October 23 2010 12:01AM, The Times
The cult film director who likes to be unpopular and scorns “national treasures” talks Jacko, Hitchcock and sitcoms
In the late Seventies and early Eighties, John Landis was cinema’s King of Comedy. After anarchic hits such as Animal House and The Blues Brothers, the motormouth “movie brat” went on to mainstream success with Trading Places and Coming to America. And as director of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Landis became the unlikely godfather of the music video. But in 1986, Vic Morrow and two child actors were killed in a helicopter accident during filming of The Twilight Zone — Landis and several crew members were tried for involuntary manslaughter, and although they were acquitted, Landis’s later flicks never quite recaptured the old magic. Tired of the businesslike nature of “New Hollywood”, he has worked, latterly, in TV and documentaries. The British-set Burke and Hare is his first feature film for 12 years. Starring Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis, it tells the story of the infamous slashers of 1820s Edinburgh, who supplied cadavers for the anatomist Dr Robert Knox (Tom Wilkinson). “It’s a black comedy,” declares Landis, “very much in the style of The Lavender Hill Mob. Actually more The Ladykillers . . . because there’s killing.”
Burke and Hare is on general release on Friday
John Landis on...
Since The Blues Brothers I’ve always worn a tie. I used to have lunch with Alfred Hitchcock. He always insisted that his crew wear a tie. If you look at production photos from the Twenties on, it’s not until the mid-Sixties that people didn’t dress up. I asked him: “Why do you insist that everyone wear a tie?” He said: “It shows respect for the craft.” I was 28 but I thought that was so cool.
I’ve done a lot of stuff that seemed radical at the time. John Huston famously said that motion picture directors, prostitutes and buildings grow respectable with age. I’m 60 and it’s happened to me because I’ve always been critically a schmuck. US critics hated my movies. Pictures that were shat on when they came out are now classics — Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Kentucky Fried Movie. So I’m thinking: “It’s the same movie. What changed?”
The Blues Brothers
. . . works everywhere, it’s pretty international. Animal House is probably bigger in the States. Trading Places is bigger in France . . . but I’m constantly surprised which film a person will mention. It’s often Three Amigos. And because Michael [Jackson] passed away it’s been Thriller lately.
Michael approached me to do it. He saw An American Werewolf in London and was fascinated by the make-up. I wasn’t interested in making a “music video” so I said: “Can we make it a two-reeler ... 14 minutes, 15 minutes?” And it was theatrically released. It then played on MTV and had this revolutionary success. The thing about Thriller is that CBS Records, Sony, none of them were involved. It was all Michael. The record company wouldn’t give us any money . . . so we got the money from cable TV.
...his Burke and Hare cast
Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis
Simon has this amazing likeability on screen, and we were very lucky to get Andy. It’s a very fine line we’re walking. These guys have to be very sympathetic and they are killing people. I see Simon and Andy as the evil Laurel and Hardy.
The Brits have this thing — “national treasure”. Barbara Windsor ... “national treasure”. Bruce Forsyth, Bob Monkhouse . . . “national treasure”. It’s ridiculously overused. But I have a real national treasure in Ronnie Corbett, and he’s fantastic. I was here in 1975 as one of many writers on the Bond picture The Spy Who Loved Me, and I got addicted to The Two Ronnies. I loved them. I offered Ronnie Barker a part in Trading Places, the part that Denholm Elliott did, but he said: “I don’t really want to leave England.”
Many of the famous horror actors — Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing — resented terribly the word “horror”, because to horrify someone is easy. To terrify someone or to generate suspense is very different. Boris Karloff wanted them called terror films. But horror and comedy are similar in that they invoke an involuntary physical response — you laugh or scream.
Burke and Hare
You say, “Who are Burke and Hare?” and people say grave robbers, but they were murderers; they never robbed a grave. The real Burke and Hare were despicable, loathsome psychopaths. They hanged William Burke, as we do. He was sentenced to be hanged and publicly dissected. I found 16 films based on Burke and Hare and every version had been a horror film. Ours is very much a comedy. But ironically, of all the movies, we’re the most accurate.