Dialogue: John Landis on 'Three Amigos,' Singing Bushes, 'American Werewolf' Remake and Why Horror and Comedy Are Alike

Dialogue: John Landis on 'Three Amigos,' Singing Bushes, 'American Werewolf' Remake and Why Horror and Comedy Are Alike

Nov 22, 2011

Whether you laugh or scream while watching his movies, John Landis loves an honest gut reaction. The 61-year-old director of National Lampoon's Animal House, The Blues Brothers, American Werewolf in London, Trading Places and Innocent Blood has happily walked the fine line between horror and comedy since his debut with the low-budget 1973 satire Schlock.

One of Landis's most loved comedies is 1986's ¡Three Amigos!, which stars Martin Short, Chevy Chase and Steve Martin as three silent-film actors who mistakenly get bamboozled into fighting for a small Mexican village that is being oppressed by a gang of thugs. ¡Three Amigos! makes its Blu-ray debut on November 22 and includes deleted scenes, interviews and a booklet featuring dialogue from a recent reunion between Landis and his three leading men.

We sat down with the affable director as he reflected on the 25th anniversary of ¡Three Amigos!, why remakes of his films can be a "win-win" situation, and why switching gears between comedy and horror is so effortless to him.

Movies.com: Even though ¡Three Amigos! wasn't a huge blockbuster, people still have affection for it 25 years later. What is it about the film that has legs?

Landis: I just think it is entertaining. It's fun, so when something is funny and entertaining it lasts.

Movies.com: What was the silliest thing Steve Martin, Martin Short or Chevy Chase improvised on the set that you kept in?

Well, in terms of improvisation, I tend to do that in rehearsal. I remember there were things that were funny to me. Probably the funniest moment for me when shooting was when I had the Three Amigos on horseback in the desert and I was shooting while they were wearing those ridiculous outfits and after having been shooting for three weeks, Chevy objected to a line of dialogue and he said, "I don't think I should say this." And, remember, Chevy plays a character named Dusty Bottoms. So I said, "Well, why not?" He said, "Because my character would have to be a moron to say this." All I could think was, What movie has Chevy been making? So I said, "OK, I'll give it to Marty because it's a laugh." Then Chevy said, "I'll say it!" It's one of my favorite moments with an actor.

Movies.com: Are some of your favorite cut scenes included on the Blu-ray?

Landis: There are 20 minutes of deleted scenes on the Blu-ray and the only scenes that are not included are the one scene with Fran Drescher and one scene with Sam Kinison. Those were cut after the first preview for length.

Movies.com: Whose idea was the singing bush and was that really Randy Newman singing?

Landis: That was Randy singing and that was in the screenplay, which was written by Steven Martin, Lorne Michaels and Randy Newman. I guess that is from the Old Testament. Doesn't Moses talk to the singing bush or some kind of bush? It struck me funny when I read it and I thought, How ridiculous can I make this look? There were huge discussions about whether or not it should be animated or if we should see its lips moving. I said, "Bushes don't have lips! I'm just going to make it look as ridiculous as possible."

Movies.com: If forced to in a social situation, could you still do the Amigo salute?

Landis: I think I could, yeah. We made up that salute on the first day and that was a group effort from the three guys. I forget who added the cough at the end.

Movies.com: Does it irk you a little bit that movies like Galaxy Quest and Tropic Thunder have capitalized on the same ¡Three Amigos! idea where a group of actors are unwittingly thrown into real danger?

Landis: They completely ripped it off! The first Pixar movie about the ants, A Bug's Life, took the same plot. It's amazing how often the plot has been used. If Galaxy Quest weren't so funny, it would probably bother me more.

Movies.com: ¡Three Amigos! was the only Western you directed in your career. Would you ever make another?

Landis: I've worked on a lot of Westerns as crew, but I'd love to direct more Westerns. I would do it in a heartbeat. That's one of the reasons I was so pleased with the Blu-ray of ¡Three Amigos! because I was able to restore the picture the way it was supposed to look. We were trying to make it look like those Technicolor Hollywood Westerns of the '50s.

Movies.com: Hollywood is remake happy. What would your gut reaction be if you heard that someone intended to remake ¡Three Amigos! or another movie of yours like American Werewolf in London?

Landis: Well, I actually wrote An American Werewolf in London and I optioned the remake rights to Dimension. People were all upset about it and said, "Why would you do that?" It's kind of a win-win for me because if they do a good job—and there have been clever ones like David Cronenberg's The Fly, John Carpenter's The Thing and even The Maltese Falcon that have been successful—then I make more money and there will be more. If they do a bad job, then I look like a genius. I don't want to be anywhere near the remake, though.

Movies.com: An American Werewolf in London is a terrific horror film and the makeup in the wolf transformation scenes still holds up. If that movie were made today, it would all be done with CGI. How do you feel about that?

Landis: If I were doing An American Werewolf in London today, I would do a combination [of makeup and CGI]. Did you see the very, very bad Wolfman remake? Rick Baker won an Oscar for that and there was stuff that you probably thought was makeup that was CG and stuff that was CG that was actually Rick's makeup. These are just tools. The truth is, people s**t on CG but I've seen some remarkable work. I didn't think the second Pirates of the Caribbean film was a great movie, but the Davy Jones character looked fantastic. You couldn't really do that with conventional makeup, so I think CG has its use like any other tool.

Movies.com: Your video for Michael Jackson's "Thriller" was a game changer for his career, MTV and music history. You later directed Jackson's "Black and White"…

Landis: That was the first time anyone had seen computer morphing. There was a man named John Whitney who really is the father of CG imagery and invented it. He was a fine artist. The practical applications of a lot of John Whitney's stuff were flight simulators and a lot of things the military uses. I went to school with John Whitney's son and I went to John Whitney Sr. in 1971 with a description of An American Werewolf in London and I asked him if a computer could generate the in-between transformation steps. He looked at me and said, "Eventually, yes, but we don't have the power now." In 1981 I went to John Whitney Jr. who, in fact, made the first CG feature film with The Last Starfighter. I asked him the same question and he said, "No, not yet. But soon." When I made "Black and White" with Michael, they had finally gotten the technology and I was so impressed because they were doing it with desktop computers, not those giant IBM Univac rigs. Now you can buy that technology used in "Black and White" and do it on your laptop.

Movies.com: You are one of the rare directors that can do comedy and horror well. Do you see them as genres that can comingle?

Landis: Well, they are very similar in many ways. One, they get no respect—critics don’t credit how difficult it is to do either one, especially comedy. Two, they both invoke a physical response and are unforgiving. You have a spastic response—you either laugh or you gasp or scream. That's straightforward.

Movies.com: What is the next movie you will be directing?

Landis: It depends because I'm involved in a number of different projects and the truth is that the one that gets funded is the one that you do. It's increasingly hard to get the money to make the movies that I want to make. I have a Western that I'd like to do, but probably the next one is going to be this little monster movie in Paris. It's untitled because no one can come up with a good one, but Trading Places didn't have a title until post production. In many ways the movie is old fashioned but in many ways it is radically new.

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