A Day with John Landis at DIFF 2015
By Sam Iannuzzi
Last Saturday, April 18, during the 2015 Dallas International Film Festival, movie icon and award-winning director (and all-around nice guy) John Landis had no trouble remembering the defining moment when he knew film would become his life’s work.
“I saw a movie called the 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD when I was eight and had an epiphany,” Landis told the audience at the Dallas International Film Festival’s panel discussion at the Dallas Museum of Art. “I saw the movie and had a complete suspension of disbelief. I said to my mom, who does that and my mother said, ‘the director’; I knew from when I was 8-years-old what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I was driven.”
That drive led to an amazing journey that made Landis one of the most impactful directors of his time with classic films ANIMAL HOUSE, THE BLUES BROTHERS, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, TRADING PLACES, THREE AMIGOS, and COMING TO AMERICA, to name a few. Landis also directed the groundbreaking music video for pop legend Michael Jackson’s mega hit ‘Thriller,’ which totally changed the way music videos were made and distributed.
Landis came to Dallas with his wife, Academy Award nominated costume designer, Deborah Nadoolman (RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, ANIMAL HOUSE, THE BLUES BROTHERS), as a 2015 Dallas Star Award recipient.
Besides attending the 2015 Dallas Film Society Honors Award ceremony, which included a surprise appearance by his son Max, Landis spent an afternoon at the Dallas Museum of Art recounting his early days in Hollywood and his life as a filmmaker at a panel discussion moderated by Dallas Morning News film critic Chris Vogar.
Landis capped his time at DIFF by appearing at a special showing of The Blues Brothers at the Texas Theater, where he introduced the film and took part in a question and answer session, moderated by Robert Wilonsky of the Dallas Morning News, following the screening.
Right about the same time as his childhood epiphany, Landis’ family moved from his native Chicago to the Westwood section of Los Angeles. Although his own parents were not in the movie business, many of Landis’ friends had parents were writers and producers, which gave him access to movie lots. When he was 16, he got a job in the mailroom at Fox. He dropped out of high school.
“It was a dream job for me, not the mailroom, but being on the lot at Fox because they were making pictures, a lot of pictures,” gushed Landis at the memory.
The job in the mailroom led to a variety of jobs in and around motion pictures. As an 18 year-old, he went to Europe to work as a production assistant on Kelly’s Heroes. He stayed in Europe and worked as an extra, stunt man and actor. He returned to the U.S. in 1973 and made his first film Schlock at age 21. IMBd offers the following synopsis of Schlock: “In John Landis’ directorial debut, he plays a prehistoric gorilla who gets loose and kidnaps a blind woman, thereby making a mess of the entire city.”
He later connected with brothers Jerry and David Zucker and their partner Jim Abrhams, the trio responsible for Airplane!, which led to his next film Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), a sketch comedy based on the trio’s Kentucky Fried Theater comedy troupe. The next year he made the movie that would launch him to international fame, Animal House with breakout star John Belushi.
In the meantime, Landis collaborated with Dan Ackroyd, Belushi’s SNL cast mate, to write the script for The Blues Brothers, which was released in 1980. During the post screening question and answer session, Landis talked about the challenges of making a movie about the Blues during the height of the disco era. Aside from Belushi, and Ackroyd, the cast consisted of Blues legends Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, Cab Calloway and James Brown.
“Exhibitors felt that no white people would come to see it. Music at that time all Abba and the Bee Gees, we were told to forget the road show” remembers Landis.
Landis originally shot it as two movies but was convinced to pare it “down” to one 133 minute film. Among the stars who had cameos in the film were singers Chaka Kahn and Stephen Bishop, Joe Walsh of the rock group The Eagles, Paul Ruebens (Pee Wee Herman), fellow director Steven Spielberg, as the County Clerk, and Landis himself as Trooper LaFong.
In 1981, Landis broke free from the strictly comedy genre to make the horror classic, An American Werewolf in London.
“Regardless of genre, the director’s job is the same. If it’s a $260 million, or if it’s a $12,000 movie, if it’s 10,000 extras or three, the director’s job is identical,“ said Landis. “The director’s job is always the same, ‘you put the camera there, you guys do this’. Comedy director or horror director, it’s the same job. William Wyler, who directed Yankee Doodle Dandy and The Best Year of Our Lives, directed over 200 silent westerns but you wouldn’t think of him as a western director.”
Tributes like the Dallas Star Award and descriptions like “legendary” are not favorites of Landis because “it makes it sound like I’m dead!” he said he makes exceptions when it comes to events like DIFF that he feels are good for films and filmmakers.
“The reason I’m here is . . . I totally support film festivals,” said Landis. “The great irony is that as the technology makes it easier to make motions pictures than it ever has been, the harder it is to get in front of an audience. I’m not talking about You Tube. I’m talking about getting it in front of people in a theater with an audience. It’s so difficult now.”
Immediately following the screening a Blues Brother’s Tribute Band Performed at the Texas Theatre After Party.
Can’t get enough of John Landis? Hear more from the 2015 Dallas Star Award Honoree in our DIFF Studio Interview:
DALLAS STAR AWARDS
Lone Star State legend and influential writer, actor and producer Carson first gained recognition as creator of the mockumentary, DAVID HOLZMAN’s DIARY (1968), and co-wrote PARIS, TEXAS (1984).
Danner is well regarded for her roles in films such as MEET THE PARENTS and THE GREAT SANTINI. The Emmy-winning and Golden Globe-nominated actress is alos know for her work on television shows such as Will & Grace and Huff.
A director for more than 40 years, Landis' films include NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE (1980), THE BLUES BROTHERS (1978) and AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981).
Learn more about the honorees
Presented by REEL FX
Phil Lord and Chris Miller are the prolific writing and directing duo behind some of today’s most successful comedy films including, THE LEGO MOVIE, 21 & 22 JUMP STREET and CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS.
Learn more about the honorees