Featured Players: John Landis

Laid-back writer-director still ape over film

HOLLYWOOD — John Landis readily admits to being obsessed with gorillas.

The writer-director once got a live one as a birthday gift from his wife, costume designer Deborah Nadoolman. And one of his many bit-acting parts was in “Battle for the Planet of the Apes.” Knowing this, Rick Baker, the makeup/effects guru whose latest pic is Fox’s reworked “Planet of the Apes,” presented as a wedding gift to Landis a giant primate model.

Landis merely shrugs when asked to explain his fixation. It makes perfect sense, though, in the context of his two decades of film and TV work, an exuberant, drive-in tapestry of space aliens, werewolves and offbeat comic creations.

A recent event at the Center for Motion Picture Study underscored the simian theme. Landis and Nadoolman appeared at a ceremony honoring their donation of an original 1933 “King Kong” poster to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

While Landis remains immersed in film and pop culture at large, he is no longer focused on writing or directing. Nor is he working in the same hectic and high-profile way he did two decades ago, when he turned out “Animal House,” “The Blues Brothers” and “American Werewolf in London” in a three-year span.

These days, Landis is much more involved in television, as a producer of syndie series “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World” and FX pilot “The Kronenberg Chronicles.” He edited the forthcoming fourth edition of the book “Best American Movie Writing,” and has sold or donated most of his valuable movie poster collection.

“It’s amazing that I bought some of these posters for a quarter and they’re now worth thousands of dollars,” says Landis, an L.A. native. Landis’ career began with a teenage stint as a 20th Century Fox mail boy, and he broke out as a director a few years later on the cult classic “Kentucky Fried Movie.”

He also is busy prepping a new version of “Werewolf,” which will be theatrically rereleased in the U.K. and reissued on DVD to mark its 20th anniversary.

In a way, DVD has been a way for Landis, 50, to revisit his earlier days. Special editions of “Animal House” and “Blues Brothers” have offered a full complement of making-of docus and commentary tracks.

“I think I went overboard with ‘Animal House,’ ” Landis says of the DVD version, which he significantly cleaned up from the filmed version.”I deliberately made (the film) sort of dark and funky.”

Though Landis’ past few film outings have been disappointing — “Blues Brothers 2000,” “The Stupids” and “Beverly Hills Cop 3” all sank without a trace — interest remains high in the director’s earlier titles, which include “Coming to America,” “Spies Like Us,” and “Into the Night.” Landis also helmed Michael Jackson’s longform “Thriller” musicvideo and several episodes of pioneering HBO series “Dream On.”

The veteran director is still passionate about film, singling out recent releases “Being John Malkovich,” “Fight Club” and “Three Kings” for praise. He was also recently spotted at the Los Angeles Film Festival’s screening of 1969 Chinese martial-arts epic “A Touch of Zen.”

This zeal for film certainly applies to his own work, which he says he’s choosing very carefully.

“It’s either going to be something very unusual,” Landis says, “or highly commercial.”

No word, though, about any gorillas.

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