Edgar Wright Talks with John Landis About ‘Animal House’

Asks for Babs!

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written back in 2011 when this screening took place.

Edgar Wright continued his film festival he named The Wright Stuff II at New Beverly Cinema with “Animal House,” and joining him for this screening was special guest John Landis who directed it and succeeded in making what Wright called the first “adult gross out comedy ever.” Landis said director Todd Phillips had already made three movies where he did several shot for shot steals from “Animal House,” and even Wright had to admit he may have subconsciously stolen the taking coat gag for “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” from it as well.

“Animal House” was Landis’ third film, and he made it soon after finishing “Kentucky Fried Movie.” However, he was not the first choice to direct as it was initially offered to John Schlesinger (“Midnight Cowboy”), then later to Richard Fleischer (“20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”) and Mike Nichols (“The Graduate”) who all turned it down. Landis said they all passed on it saying, “Are you fucking kidding me?”

Landis was drawn to this project by what he called “a very smart script” written by Doug Kenney, Harold Ramis and Chris Miller. Landis gave a lot of the credit to Kenney who had come to this from the Harvard Lampoon where he was described as being “consistently brilliant.” Kenney wrote scripts called “Laser Orgy Girls” and “Charles Manson In High School,” but then he did “High School Yearbook” which eventually evolved into “Animal House.” The thought was there were so many off-color elements to where it made more sense to set it in college.

“Animal House” marked the film debut of many young actors who would soon become big stars in their own right. It was John Belushi’s first movie, and he was already an established star thanks to “Saturday Night Live.” Tom Hulce was doing the play “Equis” on Broadway when cast, and Bruce McGill was discovered doing Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” As for Karen Allen, she originally drove her friend to audition for it, but she never planned to audition herself. But Landis took one look and told her, “First off, you just lost a friend. Second, we want you in the movie!”

Others from “Saturday Night Live” were considered, but Lorne Michaels was getting pissed about losing more of his cast. While Landis got Belushi despite a crazy schedule which had him available for only three days a week, Michaels refused to let Dan Aykroyd be in it. Then there was Chevy Chase, the show’s first breakout star, who was getting offered everything and decided to do “Foul Play” with Goldie Hawn instead.

The only veterans in “Animal House” were Tim Matheson who started off as a child actor, and Donald Sutherland who was already a big star. All of Sutherland’s scenes were shot in two days, and he was offered $35,000 plus gross points. Sutherland, however, instead took an offer of a flat $50,000 which turned out later to be a mistake as the movie made over $140 million. Everyone else was paid scale except for Belushi, and the horse got $150,000. This led Landis to admit, “I got paid less than the horse!”

The late John Vernon who played Dean Wormer was talked about quite a bit. Vernon played his role so deadly straight, and Landis said Vernon got exactly what the movie was all about. Vernon was also the only one involved with “Animal House” who knew it would be a success as Landis remarked at how he said, “No one realizes what an important movie this will be.”

“Animal House” had a budget of $2.1 million, was shot in 32 days and averaged about 43 setups each day of shooting. Landis said the studio left them alone during the making of it, but they later complained about certain things. They did not like the actors who were chosen and even said, “Why’d you hire John Vernon?! He’s a television actor, a villain in a Clint Eastwood movie!”

The studio also voiced concern over the scene where some of the characters visit a black bar. They feared, Landis quoted them as saying, that “black people will riot” and would “tear up the screen.” But Landis and the producers were adamant of how the scene was told from a white person’s perspective and that it was meant to be subjective. Landis even got Richard Pryor’s take on it, and Pryor said, “I think it’s funny and white people are crazy!”

Studio executives also had an issue with the girls never being shown going home after the party. This led one of them to ask, “How do we know those girls weren’t raped?”

Test screening “Animal House” was an interesting story. The filmmakers took it to Denver where it had audiences screaming with laughter. Landis even taped the audience’s reaction and played it for Belushi over the phone. As a result, Belushi jumped at the chance to attend another screening of it in Atlanta where it ended up being shown to a bunch of what Landis called “drunken booksellers” who sat in stone cold silence throughout. Landis said Belushi came out of it saying the movie needed to be recut, but he was told to shut up by the producers who reminded him he wasn’t around for the Denver preview.

In the end, audiences found “Animal House” to be extremely funny and filled with many laugh-out loud moments, and that’s even if not everybody got the Belushi erection joke. That there was a sold-out audience at the New Beverly is proof of how it continues to stand the test of time. Landis thanked everyone for coming out and said the movie will soon be debuting on Blu-ray, and that all the grain which was taken out while being remastered has been put right back in.

Blue Collar

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Even though it was made back in 1978, “Blue Collar” doesn’t feel at all dated thematically. Dealing with crooked unions and frustrations with a job that never pays you enough is something many of us still deal with in this day and age. Watching it more than 30 years after its initial release makes me wonder how much, if any, progress has been made for any American workers.

Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto star as a trio of Detroit auto workers who work hard at their jobs but never get much respect for what they do. They get crap thrown at them by their superiors, and the union doesn’t seem all that interested in helping them. The divisions between the blue and white collar workers are heavily pronounced, and tensions and bitterness are always at an all-time high.

Pryor’s character of Zeke Brown feels especially disrespected and is never afraid to hide his frustrations from the union or anyone else who pisses him off. Even worse, Zeke gets a visit from the IRS informing him of back taxes he can’t even afford to pay. Keitel’s character of Jerry Bartowski works at a gas station as well as the auto factory, but barely make ends meet and can’t even afford braces for his daughter who desperately needs them. Then there’s Kotto’s character of Smokey James, a man who served time in prison and is well aware of how the class structure is designed to keep everyone where they are so the powerful people can stay powerful. But even he has his breaking point, and he’s finally reaching it after all this time.

Fed up with the union’s incompetence, the three men rob the union of the money they keep in their not very well hidden vault. The robbery is sloppily handled, but they make out with the safe which has only a few hundred dollars, but it also contains a ledger which shows how seriously corrupt the union is. On top of being involved in an illegal loan lending operation, the ledger also shows their ties with organized crime syndicates. With this information, they decide to blackmail the crooked union into giving them tons of cash which will take care of all their financial problems. Their plan, however, soon exposes their naïve nature as the union quickly resorts to methods which can never be mistaken as legal.

What will happen from there will tear friendships apart and leave them paranoid of one another and of those they can’t trust. “Blue Collar” works as a critique of those unions which poorly represent their workers, and it is also a brilliant character piece and a thriller where lives hang in the balance as the powers that be aren’t about to be comprised by anyone, especially those in the lower class.

“Blue Collar” was Schrader’s directorial debut, and it’s a remarkably impressive one. He vividly captures the hard-working atmosphere these men inhabit and is aided by a tough as nails blues song for the movie’s main title which was performed by the late Captain Beefheart. There are moments in the “Hard Workin’ Man” song where all the other instruments disappear except for a deep thundering metal boom which hints at the anger and frustration slowly boiling to the surface for these characters. The environment they work in is harsh and unforgiving, and while they value what they do, no one above them seems to as they are considered to be easily disposable.

This was one of Pryor’s few dramatic roles, but it’s not bereft of his humor. Considering his work as a comedian and a social satirist, he is perfectly cast here and infuses the Zeke with humor and a wounded soul which will never fully be mended. Pryor really shows an acting range most dramatic actors only dream of having.

In fact, that’s the sad thing about watching Pryor in this film; he really was one of the lost dramatic actors of our time as he never got to play many serious roles which were deserving of his talent. We all know him to be one of the best comedians ever, and he did star in some very funny movies. Still, he got stuck in a lot of crappy ones which never utilized his talents fully, and it is an enormous loss he never got to do more dramatic work.

Keitel gives another great performance in a career filled with them, and he always inhabits his characters more than play them. Jerry Bartowski is a strong guy on the surface, but seeing him become completely unraveled after the robbery allows Keitel to expose the character’s vulnerabilities of which there are plenty. There are moments where he doesn’t utter a word and yet you can see on his face what is racing through his anxiety-ridden mind. Bartowski may see himself as his own man who answers to no one, but he soon finds there is a limit to the choices he has when it comes to keeping his head above water.

Kotto, who has since become one of the most undervalued actors working today, has constantly been cast as an unforgettable imposing presence in every film he has appeared in. Whether it’s as Parker in “Alien,” Special Agent Mosley in “Midnight Run” or as Al Giardello on the brilliant “Homicide: Life on the Street,” he never fails in giving us a character who feels larger than life. “Blue Collar” is no exception as he portrays someone wise about the world around him, but not wise enough to know when he and his pals are digging a hole too deep for them to climb out of. His character’s fate feels the most tragic as a result, and the last scene he has is amazing in its power.

With Schrader’s movies, a common theme runs through them of the emasculated male wanting to make a difference in a society he sees as corrupt and in need of saving. Be it Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” Willem Dafoe as John LeTour in “Light Sleeper” or even Nick Nolte as Wade Whitehouse from “Affliction,” Schrader deals fearlessly with characters whose hold on sanity we see constantly erode. Now with the three leads in “Blue Collar,” each of them are pushed to the limit as they slowly realize the trouble they have brought upon themselves. Watching it destroy their friendship, which brings about a strong mistrust between them, is as fascinating as it is painful to witness.

I’m not sure how many people out there are aware of “Blue Collar,” but it is one of those movies from the 70’s deserving of a big audience from one generation to the next. Watching it today is even more bittersweet as those auto factories in Michigan where the movie was shot no longer exist. It was tough for the people who worked there back then, but imagine what it must be like for them now. The movie ends in a freeze frame which brilliantly encapsulates how the union and those in power continue to stay on top of the working man. After all these years, it doesn’t feel like much has changed, but anyone and everyone out there is welcome to prove me wrong.

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Blazing Saddles

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Blazing Saddles” is one of Mel Brooks’ funniest comedies and one which invites repeat viewings as there are always jokes still waiting to be discovered. It acts as a satire of the western genre as well as the racism which was obscured by Hollywood’s creation of myths regarding the American West. But as funny as it is, it also offers the viewer a moving story about a black sheriff who manages to win over a town on the verge of being taken over by murderers and thieves. It also gleefully breaks the rules to where places and people are added that were never really part of the American West in the first place.

The wonderful Harvey Korman plays Hedley Lamarr, the State Attorney General who wants to get his hands on the town of Rock Ridge where the land is worth millions. His attempts to frighten the people out of their town includes getting cowboys to ride in and shoot their guns, creating a havoc which makes everyone living there fearful and anxious. But when that doesn’t work, Lamarr comes up with what he believes is an ingenious idea; he hires a black man to become the new Sheriff of Rock Ridge with the belief his “mere presence” will scare everyone out of there. Of course, things do not go as planned.

Looking back at “Blazing Saddles” all these years later, it still stands up mainly because Brooks is not out to make the actors simply go for the joke. Instead they play many scenes straight instead of trying to be funny, and this makes the humor work even more than it already does. With a satire like this, it helps to have characters you care about regardless of how ridiculous their actions may be. Most movie satires and spoofs these days keep forgetting this as they are more persistent in selling the joke to the audience instead of giving the story any real substance.

The late Cleavon Little portrays Bart who becomes the Sheriff and immediately meets resistance to his presence because of the color of his skin. Regardless of how infinitely intelligent and cool he is compared to the idiotic residents of Rock Ridge, he has to work real hard to win them over. Little has so many inspired moments in the movie like when he sings a Cole Porter song instead of the “Camptown Races” which the racist cowboys assume blacks sing all the time.

Many may accuse “Blazing Saddles” of playing up black stereotypes in order to get easy laughs, but they completely miss the point. Brooks and his team of writers, which included Richard Pryor, turn those stereotypes upside down and expose them for the falsehoods they have always been. Seeing the residents of Rock Ridge overzealous reactions to Bart’s behavior, such as him saying “excuse me while I whip this out” when he takes out his written speech, are indicative of their overt racism more than anything else. Seeing them act so stupidly out of fear and sheer ignorance gives the movie some of its most side-splitting moments.

Another memorable performance comes from the great Gene Wilder who plays Jim, a.k.a. The Waco Kid, the fastest gun in the world. While Wilder is best remembered at times for playing neurotic characters, he is as cool as can be in this film. Seeing him play it so cool in moments where his precision with a pistol is stupidly questioned by others who don’t know him is so much fun to take in. His character is a riff on the one Dean Martin played in “Rio Bravo,” and Wilder is such a blast to watch throughout.

“Blazing Saddles” also provided the late Madeline Khan with one of her most famous roles, the German singer Lili von Shtupp whose name is inexplicably censored on the movie’s television version. She is endlessly brilliant in her rendition of the song “I’m Tired,” and it makes for one of the most unforgettable comic performances ever captured on film.

There are many unforgettably hysterical scenes throughout “Blazing Saddles” which stand up to repeat viewings. The campfire scene is as obscene as it is gut-bustlingly hilarious, and you may find yourself laughing harder than you ever have before. Brooks himself plays a couple of parts like the severely lacking in intelligence Gov. William J. Le Petomane and an Indian Chief who, for some bizarre reason, speaks Yiddish. Other actors like the great Slim Pickens and Burton Gilliam have us gasping with laughter just by looking at the befuddled expressions on their faces.

Along with a great music score by John Morris and beautiful cinematography by Joseph F. Biroc, “Blazing Saddles” has more than earned its place on the list of greatest comedies ever made. There is tremendous delight in watching Brooks throw caution and logic to the wind as he throws in the unexpected like Count Basie and his orchestra performing in the desert while Bart rides by, or having Nazis sign up for Lamar’s final battle at Rock Ridge. It doesn’t matter if it makes sense or because you just want the laughs to keep on coming (and they do). With a comedy like this, you can never be sure what will happen next!

By the way, be sure to watch “Blazing Saddles” in the widescreen version. Brooks shot the movie in Panavision scope, and it has never ever translated well to the realm of pan-and-scan.

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Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

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