The Story Behind An American Werewolf In London

Still regarded as among the best - if not the best - treatment of the lycanthropic legend on screen - An American Werewolf In London arrives on DVD and Blu-Ray this week.

We thought we'd take a wander back to the barren moors and down the haunted streets of London to discover where this amazing horror came from.

1. Born From Scary Tales…

An American Werewolf in London was truly born in Yugoslavia.

It was originally dreamt up in 1969 by a then-19-year-old John Landis who, at the time, was working as a production assistant (read: gofer) on the set of war movie Kelly's Heroes.

One day, while shuttling between locations, he and a Yugoslavian member of the film's crew stumbled across a group of gypsies, who were performing a ritual during a burial.

The procedure involved burying the man feet first, wrapped in garlic so he couldn't rise from the grave.

The spooky idea stuck with the young wannabe filmmaker, who quickly realised that the concept of the undead was something he never wanted to confront in real life, and wasn't sure how someone at his tender age would handle it.

But it would make a great idea for a film… If not necessarily a werewolf film. "I did a lot of research before I started writing," recalls the director.

"I knew I didn't want to do a serial killer or a zombie, I wanted something where you really had to suspend disbelief. I settled on werewolves mainly because, other than ghosts, they're the only really international monsters - every culture has man-beast stories. Even Dracula can turn into a wolf!

"That said, I really took from the Lon Chaney Wolfman picture because what that added was this element of tragedy. Historically, people in France and Wales were burned to death for being werewolves or witches and the film made it a curse, where the wolfman himself is a victim."

After writing the script, he didn't find a lot of support for the idea and quickly ended up shelving it for more than a decade. But his career soon began to take off, ironically following his first real stab at a comedy horror with Schlock - the tale of a blind girl who falls in love with an ape-monster.

Quick and cheap, with a $60,000 budget, it got Landis noticed, alongside the film's make-up expert, a man named Rick Baker.

But Landis would veer away from the horror and stick with comedy for the next few years, making his name with the likes of The Kentucky Fried Movie, Animal House and The Blues Brothers.

And on the back of the Brothers, he decided to resurrect a furry little story sitting in a drawer…

Next: Full Moon Rising


2. Full Moon Rising

Despite his freshly acquired status in Hollywood as the writer/director behind several hit films, John Landis still had trouble getting anyone to finance his horror throwback about two Ameeican backpackers who fall foul of a creature while visiting the UK.

Many possible financiers came and went, with most turned off by the fact that it seemed too frightening to be a comedy and too silly to work as a horror movie. "American Werewolf In London is not a comedy," says Landis. "It's called a comedy, they keep calling it that, it's very funny I hope, but it is not a comedy.

We meet these two boys in a truckload of sheep. This is not subtle! These boys are doomed - it's not a happy story.

I was trying to make a contemporary version of an old movie."

Yet despite falling between the two genre stools, the director eventually dragged together $10 million to get the thing made.

"The picture was an independent. I made it as a negative pick-up - a financial arrangement in which a studio/distribution company agrees to purchase an unmade film upon the film’s completion - for Polygram, and then Universal distributed it in the US. We had complete control and it was fun!"

With the money in hand, Landis set his heart on production in London.

"I always loved those 1960s films and the things Dick Lester had done with the Beatles, and I conceived Werewolf with that spirit in mind. London was horror central, of course, home of Jack the Ripper, Jekyll and Hyde, so I wanted all that Victorian Gothic, but I also wanted to show the real London of 1981."

Landis also hoped to curry favour with British film authorities by largely staffing the film with UK crew members. Cinematographer Robert Paynter, the majority of the construction crew and Vic Armstrong's stunt team were all British.

One prominent member of the production was American, though - makeup effects man Rick Baker who, like Landis, had seen his own career skyrocket thanks to work on Star Wars, It's Alive, The Exorcist and The Howling.

But An American Werewolf In London would be his masterpiece…

Next: Making The Make-Up


3. Making The Make-Up

"When I was 21, the first feature I directed was Schlock, which was appropriately named," Landis told the Monster Talk Podcast. "The 20-year-old Rick Baker did the effects for that and I gave him the screenplay for American Werewolf in 1971."

"I was pretty confident that Rick could do it. In 1972, I went to meet with John Whitney, who is the father of what we now call computer animation. He was a fine artist who worked with the department of defense! His work evolved into flight simulators and weapons systems.

"But I said, 'is it possible for a computer to help the make-up process?' My idea was that Rick would do three stages or four and then the computer could morph the middle part. He said, 'no, John. It's totally possible, but we don't have the technology yet. But we will…' Now, of course, you can do it on your laptop!"

"After years of telling Rick I wanted to make the movie, he'd already figured out a technique he called 'Change-O-head', the stretchy heads that he used. He showed it to me and I said, 'great', but I couldn't get the money."

"Then, after Kentucky Fried, Blues Brothers and the others made so much money, I got that negative pickup deal and called up Rick. 'We got the money!' And he said, 'oh, s**t!' I asked him what the matter was and he said, 'I'm making a werewolf movie!' He had just started working on The Howling for Joe Dante. I was so upset!'

"So Rick's assistant, Rob Bottin (who would go on to make The Thing and RoboCop and more), took over on The Howling and Rick came to work for me."

Baker informed Landis that he needed the actors who would wear the various makeups - both werewolf and zombie - six months in advance of shooting in order to perfect molds. That led to the director and his casting team taking a real risk, as they tracked down leads without having the final budget in place.

Having got his start making monsters and makeups in his bedroom as a youngster, Baker was uniquely qualified to tackle the complicated transformation and wolf models that Landis needed to ensure that the film worked.

"John wanted it not to be a 'wolf-man' at the end, but an actual four-legged beast," recalls Baker. "There would be pain and movement in this transformation, unlike anything that had been done before."

"I said, 'at one point, we should switch to a fake head.' I figured that if we did a piece with the hair punched in and reverse-printed it, it would look like the hair was growing out. It would look much cooler. And I could push a fake head in weird dimensions, which meant we could shoot parts of the process without any camera trickery. 

"So we made a head, a back, various bits. And we put the guy's body in the set and created a fake body to let the transformation take place on camera."

"It would take us months to make one of the Change-O-Heads, but it would be quick to shoot. So John, being a smart filmmaker, shot the transformation in post-production. They kept the set up, had the wrap party for the main film, and the next day started filming the change."

"We laughed that the head parts took so little time on camera. It would be, 'action!', the thing does its job. 'Cut! We got it!' seconds later. I'd be, like, 'What? Is that it? Don't we need another take?' And John would ask, 'Does it do anything else?' 'Nope…' And that would be it. All that work and it was over in a blink!

But when the movie came out, I took my crew to see it and when the transformation came on screen, people stood up, clapped and cheered…"

The result was so impressive that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided it had to create a new awards category specifically for the film - and Outstanding Achievement In Makeup was born, with Baker the first recipient.

But that was afterwards. Back before the film could be made, Baker and Landis needed someone to wear - and react to - the stuff. They needed a cast…

Next: Casting Some Victims


4. Casting Some Victims

As mentioned, Landis had to start tracking down his leads early so that Baker could kick off development of the make-up.

Despite pressure from Universal, the director resisted the studio's initial casting idea of Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi for David and Jack, the two ill-fated travellers.

Lead David Naughton got the job thanks to some unusual previous work. "My agent sent me to meet with John Landis and that's really all it took. Normally you have to go through screen tests and so on to win a role but it was really won just by an interview.

"It didn't hurt that John Landis was an avid Dr Pepper drinker. He was familiar with the commercials I';d done for the drink, and he responded to having the interview with me.

"I had a nice long chat with John Landis in his office. I don't know whether it actually clinched the job for me but I told John Landis how I had lived in England, previously having studied acting in London and had gone across Great Britain on a bicycle. John said, 'Hey, that's really interesting, cause these guys are backpacking!'

"He asked me to call him in the morning and I thought, this is odd but OK, I'll call you tomorrow. And next day he said, 'D'you want to be a werewolf?' And that was it. It was a little unusual, but it was probably that straightforward because John had written the script for the movie and was also the director and executive producer. He was the guy for this project."

Ironically, when Naughton reported to Baker's workshop to begin getting casts made for his monster make-up, the crew danced around him, singing a paraphrased version of his old Pepper jingle: "I'm a werewolf, you're a werewolf... Wouldn't you like to be a werewolf, too…"

Griffin Dunne got the part of Jack, the unfortunate friend who is killed by the first werewolf and cursed to wander the Earth as a decomposing zombie. Naughton recalls that Landis nabbed them both because they were largely unknowns - and because they worked well together.

"Really what it was, was the chemistry between myself and Griffin Dunne. That chemistry and the fact that these guys looked like they were just very unsuspecting and innocent victims.

"I don't think that it had anything to do with who we were and I think John Landis wanted to go with unknown people. He wanted to make his story even more feasible - here's two unsuspecting innocent guys who you don't really know and look what can happen to them out there!"

And British thesping icon Jenny Agutter completed the lead trio as nurse Alex Price, who falls for David when he arrives injured at her hospital and discovers his terrible secret. She clearly enjoyed working with Landis.

"He's a terrific director, for an actor. I actually knew him before working with him. He brings a huge amount of energy to a film set," she's said.

"To make films is as boring as watching paint dry - you usually have to do little tiny bits here and there. You go off waiting for lighting, you come back - the energy dies. You hope you can find someone who can keep it going. John never lets that energy go.

"Also he's very good at recognising people the way they are, you feel very secure that he's going to make choices that make sense for you as an actor and he won't leaving you feeling you've got egg on your face."

No, he just put a lot of blood, gore and make-up on their faces. Or at least, he did once they got to London to film…

Next: Hello, London!


5. Hello, London!

"When I was shooting Werewolf, Warren Beatty was shooting Reds here and there was also another little film in progress called Raiders Of The Lost Ark," says Landis

"These were all made under a very useful tax-break agreement called the Eady Levy, which began the boom of Americans coming to make big pictures with largely British casts and crews in London in the 1960s. Turns out mine was one of the last Eady pictures made."

Despite the low budget, he managed to win some early support to pull off impressive sequences in the middle of the city.

"Everyone remembers the Piccadilly Circus scene. London was quaintly chaotic as far as filming went - it was basically a case of persuading the local bobby on the beat, and if they said you could do it, you were sort of OK.

"So I put on a free screening of The Blues Brothers in the Empire Leicester Square and invited 300 members of the Metropolitan police. They loved it - and, whaddaya know, suddenly I had permission to shoot in Piccadilly Circus.

"I got two February nights, between 1am and 4am and was allowed to stop traffic three times, for two minutes maximum. So we rebuilt the Circus off-site and rehearsed the big crash scene many times and my crew were drilled like a Formula One team, so when it came to the big bus crash we could clear it up and do another take in seconds.

"Vic Armstrong, who was the bus driver, went on to design many of the James Bond stunts. Boy, we worked fast."

But there was one big hiccup that Landis had to overcome - a racial issue.
"I had terrible trouble with the unions, too. At that time, you couldn't find what they then called a "coloured" face to be an extra.

"I remember after George Lucas shot Star Wars in London, he showed it to all of us and I said to him after the screening: 'George, is everybody in outer space white?' I knew London to be a multicultural place - we filmed in the year of the Brixton riots, remember - but I just couldn't get Indian or black faces to be in the crowd. Eventually, after a big stand-off, the unions gave in and we got 'coloured' faces into the background."

Among the other faces he slipped into the background were a wealth of British character actors and a comedian or two.

"Frank Oz and Jim Henson were in London making The Muppet Show and they took me to the Comedy Store on a night off and there was this act on, two guys called Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson," Landis wrote in The Observer. "They were basically just screaming at each other, but it was hilarious. I went to meet them afterwards and, I don't know why, I just offered them a part in the movie.

"I don't think they really believed me, because Ade didn't turn up but Rik did - he was right, I didn't actually have a part for him but I loved his face so we sat him down in the Slaughtered Lamb pub for the opening scene and his presence really helps to establish the mood of the movie."

Aside from London, Landis and co shot around the country, including the moors near Hay Bluff on the Welsh border, and the town of East Proctor, while The Slaughtered Lamb Pub is actually two places  - a house in Crickadarn dressed to look like an inn and The Black Swan in Surrey, which provided the interiors.

With the footage in the can - including those aforementioned, post-production mini-shoots to produce the wolf moments - Landis could return to the States to edit and get his film into shape to be seen…

Next: Out In The Wild



6. Out In The Wild

Deep into editing, Landis screened his various cuts for colleagues and friends to judge their reaction. Among the edits he made was slicing out some footage of the tramps being killed at the junkyard in order to tone the scene down - but he's since said that he regrets making the edit.

More than one cut exists - there's an unrated version with extra blood and gore, but which is rarely seen these days.

As usual while making his films, Landis loaded it up with winks and nods to his previous work - so we get a look at See You Next Wednesday (in this case, a porn film) and even a sly Animal House mention.

Plus, while editing, the director selected a soundtrack that featured only songs with "Moon" in their title - 'Blue Moon', 'Moondance', 'Bad Moon Rising' and more. He tried to get several others, including Cat Stevens' 'Moonshadow' and Bob Dylan's cover of 'Blue Moon', but both requests were denied.

And you might notice in the credits that there's an odd note congratulating Prince Charles and Princess Diana on their wedding - made to balance the fact that during the scene that finds David trying to get arrested, he shouts "Prince Charles is gay."

Always best not to offend the queen, though we doubt it would've won a Royal Command Performance anyway.

The film finally howled into cinemas  on August 21, 1981, with wolf-frenzy slowly overtaking filmgoers.

"People didn't know how to handle the humor aspect of it," explains David Naughton. " John Landis' reputation was one of comedy director. People were expecting a spoof, or at least a lighter film, and it starts off on a light enough note.

"But as soon as we were attacked it was hang onto your seats folks, this is going to get pretty horrific. So I think that was the biggest shock. People didn't know how to review it. This isn't a spoof guys, this is John's attempt at scaring you - and he did.

"The fan reaction has grown. It wasn't a huge initial hit but, over the years, it has become one of those films that has stood the test of time and one that you-have-to-see.

"Fans continue to talk to me about how scared they were. When I go to conventions and signings somebody has to tell me where they were when they saw it, were they able to sit through it, or did they have to leave or look away, did they have to see it again because of the parts they'd missed..."

It's long become an established horror favourite. Since then, however, we've had to endure a follow-up...

Next: From Paris Without Love


7. From Paris Without Love

One of the lesser known facts about the first film is that when Landis ran into problems with acting union Equity, he briefly considered ditching Britain's capital and moving the production to France.

He even went so far as to scout locations in Paris, with an idea that if he couldn't resolve his UK troubles, he'd rename the feature An American Werewolf In Paris and shoot there.

It never happened, but the idea came back to haunt him when a group of companies decided to make a follow-up in 1996. Despite having pondered the idea of a sequel for years, Landis was originally approached for the Paris job, but turned it down (a good thing too - Landis sequels don't have the best history, as anyone who has seen Blues Brothers 2000 can attest).

So the sequel was handed to little-known director Anthony Waller, who rewrote an existing script produced by Tom Stern. "I wrote this film, American Werewolf in Paris which was a really good script and I was proud of it," recalls Stern.

"I was supposed to direct but that didn't happen after my previous film, Freaked, got dumped by the studio. They thought I was a pariah.

"They hired some hack to direct it and they rewrote it like 12 times and turned it into the biggest piece of shit ever. It was so awful. That film was just so terrible that it was embarrassing."

Taking Landis' basic concept, Waller fashioned a story that saw a trio of American tourists (including lead Tom Everett Scott) tangle with a beautiful girl in the City Of Lights (Julie Delpy).

But as it turns out, she's hiding a terrible - and hairy - secret - she's the daughter of David Kessler and is part of a group of lycanthropes working on a serum that would let them transform at will.

Scott's Andy becomes afflicted with the curse and must find a way to destroy it...

Even Delpy realised what she'd gotten into when the sequel arrived in cinemas and was roundly savaged by critics for its rubbish CG wolves and brazen attempt to recapture the original film's blend of horror and comedy.

"I've been praised by critics throughout my career, now suddenly I'm being vilified for being in this silly movie. I can't wait for the film to be released in France; they'll tear me to shreds and that'll be hilarious", she said in an interview at the time.

Fortunately, the original's reputation wasn't harmed by the dodgy sequel and has gone on to enjoy a long, inspirational life through other filmmakers and their output...

Next: The Werewolf Lives On


8. The Werewolf Lives On…

Since its release, the film has gone on to enjoy hefty success - early on, it was bigger over here. "The picture was a mild success here in the US, but in England, it was a huge hit, says Landis"

It's been back to the remixing studio for at least one brush-up, as Landis was approached to to create a fresh soundtrack for the print, which was originally recorded as mono only.

Polygram - which owned the rights to the film in the UK - was organising a theatrical re-release a few years ago to capitalise on the recent success of The Exorcist's own return to cinemas.

"I went back to London, to Twickenham, the studio where I made the movie, with Gerry Humphreys, the original mixer, 20 years ago, all the same post-production sound guys," recalls Landis.

"It took them approximately two months, but they rebuilt all the tracks. Some were difficult because it was very difficult to find source material for some of the tracks. In fact, for the Sam Cooke cover of 'Blue Moon,’ we ended up having to find the record. I mean, we couldn’t even go to a CD! We has to find a collector’s edition of an album that cost 400 dollars.

"I went to London and spent a week remixing the soundtrack into 5.1 DTS. It was really fun. I really had a good time with the original guys, and the movie in a theatre, I would say, would be 50 percent scarier now."

Sadly, the film never did get the big re-release as Polygram folded before it could happen. But the new soundtrack was perfect for the DVD release and will be included in crisp Blu-Ray clarity on this month's version.

It lives on in other ways - Werewolf has long since taken hold of pop culture, and just as Landis loved to reference other movies and filmmakers in his work, so fans of the original have been endlessly homaging and tipping the wink to him.

Yes, it crops up everywhere - playing in the background of werewolf movies to win some horror cred, while the likes of Edgar Wright have slipped mentions, dialogue and even similar moments into everything he and Simon Pegg have produced.

Even the sound effects have been endlessly borrowed and recycled - in Underworld, the very first wolf sound you hear was taken from AWIL.

All of which, of course, means that someone would eventually want to take a stab at remaking it...

Next: Beware The Remake?


9. Beware the remake?

Because it has name-brand recognition, a built in cult core audience and a killer concept, Werewolf is naturally in the targets for a trip to the re-imagination slaughterhouse.

Yes, in an age when even Freddy Krueger is being reborn with a new (yet still scarred) face and freshly pressed striped jumper, it's not really shocking that Landis' film could be considered a likely candidate.

And the writer/director himself appears to be behind the idea. "Sure I'd do it," he told Bloody Disgusting in 2008 and a year later Dimension Films announced it had secured the rights to make a new movie based on the idea.

Given the company's swelling slate of remakes (the likes of Hellraiser and Children Of The Corn are already tumbling through development limbo), it seems unlikely we'll see the new outing any time soon.

And there's a hefty argument to be made that we don't ever need to see a remake - Baker's effects still hold up well and if the sequel told us anything, it's that other filmmakers just don't have the tone down.

Still, it's not like that will stop them. But for a generation, the original - and best  - Werewolf will keep prowling the countryside. "Close to the meat…"

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