Fairs & Festivals

Film fest honors John Landis

You know him by the antics of frat boys in “Animal House,” the soulful merriment of “The Blues Brothers” and the charming prince on a mission for love in “Coming to America.”

And let’s not forget the epic music video that turned MTV on its head — Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

All are part of the provocative, ever-changing filmscapes of director John Landis.

In honor of four decades of filmmaking that has continually awed and amused the masses, the Sarasota Film Festival will applaud Landis Saturday during the festival’s 2010 Filmmaker Tribute.

“I’m delighted,” Landis, 59, said during a phone interview from London, where he was taking a break from editing his latest film project, “Burke and Hare.”

“I usually turn these things down because they make me feel like I’ve passed away. But (I accepted) because I’ve just finished shooting and I’ve never been to Sarasota. I’ve always wanted to go.”

The draw?

Ringling’s Circus Museum.

His wife, costume designer Deborah Nadoolman, will be making the trip to Sarasota with him to see circus treasures and attend the tribute.

Landis has been in the business of making films since the early 1970s, when he made his first feature — the sci-fi horror comedy “Schlock.”

But his attraction to film directing began much earlier at age 8. That was when he saw Ray Harryhausen’s 1958 film, “The Seven Voyages of Sinbad,” which forever sealed his fate.

Ask Landis what he loves about the medium, and that youthful aura immediately fills his voice, followed by a giddy laugh.

“I’m a film geek myself,” said Landis. “I love movies. I really enjoy watching movies and I’ve had wonderful experiences in the movies. Over the years, I’ve been able to meet and know many of the world’s great film makers. And as a filmmaker, I really enjoy the process.”

Landis joked that he’s not a good example of the path one takes to become a film director these days, which usually involves a film school or program. The ambitious Landis dropped out of high school and in 1967 was lucky enough to get a job in the mail room at 20th Century Fox. Then he went to Europe, where he was able to work as a production assistant on a film called “Kelly’s Heros.” That was one of more than 70 films he worked on during his stay in Europe.

When he returned to the United States, with $30,000 saved up plus donations from relatives, friends and others, Landis made “Schlock.” He was 21.

But the successful stint that now defines his career didn’t begin there. After “Schlock,” Landis wrote for television, did stunt work and “parked a lot of cars,” he said.

His next filmmaking adventures weren’t until the late 1970s with “The Kentucky Fried Movie” and “Animal House,” which has brought him steady work ever since.

Landis’ love of film has taken him all over the world: 40 cities, 20 states and roughly 15 countries, he said. He’s shot comedies, love stories and thrillers.

But, Landis never tires of film.

“Filmmaking is very new; it’s not even 120 years old,” said Landis, who wrote and directed “An American Werewolf in London.” “It’s still growing and expanding, and in many ways, it hasn’t changed in a hundred years: You tell a narrative by the juxtaposition of images.”

Though the world has gone gaga over the recent revival of 3D films, Landis isn’t as excited. He said the format itself is nothing new. He recalled the craze of 3D in the 1950s with films like “House of Wax,” “Creature From the Black Lagoon” and “Kiss Me Kate.”

“If you see them projected correctly, their 3D is just as good as contemporary 3D,” he said. “It’s spectacular, in fact. What has changed is with the addition of computers, you have a digital projection, which means the image never falters.”

And that means the film doesn’t get damaged during projection, which was what killed the first 3D wave, he said.

A true film buff and avid reader on all levels, Landis can sleep, eat and breath film all day.

“Movies have a powerful life that’s completely independent of you,” Landis said. “I’ve been very lucky that I’ve made movies that are still playing. So I’m really happy about that.”

And that high school diploma he never got?

“I’ve never needed it,” he said.

January Holmes, features writer, can be reached at 745-7057.

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