The Man With Susan's Plan
Since his directorial debut with the displaced ape-man comedy Schlock! (which featured the director in the title role), John Landis has been a singular American filmmaker, deftly mixing his love of the fantastic with outright comedy and the occasional touch of genuine pathos. His characters and stories tend to exist in a nearly surreal state of cartoonish overkill (Animal House, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London) or outright vaudevillian chutzpah (TheKentucky Fried Movie, The Stupids), but whatever the specific case, Landis' films thrive on a goonily skewed moral logic that lies at the heart of his work (witness Jake and Elwood's "We're on a mission from God" Blues Brothers statement. Were there ever two more noble miscreants in film history?).
Beginning his career as an independent filmmaker, Landis' success quickly propelled him to the top of the Hollywood heap, though with his newest film, Susan's Plan, he's returned to his previous indie status, making what he calls a "small film without all the usual explosions." I met with the director this April while he was appearing as part of a career retrospective, hosted by College Entertainment Organization and the San Antonio Film Festival, and spoke with him about his work in Hollywood and elsewhere, the wobbly state of indie filmmaking today, and the mystery of "See you next Wednesday," that heretofore unexplained Landis catch phrase that has puzzled so many viewers.
Austin Chronicle:Can you recall your "first film" experience?
John Landis: I'm not sure what the first film I saw as a kid was, but I do know that when I was eight years old I saw The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad at the Crest Theater on Westwood Boulevard and I just went nuts. You know in the literature they call it "suspension of disbelief?" I was there! So I went home and asked my mother who makes the movie, and she said the director. So that's all I wanted to do from that point on. A lot of people are in college and still don't know what they want to do, but I had a big advantage which was that I knew exactly what I wanted to do. From the time I was eight I was obsessed.
AC:I take it you made a number of Super-8 productions when you were young, right?
JL: Of course! Not Super-8, though, 8mm. I grew up in L.A. so I sought out filmmakers and so on.
AC:Was it you who wrote in to Forest Ackerman's Famous Monsters of Filmland and got the letter published?
JL: That was Joe Dante, but you know who else did that? Do you know who published his first story in Famous Monsters?
JL: Right. You know, Famous Monsters was incredible; it had this tremendous influence on everybody, Steven Spielberg, just everybody.
AC:Is if fair to say that you came out of Roger Corman's group of filmmakers? I know you were in some of his late-Sixties pictures.
JL: Not really. I'm younger than that. I worked for Roger on Death Race 2000 and did some stunts in that and worked on a bunch of other things, but I never was really a part of Corman's group.
AC:How did you get started in the industry then?
JL: When I was old enough -- at 17 -- I got a job as a mailboy at 20th Century Fox, and I worked there for about a year. The first movie I had a job on was Catch-22 in Mexico. I was only second unit, so after six weeks of sitting in the belly of a B-25 going "Banderas rojas!" I quit and went back to the mailroom. After that, though, I got a job on a film called Kelly's Heroes, and that was a great experience. That was the summer I turned 19, and it was great. I was a flunky -- now they call them PAs -- but really I was a gofer. After that I went to Spain because that's where the Spaghetti boom was and worked on many movies over there: Italian, French, German, Spanish, you name it, everything from The Charge of the Light Brigade to A Town Called Bastard. I acted quite a bit, and I did well as a writer, but after two years I came back to L.A. and did my first film as a director -- Schlock! -- in 1971. When I read about me they always say "He made his first movie at 21." Yeah, well what they don't tell you is that they made my second and third movie when I was 27. There were six years there where I parked a lot of cars.
AC:You began your career as an independent filmmaker and then moved into the mainstream Hollywood system with Animal House, and now with Susan's Plan you're back to independent. That's an interesting career arc you've got going.
JL: Well, I'm making a picture for New Line now which is, I guess, Time Warner. It's really interesting, though, because people don't realize this but it was much healthier back then. Working on independent films, you had a lot more going for you 20 years ago than you do now because then, when I made Schlock! or The Kentucky Fried Movie, there was AIP, Crown International, Joe Solomon, Joe Levine, Avco, New World, there were all these exploitation houses. Now, all the so-called independent producers are really the majors.
JL: Miramax is Disney! Fine Line is New Line which is Time Warner, October is Seagrams [now Barry Diller's USA Films], Sony Classics is Sony. There are really many fewer outlets for independent films now than there used to be. It kind of sucks.
AC:Do you prefer working independently?
JL: I don't care where the money comes from quite honestly. It's all about the money. What's happened is that if you make a movie for Paramount or Warner Bros. or Universal or Disney, they're all just banks. I mean, in the old days, there used to be a studio style and they were factories that had real personalities. These days, forget about it! They're just distribution outlets now. So it really makes no difference where the money comes from.
AC:Is it easier for you to maintain control of your work on independents as opposed to studio work, or is that not a factor to you?
JL: Well, I've been lucky. I've had success so I have a modicum of creative control at the majors. What happens, though, is that on my independent film, Susan's Plan, I was fooled into thinking that I could make noncommercial choices. I actually made a lot of choices knowing that these aren't the choices the audience is going to want me to make, but they're the right ones for the film. All filmmakers are schizophrenic -- and people who write about film, too -- because do you want to make a successful film, meaning that it makes a lot of money, or do you want to make a good movie, meaning that it ... doesn't.
AC:And to stay true to your artistic compass.
JL: Well, it's very difficult, because as you know, being successful just means that you're successful. It doesn't mean you're good. And being unsuccessful doesn't mean you're bad. It's a crazy-making process. And on Susan's Plan we actually just sold it -- it's playing theatrically in 51 countries around the world but in the U.S. it's going to end up on Cinemax.
JL: Because it takes so much money to open a film now. To open any film nationally, you have to spend at least $10 million, and often three or four times as much. A famous example is Four Weddings and a Funeral: That cost $4 million and Miramax spent $21 million opening it. So the cost of exploitation now is so huge that people don't want to take the risk.
AC:Why do you think that is?
JL: There are many factors in this. One of them is the fact that Hollywood has totally changed within the last eight years. It's a different business. It's now multinational corporations. When I made Animal House for Universal it was a publicly held company, but it was Lew Wasserman's company, right? Now it's this sort of subdivision of Seagrams and the studios now have become small. 20th Century Fox is a small part of News Corp. Sony, Columbia, Tri-Star, they're all teenie-weenie pieces of Sony. So the bottom line has become very different. Now you're on a corporate ledger, and that's reflected in the product, by the way.
AC:Which of course ties into Hollywood's much-maligned blockbuster mentality.
JL: Oh sure! The star system's back in a big way, too. When I started back in the Seventies, the studios were much more interested in a good script. Now they're interested in "Who can we get? Who can we attract to this project?" I've made a career of working with people who were just starting out, and then suddenly, you can't do that unless you're working independent. And even if you're working independent, they've got the star system. They'll say, "Can you get --"
AC:"-- Steve Buscemi!"
AC:Horror-comedies seem to be a bit of a specialty of yours.
JL: I don't know if they're a specialty of mine.
AC: Schlock!, An American Werewolf in London ...
JL: Well, Schlock! is a silly movie, and I don't consider An American Werewolf to be a comedy at all, really.
AC:Certainly it has its comic elements to it, right?
JL: It's very funny, but it's pretty horrific, too. What's interesting is that American Werewolf had such tremendous impact. It was very influential, and this ultimately goes into Scream, where the logic is that "We're making a horror film, but not really." Wink-wink, nudge-nudge, right? But Joe Dante and a lot of people like that have been deconstructionist in their work.
AC:Here's the $24,000 question for you: What's the relevance of the phrase, "See you next Wednesday?" It's the "Where's Waldo?" of John Landis films and has cropped up in various permutations in five or six of your pictures. What the hell is that, anyway?
JL: [laughing] "See you next Wednesday" is a line of dialogue from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I wrote a script that took that as its title. I wrote it when I was a kid and it never saw the light of day, but any time I cannibalize that script, as in taking a joke or an idea or a sequence from it -- it's a terrible script but it's full of good ideas -- I'll credit it in the movie. But that's only when I use it; it's not in all of them. People just started noticing this three or four years ago and then, you know, I feel bad because the explanation is so pedestrian, you want some cool answer, but hey, that's it.
AC:We'll all sleep better tonight, John. Let's talk a little bit about the show you developed for HBO, Dream On, which to my way of thinking stands out as one of the most original weekly television programs of all time. How did that come about?
JL: I had a bungalow at Universal since Blues Brothers (in fact they tore it down to build the "Jurassic Park: The Ride," which is why I'm at Century City now). I never had to deal with Universal, though. Out of that office I made movies for Warner Bros., Disney, Paramount, PolyGram, and then one day I got a call from Sid Sheinberg, who said, "I want you to do me a favor." It turned out that MCA in the Fifties had all these anthology television series like General Electric, Heinz 57 Playhouse, Jane Wyman Presents, and so on, and they were usually half-hour, black-and-white-film shows, and Sid, who now owned them, was basically wanting to know how he could make money with them. The problem was that most of it was melodrama, most of it was not all that good, but it featured all these terrific actors: Gloria Swanson, Groucho Marx, Abbott and Costello, Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, Tony Curtis, Steve McQueen, Bob Redford ... it was unbelievable!
So I finally figured out, hey, thought balloons, and then hired the writers Marta Kaufman and David Crain (who are now billionaires) to come up with the situation and the characters, and that was pretty much it. I worked on that for seven years and and made about 140 of them, of which I directed about 35 or 40. It was really fun. I had a unique thing, too, which was that I had complete creative control. At the time I didn't realize how unique that was, so it was fun for me and I really enjoyed it.
AC:The new film: Susan's Plan. Tell me a little bit about how that came into being.
JL: It's a pretty classic premise. A woman, Nastassja Kinski, conspires with her lover, Billy Zane, to murder her ex-husband for money, basically. They enlist these two morons, played by Rob Schneider and Michael Biehn, who fuck it up, and then it becomes an ever-growing conspiracy to try and kill this guy. It's a movie where some of the actors really got to do things they hadn't done before. Lara Flynn Boyle is the revelation here, she is not only amazingly sexy, but so funny.
AC:Sounds like a pretty atypical John Landis film.
JL: Well, I wanted to make a movie with no special effects, with no big crowd scenes; I wanted to make it small. We shot it in 20 days, and it was really a fun thing to do. It's challenging, though. It's not what I think people are going to expect it to be. Some of it's very funny but it's not a comedy. Again!
Susan's Plan debuts on Cinemax this September.