by Dan Goldwasser
Film director John Landis dropped out of high-school, and started a career in film that would take him from a low-budget movie called Schlock, to one of the most successful comedies of all time, Animal House. He established himself as a master of the genre, with Trading Places, Three Amigos, and Spies Like Us.
Music has always been an important part of his movies, and his biggest musical collaborator was the late, great Elmer Bernstein, who re-defined the comedy score with his work on Animal House. He directed The Blues Brothers, which helped make the blues more accessible to the general public. Michael Jackson's "Thriller" was the most expensive music video of its day, and changed how music videos would be made forever.
SoundtrackNet was honored to sit down with John at his home in Los Angeles, and talk about his works.
Your first film was Schlock. Who did the music on that?
The score was by a college student named David Gibson, and I have no idea what happened to him, but he did the score for like $3.
After that came Kentucky Fried Movie, which was filled with a lot of short sketches...
The music in Kentucky Fried Movie was coordinated by a schlock music producer, Igo Kantor. He's one of those guys where you give them a flat-fee, and they do the music for the movie. Most of it was library cues, but the one piece that was scored was for "A Fistful of Yen" - where he was copying Enter the Dragon.
How did The Blues Brothers come about?
I was working on Animal House, and the writers (Doug Kenney, Harold Ramis and Chris Miller) all came from Second City and National Lampoon, so they already knew Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, and Chevy Chase. When they wrote the script, Bluto was written for Belushi, D-Day for Aykroyd, and Otter for Chevy. This was during the first year of "Saturday Night Live", and the studio wanted me to go get those guys. I wasn't interested in Chevy, because he was the break-out star, and the only cast member who identified himself on screen. I felt he was Chevy, and not Otter. I flew out to New York City, and the bottom line was, Lorne Michaels wouldn't let Danny out for the same reason he wouldn't let Paul Schafer out for The Blues Brothers - he was unhappy to lose them on "Saturday Night Live".
But I got to meet Danny then, and at that time he was talking about The Blues Brothers - you'll notice that NBC and Saturday Night Live don't own the Blues Brothers - Aykroyd and Judy Belushi do. They had created it while up at Second City in Toronto. John was never really into the blues - he was into heavy metal, and Danny was deeply into rhythm and blues, and remains very passionate and an expert - a real authority on the subject.
To make a long story short, we made a development deal for The Blues Brothers. Belushi became interested in the blues while we were in Eugene, Oregon, shooting Animal House. There was a local blues guy named Curtis Salgado - and they connected and he got interested in blues.
As an aside, I just found this out three years ago. When you see Animal House, there's a musical act by Otis Day and the Knights. Otis is an actor named DeWayne Jesse, and the "Knights" were students at the University of Oregon at Eugene. And the bass player of the Knights is Robert Cray, who was a student at UO at the time! So I take entire credit for his career - I made Robert Cray what he is today! <laughs>
John became passionate about the blues, and they started performing as Jake and Elwood at the Lone Star Cafe in NYC, mostly with Delbert McClinton's band. But they worked a lot - for fun! Howard Shore is the one who named them the Blues Brothers - he's the one who said "Brothers in blue, ladies and gentlemen, the Blues Brothers!" Paul Shaffer was their musical director, and they performed on the show. By that time, we had a development deal to make a comedy about these guys, Jake and Elwood - The Blues Brothers.
It all came together insanely quick. Steve Martin invited them to be the opening act for him at the Universal Amphitheatre. So Paul and John and Danny put together this extraordinary band, the Blues Brothers Band, which is an amazing group of musicians. Atlantic Records did a live album, "A Briefcase Full of Blues", and that album went double platinum, to everyone's surprise. On top of that, Danny and John were the stars of "Saturday Night Live", the hottest show on television! So they had the hottest record, the hottest show, and John was the star of Animal House, the biggest movie! With those three things, the studio suddenly wanted The Blues Brothers - so we rushed into production.
Danny and John were shooting 1941 with Spielberg, and I was waiting for the script from Danny, which wouldn't come. And when it did, it was like 800 pages! It was insane, and had a lot of brilliant ideas in it, but I said, "Danny, this is unproducable!" He replied, "So fix it!" And that's how I became a co-writer, because I had to rewrite it! There's a lot of stuff in the movie that's mine, but really it's Danny's. We were in such a rush that we started shooting before there was a completed screenplay.
You have artists like James Brown, John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and so many more - how did you get them all involved?
It was 1979 when we made that movie. Disco was king, and the hottest acts were the Bee Gees and ABBA. It's hard to accept now, but the people you mentioned were kinda "over", except Ray Charles. Aretha, James Brown, and certainly John Lee Hooker weren't working! To give you an idea of how different a time this was, when we made the movie, Universal/MCA Records felt the movie was too wacky, and no one would buy the music - blues didn't sell - so they didn't take the record! So the soundtrack was put out on Atlantic Records, which was a so-called "black" label. And even Atlantic refused to put John Lee Hooker on the album, because he was "too old and too black". It's too bad, because that's a live recording. John Lee Hooker and James Brown were recorded live on set - everything else was playback. [Play "The Old Landmark" MP3]
Was there any real original music in the film aside from Elmer's brief cue?
A lot of the music in the movie is traditional rhythm and blues that has been re-orchestrated, which Ira Newborn was in charge of. There was very little original music, except for Elmer's "God" theme. I mean, the guy did The Ten Commandments!
How did you meet Elmer?
I'm a high school dropout. I would have gone to University High School, but for a year and a half I went to a school called Oakwood - it's now a very prestigious prep secondary school in the valley, but in 1965 it was a complete hippy school. There were only 50 students, and I was there on a scholarship which was ultimately revoked, and I never finished school because I was a goof off. But my fellow Oakwood classmates included Alex North's daughter Elissa, Jerry Goldsmith's daughter Ellen, Ernest Gold's son Andy, and Elmer Bernstein's son, Peter. All their kids went to this little school, and I had exposure to them then. In fact, Elmer took Peter and me to see the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl in 1965! So I knew Elmer as Peter's dad, and years later when I was doing Animal House, I had an idea that I wanted to score the film dramatically, instead of comedically. There are comic cues, but most of them are meant to be serious - the music is a counterpoint to things going on.
So that was my idea, and when the music department at Universal asked who I wanted to score it, I said "Elmer Bernstein", and they literally laughed in my face, saying he wouldn't return the call. But they didn't know I knew him. I showed him the movie, and he thought it was funny, and asked me what I wanted. So I told him, and he was intrigued by the idea. Elmer's score for Animal House is a hugely influential one. One of the great ironies of Elmer's career is that he got typed. So after doing scores like To Kill a Mockingbird, Sweet Smell of Success, Man with the Golden Arm, The Magnificent Seven - all of these extraordinary scores, he suddenly became Mr. Comedy. After Animal House he did Airplane!, Stripes, Meatballs, Trading Places, Spies Like Us and many more - to the point where he got so fed up that he didn't want to do comedies and stopped working. He had an auspicious return when he scored My Left Foot, and then he became Scorsese's anointed one for a little while - so Elmer had quite a career. [Play "Faber College Theme" MP3]
He also did a lot of my movies. My favorite Elmer score for me was The Three Amigos, because it was a big score - a 108-piece orchestra, and that movie has music by Randy Newman and Elmer Bernstein. For me, it's an entirely successful score, because it's not only a spectacular, rousing western score, but he's also satirizing his own stuff from The Magnificent Seven!<#GOOGLEAD#>
Tell me about American Werewolf...
I wrote An American Werewolf in London in 1969, and I met Rick Baker in 1971 when we made Schlock. He was so obviously gifted, and I told him that I was going to make this werewolf movie, and he should figure it out. It was all there on the page - and very difficult. I wanted to do it practically, and CGI didn't exist. Rick had thought about it for years, and kept asking when we were going to make that movie. It was only because f the success of Kentucky Fried Movie, Animal House, and The Blues Brothers that I was able to get the $10 million negative pick-up to make American Werewolf.
So I finally get the money, and I call Rick and I say, "Hey Rick, I'm doing that movie!" And he says, "I'm already doing a werewolf movie!" I said, "You're WHAT?" Apparently Joe Dante was doing The Howling, and after a bit of wrangling, Rick's assistant Rob Bottin ended up doing Howling, and I got Rick on mine. It was totally insane that I spent all that time trying to get a werewolf movie, and then the year I finally make it, there were like three of them!
But the music for American Werewolf is unusual. All those songs were written in the script in 1969. There were a number of songs I wanted to get, but I couldn't. I wanted to use "Moon Shadow" by Cat Stevens for the main title song, because it's a lovely song about dismemberment, and obviously dealt with the moon. But he wouldn't let me have the music - and what's unfair is now I see "Peace Train" being used to sell cars! Elvis Presley recorded an early version of "Blue Moon" that was mostly yodeling, and quite strange, and I loved it - it was really eerie and I wanted to use it. But at that time, Colonel Parker and the Presley Estate were suing one another and RCA - it was a nightmare! So that didn't happen. Of course, years later Jim Jarmusch made Mystery Train and was able to use that song - I was so aggravated!
Because of George Lucas and me, needle-dropping has become prohibitively expensive. Marty Scorsese really used a needle-drop score in Mean Streets, but it was American Graffiti and Animal House that both had big hit records that were compilations of this old music that we bought for $500-600 per song, a lot of those songs are now anywhere between $30,000-100,000 per song now - it's insane!
American Werewolf is mostly needle-drops, but Elmer wrote about 7-minutes of score, and we recorded in a church in London for a particular sound of an organ that he wanted. The score is really quite lovely and wistful and sad, and when the DVD came out, I made sure that if you watch the photograph still gallery, you can hear the score. [Play "An American Werewolf in London" MP3]
And American Werewolf led to "Thriller"...
Elmer's credit is "Scary Music". "Thiller" is 15 minutes long, the music plays throughout, and 90% of the music is the original tracks of "Thriller" remixed and re-cut to go that length - we did a lot of messing with that. Then I needed music in two places: the movie they're watching at the beginning and "scary" music at the end as they're being surrounded by zombies. I really wanted traditional movie music there, and as a favor he did that. It's brief, but very effective. And years later they called me to do "Black or White", that was for Michael, again.
I love Elmer's score for Trading Places, which was ironically nominated for an Academy Award, because most of it is variations on Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro"! When I did Oscar a few years later, he adapted "The Barber of Seville" for that. A critic wrote that we'd done that before, obviously not knowing the difference between Rossini and Mozart! [Play "Grifting" MP3]
You didn't use Elmer on Coming to America...
For Coming to America, I had a great wonderful score by Nile Rodgers, who produced albums for Madonna and David Bowie. He's a black guy who went to Julliard, is classically trained, and an amazing musician. He did Beverly Hills Cop III and Coming to America for me, and did a great job. For Coming to America I wanted to use as many African-Americans as I could on the show, and someone recommended Nile to me. The deal was, he would produce a number of songs within the movie - they wanted to get a hit album. Unfortunately, none of the songs became hits, even though "Coming to America" was a good song! But his score is sampled all the time, in news programs, and it's even used in Drumline during a big sequence! It's a terrific score, with unusual stuff. The main title was Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and they're singing the original version of "Lion Sleeps Tonight" in Swahili. [Play "The King's Motorcade" MP3]
You worked with Ira Newborn on Into the Night / Amazon Women on the Moon / Innocent Blood
Into the Night is a score that's been sampled a lot - they used to use some of that music for ABC News here in Los Angeles! For Amazon Women on the Moon, it was mostly library music again, but Ira did one cue for the segment I did with Arsenio Hall. I wanted "wallpaper music". The Laurel and Hardy Films, and a lot of the Hal Roach stuff fascinated me, because there would be this music that has almost nothing to do with what was going on - so I wanted to do that. [Play "Enter Shaheen" MP3]
Innocent Blood was a big score - I love Elmer's score for Sweet Smell of Success, and I wanted a big brassy, urban jazzy big-band sound. We used Frank Sinatra songs, so I wanted that Nelson Riddle "feel", and Ira did a great job. The film is an urban gothic gangster vampire melodrama - it has a strange tone, and I think the music helped it. [Play "Hideaway" MP3]
What is your favorite score?
Three Amigos for me was the most fun, because we were really having fun with the conventions of a western score, and a big score. It was fun working with Elmer making fun of Elmer. There's a difference between satire and parody, which a lot of people don't understand. Parody is "making fun of". Satire has to succeed at that which it is satirizing, as well as be funny and comment on it. For example, Dr. Strangelove is not only a brilliant comedy about atomic warfare, but it's also the best film about atomic warfare. So Three Amigos had to work as a real western score, and help the film dramatically, but also be funny and comment on it - and it's a great score. [Play "Let's Ride" MP3]
What was Randy Newman's involvement?
The screenplay was written by Randy Newman, Steve Martin, and Lorne Michaels! Not only that, but Randy wrote the songs, and is the Singing Bush. Steve Martin gave me the script, and asked me to do it. I loved doing that picture. Walter Hill once said, "If they knew how much fun it was to make a western, they wouldn't let us."
Will there be a Special Edition DVD?
Not that I know of. In fact, the only DVD out there is just an old transfer from some print. I don't know who owns the film now, since that was an Orion picture - Sony probably owns it now. I love that picture; it's a real guilty pleasure of mine.
You also have been directing commercials?
Oh yeah, for years just to make a little money. Years ago, I was on the board of the American Lung Association, at the behest of John Houston. I was offered an amazing job to do these Marlboro commercials, with Elmer's Magnificent Seven music, all around the world - it was going to be an incredible job, but I had to turn it down - it was all about cigarettes. Elmer is one of the few people who's murdered people with music! The Marlboro commercials were all scored with The Magnificent Seven - he sold a lot of cigarettes!
You directed the "Disneyland 35th Anniversary Celebration"...
I did that with Jim Henson and the Muppets - it was fun! And that's where I met Christopher Stone. I enjoyed working with him, and he did a wonderful score for a movie I did called The Stupids, which is one of my "lost movies", because I made it for a company called Savoy, and when I finished the movie, they went bankrupt. So The Stupids, along with a number of other pictures, just sat on the shelf for a few years. It starred Tom Arnold and Christopher Lee, and a small role was played by Jenny McCarthy. In the time between the movie being made and the movie being released, she was Playmate of the Year, and on an MTV show called "Singled Out", so she was very hot. New Line Cinema bought the movie thinking, "Tom Arnold, Jenny McCarthy, John Landis - it must be a tits-and-ass teenage comedy!" Well, The Stupids is my only children's film! It's made for children under 10 years old! I'm quite proud of the movie, and it had a fantastic score by Christopher Stone performed by the Royal Philharmonic in London - it's just a great score! [Play "Main Title" MP3]
But the film was dumped. I had the experience of sitting next to Mitch Goldman, the head of distribution for New Line, watching it in a theater at the DGA, and about 10 minutes in, he said, "This is a children's film! What the fuck am I going to do with that?" So they just dumped it - it has a life on DVD though.
Last year you directed a documentary, Slasher...
That was a documentary about a used car salesman - I scored it entirely with needle-drops, with music from Stax recording artists. It was a lot of fun, and a good learning experience - I'm very proud of it! They show it on IFC all the time.
You've also been using Peter Bernstein recently...
I've known Peter since I was 15, as I mentioned earlier. He did Susan's Plan, which is a very tiny independent film that I made several years ago. It was shot in ten days, and starred Nastassja Kinski, Lara Flynn Boyle, Michael Biehn, Billy Zane, Rob Schneider, Dan Aykroyd, and Bill Duke - it had a great cast! The schlockmeisters who gave me the money to make the film sold it to Cinemax, so you see it on cable at like 3am!
Peter scored "Weird Science" and "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" for my television company. He also just scored "Deer Woman" for me, for Masters of Horror.
What is Masters of Horror?
I just finished it. Masters of Horror is an Anchor Bay DVD project, and will run 13-hours long. Each hour is directed by a filmmaker who directed a classic horror film. So I did one, as well as Joe Dante, Roger Corman, Tobe Hooper, George Romero, John Carpenter, Dario Argento, Stuart Gordon, Larry Cohen, Don Coscarelli, and a few more! It's made for DVD, but it will be on Showtime starting in October, and in truth, Showtime is the marketing for the DVD.
I used Peter to score my episode "Deer Woman", which is a script written by my son, Max. It's wacky - it's about a Deer Woman, which is a Native American myth, and it's basically a monster movie. Unfortunately, economics were such that the score is mostly synthesizer, but there's also a bit of source music.
You're listed as directing Bat Boy... what is that one?
Bat Boy was an off-Broadway musical that was very successful. They're writing the script right now - it's pretty out there! It's based on the Weekly World News creature. It's quite a good show - it's very traditional horror show, but with music singing and dancing - it's very clever! I'm attached to direct, but it's still being written, so it's a bit early.
Master of Horror will be out this fall on Showtime. The Blues Brothers is being re-issued as a 25th Anniversary DVD on August 30th, including both the theatrical and extended cuts of the film, as well as some new extras.
Special thanks to John Landis for being generous with his time, and Ira Newborn, John Mullin and Taylor White for the audio clips.