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Director John Landis shares his experiences and opinions

Date: 10/26/2009

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

WORCESTER -- In the celebrity autograph area of the annual Rock and Shock horror film convention, there is a collection of the usual suspects -- actors who have made their mark in horror, science fiction and fantasy films.

Sid Haig, the character actor who has a new career thanks to "House of 1,000 Corpses" and "The Devil's Rejects" was in one corner and Malcolm McDowell, the star of many films including "A Clockwork Orange," was busy greeting fans as well.

There is one person who seemed out of place in this group -- John Landis, a director whose films have earned hundreds of millions of dollars. The man who brought "Animal House," "The Blues Brothers," "Trading Places," "An American Werewolf in London" and "Coming to America," among many other films, to the screen just didn't seem to be in the same league with the guy who portrayed Jason in the last remake of "Friday the 13th."

But Landis seemed to enjoy the interaction with fans and with his neighbor at the next table, Jason Mewes, best known for his appearances in Kevin Smith movies as "Jay." Mewes had covered the paper blanketing the top of his table with graffiti and has left a message for Landis at his table that reminded the director he should cast Mewes in all of his movies.

Before anyone thinks that Landis, whose last theatrical releases were "Susan's Plan" and "Blues Brothers 2000" in 1998 is some sort of has-been, it should be noted the director has been busy in the last several years with television work as well as making two acclaimed feature-length documentaries "Slasher," about a salesman who specializes in liquidating car inventories, and "Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project."

He also directed two installments in the popular "Masters of Horror" series on Showtime, experiences he said he enjoyed.

He is also going to begin shooting a new feature film based on the notorious Burke and Hare. When one fan asked him about the project, he replied in a loud, but friendly, voice, "It's Burke and Hare. Look it up! Google it."

For the uninformed, Burke and Hare were grave robbers who supplied medical students in Edinburgh, Scotland, in the 19th century with corpses. When there weren't fresh dead bodies available, they made their own.

After consenting to an interview with Reminder Publications between signings for fans, Landis said the film is being produced at the venerable Ealing Studios in Great Britain and will star Simon Pegg and David Tennant. He said the film would be "a romantic comedy with all 16 murders intact."

Speaking with Landis is like getting a crash course in the realities of the film industry. When I ask about his ability to move a project forward because of his track record, he interrupted with "A track record means nothing."

"But your films have made millions of dollars," I said.

"It doesn't mean anything. You're being rational," Landis said with a smile.

"So Hollywood isn't rational," I said.

"It never was," Landis replied. "The movie business has changed like newspapers and television because everything is now corporate. It's corporate in a way that's truly bizarre. If you look at the product coming out of Hollywood in the last two years you'll see it's made for the lowest common denominator. It's depressing."

Landis began his directing career in 1973 with "Schlock," a low budget horror comedy. With the advent of digital technology, Landis believes the production of films is easier today, but the distribution side of the business is in "chaos."

"The platforms are changing, but it will all settle down," he said.

With changes in corporate ownership in Hollywood, how difficult is it for established directors to receive a deal?

"It's very difficult for everybody, for everybody," he said. "Stephen Spielberg, Tony Scott, Michael Mann, Robert Zemeckis [can get deals]. There are very few people the studios will hire. They'd much rather hire hacks. They'd much rather hire people with no opinions."

Landis disputed the importance of having a good script as the basis for a good movie.

"Here's what I tell people. It gets me in trouble. It's not the story. People misunderstand that. A good story is a good story. It's like jokes -- it's not the joke, it's how the joke is told. The best example I can think of are westerns or samurai movies where there'll be 25 movies with the exact same story, but in the hands of John Ford or Kurosawa or Preston Sturgis or Robert Aldrich -- so many directors do it differently. It's a fascinating thing. It's something the studios, the conventional management, doesn't understand. It's not about high concept. It's only about execution."

And the budget of a film plays less of a role than most people think.

"The idea that budget affects the filmmaking process comes out of ignorance. You often hear critics say they spent too much, they spent too little. They don't know what it cost. The truth is the cost of a film has nothing to do with the quality of the film," Landis asserted.

"The cost of a film has nothing to do with the quality of a film just like genre has nothing to do with the quality of a film. I've made huge moves and I've made little moves. I've made big budget movies and low budget movies and the director's job is exactly the same put the camera there and you guys do this," he added.

Just like actors, Landis has been typecast as a director of comedies.

"Producers are much more comfortable offering me comedies because I've made a lot of money with comedies than with other genres. I mean, I love westerns, musicals. I love everything. It's easier for me to get the money for a comedy than it would be for a serious drama," he said.

Landis added that there are "many" projects he has in the back of his mind.

One of those he is currently trying to launch is a movie on the life of publisher William M. Gaines, the man who is best known for bringing MAD Magazine into the world.

Since he has worked with both fiction and documentary films, does Landis have a preference?

"I'm a filmmaker. I like making movies. I don't care what they are," he said.

He learned from "Slasher" that pre-conceived ideas about a documentary subject could be easily changed due to the reality a director is shooting.

"In some ways the documentary is more experimental," he said.

He said he enjoys appearing at horror film conventions such as this one, although this is only his fourth or fifth time. He believes it's a way for performers to make some additional money from their work, since studios make so much, and he enjoys meeting the fans.