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'Animal House' Director John Landis Talks "Charles Manson In High School" Origins, Cast & The Legacy Of The Comedy Classic

Photo of Drew Taylor By Drew Taylor | The Playlist January 29, 2013 at 4:05PM

Tomorrow night, at San Francisco's San Francisco Comedy Festival, hosted by SF Sketchfest, is a 35th anniversary retrospective screening of John Landis' 1978 college comedy classic "National Lampoon's Animal House." Following the screening will be a Q&A and conversation between Landis and writer/comedian, Carl Arnheiter. In anticipation of this event, we got to chat with Landis about the making of this seminal comedy, plus myriad other topics. As anyone who has seen or heard Landis speak over the years knows that he can talk at length about anything. The director of "Trading Places," "The Blues Brothers," "Coming to America," "An American Werewolf in London" and more '80s classics, Landis' encyclopedic knowledge of cinema makes Quentin Tarantino seem like an unlearned noob, so on the eve of screening and conversation we're going to pare down our chat with Landis to just focus on "Animal House." More stories from the always-chatty director (and king of anecdotes) to come.
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Some of Nadoolman Landis' costume work in "National Lampoon's Animal House"
Some of Nadoolman Landis' costume work in "National Lampoon's Animal House"
What about the cast?
The writers knew all these guys – they wrote the part of Otter for Chevy Chase [Tim Matheson played the part]. They wrote the part of Bluto for John Belushi. Now this was the first season of "Saturday Night Live" and it wasn't a hit show but it was a critical smash and had huge cache. John and Chevy were breakout stars. And so during the second season we were shooting. Belushi commuted, which was amazing – he would perform Saturday night, Sunday morning he would fly to San Francisco, from San Francisco he would fly to Portland, and then he'd do the two hour drive to Eugene, Oregon. He'd get to Eugene on Sunday night, we'd shoot Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday he would work during the day, do the red eye to New York, rehearsal for Saturday night, then do the whole thing over again. And he did that for four weeks.

Did you have any idea it would have such a cultural impact?
Listen, I have made a lot of hit movies, and you have no fucking clue. Everybody works on movies the same way. My wife, the brilliant costume designer Deborah Nadoolman, who designed the costumes for "Animal House," she designed "1941" for Steven Spielberg and then right after "Raiders of the Lost Ark." "1941," her work is brilliant, "Raiders of the Lost Ark" her work is fine but "Raiders of the Lost Ark" was a low budget, difficult picture. Of course now it's this cultural landmark but everyone who worked on the movie had a miserable time. So you never know. And your credits, it's only the hit movies that matter. And, as you know, the success of a movie has to do with luck, timing, marketing, and the zeitgeist. So many great movies failed and so many bad movies have been big hits. So you never know.

Can you talk about the score to "Animal House?"
The real two innovations of "Animal House," which people never talk about, that had a big impact… I went to school with Peter Bernstein, whose father was Elmer Bernstein. Elmer took me to see The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl when I was 15. So I've known this guy. And my intention was to score the film dramatically. The convention was comedy scoring. The great Henry Mancini, with his score for "The Pink Panther," was comedy music. That was the style and had been the style since the '30s but I wanted to score it as straight drama. And I remember the head of music at Universal, when I said I'd like Elmer Bernstein to score, he looked at me and said, "Elmer Bernstein? He won't return your call." And I thought, "Oh yeah, fuck you!" So I called Elmer and I told him what I wanted and he did a brilliant job. And that has become the style.

The other thing, that I started in "Kentucky Fried Movie," is that comedy is funnier the straighter it's played. I don't necessarily mean straight as in dramatic, what I mean is that the character has to be sincere. It has to be played straight. So actors, who are not known for comedy, do comedy brilliantly. And so I wanted, for the dean, Jack Webb, I thought he would be brilliant. I ended up hiring John Vernon, who was the badguy from "The Outlaw Josey Wales." The studio was furious with me for my cast. When I went to New York I cast Tommy Hulce out of "Amadeus," Mark Metcalf out of "Streamers"… Kevin Bacon and Karen Allen hadn't done anything, they were kids! The studio said, "Get Chevy Chase and John Belushi or we're shutting down the picture."

At the time, I didn't know him but I didn't want Chevy Chase because I felt, at that moment, that you wanted to accept these people as the characters. Every Saturday night Chevy Chase looked at the camera and said, "I am Chevy Chase and you are not." He played Chevy Chase in everything he's ever done. I didn't want that. Belushi finally agreed to do it, even though he thought the part was too small, mainly because I showed him "Kentucky Fried Movie" and he loved the "Fistful of Yen" bit. The bottom line was that the studio finally called me and said, "John, get us a fucking movie star and we're shutting you down." And that's how Donald Sutherland ended up in the movie.

He was a huge star at the time. I met him on "M*A*S*H" when I was a mail boy. He was shooting "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" for Philip Kaufman and I called him up and said, "You have to do this for me." He worked two days on the movie and the story is that the studio offered him $35,000 and 15 net points. He called me up and said, "John, it's Universal – I can't do this, they've got to pay me." So it ended up that he ended up making $50,000 for one day's work (he promised me three days) and no points. 15 net points in "Animal House" by 1980 was worth $19 million. He still talks about it. So he did me that favor and I owe him big time. In the script was the pot smoking scene and the scene with Katie and on the day I said that we have to have a scene that shows him teaching and that wonderful scene where we see him teaching Milton was written by Doug Kenney, like the Gettysburg Address, on the back of an envelope.

For tickets and schedules, visit the Sketchfest site.

This article is related to: John Landis, Animal House, Interviews, Interviews, Features


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