Without doubt, Edgar Wright's popular "Festival of Films" peaked with the appearance of John Landis at the screening of the feature film - "American Werewolf" - at the New Beverly Cinema a few weeks ago.
By 7 o'clock, the dimly-lit street was lined with an eclectic gaggle of excited film buffs hankering to get inside the theatre to participate in the much-ballyhooed event.
Host, Edgar Wright - celebrated director of "Shaun of the Dead" - appeared to be a little overwhelmed as Landis took charge of the stage. The Twilight Zone director stood before the audience confidently. In fact, the seasoned auteur was in top form, except for a raspy gangster-style voice which he attributed to a bad cold.
When a filmgoer asked Landis if there was any flack over the "end" scenario in "Werewolf" - he laughed - repeating what he said to the suits matter-of-fact at the time.
"Heh, he's dead." What can I say?
Landis conceded, though, it was not an easy-go mustering up a green light for the feature to be shot on location in London (England). The script was originally turned down by all the majors (same old same old), and passed on by biggies like Don Simpson, Barry Miller, and a handful of other wary industry-insiders.
Paramount begged off, too, for instance.
Then, the whiz kid maneuvered a meeting with "Gubers & Peters" over at Polygram - "who ran that company into the ground, by the way" - he noted, in an aside. Turning to Wright, he flippantly noted that their offices used to be situated where the "Euro Trash" restaurant is now.
Yeah, his conversation was spiced with clever jibes, insightful gems about folks encountered along the highway, and keen insights on the biz.
Although he was grateful a deal was pacted for "Wolf" - he accused both Gubers and Peters of - "never even reading the script".
The thriller, curiously enough, was written years prior - and although not produced until much later - was the project that managed to get his foot in the door elsewhere to conjure up his wizardry on other projects.
"They thought I was cool and hip because "Animal House" and "Blues Brothers" were under my belt," he chortled wickedly, inferring the opposite was true.
The audience roared.
Yeah, Landis (with salt and pepper "do") and a layer of insulation around the middle - appeared more for-all-the-world the accountant or exec on the sidelines of Tinsel town - than artsy-fartsy film auteur.
In a moment of sudden recall, he laughed that the dynamic duo actually made a pitch for legendary actor Laurence Oliver to play a key role.
"Can you get him?" they asked excitedly.
"Why?" he asked incredulously.
The Oscar-winning actor had just signed on for "Dracula" - so his appeal was broad to Guber & Peters - who were forever whining. Landis stressed his intention to cast "no names" in the key roles - but relented a little.
"Maybe a TV actor, but that's about it," he allegedly responded.
Then, a deal was struck; well - sort-of.
As Landis was about to exit the contract talks - the Gubers & Peters team pestered him for an up-front role as - CEO, producers with credit - or something flakey and superfluous like that.
It took two to tango; in sum, they'd okay the deal with the studio if Landis ponied up $300,000.00, according to the filmmaker.
Landis was flabbergasted.
"On my negative pick-up film, they want credit and cash?"
He wondered aloud if that was legal, but handed them the moolah anyway, in spite of the bad taste it was leaving in his mouth.
"Check your wallet and your watch," he quipped to his partner as they exited.
Wright commended Landis for the memorable soundtrack on "Werewolf" and applauded him for incorporating known chart-risers into the mix.
At this point, Landis was inclined to go off on a tangent about this 'n that.
For example, it burned his butt that an honest effort to strike a deal with songwriter Bob Dylan for a song in his roster to match up with dialogue in the feature, stalled.
"Just my luck," he lamented with a disgusted look on his face.
"Dylan just got on a religion kick and found Christ."
Therefore, because the film was rated "R", the songwriter was reluctant to release the material for the project.
"Three weeks later he changed his mind about Christianity. I knew, the guy was a fu**ing Jew."
Although there was a noticeable gasp from a few shocked filmgoers, others broke into gales of laughter.
Then - Landis went on to bit** a little about Donovan - who rejected his bid for the poplular hit, "Hurdy Gurdy Man".
Again, the stars in the mid-heavens were against him. At a minimum - a higher power appeared to be thwarting the creative process - he theorized slightly amused.
Apparently, Donovan was in the process of converting to Muslim. So, the celebrated flower child refused to sign on the dotted line.
"He wasn't even a born-again Muslim," Landis screamed.
"Just a first-time Muslim."
"Yeah, I was fighting both Allah and Jesus."
The audience howled!
Then, he shared with the audience how incedulous he was, when he later learned that Donovan granted release of "Peace Train" for a Volkswagen Ad. The sinister, ironic implications, hit the fan.
Landis never lets up, does he?
When talk focused on an Elvis number Landis was inclined to include in the soundtrack for "Wolf", his angst reared its ugly head again.
Apparently, when the Vegas headliner passed away, there wasn't any legally binding will. So, the estate went into probate and subsequent limbo.
Landis proceeded to reveal the sordid tale about the battle for control of the estate.
Colonel Tom Parker was suing RCA for a piece of the pie, for instance. And, to make matters worse, so was Priscilla. In a counter-attack, RCA launched litigation against both the Colonel and Priscilla, which complicated issues further.
In sum, a whirlwind of knotty legal proceedings threw a monkey wrench into the Landis plans. Not to be dissuaded, and optimist that he was, Landis met with the Colonel first (at the Polo Lounge) and later with Priscilla (elsewhere).
At this juncture, Landis accused El's manager of taking nine dollars out of every ten dollars earned; basically, he lambasted Parker for ripping Presley off.
However, Landis was a little off-base there. Old news!
In show business, it was a well-known documented fact that Elvis was keenly aware of the money Parker was drawing on the payroll for acting as chief wrangler in the "kid's" music career.
El was inclined to leave a wide berth for the Colonel - let the former Carnie man "take care of business" - content to loll about, play with his handguns, and pop a few spritely-colored pills along the way.
Maybe the endless tripe - poor quality projects, for instance - caused the star's depression and exacerbated the extreme highs and lows. But, make no mistake about it, Elvis was pretty much in control and many witnesses can attest to that.
Landis concluded his anecdotes by remarking,
"Well, Elvis was white trash."
A fractured groan signaled disbelief in the audience.
At this point, I'd be remiss if I didn't note for the record that the Landis comments (remarkably off-putting as they were) did not appear to arise from any particularly mean-spirited place - especially those uttered in respect to Dylan and Donovan.
With certainty, I surmise that Landis is an equal opportunity insulter, who takes pot shots at everyone while caught up in the headiness of the moment without thought.
Clearly, Landis is not socially or political savvy enough to fathom the consequence of such conduct, nor is he ever mindful of how hurtful or regrettable they may be.
Surely, if a man admires an artist's work - and negotiates fervently to marry the creative musings in a collaborative effort with his own - there is a basis for concluding that the man in question is not a racist, bigot, or some such thing.
However, a Lady Diana remark crossed the line, in my opinion.
For example, when a filmgoer asked Landis about a "credit" at the end of the reel for the "Princess of Wales & Prince Charles" - without hesitation - he blurted out a "vile" remark in respect to Lady Di which I won't repeat here.
Judging by the response of a few audience members (and the look on his own face) Landis - most assuredly - was struck dumbfounded by the awkward silence which hung thick in the air.
He quickly alleged the vulgar misspeak leapt to the fore because of an ongoing joke among his closest buddies. The comment didn't cast an aspersion on her name or reputation, but it was ugly.
Due to the nature of her death - and in the wake of the sorrow expressed by those who held the Princess in high esteem - Landis overstepped the bounds of good taste and decency.
I trust he's reeling at the thought of his actions today.
In an effort to move things along, Wright interjected that "Wolf" was ambitious.
Landis noted it was an important film in England.
Ever the good diplomat, Wright quickly asserted, "In the U.S., too."
In discussing the logistics of shooting overseas, Landis casually made reference to the British Quota Plan which a handful of the filmmakers in the audience were unfamiliar with. So, he offered up a mini-lecture on the subject, after quipping, "You don't normally learn about this in Film School."
After he quickly reviewed the point system used for hiring English and American talent in the film industry, a couple of anecdotes made more sense to the audience mostly populated by a mid-twenties to late-thirties age demographic.
A similar program exists in Canada to guarantee equal employment opportunities.
In another blooper moment, Mr. Landis curiously remarked,
"Thatcher, the Anti-Christ, drew a stake in the heart of the British Quota Plan and killed it."
"Gee, don't know why I said that," he added sheepishly.
Landis theorized that the "New Cinema" - hailed for a nano second or two when it firsts bursts onto the scene in Cinematic History every decade or so - was not due to the sudden insurgence of new talent; but rather, because Governments allotted funding to start-up projects which previously floundered for lack of seed money.
Schools like - Fassbinder's "New German Cinema", "The Kitchen Sink" school, and the Italian Neo-Realism movement - evolved that way, he conjectured.
The eye-catching scenes for "Wolf" in Piccadilly Circus were problematic and posed headaches; mainly due to the fact the IRA bombing crisis was ongoing in London at the time of shooting.
To complicate matters, there wasn't any "permit system" in place. Generally, Landis noted, the decision to grant filming was left up to the "Bobby" on the beat.
Yeah, they could be bribed, he alleged.
The privilege of filming in the square was allegedly revoked due to the outlandish antics of the production crew on the set of "Jokers".
As the legend goes, a few years ago, the 1st assistant tossed a smoke bomb into street, impromptu. Then, the ballsy crew man shot the mayhem off the cuff with a hand-held camera. When the sirens signaled the "Bobby Patrol" was on the way, the naughty lenser hopped into the back seat of a Taxi and dashed off.
The astonished crew was left to deal with the law.
In the aftermath, Landis was only allowed to shoot one-to-two minute film sequences at the bustling tourist spot.
As the entertaining evening sped on at the New Beverly Cinema, Landis fondly recalled his first jaunts to England.
He waxed poetic about the quaint old movie houses and fondly recalled that projectionists used to run lavish 35 mm commercials by great filmmakers like Fellini, Ridley Scott, and others.
Now, he sadly noted, the old movie houses - one that was booked for the shoot, in particular - had fallen on hard times and were forced to screen adult porno.
In fact, the first day the crew arrived to set up key scenes, a classic flesh film - "The long Sword of Siegfried" - was screening.
"If you could see the crew's faces," he laughed hysterically.
"They were thinking to themselves, what kind of a project is this anyway?"
Ironically, "American Werewolf" ended up garnering a "BBC X" certificate in England, which is on par with the dreaded "R" rating in the U.S. and Canada.
"Odd," - noted Wright (an Englishman) - "A short time later, any old Joe could watch it on the BBC at home at 8 p.m. on the family hour."
Obviously, the success of a feature depends on the advertising, as well.
The poster featuring two white guys in an alley, peering suspiciously at a black guy, didn't go over well.
"No ni**er will ever go see that," Landis swears Richard Prior screamed.
There he goes again!
So, when the advertising team focused on exploitation themes instead, the poster transformed into a large nightmarish face of a wolf.
"Horror scripts springing from published literary works are key," added Landis.
"The patina of a Dracula or Frankenstein are capable of securing a green light and distrubtion," he asserted.
When "Werewolf" was first screened, Gubers & Peters hated it. The suits did not hold back in their pointed criticisms either; allegedly - they offered up insightful remarks like "F**k this" and "F**k that".
Landis astutely figured "that was that".
Since the raw footage depicted gory scenes which were the most offensive to Gubers & Peters, he reasoned the worst was over and that there would be no further cause for alarm.
So, he prepared an answer print.
As he demurely put it, "The best way to go."
"Not one cut and they loved it," he beamed!
The audience was all ears when lore about Hitchcock was offered up.
Apparently, both Landis and Hitchcock were ensconced in Bungalows at Universal. A fan of the film great, Landis noted the Englishman screened movies all day to keep abreast of the celluloid imaginings of his peers.
Allegedly - the director of such great film classics such as "Psycho" and "Rear Window" - hated it when the filmic style of other directors was referred to as "Hitchcockian in Nature".
I laughed inside.
You see, a few months ago - after screening a handful of short movies by an up-and-coming director - I noted the handful of intriguing film scraps were "Hitchcockian" in style. Intriguing, that Landis brought that issue up.
From the get-go, a comment which smacks of such a suggestion (in my humble opinion) is not only a compliment to whom it is directed - but to Hitch - as well.
While a director's work may hint at the style of Hitchcock - the truth of the matter is - Hitch raised the bar so high that one can only come "this close" to compare.
Yeah, Mr. Hitchcock is in a league of his own. So, it's a plaudit, yes?
Curiously, Landis noted that Hitchcock not only disliked the films of Brian De Palma (who, Landis jokes - he used to like - until he got to know him) but was also disturbed by the idea that Mister De Palma remotely considered his work on par with his own.
When Landis suggested it was an "homage", Hitchcock allegedly retorted in his own inimitable way, "It was fromage".
Homage is one thing, theft quite another.
Landis claims that on more than one occasion - after he was nestled into a comfy seat with popcorn in hand at a theatre - it would become apparent that a filmmaker had stolen from him on screen.
"You owe me money, a**hole," he'd scream at the silver screen in jest.
The quirky director has a healthy disdain for the studios - their greed, for one - which is fueled by the fact they have little sympathy for the up-coming underdog in the industry.
"All they want to do is make money."
When a fan asked about the documentary - "Beware of the Moon" - Landis' first response was a paranoid one.
"Are you a plant? Where are you? Let me get a look at you," he laughed, as he peered into the bright overhead lights squinty-eyed.
After some background on the subject, Landis pointed out that a young documentarian - Brad Davis - ran into a snafu with the project. For starters, it was tough landing releases because Universal bought Polydor - and subsequently - the rights to footage used in "Beware".
But - with some clever legal manipulation and decisive wrangling - the sympathetic film director managed to carve out a deal for the fellow. Commendable!
Mr. Landis is a great storyteller.
From the highways and byways of his life - he not only manages to offer up precious nuggets of wisdom - but insightful peeks into the fascinating personalities of those he's crossed paths with in the topsy-turvey world of the film industry.
In sum, he's downright entertaining.
It's evident that he's rolled with the punches, flowed with the tide - and through it all - uncovered a self-evident truth.
Careers are not written in stone.
"I've been Fu**ed over by a long line of people," he laughed.
In the long and short of it, the good old days - in England - were the fondest.
"I was a pig in s**t," he recalled dreamily.
After controversial comments uttered that evening, he may be in pig s**t again!