“Making a Hammer Film As If It Was Directed by Scorsese”: John Landis on Innocent Blood and Operating Muppets with Tim Burton
One of the most underrated films by one of America’s most underrated filmmakers just arrived on Blu-ray in the form of Warner Archive’s 25th-anniversary release of John Landis’ Innocent Blood. To call Landis underrated might seem perverse given that he’s directed some of the most successful and enduring movies of the late 1970s and early 1980s – National Lampoon’s Animal House, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London, Trading Places, Coming to America – but I still think his body of work has never quite gotten its critical due in this country, partly because his movies are so damn fun. Like the classical studio directors he closely resembles in both his range (he’s directed comedies, horror films, musicals, action movies, a Western, documentaries, anthology films, and more) and artistic temperament (he favors an expressive but invisible visual style), Landis has smuggled his antiestablishment views on race, class, and sex through the system by disguising them as escapist genre fare. From the razor-sharp social commentary of Animal House, in which Nixon and his plumbers become an authoritarian college dean and his lackeys, to the giddy spectacle of the Blues Brothers demolishing a shopping mall (the ultimate symbol of American consumerism) and Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase pretending they’re in a Hope-Crosby road movie when they’re really in a silly but trenchant satire of Cold War foreign policy, Landis has steadily built a body of work as thoughtful, subversive, and formally rigorous as any Hollywood director of his generation. He’s also a master genre filmmaker, a student of film history capable of both honoring traditions and reinventing them in the same movie; An American Werewolf in London is probably the best example, but I think Trading Places, which updates the social comedies of Preston Sturges for the Reagan era, is right up there alongside it.
Landis’ playfulness with genre conventions reaches a delirious creative peak in Innocent Blood, a truly bizarre and inventive hybrid of vampire movie, gangster film, and love story presented as broad comedy. Anne Parillaud plays a vampire who only feeds off of people who deserve to die; when she inadvertently leaves one of her victims, crime boss Robert Loggia, unfinished, he becomes a vampire and begins turning his underlings into vampires as well, with the goal of creating an army of invulnerable gangsters. Anthony LaPaglia is a cop who teams up with the vampire to stop Loggia and falls in love in the process. Innocent Blood was a commercial disappointment upon its release, but the very thing that kept audiences away in 1992 – the fact that it’s not like any other movie – has allowed it to endure and attract a cult following over the course of the past 25 years. I spoke with Landis by phone on the occasion of the film’s Blu-ray release to hear some stories about its creation.
Filmmaker: Before we get into Innocent Blood, I have to ask you about this weird thing I came across while researching you and your career for this piece. I thought I was pretty familiar with your work, but I’d never seen this Disneyland 35th anniversary celebration that you directed for television a couple years before Innocent Blood. It’s got a crazy cast – Tony Danza and Will Smith and the cast of Cheers and, most shockingly to me, Ronald Reagan. I always saw movies like Trading Places and Spies Like Us as reactions against Reagan’s values…
John Landis: Oh yeah, I hated him. Reagan gave a speech at Disneyland and we just shot it; we used very little of it in the special. But that show was completely wacky. Jim Henson had committed the Muppets to be on Disneyland’s 35th Anniversary show and the Disney Company had made a deal with an outside television production company to make the special. Jim went to Anaheim with the Muppet performers ten days before the show and was appalled at what they had planned – Jim felt it was amateurish. The talent were already signed. The host was Tony Danza. Tony had been on Taxi, which was in syndication five days a week, and he was the star of a hit TV show called Who’s The Boss. So at the time he had the highest “TVQ” rating as one of the most recognizable faces on television. Who knew Tony Danza was such a big name? I had him for only 8 hours one day and he was a nice guy and extremely professional.
I grew up in L.A. and had been going to Disneyland since it opened, and Jim knew I was a Disney freak. So when Jim Henson called me and said, “John, do you want to shoot a show in Disneyland? It’s Disneyland’s 35th Anniversary Special and shoots in five days,” I said, “Of course I do!” So I went out there and shot this thing, which, if you ever see it, is insane. Some of it is truly funny. I actually directed a scene with Michael Eisner, Tony Danza and Goofy! Who Framed Roger Rabbit was still in theaters, so Charlie Fleischer, the voice of Roger Rabbit, was in the show as the Jungle Boat Guide. We literally made that up as we went along. The gag was that on this particular Jungle Boat adventure none of the passengers except Tony Danza survive the cruise. The audio-animatronic natives throw spears at them and they jump overboard where they are eaten by crocodiles — it was nuts. The cast of Cheers was also in it, and Jim Varney, the guy who played Ernest.
Filmmaker: You also had an early Will Smith appearance in there before he became a huge star.
Landis: Donny and Marie Osmond had been signed for the special as the musical guests, but I’d seen the world premiere of the DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince video for “Parents Just Don’t Understand” on MTV and thought, “Those guys are great. Let’s put them in the show.” It was the first time Will Smith was ever on national television. I gave him a list of eight Disney songs and said, “Choose one and write it as hip hop.” We flew those guys out from back east, and Smith literally wrote a hip hop version of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” the song from Mary Poppins by the Sherman brothers, on the plane. They landed at LAX and were taken directly to the recording studio where they recorded the song, then came from there to Disneyland, where I shot them performing it. I then put them on the Star Wars ride and they flew home. I think from Philadelphia and back the whole thing was 48 hours. It was insane. I really enjoyed doing it, Miss Piggy’s very funny in it, but it’s awfully odd.
Filmmaker: You have a long history with the Muppets. Is it true that you were a puppeteer on the original Muppet Movie?
Landis: In the last scene of The Muppet Movie every Muppet from Sesame Street and The Muppet Show sings “The Rainbow Connection.” There were several hundred puppets in there, which meant several hundred puppeteers. When I was a kid, I had a puppet theater and I used to do hand puppets, and I was really into it. I still am, actually – I love puppets. Anyway, Frank Oz did so many of the Muppet characters – he was Cookie Monster and Grover and Miss Piggy and Sam the Eagle and Bert – and he was going to be in the front doing Miss Piggy next to Jim doing Kermit, so he asked me if I would do Grover. So I’m in that last scene working Grover. Many years later I was in a restaurant in Beverly Hills and Richard Zanuck and Tim Burton came walking by after lunch. I said hello to Mr. Zanuck and he introduced me to Tim, who I’d never met. I said, “Oh, I’m delighted to meet you,” and told him how much I loved Ed Wood. He said, “John, we’ve met before.” I said, “No, I’d remember,” and that’s when I learned that Tim Burton was a puppeteer in that scene too. He was a puppeteer and animator for Disney at the time, and he said he remembers it very well because everyone was pointing at me and saying, “Do you see that guy with the long hair? He directed Animal House.”
Filmmaker: Well, moving on to Innocent Blood, I wanted to start by asking you about the origins of the film. I read somewhere that you originally planned to make another vampire movie that was set in Vegas and written by Mick Garris.
Landis: There was a script by Mick and Richard Christian Matheson called Red Sleep that I had a deal at Warner Brothers to make. Harry Shearer and I rewrote it and it was pretty wild; the premise was basically that Las Vegas is a city that is run by vampires. Because Vegas is a midnight town – it’s going 24 hours a day, and there are no windows in any of the casinos. Now, in the 1960s Frank Sinatra was the king of Vegas, then it was Elvis Presley, then Wayne Newton was the king for a while, then it was Siegfried and Roy…the main resident headliner on the strip was the king of Vegas. In our movie there was a character called the Duke of the Dark who was kind of a cross between all those guys, with Liberace and Howard Hughes thrown in, and he’s the king of the vampires. The premise was that Vegas is literally run by vampires — the mayor, the police, everybody, they just work at night and live off the guests and sleep during the day. They literally feed off of the huge transient and tourist population coming in and out of Vegas. It was sort of a satire on the Rat Pack, if the Rat Pack were in fact vampires, and I liked it a lot – it had musical numbers and a lot of wild stuff in it. When Harry and I turned our draft of Mick and Richard’s script in to the studio, they said, “What the fuck?” Because it was pretty outrageous. Then they said, “Listen, we have another vampire movie we want you to make instead,” and they gave me Michael Wolk’s script, Innocent Blood. I read the script and I really liked it. I was given tremendous freedom by the studio to make it, although it was rather low budget. It was very risky, which I think perhaps contributed to the fact that it didn’t do well.
Filmmaker: So there was no resistance to choices like casting Anne Parillaud in the lead, even though she wasn’t really a star?
Landis: She had just made La Femme Nikita, and I thought, “Wow, she’s great,” because Marie had to be beautiful and sexy and very sympathetic. Anne had been a ballerina, so she had this amazing physicality. She was able to do those super human, super strength things in an off-handed way and really sold it. You believed she could rip that door off. In any case, they let me cast her, but when we previewed, even though it previewed fantastically well, the American audience had trouble understanding her French accent. The studio asked if I would dub her with another actress, and I said, “Absolutely not.”
Filmmaker: There are several great casting triumphs in the movie – not just her but Robert Loggia, who gives a wonderful, really out there performance as Macelli, the mob boss.
Landis: Robert had a long career, and he had played a lot of mob guys. When I talked to him about this role, I told him, “You cannot be over the top in this part.” He sort of redefined over the top in that movie. He really went for it. And I was so pleased with his performance. In fact, in that whole opening of the movie where you meet him before he meets Marie, he’s terrifying!
Filmmaker: Which brings up one of the things I love about your movies – particularly something like this or An American Werewolf in London or Into the Night – and that’s the way you combine wildly disparate tones in the same movie but it all feels cohesive. You move from silly comedy to brutal violence, and even within a violent scene the violence can shift from being funny to tragic and disturbing very quickly. Is that kind of thing just intuitive for you, or do you consciously think about how you’re going to calibrate those tones in each movie?
Landis: Well, no matter how outrageous, you have to try to make it as real as possible. With Macelli, the film begins like a Marty Scorsese movie. You have to establish upfront just how frightening and deadly he is. The idea was that you already have this really malevolent force who is then given superpowers. I love his arc, from when he wakes up as a corpse and discovers that he’s been killed to him understanding and realizing his new powers. Because at first, he’s just terrified. Then, he’s sort of animalistic, just hungry for meat and blood. And then, I don’t know if you noticed, but there’s a thing in the movie that when the vampires are fed, they look good. They look healthy. But when they’re first undead, they don’t look so good until they get some new blood. When people asked me, “What are you doing?” I would say, “Well, I’m making a Hammer film as if it was directed by Scorsese.”
Filmmaker: There’s a direct line from Goodfellas to this and then from Innocent Blood to Casino where Scorsese used Don Rickles in way that was similar to how you used him in your picture. I know you met Rickles years earlier when you worked on Kelly’s Heroes as a gofer, but was this the first time you directed him?
Landis: No, the first time I directed Don was just before ¡Three Amigos!, when Steve Martin asked if I would direct an episode of a TV show he was the executive producer of called George Burns Comedy Week. It was an anthology show with an original comedy short every week, and as you know those are unfortunately very hard to sell. I think they only made six of them. But my cast for that episode was George Burns, Don Rickles, Don Knotts, Fannie Flagg, Stephen Collins and Lana Clarkson. It was a pretty funny show. It was very silly. It was like The Andy Griffith Show on acid. That was the first time I directed Don.
Filmmaker: What kind of relationship did you have with him on Kelly’s Heroes?
Landis: I was 18 years old and turned 19 on that one. I was a very low level guy, a PA. That was an unusual situation because you had this very big movie that MGM was making behind the Iron Curtain, and it was, production wise, kind of a disaster – though ultimately it was a very successful movie, so they ended up not losing money. It had an American director, a British crew, Italian wardrobe and Austrian and German special effects. It was a wild, international crew, and they sort of hated each other, but everybody liked me. It was wonderful for me because it was really the first time I was on a big, big movie. And I had all the great pleasures of filmmaking with none of the responsibility. I made very good friends with the director Brian Hutton and Donald Sutherland and Don Rickles. Clint Eastwood, to this day, if I see him, he goes, “Landis, get me a sandwich.”
Filmmaker: I always think one of the great missed opportunities in ’80s Hollywood was the notion of you doing Dick Tracy with Clint Eastwood—
Landis: Well, Clint Eastwood turned me down. I’m the guy who hired Warren Beatty. The script that Warren directed by [Jim] Cash and [Jack] Epps [Jr.], I commissioned. I was preparing Dick Tracy, and I did go to Eastwood, and he said, “I’m Dirty Harry, I can’t be Dick Tracy,” because he was still making Dirty Harry movies. I also don’t think he got it, why you would make a comic book movie. But I really had a hard time figuring out who could be Dick Tracy, and I’m the one who thought of Warren. I had this ridiculous courtship with Warren Beatty, and eventually he said yes. He’s a very smart guy. When I was indicted, I realized, “Oh shit, I have no idea what’s happening to me.” I called Barry Diller at Paramount and Sid Sheinberg at Universal and said, “I have to withdraw from the movie.” They hired another director, but Warren told me at the time, “I want to direct this.” I said, “Good, I think you’d do a good job.” The studios would never let him do it, so he basically waited them out. He kind of undercut Universal and stalled it for years until he could do it. And then, he made a deal with Disney. You’ve seen Dick Tracy, right?
Filmmaker: Yeah, sure.
Landis: I think Al Pacino’s brilliant in that.
Filmmaker: Wasn’t he your first choice for Oscar?
Landis: Yes, he was supposed to do it. He was going to get $2 million for I think eight weeks’ work, and then for Dick Tracy he was offered $3 million for something like a week’s work. And he was very upfront about it, he said he was going to go for the money. I think Oscar would’ve been a much better movie with Al, but there you go.
Filmmaker: Getting back to Innocent Blood, something that really gives that movie its visual flair is the use of Pittsburgh locations. Was that an economic choice, or an aesthetic one, or a little of both?
Landis: Well, that was a moment in time where Pittsburgh was being used a lot because the state of Pennsylvania had created tax benefits. Innocent Blood was written to take place in New York, and the original intention was to shoot in New York for two weeks and then shoot most of it in Philadelphia for New York, which you can do pretty easily. But when I went to scout Pittsburgh I was quite taken with it, the way these big rivers come together and downtown Pittsburgh kind of juts out. I said, “Gee, you know what? How many movies take place in Pittsburgh?” It was so photogenic we just decided to set the movie there. But it was fucking cold. There were eight or nine weeks of night shooting in blizzard conditions. I think 98 percent of the snow in that movie is real. It was freezing.
Filmmaker: All the night exteriors in that movie are really beautifully photographed.
Landis: That’s Mac Ahlberg, the director of photography. It was not a big budget movie, but it was a studio picture, so we were able to light buildings that were up to twenty blocks away and really see the city. And it looks great, I think. I’m actually very pleased with the Blu-ray, because the DVD of Innocent Blood was one, the wrong aspect ratio, and two, it looked like shit. I was very apprehensive about this Blu-ray, because Warner Brothers doesn’t call the director in to supervise and approve it. Universal and Paramount always call the director when they make a Blu-ray of one of their pictures, but for some reason Warner Brothers does not. Warners put out a Blu-ray of Spies Like Us that was a lie, it was just taken off some answer print and looked really bad – a Blu-ray should be scanned from the original negative. Anyway, Innocent Blood looks great. They clearly scanned the negative and it’s high res and gorgeous.
Filmmaker: Since you mentioned the aspect ratio…I’ve always been curious: why is Burke and Hare the only movie you ever shot in Cinemascope?
Landis: At the time I was making most of my films, you knew they were going to end up on television and that’s how most people were going to see them. And if a movie was in ’Scope it would end up panned and scanned, which looked terrible. I’ll never forget seeing Spartacus on TV and there was a scene with Tony Curtis and Lawrence Olivier that was essentially two noses. They took a piece of this ginormous frame and it was horrible. So by shooting 1:85, which is basically old Academy, I knew that on television, it would be framed correctly. So I shot most all my movies that way to protect myself when they went on TV, which is the way most people saw films and still do. Although now it’s laptops and iPhones and God knows what else. The bottom line is that more people see your film through those platforms than in the cinema, unfortunately. And so, to protect myself, I always shot 1:85. Of course, with the evolution of technology now all televisions are basically computers, and they’re shaped widescreen. So I’m aggravated because I would have loved to have shot Spies Like Us and ¡Three Amigos!, and certainly The Blues Brothers, in ’Scope.
Filmmaker: Yeah, I always thought The Blues Brothers and Coming to America, with all that gorgeous opening stuff in Africa, cried out for ’Scope. But your explanation makes perfect sense.
Landis: Well, yeah, but it turns out I was fucked because now everything is letterboxed.
Filmmaker: Speaking of movies being altered, did you run into any problems with the MPAA on Innocent Blood in terms of either the sex or the violence?
Landis: Yes, I ran into a nightmare scenario that’s kind of a variation on William Friedkin’s quote that “Only the projectionist has final cut.” When I finished the movie I did what I always do, which is I complete the film before I preview – it’s scored and mixed and everything. That’s not done anymore, now they just preview a work print off the AVID, which I believe is detrimental, because you want to take your best shot. In any case, I had a bunch of previews where I would just feel the house – I hate those cards, they ruin the movies – and based on the audience reaction I made trims. I felt that Innocent Blood was running long. I took around fifteen or twenty minutes out and previewed it again and then I said, “That’s it. That’s my cut.”
And then, of course, it has to go to the MPAA. They gave it an NC-17. So you go in and you negotiate. Censorship of any form is arbitrary by definition, because it’s always based on contemporary mores, and contemporary mores are constantly changing. For example, the pig who is our current president has made it acceptable to say “pussy” on television! The standards change all the time. In the United States, we’ve always been more lenient toward violence than sex. But when you have a movie that has sex and violence, they become hyper vigilant. So on Innocent Blood, I had these ridiculous negotiations. In the end I think I took two minutes altogether out to get my R rating. And that was the release print that came out in the United States and Canada.
Six months later, I went to the Fantastic Film Festival in Brussels, and Leslie Belzberg, the producer, and I are sitting there watching the European premiere of Innocent Blood. Warner Brothers Europe had asked me, “We understand you trimmed it for sex and violence. Could we put those trims back in?” I figured, sure, that would be great. Go ahead, that’s my version. And so, we’re sitting in Brussels in this big theatre watching the movie, and I think something’s wrong. And I turned to Leslie and said, “What’s going on?” And we realized they took my first cut, the assembly that I had my first preview with, and put back everything I had cut out. Not just the MPAA trims but a full 15 minutes of material that shouldn’t be there! So if you see the movie in Europe, it’s 15 minutes longer and not as good. I was so upset. I’m happy and relieved to say that the new Blu-ray is my cut – it has the two trimmed minutes of sex and violence back in, but not all that other stuff.
Filmmaker: I want to finish by asking a little about the music in the movie. I love the use of Sinatra — were those songs difficult or expensive to get?
Landis: Well, yes! I wanted the classic recordings, the Nelson Riddle arrangements. I used them as needle drop and source music. The music supervisor for Warner Brothers tried to get the songs, but they were a fortune. We couldn’t afford them. However, I used to live next door to Tina Sinatra, who’s one of Frank’s daughters, and she runs his music catalogue. I knew Tina, so I called her up and asked if she could lower the price. I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but up until that point no Sinatra song had ever been used in a movie about the mafia. He didn’t want those associations, because of course he was connected to the mafia! Anyway, I called Tina and pleaded with her to give me a break. And finally, she said, “Okay, I will lower the price. But what’s the movie about?” And I said, “Well…” because I knew that there was a prohibition on gangster movies, “it’s about vampires in Pittsburgh.” And she goes, “Vampires? Why do you want to use my dad’s music?” And I said, “Well, you know, it’s kind of about vampires and the mob.” And she said, “You know my dad won’t let his music be in any movies about the mob!”
This is a true story. I made a deal with Tina Sinatra, and the deal was for a much reduced cost – she did us a great favor so we could get the two songs. And I had to make this promise to her that if her father ever found out about it, she would say that I had lied to her and I had to back her up. I said, “No problem. Of course.” We finished the movie, and it’s going to come out in a month or something. And I get a call, waking me up around midnight. The voice says, “John Landis?” “Yes?” “This is Frank Sinatra.” And I said, “Okay, thanks.” And I hung up, because I thought it was a joke.
And the phone rings again right away. I pick it up, and it’s Don Rickles. And he says, “What’s the matter with you? That’s Frank. He wants to talk to you.” And I go, “What?” It never occurred to me that Rickles was close to Sinatra. They watched the movie at Frank’s house! I was thinking, I’m sleeping with the fishes. But it turned out he loved the movie. He thought the movie was a riot. He was calling me to say how much he enjoyed it.
Filmmaker: He had good taste. It’s a fun movie that really holds up twenty-five years later.
Landis: There is a very strange thing going on in the last few years, where three movies I’ve made that were not successful upon release – ¡Three Amigos!,Into the Night, and Innocent Blood – for some reason, are getting all this recognition now. It’s very nice, but it’s also weird. People come up to me and say, “I just saw whatever on TV or on cable. Wow, that’s a great movie.” And you know, I say, “Thank you.” But what I want to say is, “Then where the fuck were you?”