His IMDb page reads like a greatest hits collection of comedy and horror classics: National Lampoon’s Animal House, Coming to America, An American Werewolf in London, and many more. By any estimation, John Landis is a filmmaking legend. The story goes, when Michael Jackson wanted to make a movie, he and Landis created the seminal Thriller, forever changing the landscape of music entertainment.
A few weeks ago, Landis was generous enough to answer some questions through an email exchange. We discussed the rules of fiction, the rules of Hollywood, and the rules – such as they are – of art itself …
TE: I recently saw The Sci-Fi Boys, the 2006 documentary about, among other things, Forrest J Ackerman, Famous Monsters of Filmland and Ray Harryhausen in which you briefly appeared. It could be said that, even with the silliest of older-school horror fiction and science fiction pictures, there were considerably more imaginative ideas going on. First off, would you agree that, because it was harder to make real practical effects, more thought had to be put in realizing those ideas? And do you feel that, since CGI has made so many of those ideas easier to realize, that the ideas themselves are growing stagnant?
JL: Please understand that CGI is not easier or less expensive than practical effects. I think you are reacting (correctly) to the overuse of CGI in contemporary movies. CGI is just another tool in filmmaking, and when used well (like the tentacled face of the Davey Jones character in the Disney Pirates of the Caribbean films or in Cameron’s Terminator 2) it is terrific. The combination of CGI and practical effects, like Stan Winston’s amazing full size dinosaur puppets and the CG animation in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, can work spectacularly well. Everything in context. [And] do not confuse imagination and ideas with the product being produced these days. You are just reacting to what is perceived as commercial these days. There are still lots of clever people out there and good ideas will surface eventually.
TE: Earlier this year, your son Max [Landis] posted The Death and Return of Superman on YouTube. In it, he relates a story about you telling him that, essentially, vampires can be killed however a writer needs them to because they don’t really exist, because they’re fiction. Do you feel establishing fictional “rules” alienates, or entices, fandom?
JL: Every story functions within the parameters established by the author. When creating the world a story takes place in, the writer is creating the order of that story’s specific universe. What I told Max was that everything dealing with the supernatural is invented, therefore you can just make up your own rules. I don’t think this concept itself influences fandom. An individual work is either embraced or rejected. People either like it, or don’t like it!
TE: Several classic television shows, for example, use similar teleplays, or wildly similar stories sometimes with exactly matching dialogue. Before, such things didn’t seem as noticed because they couldn’t be repeated through home or streaming video. Do you feel fans’ perception and expectations of “continuity” might hurt not only franchises, but genres themselves? Could tropes become more important than story?
JL: Repetition in plots and dialogue can be applied to all of art! The more one reads and experiences, the more apparent it is that there are a finite number of stories and we repeat them and have repeated them in various ways throughout human history. This is something known to be true long before television and the Internet!
TE: With Hollywood focusing on more “sure things” because of the struggling economy, and with a hyperanalytical Internet culture becoming more prevalent, do you think science fiction and horror will ever be able to explore tougher questions in the more cerebral fashion that seemed more common pre-Star Wars?
JL: Nothing is a “sure thing,” but going with a proven title is perceived as the safest way to go, and with the consistent profitability of the Star Wars series regardless of quality, I can see their point. The studios are more cautious and conservative these days in deciding which movies to finance. Marketing costs have skyrocketed, so they try to pick “pre-sold,” or already established properties, to produce. Hence so many remakes, sequels and series like the Star Wars or James Bond films. “Branding” and “franchise” are the key words here. Making a film is a collaborative effort and I believe that despite all the odds good films will still get made.
When you talk about the “hyperanalytical Internet culture” becoming more prevalent, I don’t see that having any real impact on what media is produced. The only thing the corporate powers care about is making money, so if a product is successful they will make more of it. Just remember that the real world definition of a “good movie” is a profitable movie. And as you know, excellent films fail at the box office and bad movies can make a lot of money! So the real world definition of a “good movie” is not a positive role model. All you can do is the best you can – and hope it turns out well.
TE: Where do you think we go from here? What does the future of the movie business look like?
JL: Who knows? I do know that the best way to experience a film is in a big cinema on a big screen and with an audience and I don’t see that going away completely for a long time. But who knows? With technology and “delivery platforms” constantly changing it is hard to guess.