When John Landis visited the Paramount Pictures lot last year, he was surprised to find himself greeted everywhere with a burst of nostalgic warmth. “When the guard waved me in, he said, ‘Good to see you, Mr. Landis, you making a picture here?’ ” Landis recalled the other day. “As I was walking across the lot, people were leaning out of their windows, saying, ‘John, how are you? Are you making a picture here?’ ”
Landis is enough of a film buff to recall the scene in “Sunset Boulevard” in which Gloria Swanson, playing the faded silent movie star desperate for a last hurrah, sweeps into Paramount to make her long-awaited comeback. Savoring the connection, Landis erupts in booming laughter, saying, “I felt just like Norma Desmond!”
He’s entitled to feel a cool shiver of Desmond-like angst these days. In the late 1970s and 1980s, Landis was Hollywood’s reigning comedy king. His 1978 hit, “Animal House,” made John Belushi an instant star and spawned a flood of raunchy comedies that stretch from “Porky’s” to “Police Academy” to “American Pie” and “Old School.” His first hit, 1977’s “The Kentucky Fried Movie,” launched the career of the Zucker brothers. He directed what are arguably Eddie Murphy’s best films, “Trading Places” and “Coming to America.” Landis also did the original “Blues Brothers” film, the influential horror-comedy “An American Werewolf in London,” as well as “Thriller,” a 17-minute music video starring Michael Jackson that was released in 1983 and became a pop music landmark.
How quickly Hollywood turns its back on its old meal tickets. Although he’s only 53, barely older than Swanson when she made “Sunset Boulevard,” Landis is a forgotten man in today’s film business. He worked nonstop for 20 years, his career surviving the 1983 incident in which he was absolved of responsibility for the death of actor Vic Morrow and two small children during the filming of “Twilight Zone: The Movie.” But it has now been six years since he made a studio film and 16 years since he had a real hit with 1988’s “Coming to America.” His most recent film, a low-budget crime thriller called “Susan’s Plan,” went straight to video.
“It’s not me that changed; it’s the studios,” Landis said during a marathon interview, in which he spun colorful tales about his encounters with such directorial icons as Alan Dwan, Ronald Neame and Federico Fellini. “I have no doubt that ‘Animal House’ wouldn’t be made today by a major studio. If you read ‘Animal House’s’ screenplay, it was very prescient and smart, but smart isn’t what they’re doing now. Look at the kind of movies they’re making -- did you see ‘Troy?’ ”
For all his complaints, Landis has no bitterness, just the kind of overwhelming, strong opinions that have earned him a reputation as a “my way or the highway” filmmaker. He almost overwhelms you with his enthusiasm, extolling the joys of everything from “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” (“It’s the American ‘Das Kapital,’ except as a comedy!”) to “Spider-Man 2,” his friend Sam Raimi’s new film, in which Landis has a cameo as a surgeon. When he’s on a roll, his voice booms like a fighter jet crashing the sound barrier. “I’m not the kind of guy to hire if you want to make a franchise picture. If you hire me, I have an opinion, which is why I turned down the last four studio films I was offered. Because they were all bad!”
Landis keeps busy producing TV and shooting commercials. He also edited the 2001 edition of “The Best American Movie Writing,” in which he made room for two pages of vitriolic quotes about critics. But his real breakthrough comes from a new documentary, “Slasher,” now playing on the Independent Film Channel. (It airs tonight at 10:30 and will be available on DVD next month.) Set in Memphis, Tenn., giving Landis the opportunity to employ a wall-to-wall soundtrack of Stax-Volt R&B; hits, it focuses on Michael Bennett, a hard-drinking, fast-talking salesman who is apparently good at only one thing -- selling cars. A hired gun, Bennett flies to Memphis, where he serves as the ringmaster of a carnival-like price-slashing sale for an overstocked auto dealership. Bennett knows every trick in the book, using the offer of an $88 car to lure suckers to the lot, but emerges as a surprisingly sympathetic character, even dutifully calling his wife back home to let her know he’s going out to a strip joint.
As shrewd and socially conscious as it is funny, the film opens with a montage of U.S. presidents telling whoppers to the American people, from “I am not a crook” to “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” “Originally, I was going to use a lot more material showing how Bush used salesmanship and misdirection to sell us a war like a used car,” Landis explains. “But Bennett turned out to be much more complex than I’d imagined. For me, the story was like a cross between ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ and ‘The Music Man.’ ”
Using up to six camera crews with digital equipment, Landis discovered that making a documentary is radically different from shooting a feature. “When you make a narrative film, everyone’s energy is focused on serving the director’s vision, on getting me the moment that I want. With a documentary, you shoot everything! In order to get the great moments, you have to get all the moments!”
No one exhibited the slightest concern about appearing on camera, even the denizens of the strip joint where Bennett and his cronies go to unwind. “Our producer talked to the manager and told him it was a John Landis movie, and they said, ‘Oh, no problem,’ ” Landis explains. “We got into a couple of places using the Landis thing. I guess I have more cachet in Memphis than anywhere, certainly than in L.A.”
In Hollywood, if you’re a director of a certain age -- say over 50 -- who’s made several failed films and has a reputation for being difficult, you end up in movie jail. Studio chiefs would rather take a shot on a rookie video director with a reel of hip commercials who’s so happy to get the job that he’ll work for peanuts and follow the studio’s orders.
“This is the same town that wouldn’t hire Orson Welles or Billy Wilder when they stopped having success,” says director Joe Dante, a Landis pal who was in movie jail himself before making “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” last year. “You’re only good as long as you make them money. If you don’t, you’re yesterday’s potatoes. Let’s face it: If they could figure out how to make movies without directors, they’d do it.”
As a comedy director, Landis has an especially difficult comeback path. More than any other genre, comedy is geared to young audiences, encouraging studios to seek out younger directors. And today’s comedy stars, most notably Adam Sandler, rarely work with directors who will challenge their comic vision. As one Sandler associate once put it, when a director works with Adam, his main job is to say, “That was funny. Do you want to shoot it again?”
Landis blames much of his reputation for being mercurial on the media’s “Twilight Zone” trial coverage, which portrayed him as arrogant and imperious. But he deserves ample blame himself -- he has no sense of politesse. When he bumped into New York Times critic A.O. Scott at a film festival this month, instead of currying favor, as most industry people would, Landis complained: “Why did you write such a hateful review of ‘Garfield?’ ” At lunch, when the subject of L.A.Times critics came up, Landis snapped: “I haven’t read your paper in 20 years.”
“John’s gotten mellower as he’s gotten older,” says manager Bernie Brillstein, who produced “The Blues Brothers.” “But he got so hot so quick that he thought he’d invented show business. People were just waiting for him to fail.” Brian Grazer, who produced the 1985 Landis film “Spies Like Us,” recalls “the minute I hired John, he told me, ‘If you insist on being the producer, you can’t ever be on the set.’ So I hired him, and he fired me. He’s very talented, but he’s intractable.”
On the other hand, “Coming to America” screenwriter Barry Blaustein remembers Landis being totally collaborative. “He never said, ‘I’m the director, stay out of my business.’ If he had to go see the head of the studio, he’d say, ‘Guys, come with me, it’ll be fun.’ ” As Dante puts it: “John is a very brash, opinionated guy, and it comes out in his movies. To me, it’s not a badge of shame to have strong opinions.”
Landis insists that he’s not unemployable -- he simply spurns offers because he can’t stomach the scripts. “I just turned down a project the other day,” he says. “And all they did was offer me more money!” At least no one can accuse Landis of losing his sense of humor, even about himself. When the director became famous, he visited Fellini, who understood little English but was a big fan of “The Blues Brothers.” After a long lunch with the maestro, Landis’ wife told him, “I finally understand the key to appreciating your work. It’s imperative that you don’t speak English.”
The Big Picture appears Tuesdays in Calendar. Reactions, responses and suggestions can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.