OWF Exclusive Interview: John Landis on BURKE & HARE

Announces his Simon Pegg/Andy Serkis horror comedy is set for an Oct. 22nd U.K. release.

(interview originally published in July, re-posted because of 'Burke & Hare's' release on Friday) Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to chat with the legendary director John Landis ('American Werewolf in London', 'Animal House'). I first met John whilst working in his pre-production office as an intern on his new movie and found him very accommodating and a great teacher, even for the short time we worked together. His passion for making movies is infectious and I hope you find the lengthy interview that follows interesting and entertaining, despite the occasional ramblings and slips into a conversational tone. Topics covered include his forthcoming movie 'Burke and Hare', the poor state of the British Film Industry, 'Inception' and a number of other things in between. Ross Peacock: Hi John, so how's the film coming along? John Landis:
Oh its fine I mean we did the scoring last week, Joby Talbot, whos a really gifted british composer, , Yes one of the original guys in 'The Divine Comedy' but he€™s classically trained and hes been commissioned by the Royal Ballet to write several pieces, erm he€™s doing 'Alice in Wonderland' actually next year. He€™s terrific and the score is, well, we are very very happy with it. It's unusual, I mean its movie music but with a lot of bagpipes, you know, and I€™m happy with it.
Something a bit different then?
Well its correct for the film
So, of all the films we've heard you were circling in the 12 years since your last feature, why 'Burke & Hare'?
I did this film because I really liked the script, and I thought that the screenplay by Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft was funny, it just, it takes a true story of rather reprehensible people, Burke and Hare, and tells it in a very unusual way, in that it makes them sympathetic, and just the whole challenge of taking you know Charles Manson and turning him into Cindy Crawford, and I quite liked it. Also its fairly romantic, it€™s a black comedy, but its humble, its got two very strong love stories, and slapstick, and wonderful actors and I€™m very happy with it.
So when I say to somebody you are making a film about two killers basically, they€™re gonna instantly think you€™re making a horror film or at least a horror comedy. Would you think that was a correct idea of the film or not?
No, it€™s not a horror film I think if people go to think it€™s a horror film they will be disappointed. It certainly has elements of the macabre, I mean it€™s about, you know, dissection and grave robbing and murder, so it deals with the medical profession in 1828 in Edinburgh, Scotland. And as you know it€™s a true story although we do obviously take some liberties, and its just taking these historical characters and creating some fiction around them. But its not a horror film, you know people think they€™re gonna get scared they€™re wrong what they€™re gonna do is laugh and have a good time.
Its quite a cast you€™ve assembled, you have some great British talent, vets, newcomers and everything in between, could you take a second to talk about that?
Well Simon Pegg plays William Burke and Andy Serkis plays William Hare, Tom Wilkinson plays Doctor Knox, Tim Curry plays Doctor Monroe, Isla Fisher, Ginny Hawkins, who€™s kind of a, she describes herself as a showgirl (big laugh), she is a very ambitious young actress who starts exploiting William Burke, Simon€™s character just falls madly in love with her, and she leads him on for a bit to get money out of him to produce a play but in fact does fall in love with him. And Andy Serkis€™ character William Burke, I€™m sorry, William Hare, is married to his wife Lucky played by the wonderful Jessica Hynes, and he€™s absolutely crazy about her and at worst she becomes involved in the crimes. There€™s, someone sent me an email the other day which really made me laugh which was an article that was somewhere announcing, it was British, somewhere they were talking about the cast of Burke and Hare, and one of the public wrote this irate, obviously a Scottish guy, wrote this irate response where he said €œwhy did they cast Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis to play Scots its outrageous why don€™t they use Scottish actors€ I guess the guy was unaware that Burke and Hare were Irish.
Haha, that's a really great story. How, just to go into the film itself, obviously you€™ve got the opportunity to go really dark with this, but then like you say it€™s partly a romantic comedy as well, how dark do you think the film or the story is really the way you€™ve portrayed it?
Well the story is certainly dark; I mean it€™s about murdering people to sell their bodies to medical schools for dissection. Its interesting in the UK when you mention Burke and Hare most people think immediately of grave robbing, in fact they never really robbed a grave they just killed people, I don't know they didn€™t get their hands dirty that way. The doctors obviously wanted the freshest corpse possible for which they could use to search and teach anatomy and medicine. It€™s quite a real fascinating time in medicine and in Scotland, Edinburgh was the medical capital of the world at that point, the finest teaching institutions in the world, and it paid a price for it. Because, ya know, you cannot teach medicine without cadavers, I mean the doctor eventually has to cut into real flesh. You don€™t want someone who learned on computers to perform surgery on you do you?
So really they are sympathetic characters-
Well in this movie they are extremely sympathetic, but they are bad guys. I mean what I like, sort of my take on it is they are the evil Laurel and Hardy, because they are very sweet and they€™re very funny and well meaning but they are business men. Simon€™s character Burke has much more of a conscience, he is terribly tortured by what they are doing but for Hare, who€™s not immoral as much as amoral, its business, its just capitalism and, er, I mean even Doctor Knox, I mean Doctor Knox€™s motives were not, it€™s a sinister thing but he was not an evil man. It€™s difficult, you know it€™s an interesting moral quandary, and the murders I mean there€™s no quandary that€™s up front wrong and they, they know it. It€™s a delicate line we€™re walking I€™m trying to honour the Ealing tradition of Ealing black comedy, of course Kind Hearts and Coronets is the one that pops to mind. That€™s the movie which Dennis Price is a serial killer, and he€™s our hero. And you have The Ladykillers, in which Alec Guiness, I mean everybody in that movie ends up murdering one another by the end, and these are comedies (big laughs)! It€™s an unusual picture, its beautiful, looking at what time is it now? I€™m going to Technicolour in a half hour. My DP was John Mathieson who€™s marvellous, and my production designer was Simon Elliott, and this guy is so gifted, and my wife Deborah Nadoolman designed the costumes. The movie is gorgeous and I don€™t think people are prepared for quite the handsome production they€™re gonna get.
One thing when I a cut of the unfinished movie, it felt like you were embracing the macabre and the style whilst also keeping the grit of the world, which I felt worked fantastically.
Well thank you, ya know the version you saw was, is not the finished movie, I think we€™ve cut quite a bit of it since you€™ve seen it, how long was it when you saw it?
It was fairly long, and there were obviously lots of bits without music and things-
Yeah you saw an early assembly its now about 99 minutes, very tight, and we start the final mix on Saturday and we scored last week and I€™m thrilled with the production I mean its a really great looking picture, beautifully photographed. So what you saw was just what€™s called an avid output (laughs), the digital dailies on which you€™re cutting but the film itself is lovely.
Well it worked at that level so I€™m excited to see it again
Good great I€™m so pleased you liked it.
So to go quickly from there, obviously this is an Ealing studios film, how do you like working in the British film industry? Seeing as you€™ve done that before.
Well the British film industry is kind of in disarray, I don€™t know how much British film industry there is, it€™s more like individual companies, but there really isn€™t a British film industry at this time, like in the old days when you had lots of English studios producing lots of wonderful movies most of what goes on here is American studio products produced in the UK for whatever reason. Harry Potter is British as it is but it€™s in reality a Warner Brothers picture.
So to go from there then obviously you haven€™t made a film for a large amount of time-
That€™s not true I haven€™t made what you call a narrative movie where it€™s like a €˜movie€™ movie like this in quite a long time but I€™ve certainly made a lot of movies I haven€™t stopped working (laughs) I€™ve made a lot of films some of which unfortunately never played in the UK. I€™ve been making some documentaries, I made a film called Slasher, about, that€™s not a horror film either that€™s about a car salesman and that€™s a documentary about a car salesman, and I€™m very proud of that, that€™s a feature film. And I made a feature documentary about an American entertainer named Don Rickles called Mr Warmth, I guess it won€™t play the UK, but I€™m thrilled with that that€™s a wonderful piece, and very funny, that will make you cry with laughter. That had the greatest cast ever, I mean everyone from, Clint Eastwood, to Sydney Poitier, to Chris Rock and Sarah Silverman. I mean People like Robin Williams, Marty Scorsese, you know Robert De Niro and Joan Rivers! It€™s the wildest group of people ever its very funny and I€™m proud of it. You can get it on amazon.com.
I€™m very interested to see it.
You€™re right I haven€™t made a Hollywood or what you call a €˜movie€™ movie in many years because I was fairly burnt by my last studio experience which was Blues Brothers 2000 that was my first experience with the new movie business. You know, almost all movie companies now, certainly the majors, are tiny subdivisions of a huge multi-national corporation, and the bottom line has changed in a very real way, and it is reflected in the product, and it was just a very weird, I mean they, they destroyed the movie and it was just kind of a depressing experience and I thought €œshit I don€™t need this€ (laughs) so I walked away and did a lot of television and documentary. But I love making movies and I kind of missed it so I came back and I was looking for stuff, and I am offered films but I€™m really offered, I think someone goes €œjeez this is bad, lets offer it to John Landis!€ I mean the majority of stuff that I€™m sent are really terrible and because I€™ve had success in horror films and in comedies and in musicals that€™s what I€™m offered, ya know: musical comedy horror films, I mean you know, the level of quality in those genres is clearly low at the moment.
It sounds like you€™ve had a lot of success with your documentaries and it sounds like you want to move away from horror and comedy-
No, no don€™t misunderstand me! I absolutely love comedy and I love horror but you know directors get typed just like actors and when you have success with something that€™s what they want you to do, and its very kind of demoralising I mean you know what I love? Westerns. I worked on many as crew and as stunts but I only directed really one and that was a comedy, Three Amigos, but it was a Western. Do you know the American director Walter Hill?
Yeah, definitely, The Long Riders.
Walter said a great thing to me; he said, €œIf they knew how much fun it was to make a Western they wouldn€™t let us!€ It€™s just the greatest and, you know, I have to wait for someone to make another, I mean the last hit Western I think was Unforgiven. Until someone makes ya know someone makes a western that works, they just made this terrible movie Jonah Hex? And that tanked and so therefore people don€™t see good Westerns, which is sad, which of course, they€™re not very creative thinkers.
I think they€™ve tried recently it just hasn€™t taken off, if you saw the recent Jesse James that was a fantastic western.
That was a wonderful western.
It just wasn€™t a studio film.
I thought what€™s his name?
Andrew Dominik?
No the actor?
Brad Pitt?
No the other one?
Casey Affleck.
Yeah that was an amazing performance, I thought he was great.
Did you see The Killer Inside Me?
No actually I hear it€™s kind of interesting but I don€™t really wanna watch Jessica Alba beaten to death.
Er, it is very dark, but he€™s fantastic in it. But if that€™s why you don€™t want to watch it then you really don€™t wanna watch it!
I€™m sure.
It€™s not a €˜nice€™ film.
It€™s not a good date movie! (laughs)
Quickly then just to tie this up is there anywhere you wanna go from here? Having made the documentaries and the films?
I like making films, I even like making commercials, it€™s easy but I enjoy shooting and I enjoy the process. I have films I desperately want to make the problem is my taste is kind of au trere and what happens is, I was very lucky that I got to make kind of mainstream movies. Of course people forget when something is terribly successful it is instantly co-opted, it becomes mainstream. I mean the best example I can think of, you€™re too young, but you know Rock and Roll was race music it was the devil€™s music and within three years it was a huge international conglomerate business. You know as soon as something is popular, it makes money, it€™s mainstream. So I€™ve been very lucky to make over the years some pretty wacky pictures but because they were big hits and there were so many copies of them I don€™t think people realise how radical they were at the time (laughs). But you know its expensive to make a movie so I, you know, people have to give you money and the only reason they give you money is because they think you€™ll make them money. And it€™s a time of very little imagination and courage in the film business, so I was just thrilled when Barnaby Thompson at Ealing offered me this script.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r8SOMa09X4w Which turned out very well hopefully!
I think so, we€™ll find out! One of the great crazy making things for filmmakers is the only real test. Peter Bogdanovich famously said the only true test of a movie is time, well that€™s true but the only real test of a movie in terms of the industry in terms of the business is box office. So Transformers 2 is you know, a brilliant film! (Laughs) It€™s a piece of shit but it made a fortune which means the director gets to continue to make movies and basically you€™re allowed to make movies until they don€™t think you€™ll make them money anymore. So very often when you make a film you think this is the right decision aesthetically and the right decision for the film but maybe it€™s the wrong decision for the box office and you become compromised, and it€™s tough.
It€™s interesting that Inception is original and done so well and you can just imagine the studios saying €œthat€™s so original, lets copy that!€
Well interestingly enough Inception, which is wonderful, is not original. There have been a lot of movies like it; remember Dreamscape? Oh that€™s bad special effects but almost the same movie. It€™s Dennis Quaid and Edward Albert is the president of the United States and they insert him into his dreams. Ya know, I think, don€™t misunderstand me I think Christopher Nolan is a wonderful director its just I don€™t think he is yet to make a movie other than Memento that I thought was really original, its just very stylish.
I think its just seeing something that€™s not based on anything else in the box office has now become a novelty.
Well yeah and he€™s coming off giant hits plus he has Leonardo DiCaprio so he had some protection to do what he wants. He€™s a lucky guy, I€™m glad for him; I love the fact that he can continue to make his movies. Whether he makes a couple of unsuccessful ones in a row, he€™ll be in the same situation as everybody else (laughs). More power to him I like smart filmmakers and I think he€™s great.
I wish you all the best with the film like I said I saw it and loved it.
I€™m so pleased, I€™m glad. It must be interesting for you because you were in the office in pre-production.
Yeah it€™s been a bit of an experience seeing it kind of at the very beginning to hopefully to the very end at the cinema. Seeing it being cast etc was a great experience. And obviously it wasn€™t just me in the room that day it was a very overall positive response. I€™m excited to see where it goes.
Well it€™s an unusual picture and all the things I like about it are all the things that makes everybody very nervous (big laughs) you know! And I do think the acting is just wonderful, Simon and Isla and Andy, I mean they€™re all so sympathetic and sweet and, we€™ll see, keep your fingers crossed.
Please keep Tim Curry cutting open the leg!
Wasn€™t he wonderful?
And Andy Serkis as well really surprised me I have to say.
Oh did he? You know what€™s interesting Andy€™s never played a truly sympathetic character before. He€™s always played these grotesques, not just Gollum, but even when he€™s on screen he€™s you know Ian Drury or Fagin or somebody or Bill Sykes, he€™s rarely a really sympathetic guy. I have to say he€™s a wonderful actor. Did you ever see Topsy Turvy?
I haven€™t actually€
Oh it€™s terrific, that€™s a terrific movie! But in Topsy Turvy I didn€™t even realise Andy was the guy! He€™s the very gay French choreographer and I didn€™t even realise that. I had to go back and watch it and went €œoh my God, it is!€ So he€™s quite the chameleon.
It is a wonderful cast. So when are you looking to release the film?
It opens in the UK I think on October 22nd but I know, I know in October. It opens in different times in other countries so I don€™t know, but that one I know!
Its like the classic Ealing comedies, you have all the friendly British faces appearing now and again. So it should work here I think.
I hope so, I mean, it€™s filled with very famous people in England, wonderful performances. But a lot of them are not known, like Paul Whitehouse and people like that, in America they don€™t know them, but they€™re great. And of course Ronnie Corbett was a treat!
I was jealous€
Alright Ross, I€™m gonna have to get out of here.
Okay, I wont keep you any longer!
Thanks Ross, bye now.
'Burke and Hare' opens in the U.K. on Friday.
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Ross Peacock hasn't written a bio just yet, but if they had... it would appear here.