A few years ago I covered a special advance screening of "Hot Fuzz," which the Film Society of Lincoln Center previewed a week prior to its U.S. release. Director Edgar Wright and stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost were in attendance for a Q&A, which was moderated by Kevin Smith, and the event was beyond sold out (a long line of waiting-list hopefuls stood outside NYC's Walter Reade Theater with little luck on their side).
I thought about that night this past Thursday, when a similar preview of "Burke and Hare" was comparatively light on attendance (as was its follower, a preview of James Wan's "Insidious"). This time only director John Landis was present (Pegg, who also stars in this, was shooting the new "Mission: Impossible" film in Vancouver), but he is after all John Landis, director of a handful of classics and a genuinely funny and genial guy. If anything there should be plenty of New Yorkers anxious to hear some stories by the guy behind "An American Werewolf in London," nearing its 30th anniversary, and also see his latest, which veers close to horror yet settles more on the buddy-comedy genre he's tackled previously with "Blues Brothers" and "Spies Like Us."
"I found 14 films based on Burke and Hare," Landis told the crowd at the Walter Reade, regarding the new film's true-life inspiration and its antecedents, "and the irony is that, one, they're all horror pictures (except "The Anatomist"). So the appeal of doing it as a kind of romantic comedy appealed to me. The real irony is that ours is by far the most accurate."
One of the things Landis did with "Burke and Hare" that made it so accurate was to faithfully set the film just prior to the Victorian era (unlike the other films, which cheated by a few decades). And in doing so he learned that it's not hard to shoot Victorian, but it's "fucking impossible" to shoot Regency. Especially since it is near-totally filmed on location in Edinburgh, much on four streets that are "pretty much" unchanged after 200 years. To fit the romantic (black) comedy tone and story as scripted by Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft ("St. Trinian's"), some inaccuracies were allowed, such as Pegg's romantic lead, played by Isla Fischer, and some of how it ends (not to spoil anything, but Burke's fate is still mostly historically correct, at least). This is all fine for a resulting work that excellently satirizes the foundations of progress as being love and violence.
And boy what a cast this film has. In addition to Pegg (as Burke) and Fischer, the film stars Andy Serkis as Hare, Pegg's old "Spaced" costar Jessica Hynes, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Curry and Ronnie Corbett who scene-chews his way above them all. Then there are seemingly hundreds of old vets of the film history and filmmaker cameos, as Landis loves to do (by the way, there's also a great little nod to the "doctor, doctor" bit in "Spies Like Us"). Some of the blink-and-you'll-miss-them appearances include Christopher Lee, Ray Harryhausen, Jenny Agutter and Costa-Gavras. Landis had a few things to say about three of his favorites:
On Ronnie Corbett:
"Ronnie Corbett is what they call in England a 'National Treasure,' which means you've been on television for 30 years. There used to be "The Two Ronnies," Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Parker, and I was in London in 1975 [to co-write "The Spy Who Loved Me"] when The Two Ronnies were big. I adored their show. I [later] offered the part of the butler in "Trading Places" to Ronnie Barker, who said, 'I'm happy to work, but it must be within London's city limits.' He wouldn't come to New York and Philadelphia so I gave it to Denholm Elliott. So years later: Ronnie Corbett is actually from Edinburgh and I told him, 'you're going to have to use your real accent,' and he said, 'I've been studying my whole life to try and not to.' But the producers were not happy with a lot of my cast, because the idea of hiring Ronnie Corbett, who they thought was old and tired. The same thing I got from Paramount when I wanted Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy for "Trading Places," because Don hadn't worked in 14 years. Same thing: they're old. By the way, Ray Harryhausen's 90."
On Ray Harryhausen:
"He wouldn't stop calling. He's such a pain in the ass, Ray Harryhausen. I've known Ray for 40 years, and I'm just a huge Ray Harryhausen fan. About eight months ago I hosted a thing in London at the National Film Theatre that was wonderful because there are very few people as influential as Ray Harryhausen. To give you an idea, I contacted people and said I'm doing this tribute to Ray. So, for instance, Rick Baker flew from L.A., Dennis Muran...I'm leaving so many people out. And those who couldn't come made little films. Guillermo Del Toro, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Jim Cameron, Frank Darabont. Peter Jackson flew from New Zealand and showed these terrific 8mm movies he made, copying Harryhausen. There are very few people with that kind of impact that Ray's movies did on our generation. It was really something. Ray said, 'Geez, normally people have to die to hear this.'"
On Christopher Lee:
"Just before we shot this he was knighted. The thing about the knighthood for Chris, is he's someone who understands what it means. And he loves it and thinks it's great. But there's no way in Hell he would ever call himself Sir Christopher Lee in the credits, whereas Ben Kingsley, you must call him Sir Ben or he doesn't answer. [I said to him], 'Chris, how wonderful you're being knighted, that's so great.' He went, 'Oh, John, I'll be knighted and all the papers will say 'Dracula is knighted' and 'Sir Dracula.'' 'Chris, don't be ridiculous. You have such an extraordinary body of work.' And all the papers said 'Dracula is knighted.' Christopher Lee as an actor has been in more films than any other actor, ever. It's amazing. He speaks perfect Spanish, French, Italian, German, pretty good Russian. And he's made movies in all those languages. So there's a lot of Christopher Lee movies we'll never see. Thank god, because most are terrible. Certain actors, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing...there are all these terrific actors, it doesn't matter how bad the movie is, they're terrific. In his 80s, within two years he was in the biggest hits of the decade, "Lord of the Rings" and one of the "Star Wars" pictures. Even as an old man in the "Star Wars" he's the only guy who has any integrity on screen. It's like Peter Cushing. Darth Vader walking around with James Earl Jones' voice, who cares? But Peter Cushing [as Grand Moff Tarkin] is genuinely intense. I love those guys. It's like Boris Karloff. They're just people with great integrity"
Moderator Gavin Smith, of Film Comment also asked if it was true this is Landis' first time shooting in scope. It was, and here's the reason why:
"I actually should have shot more in scope. My partner and editor George Folsey always wanted me to shoot anamorphic. The vast majority of people still see your movie on television (and now computers and telephones). The most successful film of all time still is "Gone With the Wind" in terms of bums on seats, or paid admissions. "Gone With the Wind" blows "Star Wars" and any other movie out of the water. More people saw that in a theater than any other movie ever made. But, when NBC showed it on a Sunday night, more people saw it in one night than had ever in the theater. So, I hated pan and scan and didn't want them to fuck up my film, so I never did [allow it]. Now everything's a rectangle. I regret not shooting "Three Amigos" and "Blues Brothers" in scope, but everything else I'm perfectly happy with."
I wonder if he has any other thoughts on the idea of adapting movies to fit the way we watch them. But for now, regarding those old films of his, such as "Three Amigos," he did have something to say about their legacy:
"John Huston said motion picture directors, buildings and prostitutes grow respectable with age. And I turned 60 and it's like, 'hey, remember those movies we shit on? We now think they're classic films.'"
Or at least beloved. Landis told the audience that he secured one location for "Burke and Hare" through a fan of "An American Werewolf in London" and even got his father buried where he's buried due to someone's love for "Blues Brothers." Perhaps, even though "Burke and Hare" isn't getting stellar reviews, it too will be considered a classic in time, or at least have its own devoted fans, if people outside of the UK even get to see it. As far as I can tell, the film has no formal U.S. distribution plans. Hopefully there will be other means of Americans seeing it soon.