A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Toga Party: Filmmaker John Landis Waxes Nostalgic on ‘Animal House,’ Breaking Into the Biz and His Journey in Film
One of the things I like best about doing this blog is that I can post items at a whim. I am in a movie-movie frame of mind this week, and so many of my posts in late September 2010 are about movies and moviemakers. This one for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is about John Landis, the popular American filmmaker who came to Omaha a few years ago for a revival screening of his first of many mega hits, Animal House. Landis was kind enough to give me an advance phone interview and he was very generous with his time and incredibly easy to converse with, as is the case I’ve found with most successful artists and entertainers. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing many leading figures in the arts and one of the qualities they share is professionalism. Doing press is a part of the gig, and they get that. The program Landis attended in Omaha was organized by Bruce Crawford, a film impresario and historian who I go back with some three decades. Bruce has presented many first-rate revival screenings, often with legendary special guests like Landis. Bruce is bringing Debbie Reynolds to town for a Nov. 5 th screening of Singin’ in the Rain. I’ll be posting a story about that before too long. You can find my stories about Bruce and his magnificent obsession with classic movies and film scores on this site.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Toga Party: Filmmaker John Landis Waxes Nostalgic on Animal House, Breaking Into the Biz and His Journey in Film
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Mega hit filmmaker John Landis (The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London, Trading Places, Coming to America, Spies Like Us) is the special guest for a May 19 Omaha salute to his first triumph, National Lampoon’s Animal House. Landis directed the 1978 movie. Its surprise success made his career and boosted the screen fortunes of several then-unknown actors he shrewdly cast, including Kevin Bacon, Tom Hulce, Peter Riegert, Karen Allen, Bruce McGill and John Belushi.
Friday’s 7 p.m. event at Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall is a benefit for the Nonprofit Association of the Midlands. Besides Landis, actor Stephen Furst (Flounder in the movie) is expected. Each is to speak before the show and to sign autographs after it. In keeping with the story’s Greek frat theme, toga-clad models will be stationed around the museum. Food fights are discouraged.
Omaha film maven Bruce Crawford made Animal House his 18th film revival “by popular request.” He knows it’s a coup to get Landis, “regarded as the most successful director of comedy in movie history, at least in box office terms.” Crawford speculates Landis is the biggest name director to land here since Cecil B. DeMille came for the 1939 world premiere of Union Pacific. Landis, speaking by car phone between appointments in L.A. (he’s prepping a new project), said a “very persistent” Crawford got him to agree to an Omaha appearance. Landis was to be at Crawford’s 1998 King Kong revival at the Indian Hills, joined by mutual friends Ray Harryhausen, Ray Bradbury and Forrest Ackerman. “I couldn’t make it, but I heard what a marvelous time they all had. So I said I’d come and I will.”
For Landis, Animal House culminated his early journey in moviemaking, which began a decade earlier. Born in Chicago but raised in west Los Angeles, this self-described “movie freak” mainlined on industry buzz. In many cases his friends’ parents worked in the business, giving him added “exposure” to that world. A friend’s father wrote for a television series, enough entree to get Landis and his buddy a free pass on the 20th Century Fox back lot, which Landis said was akin to “a kid at Disneyland.” His pal Peter Bernstein’s father was the great composer Elmer Bernstein, who later did the score for Animal House, the first of 11 scores Bernstein did for Landis. Similarly, Landis was befriended by Donald Sutherland when the movie M*A*S*M*A*S*H shot on the Fox lot, where Landis worked in the mail room. Ten years later Sutherland bailed Landis out on Animal House.
As a kid his celluloid day dreams kept him from being more than an average student. At 16 he quit school — “I’m a bad example” — for a $60 a week mail room job at Fox. He “lived through the death” of the old studio system. Still, it was Hollywood. “I loved it because the lot was very busy.” An old hand at Fox, Hungarian-American filmmaker Andrew Marton, took Landis under his wing. “He very kindly took an interest in me,” Landis said. One day, Landis said, Marton told him, “‘John, if you can get yourself to Yugoslavia, I’m doing second-unit on a movie there called The Warriors (released as Kelly’s Heroes)…intimating a gig as “a gopher or schlepper, they’re now called production assistant,” would be waiting. “So, I told my mother I had the job, which wasn’t really true, and took all the money I had in the world, which was $800, and I bought myself a ticket. Eight-hundred bucks in those days got you to London from L.A.” What came next no one could plan.
“I was so ignorant I thought, Well, Europe’s small. How far can Belgrade be from London? And I got to London and found out. It took me almost 10 days to get to Belgrade. I hitchhiked…that was a saga. Anyway, I got there just as the production arrived. It was an international production…a huge World War II picture with Clint Eastwood and Donald Sutherland. I was very lucky it was so chaotic because I ended up really getting quite a big job eventually. The director, Brian Hutton, was very kind to me and I ended up working on the first unit.
“It was an amazing time for me. I turned 19 on that show and I wrote American Werewolf in London while I was there.”
Nine months overseas duty on one film evolved into a few years in Europe working on a slew of international pics as everything from P.A. to actor to stunt man. As he often says, “I’ve done every job there is to do on a movie set except hairdressing.” For this drop-out, it was a priceless education no film school could offer.
“It was 1969-70 — the Spaghetti Western boom. I worked and lived in Almeria (Spain) for over a year and I worked on, gosh, I’m not exaggerating if I say 75 to 100 films. Mostly Italian, but a lot of German, French, Spanish and American. I did that and then came back to the United States and made my first film, Schlock. It cost $60,000. Thirty thousand of it was all the money I’d made in Europe and the other thirty I raised from relatives and friends.”
His second project as director, Kentucky Fried Movie, got him more attention. He was originally hired by Universal to supervise a rewrite of the Animal House script crafted by Doug Kenney, Chris Miller (National Lampoon Magazine) and Harold Ramis (Second City). “Animal House was a terrific screenplay” but “it had been in gestation for awhile” because, as Landis said, “it was kind of obnoxious. It was really, really funny but it was also misogynous, it was racist, it was very much like fraternities in 1962,” when the story’s set.” In the process of revision, some things were softened and humanized.
“I told the writers, ‘Look, we have to have people we root for. Everyone in the movie can’t be a pig. We have to have clear cut heroes and villains,’” Landis said. “So, the Deltas became the good guys and the Omegas and Dean Wormer the bad guys. It was just basically structural stuff. But the screenplay was very much the work of Doug, Chris and Harold, all of whom were in college in 1962, in fraternities, at three different schools. I’ve heard a lot of colleges and fraternities claim ownership (of the movie), but the truth is Chris Miller was in college at Dartmouth and his fraternity is what Animal House is based on.”
When the script was approved Landis was hired to direct it. He was only 27. “It’s quite something they hired me to do it because, you know, I’d only made Schlockand Kentucky Fried Movie. It was my first studio film,” he said. Going from page to screen proved a battle as the studio balked at the character actors and newcomers, many stage-trained, he assembled. Some parts were written with people in mind. Bluto was always meant for Belushi, whom Landis liked. Otter was to be Chevy Chase but Landis just didn’t see him in the part. D-Day was crafted for Dan Aykroyd, but he couldn’t get out of Saturday Night Live. Landis courtedDragnet’s Jack Webb for Dean Wormer before casting John Vernon, “the only one who had confidence from the very beginning we were going to be a hit.”
“I really felt strongly it would be best to have people you would accept as the character than famous actors who, no matter what they play, are still that actor. I said to the casting director, ‘I want to see every talented young actor there is.’ So we went to New York,” said Landis, who filled out his cast with Broadway, off-Broadway, and L.A. talent “I was hiring actors and they (studio execs) wanted me to hire comedians.” Finally, he said, Universal laid down an ultimatum: “‘If you don’t have a movie star, then forget it — we’re not making the movie.’ The only movie star I knew personally who I could actually say was my friend was Donald Sutherland. He was a big star at that point. I called him and said, ‘Don, can you do me this huge favor?’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘Be in my movie for a day or two.’ And so he did. Doug Kenney wrote the part of Professor Jennings and Donald did a day-and-a-half’s work and that’s how they finally green-lit the picture.”
To instill frat loyalties-rivalries, Landis brought the Deltas to the Eugene, Oregon set a week before shooting. “They bonded…to the point, I’ll never forget, when the Omegas came into the dining room where we were eating I said, ‘Oh, look, those are the Omegas,’ and the entire Delta table starting throwing food,” he said.
Making the movie, he said, “was a very positive experience. We were left totally alone up in Oregon. We were very unimportant to Universal.” So far down the food chain the Chapman crane used to shoot day one of the parade scene was gone day two. The studio sent it back to L.A. for use on the TV series The Incredible Hulk.
He said the freedom he enjoyed on the film mirrored the carte blanch other young directors found in the ‘70s, when the beleaguered studios put their trust in “the long hairs and beards” to rescue them. “If you look at the movies made then, they’re quite remarkable, especially compared to the crap they’re making today. It had a lot to do with respect for the filmmaker.”
He’s fond of the movie for its impact. It spawned imitations. It launched careers. It revived the college Greek system. It introduced phrases like “double secret probation” into the American lexicon. Belushi’s scene-stealing bits boosted Saturday Night Live’s ratings. One downside, Landis said, was getting typed as a comedy director. “I don’t think of myself as a comedy director.” He followed it with a string of hits. “It allowed me to make The Blues Brothers and An American Werewolf in London and all kinds of movies that would never have gotten financed otherwise,” he said. Besides features, he scored as a music video director (Thriller, Black and White) and television producer (Dream On, Weird Science, Sliders).
Then there’s the fact that for this high school drop-out, “Animal House is my college experience,” he said. He feels what he and others respond to in the film is the Deltas’ sweet, silly sense of “brotherhood” and rebellion that runs counter to the Omegas’ and Dean’s pomposity. “I don’t like exclusivity,” Landis said. Party on!
Does he ever wonder how a starry-eyed geek got to be such a big shot? “I know exactly how it happened — a lot of hard work and luck.”
Tickets to the May 19 Animal House event starring Landis are $15 and may be purchased at all Omaha Hy-Vee Supermarkets or at the door the night of the show. For more information call 850-1941.
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