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John Landis On The Sound Of "An American Werewolf In London" Print E-mail
Thursday, 13 December 2007

John Landis On The Sound Of "An American Werewolf In London"
category: Feature Article
review date: October 2001
reviewed by: Abbie Bernstein

John Landis On The Sound Of "An American Werewolf In London"

"An American Werewolf in London" broke all kinds of conventions when it was released theatrically in 1981 – it had makeup effects so good that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had to instate a new category to honor it and it forever changed the way comedy and horror were allowed to combine onscreen. The collector’s edition DVD issued as "Werewolf" turns 20 continues the movie’s unconventional bent. It’s one of the few films to have its director/writer – John Landis – actively involved in the full sound remix and it’s also one of the few films originally made in mono sound that actually sounds better (not just broader) when adapted for the new 5.1 technology.

Speaking by phone, Landis explains why so many other mono soundtracks adapted for 5.1 don’t have more impressive end results. "Those aren’t remixed films – those are just split into stereo. They feed it into this machine that electronically separates the sound, but it’s not true stereo and it’s certainly not true surround. You need to start all over you have to build entirely new tracks."

The soundtrack was indeed rebuilt for "Werewolf." Landis relates how this – and the re-release of the DVD altogether – came about. "The picture ["Werewolf"] 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 U.S. Seagram’s bought Universal from Matsushita. Seagram’s [also] bought Polygram. When they bought all of Polygram’s pictures, [these] included half the rights to ‘American Werewolf.’ I retained the other half. Polygram approached me when it was still Polygram. They were going to do a theatrical release of ‘American Werewolf’ in the U.K. The picture was a mild success here [in the U.S.], but in England, it was a huge hit."

Why re-release a 20-year-old film in the theatres? "Basically, what is a DVD?" Landis replies by way of beginning the explanation. "A DVD is new technology and we all love it. However, to the studios, a DVD is a new way of selling the same material [i.e., an already-released film] again. So, how do they make it more attractive to sell? Well, you have to get publicity for a DVD release. Originally, someone’s clever marketing idea – they did it with ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ they did it with ‘Spartacus’ and ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ – when you were going to release the DVD, you had a limited theatrical release of the movie. You played it in Los Angeles and New York for a week or two. Which was wonderful for film buffs – if you’re in Los Angeles or New York. But by doing that, you get journalists to review it and write about it – ‘the restored print, yadda yadda yadda.’ But the real reason is to get publicity for the DVD release. It’s a marketing ploy. Well, an unusual thing happened. In the U.K., when they did the new edition of ‘The Exorcist’ for the DVD, they did a theatrical release, but it made so much money – it made $5 or $6 million out of the United Kingdom – they were so shocked that it was such a hit that they then released it theatrically in the United States, and it did very well here, too. Because you have to understand – that’s all free money. This is a movie that was in profit 20 years ago," Landis notes with a laugh. "So they were thrilled, and then it came out on DVD."

This brings us to "Werewolf." "Because of the success of ‘The Exorcist,’ " Landis relates, "especially in the U.K., Polygram U.K. called me and said, ‘We would like to re-release "Werewolf." ’ This was about two or three years ago. And I said, ‘Really? Okay, fine.’ But ‘American Werewolf in London’ was made in 1981 and it was a mono mix. They said, ‘Would you remix the picture to 5.1 DTS digital sound?’ The real advances in [film] technology, the real amazing stuff that’s been happening is all in sound."

Landis threw himself into the project for the then-planned theatrical re-release. "We found the [original audio] tracks. Ironically enough, the difficulty was finding a stereo mix of the music, because so many of the songs were originally not from stereo sources," he laughs. "So anyway, the bottom line is, [the theatrical re-release] didn’t happen, because Polygram folded. Then, a year or two later, I get a call from Universal, saying, ‘We want to do it on a DVD.’ So I said, ‘Gee, do you know about the remix thing?’ "

Universal Home Video in fact had no idea that Landis had reassembled all the sound elements, but they were delighted to learn it. "They said that would be a good thing for the DVD," Landis says, "and so last May, 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. 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 ‘Werewolf’ 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."

There are two reasons the "Werewolf" DVD’s fear factor will be increased, Landis feels: "The whole point with digital sound is, one, you can place it anywhere in the house and two, for the first time, you can recreate what the human ear can hear. Before, on an optical track on a movie, the sound frequency was limited. For instance, when you were on the recording stage and listening to the orchestra record your score, you would go, ‘I want it to sound like this!’ and [the engineers would say], ‘Well, it can’t, because that high end or that low end can’t go on the optical track.’ And now you can do anything."

As an example, Landis cites a favorite reference disc: "The first really noticeable use of the new sound was in ‘Saving Private Ryan.’ I’m talking about ambient sound. People remember stuff like the helicopters coming in from the back of the house in ‘Apocalypse Now’ – that’s traditional stereo. With digital sound, you can actually pinpoint it. You can make it sound like anything you want. There’s no limit. When they were doing ‘Strange Days’ and ‘Apocalypse Now,’ those were brilliant, brilliant mixes, but they were still limited to the optical track. Now [with digital audio], you have such control. I’m sure there are others, but the first movie I can think of to really take advantage of it was ‘Saving Private Ryan’ in the Normandy landing. What made that sequence so intense in the theatre – cinematically it was fine, lots of CG [computer-generated imagery] in it that you didn’t see as CG, which was very successful – but what made it so remarkable was the sound, because the bullets literally were all around you in a way that had never been done before. You literally felt everything that people onscreen were feeling aurally. It was just an absolutely astoundingly successful mix on that sequence. And it really was concussive. When something blew up next to someone, you really felt it. I mean, viscerally, it was a total experience."

"Visceral" is a word that has long been applied to the visuals of "Werewolf." The remix gave Landis the opportunity to intensify the soundtrack as well. "The original mix of ‘Werewolf’ that Gerry did was excellent," Landis says. "But that was a mono mix, which meant that we had to rebuild and recreate a lot of the tracks, so we could do a brand-new mix. I was trying to be as quote-unquote realistic as possible in dealing with all the supernatural stuff. [On the original mix], there was this wonderful sound effects editor in London, who worked on all the great David Lean pictures. I said [to him], ‘In the moors, I want a really ethereal, otherworldly sound here, but I don’t know what.’ He said, ‘Oh, I know what!’ And he came back and he played me this sound that was so spooky. I said, ‘What the hell is that?’ And it was a pig farm – it was pigs, but recorded at a great distance, and then slowed down. And it’s the weirdest sound. It’s in the movie. It’s very subtle, but it’s the bed on which all the effects are built in the moors. What’s cool is that, for this new [‘Werewolf’] mix, we were able to put it in the surround in a way that it really fills the house – it’s really creepy because you don’t know – what is that?" Landis laughs. "The audibility of it is just low enough to be aware of it, but not to be conscious of it. It’s wonderful – it’s a very effective bed."

There are other "Werewolf" elements of interest on the DVD as well, Landis reveals. "They found all the outs and trims because [Polygram] kept everything, not like Universal, who threw everything out [in 1981]." This was, of course, in the days before DVD supplemental materials. "Now everyone knows [about DVD extras], so everyone keeps everything," Landis laughs. "Some guy actually sat down watched the six hours of [‘Werewolf’] dailies. He pulled out of it about 45 minutes worth of material, most of which I said, ‘You can’t use.’ Because I found it unseemly. I said, ‘Hey, I cut that out. That’s not stuff I wanted to use.’ However, there are some funny outtakes that I let them use."

Landis also permitted the use of a number of behind-the-effects shots. "There’s a lot of footage that shows very clearly how the wolf stuff was done," the director explains, "because you see all the people before ‘action’ and ‘cut’ – between the slates. Some of it’s very cool." Much of this material is intercut with Rick Baker’s on-camera interview on the DVD. "The Rick Baker piece is wonderful." As for Landis’ on-camera interview by Adam Simon, "I have to say, I think they did a very good job – I get a little tired of listening to me talk, but it’s good. It’s got wonderful footage from ‘Werewolf of London’ and ‘The Wolf Man’ and ‘Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein’ – it’s got all these other films referenced in there. You see what’s being talked about."

While actors David Naughton and Griffin Dunne supply a frequently hilarious feature-length audio commentary track, Landis declined to do so, because, "I still have very mixed feelings about revealing too much. MGM used to have a policy that when you worked for the studio, you signed a confidentiality agreement. You didn’t tell how special effects were done. And as a kid and a film buff, I loved that stuff. I think one of the reasons Famous Monsters of Filmland, Forry Ackerman’s magazine, was as influential as it was is, it dealt with not just movie stars, it had articles about the filmmaking and the filmmakers and the makeup artists, Jack Pierce and all those guys. That was really unusual for a fan magazine then. I think it’s part of the fascination. But even though I personally loved it, I worry as a filmmaker that too much is revealed. It’s like ‘The Wizard of Oz’ – ‘Never mind that man behind the curtain,’ " he laughs. "Reality’s not nearly as exciting. But who knows? I of all people have a tremendous burden of guilt here, because I did ‘The Making of Thriller’ [as well as directing the music video ‘Thriller’ itself], which has really created the [making-of] business. Now it’s standard."

Landis has done commentaries for a few of his movies: "Rick Baker and I did a commentary for [Landis and Baker’s mutual debut film] ‘Schlock!,’ which was fun. ‘Schlock!’ is 30 years old. How scary is that? Rick and I are watching ‘Schlock!’ and doing the commentary, and Rick’s dad is in the movie, and Rick said, ‘Oh, my God!’ And I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘I just realized that my dad is younger in this movie than we are now.’

"Anchor Bay put out ‘Kentucky Fried Movie,’ Landis continues. "They’re the ones doing ‘Schlock!’ also, and they approached me to do a commentary, and I said I’d do it if they could get [ writing team] Jerry Zucker, David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and [producer] Bob Weiss to do it with me. And so I got a call back the next day: ‘Okay, how about Sunday?’ I was astounded that they got them. And we all sat down. I must say, it’s five old Jews on the couch talking, and I must say – it’s pretty funny. Those are pretty funny guys. I did those two. If you see ‘The Blues Brothers’ DVD, the one where I put the footage back in, there’s an excellent documentary on that that Universal made, so I didn’t do a commentary on that because I’m in the documentary. I didn’t do [commentary] on ‘The Animal House’ DVD, because I thought the [‘Animal House’ retrospective] documentary was terrific. It cuts between everybody, so it’s like ‘Rashomon’ – they’re all telling the same story [from different perspectives]."

In the case of "Werewolf," Landis feels that the DVD’s 18-minute on-camera interview with him is sufficient. "I talk at length, probably too much, about the origin of the film and how and why I did it. ‘Werewolf’ was written in 1969, so it was written by an 18 or 19-year-old guy, and I really think a lot of the success of the film is because it was written by an 18 or 19-year-old guy, but it was made by a guy who was 30. So some of the naivete of the dialogue, I think, is very successful. On the other hand, some of it makes me cringe. But it’s wonderfully acted – Griffin and David and Jenny [Agutter] especially and John Woodvine.

"I’m very excited about the ‘Werewolf’ DVD," Landis concludes. He is extremely happy with the new video transfer, and, "More importantly, it really sounds amazing. If you have a stereo system in your house, it’ll rock the walls."

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