Though John Landis’s name may not be as instantly recognizable as those of George Lucas or Martin Scorsese, his contributions to quintessential American cinema are just as popular and venerable as those of his better known (or perhaps just better marketed) colleagues. The director of such classics—a very worn-out term that actually applies here—as “Animal House” (1978), “The Blues Brothers” (1980), and “An American Werewolf in London” (1981) as well as the legendary video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” Landis is fiercely opposed to creative piegeonholing. As his own resume demonstrates, not all directors wish to be confined to a single genre or style of filmmaking—a rare few even thrive on never doing the same thing twice.
“I don’t have a preference in genre [and] I disagree that comedy and horror are so different,” Landis declared on a recent rainy afternoon in New York City. “They’re both very unforgiving.” He certainly should know. Having just released “Monsters in the Movies,” a compendium of some favorite creatures from cinematic history, Landis stopped by an NYU film criticism class last week on his way to BAM, where a retrospective of his work will be shown through November 30th (http://www.bam.org/view.aspx?pid=3796). During a two-hour roundtable interview, Landis held forth on subjects ranging from the rise of CGI (“It can be brilliant or it can be obnoxious”) to the outlandish cost of movie marketing (“It’s just brutal, it’s really fucked”) to the current Republican debates (“You could not make that shit up!”). The one consistent theme running throughout his sometimes sage, sometimes salty commentary was his aversion to authority, whether in the form of studio censors, famous critics or the almighty dollar.
Having begun his career (after dropping out of high school) in the mailroom of 20th Century Fox at age 18, Landis has certainly lived every teenage film fanatic’s dream of making it all the way to the top. Widely recognized as one of the most accomplished directors of the past 40 years, Landis has been knighted in Belgium and France and honored at film festivals all over Europe and the U.S. However, his career has also had its share of ups and downs and even all-out tragedies: while directing the first segment of the film version of “The Twilight Zone” (1983), Landis was charged with manslaughter in connection with the accidental deaths of actor Vic Morrow and two child extras. Though he and four others, including an associate producer, were eventually acquitted of any wrongdoing, the incident has continued to dog Landis’s reputation for nearly three decades. Though he made only a single oblique reference to this ordeal during our interview, Landis’s silence on this issue spoke even louder than his bombastic commentary on the happier aspects of his career.
What you notice most about Landis when he first enters a room is his sheer theatrical presence. While his normal voice routinely extends itself from stage whispers to full battle cries, even when he isn’t speaking at all—which isn’t often—his personality itself seems to take up more than its fair share of space. With only minimal prodding from a roomful of critics-in-training, Landis laid out a smorgasbord of anecdotes, manifestos and Twitter-worthy quotations (“Movie monsters don’t scare me—Jaws, it’s just a big shark”) that had even the most studious among us in stitches by the end.
After kicking things off by declaring that Westerns are “the most fun to make,” Landis chattered away happily about the making, watching and selling of films for over two hours with scarcely a pause for breath (though he did casually answer a phone call about an upcoming project, from a representative of Brad Pitt’s production company, in front of his rapt audience). Landis’s biggest beefs with Hollywood involve his reluctance to cede creative authority to hand-wringing censors or studio hacks. His hackles rise at the mention of political correctness, and he is willing to fight to the death to defend a joke that he believes truly adds something to one of his films. “It’s never the joke; it’s not ‘that joke is offensive!,’ Landis explained. “It’s the perception of the joke, it depends on where that joke is coming from. That’s why censorship is so intriguing, because it’s completely arbitrary. It’s this total reactionary, corporate thing and it’s about not taking risks. They [the studios] are covering their ass.”
Though there’s no love lost between the director and the many venerated critics who have taken him to task over the years (Janet Maslin: “a bitch,” Roger Ebert: “the worst”), Landis revealed himself to be exceedingly well read, though occasionally baffled, in the field of film criticism. A fan of Pauline Kael, Landis’s biggest complaint about the current state of criticism is its tendency toward the arcane. “Some of these books, it’s like, what are they thinking? Who are they writing this for?” Not the most welcome question to pose to a group of graduate students at NYU, perhaps, but a worthy one none the less.
When the conversation turned to finances (Landis’s films having broken box-office records in their day), he cited the need to court foreign audiences as “one of the reasons movies are dumbed down” nowadays. “You have a lot of stuff everyone relates to, which is action,” Landis stated, though without contempt. He is no genre snob, as one would expect from a man who has worked with everyone from Michael Jackson to Eddie Murphy, Chevy Chase, Michelle Pfeiffer and the inimitable makeup wizard Rick Baker. However, his enthusiasm for films at both ends of the respectability spectrum is matched only by his scorn for the dictatorial world of studio filmmaking, where directors are often robbed of authority over their own work and pinioned by box office goals on the one hand and the imperative not to offend anybody on the other. “Now they don’t want directors to make movies,” Landis complained. “They want kids out of film school, people they can fuck with.”
If you were casting a film about a Hollywood director, your first pick should be John Landis. Over the course of a couple hours he revealed himself to be just what every film student dreams that directors should be: cynical, witty, and bursting at the seams with stories about his encounters with film luminaries (Lawrence Olivier, Orson Welles, Hitchcock). Far from imperious, he was just as affable and approachable as any fan of “Animal House” or “The Blues Brothers” could hope. Had he not made a swift exit, he could easily have ended up in a bar in the East Village, surrounded by eager acolytes, having forgotten his obligations to the respectable world of speeches and retrospectives.
Next time he’s in town, I hope that’s exactly what happens.
Photo: Critic Dave Kehr, the author, and John Landis outside NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts