Tuesday, June 26, 2012

See You Next Wednesday - An Evening with John Landis

Once upon a time, there were two men called John, and they towered above all others in spraying fuel on the simmering embers of my nascent cinephilia. Back in 1994, I was fortunate enough to attend a Q&A with John Carpenter at the National Film Theatre to accompany the world premiere of his wonderfully nuts Lovecraftian feverdream In The Mouth of Madness.

16 years later and, on Tuesday 16th March 2010, I finally caught up with John Landis on exactly the same stage at the now-renamed BFI Southbank. An unflagging bundle of enthusiasm, self-confessed film geek Landis came straight from a day's shooting on Burke and Hare at Ealing Studios and sat with the audience through a rare showing of his 2004 documentary Slasher before regaling us all with his encyclopaedic knowledge and love of movies for two hours, starting out by taking photos of the audience from the stage and wrapping it all up by exhorting us to go and watch Scott Pilgrim vs. The World when it arrived, directed by his friend Edgar Wright who was sitting amongst us.

The following is cobbled together from a bunch of notes I made over two years ago, so cut me some slack.
On his friendship with Alfred Hitchcock:

During their regular lunch dates, Hitchcock expressed his irritation that Dressed To Kill was frequently referred to as “Hitchcockian” by calling Brian DePalma “that boy that steals from me” to which Landis said:
"But Hitch, he’s not stealing from you, it's an homage."
"You mean fromage?"

On bad movies:

Landis unashamedly loves bad movies, in particular the oeuvre of Roland Emmerich, singling out the recent 2012 and the delirious absurdity of characters attempting to out-drive a natural disaster. He also pointed out that film is the only art form where you can experience the worst possible entertainment and still have a good time.

I’ve just discovered that Landis recently restated his affection for Emmerich’s logic-defying excesses on German TV as he wandered around London with Terry Gilliam:

On Coming To America:

During the making of Coming to America, Landis was made aware of comments by Spike Lee bemoaning a trend of “old Jewish guys pretending to be young black guys”. [Despite extensive research, I’m unable to locate the interview that Landis cited. However, Lee does have form for this sort of thing. For an example, see page 57 of Spike Lee: Interviews on Google Books for Lee’s remarks on the writing staff of In Living Color during a conversation with Elvis Mitchell from 1991].

Despite the well-documented acrimony between Landis and Murphy at this stage in their collaboration, Landis, knowing what an incredibly gifted mimic Eddie Murphy is, approached him about flipping this around by turning a young black guy into an old Jewish guy, which led to the creation of the character Saul. (This is the zenith of a relentless downward spiral that leads to Norbit - Coming to America marks the first time that Murphy played multiple characters in a movie, so maybe Landis has to shoulder a little bit of blame for kicking off that particularly unwelcome trend in Murphy’s career.)

On The Spy Who Loved Me:

Landis was one of many uncredited writers (along with Stirling Silliphant, Ronald Hardy, Anthony Burgess and Derek Marlowe) who worked on the script for Roger Moore’s third outing as James Bond, claiming that his major contribution was the downhill ski chase that opens the movie.

On Into the Night:

His first flop. Landis told an anecdote of being summoned to meet Jack Nicholson to discuss the project in a remote location (Aspen, perhaps?), that turned into an unusually treacherous trip due to the snow and icy conditions, just so that Nicholson could turn it down on the grounds that the Ed Okin character (eventually played by Jeff Goldblum) is passive and never actually does anything, spending the whole film being led around by Michelle Pfieffer's character. Nicholson softened the rejection by saying that he still thought that it would be a great movie and he looked forward to seeing it. Landis conceded that maybe Into the Night was just "too weird" for audiences. Personally, I think Into the Night ranks way up there with his finest work and the three-way knife fight between Carl Perkins, David Bowie and Jeff Goldblum in a darkened hotel room strewn with corpses whilst Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein plays in the background is just glorious:

On casting Burke and Hare:

Landis professed his love and admiration of Ronnie Corbett, saying that he was the only member of the cast he had to fight for to get him into the movie. He called him a great actor and a national treasure, acknowledging that “national treasure” in the UK means that you've been on TV for over 25 years.

On Hollywood today:

With a hint of amused irritation, Landis noted that some of the younger breed of Hollywood executives don't know their history, recollecting that he has been asked in meetings: “Did you ever see Animal House? That's what we want.” Understandably, he’s insulted and flattered at the same time.

There was so much more, and the event was recorded by the BFI, with selected highlights available to view here.

I went to see both Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Burke and Hare on the weekends they opened. The former ended up being one of my favourite films of 2010. The latter didn’t. But I confess that I just really enjoyed the fact that I could go and see a brand new John Landis movie on a big screen and, as always, I can’t wait to see what he does next.
When in Hollywood, Visit Universal Studios. Ask for Babs

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