John Landis praat over Oscars, Michael en het maken van Thriller
by David Guzman, Assistant Editor; Image: John Landis sat down with AllMediaNY’s David Guzman to discuss everything from a “Coming to America”-based film to “An American Werewolf in London”
ALLMEDIANY : At a time when MTV was only a few years old, a production as big as ‘Thriller’ was unheard of. Did either you or Michael Jackson have doubts that the network would run it?
JOHN L: No. People tend to forget this, but the album had been out a year, and had already been the number-one album of all time, had already sold more records than any other album in history. They had made ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘Beat It’, which were very, very successful films, and when Michael came to me, I thought, “Well, I don’t want to make a rock video.” Essentially they were commercials to sell records, and I thought, “I don’t want to do that,” but then I met with Mike, and he was such an extraordinary, brilliant performer. You know, when I made “The Blues Brothers,” I’d made a decision I regretted later, which was, because John [Belushi] and Danny [Aykroyd] were not professional dancers, I had shot all the numbers with amateurs, except finally I shot the church scene with professional dancers; it was one of the last things we shot back in L.A. So the opportunity of doing a really good musical number appealed to me, so I said to Mike, “Michael, instead of doing a video, can we make a theatrical short?” The intention was always meant to be that it would play in theaters. In fact, we had a deal with Disney, and it played with “Fantasia” before it was on TV.
ALLMEDIANY: Wasn’t it hard to fund it, though?
JOHN L: Sony and CBS said they wouldn’t give us any money – they thought the album was over. And Michael said he’d pay for it, and I said, “Absolutely not! I’m not going to take your money,” because it cost almost $500,000 to make – that’s very expensive. So we raised the money from a brand-new cable network called Showtime – we got half the money, and they got the exclusive right to show that and “The Making of ‘Thriller,’” which was an hour together. They used to call it “The Making of ‘Filler,’” because they had to come up with an hour. Then MTV went crazy and said, “How could you do that?!” We said, “OK, put up the second half of the money, and we’ll let you show it for a while.” And that’s what happened, but before they showed it, it played theatrically. In fact, I got kind of screwed by the record company, because Frank DiLeo, who was Mike’s manager at the time, told me many years later that he’s the one who did it, which is he did the right thing for the record but he kind of screwed me. What he did was, they duped “Thriller” and they made many, many copies of it, and then gave it free to television stations all over the world. It was on TV constantly, which meant it wouldn’t be playing in theaters anymore – which upset me – but it did make the album triple its sales, and it did establish MTV. I mean, it’s responsible for a lot of things, but it was no one’s brilliant plan – it was just Mike wanting to turn into a monster.
ALLMEDIANY: In “Thriller,” he goes from looking like a zombie to having his appearance go back to normal when he sings, only to turn back into his zombie self. What made it necessary to take off the makeup?
JOHN L: Nothing made it necessary – it was my choice. It was just an aesthetic choice, that’s all. You’re asking me to make sense of it, the whole thing doesn’t make sense. It’s a fantasy! It does not make sense! If you’re trying to come up with some reasonable, rational explanation for the fact that he suddenly turns into a zombie and then back again, and then at the end he’s a zombie – I mean, it’s completely silly. It’s not meant to make sense – it’s meant to be entertaining.
ALLMEDIANY: You’ve made a name for yourself with comedies and horror films, but neither genre does well during Oscar season. Do they deserve more recognition?
JOHN L: Well, you’re right. I mean, that’s absolutely true. Comedy, which is by far the most difficult thing to do well, has always been kind of a bastard stepchild, as has horror. I mean, one horror film did win an Oscar: “The Exorcist.” And you could say “The Silence of the Lambs,” if you wanted to, is a horror film. But only one comedy has ever won an Oscar, and that’s “Annie Hall.” They don’t get much respect, but so what? I don’t make films to win Oscars.
ALLMEDIANY: What’s the most disturbing movie of all time?
JOHN L: Oh, gosh. Movies are completely subjective, meaning that everybody sees something different when you see a movie. Plus, movies have everything to do with who you are, how old you are when you saw it, where you saw it, how you saw it. I mean, when you ask people their favorite movie, they almost always can tell you what theater they saw it in, who they saw it with. So, there are many disturbing movies; I mean, off the top of my head, I could tell you 10 or 12 if you wanted. I still think “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” is quite a remarkable piece of work – the original Tobe Hooper version, not the stupid remake; the good one – especially in that there’s no gore in it. It’s like “Psycho” – you never see the violence, and yet it’s terrifying and brutal. I think “The Exorcist” is a brilliant film. You’re talking about suspension of disbelief – meaning that while you’re watching it, you’re right there – and I’m an atheist, and I’m certainly not Catholic. When I watch that film, you buy into it. When it was over I went to bed, but the people I saw it with were all altar boys – they had nightmares for weeks. I think that “Repulsion” is a very disturbing movie; I think “Rosemary’s Baby” is a very disturbing movie – and very funny movie, but creepy movie. David Cronenberg’s picture “Dead Ringers” – very disturbing picture. There’s the Takashi Miike film called “Audition” – really creepy.
ALLMEDIANY: Does your reputation allow you to get away with more in your movies than smaller names do?
JOHN L: Of course not! [Laughs] I’ve got to tell you, you ask some of the silliest questions I’ve ever heard! No – nobody’s reputation allows them to get away with anything. When an audience is watching a movie, they’re watching a movie, and if they don’t like something they won’t like it, and if they like something they’ll like it. It’s not a question of who’s doing it – they’ll respond to it whether they know who’s doing it or not. I would love it if what you’re saying was true, but I don’t think it is.
ALLMEDIANY: Going back half a turn – the gallows humor of “Burke and Hare” is familiar territory for you. Did that create a challenge in terms of keeping things fresh?
JOHN L: Actually, “Burke and Hare” is not a horror film. It’s a romantic comedy, and yes, there’s a lot of black humor in it, absolutely. I don’t want to mislead people. I mean, “American Werewolf” is very funny, but it’s not a happy story.
ALLMEDIANY: My question was about what sets this apart from your other films.
JOHN L: How do you know what the film’s like? [Laughs] You haven’t seen it!
ALLMEDIANY: No one’s gotten around to sending a screener yet. That shouldn’t suggest that I want to give you a hard time, though.
JOHN L: No, I understand. I do – I get it. You know what? You sound like a pretty smart guy. Normally with a journalist, you just shine them on and answer politely, but you’re too smart for this. Like, “Wait a minute! Think about what you’re saying!”
ALLMEDIANY: You’ve told interviewers about how you loved Mike Judge’s “Office Space,” and that you were disappointed because not many people saw it. The fan base for “Office Space” has since broadened, but are there other films you feel need more attention?
JOHN L: Oh, sure. The financial success of a film in the real world is what everyone cares about. I mean, even The New York Times prints the grosses now. So you see bad films be big hits all the time, and you see good films fail all the time – and you see good films be big hits, which is nice. The quality of a film does not necessarily reflect in the box office. That’s one of the great things about home video and DVD, is films [that] normally people wouldn’t see, they get a chance to see now. Sadly, not in a theater – the way they should be seen – but at least they get to see it. I saw that film in Hawaii; I was on holiday when it came out, and it was dumped. The studio, for whatever reason, made a decision: “This movie isn’t going to make money.” So they did what’s called a self-fulfilling prophecy: They made sure it wouldn’t. [Laughs] I just thought it was such an original voice. I like his other movie, too – “Office Space,” I think, is more successful aesthetically, but I thought [“Idiocracy”] was a very smart movie. But that was an unpleasant movie. I mean, that was a movie where the audience is going, “Wait a minute – he’s shitting on us!”