It’s been 35 years since a certain werewolf terrorized London, and to celebrate that anniversary, we gathered director John Landis, special effects guru Rick Baker, and actor David Naughton to discuss the production of AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON with MANIAC COP’s William Lustig moderating.
Screening the film for old fans and newbies gave the panel a rush of energy, and the three men laughed heartily at the remembrances. Landis recalled that he had been working on a film called KELLY’S HEROES when he saw some gypsies burying a man covered in rosaries and garlic and incense — and they were burying him feet first! — all to keep the corpse from coming back from the dead. He found it fascinating, and wondered how these superstitions could be so strong two months after we’d gone to the moon.
So he wrote the script for over a decade before the film finally went into production.
Naughton recalls meeting Landis and going home with the script. And when he read, “‘David transforms into a werewolf,’’ he thought, “Hmmmm. Wonder what that’ll be like…” He laughs at the now-famous complicated and painful metamorphosis.
Landis tries to correct him, saying the transformation was written in painful detail. Naughton just shakes his head no in denial to laughter from the audience.
When Naughton’s character turns into the titular werewolf, the scene pulls no punches. And to Baker’s dismay, David turns into the beast in a brightly lit room, so there was no wiggle room — the effects couldn’t be finessed by shadow. Yet, he says, of his 72 films, WEREWOLF is the only one where the actual script was shot.
- Fun fact: The wolf hand/paw in the transformation scene is the same used in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, also directly by Landis with special effects by Baker.
Cracking up the audience, Naughton remembers one of his early credits shilling for Dr Pepper soda, saying, “Michael Jackson follows me. I’m a Pepper; he does Pepsi. I turn into a werewolf; he has to do ‘Thriller.’”
He goes on to tell us about meeting Baker: “The first thing Baker said to me was ‘Who are you playing?’ ‘David.’ ‘I feel sorry for you. Nice to meet you.”
Naughton (and Griffin Dunne who played the luckless Jack) had to sit for excruciatingly long hours in the makeup chair. And during the big transformation scene (which was shot over a week after the rest of the production had wrapped), at one point he’s in a hole in the floor so that only his head is visible and it looks like it’s part of the werewolf body that is on top of the floor.
Baker says, “People say to me, ‘What did you develop to make these effects work?’ I say, ‘I was given the time and the money to do it!’”
When Landis hired legendary composer Elmer Bernstein to create the score, he remembers the Oscar winner saying to him, “‘I can’t wait to score the transformation.’ I said, ‘Well, it’s going to be Sam Cooke singing ‘Blue Moon.” He went, ‘Excuse me??’”
He says there were only three songs he was unable to get for the soundtrack: “Elvis did a version of ‘Blue Moon,’” which the King’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, nixed. “It’s really eerie,” Landis says. “He yodels! … Cat Stevens wrote a brilliant song called ‘Moonshadow’ and if you listen to the lyrics, it’s about dismemberment!” Stevens had converted to Islam, however, and didn’t want to be associated with a horror film. The third song was Bob Dylan’s cover of “Blue Moon,” but the singer-songwriter had recently converted to Christianity and also didn’t want to be associated with a gory, R-rated film. Landis jokes, remembering, “Between Buddha and Jesus, I’m getting f***ed here!”
When asked if he had any input on the tepidly received AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS, Landis says, “I just cashed the check!”