John Landis on the 25th Anniversary of ‘The Three Amigos!’
John Landis is a radically unappreciated filmmaker. I was actually really nervous to talk to him, even over the phone, since so many of his movies – like The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London and Innocent Blood – qualify as some of my favorite films. Right near the top of my favorite comedies is Three Amigos, a delightfully silly 1986 comedy that starred Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short as silent film stars who are confused with their western hero personas and hired to fight a villainous Mexican warlord. Critically derided upon its release, the film nevertheless gained an avid cult following and its satirical take on the Seven Samurai story went on to be aped by many more (and more popular) films like A Bug's Life and Galaxy Quest.
Oh well. Three Amigos is celebrating its 25th anniversary with an excellent Blu-Ray release this week, and John Landis was kind enough to talk with me about its success, or lack thereof, and some of the deleted footage from the film, including the infamous (and lost) sequence with Sam Kinison. Then we take some time to discuss his new book, Monsters in the Movies, and what horror movies the "Master of Horror" has appreciated lately.
CraveOnline: I actually think ‘Three Amigos’ is one of the funniest movies ever made.
John Landis: Wow, well, thank you.
I mean that. It’s a big bonding experience between me and my Dad. To this day we can just turn to each other and say, “El Guapo,” and just start cracking up.
Were you presented this film originally a script, a pitch, did Steve Martin talk to you about it…?
Steve gave me the script the script that he had written, and he asked me if it interested me, and I thought it was very funny. Also I love westerns. So the opportunity to make a western, I said, “Yes, please.” And we made it rather quickly.
Were Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short always going to be The Three Amigos?
Certainly when I was doing it, but I was told that Steve had thought of other people when he was writing it. But I don’t know anything about that.
You realize you ruined the word “infamous” forever, right?
[Laughs] Well, it means more than famous.
When I was a kid, watching the movie – it was on TV all the time – I trained for years to be able to hold that one note for fourteen seconds. Did they actually rehearse that until they were able to pull that off or was there studio magic involved?
[Laughs] There was some studio magic.
Oh, I feel like that guy Neddy shot. It’s weird, because I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like ‘The Three Amigos,’ but it wasn’t terribly popular when it came out.
Oh actually, it got bad reviews and did not do big business in the United States. It was a big hit around the world.
Some people blame the demise of the western genre, but that seems a little easy for me. Did you have any theories?
No, I actually think that’s a lot of it. When they saw the poster, and they saw, clearly, this was a western, they were, I guess… Clearly that makes sense. But I don’t know. Listen, if I knew why people went to movies I’d be much more successful.
Touché. ‘Rustlers Rhapsody’ had come out the year before, and that was also a parody of earlier American western films. Was that on your mind at all, or did that fly under your radar?
I’ve never seen that. I don’t know that. What movie is that?
Oh, that movie is great. Tom Berenger plays sort of a white hat, Roy Rogers cowboy who rides into this stereotypical western town. Andy Griffith plays the evil landowner.
Andy Griffith is great.
He’s terrific, and the film is actually really ahead of its time in terms of how meta it is.
I don’t know it. I’ll have to get a copy of it. I’ve never heard of it.
Get a copy of it! It’s very, very funny, and it completely tanked. No one I know has even heard about it. And it was interesting because it had come out the year before ‘Three Amigos,’ and obviously I was wondering if that was in anyone’s head.
No! I’m actually anxious to see it now. I love Andy Griffith. I’ve worked with Tom Berenger, and I don’t even know this movie! Who directed it?
That’s a damned good question. I can look it up in half a second. […] It was directed byyyy… Hugh Wilson.
Hugh Wilson, huh! I’ve never seen it.
Let’s get back to ‘Three Amigos,’ because I think people have actually seen ‘Three Amigos.’ The Blu-Ray has a lot of deleted footage, which was very cool to see, and I saw in a recent interview that a lot of that was edited out without you present.
No! That’s not really true. You’re the second person to say that. I don’t know why that was.
It was implied in the Empire interview. Maybe I misread it.
No, I was there for all the stuff being taken out. But I wasn’t happy about losing Sam Kinison, because he was really funny.
None of that footage survived. You don’t go into a lot of detail… He was a mountain man, he was a cannibal…
It was during the trek, when they’re going across the desert and they meet the invisible swordsman, and they’re getting water by a river. Steve and Marty were trapped in this booby trap. They were strung up. Chevy’s getting water, he’s filling up his canteen, and there’s bloodcurdling screams, and there’s this insane… Sam was covered in leather and chicken feathers and human skulls, and there’s blood all over him and a big axe in each hand. He’s screaming and he’s jumping down the side of a mountain. Steve and Marty are yelling, “Shoot him! Shoot him!” Chevy’s going, “I don’t even know him!” It was very funny. And then he ends up shooting him and Sam takes out his wallet, says, “These are my children, how could you do this?” It was very silly, but it was a complete segment unto itself. It could be lifted without affecting the body of the story.
The original opening kind of surprised me because it’s so straight.
Yeah, that’s why they made me take it out! [Laughs.] But you know, the audience just wanted to get to the Amigos quicker.
If you had your druthers, would you put that back in?
Oh gosh, it’s been so many years. I don’t know. I don’t know, I like the way the movie begins with that song. That is pretty funny. So I don’t know.
I actually ran into you at a Barnes & Noble once, and I told you how much I loved your wife’s book on costume design ['Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume Design'], and I also told you how much I loved ‘Innocent Blood.’
I like Innocent Blood too.
Again, not enough people have seen that movie, and I think it’s seriously brilliant. And it’s never had a great DVD release. Have you ever had any talks with anyone about doing a better…?
Well, that’s up to Warner Bros. That’s another movie where they didn’t do… You know, it’s in the incorrect aspect ratio. But that’s up to Warner Bros. I have no control over that.
Speaking of Barnes & Noble, you have a recent book that just came out.
Yeah, brand new. Just came out. Monsters in the Movies.
Obviously you love your movie monsters. What made you decide to write a book about them?
I made a film in England last year. I was approached by several publishers wanting to do a book about, like, “The Ten Best Horror Films” kind of books. I don’t really like those list books. I think they’re obnoxious, because you shouldn’t compare films that way. But I was flattered that they wanted me to write a book! You know in England, An American Werewolf in London is a big deal…
I think it’s a big deal here too.
Well, it’s not as big. It’s like The Blues Brothers in Chicago, or Trading Places in Philadelphia, it depends on the city. Or Coming to America in New York. But in any case, they asked me to write a book, and I just didn’t know… And then I was approached by the Kobal Collection, which is the largest collection of motion picture stills in the world, and they said, would you like to do a picture book? Then I just had this idea of doing a book about monsters in the movies. Because it’s a broad subject. It’s not just horror films. So they went for it, so I was able, with DK, to do this book. Have you seen it?
I have it! I’m still reading it actually, but it’s gorgeous…
Yeah, I’m very happy with it. The reproductions of the photographs are beautiful.
Absolutely. And your love of movie monsters comes through on every page. Speaking of ‘Werewolf in London,’ I was wondering… There are so many great vampire movies, and even so many great Frankenstein movies, but seriously, if you wanted to count the great werewolf movies you could only get them on one hand. Why do you think that is? Because you did direct one of the greats.
Well, thank you! I don’t know. That’s a good question. Did you ever see Ginger Snaps?
I love ‘Ginger Snaps.’ It’s amazing.
Yeah, I think that’s a terrific picture.
Some people love ‘Dog Soldiers,’ which I thought was pretty good but kind of straightforward. But ‘Ginger Snaps’ is such a wonderful… It’s kind of an obvious metaphor in retrospect [lycanthropy as a metaphor for puberty]…
But I really thought it was… You know, it’s hard to make a movie, especially a subject like werewolves, or any of them, fresh. That’s why I thought Let the Right One In was such a great surprise. But people do it, and when they do it, it’s always great fun.
I guess before I go, I want to say thank you again for all your movies. ‘The Blues Brothers’ might simply be my favorite film. I was just wondering, what are you watching right now that some of the younger film directors are doing in the horror genre?
I find Edgar Wright really interesting. I thought Shaun of the Dead was terrific. You know what? There’s a picture that’s coming out, that probably just going to be on DVD called Some Guy Who Kills People. Jack Perez, the guy who directed it, did a very good job. It’s a very clever screenplay by Ryan Levin. I enjoyed that. I don’t know, movies come along… Did you ever see The Host?
Yeah! ‘The Host’ was kinda neat!
Yeah, I enjoyed that. I’m always waiting to be pleasantly surprised. I keep my expectations very low. Then I’m not that disappointed.