With Burke and Hare, John Landis has marked his return to the world of feature filmmaking. He’s kept busy the last few years, albeit not in the way his fans would prefer him to be, but still preoccupied nonetheless. However, this dark romantic comedy brings him back to the genre he once mastered.
Like many of the director’s acclaimed comedies, Burke and Hare is about the unlikeliest of leads.
The murdering duo (played by Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis) could easily slip into being nothing but despicable, but that has always seemed to be a fun challenge for Landis. The Blues Brothers, the Animal House gang, and so on, are not particularly “good” people. In most films, they would be the villains. Landis, on the other hand, always sets out to make them the heroes.
Here’s what the personable John Landis had to say about how this isn’t his return, following antiheroes, being in the intimidating presence of Charles Bronson, and why he didn’t direct The Wolfman:
You’ve been pretty busy the last few years, so what’s it like being asked, “How does it feel to be back?”
Well, I think you know the answer! [Laughs] By the way you asked the question, I think you know. It’s funny, everything I’ve done in the last seven or eight-years, they’ll say, “You haven’t been doing anything!” It’s depressing. A lot of people say to me, “The last thing you did was the documentary on Don Rickles!” Actually, I won an Emmy for that, and it was only two-years ago [Laughs]. Also, that’s not the last thing I did. Obviously, people are referring to theatrical films.
[Laughs] I like how condescending you make that sound, “What have you been doing with yourself?”
Oh, journalists are completely patronizing.
[Laughs] So, you’re not a fan of the publicity process?
Truthfully, you gotta realize I’ve been doing it for almost 40-years. You travel the world, sometimes it’s great fun, and sometimes you come across people who are genuinely passionate about movies. The majority of people in publicity are in the, you know, advertising business. There are people who are enthusiastic about film, but there are people who make their living off of exploiting film. It’s a part of the job, though. You accept it. Honestly, the good part of it is the traveling. While promoting a movie you may get to go to 15 countries, and that’s great.
Also, there’s a herd mentality [with press]. Journalists follow the herd, and what is the sexiest story. Very few people come up with an angle on a movie. Reviews tend to review other reviews. At least 60% of the people I’ve talked to haven’t seen the film. Again, it’s a part of the job.
I know what you mean. With Burke and Hare, I’d say it’s very similar to your earlier films, with how you follow uncommon heroes. What got you interested in that archetype?
That’s interesting. I have to think about that. When I was visiting a friend of mine, Gurinder Chadha, she introduced me to Ealing Studios owner, Barnaby Thomspon. He bought the company as a real-estate deal, and then ended up making movies [Laughs]. He said to me, “Are you the filmmaker John Landis? Would you read a script?” I said, “Of course!” I was aware of Burke and Hare, since there’s been about 15 horror movies based on them. The best one is Robert Wise‘s first feature, The Body Snatcher. Although, it doesn’t have much to do with Burke and Hare. When you say “Burke and Hare,” most people think of grave robbing, but they never robbed a grave. Nonetheless, it’s an infamous tale of these low-life scums murdering people to sell their bodies. Doctors were, essentially, commissioning hits. It’s a grim story. What I found fascinating about the story is how it treats them as romantic heroes, which I thought was so perverse! Despite the movie’s silliness, it’s by far the most accurate out of all the movies.
Going back to the antihero idea — this is a loose connection that I’m using just so I can bring up the film — you worked on Once Upon a Time in the West—
[Laughs] I was a very, very low-level guy on that. I’m not sure if it had a direct influence. Those type of things are your job to figure out! It’s a stretch, but if you to compare me to Sergio Leone, I’m there! [Laughs] The thing about Once Upon a Time in the West it’s really about the railroad and the opening of the West. I don’t know if I’d say that movie is about “antiheroes,” since Charles Bronson’s sole motivation is revenge for the murder of his brother. He’s out to kill Henry Fonda, who is no hero. Jason Robards is probably the most heroic guy in the show, and he’s a bit of a low-life.
Was that an intense set?
No, it was fun for me! I loved it. I lived in Almería at the time, so I would work on any movie I could. I worked on Italian, British, French, German, and even some Spanish movies. It was great fun. Sometimes, it was work and painful, but I was not an important creator on the film. I loved being on the set, and I certainly knew who Leone was. That’s where I met Dario Argento, when I was 19. Dario and Bernardo Bertolucci wrote Once Upon a Time in the West, and they were both film critics.
[Laughs] You should start taking credit for the film. Just say you’d slip an idea or two to Leone every so often.
Right, well, that’s not true [Laughs]. Again, everything about history is suspect. Everyone who writes adds something to the story and even the witnesses aren’t reliable. In the film business, everyone mythologizes their importance. You’ve seen Rashomon! You know how it works! On that movie, I was just a kid lucky to be working. I was happy to be there. I got to talk to Henry Fonda, so I thought I was an important guy [Laughs].
[Laughs] I’m guessing you didn’t chat much with Bronson? He was never known as being the friendliest of guys.
Actually, I worked on about four or five films with Bronson. I met Michael Winner because I did stunts on Chato’s Land, which was where I met my future DP, Robert Paynter. He just passed away, but he shot nine or ten movies for me. Charles Bronson, yeah, he was not the friendliest guy. He would pretty much sit all by himself. On Chato’s Land, where he was the star at around 51 or 52-years-old, he played an Indian, so he wore a loincloth for the entire movie. I just remember thinking, “Man, he’s in good shape.” He wasn’t a very tall guy, but he was muscular and had a powerful presence. He would sit there, and just glower. Nobody would ever talk to him [Laughs].
[Laughs] That sounds intense.
Well, you know, every actor is different. I don’t think he had a lot to say.
[Laughs] Do you see yourself continuing in independent filmmaking? Is your next film, The Rivals, independently financed?
The Rivals is completely independent. I don’t know, though. I have nothing against the studios. It’s a different time, and I’m not sure if I’d be hired by them. Briefly I was involved in replacing that guy for The Wolfman, but that was clearly a mistake. I’m glad that didn’t workout [Laughs].
[Laughs] You dodged a bullet there.
Yeah… that was a disaster. They wouldn’t let me change the script, and I thought the script sucked [Laughs]. They had already built the sets, and they were close to filming. It was clearly going to be a train-wreck. In the film industry, it’s completely difficult to get funding for a movie. The only way you’re going to make something out of the mainstream — well, you could go to the studios and make a comic-book movie first, but I’m not interested in that. I’ll work when I can, and when I’m given the opportunity to.
Burke and Hare is now available on VOD and SundanceNow.com, and it also opens in limited release on September 9th.