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Animal House
Universal Studios



Got the Blues, Brother?
Let John Landis Take Them Away

First conversations have gone better than the introduction I made to John Landis.

"Are you the guy who sent me the magazines?" he asked.

"Yes, I sure did," was my witty reply.

"Are you aware that you got the quotes wrong in the story about Animal House?"

I started to fade a little as he proceeded to rattle off the correct lines from memory.

Fortunately, he laughed a little while he was doing it and that softened the sting a bit. Being kind of stupid, I still pressed for a more in-depth interview, and he agreed.

I was determined to make a better impression on the man who was the driving force on so many of the movies I loved when I was younger. I defy you to find a man my age (and no, you don't have to know how old that is, smarty-pants) who doesn't howl when he sees Animal House or The Blues Brothers. Let others watch It's A Wonderful Life; for me, it isn't Christmas without Trading Places.

So now that Universal is making all of us Y-chromosome types happy with a reissuing of The Blues Brothers with added footage, I figured this was a great time to talk with the director himself about both versions, the sequel and all the points in between.

WAG: Why was the footage cut in the first place?

Landis: When we made the movie, we always intended it to be a road show. It would be about two and a half hours long and have an intermission. The exhibitors felt it was a 'black movie' and that no white people in America would go see it at all.

WAG: You're kidding me, right? I mean, with the exposure on Saturday Night Live pushing the movie, how could it miss?

Landis: The studio insisted that the movie would die quickly, so could we cut it shorter? They wanted me to remove close to half an hour. Not just outs and trims, they wanted entire sequences lifted and musical numbers shortened. I cut this from the finished negative and the picture was released twenty-six minutes shorter than we intended.

WAG: You, Aykroyd, Belushi and company had the last laugh, right?

Landis: Yes, the film was a tremendous hit, and all of a sudden everybody was taking credit for it. If you want to see how much the studio wanted to distance themselves from the project at first, take a look at the soundtrack album. They didn't even release the soundtrack. It was released through Atlantic Records.

WAG: What about the extra footage? Surely with a genuine bona fide hit on their hands, a re-release would seem like a natural.

Landis: A few years later, the home video arm [MCA/Universal] wanted to release a restored version, and I agreed to do it. Unfortunately, someone had thrown away all of the material. It couldn't be found anywhere. They can find footage from Lawrence of Arabia [shot in 1962], but they can't find the material from The Blues Brothers. So that got scrapped. Eventually, years later, someone found the Pickwood Print, which was a preview cut that had an extra twelve minutes in it, and that's the footage we've restored on DVD.

WAG: Animal House has to be one of the greatest examples of guerilla filmmaking ever. Made away from studio interference with a bunch of then-unknowns, it's all about how to succeed away from the system. But how did it get far enough to succeed in the first place?

Landis: We had some real problems getting that one made. Thankfully, Donald Sutherland agreed to be in the movie. With a name actor, we were able to secure funding and make the movie we wanted to make.

WAG: A quick glance at the credits reveals a long list of up-and-coming talent that includes not only John Belushi but also Tim Matheson, Thomas Hulce, Peter Riegert, Stephen Furst, Karen Allen and Kevin Bacon. Did you miss on anyone you really wanted?

Landis: I cast John Vernon as Dean Wormer, and he was terrific. I originally thought about using Jack Webb. [Editor's note: For those of you too young to remember Jack Webb, he was the monotoned detective of television's Dragnet, the hippie-hating, climb-on-a-soapbox cop who was the ultimate authority figure in the turbulent 1960s.] I actually had a meeting with him, and he looked at the script. Then he looked at me, trying to figure out how long my hair was. I never heard back from him.

WAG: What about your relationship with superstar-in-the-making John Belushi and his untimely death?

Landis: There are a lot of misconceptions about sudden fame killing John Belushi. That's not true at all. Like many young people, John had been using recreational drugs as far back as high school, where he was a star athlete. In fact, if anything, fame probably kept him alive longer because he was able to afford a higher quality of drug. If you've ever had a good friend with a drug or alcohol problem, you realize how powerless I felt. What could I do? Tie him up somewhere? No, with John it was so frustrating watching him self-destruct, and I'm still pissed that it happened. We lost a lot when we lost John Belushi.

WAG: Were you stung by the negative reviews about The Blues Brothers 2000?

Landis: We got it from both sides. Half the reviews said we were too much like the original, half said we were nothing like the original.

WAG: Why do a sequel eighteen years later?

Landis: Danny [Aykroyd] had been opening up these clubs called the House of Blues and appearing as Elwood with the original Blues Brothers Band and the place would go wild. So he called me and said, "Let's do a new one."

We had a script [The Blues Brothers Meet the Voodoo Queen] that we were going to use before, but we changed almost all of it. The Voodoo Queen, Mousette, played by Erykah Badu, is from the old script. The studio insisted we have a kid as a co-star, and we had to have it rated PG-13. We didn't like that. The foul language was an integral part of the original movie, but we had no choice, if we wanted to make the movie.

If you look at the sequel, the one thing everyone praised was the music. The original had seven musical numbers. The sequel has eighteen. And everybody associated worked for scale. The musicians at the end all donated their salaries to charity.

WAG: That was the all-time all-star band, too. There has never been a more distinguished representation of blues music.

Landis: You've got to remember, too, we shot in the summer, when everybody tours. So there were at least fifty other great musicians who wanted to take part but couldn't because of other commitments.

When I first worked with B.B. King [on the music for Into the Night], he asked, "Why wasn't I in The Blues Brothers?" So you can imagine how happy I was to call him and say "You ready to be in the sequel?"

WAG: What do you want to do next?

Landis: I'd love to make a small little romance or a real western. I love westerns, but it's probably not going to happen any time soon.

Landis is not ready to talk about his next project just yet, although he has set up a movie for New Line and says that his next movie will be really scary. In the meantime, I'm on a mission from God to kick back in front of the DVD player, slide in the restored The Blues Brothers and turn the volume waaaaay up.

—Interview conducted by John Porter

Posted June 1, 1999





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