John Landis is speaking to me from the back of a car in Melbourne, whizzing between meetings, interviews and public appearances. The 63-year-old Hollywood legend’s gatekeepers tell me he doesn’t have much time.
Anyone whose listened to the anecdote-armed comedy doyen understands, however, that in the Landis universe there’s always time for stories. And I get hit with a deluge.
Rattling off jokes, quips, expletive-laden commentary on the movie business and an assortment of name-dropping tales (the one involving John Belushi and a New York Times film critic is my favourite) Landis is firing on all cylinders. Twenty minutes later, he shows no signs of slowing down. I’m not even sure the car is moving.
In town for the Melbourne Festival, which is running a retrospective of his work, Landis’ directorial CV includes mega hits such as The Blues Brothers, Three Amigos!, Animal House and An American Werewolf in London. These are all considered classics. This, I learn, is a word Landis regards with bittersweet amusement.
“In the United States critically I was always a bit of a shmuck. They hated me and yet the pictures did well,” he says. “It’s funny because the same critics now refer to many of my films as classics and role models. I think well, where the fuck were you when they came out? They’re the same movies!”
In recent interviews Landis has spoken colourfully (it’s hard to imagine him speaking any other way) about the risk-averse nature of studio financing.
“It’s always been called the movie business. Not the movie craft,” he says. “So it’s critical to talk about the state of the industry. It’s a strange time but the business is evolving. They’re much less diverse, the multinational corporations.”
But when I suggest the media has painted him as a kind of quasi Howard Beale, rallying against corporate bullshit and studio scuttlebutt…
“There’s this weird thing where people are saying I’m the doom and gloom guy. I’m not! I’m optimistic about the movies,” Landis says.
“I complain like everybody else. These days it is more difficult to make more challenging movies, put it that way. My biggest concern is not genre films so much as I hate that so many people will see Lawrence of Arabia or 2001 on an iPad.”
Despite Landis’ insistence that he isn’t the doom and gloom guy, our conversation veers more than once into the business end of tinsel town. In Hollywood the flavour du jour is – and has been for some time – superhero movies and sequels (often they’re the same thing).
Superhero movies, while enormously expensive, are low-risk investments. They are marketed towards teenagers and young adults, who need the least convincing to get out of the house, buy prodigious amounts of popcorn and snacks (which are far more profitable for exhibitors than the films themselves) and are more likely to invest in ancillary markets such as DVD, merchandise and video games.
But Landis, who has pulled no punches expressing his thoughts on Hollywood’s infatuation with superhero pictures (and knocked back an offer to direct Thor) is reluctant to finger a particular type of movie.
“I have no trouble with the genre. Now, when you make films, the marketing is so extensive they often open a picture in Shanghai and Buenos Aires and Melbourne and Rome and Moscow at the same time. So you want a film with broad international appeal, and superheros are a natural fit.
“Listen, I think Dick Donner’s Superman is a wonderful movie and I loved Sam Raimi’s Spiderman. So you can still make a good superhero movie. My son wrote a film a few years ago called Chronicle, which was extremely original.”
Landis says he’s “not interested” in making sequels but doesn’t clarify whether his critically maligned Blues Brothers 2000 was one of the movies that (as he puts it) he “did for the money.” He reminisces about it in the manner of a lover reflecting on a relationship that didn’t work out, or was doomed from the start.
“The new head of the studio hated it, didn’t want to make the movie and kept putting obstacles in the way. I think the screenplay was rewritten 17 times. They did everything they could to make us say ‘go fuck yourselves.’
“One of the reasons we made it was because B.B. King gave me so much shit about not being in the first one. He called me every two weeks: ‘when are you putting me in the god damn movie?’ I don’t regret it mainly because the music was so good. Just throw on that CD.”
Blues Brothers 2000 may have been pooh-poohed by critics, but if Landis carries a grudge against the notepad-wielding, star-granting, beard-scratching brigade, he doesn’t show it.
“The worst a critic can do is hurt your feelings,” he says. “The only true test of a movie is time. A picture likeThe Wizard of Oz, that’s fucking brilliant. And it’s as brilliant in 2013 as it will be in 2060.
“What I dislike intensely are the ten best or five best lists. Or those lists like ‘the hundred greatest.’ I think that’s a masturbatory exercise.”
As for the story about The New York Times film critic and John Belushi, it concerns a review Landis read in 1981 of An American Werewolf in London.
“She ended it (the review) by saying the film doesn’t work because – this is a direct quote – of ham-fisted screenplay and direction by John Landis,” he says.
“John Belushi called me up and said ‘did you see The New York Times review?’ I said yeah. He said ‘did you fuck her?’ I said no, but she certainly fucked me.”