While much has been said about Universal Studios not having a standout year at the box office, or at least one befitting of the landmark studio's 100th Anniversary this year, you’d barely be able to tell by the rate at which they’re celebrating. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) has played a large part in this celebration, running a repertory screening series entitled “Universal’s Legacy of Horror,” which kicked off last week in Los Angeles with a Guillermo Del Toro hosted double bill of “Bride of Frankenstein” and the Bela Lugosi-starring “Dracula.” Last night AMPAS played the classic 1941 tale “The Wolfman” with Lon Chaney, along with the most recent film playing in the series – “Animal House” writer-director John Landis’ “An American Werewolf in London.”
Landis, star David Naughton, producer George Folsey Jr., and legendary make-up artist Rick Baker – who won the first of his seven make-up Oscars for “Werewolf,” and made it into the history books as the very first winner of an Oscar for Best Make-Up – were on hand for what was a pretty big night for anyone who has grown up loving monsters. We caught up with Landis before “The Wolfman,” where he started of explaining why “An American Werewolf In London” wasn’t embraced as quickly as “Animal House” or “The Blues Brothers” because, “well it’s a horror movie, and horror films don’t make that kind of money.”
The filmmaker said how proud he was that the film has earned its place in the cinematic lineage of Universal Monsters, but mostly discussed the hardships of getting it made in the first place. “I wrote this movie when I was 18, I wrote it in 1969 in Yugoslavia – the former Yugoslavia – I was working on a movie called 'Kelly’s Heroes' for MGM as a [production assistant]. “ It was here where Landis witnessed the actual gypsy funeral of a man who was buried feet first and wrapped in garlic for fear he would return to life as a member of the living dead. This put the wheels in motion, and had Landis thinking back to the days of classic Universal Monster Movies like “The Wolfman,” where gypsies and the supernatural ran amok.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t even the most horrific part of the creative process. As Landis explains, “I could never sell it, I could never get it made, because it’s too odd – because it’s very funny, but it is a horror film. So I couldn’t sell it, but then I made three movies in a row that were incredibly successful: ‘Kentucky Fried Movie,’ ‘Animal House,’ ‘The Blues Brothers.’ And based on that box office muscle, I was able to make this movie for a little bit of money and I’m proud to say people like it.” Later in a question and answer session before Landis’ film rolled, he said he attempted to interest famed James Bond producer Albert R. Broccoli into making it after he was hired to do uncredited rewrites on the Bond flick “The Spy Who Loved Me." Upon reading the script, Broccoli simply replied by exclaiming: “’Hell no, it’s weird!’”
Landis elaborated a little more, “No one would make this fucking movie, there hadn’t been a werewolf movies in years, when I finally got the opportunity to make it, there was ‘The Howling,’ ‘Wolfen,’ ‘Teen Wolf,’ ‘Full Moon High,’ there was like five werewolf movies, so it was a zeitgeist.” Though Landis is no stranger to having his darker, more subversive films underappreciated, as proven by his most recent film in 2010’s “Burke & Hare” starring Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis. Landis contends that, “Well, ‘Burke & Hare’ is a romantic comedy, and what I learned is people wanted it to be a horror film and it’s not, it’s a very inappropriate romantic comedy. I think that’s why people went, ‘Oh, this isn’t what I thought it was,’ and sometimes, a lot of that has to do with expectations. I think they were taken aback by how sweet it is.”
As for his follow-up to ‘Burke & Hare,’ which was set to be a Paris-set monster movie (no, not a remake of “An American Werewolf in Paris"), Landis says that’s out of the cards for now: “A French producer paid me to write a horror script I liked very much. He read it and said ‘What the fuck is this?’ He was shocked by it. He wanted changes that I refused to make, so I gave him the money back, so I own it. So I don’t know if I can get anyone else to give me the money, everyone wants the same thing.”
Landis even went as far as to compare his plight with his son Max Landis, who is currently working on several gestating projects after his hit superhero flick “Chronicle” earlier this year. One of those project is “Chronicle 2” for Fox, which Landis says, “He wrote a sequel, and it’s amazing, and the studio read it and said, ‘We want ‘Chronicle’ again!’ And he said, ‘No, this is the sequel, it’s the evolution, and they said ‘No, we want that movie again!’ So it’s difficult, we’re dealing with a difficult business.’
Baker also has a very strong to tie to both Landis and 'Werewolf,' but it was the fact that Baker was the first make-up artist to win an Oscar for 'Werewolf' when the film finally released in 1982 (a category seemingly invented that year to solely honor the work he did on the werewolf transformation scene) that really shocked him. Baker told us, “So many people say about winning an Oscar, that it’s such a surreal moment. It was surreal. First of all, I couldn’t believe I was nominated, especially for a horror movie — and a particularly gory horror movie at that. Second of all, I didn’t really think it was Academy-friendly, so I thought ‘It’s just an honor to be nominated.’” Baker was particularly happy to have his Oscar presented to him by genre mavens Vincent Price and “Planet of the Apes” actress Kim Hunter, but Baker was even more surprised that he earned before many of the artists he looked up to: “It was unbelievable to win, because there had only been two make-up artists to get Oscars before, John Chambers and William Tuttle – and they were special achievement awards – so yeah, it was unreal.” Both Landis and Baker certainly chatted like old friends throughout the question and answer session as well, with Baker stating that “he’s changed my life in so many ways.”
They divulged in tales of the first time meeting each other in Baker’s mom’s house in Covina, California, and how Baker met his wife – hair stylist Silvia Abascal – on the set of Landis’ underrated 1985 gem “Into The Night.” Landis cast Baker in a small cameo as a drug dealer lead actor Jeff Goldblum’s character runs into on Hollywood Boulevard, and also used Abascal as a prostitute for the same scene. Landis said he snapped a picture of the two together in costume as their seedy characters, to which Baker replied, “I still have that photograph, it’s a very nice 8×10 photograph that John sent me, of the night I met my wife. It’s the very first time we met and we have this photograph of that, so, you know.”
AMPAS is continuing this series until November 1st. More details can be found here.