Director John Landis came to the Lido with his wife, costume designer and curator Deborah Nadoolman to present the first ever look at the restored version of his 1981 beloved horror classic An American Werewolf in London at the Venice Film Festival. The film is the story of two American college students, Jack (Griffin Dunne) and David (David Naughton) backpacking through Britain when a large wolf attacks them. Jack is brutally killed while David survives the bite, but in the hospital is plagued by violent nightmares of his mutilated friend, who warns him that he is becoming a werewolf. Will the next full moon transform him into a murderous beast? We spoke to him about the film and the restoration process on the terrace of the Palace of Cinema. Landis was wearing a jacket and tie even in the heat of the Lido, and he was as exuberant and fast-talking as ever.
John, An American Werewolf in London is standing the test of time...would you have ever thought it?
It’s so funny, Jack Nicholson once told my wife to never “name drop”, but I am going to do exactly that! John Huston told me once, paraphrasing a line of his from Chinatown, that motion picture directors, prostitutes, and buildings grow respectable with age. And he was quite serious! And I think that it’s absolutely true because critically, especially in the United States, I have always been a schmuck. But I passed 60, and now I am legendary, and it’s a classic film, and I thought f**k, I wish I would have been 60 earlier!
How dear has this movie been to you throughout your career?
Well I had a wonderful time making it. When I finally got the money, which was after a long time, it was a negative pickup deal so that basically meant that I signed the checks. When you make a film you are always working for somebody and someone is putting up all that money. But on this movie it was a real pleasure! If I wanted something, I just would ask John. I would say: “John, could I have a Chapman Crane on Thursday?” And I would answer myself: “Yes you can!” “Thank you!” (he says laughing). It was a lot of fun to make.
Did you have to cut budgets?
No. It was a ten million dollar negative pickup and we made it for eight million dollars and then it went into incredibly complicated financial issues, which I don’t want to bore everybody with. But it’s been very successful and continues to be successful. I am very lucky. And I get a sense of how successful it was from the residual checks. Even after all these years I continue to get them! I love it!
What was the biggest challenge in making this film?
As always the story is the most important thing, but in this film the hardest was trying to find the monster, because I knew it had to be a creature. I thought a vampire at first but I ended up with werewolves because there are only two international monsters: one is ghosts, meaning that every culture around the world has ghosts, and the other is werewolves, or the idea of the some sort of human to animal transformation, usually a wolf.
When was the restoration done?
Just now, in the last eight months. Universal, who owns the movie, contacted me. And this was the first one of my titles they wanted to restore for some marketing reason. And I said, what does that mean restore it? It’s fine! But let me tell you about restoring a movie: what happens now is technology keeps advancing so quickly that one of the reasons all these special effects companies keep going out of business is because you can’t keep up with it and it’s too expensive. It’s kind of scary if you think about it: when you develop a film chemically, and make a print from the negative, you lose about 60 percent of (the) information and you only get about 40 percent, and this happens every time you make a movie. Do you remember when everybody went from albums to CDs and they had to re-master everything? Well, when they re-mastered the Beatles tracks, they were hearing conversations in the hallway at Abbey Road, stuff which was there and they never heard it. And it’s the same analogy with these advances. I think the Blu-Ray of Werewolf looks very good, I was happy with it and I supervised that. But now they did a 6K scan of the original negative and it was a remarkable thing, it was so weird because it was not like looking at a movie, it was like looking through a window. I didn’t like it actually because the clarity and depth of field is such that you can count the blades of grass. It’s unbelievably crisp and what the most remarkable thing is that black is black. On film black is never black. Here, black is black and that is cool, and it was so clear it was weird. I thought for instance that that kind of clarity would hurt some of Rick Baker’s makeup stuff and in fact it makes it look better, which is a testament to Rick. The scene with Jack in the hospital is unbelievable to look at the sculptural detail of his wound in the face!
And here in Venice is the first time this version is seen?
Yes, this is the world premiere of the restoration and then it will come out on Blu-Ray within the next few months. And I really think and hope that if you have never seen the movie you’ll love it and think that it looks great; and if you know the movie well, you might notice things. It is remarkable.