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John Landis

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The legendary filmmaker discusses his return to the big screen with new comedy-horror Burke and Hare, and how British culture continues to inspire him.

From the innovative metamorphosis sequence in An American Werewolf in London, to John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd redefining cinematic cool and Michael Jackson raising the bar in dance choreography in 1983, John Landis has provided some of the most endearing and iconic pop culture images of the last 30 years. Landis' new film, Burke and Hare, however, is his first feature in over a decade. LWLies caught up with the legendary filmmaker recently to discuss his big screen comeback, and to revisit some of his most memorable movie locations.

LWLies: Tell us about Burke and Hare, why did you want to bring your version of the story to life?

Landis: There have been many films based on Burke and Hare over the years and what they all have in common is that they show a Victorian era when it’s not Victorian. It’s George the Fourth, it’s regency George and Victoria was three years old, so it’s an interesting time. My version is shot in Edinburgh and set in 1828 and it takes place in the West Port ghetto, which is gone completely. So we shot in Edinburgh on the streets that are actually there so we had to digitally remove TV antennas and wires and stuff, but the movie is gorgeous and we only built one set. We were on stage just for the prison, and everything we shot in homes in the States and in and around London and in Scotland. It was fascinating, I’m very pleased with the look of the film.

What does shooting on location bring to a film?

The technology brings so many changes to production. Right up until the '60s the studio model was you’d go to Africa or India or wherever you were going and you’d shoot exterior shots and you’d enact a couple of pieces with your actors and maybe a spectacular location or two and then you’d make them walk into some buildings. Inside the buildings there’d be an MGM picture with a sound stage, and that was because the equipment was cumbersome. It was much easier on stage; you had control on stage, particularly with sound. But as the years go by and, especially with digital, technology becomes lighter and lighter and more mobile, the advantages to location shooting first and foremost is that it gives you, if it’s contemporary, a verisimilitude. You spend a lot of money getting on stage what you can get on location, unless you’re making something like 2001, which is when you need special effects. But I like location shooting; I’ve always liked it. I remember Trading Places we shot most of the interiors in New York City but we did shoot in Philly. It takes place in Philadelphia and Manhattan so we shot most of it in Manhattan because Eddie Murphy was on Saturday Night Live and we only got him three days a week, so we shot in New York City, and that was easy because architecturally it wasn’t that different. It’s very different but I always able to find colonial streets. The Blues Brothers would be a different movie if we didn’t shoot it in Chicago. That was part of the point.

What about An American Werewolf, there are some interesting stories surrounding that shoot...

First off, we never closed down Piccadilly Circus. We were allowed to stop traffic for four minutes, twice or three times. We weren’t allowed to close it down for longer than four minutes. It was a different time. Nowadays London is a much more film friendly city. Michael Winner made a film in the late '60s or early '70s called The Jokers with Oliver Reed, Orson Welles and Michael Crawford in; it was like stealing the crown jewels. And for that picture, he set off a smoke bomb without permission in Piccadilly Circus, and it was the time of the IRA bombings. It created quite a panic and scene and so there were no permits, it was literally down to the Bobby on the beat. I mean if the Bobby said no, that was it. When you’re making a film you have all this support. If it’s just two guys walking then it’s a lot easier than if you need specialised whatever, the troughs and trailers and generators; it’s like a circus. So you need a place to park it all, you need a space to set up the shot, you need some kind of control. Now it’s much easier to shoot in London, and you can see all the shooting they do in London over the past 10 years. But then it was pretty closed and there hadn’t been much of a shooting thing in London. In fact one of the biggest things they talked about when Werewolf came out here in the UK, one of the main things they talked about was how we’d chose London, because they just hadn’t seen it a lot. But now it’s everywhere.

You seem to have a strong affinity with London...

I love British culture and I love London. I feel very much about this country as I do about my country. I’m certainly patriotic but there’s a lot of things I can’t stand about the States and there’s a lot of things I can’t stand about the British. I can’t stand the class system. It’s so real it’s weird. And the Americans don’t understand it, but it’s not until you live and work here for a long time that you go 'My god, this is real'. It’s as long as she’s on the money, you’re kind of fucked. I remember the first time I saw Prime Minister’s Questions and I was so taken aback. It’s not more adversarial than American politics; it’s just a lot ruder here. I was doing Werewolf during the Bristol riots and Margaret Thatcher stood up at Prime Minister’s Questions. I used to be addicted to Prime Minister’s Questions, it was great, you used to have real firebrands in there, people like Margaret Thatcher. She was tough. She put forth the Government’s position on the Brixton Riots that it had nothing to do with the police, it had nothing to do with racism or poverty or economics. It was entirely about hooliganisms. It was hooligans, isolated hooligans, and she was proposing that they prosecute the parents, and this would solve the problem. And Michael Foot stood up and said: "You stupid bloody woman," and it was so shocking for me. The courtroom scene in Burke and Hare is totally taken from Question Time.

Do you know Edinburgh well?

I’ve been there before the movie but only as a tourist so I didn’t know it well.

How did you first hear about the project?

About two years ago there was a moment when there were a lot of good independent British films. A lot of interesting films coming out of London and my wife said, ‘You should go over there and see if something’s up.’

What made you decide to get back into feature filmmaking now?

I haven’t made a narrative feature film for a long time, since Susan’s Plan, and I was so burnt after Blues Brothers 2000; I just had the worst experience with the new Hollywood studios. It’s so corporate.

Are there any movies you’d like to make?

There are a lot of movies I’d like to make but, candidly, the movies I like to make tend to be weird so... I’m very lucky. I’ve had a lot of commercial success in film so I don’t have to work. I really didn’t want to make a movie until I found something that really interested me, and most of the stuff that I like is outside the mainstream. So if you look at the movies they are making, I’m not making a big, merchandisable, franchisable film. If you make a movie that costs a lot of money, the problem is if you don’t deliver bums on seats you’re out of there. There’s no word of mouth. It’s all about marketing these days. It’s always partly been the case but it’s radically changed in the last 10 years and I can tell you exactly why; there’s no film company now, like major film company, Pathe, Universal, MGM... But it’s so much easier now to shoot location. When you look at the quality of the camera in your iPhone, they’re unbelievable. You can shoot anywhere.

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