Take John Landis, Simon Pegg and the true tale of two murderous labourers – and what do you get? ‘Burke and Hare’, the darkest Ealing comedy yet.
On a grey, wet morning in February, the director John Landis is sitting in front of a monitor in the stables of Knole House, Kent, gripping a can of Diet Coke. He’s talking – or rather, shouting – over the opening titles of his new film, Burke & Hare. It’s a retelling of the notorious tale of the eponymous Irish labourers who discovered the profit in supplying cadavers to ambitious anatomists and started murdering people to keep up with demand.
Landis says the film is a romantic comedy. ‘So we fade up to this shot of Edinburgh Castle,’ he begins, ‘although there’ll be lots of smoke and s—, and it says “Edinborough” or whatever, 1828. There’ll be lots of Scottish voices, saying things in Scottish accents. Lots of activity. Lots of arguing.’ A little boy darts across the screen: ‘There’s Oliver Twist making a guest appearance. Continuous action. Appropriate sounds. Directed by me. Cut, and then on we go.’
Landis swivels off his chair and stalks into the courtyard, which, filling in for an Edinburgh marketplace, is brimming with mud, vegetables, cows and glum extras, and is soundtracked with the honking of a flock of caged geese. ‘Why aren’t you following me?’ he shouts. ‘Come with me!’
Landis, whose previous films include The Blues Brothers and Trading Places is effervescent. This is the first feature film he’s made in a decade. But he despises the idea that this is a comeback. ‘I keep reading this thing – “he hasn’t worked in 10 years”. Bulls—, I’ve been working constantly! I guess I haven’t made a big regular movie. And people will say whatever they want and they always do, so who cares?’
He directs like he talks, playfulness teetering into exasperation. I can’t believe you asked such a stupid question! Those aren’t really the shots you’re lining up, are they? Behind expensive-looking glasses is a pair of eyebrows as expressive as exclamation marks; accompanied by moustache, beard and flat cap, he could almost be wearing a humorous disguise.
Landis began his career proper with The Kentucky Fried Movie, silly, filthy sketch comedy, and in conversation he’s always shooting off on tangents into little riffs.
The conditions are trying, drizzle descending from a blank sheet of sky. Landis, in waterproof trousers, remains ebullient. Between takes – the comedian Bill Bailey doing an explanatory bit to camera – Landis introduces the crew. ‘Lots of them are doing this for much less money because they wanted to work with me,’ he says, ‘which now they really regret. The bloom is off the rose now. This is Martin Hume, our A cameraman. A real pro, and you’re fed up, arentcha?’
He turns to a tall, tweedy redhead. ‘This man, no one knows what he does. You’re with the cows, right? In America you get some s— kicker, chewing tobacco: “Here’re your cows, buddy.” In England, you want some cows, who do you get? Look at this guy: elegant.’
Aside from Landis and his wife, the costume designer Deborah Nadoolman, the crew is British. The cast also includes a startling and epoch-spanning array of British talent: aside from the leads, Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis (and putting to one side the Australian Isla Fisher), there’s Bailey, Tim Curry, Tom Wilkinson, Jessica Hynes, Stephen Merchant, Ronnie Corbett, Christopher Lee and Jenny Agutter. There’s even a place for Michael Winner.
‘I love supporting actors,’ Landis says. ‘Did you ever see His Gal Friday? Rosalind Russell, Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy, directed by Howard Hawks. It’s one of the best comedies ever made, and terribly serious, but so f—ing funny. What made me think of that? Because it’s just filled with wonderful actors.’
Aside from the nearly all-British cast and crew, the film’s produced by Ealing Studios. So it’s a classic English comedy? I offer. Landis splutters. ‘Everyone keeps telling me, it’s so English! Because it’s not. It is about British culture. But funny is funny.’
But it is in the vein of other black Ealing comedies, isn’t it? I suggest. ‘Totally!’ he replies, incredulous. ‘I thought I said that! No, this is very much my attempt to make an Ealing comedy, in the very black tradition of Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Ladykillers, where the whole cast murders one another.’
Ealing has had enormous commercial success in recent years on the back of their St Trinian’s remakes. Critically, though, it’s taken something of a kicking, a fact that hasn’t escaped Barnaby Thompson. He is the head of Ealing Studios, and one of the producers on Burke & Hare. He’s tall and reserved. ‘Critics tend to be hypercritical of British films,’ he says, perching gamely on a hay bale. ‘The films they tend to support are generally very small ones, not commercial British films.’
Perhaps Landis can change that. He may be brash, he may be American and, my God, he may be loud, but he’s also a cineaste, almost an historian of cinema, such is the encyclopedic breadth of his knowledge. He was working in the mailroom at Fox when he was 17 and having lunch with Hitchcock – ‘it was like having lunch with God’ – when he was barely out of his teens. ‘John is absolutely imbued in all the old Ealing movies,’ Thompson says. ‘They mean a lot to his generation of talent.’ He’s also clearly fond of British culture, although when I suggest that he’s something of an Anglophile, he denies it.
Landis directed his first film in 1973, when he was 23, but he became the king of anarchic, radical comedy in the Eighties. He made The Blues Brothers, a celebration of R&B music that many white cinema owners refused to show, and segued into the mainstream with movies like Trading Places, Three Amigos! and Coming to America. And there was An American Werewolf in London, which made Rick Baker the most in-demand special effects artist in the world, turned Jenny Agutter into a sex symbol, and inspired everyone from Michael Jackson – who got Landis to direct the seminal Thriller video – to Simon Pegg.
Pegg, who plays William Burke, is sheltering in his trailer with his laptop on the table, the American sketch show Saturday Night Live playing in the background. He’s swaddled in full costume, layers of olive green wool fastened with buttons in all sorts of authentic but improbable places.
Pegg was one of the first actors to sign up to Burke & Hare: ‘I guess the first film I saw of John’s was probably Animal House, then American Werewolf and Trading Places. American Werewolf is one of my favourite films ever. And the idea of his getting back to working on a lower budget and being left alone to do his thing was very attractive to me.’
Was he at all anxious about playing a serial killer? ‘I like the moral playfulness,’ Pegg says, ‘where it’s asking you to sympathise with two people who are effectively mass murderers. It challenges the audience, definitely.’
Andy Serkis (Hare) agrees: ‘I think the villains of the piece are actually the doctors, played by Tom Wilkinson and Tim Curry, this self-serving, rather pompous pair who are the fat cats, really. John said: “You’re kind of like an evil Laurel and Hardy”, so hopefully we’ve just about pulled that off.’
With An American Werewolf in London, Landis virtually wrote the book on fusing horror and comedy (it goes without saying that he’s also read the book on it – a guy called William Paul’s Laughing Screaming). ‘First of all, they’re the same’, he says. ‘They invoke an involuntary physical response: you gasp or scream or laugh, they’re spasms. But they’re both very difficult. But ours is in no way a horror film.’
Pardon? ‘The character played by Tim Curry does enjoy cutting off people’s feet, but you know it’s just a hobby.’ There are a lot of dead bodies, too. As Landis is working to a very tight budget – ‘Hitchcock said moviemaking is constant compromise, and he’s right’ – he had to call in help from his friends.
‘John phoned up Greg Nicotero, who runs one of the biggest make-up effects houses in LA,’ says Pegg. ‘And as a favour asked him to send him dead bodies, and they did, they shipped over lots of silicon dead bodies. You gotta pull favours in this industry, there’s no money.’
Despite the constraints of time (the film was shot in eight weeks) and budget, Landis has been scrupulous about the period setting. ‘I thought it was going to be a beard movie,’ he says. ‘But it’s the wrong period. No beards. I was quite surprised.’
It may be a comedy, with a ‘fairly anachronistic’ script (Pegg’s words), but on Landis’s insistence, the locations were as accurate, time-wise, as possible.
‘It’s 1828, so it’s not Victorian, it’s actually Regency,’ Landis explains. ‘Not only is it not Victorian, but it’s Edinburgh in 1828 and 1829, which is really specific, and most of it’s gone. So we shot in Edinburgh and Osterley House, and here at Knole and just all over the f—ing place, and we’ve done amazingly. It’s important because it’s not just a comedy, there’s a lot of acting going on in this movie.’ Vita Sackville-West might be surprised that her ancestral home is doubling for a slum, but the courtyard at Knole was chosen because it’s built of the right stone.
Pegg and Serkis had to grapple with Northern Irish dialect, a muscular accent with a particular sing song intonation. ‘Jill McCulloch, the dialect coach, whipped us into shape,’ Pegg says. ‘Doing Irish, my tendency – and Andy’s – is to go south.’ His voice rises an octave: ‘I also sound a little camp when I do mine, I get a little high, so she calls me helium gay leprechaun.’
Before the film started shooting, Landis helpfully gave Pegg a DVD of a film called Darby O’Gill and the Little People. ‘It’s a film that the actors all did in an Irish brogue,’ Pegg says, ‘and when it was test screened in America, the audience couldn’t understand what anyone was saying, so they had to dub the entire film. So I think John was just telling us to try to be understandable.’
Another of Pegg’s projects has been trying to get his miniature schnauzer, Minnie, a cameo in the film. ‘She was sacked from How to Lose Friends and Alienate People because she was too boisterous,’ he says. ‘She got cut out of Paul [a sci-fi comedy co-written with Nick Frost, due out next year] because we didn’t need her scene in the edit, so this is her third chance to be a film star. I’m determined to make her famous. Gerard Butler had a few missteps before he became massively famous.’
There is a familial atmosphere on set, dogs and all. Landis and his wife wander around holding hands, and he keeps up a stream of banter with everyone from the actors to the carpenters. It’s a far cry from the sets of his early films like The Blues Brothers, where Landis ended up punching one of his stars, the increasingly drug-addled John Belushi, in the face.
So does Landis feel like he’s losing his edge? ‘It’s funny to me,’ he says. ‘John Huston famously said that motion picture directors, prostitutes and buildings grow respectable with age. I’m almost 60 and it’s happening to me!
‘I’ve always been critically a schmuck in the States. Pictures that were really s— when they came out are now classic films. It’s the same movie! What changed?’ As for his own appraisal of his work, he feels he still hasn’t made a ‘great’ film. ‘But when you talk about really great films there’s only about 200 of them,’ he says.
He wanted to be a director from the time he was eight, when he went to see The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. He must still be hoping to make that great film. ‘The picture looks better than it has any right to,’ he says. ‘I mean, it’s a beautiful looking picture. It’s dark and it’s wacky. I don’t know what to tell you. I’m happy with it, which is kind of scary because I’m never happy with a movie.’
Maybe he can still crack that top 200. If anyone can make the first great modern Ealing comedy, it might just be Landis.
‘Burke & Hare’ is released on October 29