David Guzman of AllMediaNY, interviewed John Landis on many of his past projects, from ‘Coming To America,’ to ‘An American Werewolf In London.’
Here is what he said about his work on ‘Thriller’:-
ALLMEDIANY: At a time when MTV was only a few years old, a production as big as ‘Thriller,’ was unheard of. Did either you or Jackson have doubts that the network would run it?
JL: No. People tend to forget this, but the album had been out a year, and had already been the number-one album of all time, had already sold more records than any other album in history. They had made ‘Billie Jean,’ and ‘Beat It,’ which were very, very successful films, and when Michael came to me, I thought, “Well, I don’t want to make a rock video.” Essentially they were commercials to sell records, and I thought, “I don’t want to do that,”
but then I met with Mike, and he was such an extraordinary, brilliant performer. You know, when I made ‘The Blues Brothers,’ I’d made a decision I regretted later, which was, because John [Belushi] and Danny [Aykroyd] were not professional dancers, I had shot all the numbers with amateurs, except finally I shot the church scene with professional dancers; it was one of the last things we shot back in L.A. So the opportunity of doing a really good musical number appealed to me, so I said to Mike, “Michael, instead of doing a video, can we make a theatrical short?” The intention was always meant to be that it would play in theaters. In fact, we had a deal with Disney, and it played with ‘Fantasia,’ before it was on TV.
ALLMEDIANY: Wasn’t it hard to fund it, though?
JL: Sony and CBS said they wouldn’t give us any money – they thought the album was over. And Michael said he’d pay for it, and I said, “Absolutely not! I’m not going to take your money,” because it cost almost $500,000 to make – that’s very expensive. So we raised the money from a brand-new cable network called Showtime – we got half the money, and they got the exclusive right to show that and ‘The Making of ‘Thriller,’’ which was an hour together. They used to call it ‘The Making of ‘Filler,’’ because they had to come up with an hour. Then MTV went crazy and said, “How could you do that?!” We said, “OK, put up the second half of the money, and we’ll let you show it for a while.” And that’s what happened, but before they showed it, it played theatrically. In fact, I got kind of screwed by the record company, because Frank DiLeo, who was Mike’s manager at the time, told me many years later that he’s the one who did it, which is he did the right thing for the record but he kind of screwed me. What he did was, they duped ‘Thriller,’ and they made many, many copies of it, and then gave it free to television stations all over the world. It was on TV constantly, which meant it wouldn’t be playing in theaters anymore – which upset me – but it did make the album triple its sales, and it did establish MTV. I mean, it’s responsible for a lot of things, but it was no one’s brilliant plan – it was just Mike wanting to turn into a monster.
ALLMEDIANY: In ‘Thriller,’ he goes from looking like a zombie to having his appearance go back to normal when he sings, only to turn back into his zombie self. What made it necessary to take off the makeup?
JL: Nothing made it necessary – it was my choice. It was just an aesthetic choice, that’s all. You’re asking me to make sense of it, the whole thing doesn’t make sense. It’s a fantasy! It does not make sense!
If you’re trying to come up with some reasonable, rational explanation, for the fact that he suddenly turns into a zombie and then back again, and then at the end he’s a zombie – I mean, it’s completely silly. It’s not meant to make sense – it’s meant to be entertaining.