the movie is so perverse that it's as if the film itself is rotting.
Did you ever see…that documentary called American Grindhouse? One of the things about some of the Grindhouse stuff was broken prints and scratches were part of the whole [experience]. [Laughs]
I'm thrilled you liked the book, and I'm glad you appreciate what's been done with Three Amigos…that it can be seen the way it was meant to be seen. Did you ever see the The Wizard of Oz?
Remember when they get to Oz, and they go and get cleaned and buffed and get their hair done? [Laughs] That's what we did to the movie.
@mjcavinder: I took it that Landis was saying he doesn't think Spies Like US has been properly mastered in HD. I don't think he could have meant it wasn't on BD considering the interviewers question clearly stated it was.
stratford, I disagree. This is an interview with John Landis, and doesn't even mention Twilight Zone. I am willing to bet most people here are too young to know about it but it happened and can be easily looked up. Landis was responsible for everything that went on during that night shoot and I can't stand idly by while people might think, "Gee, what a great guy and a great director."
Let people read this account of the incident and judge for themselves:
The two children in the scene were not professional actors, and they weren’t on proper work permits. Their sequence was to be filmed around 2am, and contracts for children normally stipulate that they be finished much earlier. The children’s parents were thrilled to have her family involved in a real Hollywood film, and Landis wasn’t that bothered with dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. The segment was to take place in the jungles of Vietnam – the real location being Indian Dunes Park, a dirt bike park near Six Flags over Magic Mountain theme park.
At 2:20am on the morning of July 23, 1982, the final shot of the sequence was being filmed. Morrow would have two children in his arms, wading across a knee-deep river in the (obviously) dark. Also in the shot would be a village under military siege, and a helicopter coming towards them. The shot would be littered with gigantic explosions. It didn’t go well.
After Landis called ACTION!, the scene commenced. Morrow and the children, trying to get thru the river, while these amazing explosions were pounding all around them. Even the special effects people were a bit freaked out. Then the helicopter enters the scene. Landis screamed, "Lower! Lower! Lower!" to direct the chopper downwards, and it actually came to just 24 feet above the water.
There were cameras whizzing away during this entire event. There was even a guy standing on the skid of the helicopter, filming the entire thing. These explosions were big. Way big. Just when the pilot of the copter was about to split the scene, two more blasts came, and he went out of control. Everyone that could, got the hell out of there. Vic lost his grip on Renee, but in the time he tried to get her back, the helicopter landed on top of her, crushing her to death. The 40 foot in diameter blades decapitated Morrow and little Myca Le. The cameras were still rolling."
Why isn't this the place? John Landis may have made some great comedies but his reckless behavior should not be forgotten. The two children were killed because of his disregard for safety in exchange for glory.
Here is a wonderful quote:
"Assistant camera operator Randy Robinson and Wingo were discussing the intense heat of the fireball and, according to Outrageous Conduct, a smiling Landis told them, “You ain’t seen nothing yet!”"
Here is part of the Eulogy at Vic's funeral!
Landis’ eulogy sounded equally self-serving and clumsily ironic. “Tragedy can strike in an instant,” an obviously distraught Landis said, “but film is immortal. Vic lives forever. Just before the last take, Vic took me aside to thank me for the opportunity to play this role.”
Sorry I can't see celebrating this piece of crap who to this day still denies his responsibility and will promote himself at a funeral! So many things about that incident...yes this is the place. This man should not be promoted at all.
It seems every time Landis' name is mentioned on the internet, someone takes it as a crusade to bring up The Twilight Zone incident. I think most of us are aware of it and make our own moral or ethical judgment in terms of its significance. The guy wasnt found guily.. he lost a professional relationship with Spielberg..(which is career death in the industry)... and although there have been occasional flashes of success... his career never really recovered. Look.. I'm not defending his actions... I'm just saying... put down the flag. He still have a major judgement coming...
Having worked with John Landis on a film, I can tell you he is very intense, very dedicated, and a great director. I talked with him about working with Michael Jackson on Thriller and working on the TZ movie. I am pretty confident he feels it was an accident and feels horrible about it at the same time. It is a tragic accident.
"Why isn't this the place? John Landis may have made some great comedies but his reckless behavior should not be forgotten. The two children were killed because of his disregard for safety in exchange for glory."
Every John Landis interview does not incontrovertibly require an acknowledgment of the Twilight Zone tragedy. Especially one that is about nothing more than an entirely different picture he directed and later helped to release on Blu ray.
You may have something to say, but saying it here is simply incongruous.
For those interested in what genesim (And bluskies) are talking about, trutv.com has a thorough and well researched ten page article on the filming, accident, trial and aftermath.
Isn't it funny how Akubrick1 and MeE are so quick to categorize people that are offended about scum?
The crap comment like "fly away little birds" is even more annoying.
Hey if you want to protect and actually promote a piece of crap like John Landis that is your judgement but prepared to get the negative response.
And yes there are lots of young readers who don't know the story and need it shown. A guy like John should mention the Twilight Zone instead of acting like it never happened. Of course then again that would be taking responsibility for one's actions.
Oh wait...lets give credibility because a hollywood type is found not guilty! I got a better idea MeE and Akubrick1 how about each and every poster be allowed to say what they feel is worth mentioning about the director. If it is untrue then criticize, other then that respect the right to post what is important.
"This interview is not about the TZ Blu-Ray, so why discuss it? I am sure Landis is sick of talking about it."
Nor is it about the Blues Brothers...oh wait...it is because John Landis wants the focus there instead of on his crimes! Convenient eh? Funny how TZ is actually on bluray and should be talked about...
"It seems every time Landis' name is mentioned on the internet, someone takes it as a crusade to bring up The Twilight Zone incident."
"Every John Landis interview does not incontrovertibly require an acknowledgment of the Twilight Zone tragedy."
It seems as though this punk John's face has been splashed on this website numerous times...even getting 3 "spotlights" now. Yet this is the first time that I see anyone has commented about Twilight Zone criminal tragedy. Yet..that somehow turns into "everytime"???
I don't know what the fetish is with this John and his ugly mug, but I hope it is his last. There are better and far more historically important directors to think about. That is just my opinion though. The main thing is that like bluskies when he is touted as some kind of hero I feel compelled to disagree.
What's the point of thumbing down my post just because I don't think an interview celebrating the highlights of his career should dwell on that day in 1982? Do I think what happened was tragic? Yes. Don't tell me otherwise. Do I still consider Trading Places, American Werewolf, Animal House, Blues Brothers and Into The Night all excellent films despite the director, and consider Thriller THE greatest music video ever made? Definitely.
Landis isn't the first nor last Hollywood figure to suffer from megalomania. I am sure every day he is haunted with visions of that day looping in his head over and over, so what's the point of constantly bashing him? Victor Salva had sex with a young boy he put in one of his movies and yet people don't seem to be as ready to boycott everything he does as Landis did. Salva is a pedophile who admits his love for young boys, Landis was a hot-shot director who had success reach his head (and has he even directed one successful film since Coming To America in 1988?) and a stunt-pilot killed three people in his film. Landis has been living with this for 30 years now
This interview stated up front that it was only about "Three Amigos". While it delved into other areas, you're very naive if you think Landis is going to discuss the tragedy. He can't take a public stand that he was responsible because it would subject himself to more lawsuits. And while the courts don't always get it right, he was acquitted, although he was reprimanded and he lost a number of civil lawsuits costing in the $ millions.
Besides, it's not a book about his career; it's not even a magazine article. It's a very short interview promoting "Three Amigos". If a book about Landis ignored the tragedy, I would be very critical. I'm not critical about a short interview.
More people than Landis deserve the blame for the tragedy. I blame the producers who should have been on the set. The special effects supervisor and the helicopter pilot should have refused his orders, even if it meant they would be fired. The union shop steward should have been there to make sure everything was in accordance with the Guild regulations. There should have been someone there protecting the kids. Etc.
While everyone has the right to make moral judgements with their pocketbook, if you make moral judgements with performers, directors, etc., you're not going to be watching very many movies. And I agree with nf0603: regardless of what he's willing to admit, this tragedy has probably haunted Landis since it happened. How would you like to live with that guilt on your mind? And before you say that it could never happen to you, one car accident in which you were going slightly above the speed limit or talking on a cell phone or changing the radio station could put anyone in almost exactly the same position.
And even if I'm totally wrong and those who are bashing Landis are totally right, they only need to say it once.
I'd love to know what he thinks about the Blues Brothers bluray having a lossy DTS track and cramming two versions of the movie onto one disc. I was extremely excited for that release, and willing to pay a premium, and then they ruined it by putting out a music-focused movie with lossy audio.
It would have been nice to hear about Thriller being remastered for bluray. I'd love to see that and Spies Like Us properly remastered with his input. On a side note, I'd love to see Harlem Nights released on bluray with as many extras and outtakes as these releases!
PS: It's not that no one knows about the Twilight Zone movie incident, it's that everyone has moved on. Get over it, already.
"And before you say that it could never happen to you, one car accident in which you were going slightly above the speed limit or talking on a cell phone or changing the radio station could put anyone in almost exactly the same position. "
Uh you really equate what John did to a real speeding accident? Oh ok... I feel sorry for you dude. If John was merely "speeding" we wouldn't have a couple of underpaid under the table murdered little kids.
As for me "getting over it"...how about I get over it when we don't have a constant gushing and mug shut of this criminal every 5 seconds. Oh wait, only positive remarks are allowed as opposed to real criticism.
The problem was that one person made an honest comment and was attacked severely. Now I defend the comment and I am attacked and criticized for "every time"...when this the first time I have said anything.
John Landis doesn't deserve this kind of attention. He is scum and there are far more talented and better directors that deserve a spotlight. How about we lay this fool to rest and move on to something more important.
"While it delved into other areas, you're very naive if you think Landis is going to discuss the tragedy. He can't take a public stand that he was responsible because it would subject himself to more lawsuits. "
The article is some self serving praise for a moron comedy director that has done very little to save cinema. He color corrected a few films...WHO CARES!
"More people than Landis deserve the blame for the tragedy. I blame the producers who should have been on the set. The special effects supervisor and the helicopter pilot should have refused his orders, even if it meant they would be fired."
And if you posted any of those producers on her and their mugs and gushed and gushed I would have a problem with that too. Celebrate the film, not the criminal.
Wow. You really need to discover the power of indifference. Maybe then you won't spend so much time having problems with so many other people (Re: Landis, Folsey, Allingham, Stewart, ect.) that you've never met.
It's hard to stomach Landis' praise for Universal when their catalogue Blu-rays have an unerring habit of looking like shit. Yes, Blues Brothers theatrical was nice but that was tempered by the fucking lossy audio and the shoddy quality of the extended footage (which somehow lost the colour timing it was given when the extended DVD was originally put together). He also raves about Trading Places and Coming To America, when both of those are victims of Paramount's own heavily-used DNR-O-Matic process.
To dislike him over the whole Twilight Zone thing is one thing, but when you start trying to act like he never made a good movie in his life, you just look like an elitist hipster. Animal House, Blues Brothers and American Werewolf In London are all textbook cult classics, Trading Places and Coming To America are two of Eddie Murphy's funniest films ever, Into The Night is a highly underrated film that has its own following (largely people who actually saw it, a lot of people didn't).
To think the man is scum is one thing, to bash his work as a whole and dismiss him like he's Michael Bay is another. I think Phil Spector is a piece of garbage who deserves his jail sentence (and unlike Landis, his murder was premeditated and done on purpose), but am I going to bash the art of the man who produced the likes of "Imagine", "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling", "He's A Rebel", "River Deep Mountain High" and many other music classics? No way in hell.
Wow lets quote myself and explain to you very very carefully.
"John Landis may have made some great comedies..."
What does that say? Does that speak of a person that to quote you....
"..but when you start trying to act like he never made a good movie in his life..."
Hmmm Spot the difference?
Now lets call it like it is. I stated that there are far more talented directors out there that deserve more attention. According to you that means I think he is complete crap??
Ok, no wonder you are offended. You seem to be having trouble comprehending what I have wrote. Please take a step back and give it a fair assessment then see if you feel the same way.
John Landis again made some great comedies....of course they are derivative of other works and not the most popular...(that goes to Blazing Saddles thank you very much), but they still have a purpose.
Yet when I say there are far more important directors...personalities...pioneers of cinema...well that is exactly what I mean. To act like a cry baby when someone states the facts of his criminal behavior, well that isn't being fair is it? I mean again, this is the 3rd major article over the punk and if you look at the original comment it was very understandable.